Academic journal article Perspectives in Psychiatric Care

Veterans of Abuse and Daughters of the Dark: The Politics of Naming and Risk of Transformation in Building Partnerships for Change

Academic journal article Perspectives in Psychiatric Care

Veterans of Abuse and Daughters of the Dark: The Politics of Naming and Risk of Transformation in Building Partnerships for Change

Article excerpt

This article is an edited version of a keynote address given at the 2nd annual convention of the International Society of Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses in Miami, Florida, on April 28, 2000.

Key words: Restraints, seclusion, self-mutilation, sexual abuse

Good morning, my name is Laura Prescott. I am the executive director and founder of Sister Witness International, a new organization of formerly institutionalized women, girls, and their allies. I am also a recovering addict, psychiatric ex-patient, and survivor of childhood abuse. What I've learned from my experiences is that it's hard to tell the truth, to stand in the face of controversy and bear witness. And yet, I believe that is what we have been called to do as clinicians, administrators, policy makers, and ex-patients. We are challenged at this time to go deeper and reassess where we have been and where we are going, to engage in a sort of spiritual journey, that moves us beyond what we see and hear on the surface to challenge the deepest recesses of our own fears. It is a difficult journey, because the nature of witnessing is painful, and as Elie Wiesel reminds us, we are forever changed by what we see (Brown, 1983). Together, I hope we can begin a new dialogue that inspires a framework for healing, and compassion in a culture that all too often values sensational violence, force, and coercion.

Naming the Unspeakable

I frequently refer to survivors as veterans, "veterans in the unnamed war." The reason is that it drops the veil of semantic closure surrounding the naming of childhood abuse and adult revictimization. It places the experiences of millions of women, children, and men in a context that has already been established, making it real, immediate, relevant, and powerful. I don't think it's a coincidence that many of my comrades who survived abuse and poverty are locked inside psychiatric institutions.

It was here, behind the barred windows, that I heard the most moving stories of death as well as hope for life. Here, that I first saw the reflection of myself in others: alive, struggling for wholeness, amidst the chaos and confusion. The women and men whom the world rendered "ill" spoke through Thorazine, Mellaril, Ativan, and Haldol, slurring and drooling as they talked. They were, and are, daring and brave, shaking not from fear but from the unameliorated side effects of medication and staring with the unmistakable intensity of truth that pierces my chest. We talked about our lives in hushed tones, afraid we would be told to "be quiet," "go to our rooms," "focus on the positive," "take our medications" and "stop triggering one another."

Against all odds we told our stories of war. Stories of what it was like to be battered, bruised, maimed, raped, sodomized, sexually and physically brutalized by someone we know or knew, someone we love or loved. Someone we called friend, neighbor, mother, father, sister, or brother. Someone who said they "loved" us, "cared" for us, and knew "what was in our best interest." These episodes largely occurred in isolated areas, behind closed doors, in places that were private and dangerous. In these abandoned corners, basements, bedrooms, bathrooms, and halls, we were threatened and told to wall off the truth of our experiences. As we learned to abandon the truth, we also learned to abandon ourselves. We told the stories quietly, some of us holding our breath while swallowing our humiliation, shame, and rage. We whispered instead of shouting in loud, angry tones. And some of us who were too tired to communicate were simply mute. Their muteness came out of long histories of being contained, restrained, constricted, restricted, blamed, and shamed into silence.

Giving Pain a Voice: Self-Mutilation

I was in elementary school when my grandfather introduced me to wine. It was a nightly ritual after dinner and before bed. After the dishes were done and my grandmother retired, he reached for his stash, kept like still glass soldiers under the counter. …

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