Beaten With A Carrot: My Dysfunctional Relationship to Legal Capacity by Ronda E. Richardson

I am staring at this blank page, wondering how I can so easily describe my life as torture but I cannot find the words to explain my relationship to legal capacity. The concept feels insidious – but hopeful. It has been both a carrot held out to keep me striving, and a stick used to beat me into submission.

Beaten with a Carrot. image by Roisin Cure
Beaten with a Carrot; image by Roisin Cure

As the ultimate standard of protection and the basis for losing everything, legal capacity forms a contradiction that makes me unable to breathe. I spend hours overthinking ways to untangle and make sense of my right to be in the world unrestrained. So far, I am still tied up in knots.

On paper I lost legal capacity through certification, just once. As a teenager I was given an unforgettable education in the dangers of power imbalance. Instead of learning to be free, I learned how to physically survive the cage by leaving my needs and mind at the door. At 18, I did not celebrate my arrival into adult freedom. I mourned in the knowledge that legal capacity was only a given for those not touched by diagnosis. There was no way to get untouched.

Despite experiencing more than twenty additional psychiatric hospitalizations, I was never again certified. In order to keep a semblance of legal capacity, I learned quickly to give it away. I was shrewd enough to know that if they took forceful possession of my rights I would have a harder time getting them back. I was proud of all the certification paperwork that my cowering had saved. In an existence with so much defeat, I was clinging to any success I could find.

I had to learn to play this game the hard way, without any help. The rules were irrational and ever-changing. My own mind became the locked room I was fighting to escape. I found an illusion of safety by curling up into a ball and riding it out. Some days I feel I am still stuck in that place with my hands squeezed over my ears and my knees drawn up. I still freeze. I still collapse. I still give myself away so I cannot be stolen.

After an emotional lock-down, I realize with frustration that I have fallen back into the same survival behaviours I am endeavouring to let go of. I am trying to remember that this pain is actually progress. The next step is finding strength earlier and earlier. I am slowly peeling my hands away from my ears, straightening up, and forming fists. A short burst of power before recoiling is amazing headway when compared to where I started.

In my very visual internal world, carrot orange is the colour of bullying. Legal capacity for me is intrinsically tied to tyranny. Removal of freedom was implied so as to enforce compliance. Losing my autonomy was an effective ultimatum, and I knew how to quietly fall in line. I wholeheartedly bought a whitewashed label falsely advertising my freedom of choice, so as to soothe the reality of how little choice I actually had. They were honest and stated clearly: “You are voluntary unless you chose to leave.”

A handful of people have disdainfully pointed out the absurdity of delaying my self-protection. It took time to find courage and support. It is easy to say what the best choice would be while looking in through the window of a burning building. In looking back, from the inside, I never once stopped fighting this fire. Yes I was unskilled and misguided, but I did my very best. The first way I have applied the principles of legal capacity is by making a choice to disengage from any oppression whether it comes from myself, my family, peers or professionals. That milestone is a proud untangling of a very big knot.

Legal capacity is always on my mind. I am vigilant often to the point of complete withdrawal. The way I dress, how fast or loud I talk, and my posture are just a few of the aspects under constant scrutiny.

The threat is real. When supporters try to ensure me of protection I feel suspicious and listen instead to an echo coming from the locked room in my mind. With valid concerns, my intuition screams: “Run! It is a trap!” I know from experience that it only takes three seconds to lose your freedom and three more months as a psychiatric inpatient for the world to forget you ever existed.

Like a parent holding out a reward for desired behaviour, legal capacity has always been held over my head instead of given unconditionally. It was a tool removed or granted in order to discipline any “normal” deviation. I wrongly assumed that those in power knew better than I did. It was less excruciating to go without than to hope and have it all taken away. Today I am beginning to realise, with regret, that I have been choosing to live my life as if legal capacity was never an option for me. It has been a life lived in perpetual surrender.

If I could live legal capacity instead of chasing it as an entity outside myself, maybe I would finally feel it as a right and not an elusive and unattainable privilege. I could stop trying to untie this problem and instead turn this row of knots into a warm blanket, a friendship bracelet or a dream-catcher. It is going to take a while to renegotiate the boundaries of this dysfunctional relationship, but I have plans to eat this carrot just as soon as I catch it.