Capitalism, Fascism and Mental Health
Natasha Lennard talks about being diagnosed bipolar, accepting the mystery of her brain, and the dark psychology of capitalism.
Natasha Lennard is a professor of critical journalism and the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life. We talked about her own mental health struggles, how she’s come to accept medication even as she accepts she’ll never understand how it works, and the psychology of capitalism and fascism.
On being diagnosed bipolar
I grew up in London, and had quite a lot of mental health struggles in my biological family. Problems with drinking, gambling, all of the fun stuff. But I never really had any problems with anything that would lead me to a mental health professional until I was in undergrad.
And then I had a pretty blueprint unipolar depressive episode—insomnia, inability to think clearly. It was very sudden. There was a day when I just couldn’t stop crying, and everything felt untenable. My mom had come to visit me and we went to get coffee and I couldn’t put the lid on the coffee, and I just lost it. I couldn’t stop sobbing. It was maybe that moment where I felt, “this has gone too far.” I was in a perfectly supportive, nice relationship at the time. And was having a kind of nice time in general. And it just hit out of the blue. I went to my GP, who sent me to a psychiatrist. And I was just given SSRIs for that, and was on them for a year. And that worked for me. I did have some side effects, but I had been so depressed that I didn’t care about the side effects.
And then tapered off. I moved to the U.S. for graduate school. And I was fine. And then five or six years later, in my mid-twenties, as I was in quite an abusive relationship, which created a lot of crises, I had what I later understood to be a bipolar episode that ended with a crescendo when I took a whole bunch of pills and overdosed. Looking back, I was spiraling, and having all of these typical bipolar symptoms. But I was also in this terrible relationship. I think it would be impossible and foolish to try to say, “this was the brain or chemical bit” and, “this was the material life bit.” They’re not separable things. I felt very out of control, very anxious. I had these funny, mildly hallucinogenic moments, it would kind of feel like I was in a bubble and sound was coming out more slowly from places and my vision would have a kind of aura around it.
My family organized to get me on a plane, and the next day I was back in London. We went to the psychiatrist I’d seen ages ago. He told me I’d need to stay somewhere for a bit, and that I was likely bipolar.
So I went to a psych hospital. I’ve heard of all the terrifying, carceral places in the U.S.—the places my friends have had to go when they’re in crisis. Luckily this place in England wasn’t like that—I could sit outside and smoke all day, and have my mom come and visit. It was much better than what’s available in the U.S. I got put on antipsychotics, which I’m still on, Seroquel specifically. It works. The worst side effect is that it’s really hard for me to wake up in the morning. But it works.
The hospital was actually quite pleasant. There was a nice courtyard. There wasn’t a strict program. I didn’t have to go to group therapy. It was literally just hanging out in a London courtyard for a month. I was still reeling from this breakup and the extremity to which everything had gone. It’s kind of blurry. But my mother says I did seem like a crazy person, but I don’t remember that particularly, haha.
And then a year or so after that, I had another episode that ended in the emergency room with my stomach being pumped. So that’s proof that the medications alone, while they really helped, aren’t a perfect fix, they’re not the fix-all that some people say they are. I was medicated when that episode happened.
I didn’t have suicidal ideation. It just felt like I wanted to leap into oblivion. It didn’t feel like there was anything leading up to it. But then when you sit down and talk to a psychiatrist afterwards, you realize so many of the things you were doing are kind of textbook bipolar—I was doing all kinds of that shit. I am pro-shoplifting from a place like Walmart, but I was doing things like taking an entire mega pack of toilet paper and just walking out. And I’m pro-promiscuity. But I was doing things like having sex in an airport bathroom with someone I’d never met.
On finding stability