Liza Mohr

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“If the right to speak, if having credibility, if being heard is a kind of wealth, that wealth is now being redistributed. There has long been an elite with audibility and credibility, an underclass of the voiceless. As the wealth is redistributed, the stunned incomprehension of the elites erupts over and over again, a fury and disbelief that this woman or child dared to speak up, that people deigned to believe her, that her voice counts for something, that her truth may end a powerful man’s reign. These voices, heard, upend power relations.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions

I said something.  It took over twenty years.

On the long path to speaking up, to having credibility, it turned out that the most important person that I needed to convince to believe me was me.  It has been a gradual process.  Probably more like a life’s work.

There is voice that says to me

It wasn’t that bad, get over it.

I don’t have anything to complain about.

and

It was really kind of my fault.

Maybe I don’t deserve any better. 

Sometimes that voice asks me

What makes you think anyone would care?

I have, on occasion, heard these words (or similar ones) from other people, sometimes outright, sometimes implied.  Sometimes from people I trusted and whose support I really desperately needed right in that moment, which made it awfully risky to question.  I have also had the sentiments confirmed for me any number of times from all kinds of discussions around the topic of sexual harassment and assault – in face to face conversations, in cocktail party-like group chatter and on-line.  Steel yourself before venturing into the comments section, for sure.

In the end, though, I realized that the voice I was hearing was my own.  I didn’t need to be told to keep quiet or that I wouldn’t be believed; I told myself all those things – and worse.

I have compared notes with others, and so many people have shared their haunting inner voice with me.  Put together, they comprise a litany of variations of:

No one will believe you.

You know how you overreact.

You should never have

                  gone to his room

worn that dress

had so much to drink.

Every time someone trusts me enough to speak that voice out loud to me, it hits me like a ton of bricks.  Because I get it. And I want so much to rail against those voices with repudiation but I know, intellectually and viscerally, that arguing with someone’s own voice about how they feel is unconstructive and dismissive at best, alienating and disempowering at worst.  So instead I sit and hear.  The best that I feel I have to offer is to honestly say, “I understand. I have told myself those things, too.”

Over time and with the help of wise and caring counsel, I started being able to hear a different version of my own voice in my head and that voice began to ring truer to me than other voices.  For example, a very well-meaning, concerned friend asked me, when he heard that I was going to go public with my report of sexual abuse, “won’t telling your story make you feel like a victim all over again?”  I thought a lot about that and I weighed its credibility.

Here is a story I came up with about feeling like a victim, an amalgam of many frustratingly similar experiences I have had over the span of two decades.

I bump into someone who knows my abuser, years after we have broken off contact.  With a little bit of typical small talk, the connection between all of us is made. (Buffalo is a very small town).  The inevitable, “oh!  Do you know XXXX?  He is such a great guy!” and my polite, frozen smile and response, “well, tell him I said hello.”  A condescending, “oh, would he remember you?”  Me through gritted teeth, “yes, he would remember me.”

I walk away feeling more like a victim then I ever have in my life.

Once this happened when I was with my wonderful, loving fiancé, now my husband, who knew the whole story and who I felt tense next to me when the name came up.  As we walked away from that encounter together I said to him, “Well, I mean, it’s not like I could say something.”  And he agreed with me; it would have been awkward and unseemly and it wasn’t “the time” to bring up “that kind of thing”.

The voice in my head kicks into high gear.

Who do you think you are?

You can’t say anything that will make HIM look bad.

Nobody will care anyway.

I have never felt like more of a victim – more small, powerless and unimportant – then when I have stood there and said nothing.

At some point, it became harder not to say something than it was to speak.

“Listen up creeps…We know who you are…Women talk to each other.  And we talk to journalists.  And we talk to lawyers.  It’s 2017; we don’t have to put up with this shit.  We are coming for you.  Talk to every woman you work with like she has the New York Times on speed dial…Well…OK, talk to every woman like she has ME on speed dial!”

