first published at

by Phoebe Sparrow Wagner

       I used to be “crazy.” Labeled CMI, chronically mentally ill, prone to psychosis, i was a revolving door mental patient, one who spent almost as much time in her adult life in the hospital as out of it. Although I had various diagnoses, the main one was schizophrenia, or the variant of it, schizoaffective disorder that some claim combines features of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Over time, as I bounced from hospital to home and back to the hospital the doctors would tack on other labels as well, like PTSD and different personality disorders. 

     Although I occasionally was admitted “voluntarily,” most of these hospital stays started out involuntary, until nurses, brandishing paper and pen, advised me of my right to sign in as “voluntary.” I would sign, but this did not mean I could leave because not even voluntary patients could leave at will, not in the state where I lived at the time. If you wanted to leave before the doctor thought you should, you had to sign a  paper stating this. Then wait to see if the doctor challenged the paper. If she did so within three days, you could be taken to probate court for a judge to hear the case. This was never good. We patients knew the judge virtually always sided with the doctors, since we were by definition “crazy” and could not know what was good for us.

         But let me go back to the schizophrenia thing. I heard voices, most of the time. They were usually awful voices, voices that jeered and mocked and threatened me, voices that led me to burn myself dozens of times in an effort to rid myself of them. I heard and saw messages to me in everything, from the television and radio ads to newspaper headlines. I saw tiny scintillating red lights that swarmed about me like a cloud of gnats, and which I called the Red Strychnines. I saw Alan Arkin, the actor, and Senator Joe Lieberman dressed as Nazis supervising a conveyor belt sending bodies to the crematorium, and I heard music, people chanting in low voices, unintelligibly at first but later changing to threats. As is often the case, these voices and visions led me to distorted thinking, and to “paranoia,” based on what I heard and saw.

      There were other voices. Brother Luke was the name I gave to the one good guy in the lot. He talked to me about time and space and humanity and love, and I felt safe with him. And there were the voices I called the Little People, to distinguish them from the main voices, the bad ones. The Little People occupied objects I used, like my comb or paint brushes and they would talk to one another but would almost never speak directly to me. I could listen in on their lives and concerns, but mostly could not or did not want to interfere. They kept me company with their constant chatter, but they were never threatening or upsetting to me.

         The bad voices did bother me, however, and I would often end up in the hospital because of them. But living in a hospital is as bad as it sounds, with horrible food, and little to do, and really no help at all except the constant pressure to take medication, which could turn to threats if you didn’t comply. Worse, if you got out of line, that is, if you got too loud or angry at being kept there or treated by force,  they would do things like have a team of security guards strip you naked and lock you in a freezing seclusion cell alone, or shackle your wrists and ankles to a bed, leaving you like that for hours, even days at a time. Or both at the same time. I know this because everything I write about happened to me and on multiple occasions.

        Staff called seclusion and restraints measures of last resort, claimed they were only employed when necessary to maintain a patient in safety, but we patients knew they were used almost always as retribution and for punishment. Even SAMHSA (the Federal agency concerned with such things, the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration) knew that restraints and seclusion were not helpful, and were not used as a last resort at all, as they stated in one of their pamphlets:

“… there is a common misconception that seclusion and restraint are used only when absolutely necessary as crisis response techniques. In fact, seclusion and restraint are most commonly used to address loud, disruptive, noncompliant behavior and generally originate from a power struggle between consumer and staff. The decision to apply seclusion or restraint techniques is often arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and generally avoidable (Haimowitz, Urff, & Huckshorn, 2006; NASMHPD, 2003; SAMHSA, 2003).”

In another publication SAMHSA writes:

“Seclusion and restraint were once perceived as therapeutic practices in the treatment of people with mental and/or substance use disorders. Today, these methods are viewed as traumatizing practices and are only to be used as a last resort when less-restrictive measures have failed and safety is at severe risk.”

And this:

“Restraints can be harmful and often re-traumatizing for people, especially those who have trauma histories. Beyond the physical risks of injury and death, it has been found that people who experience seclusion and restraint remain in care longer and are more likely to be readmitted for care.”

         But both seclusion and restraints are still used and increasingly so as staff to patient ratios are decreased in psych hospitals and units, with more patients per staff and many staff members poorly trained, if at all. 

