In a writing group I’ve been a part of for over eight years, I was reading an article I’d written about how terrible psychiatric care has been over the centuries. I talked about my own personal experience with things I hear and see within the system and how emotional it is to think about how the conditions are still terrible and not nearly where they need to be. Everyone in the group has known for years that I have had a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
In the essay I presented, I spoke about how perplexing and inhumane lobotomies were. I received a response I wasn’t expecting. A person who had been in the writing group for over five years —a person whom I liked and trusted — mentioned that she used to take part in lobotomy procedures.
A storm of emotions rose up within me. I felt a rush of anger, hatred, and fear. I felt like a bottle of chemicals that had been shaken furiously. The conditions and the system I had been fighting for years and everything it represented were all sitting at the same table with me and had been doing so for five years without me even knowing it.
The comment was quickly mentioned and because of the rush of emotions that fogged my mind and heart, it was difficult to get a sense of the reasons for it. Part of me felt like there wasn’t enough remorse. Another part of me was just terrified to be sitting in a room with someone who was had performed lobotomies. She also didn’t seem aware of how this would even be a problem for someone with schizophrenia to hear. There was a normalcy to it, as if this was the right thing to do, that was incredibly disconcerting.
I held back my emotions as I sat and listened to everyone critiquing the piece. Staring at the bookshelves, I could barely process anything happening in the room and surges of white noise cluttered my stream of consciousness. My heart was on fire and I did everything I could to remain respectful. My responses were short and curt as I couldn’t muster the equanimity to comprise more fluid, logical, and articulate answers.
Afterward, everyone was going out together. I almost didn’t go. I didn’t want to be anywhere within the same zip code as the individual who had mentioned she had practiced lobotomies. I felt a surge of disgust and a longing to be as far away from her as possible. After she had mentioned her past to me, I saw her in a completely different way. I said very few words during a two hours stretch to a person whom I had been very friendly with for five years. It wasn’t even necessarily out of principle or choice, I just was not mentally and emotionally able to hold a conversation with her. I left that night, wondering if I’d ever even return to spend time with that group.
The next week I saw my psychiatrist and mentioned the incident to him. I vented about how infuriating the entire situation was and I received a response I didn’t expect. “What would it take to forgive her?” I laughed a little bit as I knew there was some wisdom in this. My doctor has a way of contradicting me when I need it the most. I humorously thought of the movie BraveHeart where the Scottish yell “You Bastard” as I had been deprived of my anger and had it replaced with some laughter.
For a little over two weeks I was furious and I felt the burden of hatred and anger coursing through me intermittently throughout my days. It took many conversations with coworkers at my hospital, two therapy appointments, and a lot of journaling to gain enough wisdom around the situation to see things more clearly. I think I first had to experience the negative emotions to move towards the positive ones. After experiencing them for long enough I realized how much of a burden they were.
My negative emotions and all the fury of the world that accompanied it, finally dissipated after I began thinking about what forgiveness would look like. The human condition only allows us to live in the present while projecting ourselves into the future. This simply means that none of us are capable of changing the past. No matter how much anger and hatred I had, it wasn’t going to change anything. Lobotomies aren’t happening anymore, the person who had participated in them had walked away free along with everyone else in the past several centuries who did so as well.
Thinking about the situation, a part of me wanted justice. However, what would justice look like and how would that even be brought about? Having known this person, I know she definitely had some emotional struggles throughout her life. Was the weight of having to live with her crimes enough to prevent them from ever happening again? Apparently something had changed over the past forty years as lobotomies are no longer practiced. The procedure was listed as a medical procedure even though in my mind it seems more like a crime against humanity. Ideally, there would be some commemoration and justice sought for the thousands of lives ruined by this procedure and its’ crudeness.
I realized there was something far more important that needed to happen. Forgiveness gave me the ability to move forward and to let go of most of my anger and hatred I felt. In terms of the mental health civil rights movement, I think it’s important for us to remember all of this. Remember it, so it doesn’t happen again. Remember it, so we can guide ourselves to a better future. However, even more importantly, I don’t see human suffering as having boundaries and some people deserving freedom from it more so than others.
If the goal of the movement is to end suffering, forgiveness needs to be a part of it. I don’t want her to suffer for things she can’t change, including the lobotomies. I don’t want her to carry that emotional pain with her anymore. Throughout the entire five years I’ve known her, she’s always taken good care of me and she’s had my best interest in mind, and we’ve really enjoyed each others’ company. If one person is suffering, we’re all suffering and I’d like her to know I do forgive her for having been a part of lobotomies and I hope she’s able to forgive herself.
Looking back, there is another side to the story. As crude as the history of psychiatry is, there’s been a problem with the system, and not entirely with the people. The systems put in place created conditions where lobotomies happened and the other hellacious elements were also thrown into the mix. Without forgiving people for the things they did in a system that made them believe they were doing the right things and helping people, we’re only creating opposition. Without allowing people to forgive themselves, they’re not fully able to make amends with their pasts and become a part of the solution.
Together we’re united, separated we fail. A society’s ability to forgive is the fabric that keeps it together. Keeping us all together and progressing towards improving the system is going to be the only thing that continues to catalyze change.