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A Portrait of Madness

A Portrait of Madness

– Nonfiction by Sara Flamer –

There’s something ear-splitting about the kind of silence that one experiences in a psych ward. In my case, I was given pills that sent me deep into a psychotic hole, then left alone in the noise of that silence, in agony. They later apologized for the state they pushed me into, and I smiled, as a sane person smiles, and said, “no worries, you were doing your best, and clearly it’s quite hectic in here. I think it would be better if I just dealt with this at home.” That’s how I got out of that place – by performing the role I have so often longed to embody, of the sane person.


This essay is my attempt to examine sane privilege. My exploration into the complexities of mental health and how our society treats those they deem ‘mad’ is as messy as my mind is. By engaging with literature on mental health as well as my own experiences with it, I hope to portray some of the hardships experienced by people in the psychiatric system. I believe the oppression that many with mental illness face stems from institutions with the power to impose on people their definition of what it is to be sane. I am an able-bodied, queer, white women, who in some spaces is perceived as mad, in others sane, and that has affected my freedoms, sometimes in a positive way, other times negative.

Dr. Phebe Ann M. Wolframe, in “The Madwoman in the Academy,” unpacks the ways in which people who aren’t perceived as “mad” experience invisible privileges, explaining that how people see us is tied to how freely we get to move through the world. She begins by pointing to the privilege that sane people have when it comes to representation in the media, noting how easy it is to find positive depictions of themselves, whereas mentally ill people are often seen as more violent, or manipulative. However, I think it isn’t that sane people are necessarily portrayed as more positive in media but rather that they have the privilege of being viewed as multi-dimensional. Media has consistently framed mental illness as violent, or tragic, but rarely more, portraying characters who either need to be incarcerated or institutionalized. In fact, while mentally ill white characters are more often written as merely tragic in mainstream media, non-white mentally ill people get depicted more frequently as violent, further oppressing the already oppressed. In both cases the person is viewed through the single dimension of madness rather than as a fully nuanced multi-dimensional individual.

Wolframe notes “the presumed threat of violence is used as a justification for not only the sanest policing of mad people in educational and employment environments, and public spaces, but also for forced incarceration, both physical (hospitalization, criminalization) and chemical (drugs).” When I was hospitalized, there were many times I noticed how my identity both awarded me and restricted me certain freedoms. I was taken to the hospital for a suicide attempt. Instead of EMTs, the police came to take me to the ambulance. My room was a mess of pills, bottles, and blood, but I had called 911. There I was, the most vulnerable, scared, and in need of help I had ever been, and two big male officers tried handcuffing me. “Get off me!” I protested. “This is for our safety. I’m sorry,” they responded to my pleas. I looked at them, these two huge men with guns strapped to their waist and I couldn’t believe they thought I could harm them in anyway. “Look at me! Look at my room, look at the state I’m in, do you really think I would hurt you? This isn’t about you, I just need you to help me, please help me!” I saw one officer glance at my pink blanket and my wooden carved yin yang jewelry box, then he put the handcuffs down and helped me wobble my way into the ambulance. I believe my whiteness, my gender, and my short height made me seem safe to them, and my possessions all probably seemed unassuming enough to signal that I wasn’t a threat. In that moment I had some freedom because of the portrait they painted of me. It was only once I got to the hospital that I began to see how other parts of my identity limited me in a psych ward.

That first night I spent in a room with a glass wall along with a couple of other patients. We had nothing to do, no books, no TV, just our thoughts, so I did what I always do when I’m alone with my thoughts; I asked for a pen and paper to write. I had so much I needed to pour out of me. I needed my fear to be removed from my body and placed on the paper, so I spent hours and hours writing pages of scrambled thoughts and images. For me it was cathartic, but to them I looked like the archetype of the mad artist, too unhinged in her own manic world to be trusted. I believe that my poetry, my sketches, my writing all fed into the ‘crazy artist trope’ and that is what made them feel justified to medicate the madness out of me. The irony was that the medication I was given made me temporarily unreachable, or as a psychiatrist later put it to me, “I looked at you, and saw that the lights were on, but no one was home.”