–  Samantha Bee, October 11, 2017

Over the last 5 months, I have talked to lawyers and to journalists and to many, many other women (and men).  I haven’t yet talked to Samantha Bee, but hey, a girl can dream.  I have told them my story and listened to theirs.  My heart has been broken many times, listening to stories of pain and grief and guilt and shame and powerlessness.  It has also been mended many times over.  I have lost a few things along the way – I lost one long-time friend, I lost some sleep (which is recoverable), I lost those 5 pounds I gained last winter (which can maybe just go ahead and stay gone).  I have found much more than I have lost.  I was afraid that I might find dismissal and avoidance and judgement.  Instead, I have found empathy, insight, compassion, wisdom, resilience and solidarity.   I have found connection and community.  I have found my voice.

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So many of our institutions, including the psychiatric industry around which Madwomen in the Attic’s mission is centered, have painful histories of oppressing and silencng women.  In addition to other forms of support, education and advocacy, MITA is an organization dedicated to amplifying women’s voices.  I am so grateful for this important activism.

Thank you for hearing my story.  Your story belongs to you, to tell if and when and where and how you choose to tell it.  Most importantly:  Your story matters.  You matter.  I hear you.  And I believe you.

#ibelieveher

#Ibelieveme

#ibelieveyou

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Vegas

Liza Mohr is the mother of 3, a teacher, a photographer, a writer, a reader and a feminist.  She is still enough of an optimist to believe that the world our children inhabit can be more inclusive and more compassionate for everyone if we do the work together. In listening closely to our own stories and to those of others, in sharing our stories of pain, joy, defeat, triumph, hope, exasperation and inspiration, we can find the human connection that it will take to get us there.  To borrow the wisdom of Kermit the Frog, one of Liza’s personal gurus, “Someday we’ll find it. The rainbow connection. The lovers, the dreamers and me.”

Frances Donovan

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Out of Her Head

 

She fell again, fell upward this time—no drop

from a precipice, only her feet

treading more and more lightly on the ground

until they lifted and she knew

 

Insomnia called her awake

calling up the fire in the belly, anger,

loneliness, a paper clip, three oranges,

the dishwasher half-emptied,

cabinet doors all open

 

She knew that Thor had come

to open up the Ragnarok,

there was a child that she

was supposed to bear, but she would not

bear the child, she would not lie down

on the bed, there were mushrooms

blooming on the walls of the small room

where her mother sat with her and they

came to draw her blood and asked her,

have you taken any LSD

 

and they made her stay and

after a long, long time of falling

and waking and sleeping again

nothing was left but the mud

they dipped her thoughts in

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MITA describes itself as an organization meant to support those who have been victimized by the patriarchal mental health industry and forced institutionalization. While I consider myself a feminist and see patriarchy’s sinister effects throughout our society, I don’t feel like a victim of the mental health industry. I’ve walked through locked hospital doors many times, but only once did others have to make that decision for me. My first manic episode — or psychotic break, to use the more sinister term — was incredibly traumatic. This poem touches on that experience. Plunging from the euphoria and magic of the episode into the drugged depression that followed was one of the worst experiences of my life. It took a few years to come to terms with the fact that I truly do have a lifelong, chronic illness — one that requires a mix of medication, talk therapy, and more subtle tools (such as massage, yoga, meditation, and creative expression) to manage effectively. It took even longer than that to experience the world’s wonder and magic without completely losing touch with reality.

The mental health system is far from perfect. Modern treatments are head-and-shoulders above what they were just 50 years ago, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Access to the best therapies available is all too often limited to the most privileged classes. Racism, classism, sexism, and all the other “isms” affect the kind of care a mentally ill person will receive. It can be difficult to discern whether one’s own experience is a result of the system or a result of the illness. In a perfect world, I would spend my worst episodes in an Amazon Healing Center, surrounded by caring, loving women who kept me safe, provided gentle structure, and made me whole with magical healing remedies. Or I’d live in a society that made space for my differences in a way that honored my inherent worth and dignity. I don’t live in that world, though.

I’m fortunate enough to have access to some of the best health care available. I also have more than 25 years of experience navigating the system. I manage to live a rich and varied life in spite of my illness, but I know when I need additional help — up to and including inpatient hospitalization. I also know what I need to do to get out of an inpatient unit as quickly and painlessly as possible. I take advantage of all the tools available to me, both inside and outside of the medical model. I don’t want to invalidate the experiences of other people with mental illness. The pain and disillusionment and loss of dignity is real. But there is a way out. There is a way forward. If I can recover, anyone can.

