On June 23, singer Britney Spears
testified to the nightmare she's been living since 2008, the year her father
, Jamie, was appointed as her conservator. Even the "Free Britney" movement couldn't have predicted the details of her testimony: being forced to take a drug that made her feel "drunk," touring against her will, and being unable to remove the IUD implanted in her body
Conservatorships are legal last resorts for those who are unable to manage their own affairs, often due to conditions such as dementia
. Spears has created hit albums, done a wildly successful Las Vegas
residency, and cared for two sons in her 13 years as a conservatee. She even made the astute decision that her court hearing
be open, unlike previous hearings where, s
I have bipolar disorder
, and I know how devastating it is to have a "major" psychiatric disorder when you are young and female.
At the age of 15, I was subjected to rounds of electroconvulsive therapy
, or shock treatment, which was the most obliterating and physically traumatic thing that had ever happened to me, a procedure that (intentionally) sent my body into grand mal seizures that left my muscles aching as if I'd been beaten.
I remember a nurse
putting conducting gel on my temples, the cold paste smeared on like butter on toast, and then putting a bit in my mouth to keep me from biting through my tongue.
I remember this experience in hard, terrifying fragments; one of the side effects of shock is memory loss, particularly of the time
surrounding treatment; I lost months as a result.
At the time I received it, women
and young girls received shock treatment approximately 70% of the time, medical literature openly discussed the need to protect the male brain
, and women were frequently regarded as untrustworthy, emotional, and in need of correction.
According to Psychology Today
, clinicians are more likely to diagnose women with mental disorders than men, even when the symptoms are similar. Women, according to the World Health Organization
, are more likely to be prescribed psychotropic medications, which can make it difficult or impossible to work
, parent, socialize, or even move.
Any parent who has a psychiatric diagnosis is at risk of losing custody of their children
, and given that women are more likely to be diagnosed and to be custodial parents, it's easy to see where this is going.
Many of the photos
of Britney that made front pages years ago showed her with a shaved head, attacking a paparazzi
's car with an umbrella. Male celebrities
ranging from Justin Bieber
to Lamar Odom
to Alec Baldwin
have attacked paparazzi with weapons ranging from metal
jacks to their hands. What drew headlines was Spears' look of fury, as well as her decision to raze her signature blonde hair
She'd gone from being the Princess of Pop to Charlize Theron in "Fury Road," which was an unacceptable change for a girl who'd once giggled shyly while confirming that, yes, she was a virgin.
I had mood swings and psychotic experiences as an adult in my 20s, around the age Britney was when she was placed in conservatorship, and I wanted control; I did not want medication to rewire me. But it was difficult, if not impossible, for me to be “heard.” The word “bipolar” was frequently the beginning and end of what doctors wanted or felt they needed to know.
I learned that, no matter how much he cared, I couldn't have my husband in the room with me when I saw doctors because they would only speak to him and pass their gaze over me as if I didn't exist.
One psychiatrist I saw kept prescribing Haldol, a sedative that was unbearably sedating for me “gorking,” in the words of a refreshingly honest doctor I saw later. Haldol gave me tremors and gait problems, and it suddenly felt strange and awkward just to walk.
When I told the doctor that the drug was making me feel terrible and wasn't helping, he said, "I can tell you what I'll give you. I'll give you more Haldol." He then suggested that if I didn't take it, I might commit suicide
, as if mental fog or death
were my only options.
Britney has spoken about her mood swings and anxiety, and in her conservatorship testimony, she stated that she had been taking medication—what she referred to as her "normal meds." Lithium, the drug that made her feel "drunk," wasn't allowing her to live her life the way she wanted, and when she told her people
, they ignored her.
After Haldol, I tried lithium, which didn't help my mood swings, but it did have the same effect as Haldol: I became dizzy and had to stop exercising, despite the fact that I'd been going to aerobics
classes on a regular basis.
And I gained weight. Weight gain
and obesity are side effects of many psychiatric drugs
, and controlling them wasn't as simple as watching what I ate. Gaining weight, like diabetes
and higher cholesterol, is referred to as a "metabolic" side effect for a reason. My metabolism changed. I gained weight eating what had previously been normal. And my appetite increased: I remember feeling as if I'd swallowed tapewomen.
I have a Britney Spears memory from when I was taking Depakote, another drug with severe metabolic side effects. I gained weight again, 30 pounds or more, and I was about to jump in the pool with my husband when a young man nearby hissed, "Do you know how much bigger your thighs are than Britney's?"
Yes, he was referring to Britney, and yes, I knew. How bitterly ironic, I thought as I read Spears' testimony, the forced touring.
Though I'm older now, I still don't consider my female bipolar body safe; research
shows that doctors and psychiatrists face the same psychiatric stigma as the general population, if not more. My bipolar body makes doctors far less likely to believe my reports of my own symptoms of illness, a problem known as "diagnostic overshadowing."
This is just a fancy way of saying that once doctors know a patient has a psychiatric disorder, they often don't trust the patient. I've experienced this myself, including being ambulanced to the hospital
last year after a collapse
for which I still don't know the cause. Part of the reason I don't know is that shortly after I arrived at the ER, the doctor tested me for a few seconds and said I could move if I wanted to.
When Spears was describing how difficult and intrusive the conservatorship has been, she said, "It's insane."
I understand she used the word "insane" in the general, "isn't this awful" way we use it in our culture, but how sad that she'd describe her abusive treatment by using a word that was once hurled at her, a word that helped put her in that conservatorship in the first place.
Maybe it's time to stop. Maybe we should recognize that what we call "insanity" isn't always a synonym for the worst thing possible, and that a diagnosis like bipolar can be associated with someone who lives a full, complete, and self-directed life.
I believe in the power of neurodiversity. The world needs a diversity of minds and a healthy skepticism about “normative” behavior. Research psychiatrists like Nancy Andreasen have done long-term studies of creative people, and plenty of creatives are bipolar. Perhaps if Britney is bipolar, it is part of the creativity, the whole self, that has enabled her to make those albums and those shows.
Whatever Spears goes through, I hope she gains the control over her life that she deserves, as well as the opportunity to manage her own care and manage her life and mind in ways that work for her.
“The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here,” by Susanne Paola Antonetta, is her latest book
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