Envision this scene with me. I’m the editor of New England Church Life, sitting at my desk in the crowded offices of Vision New England, a 100-year-old religious organization that serves congregations in more than 50 different denominations. I’m looking out my window across the parking lot as I talk to my current interview subject on the phone. He’s just put out a book that has a lot of people laughing behind their hands and a lot of reviewers laughing out loud in their magazine pages: 87 Reasons Why Jesus Will Return in 1987.
Okay, you’ve already decided he’s crazy just because of the title. But I’m an interviewer. I don’t have that freedom. So I’m asking questions about the book, why he wrote it, how he got the idea, how he found the time … all the usual questions.
Except one of the answers doesn’t add up. Literally. Because I’m a Navy brat and he’s former Navy and his years of service don’t work out. Tours of duty come in multiples of certain numbers of years and he’s out early.
“So,” I ask casually, “how’d you get out early? Did you end up on disability or something?”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I had a psychiatric discharge.”
Then he added: “You’re good. No one else has asked that question.”
Bombshell! I’m the only member of the religious press who knows that he’s actually certifiably crazy — not just obsessed with numerology and other weird ideas.
But what do I do with that knowledge?
First off, I myself have “lived experience.” So do I really want to discredit someone on the basis of theirs?
But more important for the sake of Vision New England, this is politically active New England in the 1980s. There’s still remnants of a Mental Patient Liberation Front. Do I want to disparage a person on the basis of their psychiatric history and risk having a demonstration on our steps?
I don’t publish that information. I bury that little factoid in the recesses of my brain through these many years of personal history. It doesn’t pop back up until yesterday, when I was thinking about Kate Millett, who was a member of the Mental Patient Liberation Front. We don’t think of her as a person with bipolar disorder; we think of her as an important feminist author. Likewise Ted Turner: an important entrepreneur. Not primarily a person with bipolar disorder.
Maybe it’s time to revive the Mental Patient Liberation Front. Or something by a new name for a new age. But in this century, most of the people with diagnoses who have money and power are living behind masks, pretending they don’t see psychiatrists and even sometimes publicly opposing supports for people whose diagnoses disable them — just to help themselves stay in hiding.
We can’t afford to label some people with diagnoses as “consumers” and the rest of us as authors and entrepreneurs and whatever else we prefer as our identities. All of us are patients; all of us are people. We receive help; we give help. The world is better because we are here.
Where is the Mental Patient Liberation Front when you need them?