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Frances Donovan’s work has appeared in journals such as Borderlands, Snapdragon, Marathon Literary Review, Oddball Magazine, and The Writer. An MFA candidate at Lesley University, she curated the Poetry@Prose reading series and has appeared as a featured reader at numerous venues. She’s driven a bulldozer in a GLBT Pride parade and stood naked at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, but has yet to do both on the same day. www.gardenofwords.com. @okelle.

 

Note: All rights revert back to the author. Images used in this post were appropriated from Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

 

Melissa S. Bennett

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The Comfort Room

 

I sat in an old, ratty recliner

In The Comfort Room.

 

With supervision, of course

Someone to judge my every facial expression

A bout of laughter

Or a single tear

 

I sat in that chair staring at

Bare, concrete walls

And a mural

Of a beach.

 

Oh, the irony.

 

Here is your view of what exists

“On the outside”

(Your only view through

Windowless Walls).

 

A place you can go

Once you pop your pills and your

Delusional Brian

Is cured.

Screw the weight gain.

The facial ticks.

And how you got here.

YOUR BRAIN WILL FIT IN!

 

When I am “on the outside”

I will go to that beach.

 

Dig my toes in the hot sand and

Leisurely sip a piña colada.

Watch an orange sun set over crashing waves.

 

I will get out

And find a new job.

They don’t like Delusional Teachers.

 

Screw my passion

Screw my degree of mastery

My intellect

My Pride.

 

I will get out

And find a place to live.

 

Screw the family and friends who wouldn’t visit

Or accept my desperate phone calls.

The slumlord who won’t accept welfare.

 

I will go to that beach.

But first I will repossess my car

From the Repossessers.

 

I will go there

Once I peel off this

Wet, sticky, bulky, dense coat

Of Shame.

 

I have an outburst.

Laughter, tears, my head thrusts back and

The old, ratty recliner screeches.

 

              “Now THAT is irony.”

 

“OK, time’s up.”

 

The Comfort Room.

 

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I wrote this poem as an expression of my feelings about what my sister experienced less than a year ago.  She was committed to ECMC for over a week in January of 2017, and I was absolutely mortified by what she experienced.  I had never so much as given the mental health industry a thought and suddenly my family was thrown into the thick of it.  It was eye-opening and horrifying for many reasons, and has made me my sister’s partner in action to try to make some positive changes in our society with regard to how mental health patients are treated and cared for while in such facilities.

One thing that stuck with me after visiting her at ECMC on a daily basis was this small room labeled ‘the Comfort Room’.  It was just as stale as every other room on the psych floor.  The only differences were the recliner and a painting of a beach to cover one of the walls.  They “allowed” our family to sit in there one night while we were visiting.  Normally, patients aren’t allowed in there unless they are being supervised, even though the room itself is open (as all of them are).  The irony of this room brought me to tears, fed me great anxiety, and made me angry.  Most of the people committed to this floor will be heavily medicated and thrown out on the streets once deemed stable and normal by the doctors, without any cognitive-behavioral therapy, creating a very vicious cycle, and so the idea of sitting on a beach would not be a realistic one for many.  To me, the room was an obvious symbol of the many flaws in how the mental health industry operates.

The experience that my sister faced has completely opened my eyes to the fact that people who are deemed mentally ill are truly seen as the bottom feeders of society.  They are not treated as patients who need and receive compassionate medical care, they are seen as problems.  It is as if the question asked by people who envisioned facilities like ECMC was, “What do we do with these people?” as opposed to, “How do we best help people who are experiencing mental illness?” I have concluded that their answer was “lock them up and medicate them.”

People who experience mental illness or mental health symptoms are human beings who deserve the same compassionate care as people who experience other physical medical conditions.  I would like to see much more focus on cognitive-behavioral therapy to address the experiences of patients that have led them to their current state, as well as more time, energy, and resources spent addressing current life situations that may be detrimental to a patient’s mental well-being.  Although this will be difficult when you are up against the wealthiest industry in the world (big pharma), I think that MITA can be a starting point in making people aware that change is necessary.

