When My Natural Reaction to Being Bullied Was Diagnosed as a Mental Illness
Author’s Note: This narrative is not meant to criticize or in any way disparage those who have found traditional psychiatry, including diagnoses, medication and hospitalization to be helpful. I fully understand these solutions are often helpful and necessary for many people’s recovery. I am pro-choice.
Like a lot of people, I’ve always struggled with my mental health to some extent. I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t been bullied. I’ve always been the weird, uncool, socially awkward girl. In middle school, I was made fun of for being “ugly” and for being one of the only Jewish students.
A natural reaction to being bullied is to feel sad, lonely, worried, self-conscious and rejected. Throughout middle school and high school, my natural reaction to bullying was diagnosed as a lot of different illnesses: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, cyclothymia and dysthymia. Every mental health professional I saw had a different opinion of what the correct diagnosis, course of treatment and medication should be.
Not one of these included any mention of stopping the actual problem: bullying.
Then, my senior year of college, it happened again. I started dating someone seriously, P. I had never met someone like P before, who treated me with respect and kindness, who made me laugh. But it was also terrifying. I became convinced I would somehow screw it all up. I became incredibly anxious I didn’t deserve P.
Coupled with this anxiety was the natural anxiety of senior year. What was I going to do after graduation? Would I get into a graduate school in a city where P would move with me? Surely the graduate school application process would be much more difficult for me than for someone who didn’t have all the problems I had — someone normal.
I was so stuck with anxiety and fear I decided to see a psychiatrist. I was prescribed with medication. I began to develop a tolerance, and I was quickly taking more than prescribed.
During my graduation weekend, I was severely distressed. I got into a fight with my boyfriend, and I was very anxious about my family coming in.
So I doubled the dose of my medication.
Although I had not intended to harm myself, I was sentenced to a hold in a psychiatric hospital, and it was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Being confined in a psychiatric institution reminded me a whole lot of being raped. They strip searched me, they examined me, they confined me, they restrained me. They decided whether or not I could wear my contacts and what clothes I could wear. They shoved medication down my throat and forced me to swallow.
That was when the flashbacks began. I started having flashbacks of when I was raped while I was in school.
When I left the hospital, I felt such shame and sadness it was hard to bear. I continued to take Xanax, which helped me numb the pain a bit, but not nearly enough. I started drinking too.
At that point, I reflected on what led to all this. It all started when my childhood classmates bullied me for not being “normal.” The teachers and administrators at my middle and high school could have responded by educating my classmates on how harmful it is to tease and ostracize an innocent child. They could have taught my classmates we can all learn from each other’s differences and celebrate our diversity. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they acted like there was something wrong with me. They labelled me with a half dozen mental illnesses and prescribed me a smorgasbord of drugs in an attempt to “normalize” me. They ingrained in me the message that the bullies did nothing wrong. I was in the wrong. I was very ill.
They sent me into a lifelong spiral through a revolving door of doctors who would hear about my struggles, prescribe me drugs that made my problems worse, then give me more drugs to try to solve the problems that the drugs had caused in the first place. As my problems got worse, my doctors increased medication dosages. When overdosing on Xanax sent me to a psychiatric hospital, they increased my dose of Xanax. At no point did anyone consider that maybe the drugs were causing my problems, not solving them. Yet, once I finally got off those medications, my life immediately started to turn back in a positive direction.
While I do know some benefit from receiving a diagnosis and prefer medication to manage their mental health challenges, our mental health system needs to ask more questions before labeling natural responses to situations as being sick. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?” our system should be asking, “What happened to you?”; instead of asking, “How can I fix you?” our system should be asking, “How can I make sure you exist in an environment that is inclusive, accepting and that embraces you for all that makes you unique?”
Eventually I stopped taking medication. I joined a 12-step program to help me with my Xanax addiction and alcohol problem. I began to feel like myself again. I’m one of the lucky ones.
I found a job at a Jewish nonprofit organization that is dedicated to helping individuals who are incarcerated in prisons and psych wards, including youth facing incarceration due to addiction and mental health. My coworkers are nothing short of kind, compassionate individuals who are passionate about giving others a second chance.
I started to get involved with Mad Pride, a movement that promotes individuals’ autonomy over their mental health and recovery. I began to surround myself with the voices and perspectives of people who, like me, refuse to give up their autonomy to psychiatric institutions, and who instead fight for their own right to define their identities and decide on their own recovery. I became a member of Mind Freedom International’s Shield Program, which makes me feel safer and more secure, knowing that in the case of another re-hospitalization, I would be able to call on a team of advocates to stand behind me.
My boyfriend began to trust me again and he now trusts me fully. Just a few days ago, I had an amazing conversation with my mom, who has become more than willing to work with me on a recovery plan in which I can still maintain my autonomy and freedom. My father, a physician himself, has come to understand the dangers of overmedication. Less than a year ago, I had lost the trust of everyone around me; I now feel that I could not have a more supportive and understanding partner and family.
This is a story with a happy ending.
In my opinion, mental health treatment should be a partnership to support all individuals who have experienced hardships which have impacted their mental health. Support means having a conversation with every individual — not with their diagnosis. It means looking that person in the eye, as an equal, and asking,”What do you need to get through this? What can I do that would help you most right now?” Sometimes the answer will be therapy. Sometimes the answer will be medication or staying at a psychiatric hospital known for humane and compassionate treatment, or a peer respite — a place where people struggling with their mental health can go to rest, stay safe, a choose a course of treatment, that is completely run by other individuals with mental health disabilities. Other times people need to build friendships and finding a loving, accepting community. Or they may need a stable job or even legal aid to seek justice for whatever injustice they may have faced.
I am one of the lucky ones, and that pisses me off. It makes me very, very mad. On behalf of everyone who is still struggling to regain their autonomy, I am asking you to get mad with me. Thank you.
Editor’s note: This piece is based on one individual’s experience. To learn more about involuntary hospitalization, here are some resources:
— For more of the Mad Pride Movement’s take, click here.