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The Loony Bin
Trip: A Conversation With Norah Vincent 

The Loony Bin
Trip: A Conversation With Norah Vincent 


A journalistic Houdini, Norah Vincent follows up her best-selling book Self Made Man with Voluntary Madness, an account of her days inside a mental institution.

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. 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.

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 naive 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?

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.

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