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IMG_5136Melissa Bennett, M.Ed., is a mother, an athlete, a coach, and a teacher in the Western New York area. She graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 2007 with a degree in childhood education and earned her master’s degree in education, with a specialization in literacy in 2010. She enjoys yoga, reading, sports, and time with her daughter and family. Melissa was driven to create MITA as a result of seeing her sister/best friend suffer the effects of the mental health system in Erie County and observing the maltreatment of mental health patients by staff members, nurses, and doctors. She hopes that MITA will offer support to those who have suffered trauma as a result of being in the system, raise awareness about patient rights, and lessen the stigma associated with mental health issues.

 

Note: All rights revert back to the author. Images used in this post were appropriated from Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

Hotel Henry and the Line between Restoration and Trivialization

What is a historic landmark without a history? And what is a history without the voices of those who were affected directly by an event or institution?

The revitalization of Buffalo, NY is exciting and promising for Western New Yorkers, and while it does not benefit everyone equally across socioeconomic divides, efforts to improve and drum up support for any part of the city should be encouraged and lauded. Sometimes, however, restorations and renovations raise ethical questions that should not be ignored.

The recent renovation of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane into Hotel Henry seems impressive, noble, and empowering on the surface. The issue is that there are questions that have neither been asked nor answered to an adequate extent before the Buffalo Bandwagon and all its cheerleaders gave HH its blessing.

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19th and 20th Century insane asylums are widely recognized now as horrifying places wherein patient-victims were not seen as human and, therefore, were treated inhumanely– chained to beds, kept locked in deplorable conditions, sometimes beaten, and often tortured with various “medical” devices and practices which were considered acceptable forms of treatment for socially aberrant behaviors at the time. Unfortunately, some of these practices have carried on into the 21st Century, haunting in a very real way some of the institutions we call hospitals today. The Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane was no exception to this rule nor to this history of despicable degradation, which is precisely why its transformation into a “grand hotel” should have been and continue to be interrogated and treated delicately.

Not enough has been done thus far to recognize the patients of that institution as victims. This is partly due to the fact that we, as a community and larger society, continue to think it is acceptable to treat people with cognitive differences as if they are subhuman and invisible. The references all over social media to Hotel Henry as “haunted” and “spooky” are indicative of this phenomenon: that victims of the mental health industry do not exist, or -if they do- only exist as folkloric, spectral entities not entitled to actual histories or to actual restorative justice.

The thought of a person who lost their liberty and then died, isolated and alone, in a bed at the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, or at any asylum for that matter, now remaining unnamed in the psyche of Buffalonians haunts me. I am also haunted by the thought of Western New Yorkers getting tingles up and down their spines as they recline in a luxury bed, sipping a glass of wine, fantasizing about the horrors that “might have” taken place in their room. It goes beyond insensitivity and ignorance.

Here’s the issue. The treatment of those labeled mentally ill is not something to fantasize about or romanticize. It’s not something to trivialize. It’s something that should make you sick to your stomach, if you possess a conscience. It’s something that should make you solemn and mournful, in the way that you would be expected to feel if you were at a Holocaust memorial site. Human beings were rendered social outcasts and they were thrown away, cast off, mistreated, and defeated in the space that is now serving as a beautiful hotel. Revenue for our incredible city is being derived from the hotel, as it was from the asylum, but is this revenue helping people who have been affected negatively by mental illness stigma? My hope is that we start asking questions, as a city and a culture, about our own attitudes toward the institutions we are building and supporting. Hotel Henry may very well be a place that fosters respect for those who were victimized within and around its walls, but it cannot do so without acknowledging in a public way the lives, the victimization, and the very real although mostly erased history of those very people. The history of a group of victimized people is not to be glossed over. Questions need to be raised and addressed.

Here’s a question that I hope can be answered: have any significant and serious attempts been made on the part of Hotel Henry’s owners/management to honor, recognize, and pay respects to those who were imprisoned in and victimized by what was formerly known as Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane?

Restoration is one thing, but the erasure of an entire history of pain and dehumanizing treatment in the name of luxury and glamor is another. People are making fun and entertainment out of what was degradation and real pain and suffering for those who were committed at this institution up until the late 1970s. What if people were calling a former concentration camp “spooky” or “gorgeous,” with a tone that indicates titillation? What if they were holding their weddings there? Though of different origins and proportions, the use of asylums to silence and remove human beings from society is still a grave matter, and should be handled with the utmost sensitivity.

