Creativity is the power to change: Dolly Sen’s DSM 69

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Dolly Sen launched her ‘subversive look at psychiatry’, DSM 69, published by Eleusinian Press at the Dragon Cafe in Borough − a Mental Fight Club event presented as part of a week of Antiuniversity Now festival (10-16 June). Colin Hambrook was there to review the book.

DSM 69 front cover

Dolly Sen’s DSM 69 front cover

I have been to the Dragon Cafe a couple of times now and have been impressed by the sensitivity and care taken by all engaged in making this important resource both lively and relaxed. The space is consistently a buzz of activity and creativity and so I was delighted to see Dolly Sen both launching the latest of 11 books and giving an artist talk on Using Art in Mental Health Activism.

A lampoon of the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which acts as a key reference for the psych profession worldwide, Dolly Sen’s version is both a roadmap through her artistic career as a writer, artist, film-maker and activist and a guide to empower on using creativity as a tool for self-discovery through activism.

When you know your mental health worker is unlikely to listen or even believe what you have to say about what you need, and your own internal dialogue is one of persistent shame and blame aimed at oneself, what can you do? Dolly’s response was to write her experiences into a memoir ‘The World is Full of Laughter’ and through that process of putting her story into words to find empathy for herself and resolve to not be beaten by the negative narrative that being a psychiatric system survivor imposes. As she says in DSM 69 ‘How can anything beautiful come out of a profession that sees your mind as ugly?’

If you examine the purportedly objective language that Psychiatry uses to describe the ‘mad’ then you’ll find it full of judgemental words. For example, the characterisation ‘normal’ is used consistently as a benchmark of whether or not someone is mad. But if you replace ‘normal’ with the word that more closely describes what they mean by normal, e.g. ‘mediocre’ you’ll find objectivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Forcibly treated with drugs that disable, an object of discrimination and the resulting restricted life-choices then as Dolly says ‘You need to free your mind twice; before you tackle mental pain you have to free yourself from psychiatry.’

Dolly Sen’s DSM 69 is a work of genius. It is a roadmap through her creativity and her intent to use art as a way to change the narrative given her; to claim her life for herself and to find dignity in who she has become in the quest to reclaim madness as a source of humour and of comfort. She quotes the author Cesar A. Cruz in saying ‘art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’.

Screwing a light bulb into the Sky'

Dolly Sen ‘Screwing a light bulb into the Sky’ © SLP

The last time the two of us appeared together on a SICK! Festival panel discussion, we were arguing the case for and against the mad genius stereotype. I was against, saying that the concept is a romanticisation of madness that places the contradictions of society back on the individual. But I take it all back. Dolly reserved the right to remain a genius and in her small booklet DSM 69 she offers wit and humour, but also a pithy, concise and eloquent rebuff to the pseudo-science that is Psychiatry.

She says ‘If you want a short cut to the road to madness, then become involved with the mental health system.’ Once labelled a ‘service user’ you’ll find you have no choice in services but the drugs they offer to contain and restrain. Within the process ownership of your own mind, identity becomes something vague and untenable. Dolly sums her feelings up succinctly:

“Madness is an alienating label but maybe some of us want to be alienated, and not assimilated, and we can customise our pedestals with stair lifts and glitter. If I were accepted by society, I would look to see what part of my soul was lacking.”

She goes on in her rant against the label of ‘service user’:

‘If I went to Argos for a kettle and somebody pumped me full of drugs I didn’t want, pushed me on the floor because I complained my kettle was faulty, or electrocuted me by said kettle, you know, I wouldn’t want to go back. This ‘service’ affects more than your statutory rights. No refunds or exchanges for missed life.’

The world is sanitised, not sane. In DSM 69 the quest to be mad is writ large; not the choice of unthinking foolhardiness, but an intelligent, funny set of guidelines and principles, pointing at the emperor’s new clothes.

Help the Normals'

Dolly Sen ‘Help the Normals’

The cynical ways in which pharmaceutical companies create diagnoses to reflect the new drugs they invent and deliberately inject celebrity messages into the media to highlight stigma as a way of subliminally reinforcing their product is beyond inhuman. It is without any moral sensibility. Add the ways in which people are legally forced to take those drugs and ruin their health as a result, and you’ll find an incredibly toxic industry which reaped $446 billion in 2016 for the American market, which owns 45% of the world’s shares in pharmaceuticals.

We need psychiatry to be relieved from the hands of the medical profession where historically it has acted as a tool for social control and for the profession to transmute into principles of welfare and what the word Psychiatry means from its Greek roots, ‘care of the soul’.

Dolly Sen’s DSM 69 comes with a huge recommendation for anyone with a desire to see how creativity can help us connect to ourselves and to the world; to change the story and become ‘a creative thinker rather than broken mind.’

DSM 69: A subversive look at psychiatry by Dolly Sen is available now from Eleusinian Press.