In author/artist Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir, Marbles, she explores the idea of the ‘crazy artist’ through her personal experience with bipolar disorder. She makes a list of artists, writers, and poets who probably had manic or major depression, and she uses this list to comfort herself after being diagnosed. Although the stereotype of the ‘crazy artist’ was a source of solace for her, it also made her not want to take medication for fear of losing her creativity. “I don’t want balance,” she says, “I want brilliance! Meds would hold me down!” In the psych ward, I didn’t get to choose whether to take medication. When the doctors finally entered my room, they took one look at my pages of writing, and immediately decided to medicate me without my consent. My writings were a jumbled mess of ideas, sure, but I believe that the ‘crazy artist’ archetype was used as a reason to forcefully medicate me.

Wolframe describes an experience she had where she told an acquaintance “that the people who write the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] are not primarily interested in consumer welfare, since in many cases, they work for pharmaceutical companies.” The acquaintance accused her of being paranoid. This experience and others like it made Wolframe feel that being labeled as mad somehow takes away one’s ability to critique any mainstream system, even those experienced first-hand. Judy Grahn, in her poem, “Mental,” as quoted by R.M. Rust in their essay “A Geography of Disparate Spirits,” criticizes the power given to mental health institutions and the way that power is used as a tool to further silence already marginalized individuals:

“no need to fear your hysteria will bring chains
or a ring of whitecoat people terrified of getting
sued, or a ring of bluecoat people terrified. unto
and shooting. you. you-shooting-you.”

Grahn wrote this poem in response to the Mad Pride movement, a movement to shift away from mainstream psychiatry and resist the institutionalized roots of oppression. The Mad Pride movement was sparked by a woman named Elizabeth Ware Parkard, whose refusal to conform to traditional submissive gender roles led to her husband having her committed to an insane asylum. Another poem by Grahn, “Edward The Dyke,” confronts the institutionalized use of conversion therapy to treat homosexuality, while another pushes us to dream up a world where we don’t need to live in fear of not falling in line with societies’ norms:

“What if we don’t need to choose
between lockdown asylums and the streets
what if we create a geography of disparate spirits?”

These poems are all examples of how writers use their craft to push societal and institutional norms. That’s what Grahn does in her poetry and what Forney does in her memoir. With words or with images, artists paint the world that they experience and internalize within them, and project that outwards. I believe the ‘crazy artist’ trope came to exist in order to discredit this artistdriven discord. If artists are defined as crazy, then their critiques of society become less credible, thus making it harder for them to disrupt the institutions that oppress them.

For a long time, I lived in fear of defining myself as mentally ill, or queer, or a feminist or even a writer. I felt all those definitions would turn me into a stereotype, instead of a multi-dimensional human. In the hospital I felt as though I was treated as a mad artist until I was able to perform as a passive and polite young woman, but in the process of doing that, I made myself smaller. To clarify, I’m not against diagnoses or medication, but I am against the psychiatric systems way of cementing you into a portrait they paint – or at least that has been my perception. Wolframe writes about her fear of authority in medical settings and having to go to a hospital two towns away to receive treatment when she accidently cuts her wrist, in fear that her medical record would cause her local hospital not to trust that it was an accident. We need a system that trusts the patient, a system where the person who’s suffering gets to paint their own self portrait and repaint it as many times as they need.

I am not ashamed of my “madness”. By making art, and writing about my thoughts and emotions, I have been able to free myself from the trauma that my experience in the psychiatric ward left on me. Whatever else happens to me, and no matter how “mad” my work appears to others in the future, I’ll never stop creating.

About the Author – Sara Flamer
Sara Flamer

Sara Milne-Flamer was born and raised in Toronto and is currently living in Vancouver. She is a creative nonfiction and poetry writer. Her work has appeared in New Readers Magazine, She’s Got Wonder, and The Ubyssey. Sara recently completed her BA in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of British Columbia where her main concentration was Psychology with a secondary focus in Creative Arts. She is hoping to pursue a master’s degree in Expressive Art Therapy. Sara currently works with children with developmental disabilities and is honoured to experience how play, art, and storytelling are powerful tools in helping to create connection and expression between people.

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