My Doctor, My Jailor?
"...clinicians' increasing liability for the violent actions of their patients has forced evaluators to err on the side of commitment..."
– Robert D. Miller, M.D., Ph.D.
on unjustified psychiatric commitment
A number of years ago a business partner of mine was having trouble sleeping. He informed his doctor of this, telling him that because of this insomnia he was always tired. His doctor asked him what he would do if he got too tired while driving, and my business partner told him that if he ever felt he was too tired to drive he would pull over and have a nap. They talked a little more about solutions, and he went home.
We live in the “preemptive age”. Think another nation might attack you in the future? Make up a flimsy case and attack them first, before facing the risk of their attack on you. Think someone might be a danger to themselves? Lock them up, before they can hurt themselves — do yourself a favor, if you don’t, and they do hurt themselves, you could be sued!
Three days later there was a registered letter from the Ontario government. When he opened it, he was informed that his driver’s license had been revoked and that he would need to undergo observation at a sleep clinic. When he called to make an appointment he found out that not only would he have to wait nine months, but that there was no appeals process. So, nine months later, at which point his insomnia had already passed, they hooked him up to the machines, had him take a nap, and “promptly” returned his license to him.
Maybe you’re saying that it’s better that the doctors “played it safe” and suspended his basic rights and privileges — after all, he might have posed a risk to other drivers if it turned out he had a severe sleeping disorder.
The fact is, we can play the “better safe than sorry” game endlessly. What are you willing to sacrifice for safety? It’s very easy when we’re talking about someone else’s freedoms being taken away. The safest society is the one that is the least free, and with free society comes both responsibility and danger.
I went into my local walk-in clinic recently, looking for aid in alleviating my PMS and some mild depression. I spoke with the nurse first, who was attentive, and my appointment was ordinary. As it is a walk-in clinic, the staff rotates and I had never been treated by this particular doctor before. We went over my symptoms; physical pain and insomnia. He asked me a long series of questions about depression, diet, and family history, but nothing out of the ordinary.
When it was time to take my blood pressure, I had to remove my sweater for a proper reading. My arms are tattooed, but not much. Immediately his attitude towards me changed and I noticed him looking me over. He became hostile, and asked me if I engaged in any other “self-destructive behaviour other than my tattoos”. I told him no, and that I did not feel my tattoos were mutilation or destructive, but that I found them to be positive and a source of joy.
He then asked if my shaved head was done out of anger, or other self destructive motivations. At this point, I was getting annoyed, but not concerned.
The GP then looked into my chart and asked about my amputation (I lost one of my finger joints last year). I restated what is in my medical chart, which is that it was an accident. He told me he had recently seen a TV program about voluntary amputation. I quickly but calmly informed him that there were other people who were there at the time, who could verify that it was an accident. I informed him that I am in the process of having a very expensive prosthesis made, and asked him if he thought it was logical that a voluntary amputee would pay thousands of dollars to conceal their amputation?
At this point his questions had become totally unrelated to the intent of my visit. I didn’t think I would have any problems though, as I had given him sound and logical answers to all of his questions, and none of this had been an issue with other doctors I’d seen earlier.
He then left the room for about 15 minutes, and when he returned, he told me he thought I was a threat to myself. He said that he had issued something that worked like a warrant, and that if I did not go for psychiatric evaluation within a certain number of hours, that the police would come and escort me to one, with or without my consent.
I felt totally powerless and terrified. I did not attempt to argue with him about his position. Clearly he had very conservative and negative views about body modification, and I really did not want to make matters any worse for myself. I was confident that once I was seen to by a psychiatric professional that I would be properly assessed and released.
I went in for evaluation immediately and of my own “free” will. I waited four hours to be seen, the whole time under armed surveillance. It was extremely stressful. I left my hat on to conceal my stretched lobes and my sweater on to conceal my tattoos.
Eventually I was seen by a series of psychiatrists and doctors who, as I predicted, found that my body modification interests and my short hair posed no threat to my safety or health, and released me of my own accord.
My initial appointment was well before noon, and I didn’t make it home from this ordeal until well into the night, and the original reason I’d went to the doctor in the first place was never addressed.
Many readers of this site have faced medical and legal harassment because of their body modification decisions. Some have been jailed, others incarcerated in psychiatric institutes, and others have been sued by ex-wives claiming their body modification was a form of abuse. In a small percentage of those cases, the aggressors have turned out to be correct, but in the vast majority it was baseless accusation built on inaccurate stereotypes. A witch hunt.
Treating people with body modifications as a danger to themselves or others for that reason alone is no better than calling for the incarceration of all members of a specific race because statistically they may be slightly more prone to be found guilty of criminal behaviour.
The letter on the right recounts some recent experiences had by a friend of mine, pictured below.
There’s got to be a million young people who’d love to “have her look”. There’s nothing wrong with it, and it’s a healthy expression of who she is.