         I don’t believe mental illness is a real entity any more, I don’t believe in schizophrenia or manic-depression or depression or the notion that anyone’s personality can have a disorder. I don’t believe that psychiatry is a valid science or even an art worthy of the name. And I do not believe that we are right on the verge of finally (for the umpteeth time?) discovering the truth about the origins of “mental illness”. We were told the same thing many times before. For instance when the “miracle of psychosurgery” maimed or killed thousands by “helping” them with ice pick surgery and pre-frontal lobotomies. We were told of the miracles of shock, when a variety of drugs as well as electrical current applied to the brain “helped” thousands more, even when bones were broken and people died. And we are still being fed the lie that neuroleptic drugs like Thorazine and Haldol  and the new generation of similar drugs like Zyprexa and Risperdal are in fact “antipsychotic” and are an effective treatment for, well, whatever ails you…*

     But it was not true that lobotomies helped anyone, shock treatments, which induce grand mal seizures, are by definition brain damaging, and the drugs rarely help more than they hurt, since it has been shown that long term they create more illness, chronic illness, than they ever alleviated. 

        We should have known this. Back in the 50s when Thorazine was seriously referred to as a chemical lobotomy (which was seen as desirable) doctors noted that the drug was not in fact a treatment that helped the person who took it, reducing symptoms or restoring health. What they saw was that those given the drug became subdued, even immobilized into the infamous Thorazine shuffle, and more “compliant.” This helped the nurses be nurses, as the formerly disruptive were now bludgeoned by Thorazine into mild, shuffling sufferers. They were no longer mad-men or mad-women, no, they had been disabled by the drug and  could now be nursed as  true patients, patients who were sick and needed nursing care.

       I have been given high doses of Thorazine and know from experience that it is a horrible, deadening drug. I have been forcibly treated with soul-killing Haldol and Mellaril and Stelazine and the others, and when Clozaril came out I was given that (thankfully, because the side effects were horrendous, I developed agranulocytosis, twice, so I was taken off it) and then Risperdal and Zyprexa and again, most of the others that later came onto the market. None of them helped me or reduced the voices or made me happier.

     Two things did help. Art, which became my life’s passion, and therapy, therapy not with a psychiatrist or an LCSW working under the auspices of a psychiatrist, clinicians who saw only so-called mental illness, but with a woman who does not even have a license to practice in this country. She never saw schizophrenia or bipolar or personality disorders in me when we talked, she saw me, the me beneath all the labels, and she saw me as good, she saw a good person, not the “Satan’s spawn” that the voices derided. She saw me healthy and thriving, even before I did. She did not want to control me, in fact human freedom was and is her main concern. But she accepted me as I was, and her unconditional acceptance and love (for what else was it?) gave me back a sense of self and the self-esteem to thrive and move forward into my life.

     I want to say a word about my falling in love with art. I became an artist very suddenly, overnight, in 2008, and this was a miracle in my life. I did not at the time understand how or why it happened, but I woke up one morning with a voice inside my head (all the others seemed to emanate from outside me) telling me, “You must build a human, you must build a human.” Well, I thought, this voice is not telling me to harm myself, so what’s the problem with obeying it? So I set out to build a human, and did in three months, create a life-size papier mâché woman, seated in  a paper mâché chair.

Decorated Betsy

Later this won a prize and was bought by an art collector/friend. But it seemed to unleash something in me that drove me to make art constantly from 2008 onward.

It was only in 2017 and later in 2020, when I managed to get off all my psych drugs, that I realized I had also stopped doing art. Was it possible that the drugs were responsible, then, for the miracle I could no longer live without? I went back on them, and within a week or two I was doing art again.

And a second trial of slowly stopping them, which also resulted in my stopping my practice of daily art, led me to the conclusion that without at least one of these drugs, I could not do art. And art was my raison d’être, something I could not live without.

After some lengthy experimentation, I finally determined that it was a drug called Abilify that had produced the miracle of allowing me to do art. Abilify, which I had started in 2008, and which is technically in the “anti-psychotic” class of drugs, is also used along with antidepressants purportedly to help in depression. Nowhere has anyone ever noted its use in stimulating creativity. But that’s what it does for me, and it does so reliably.

Off Abilify, I do no art. On it, on a “therapeutic dose,” I can access my creativity in a way that I can no longer live without. But it decidedly does not act as an anti-psychotic, or as an anti-depressant, because I’m fine these days, and all my “symptoms” — a term I never use except in quotes — all the voices and visions, the distorted thinking and “paranoia” I used to experience are gone, whether I take the drug or not. 

       I believe that the extreme mental states called “mental illness” all have their origin in trauma, childhood and otherwise, and often these traumas are re-enacted and reinforced by what is absurdly called “psychiatric care.”

