The Feminist Client

Something was awry. And not just the fact that I was being hospitalised for my levels of emotional distress. This new psychiatrist was altogether too interested in me. He started stroking one hand with the other, a suggestive movement which recalled to me the letter I’d sent the mental health staff which included a reference to an orgasm-free masturbation session I’d had which had gotten me thinking about the deeper reasons behind me being hospitalised.

No stranger to sexual predators, I offered him my complete silence, and a defiant stare. I let him know, nonverbally, that I knew what he was up to, and I was not going to fall for his trap. It worked. He was fuming by the time he ended the session with me.

I relaxed a bit, but not much. For a mentally vulnerable 22 year old woman, the ward was a place full of menace. Some of that was from the patients (like the man who addressed all the females of the ward by the c word, volubly, and who made to harm one of the female nurses; like the man whose advances I resisted who would punch the wall immediately above my head), but mostly it was from the mental health staff.

It was the nurses I had the most contact with, and I was disgusted by their dehumanising attitudes towards me. I convinced myself that I would keep record of every injustice, every slight. In the end it proved all too much: it was all day, every day. It was the way of life of a system that is beginning to die out, but persists in reproducing itself to this day.

Psychiatry seems to me all about distrusting lived emotional experiences. I have spoken to client after client, and there isn’t a single one without a horrible story of abuse and/or neglect to tell. Instead of providing clients with immediate access to intensive psychotherapy, they are immediately drugged with powerful, usually sedative, neuroleptics, and enclosed within a small space with fifty-odd others who are similarly going through some of the worst experiences of their lives. Here’s the fun part: to get out of there you are forced to demonstrate “compliance” to this abusive system, and show that you are sufficiently social by opening up to the other clients, some of whom might lash out to you if you inadvertently trigger them. (In my time at Kiloh, I had a piece of wood thrown at me, and generic hospital dessert smeared across my back.)  

But let’s go back to the realm of emotions, that part of human experience which is so deeply distrusted by psychiatry. There is a long-standing tradition within Western philosophy to associate mental processes with masculine energy, and the emotions with feminine energy. Just as the dominant class of men detests women and treats them as an underclass, the psychiatric class loathes people who express socially unacceptable emotion. Instead of treating deep emotional distress as a symptom of a flawed society, psychiatrists use their power to obliterate the unique, organic emotional journeys of those who have been harmed by unequal power structures and the abuse inherent in such structures. Instead of honouring our emotions and validating our experiences, we are treated as abominations at worst and inconveniences at best.

The way the mental health system treats its clients is inhumane, and is an open secret that needs rectifying. Pioneer communities within countries such as Finland and Norway have implemented a much more humane system called Open Dialogue, which treats a person who presents with deep emotional distress as the biggest authority on themselves. They are asked about their experiences and listened to, within the context of their family, friends and community helpers, who are also present for the sessions. The focus is not on the individual as a biological error, but how their interaction with wider society has led them to a crisis point. Medication is a last resort.

Open Dialogue is a bright point in my experience in this world. It convinces me that somewhere, out there, my emotions matter. My experiences with deep emotional distress are meaningful and I am valuable to society. 

The good news is that there are the beginnings of Open Dialogue taking hold in Australia. While it is not available to anyone who presents with deep emotional distress, if things keep moving in the right direction, it very well might be. But we cannot rest idle and wait for “the inevitable” to happen. Nothing is inevitable. We have to make it happen, by educating our friends, colleagues and people around us. To let them know about the deep perversion of justice current psychiatric practices enact. To make them aware that everybody has the right to be treated as though their emotions are based on something real – because they are. 

By: Epiphanie Bloom

Editor's Note: For further reading on the sexist treatment women receive from medical institutions, check out the following: How Sexism and Implicit Bias Hurt Girls and Women’s Health  and How Doctors Take Women's Pain Less Seriously


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