Call Me Crazy

Call Me Crazy Exhibit

By Irit Shimrat, Escaped Lunatic, with Tracey Mitchell and Megan Davies
To write Call Me Crazy, Irit Shimrat traveled to Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Whitehorse interviewing key movement people. For this exhibit, a selection of her interview audio-recordings were restored and digitized, and the interviewees were asked to share then and now photos of themselves alongside their reflections on the current mad movement.

Irit: the story behind the book

smiling woman
Irit, 1997, cover image from Call Me Crazy.

Call Me Crazy: Stories from the Mad Movement combines my personal history (first as a young mental patient and then as an activist) with the stories of other activists and our ideas about alternatives to psychiatry. I wanted to show that people like me can reject our diagnoses and embrace and celebrate our “difference” as a positive aspect of mental diversity, or at least learn better ways of coping. I wanted people to know that it is possible to move out of the patient role and into a rich, fulfilling life, and that what helped me most was helping others emerge from the murky depths of psychiatric zombiehood.

My youthful experiences with psychiatry constituted a long and tedious nightmare. After several traumas that occurred during one dreadful summer, I lost my mind and ended up being locked up and forcibly drugged for many months at a time, in three different hospitals, between 1978 and 1980. In 1980 I tried to kill myself because I thought I’d be stuck in psychiatry forever. I failed, of course, and eventually got over what had seemed like a terminal case of (understandable) self-pity.

I credit my recovery from the effects of psychiatrization largely to the late Chris Bearchell. Chris, a journalist and gay activist of extraordinary power, talent and compassion, who introduced me to activism after we became lovers in 1984. We lived together in Toronto from then until 1993, and then on Lasqueti Island from 2001 until her death in 2007.

Chris introduced me to the person who led me to the editorship of the national magazine Phoenix Rising: The Voice of the Psychiatrized in 1986. She was always fiercely supportive of my antipsychiatry efforts, although she herself had never been psychiatrized. We put together the last several issues of Phoenix, some of which she designed, in the basement of our home on Walnut Avenue.

In 1990 I co-founded and was elected coordinator of the Ontario Psychiatric Survivors’ Alliance (OPSA), and in 1991 and 1992 I presented two multi-part CBC Ideas programs: “Analyzing Psychiatry” and “By Reason of Insanity.”

black, red and orange book cover "Call Me Crazy" by Irit ShimratIn 1993, I moved from Toronto to Vancouver. My great friend David Reville is an NDP party member who served as a Toronto MLA from 1985 to 1990 and has always been open about his past as an incarcerated mental patient. It was David who encouraged me to speak out in public for the first time, at an event at the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre (PARC). And it was David who told me, before I moved away, that I had to write a book; that it was my responsibility to document my extraordinary experiences in the psychiatric survivor movement.

And so it came to pass that I applied for, and received, a Canada Council Explorations grant to write Call Me Crazy. I think I scored it mostly on the strength of glowing references from the CBC’s Max Allen, who produced my radio shows, and from respected mental health lawyer Carla McKague, who, along with David, ended up being one of my interviewees.

It also helped a lot that I already had a publisher before I started to write the book. I had completed, in 1985, a two-year community college program in book editing and design, during which I did a work placement with Women’s Press in Toronto. After I moved to Vancouver, these credentials impressed the excellent women at Press Gang Publishers, another small feminist publisher, enough that they were happy to hire me for some contract work. When I told them I was applying for the grant and showed them an outline, they agreed to be the publisher, so I was able to strengthen my application with that fact.

Working with Press Gang was a delight. Everyone on staff was enthusiastic about the project, and our interactions were always amicable and usually fun. Thanks to my warm relationship with everyone on staff and the small-scale of the operation, I’m sure I had a lot more input into the process than authors usually do, right down to picking the image and background colour for the cover. The Press Gang women were as supportive and patient as they could possibly have been.

Everyone I interviewed for Call Me Crazy was thrilled to participate, and happy to provide accommodation, food, and warm companionship. I don’t think I was allowed to spend a penny of my own money during any of the interview trips. And of course I learned a great deal about what had been, and was, going on in the Canadian movement.

The people whose voices fill my book are those who were fortunate enough to be able to step out of the psychiatric morass altogether. (I myself fell back into it several times between 1998 and 2007, but have been psychiatry-free since then, as of this writing.) Most were people I knew, or knew of, through my work at Phoenix Rising and at OPSA, but some I’d never heard of. People at Whitehorse’s Second Opinion Society introduced me to the wonderful Judi Johnny; David Cohen in Montreal put me on to Paul Morin and Les frères et soeurs d’Emile Nelligan.

After Call Me Crazy came out, I was flooded with grateful letters (which, horribly, I no longer have – often when I’ve been locked up I have lost all my possessions while absent from my real life). People wrote to tell me that they’d always been ashamed of their psychiatric histories and that my book had helped them “come out.” Many had had no idea that anybody anywhere was organizing against psychiatric oppression, and had always felt desperately isolated. Reading Call Me Crazy helped them realize that they were part of a strong and proud community. The most touching letters were from people who were inspired to get off “meds” and start getting their lives back.

Together, the people in my book, and some of its readers, have found strength in exposing and fighting back against psychiatric abuses, and in discovering, practicing and promoting creative, holistic alternatives to psychiatry. I hope these pages help others find that strength.

Read Call Me Crazy.