      Forced medication and forcible treatment, restraints and seclusion and involuntary commitments, all these are liberally employed, as if shackling a person to a bed or chair for hours at a time, or holding someone down for forced injections, is an act of compassion. Note that these measures are undertaken most often against poor people or minorities, and buttressed by the same lies about “anti-psychotics” and “anti-depressants” that are also foisted on the general public. 

      If psychiatry was a profession entirely dedicated to the truth about each individual and the truth about trauma, and was not so tied to the mercenary interests of the pharmaceutical companies, maybe today it would be a healing profession and not the corrupt, pseudo-medical cabal it is.

       The profession could change, become what it purports to be, but this would necessitate psychiatrists looking honestly at history. Alas, I doubt that those who have arrogated so much power to themselves will ever relinquish it, much less acknowledge with remorse the immense harm psychiatry has inflicted on the world.


* Dr. Heidi Fowler, a psychiatrist at HealthTap wrote this: “Abilify (aripiprazole): Abilify (aripiprazole) is used to treat Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, as an adjunctive medication for recalcitrant major depression; autism spectrum disorders. Off label uses include: dementia; alcohol abuse/dependence and the following for which there are no trials or minimal efficacy: Generalized anxiety disorder, Social phobia, ADHD, agitation, Eating disorders, insomnia, borderline personality disorder.”

* If you subscribe to Quartz you can read this: 

*Another article on Abilify: 

*Abilify became America’s best-selling drug in 2013-2014, and it was used in myriad ways, not just to “treat” schizophrenia or depression.

10 thoughts on “CRAZY OR NOT, HERE I COME”

  1. Phoebe, you are courageous and amazing! I remember reading an essay you wrote on Mad in America and then meeting you when we both attended a language school—we had lots to discuss and lots of fun! I’m so glad you’ve found art as a productive and glorious way to express yourself. I think you and I both know that there is room for more than one story when it comes to any experience….we need to be compassionate and respect each other’s choices. I doubt that official psychiatry will ever admit the error of its ways–to me, psychiatry is an irredeemable job masquerading as a profession.


  2. Hello. I just want to say I read your story and I am so sorry that you have had to deal with this system that loves to put labels on everything and simply does not care. I have came to learn about schizophrenia while in my studies of spiritual warfare. The Lord has really put on my heart that this has nothing to do with a mental disorder. You are being hindered by the principalities of darkness. I know you do not know me and I am sorry to just throw my opinions in. You may not be a believer but deliverance may help you. I have so many thoughts on this but I certainly do not want to speak out of bounds. You are an amazing artist and I am so happy you found a healthy way to deal. ❤️


  3. Hi Cheri! I only just now received your comment, which needed bizarrely to be approved. It’s good to hear from you! And I totally agree with the quoted book title, the body keeps the score. Yes indeed. Psychiatry has a lot to answer for and it probably never will have to. But singing, acting, swimming, creating art etc all are wonderful antidotes to the System and of course in themselves. Take care, stay well,


  4. Thank you Michael and Linda Lee for your comments.

    Michael, (I changed the old hated name you used, to my real and only name) I’m totally with you on everything you said. I agree I still run the risks of developing TD, though what TD I may have hasn’t changed in decades, and of course because a formal AMES is NEVER performed, I have no clear idea whether I have it or not. Harm is done, all the time and often knowingly by psychiatrists and psychiatry in general. Both my twin sister (who is dead now) and my brother became psychiatrists, my sister much more traditionally medical model oriented than my somewhat rebel brother, who tends to agree with what I say about psychiatry, though not all of it, it being his bread and butter after all. But I would be hypocrite of hypocrites if I said psychiatry is irredeemable, even as I chat casually online with a prescriber every few months in order to have prescriptions refilled, scripts mind you that nobody else will deal with, since she treats my narcolepsy as well and there is no one else in my town willing to do so, not even in psychiatry.

    In fact, I do believe psychiatry is irredeemable! It was broken from the start with Freud’s nonsensical theories that were based on and resulted from his problems as a white man in a privileged, though Jewish, family and had no basis in fact. We both know that all neuroleptic drugs are based on Thorazine, that we would not have the plethora of drugs we do now without it, and Thorazine/Largactil was found by accident, and was first used in surgery. Later, used as a truncheon against unruly mad people, it created the first “psychiatric patient”s” worthy of the name…

    And so on and so forth. But there remains the absurd dilemma I am in, the fact that I cannot live without making art and I only make art when taking Abilify…but some people cannot make art or write or do their jobs without marijuana or cigarettes or for that matter booze. My thinking is that all drugs should be legal, including the vastly useful psilocybin, and other psychedelics, and most should be available without needing to see a doctor, (who earns a hefty fee for the unnecessary visit). Even the shrink with whom I chat has said that I know what I need, so why does she insist on a chat online every few months? For the money, of course! And maybe because I’m so charming she cannot bear NOT to…?