I hope at some point that a reputable local or national news source will address in greater depth the ethics of and complicated issues related to turning a site of incarceration, torment, suffering, and death into a “grand hotel.”

At the heart of this is that the majority of people do not understand what it means to be committed and force-treated. They do not understand what it is like within mental institutions. And if they do understand on the surface, if they have not been in an asylum themselves and treated as such, they do not and cannot know what it is like to lose their liberty, their reputation, their bodily freedom, their autonomy, their credibility, and their very lives. The stigma of mental illness renders people labeled “mentally ill” as virtually without a voice, unimportant, worthy of mistreatment, without an existence, erased.

There is no true restoration and renovation that is accompanied by erasure.

With restoration, comes responsibility: social responsibility. The best way for an institution like Hotel Henry to foster an ethically sound architectural restoration is to restore justice while doing so: giving a voice to those who lost their voices within its walls– those whose silent cries will forever haunt the hotel and its visitors if their history is not honored appropriately.

Some histories have been erased, and, sadly, for those locked in mental institutions, often the most disempowered among us, this is often the case. But this is something that needs to change. Hotel Henry can help by addressing issues of social injustice and by addressing the treatment of the mentally ill.

Articles like the above displayed (by Susan Glaser) participate in corporatizational myth-making by producing chic-sounding flippant over-simplifications that drum up excitement and expenditure for the hotel but that do so at expense of those who have been and are affected by the mental health industry and the stigma of mental illness. We need to be reminded that beautiful buildings do not equal beautiful behaviors in their interiors nor beautiful histories. Guests at Hotel Henry should come in attuned to the fact that they check in with their privilege: they are, unlike their predecessors, hotel guests– not prisoners.

The remote location of the former asylum reflects the social position of those labeled mentally ill in our society: they are put on the outskirts and moved away from “normally” functioning people. This further perpetuates the damaging stigma of mental illness. Architectural significance and the intentions of the architects who originally built what is now Hotel Henry are fascinating, but not as important as the untold stories of those who inhabited the asylum, those who inhabited other asylums, and those who currently are held in state mental hospitals.

While there are images of what became the Buffalo Psychiatric Center that might seem on the surface to indicate that in the late 20th Century the BPC utilized “humane programming” (for white people only, apparently) –including an insane asylum… trolley–, the images offer only the tiniest and most carefully-curated fragment of the history of that building. The larger history of 19th and 20th (and 21st) century asylums tells a different story, a beyond-troubling one: one that, unfortunately, is too often dismissed, ignored, and doomed to remain a phantom of the American psyche.

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Care to take a stroll around town?

I will end this attempt to raise the awareness of Western New Yorkers with a call to action for the hotel itself.

Hotel Henry: Please consider donating a portion of your profits from this project/enterprise, yearly, to humane and non-custodial mental health organizations and initiatives, and please be public about it and clear about your purpose in doing so. Please also consider putting out a very clear statement that addresses your position on the treatment of those labeled mentally ill.

The real restoration needs to happen in the way in which we view cognitive differences.

Jessica Lake Mason

July 14, 2017

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[Notes: The collage of photographs of victims harmed by early mental industry practices does not consist of photos taken at the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. Very few photos taken within the Buffalo State institution are available to the public, and these should not be trusted as accurate indications of the BS Asylum’s practices because they were carefully taken, not by patients or family members of patients or members of the public but, by the institution itself for the purpose of constructing a one-dimensional, limited, and positive-but-inaccurate narrative about the practices within the institution, which had a monetary and reputational reason for doing so. The Richardson Complex buildings were designed in 1870. Patient records exist from 1881 to 1975, but, again, these records cannot be trusted to tell all, or perhaps any, of the comprehensive stories of the patients incarcerated in the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane because they were told from an oppressive perspective and constructed by people in positions of power who were operating under archaic and condemnable belief systems about cognition and mental health. Those who participate in the institutional oppression of powerless and marginalized groups of people cannot and should not be granted the right to speak on behalf of said people. Narratives constructed as the byproducts of powerful institutions that promote misinformation, enslavement, and degradation should be met with distrust rather than accepted blindly as the presiding narrative. A patient record in a 19th/20th century asylum should be considered carefully within its context: as a narrative constructed by an oppressive institution– not as a narrative that speaks directly to the experiences of the victims of that institution. Narratives from the mouths or hands of victims themselves, and/or their allies, should be figured into and placed at the forefront of our public consciousness and our historical projects. As long as the physician-patient relationship in the mental health industry is one built on an extreme disparity in power, medical narratives will continue to be visible, recognized entities of oppression while patient (humanistic) narratives will continue to be invisible entities that live mostly in silence with the oppressed. The mental health industry and our culture at large has to begin to recognize mental health patients as a disempowered community with a long history of victimization as well as its culpability in promoting corporate oppression and closing its eyes to the dehumanizing traditions practiced under its watch.]

