Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The science of fear

When I realized that I wanted to be a therapist of some sort, it was because I (and a lot of other people who are therapists) wanted to help people.  I thought: There sure are a lot of people who need to be listened to, who need an objective and conscientious observer.  My own therapist was the pinnacle of success: she was calm and helpful, sympathetic without being pushy.  Even though there was nothing diagnosably wrong with me, she gave me an insurance code so I could keep seeing her and have it be covered; she knew I needed someone to talk to that wasn't a friend, someone who didn't know me before.  Someone I could safely share details of my personal life with, who wouldn't learn something she didn't want to know about my husband or about me.  My therapist was safe.

It was because of her that I felt inspired to study psychology in the first place.  And she was the model I based my treatment practicums on, when I had to play-act being a doctor with a patient; I just tried to think of what she would do.  She wanted to help me.

Having dealt most of my life with a seriously mentally ill parent, and having a lot of friends with chronic mental illness as well, even people who are just a bit disorganized in their minds need someone to talk to.  You don't have to be sick -- although I know there are a lot of people who are -- to talk to a therapist.  I do think drugs are overprescribed, and labels are overused...but sometimes you need a label to continue treatment, and it's better to have treatment go on than have it cut short from financial distress.  I'm more of a continuum-based psychology student: I think that everyone falls along a continuum of wellness and illness, that labels are difficult and unwieldy but sometimes useful, that while there may not be a direct cure or blood test, there is a recognizable disease that can lay someone low.  

If it weren't biologically based, you could just stop feeling bad.  And everyone who knows someone with chronic mental illness knows: you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps.  There are no bootstraps.  There is only what my mother calls her Evil Twin.  "I realized," she told me awhile ago, "that the Evil Twin is trying to kill me."  That's what the human mind can do, when it's sick.  Sick like the flu, not sick like a moral judgment.

So I went to the Scientology-sponsored group Citizens' Commission for Human Rights museum called Psychiatry: An Industry of Death.  It's right on Sunset Boulevard, in a chrome-and-glass facade slotted between the grungy costume shops and Rite Aid, the street dealers and homeless, chattering women.  (Did you know that up to 45% of the homeless are untreated schizophrenics without health insurance, support networks, or, obviously, places to live?)

The museum is a piece of work.  "How did you like it?" the young man at the front desk said as I left, pulling the headphones from my ears and handing them back.  

"It's pretty crazy," I said noncommittally, while thinking: You guys are fucking batshit insane.

It's amazing what feats of editing, asking hidden questions, and fearmongering tactics can do.  "Documentary" after "documentary" spoke of the risk of mental illness, that the DSM grows larger with each edition as things that were previously not considered mental illnesses are added to its list (implication: even though you think you're PERFECTLY HEALTHY, tomorrow you might not be, and then INVOLUNTARY COMMITMENT is right around the corner!!!!!  Ahahahahaaaaa!  Also, when you're committed, you'll be tortured!!!), and, most of all and most commonly: the cost to the taxpayer of insurance rates based on covering mental illness.  Playing off the typically Republican and massively hypocritical fear of losing money to support other people in your community, each video pointed out how many billions of dollars go to supporting and treating the mentally ill.  Never mind that Scientology makes twice that each year by bilking its celebrity followers out of ridiculous sums.

Clips of olde-tyme-y sketches of people suffering in Bedlam played over authentic-sounding German audio of scientists talking about eugenics.  Wall-sized photos of Bergen-Belsen inmates behind bars contrasted with child-sized straightjackets.  The level of hype pretty much made me laugh out loud once or twice, when I was most impressed with the level of illogical thinking.  Repeat after me, Scientologists: just because a scientific theory inspires people to do bad things does not mean the science is faulty.  Just because people make mistakes does not mean the science is faulty.  That's what the scientific method is for: to determine whether things are what they are.  Sometimes they aren't and we don't have all the evidence yet.  Then we admit we made a mistake, and move forward.

I particularly liked the outrage over "people as animals" (aka operant conditioning and evolutionary biology).  People aren't animals, the wall plaque said, because dogs can't drive cars, and horses can't write plays, and monkeys can't perform sonatas!  Darwin's theories were responsible for the MASS SLAUGHTER of the JEWS in the HOLOCAUST!  People have souls and can think, therefore they are not animals.  Uh, right.  THERE's a syllogism you can get behind.

As I left, the museum poured me out into a semi-circular viewing room where videos about CCHR played on a touch-sensitive monitor.  Above the monitor was a sign:

In case you can't read it, since I took it with my cellphone camera in a very secretive fashion, it reads: YOU ARE SAFE SO LONG AS WE ARE HERE.

I sat and watched the video, about how the CCHR had rescued people who were unjustly incarcerated against their will in mental institutions, and pressed charges against psychiatrists who had abused their patients, and I thought: I can't even fathom the level of hate these people have.

I am a skeptic at heart, you know; I relish the idea that I might be wrong, and want you to prove it to me.  I would love to believe in fairies, in mysterious disappearances, in all your pet causes.  But I can't, because all the evidence points the other way.  There is more in heaven and earth, etcetera, but there is no need for hate.  There's no need for vitriol, no matter what you believe.  And that entire building was baptized in scorn for the people, like my mother, like my friends, who need help and finally, finally, found somewhere to go to get it.