David W Oaks
“Through a Haldol haze I meticulously printed out the legal letter and filed it. I found out later that the authorities reacted by contacting my parents, asking them to either commit me, seek guardianship, dissaude me, etc. My mother told them, ‘If our David wants to try freedom, we support him.’ I managed to stumble out of the institution when the taxi arrived, and that was the last time a psychiatric institution held me.”
Contact info: Eugene, Oregon, USAoaks@mindfreedom.org
Currently doing: Since 1976 David Oaks has been a psychiatric survivor human rights activist. He directs MindFreedom International, an alliance of nearly 100 groups in 14 countries, defending human rights of psychiatric survivors, and promoting humane empowering alternatives. David is editor of MindFreedom Journal, an award winning newspaper produced by psychiatric survivors.
Mental health experience: Inpatient, Outpatient, Psychiatric Drugs, Forced Treatment, Coercive Treatment
Psychiatric labels: Schizophrenia, Bipolar, Psychotic, Schizophreniform, Major Depression
Psychiatric drugs taken in the past: Thorazine, Stelazine, Mellaril, Haldol, Cogentin, Lithium, antidepressants
Off psychiatric drugs since:
Recovery methods: Social Activism, Self-Help, Peer Support, Nature/Wilderness, Survivor-run groups, Spirituality, Meditation, Diet, Exercise, Family/Friends
Greatest obstacle: The power of the psychiatric drug industry
Brief History: I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a Lithuanian-American working class family. Ever since I was a kid I was interested in social change. I put out an underground newsletter when I was 9 and when I was 13. As a teen in the early 1970’s, I was fascinated by the counterculture and activism for youth rights, peace, environment, etc. I knew something wasn’t right with our society. The high school I attended was a Jesuit all-male college prep, which wasn’t the best for learning social skills, but which I appreciated for their academic commitment.
I won some scholarships to attend Harvard, including one from my father’s Teamster’s local union. But I didn’t fit in at Harvard, and I was under a lot of stress. Now and again I ingested too much cannabis, to which I’m highly sensitive. I stopped sleeping.
My behavior and speech became erratic and attracted attention from the Harvard authorities. During my first interview with a psychiatrist, I silently recalled seeing a poster some months back on a wall in Cambridge. The poster was from the psychiatric survivors movement, and it raised some important concerns about the psychiatric system, and psychiatric drugging. That one poster gave me a foundation to remain skeptical during my early psychiatrizations. I’ll always remember that breaking the silence just once with a poster can make a big difference to someone who is feeling isolated.
During my sophomore, junior and senior years, Harvard and my family checked me into various psychiatric facilities five times. My two longest stays were at McLean Hospital, which is often voted as one of the best institutions in the world.
I did indeed have some challenges in my life and I needed support. For whatever reason, I had been entering altered states that were sometimes delightful, sometimes painful, but that all had some validity to my life — just as dreams often do. There were times when I thought the CIA was making my teeth grow, or that a UFO was appearing in my living room, or that God was talking to me via the radio, or that the performers on TV were directly talking to me. I learned a lot from those states of mind.
A dozen psychiatrists diagnosed me as a psychotic. I was told I would have to stay on psychiatric drugs the rest of my life, like a diabetic on insulin. I was told that I was genetically flawed and had a permanently broken brain.
I remember my first drive to McLean. The grounds looked so beautiful that I thought to myself, “You know, I really could use a nice rest…” But when I first arrived at the ward — Bowditch — I found the atmosphere to be highly authoritarian and stressful. I also found out one seldom saw the grounds because all the building were connected by lots of tunnels.
Within minutes of arrival I was put on a behavior modification plan, where I had to spend a certain number of minutes alone in my room, and a certain number of minutes on the ward. That didn’t go over very well with me.
I remember sitting on my bed. A staff member repeatedly insisted I “take my medication.” They pushed a cup of liquid psychiatric drugs in front of me over and over and over. And over again. I finally said, “Okay, I’ll take the medication.” The staff person breathed a sigh of relief and handed the cup to me, which I took… and proceeded to pour on the floor.
Very quickly I experienced my first gooning: The staff dragged me into a solitary confinement cell, held me on a bare mattress, forcibly injected me in the ass, and then left me in the cell.