To make a long story short, she went to the doctor because of some minor depression and insomnia — how many of us haven’t suffered from this from time to time? It’s so common it’s practically considered normal. The doctor treated her well, until he asked her to roll up her sleeve for a blood pressure check, revealing her tattoos.
Upon seeing her professionally done and long-since healed tattoos, coupled with a missing finger joint (which was lost in an accident long before, which was in her chart, along with the fact that she was seeking a prosthesis for it — most young people enamoured with amputation do not seek prosthetic correction), he classed her a “significant risk to herself” and imprisoned her involuntarily for an indefinite period of time.
Luckily her ordeal was over six hours later as other doctors did not share the bigoted views of the first.
The fact is, once you fall into the “psychiatric care” system, it can be very difficult to get out, and all it takes to get there in the first place is the subjective opinion of a doctor that’s known you for all of fifteen minutes.
Not only that, but this doctor’s views were based on not just his own personal hatred of tattooed people and women with short hair, but by a television show — I can only assume that he was referring to TLC’s Skin Skulptors, which told the story of several older voluntary amputees. In each of their cases, the end result was the same: “I was depressed my whole life, but now I’m happy. I can’t tell you why I am this way, but I can tell you this is the best decision I ever made.”
Since when is choosing an unusual path to happiness, one that doesn’t hurt anyone else, a crime punishable by psychiatric imprisonment?
To tell a similar story from my own life, long before starting BME I’d had an encounter with doctors who’d never come in contact with stretched piercings. For that and other reasons they told my parents that they wanted to hold me for three days to make sure I wasn’t a danger to myself (I absolutely fail to see how well healed and cared for piercings are indicative of anything but someone who takes care of their body). At the end of it they decided that they were expressions of schizophrenia, and prescribed me massive doses of a dopamine-level altering anti-psychotic drug.
I’m not schizophrenic — a fact that would be later confirmed by more experienced doctors. It wasn’t the first time I’d been misdiagnosed. When I first revealed my body modifications to my parents, they took me to a psychiatrist who told them I had “delusions of grandeur” because I’d told the doctor that I was a computer programmer — and even though he could have easily confirmed that fact with my employer, he instead wrote it off with his own pre-conceived notion: “you’re far too young to understand how to program, let alone do it successfully”.
Then, in the drugged haze that I was in, I was thrown into a larger institution. The first doctor to see me stripped me down to “examine me”, and at the time I had a nipple piercing. The doctor told me that my nipple piercing was indicative of “gender disorders and transsexualism” and ordered a series of humiliating genetic tests and examinations to find out if I was actually male or not.
When their tests came back showing me to be totally normal, they instead put me on more anti-psychotics (even though they’d already discarded the “schizophrenic” claim), and as I was beginning to become agitated at being held prisoner, they added a pile of tranquillisers to my daily dose. I had no choice but to take these drugs — across the floor of the Clarke Institute that I was in was the “long term” ward, where they still used shock therapy. I was told that if I didn’t take the drugs that they’d force me to undergo shock treatment instead.
Now, I’d signed up for this “voluntarily”, so I thought, “Why don’t I just check myself out. I don’t need this.”
Unfortunately, when I went to do so, they confirmed that I was in on a voluntary form, but that if I sought to leave, they would immediately be switched over to an involuntary form. It took me a full month of jumping through their hoops before I was able to leave, and by the time I did, my head was so messed up from the drugs they were over-prescribing me that it wasn’t long before I took too many of them (the drugs they’d given me) and returned, post-overdose.
My luck turned though as I was transferred to a new doctor who realized there was nothing wrong with me at all. At this point my only problem was that I was on a pile of drugs I never should have been on. I spent thirty days in a locked ward under armed guard as they weaned me off the drugs.
As those drugs began to wear off, I desperately needed to express “me”. I coloured my hair green in the psyche ward bathroom with some dye that a friend smuggled in for me, and I began to re-stretch my piercings. Eventually I was free again, happy to be me, but having learned an ominous lesson about what happens to people who don’t conform.
I don’t know what advice I can give you on this subject. Normally I might say “escalate it”, but there’s no guarantee that won’t make the problem dramatically worse. I don’t want to say “isolate yourself” and try not to have contact with doctors either since we know that won’t make anything better. I’ll certainly warn you to avoid falling into their traps. It’s not easy to free yourself once you’re caught.
It’s a long battle still. We’ve made incredible strides in assuring the mainstream acceptability of body modification, but we’ve made them very quickly, and there are still an enormous amount of people who doubt the validity of our actions. All I can suggest is try and conduct yourself politely and think of yourself as an ambassador.
After all, if this really is bigotry drawn on stereotypes — “modified people are bad/crazy/dangerous” — then it’s in all our best interest to change those stereotypes through our actions, so maybe one day the stereotype will flip to “modified people are so nice!”
Maybe we’ll eventually grow out of judging books by their covers.
For now, let’s just try not to burn books based on their covers.
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