On “Behavior”

If I could pick any phrase in the English language and set it on fire it would definitely be “behavioral health”. To people who haven’t been pushed into the Psych System it sounds so innocuous. It’s there to help people develop “coping skills” and “protective factors”. Please excuse the scar-quotes, it’s just that these concepts have historically been used to deny me care that I was requesting from the very system people kept claiming would help me.

What ended up happening was an attempt to brainwash me. Mad people are told over and over that if we just fix our behavior then our problems will go way. We get bombarded with institutionally-approved skills and techniques to remedy our ailments. Yet these ailments are defined as behaviors and not an inner turmoil, imbalance, or trauma. In my case I desperately wanted compassionate support, safety, and proper medication that actually works for me. I was experiencing severe mood shifts due to my Bipolar. I was rapid cycling and in mixed states; my life in an extreme downward spiral. It felt like my brain had been taken over by this unstoppable force that was bent on destroying my life and killing me. I asked for help, and was told I just had to behave.  

I had several stays in Behavioral Health Units. Somewhere along the line the neurotypicals in charge of psychological care decided that “emotional health” and “mental health” were too messy for diagnostics and treatment. The experiences could only be described by the people living them and weren’t as easy to pinpoint by doctors, therapists, and social workers. Because insurance companies and the medical field don’t trust patients, they settled on “Behavioral Health Care”.

The worship of this system is part of why I kept going back to hospitals and calling crisis lines even though they were making me worse. And because of the trauma I experienced from my ongoing crises and subsequent treatment at hospitals I was pressured into going into DBT (Dialectal Behavior Therapy). I also have negative comments left in various parts of my medical record about how I wasn’t doing enough to get off the wait list for the treatment, about how I wasn’t working on using the skills they were teaching me, about how I left the program “prematurely”. In reality I recognized the abusive practices and quit to protect myself from further harm. Some of these practices are easy for people to recognize as harmful: providers ranking clients on how manipulative they make staff feel, a therapist slamming a door on me, a therapist telling me I was “making her not want to help me anymore”, having another therapist lie to me about my diagnoses and hiding what she was trying to treat me for. I had two separate therapists fight with me over my request to be assessed for PTSD; to get my symptoms properly recognized and treated, and my experience validated. I was searching for help and supportive healing. Nobody was agreeing to this because what they really wanted me to do was “behave” and use strategies to adjust to the oppression and abuse I was facing and constantly being exposed to. That is NOT how to treat PTSD or trauma.

I never wanted to adjust to this world, I needed empowerment and community support. They told me to listen to calming music when I felt angry. What I needed was encouragement to face what happened and let myself feel what happened in a way that would be healing and counteract my learned helplessness. Society and my abusers taught me that Mad people have no control over what the system does to us. That we don’t deserve dignity or to have our humanity respected. Yet they blamed me for having no control over my mental illness and its symptoms. They blamed me for the fallout my crises caused in my life. They told me I had just learned to “behave” sooner none of this trauma and hardship would have happened. Perhaps the worse part is that for a long time I believed them. Yet I was also furious about how “professionals” not only got away with treating me how they did, but that what they did is considered standard care. That it is believed to be what helps. But I was angry, and it felt like I was being torn apart. I couldn’t make sense of my conflicted feelings. My health deteriorated more and more, and I was trapped in a cycle of suicide attempts and hospitalizations.

And so I sat in therapist offices, in DBT skill groups, and in hospitals waiting to be transferred to Behavioral Health Units, expecting them to miraculously cure me from what I started to see as a blight on my brain. I was broken down while being fed messages telling me that I had been a bad person and needed to fix my personality, how I felt about the world, and how I “behaved”. Now compare what I’ve said to definitions of brainwashing. The designation of mental and emotional struggle and trauma as a behavioral health issue inevitably leads to brainwashing. It leads to abuse, neglect, and various other harms.

Radical Abolition requires empowering Mad people to define our own experiences and taking that power away from the elite dressed in white jackets and business suits. We need to fight for a focus on peoples’ emotional and mental well-beings and not on telling them what they are doing wrong. We need to center our lived experiences, narratives, internal worlds, individuality, and sense of embodiment. We are caught in a power struggle with people who insist on treating us based on how others perceive and interpret our behaviors.



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