When I got out of the cell I felt so overwhelmed. Staff wanted me to clean up the liquid Thorazine that I had spilled on the floor. In an act of defiance to try to shock my captors, I used one of the few things I had that was my own — I used my hair to clean up the spill.
I ended up in the solitary confinement cell — which they called the quiet room — at other times, too. It was during one of those stays that I remember looking out through one of those impenetrable metal window screens… I pounded on the screen with my fist and vowed to do something for human rights once I got out.
I experienced forced neuroleptics as torture. The harder I tried to think, the harder it was to think. The more I tried to move my body, the harder it was to move my body. I could understand some overwhelmed person choosing to take them. But for me, it was like taking a wrecking ball to the cathedral of thoughts, feelings and experiences that defined me at that moment. It was incredibly intrusive. I could feel how the chemical affected my vision, my movements, my thoughts. I had terrible paroxysms of my muscles. I became familiar with the list of hazards. I definitely did not want this chemical in me.
In my senior year, I asked a Harvard social service agency — Phillips Brooks House (PBH) — for a placement as a volunteer in human rights and psychiatry. PBH referred me to one of the early psychiatric survivor human rights groups, Mental Patients Liberation Front (MPLF). This small rag tag group of fellow survivors met weekly in a social change store front. Judi Chamberlin was one of the members then too. We’d go around the room and share stories. We found out we were not alone, that the problem was not entirely about us — that the system itself had inherent flaws. We would go on camping trips, and support each other to exercise and eat better. We also protested the system. I found out that even a few empowered peers supporting each other could make a huge difference in my life.
During my last stay in McLean, MPLF activists helped me by complaining to the facility. A MPLF activist dictated over the phone to me the proper legal letter that I would need to try to get out. Through a Haldol haze I meticulously printed out the letter and filed it. I found out later that the authorities reacted by contacting my parents, asking them to either commit me, seek guardianship, dissaude me, etc. My mother told them, “If our David wants to try freedom, we support him.” I managed to stumble out of the institution when the taxi arrived, and that was the last time a psychiatric institution held me. From then on they would try to keep me out to prevent me from advocating for people inside!
I wrote my senior paper about community organizing at MPLF, and I graduated with honors from Harvard in 1977. I supported myself doing temporary office work, and worked with MPLF for several years. We helped start one of the early psychiatric survivor run drop-in centers. I began to find out about and write about the other psychiatric survivor human rights groups that were springing up internationally. The late 1970’s still had some of the ferment of social change brought about by the civil rights, peace movements, etc. It seemed natural to organize with each other.
In 1982 I worked with activists in Berkeley who successfully banned electroshock. Even though it was overturned in court in less than two months, it showed the general public shared a lot of our concerns. I also oganized in Toronto, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
In 1983 I moved to Eugene, Oregon where I met my future dear wife, Debra Laura Nunez.
In the 1980’s, we activists watched as state and federal governments discovered our movement and the good things we had to offer. They began to give small grants to some movement groups. This was a good trend, but some activists were scared, and for good reason. The independent movement — free of any government control — needed support. Could you imagine the environmental movement entirely supported by the federal government? No, there needs to be both an Environmental Protection Agency, and also groups like Sierra Club and Greenpeace. But where are our movement’s Sierra Club’s and Greenpeaces?
I’ve been able to visit psychiatric survivors and their organizations in South America, Canada and Europe. I feel privileged to have a front row seat to see the constant rebirth of the human spirit, despite severe human rights violations.
In 1987, with help from the Levinson Foundation, we launched a publication that eventually led to Support Coalition. In 1988 I gave a workshop on coalition building during the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy annual meeting. One of the participants, Janet Foner, said, “Let’s actually start a coalition.” This would one day became Support Coalition International, and today I’m the director, but that’s another story.
Interviewer’s Comments: David’s brilliant vision and tireless work over the past 25 years has led to the creation of Support Coaliton International. He deserves much credit for organizing, galvanizing, and strengthening groups across the globe in pursuit of common goals: to establish human rights for people in our current mental health system, to protest injustices such as forced drugging and forced electroshock, and to advocate for more humane alternatives such as self-help and peer support.