John Hood's Reviews > Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin

Voluntary Madness by Norah Vincent
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Jan 17, 09

it was amazing

Bound Miami SunPost Jan. 1, 2009

Crazy Lady

Norah Vincent Hits the Loony Bins

By John Hood

When former Los Angeles Times columnist Norah Vincent decided to live life as a man for a while, she probably had no idea the experience would produce a bona fide bestseller (Self-Made Man), or that the living would literally drive her nuts. But 18 months later, after a total immersion that included joining an all-male bowling team, hitting the strip clubs and dating other women, she lost it, and, at the advice of her shrink, checked herself in to a loony bin.

Actually, Vincent was so taken with the accommodations, she checked into three different psych wards over the course of a year and decided to make her stays the basis of her next bout of investigative immersion. The result: Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin (Viking, $25.95), a work that dives as deep into America’s mental health care conundrum as it does into Vincent’s own mental health, which, as you might suspect, is far from being the picture of perfect.

Voluntary Madness is a brave book, written by a brave woman, and it addresses issues that just might leave you questioning your own sanity. The SunPost caught the courageous crazy lady on the eve of her nationwide book tour and gave her the third degree. Here’s what she gave back:

Are you crazy?

(Laughs) That’s a very good question. That’s a big part of the point and I think that if I went to a hundred psychiatrists, I’d probably get a hundred different answers and no criteria by which to judge.

Some might argue that checking oneself into a loony bin itself suggests a certain insanity.

Yeah, it’s funny. And I learned the hard way that probably wasn’t the wisest course. Now I know that’s probably the last thing you want to do, whether you’re well or ill, unless you absolutely have to.

Were you concerned about potentially detrimental effects on your health?

Definitely. Granted, I knew I was probably only going to be in each place from 10 days to two weeks so I figured it would probably be minimal exposure, but I really did do a lot of things like practicing yoga, watching what I was eating, and trying to do whatever I could to keep the dark forces of the institution at bay. So yeah, that was a big worry, and it was one of the reasons why it was hard for me to do this project.

What about the stigma attached to institutionalization?

Actually, I really dove into that one. I think that was one of the other reasons why I decided to write the book. I’m one of those people who just says a lot of inappropriate things, because I’m kind of interested in what’s considered inappropriate, you know, you see the line and then you step over it to see what happens, and I think that was it. I realize a lot of people are uncomfortable [with the subject:]; they don’t really want to know. Even if you’re pretty comfortable talking about it, they get squeamish. And that’s the stuff that interests me, what makes people squeamish, and wanting to talk about things other people don’t want to talk about.

Are the people in the bins really crazy?

Some of them, definitely, there’s no question. Again it’s hard to define what you mean by that. Are they disturbed, out of touch with reality? Sure. Then there are a whole host of other people like me, which was really my concern, who are borderline. I’m not out of touch with reality. As I say, there are challenges. I met people who are depressed for what I thought were pretty good reasons. But yeah, there definitely were some clearly troubled people who probably at this point medication is one of the best things we have to offer them. But it’s not the only thing. And then there are a whole host of the rest of us who are probably over-diagnosed.

What were the primary maladies people were afflicted with?

Depending on where I was. In the inner city it was pretty much psychosis. My public hospital experience was people of color, indigent, psychotic. That was pretty much what I found there. And that’s why I chose a different location [for the subsequent treatment:], where I wanted a mostly white population. And it was where I found a lot of drug abuse and dependence, and a lot of depression, which you can probably understand why that might be the case. In those places, oddly enough, the psychotic people were much more high-functioning.

Would you recommend this remedy for others?

No. I would say absolutely avoid it unless you think that you are in imminent danger to yourself or to other people. I would say you’re much better off, especially given the cost, checking yourself into the Ritz-Carlton and having a nice week — get a private nurse, get a massage, eat well and get some exercise. I’m not saying that’s a cure-all for everyone, but I certainly found for me I would’ve been better off [staying in a hotel:] and having my family and friends around me.

You pretty much slam America’s whole health care system, do you think some sort of universal coverage might make things a little better?

I tell ya, this is going to be a very unpopular answer, but I think the only reason we ever deserve universal coverage or the only way we should get it is if we’re willing to participate. So say you’re over 50 pounds overweight, I don’t think you should be entitled to free health care. I think you need to partake in your own health. You just can’t go on living a really toxic lifestyle and expect the government to pick up your check. I think it’s the same with mental health. The prevailing opinion is it’s not your fault, here’s a pill. There’s a lot we can do to take care of ourselves. Yes, I think the system’s a total mess; I think it would get worse with universal health care. But I think a lot of the problem has to do with individuals needing to change their lifestyle.

So more of a self-reliance?

Yeah. I’m not saying the institutions don’t have a role to play; they do, and the government as well. But I’m a libertarian at heart so I’m always in favor of smaller government and privatization.

What is the best advice you’ve been given?

“There’s nothing wrong with you.” That was the best thing that anyone ever said to me. Which sounds kind of obvious in a way, and maybe it isn’t true, but I guess what she meant was, “You’ve been through a lot of things that were understandably pretty painful.” And I think this is true for a lot of people who are now being diagnosed as depressed, for example, or who have A.D.H.D. and all kinds of other pseudo illnesses. I think you have to understand that when you go through a divorce or you have a parent who dies or you’re working a job that you loathe every single day, those kinds of things wear on you. And I think the idea that somebody can take you by the shoulders and say “You know what, you’re having a normal reaction to a pretty awful thing” can be very healing and empowering. And you can say, you know what, I can change those things or I can take them into account and I don’t have to become — as I became — a psychotropic junkie.

If you could give your 20-year-old self one piece of advice — what would it be?

The last thing I say in the book: “If you want to be well, and you want to be happy, put your boots on.”

Are you familiar with Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and The Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill?

Yes! I can’t believe you [mentioned that.:] I read that as research for the book and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. I think it’s a very important book.

Did you read Susanna Kaysan’s Girl, Interrupted or Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest or Plath’s The Bell Jar, etc prior to writing the book?

Yeah, I did a bunch of research so I read pretty much all the mainstays of depression and institutionalization and all that stuff.

Do you see Voluntary Madness making it to the big screen? If so, who would you like to play you?

(Laughs) You know, I think it’s unlikely, but if it did terrific, I think it would be great, but God, that’s a tough one. It’d probably have to be guy because I don’t think there are any chicks who have enough chutzpah and who really look enough like an androgynous person to play me. I’d have to think about it.

Do you ever miss Ned?

As you can probably hear, Ned’s still alive and well. I’m talking to you like a guy right now. I don’t know if you noticed it, but I’m definitely giving you the guy thing. Ned’s still there. In some ways I wish I could get rid of him, but in other ways he’s very useful. I don’t ever miss being him, but I guess that I’m kind of glad that I managed to incorporate some of that guy-guy knowledge that kind of gets me through.

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