Revolutionary Pens

A MITA member brought this quote, by Anne Lamott, to our attention. Women’s voices, historically, have been devalued and undermined, and women are still discouraged from speaking their minds, sharing their stories, and formulating unapologetic opinions. Lamott encourages us to speak and write with confidence– to take back our voices and to stand by our stories and our need to tell them in the face of criticism and punishment. Own your superpower: your voice, your perspective, and do not apologize for speaking and writing about life from your perspective. Your perspective matters, and no one can take that away from you. Stay strong, and keep hold of your pens, proverbially and literally.

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A MITA member sent us this poignant pin as a nod of acknowledgement to the intersections between oppressions and the ways in which rules and languages shift according to privilege. The sentiment expressed is simple but the reality behind it is complex and systematic. In a capitalist society, socioeconomic differences can result in dramatic differences in status, the way individuals are treated, and the benefits and or deficits they receive. It is important for us to recognize and be aware of the way in which privilege affects our lives, our experiences; and it’s equally important for us to fight against forms of prejudice– in our belief systems and in our cultures. Situations and the way we view them are shaped by social beliefs that we adopt, and many of these are a result of the structures of race, class, and gender into which we’re built. Never stop questioning what you’re told, challenging things that trouble you, and caring about language. Language is meant for us to study so that it can help us find our way out of harmful social situations and ways of thinking. Part of MITA’s mission is to encourage women and all people affected by social injustice and linguistic prejudice to care, seek, question, and challenge. Keep up the good critical thinking work!

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Telling the truth, whether an authority agrees with it or not, should not be treated as a crime. No one should be threatened, followed, harmed, locked away, or wiped out of existence for telling the(ir) truth, for taking an interest in what is going on in our world, or for reporting what they observe. We forget how dangerous the world can be and how, throughout history and today, women who speak up have been and are punished severely for doing so. The only way to change this is to be stronger together– to speak truth to power until we start to see change. We are comrades in a resistance against the forces that threaten liberty, humanism, and peaceful coexistence. We must remember those who have lost their lives fighting for the pen, so to speak, and continue to lead by their example. Hold your revolutionary fists around your MITA pens!

AnnaPW

On Being Called “Mentally Ill” by a Student

“On Being Called ‘Mentally Ill’ by a Student” by Jessica Lake Mason

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The balance between taking things seriously and having a sense of humor– sometimes I think my life hangs on it. On the one hand, the inner, endless sense of humor is a life-saving device. On the other hand… no wait, there is no other hand. It’s just that. But always, always, inside, there is a place where the information about humanity is stored, never to be forgotten or erased. Every year of life provides those who feel deeply and think expansively with a need for a bigger and bigger sense of humor, I find. It’s not a glass half empty or full phenomenon; but this is why that tragedy/comedy two-faced ring is still on my finger after all these years, reminding me that they co-exist so that I can *exist*. I believe that this is also the thing that makes me distinctive as a person and educator. Think for a moment on the tragedy and comedy that can be found in your occupation, whatever is it.

Right now, I am a substitute teacher in one of the Buffalo Public Schools. I love it, and I always leave feeling free and light at the end of the day, and I’m often showered with as much love as I give out, but there are moments when I must call on my inner, private sense of humor to save me from what might otherwise feel tragic. I am, for example, called names on a daily basis, such as the very original “f-cking b-tch” when I am working with middle school students. I thought perhaps I would be unnerved by being called such names, for you know the saying about sticks and stones just isn’t true, but as someone who was bullied and mocked LATE in life rather than early in life, being called names, specifically by students, seems to go into the humorous region of my psyche rather than into the tragic region. Thank God.

