Baby’s First Madness: A Newcomer Perspective on the Hearing Voices Congress and Alternatives

This past year was home to many firsts for me, including my first forced injection, my first exposure to Mad Pride, and my first time attending the Hearing Voices Congress and Alternatives. For at least three years I’ve been doing similar work in the neurodiversity movement, which is all about framing mental differences as ordinary variations of human experience, without adding a value judgment. Someone who hears voices is no better or worse than someone who doesn’t: This paradigm is theoretically incompatible with the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, also known as psychiatry; yet when I talk about being “anti-psychiatry" in those spaces, the responses range from confusion to outrage. Needing a space to talk about my lived experience, I began to call myself a psychiatric survivor (and not long after that a Mad person) much more often than neurodivergent. There are too many different names, but if there’s one thing that unites this community (which there may not be at all, but bear with me), it’s that we don’t want anyone locked down, literally or chemically, for the crime of acting strange. Understanding this as the community I’m talking about, how has the introduction been? A warm welcome for an eager activist, or a colossal barrier to entry that will bleed the movement into obscurity?

Hearing Voices kicked off with keynote speeches by Gogo Ekhaya, Akiko Hart, and Marty Hadge. While the Day 2 speakers were also notable (I especially liked David Walker’s research on the “asylum for insane Indians”), these first three exemplified the themes of both their own conference and Alternatives. Gogo spoke on spirituality, Akiko on systems change, Marty on community and identity.

The Spirituality Scam: Feeling Good at the Expense of Thinking Critically

Throughout the Hearing Voices Congress, spirituality was discussed from a critical perspective on European imperialism. That is, the notion that experiences are not “real” until they are demonstrated within a uniquely European idea of what is scientific. One example that came up repeatedly was aggressive enforcement of the gender binary, scrubbing out awareness of the Indian Hijra, the six Jewish genders named in the Torah, and the various two-spirit identities of North America.

In some Hearing Voices workshops, and then more frequently in Alternatives, presenters thanked God for their healing, with no apparent awareness that not all religions, let alone all spiritual practices, use the word God as a name or even have a god at all. The definition of “spiritual” shifted to “Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter.” At this point, I was thankful to have a Humanist/Rationalist caucus to go to. Not out of disgust or annoyance, but just to take a break. There are plenty of religious and spiritual ideas I don’t miss, and would rather see criticized as potentially exceptions in the imperative to accept all perspectives. The concept of demonic possession, for instance, has been tremendously harmful to those we now call voice hearers, Autistic people, and multiple systems. On the other hand, we haven’t really socially evolved away from it. Most people don’t use the words demonic or possession any more, but we talk about an external “mental illness” exerting control upon the “real” person locked inside it. No scientific study in any country has ever hypothesized (much less proven) that “mental illness” is separate from the person, has possessive power, or even exists at all, yet most of us accept the idea as true because the “science” classes we grew up with only taught us how to memorize distilled fact lists, not to think critically.

Back onto the first hand, the humanist/rationalist/atheist/“skeptic”/“free-thinker” community also does a great disservice to Mad people when reactionaries see religious rejection of science, and so embrace psychiatry because its proponents are good at dressing their propaganda in sciencey language. I felt compelled to tow the line here, having been an atheist at the time, but as someone who also finds great value in mindfulness practices such as meditation, acting, and psychedelics— though I hesitate to call those things spiritual. I think science is cool and awesome (though we definitely need to be more critical and not just worship it as another religion) but I don’t need to wait for scientists to admit that my internal experiences are real and meaningful and not a disorder.

The Peer Support Scam: Growing In Number at the Expense of Our Values

In the United Kingdom, some people in the business of locking up humans, including both psychiatric facilities and mainstream prisons, are actively reaching out to the Hearing Voices Network to create internal support groups for people who aren’t allowed to leave. The fact of such mainstream awareness, not of the “signs of schizophrenia” but of the support network, is something to celebrate. While reform can often be a threat to the goal of total abolition, we still have to seriously consider each opportunity to make living conditions less horrible. In the same speech in which Akiko shared this, she also expressed a concern, a certain uneasiness, about the fact that a Hearing Voices support group apparently doesn’t cause immense discomfort to the criminal and psychiatric systems. Our ethos should be a force that fundamentally undermines the power of such a system. Is it getting lost in translation, or intentionally distorted?

I wrote “Acceptance Must Not Become a Buzzword” as a call to action for Autism Acceptance Month, warning that community’s activists that convincing the public to use the word acceptance instead of the word awareness won’t mean anything if the change in language doesn’t cause a change in paradigm. A more broadly applicable example is when we convinced a critical mass that “mental illness” is a stigmatizing term, and mainstream organizations were ready to swoop in and say you’re right, we totally agree, we should be fighting stigma by saying “mental health challenge” instead. Let’s all make sure people with “mental health challenges” are locked up and drugged against their will because they’re far too “challenged” to make their own decisions.

The Alternatives conference featured a mess of conflicting ideologies. Once upon a time, the conference represented alternatives to drugs and lock-ups. For some people that’s 12-step groups. Others find 12-step to be the oppressive part of the system and need an alternative to that. Others still find the concept of a support group to be fundamentally flawed. Thus the calling shrunk to simply “Alternatives” so everyone can apply their own meaning.

While the Healing Voices Congress made space for a variety of personal experiences, Alternatives went a step further and made space for a variety of political stances, including the ones that say those personal experiences are bad and wrong and should be punished. The fact that some participants felt entirely comfortable walking about in NAMI attire illustrates what happens when someone decides that survivors, people who have been abused and tortured by the psychiatric system, need to ally with people who love the psychiatric system and think it’s great and we need more of it.

