How I became involved with the Asylum magazine

How I became involved with the Asylum magazine and what such involvement has meant for me:  a journey through madness and back.

My first encounter with the Asylum magazine occurred in the spring of 2010 – when the magazine was relaunched after a 3-year break. I was introduced to Asylum by Helen (Spandler), a friend and colleague from the University of Central Lancashire and member of the Asylum editorial collective, and I have been reading it religiously ever since. In the autumn of 2011 Helen asked me whether I would be interested in being involved in the Asylum editorial collective, stressing that ‘the collective is open to anyone who wants to help produce and develop the magazine, working in a spirit of equality’. I was pleased to be asked and I have been a member of the collective for about a year.

I feel that in order to communicate effectively how and why I became involved with the Asylum magazine, as well as what such involvement has meant for me, it is essential to locate my involvement with Asylum in the context of my life –and particularly, in the context of my journey through mental illness (for want of a better word) and mental health services in the period 2008-2010.

I had my first major mental health crisis, an episode of ‘clinical depression and anxiety’ according to the official diagnosis, in 1991 when I was studying for a Master’s degree in Nottingham University. Following this mental health crisis, I embarked on a long journey of self-discovery and healing which comprised having intensive psychoanalytic psychotherapy and completing a PhD on the experience of depression in young people as its vital components. My second major mental health crisis, this time a prolonged episode of ‘treatment-resistant psychotic depression’ according to the official diagnosis, occurred between July 2008 and April 2010, resulting in a 3-month long detention under a section in an acute psychiatric ward in Manchester in 2009, as well as a 2-year period of unemployment. Following this second mental health crisis, I returned to my research post at the University of Central Lancashire (where I had worked as a Research Fellow until the summer of 2008) and started working on a mental health advocacy project as a service user researcher in the summer of 2010.  Hence, I have been using mental health services in Manchester since the summer of 2008, including attending START, a mental health arts project, and having individual psychotherapy with an NHS clinical psychologist – both vital for my recovery.

It is important to draw special attention to the fact that I first encountered the Asylum magazine in the spring of 2010- that was a critical turning point in my journey through madness and back, so to speak, as it was the start of my getting better, the beginning of my recovery from a very serious and enduring mental health crisis.

It is also crucial to bear in mind that my mental health crisis back in 2008-2010 had catastrophic consequences for every aspect of my life. First and foremost, as a result of my very severe and persistent depression, for a couple of years, I lost what had always been a vital source of self-esteem and recognition for me-my capacity to think creatively and excel intellectually/academically. I could not think clearly, I could not concentrate and retain information, I could not process language, I could not read and understand what I was reading, I could not be intellectually creative. My head was constantly heavy and cloudy due to the potent medication I was prescribed- especially when I was on copious amounts of it. I was off work for nearly 2 years and thus away from opportunities for intellectual stimulation for far too long. When I was detained in hospital, I was treated as somebody who lacks capacity and insight. Characteristically, my care records covering the period of my detention in hospital (January-April 2009) portray me -among others- as ‘dishevelled, retarded, highly agitated, lethargic and far from mentally alert, incontinent and occasionally subjected to physical restraint’. I guess all the above represented a huge blow to my confidence and a source of profound feelings of humiliation and shame, as well as a source of a deep sense of failure and unfairness/injustice- all acutely disempowering emotions. In a nutshell, my mental health crisis back in 2008-2010 and in particular my sectioning in 2009 were scarring, terrifying experiences whereby the very core of my existence was deeply shaken and all my certainties collapsed; therefore, the struggle to regain my confidence and repair my life, a struggle that began slowly in the spring of 2010 and is still continuing, has been hugely challenging. It was at the start of that struggle that I encountered Asylum, and Asylum has been with me throughout my recovery journey.

Why I became involved with the Asylum magazine and what such involvement has meant for me

a) My involvement with Asylum has afforded me a sense of community through contact with other mental health service users/psychiatric survivors and their allies, as well as through acquaintance with the psychiatric survivor movement at large and its rich collective knowledge and history; this sense of community -first and foremost- has helped reduce the acute sense of loneliness brought about by the terror and disempowerment I  experienced all the way through my mental health crisis (back in 2008-2010) and my sectioning in particular.

b) Asylum has provided me with a safe space (forum) to tell the story of my struggle to recover from mental ill health, to express my views on mental health care freely, to be listened to and be taken seriously; Asylum has afforded me a space where I can be inspired and give voice to my resistance, rebellion and critical stance to the practices of oppression and degradation of the self often used by modern biomedical psychiatry. Telling my story, articulating my views and being taken seriously has been really validating and empowering, as well as conducive to the cognitive and affective processing of my trauma.