Today I faced a little test, and I think I passed. I was in a classroom with students who were all in detention, and, though they were technically supposed to be working quietly, in reality they were mouthing off to each other and especially to me. I took it in stride, as is my style, and responded frankly, honestly, and respectfully. I was insulted many times, which was no surprise to me, but then, out of nowhere, a student said something along the lines of, “Yo, this substitute is mentally ill.” One might wonder how someone who has just recently been locked in a psychiatric ward might feel about being called “mentally ill” by a student. I felt the shock of the phrase being hurled at me, and I think I commanded the attention of the room when I did a complete pivot toward this student, who was next to me sitting at his desk, and stood with a dignity and silence that I think said everything I didn’t say. But at that moment what surprised me was my complete compassion for him. He had no idea what he had said. It just came out. I knew that when I looked into his eyes. And I think he knew something serious and important had happened when he looked up into mine. I simply said, “It is not okay to call me that” and then I told him he had a choice, for me to give his name to his teacher upon his return or to write a short essay about why it’s not okay to call someone mental ill as way of insulting them. He didn’t really make a choice, and maybe it didn’t affect him at all, but I made sure I reiterated for the class that it is not okay to try to hurt, bully, or intimidate someone by calling them ‘mentally ill.’

Later, I thought more about this, wondering why I was not more hurt or shocked in the moment. What I thought was exactly this: it’s okay that this happened. It’s even good. Because it started a conversation at a time in students’ lives when it should happen. This young unknowing student, just repeating what he’s heard adults say, is not the problem. Our culture is the problem. We are the problem. We are failing ourselves and our children by modeling for them such shabby behavior. Because I have been called ‘mentally ill’ by a number of people, and the most innocent and least deserving of shame is my young student. I am more horrified by the supposed-professionals who have mis-labeled me as such for reasons not related to my wellness, by the aunt who told me that everyone in my family thinks I’m nuts and that no one can stand me, by the former teachers who have called me names and mocked me as such over the years in order to discredit and dehumanize me, and by the ex-spouse who used the term to exercise her own form of control over and punishment of me– I am more horrified by those uses than I could ever be by a young student who is still unaware of the power of his words. He’s still young; he still has time to learn. I’m so much more worried about the so-called adults.

We all have the power of our words. We can use them to lift others or to destroy others and ourselves. We must set the example and model what it is to treat others as we would wish to be treated. An old lesson that humanity just seems to be so unable to comprehend and enact. This is not simply a class issue– the people who have mocked me with this word in a way that has been tragic to me are those who know me, those who are white, those who are in the middle-upper class. Stereotypes do not apply here. Words are powerful. Words are mighty. My prayer today is that we work together to use them more consciously.

The Right to Write: Woolf’s Desks and MITA’S Literacy Mission

Dear MITA Women,

It is our organization’s belief that it is essential that women and girls have access to writing utensils, paper, and a writing desk.

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The writing desk of our Founding Mother, Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf warned us of the perils of losing one’s ability to write because of one’s gender, racial, or socioeconomic position in life. The “room of one’s own” of which Woolf wrote is an actual room and a metaphorical one.

Women held in psychiatric institutions are kept in rooms, but often they are not provided with or allowed to have the resources necessary to write. This needs to change, and doing so is MITA’s literacy mission. Women need the time and resources to develop literacy and to use those literacy skills to empower themselves. We want women to know that having a voice is their right and that their stories matter, and we want to reach women who have been silenced or directly had their voice demeaned by systems that see and treat them as non-human entities.

It is, therefore, our organization’s long-term mission to make these tools available to women in the community at least once a month, and more, if possible. One of the most disempowering and degrading aspects of many psychiatric units is that they do not encourage and give patients access to writing materials. Pens and pencils are considered weapons within psychiatric facilities. Not all psychiatric patients are suicidal, and not all psychiatric patients are violent. Patients, if they go out of their way to ask, or beg, for writing materials, are given the minimal: a pencil so small and dull it seems as if it shrank with Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Writing is not encouraged, and is in fact, discouraged, in many psychiatric facilities. MITA operates under the premise that those who are being treated in a psychiatric environment should have times in which they can have safe access to a safe writing utensil. Often, those who end up in psychiatric hospitals are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and so when they return to “life on the outside” they would benefit from being involved in writing activities and given access to writing resources. Not having access to writing materials means that women cannot tell their stories, cannot share what is happening and has happened to them beyond the walls of the institutions. Their voices, their stories, and their truths never leave: they die in the institution.