It’s the worst of both worlds: By allowing all identities, including ideological ones, we wind up NOT accepting certain identities because hostile ideologies push them out. Insisting that every Mad or neurodivergent person intrinsically has something to “recover from” is a form of hatred that pushes away Mad and neurodivergent people. Defining “danger to self” as a jailable offense; restricting when and how people can eat or use the bathroom; making the assumption that everyone is a “consumer” and happy about it— all forms of hatred. If we want government services to even be as good as our peer groups, we aren’t going to get there by compromising. We must reject the hatred.

The Identity Scam: Collecting Bodies at the Expense of Diversity

In the middle of Alternatives, the city of Boston made national news thanks to a hate speech rally, attended by about forty Nazis and forty thousand protesters. Many conference-goers including myself ducked out of the event they paid for to join the protest. With forty thousand different perspectives represented, there were sure to be many who believed that victims of psychiatric diagnosis should have fewer rights as a result. Signs labeled Donald Trump “mentally ill”, screaming mouths called the Nazis “virgins”, and pussy hats reminded us that the women’s movement was only upset that a cis woman lost. Yet a dozen transgender psychiatric survivors grouped up and joined the protest anyway, because on this one issue, that we want Nazis to feel unwelcome, we all agreed.

However, this backlash against modern Nazis comes only from a narrow, liberal definition of intolerance. They’re bad because they’re racist and racism is bad. The original German Nazis didn’t just hate Jews, they loved eugenics— an idea they got from American psychiatrists. What nearly all historical and modern atrocities have in common, including those committed in the name of “mental health”, is an ideological imperative to reduce the amount of diversity in the world.

The theme of Marty’s speech was that we need to validate (and maybe even celebrate) diverse experiences. “It’s really important to not just switch from saying that these things are a medical illness, to saying it’s all about trauma.” When you take a one-size-fits-all approach, you are always inevitably telling some people that you know them better than they know themselves. Diverse doesn’t just mean there are racial minorities here; there is also diversity of creed, gender, sexuality, disability, age, size, language, culture, personality and worldview. All of these matter, and all have value. Many in the Mad community are resistant to the neurodiversity model because of negative associations between the neuro prefix and the “chemical imbalance” brand of psychiatry. The rest of the world, however, has no problem with that but hisses furiously at the “diversity” part.

Is the diversity of the human species one of the most wonderful and beautiful things about us, or is it nice, but not really necessary? Based on the attitudes at these two conferences, I came to understand the majority answer as “it’s a useful tool if it supports MY group, but I’ll throw anyone under the bus at a moment’s notice.” The liberal checklist approach works very much like the checklist methods of psychiatry, just listing positives instead of negatives. Gay rights are so 2016, so now we’re going to check the “trans” box and make those the new hip, cool people. Of course, if we skip a checkbox on the “types of people we like” list, that means we don’t like those people. If a certain kind of people doesn’t even have a box to skip, we really don’t like them. Therein lies the problem with neurodiversity: Pushing all of those horrible scary “mental illnesses” onto society’s diversity checklist.

White supremacy wasn’t the only anti-diversity force in Boston that week. Controversy also erupted within Alternatives, in response to a very vocally transphobic person getting a platform to speak in the workshop schedule. While an informal trans contingent quickly came together, got a Trans Justice Panel added to the workshop list, went to Boston Common as a group, and made plans roughly two steps less civilly disobedient than obstructing access to a workshop room, I felt conflicted.

The actual topic of the workshop was not gender, but instead efforts to abolish forced treatment of disabled people. Abolitionists and disability rights activists are both underrepresented at Alternatives and in the community at large. No attention was paid to the zombie-like mass of consumers, chanting “recovery” with no awareness of societal oppression; because there’s no checked box for Mad and neurodivergent people who don’t want to recover.

And yet, just as I went along with the anti-racism protest, with thousands of people who probably wouldn’t hesitate to grab a cop and report me for suicidality or voice hearing, I went along with the anti-transphobia squad, with a dozen people who probably wouldn’t show the same solidarity for disabled people, to a presentation about disability.

By the time we got there, to the workshop that started the whole debacle, it didn’t matter to me what the presenter was actually going to say. Between the trans and non-conforming keynotes at the Hearing Voices Congress, a roundtable where I learned about trans multiples, a group of anti-Nazi protesters, and a Trans Justice Panel, I was in a community and would go wherever they went.

More importantly, the connections with these people weren’t limited to the workshop time. They were also the people I tracked down in the hallways and sat with at lunch. The most valuable and transformative parts of both conferences were not the speeches, presentations, or workshops, but the time spent with people in the breaks in-between.

Two weeks after Alternatives, I flew across the country again to attend a Trans Health conference, where I joined a group of more Autistic people than I had met at any autism conference, and bear witness to one of the biggest gatherings of multiples in history: about 150 people in 30 bodies. That is what good conferences are about: Building intersectional communities.

The real problem with presenters who are bigoted against a specific kind of people isn’t that they’re problematic. It’s when they aggressively exclude those people from their network, creating a ripple of drama where other community builders have to choose between bigots and the targets of their bigotry. When you carve out a niche, the knife always cuts through someone. I may learn a lot of useful information by hearing a problematic presenter speak, but at the end of it I won’t have made a new friend.

Humanity is diverse because every single person has a completely unique experience and worldview. I’m not here in this community because I think we should take pity on minorities until someone figures out how to do eugenics right. I’m here because I genuinely want to live in a diverse world. I love diversity, sincerely, irrevocably. What kind of world do you want to live in?

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