  5. Great post Phoebe,

    The profession could change, become what it purports to be

    I believed this up until maybe 5 or 6 years ago and I called myself a psychiatric criticalist. I’m in semi-regular contact with several psychiatrists I admire who are part of the UK Critical Psychiatry Network and I support their reform work. I also know some dissident shrinks in Australia who’ve been completely marginalised by their local guild, the RANZCP, deplatformed from Australian media by prominent mainstream psychiatrists and in some cases driven from practice for not toeing the line.

    But I no longer think psychiatry can be reformed. If it was it would have to become something so different to what we currently call ‘psychiatry’ that it would be misleading to use the same name.

    So now I call myself anti-psychiatrist.

    There’s a few big problems at the root of psychiatry that combine to form something I believe is insurmountable.

    As you note above, it’s pseudo-scientific. It adopts the trappings of a real medical science but doesn’t respond to evidence in regards to diagnosis or treatment. Rather these are driven by fads among practitioners. Since the 1970s when the fad of psychoanalysis fell out of fashion the fad of biopsychiatry has been hijacked by powerful vested interests – notably drug companies – and there’s a lot of money and PR preventing therapeutic practices from following the research evidence.

    Secondly, it’s confused about its purpose. It doesn’t know if it is meant to care for its patients or protect everyone else from them. That’s why psychiatry is unique among medical practices in having the right to force people to undergo treatment. It’s also why its treatments are so often horrendously abusive (sometimes fatally) and why, in the early 20th Century, it openly advocated exterminating its patients (which it finally did in Nazi Germany).

    Given its lousy performance in actually helping people and its long track record of harming them you might have cause to wonder why it still exists at all. I think its police-state function is the raison d’etre of psychiatry and its supposed role as a caring profession is a pretense.

    I’m not saying all – or even most – shrinks know they’re really working for authorities and drug companies against their patients (though I suspect most forensic psychiatrists do), but the culture of the profession and its lack of valid diagnostics or effective therapies has led to a professional culture of willful blindness and reflexive rejection of criticism that allows the majority to kid themselves about what they’re doing.

    It would be far easier to abolish psychiatry than reform it into a true caring profession. And if you did truly reform it, most current practitioners would be left high and dry with no relevant training or experience. So it should be scrapped and we should start over with something without a century and a half of delusion and corruption as a foundation.

    (BTW, if you benefit from Abilify, then more power to you. Keep in mind though that it is a neuroleptic and the longer you take it the more risk you’re at of suffering irreversible extrapyramidal side effects. Here in Australia Abilify is the drug responsible for more fatal cases of neuroleptic malignant syndrome than any other – but that’s due in part to its popularity among prescribers.)


  6. Hi Phoebe! As always, I so enjoy your writing, even though sometimes filled with pain, the hope in your truth shines fiercely through and I find myself, yet again, devouring every word. I really appreciate your sharing the picture of “Decorated Betsy” – she is AMAZING – YOU are amazing! And even your struggle to leave psychiatric drugs behind, though bittersweet for me to read, your need for creativity and expression is so powerfully human and resonates with me so! As someone who is impacted by childhood trauma, I feel this intuitive and increasingly strong desire to create and express. I am pulled toward writing, and singing (alone!) and theater, but also dance (though my old knees protest) and other movement-based healing (water movement). I do believe that “my body keeps the score” and also that it holds ancient wisdom in terms of knowing what it needs to heal if we would only listen. I think our communities have largely forgotten too as we need more free community spaces for people to dance well beyond childhood, more spaces to sing, act, swim, create art… more societal permission to express ourselves without having to be “good” at it or judged at all, but simply for the pure joy and rich healing. Thank you for sharing your art – thank goodness for us all that you listened! ❤


  7. Yes Anne, sanctuary and acceptance! We were told we were “ill” and we believed that lie. Glad you are okay now. Me too. (No matter that I sign into WordPress and just posted this post, WordPress won’t let me like a comment or make a comment using my own blog. Hence this reply coming from a different email address …)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So well written Phoebe. I’m so glad you are alright now. I too am fine. Seems whatever happened to us just leaves on its own accord. This proves without a shadow of a doubt all people like us ever need when suffering the phenomenon of voices and delusions is indeed simply sanctuary.

    All my love and best wishes x

    Liked by 1 person

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