Whilst browsing the Asylum magazine website, under the section entitled ‘History of Asylum’, I read ‘Our central aim in encouraging those who felt hurt by the system to write was the hope that it would help them to express their views, which would also be discussed. So we tried to offer them “a proper place at the table”. There they would be given as good a chance as is possible to be taken seriously’.

c) Asylum represents a space where I can safely value and honour madness and mad/psychiatric survivor knowledge as meaningful in the context of my life and other people’s lives without having to romanticise and idealise it. I feel rather uncomfortable with the tendency to romanticise and idealise madness and mad knowledge which appears to often characterise- for example- Mad Pride, those calling themselves ‘experts by experience’ (considering psychiatric survivor knowledge as ‘special’ knowledge, which reflects a presumed epistemological privilege for mental health service users), those who portray all people with mental health problems as struggling creative geniuses equating madness to creative brilliance (where creativity is viewed as an inherent element of madness), or those who perceive madness as a blessing linking madness (extreme states of consciousness) to mystical states and shamanism. The individuals I came across in North Manchester hospital whilst sectioned did not strike me by any means as poets or shamans but as acutely distressed and unhappy people; I was one of them of course…

d) Asylum has provided me with a space where it is acceptable to be profoundly ambivalent towards my latest mental health crisis, service use and recovery, where it is ok to be uncertain and not know when it comes to questions around how I feel about and evaluate my journey through madness and back. As I explained above, my mental health crisis back in 2008-2010 and in particular my hospitalisation and sectioning in 2009 represent major biographical disruptions for me that entailed huge losses, traumas and suffering, having catastrophic consequences for every aspect of my life, which has left me feeling a great deal of bitterness and anger, as well as deep sadness and an acute sense of loss. At the same time, I recognise that my latest mental health crisis and in particular my journey of recovery (including foremost my experience of therapy and my participation in the START mental health arts project) opened up opportunities for personal growth and transformation for me, affording me hope and new insights into the human condition. Hence, my feelings about and evaluations of my journey through madness and back are characterised by profound ambivalence. If madness is ‘a dangerous gift’ that users of psychiatric services need to embrace, as Mad Pride advocates, I am yet to embrace my own madness. Furthermore, I find the conceptualisation of ‘recovery’ in the current recovery discourse rather simplistic and problematic – especially when recovery is romanticised and presented as a rather linear journey of continuous and ever increasing optimism that will inevitably lead to a finalised acceptance of one’s mental health crisis and therefore happiness (exaggerating a bit here). My own recovery has been a far from linear process where hope has incessantly alternated with bitterness/anger and grief- it has been a much more muddled journey. Asylum offers a space where muddle, ambivalence, uncertainty, and not knowing are tolerated and can be worked through.

e)Last but not least, since my first encounter with Asylum I was drawn to  the word ‘Asylum’ and the phrase ‘democratic  psychiatry’ (from the magazine’s title); the word and phrase in question resonate deeply with me and carry a particular emotional weight as they come from Greek, my mother tongue; ‘Asylum’ means sanctuary, safe refuge and something that should not be violated-for example in Greece there is ‘University asylum’ which entails that the police should not enter University spaces forcibly;  University asylum was brutally violated by the army during a student uprising in the 1967-74 dictatorship in Greece and this violation has become synonymous to tyranny in the memory of Greek people; ‘democratic’ means  ‘of the power of the people’ which in my psyche is strongly linked to the longstanding struggles of my people to achieve freedom (including freedom of speech), democracy, respect for human rights, and justice for their country; I guess for me – due to all these powerful associations of the word’ democratic’ to freedom /lack of coercion, justice, and respect for human rights  – the phrase ‘democratic psychiatry’ is a particularly powerful articulation of an ideal of – or rather of a deep longing for – humane and emancipatory psychiatry that refrains from coercion and injustice and has the potential to heal- an ideal that certainly stands in stark contrast to the reality of the totally untherapeutic and unsafe psychiatric care I experienced when sectioned back in 2009. This longing, I imagine, explains -to a very large extent- my involvement with Asylum and its mission and values.

[This blog post first appeared on the website for the The Ragged Project.]

Leave a comment