The Loony Bin Trip: A Conversation With Norah Vincent 

By Charlotte Abbott

Originally published on Advocate.com January 03 2009 1:00 AM ET

A journalistic
Houdini, Norah Vincent fearlessly immerses herself in the
most daring assignments and (so far) has lived to tell the
tale. Her last book, Self-Made Man, recounted
how she lived as a man for a year, venturing into
strip clubs, joining a bowling team, and landing
several high-octane jobs.

But maintaining
her male alter ego “Ned” for such a long
period ultimately landed her in a mental institution.
That brief stay ignited the raw outrage and
fascination that fuels her new book, Voluntary Madness:
My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin.
After
recovering from her breakdown, Vincent posed as a
patient and talked her way into a public mental hospital in
the urban Northeast, a suburban Midwestern facility,
and an upscale Southern treatment center.

Trusting her
ability to convince her doctors to release her after 10
days, she signed away her right to leave voluntarily. The
result is a gripping and opinionated account of the
dysfunctional doctor-patient dynamics she found in an
often frightening and inhumane mental health system.

Advocate.com:What was it about living as a man that pulled your
psyche apart at the seams?
Norah Vincent: It was emotionally exhausting to
be an impostor, and also an impostor of the opposite sex.
That’s what most transsexuals feel before they
make the transition. When I started, I’d
thought that gender had to do with costumes and haircuts. I
didn’t understand that there was some mental
component of how you view yourself in terms of gender
that’s deeply embedded in your brain and that you
can’t just pull that out and not expect trouble.

You’ve also struggled with depression since your
early 20s. Is your depression connected to your gender identity?
Yes. I was always told that I presented myself
as masculine, but I always felt deeply feminine
inside. I was always drawn to men’s clothing, but
when I became Ned, the feminine part of me popped out. The
book probably appealed more to gay men than anyone
else, because they’ve gone through similar
problems of being an effeminate man.

Why do you seek out such extreme experiences? Is
writing about them somehow therapeutic?
The reason I’m driven to write about
these things is that I’m deeply alienated on a
number of levels. Every day I have people staring at me
because I don’t look like I’m supposed to. In
a room full of women, I don’t feel the same as
them. It might be because I’m depressed or because
I have a different personality than most people. So I try to
look at the culture as though I’m an alien and
to see things in a fresh way. I try to use what I know
-- troubling or painful things that have become
obsessions -- and try to turn them to my advantage for once.

VOLUNTARY MADNESS NORAH VINCENT BOOK COVER X390 | ADVOCATE.COM 

But admitting yourself to a big-city mental
hospital sounds like a fast track to feeling desperate,
paranoid, and subservient.
Any person -- even the most normal, healthy
person -- will become that way if put in that
environment. It’s like being in a totalitarian
society. Sometimes people become childish because
it’s the only power you have. You have no
emotional or physical liberty. All the power is in the
hands of the person with the [medical] file. It like
[novelist] Ken Kesey says: you can’t lose your
temper because then you’ll get medicated.

Which of the patients you met in your travels has
haunted you most?
Mother T. She had disturbed the peace and had
been brought in a number of times -- she was homeless,
and she had her delusions -- but it seemed that no one
was helping her, no one was accepting her. It’s
somewhat like homosexuality, in that society
couldn’t accept that she lived another way, so
she was warehoused and overmedicated.

I‘m not
naïve about people who are psychotic, but I’m
saying that we’re abandoning them. My family,
my community doesn’t want to take
responsibility for these people. But these institutions are
the last place they will feel any fulfillment.
Wouldn’t it be a better solution if we could
find some kind of work that that the [mentally ill] person
could find fulfillment in? It’s yanking them
out of the community -- that alienation -- that makes
being psychotic or depressed exponentially worse.

Did you see gay people who were in those
institutions because their sexuality had been pathologized?
During the intake they asked me “Are you
gay?” and it was noted in my file. It seemed
clear they thought it was one of my symptoms. In the
first bin I went to there was a suicidal transsexual
patient. In [Voluntary Madness] the character Casey
at [the big-city hospital] was gay. At each place I
went there was always someone who didn’t
belong, in the sense that they weren’t suffering from
a disorder but had social problems, which could
involve being gay. Is this our only solution for
people who don’t fit or who object to uncomfortable
social roles? 

 VOLUNTARY MADNESS NORAH VINCENT PORTRAIT X100 | ADVOCATE.COM

When you were sprung, what did you most appreciate
about life on the outside?
I really appreciated the fresh air and having
healthy food when I wanted it and deciding when I
would come and go. Even just to be able to turn on a
light if I wanted to read. I had never had those freedoms
taken away before.

What effect do ads and the media have on how we see
mental illness and its treatment?
The ads are in the interest of the
pharmaceutical companies, and they are in the business
of making money. They don’t want us to get better and
stop taking meds. That’s their business. You see the
same thing with obesity. It’s this idea that
it’s not your fault that you’re obese -- you
have a disease, so you can take a cholesterol pill or have
surgery. It may be a very American way of living, this
idea that you can eat what you want, take a pill. and
you’ll be fine. But we’ve already learned that
many of these meds have a lot of effects that are not being
disclosed, some of which can be fatal.

In your early 20s you saw a psychiatrist who
immediately prescribed drugs, taking you on a
decade-long roller coaster. Knowing what you do
now, what advice would you give your 20 year-old self?
Go to someone who you can talk to. Don’t
go on meds. Figure out what’s bothering you
before you paste over it with a veneer of chemical
happiness. But don’t pathologize yourself either. As
a woman said at the last bin I went to,
“There’s nothing wrong with you. You have the
feelings of someone who’s been through what
you’ve been through.” I would also
definitely tell myself to exercise in a big bad way.
It’s as important as going to an AA meeting.

For more
information on Norah Vincent, visit her official website.