Raging against the machine is important, but it’s just as important to develop mobility in and out of the machine in order to give the most powerless people within it the most powerful gift we can give: knowledge of their right to write.

MITA needs to work to find out more information about how individual psychiatric facilities make decisions regarding patient rights and about what kinds of access patients have to writing resources.

Woolf's working table, Sussex, 1965 by Gisèle Freund
Woolf’s Working Table, Sussex, 1965; Photograph by Gisele Freund

The right to write is paramount. The right to journal is a must. Madwomen in the Attic is going to work hard to make sure that those women who are most vulnerable are those whose needs we try most to serve. Providing women with access to writing materials is revolutionary.

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Access, however, is only part of the problem. Women affected by the psychiatric industry need information: to know the benefits of writing– why writing should matter to them and why it could be crucial to their survival. We cannot always control what happens to us, but with the ability to write about what happens to us, we can find meaning and a reason to survive and overcome. The pen is mightier than the sword because the pen creates something that has a chance of surviving; the sword does not create, it kills. MITA supports the writing lives of women and girls across the globe.

At the first meeting of MITA, we offered pens and yellow pads of paper to every member, and the last word of the evening was an encouragement to write. We are very grateful to St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Williamsville for serving as a MITA Writing Patron by providing our organization with a room of our own, one equipped with a large writing desk that can seat 14-16 writers. We hope that more resources will become available to us. The more writing resources, the better!

We ask that anyone reading this please consider what your privilege allows you to contribute and about how you can help with MITA’s mission. If you cannot attend meetings, there are other ways for you to be involved.

The MITA Literacy Mission:

  1. To acquire pens and writing pads, paper, and journals, through donations from women- and literacy-supportive local businesses that can be used in writing workshops for women in psychiatric units and in writing workshops held outside of psychiatric units by MITA.
  2. To acquire used or affordable copies of works by Virginia Woolf to share with women who have been harmed by the psychiatric industry and to donate to psychiatric institutions.
  3. To build and lobby for MITA Writing Workshops for women incarcerated in psychiatric units.
  4.  To visit and provide writing workshops to women in psychiatric facilities, meeting in a room with “desks” (tables) of some sort; providing them with writing material; informing them about their right to write about their experiences in and out of the mental health system; informing them about our MITA Mission to empower them and to help them tell their stories; providing them with the space, time, and materials to write; supporting and encouraging them; serving as MITA Writing Tutors and Advocates; offering them writing assistance, and providing them with opportunities to join MITA once they are out of the psychiatric facility; and providing a space for their stories to be told, anonymously if they choose, whether through MITA or another platform.

Our goal is for our members to be or become both readers and writers and for our member-advocates to become MITA Writing Advocates. You can sponsor a writer, or be a MITA Writing Patron, by providing writing materials for one or more writers. If you have writing resources, whether you know how to write, you have books and journals to donate, you possess knowledge about running a community-based organization of any kind, you are able to tutor writers, or you can offer help in some other way — or your are interested in becoming a MITA Writing Advocate or MITA Writing Patron, please contact our organization through this website, on Facebook, or at madwomenofwny@gmail.com.

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Lastly, we would like to share a writing opportunity with members and friends of MITA. The Buffalo Disability Writing and Art Collaborative reached out to our organization recently to invite those involved with or connected to MITA to submit materials for their upcoming book project. If you or someone you know in the Western New York area identifies as having a cognitive difference or disability or identifies as a consumer, survivor, or ex-inmate, please see the flyer below and consider submitting work. We encourage you to pick up your pens and submit your stories to a wonderful project.

In Solidarity,

Jessica and Melissa, MITA-Cofounders

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First MITA ‘Meeting of the Minds’

Madwomen in the Attic will hold its first-ever meeting in Western New York on Monday, April 17th, thanks to the generosity of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Williamsville.

At the meeting, the group’s mission will be introduced and possibly expanded, the scope of the group’s aims will be explored and developed, advocacy and writing/reading projects will be discussed, and unconditional acceptance and support will be offered to all in attendance.

An agenda has been created and a re-cap of what was accomplished at the meeting will be shared after the meeting on the MITA website.

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