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The Enemy of My Enemy Can Still Be My Enemy

Posted on September 24, 2015 in Stigma

square919The opposition to Murphy’s Law has made some strange bedfellows, but I am not willing to get into bed with just any of them. An old logical fallacy is in operation — “the enemy of my enemy is my enemy” and its application here is just wrong.

I cannot break bread with anti-psychiatrists, as much for for the fact that they are often wrong as for their abuse of people like me.

There are many varieties of anti-psychiatrists. Prominent among them is, of course, the Church of Scientology whose fallacies I will leave to you to explore on your own. New Agers and vitamin addicts also raise their voices — I have had my arguments with types who rail on about Big Pharm but are ignorant about the $4 billion a year alternative medicine and supplements industry; who claim that vitamins and herbal medications have no side effects and do no harm; who insist that their nostrums are more effective than psychotropics and that clinical trials to the contrary are rigged by Big Pharm. But the god of all of these is Thomas Szasz.

Thomas Szasz was no friend of the mentally ill. When he was a psychiatric resident, for example, he avoided those of us who were severely stricken, preferring the easier patients who he characterized as being merely misunderstood. His hatred of the mentally ill came out in various forms: he believed that patients should have the right to commit suicide if they so wished, for one thing, suggesting that he was a sort of eugenicist-libertarian. The insanity defense caused him to see red: he did not believe in it and did not think that patients should be granted its protection. He saw many of us as malingerers.

Mind you, Szasz did not think that mental illness did not exist, but his defense of his position was often contradictory. At a trial concerning the involuntary confinement of a man who had been patrolling in front of a service station because he thought he was “walking his post in a military manner.” He told psychiatrists that there was gold buried beneath his gas station and that Jesus Christ had been born on the property. When Szasz was called to his defense, the anti-psychiatrist gave a Nixonian response to a question posed by the prosecutor:

You seem to think that a myth refers to something that doesn’t exist…. A myth is not a word properly used that refers to something that doesn’t exist. It refers to a kind of collective reasoning that people make; that odd things which are variably upsetting to people — odd things that people do, such as killing their mothers or mothers throwing their children out of a seventh-story window, all sorts of terrible things — these things that exist, they very much exist. I am trying to do as much about these things as anybody else. I think a little bit more. The issue is what are these things? The myth refers to the fact that the people say they are illnesses that doctors can cure. I say they are wrong. They are not illnesses people can cure. They are using the term mental illness mistakenly…. People who drink and beat up their wife — I don’t like them any more than you do — but I don’t think they are insane. I think they are badly mistaken, ignorant, stupid, misled, upset — but they are not sick like with pneumonia. If that isn’t clear I will be glad to answer it further.

Szasz’s viewpoint here can be summarized like this: we may be disturbed, but we are fakers.

There are positive matters which we can credit him for: His opposition to lobotomies and the misuse of electro-convulsive therapy was taken up by mainstream psychiatrists. Courts and legislatures took a second look at forced institutionalization and revised the conditions under which it could be imposed. But Szasz’s alleged championing of the mentally ill always carried with it the stigma that we who sought the care of psychiatrists were dupes and manipulators.

This is the man upon who the anti-psychiatry movement rests its faith. Despite his declarations that he was no anti-psychiatrist, his continual attacks on the profession and on people like me suggest otherwise. His followers — who have no trouble with the label — attack me every time I post in some venues, riding the same old hobby horses about how psychiatry is evil and mental illness is just a ploy by Big Pharm to sell medication. I cannot work with such people as I can’t work with those who support forced treatment, erosion of HIPAA protections, and a return to forced incarceration instead of decent housing and the community mental health clinics that we were promised, because both sides automatically lump me with the opposition. It is weak when leaders of our movement allow the small, vocal minority of anti-psychiatrist trolls to abuse us and derail discussions with non sequiters so that they have a voice out of proportion to their real numbers. They do not want the community mental health clinics, they want the destruction of psychiatry, a branch of medicine that has kept me alive. While I support their right to choose whether to be treated or not, they don’t respect the choice I have made. I once believed that I could work with them, but that time is past. The attacks will continue regardless of what common ground we share and in review, that is very little. They are not my friends in any sense of the word.

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