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A Fight to BeReview - A Fight to Be
A Psychologist's Experience from Both Sides of the Locked Door
by Ronald Bassman
Tantamount Press, 2007
Review by Linda Morrison, Ph.D., M.S.W.
Aug 17th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 33)

There are plenty of "psychiatric memoirs" on the shelves today.  What makes this one different?  The young Ron Bassman we meet as he approaches his first psychotic break is now a practicing and teaching Ph.D. psychologist, as well as a leading activist in the psychiatric survivor movement.  Bassman delivers multiple layers of insight for the reader: he describes his experience of developing psychosis and subsequent hospitalizations for schizophrenia; his pursuit of professional training in psychology while coping with his mental-patient identity; his efforts to sensitize other practitioners to their stigmatizing language and attitudes; and his discovery of an activist identity in the mental health consumer/survivor/ex-patient (c/s/x) movement. 

Bassman is particularly effective in conveying the discomfort of his early years: his youthful experience of "difference," of oversensitivity and fear, his frustration at being misunderstood and manipulated by adults in authority.  He reflects deeply on his process of self-discovery, the ongoing tension between freedom and safety, his interactions with others, and the helpless horror of his encounters with psychiatric treatments -- seclusion, restraints, insulin shock, electroshock, antipsychotics and therapy.  I appreciated his ability to convey his internal conversation and the confusing disconnect between what he feels, what he expresses, and the response he receives from others. Sometimes his language in the first few chapters seems ponderous; after a second reading, I realized that this reflects his experience; the wording and tone change significantly in the second half as he explores more positive discoveries and relationships.

After two hospitalizations, he is written off by caregivers as a chronic mental patient.  The lived irony of this reality is expressed as he explores his developing relationship with psychology.  Bassman vividly describes his relationships with therapists who will not connect with him. After his first psychotic break, he finds work in a welfare department and then a psychiatric facility.  He sees that his own treatment experience helps him relate to his clients; his "outsider" status becomes a benefit, though he carefully hides his diagnostic status from professional peers and colleagues.  He describes feeling alienated from his professional association, the APA, though he continues to participate.  He thus conveys the tension of the benefits and dangers of his own mental illness experience: the stigma is dangerous, the experience helps him to hear and support his clients, but he can't convey this to colleagues.  This paradox is illuminated throughout the book, as he explores the disconnect between his personal experiences and his professional training and practice.  Eventually, there is synthesis and transformation.

A third layer is developed when, as a psychologist, he is introduced to the psychiatric survivor movement.  Describing these encounters, he reveals his surprise to discover the network of survivors and the impact of peer support as they work to develop more humane approaches to the "extraordinary emotional states that are often labeled as mental illness" (p. 8).  Bassman writes of finding a vital purpose in this movement and discovering ways to bridge the survivor/professional gap.   At a pivotal moment, he finds a job listing for a licensed psychologist "with experience as a recipient of in-patient hospital services" (p. 165).   He describes the pursuit of this position that transforms his professional life, his changing relations with the APA (including a presidential citation in 2005), and his new identity with the psychiatrically labeled.   Ultimately, he emphasizes how his "fight to be" is expressed in the satisfaction he finds as a loving husband and father, which he never thought he would achieve.

The last section of the book is a brief but comprehensive overview of the history, beliefs and alternative approaches of the c/s/x movement, as Bassman's own involvement in advocacy and education becomes the natural center of his personal and professional life.

Overall, this is an excellent book for anyone who encounters the mental health system as an insider or an outsider. A Fight to Be exemplifies the value of experience-based knowledge, through the delivery of a personal identity narrative informed by professional insights.  Its strength derives from the presentation of multiple points of view, while conveying the dissonance of the author's experience. Not every reader will take up its full message, but valuable insights can be gained at many levels.

 

© 2010 Linda Morrison

 

Linda Morrison, Ph.D., M.S.W., teaches Sociology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA.  She is the author of Talking Back to Psychiatry: The Psychiatric Consumer/Survivor/Ex-Patient Movement (Routledge, 2005).


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