The story of “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” has a great deal of personal significance to me because it was the last book I can remember reading to my three young daughters before taking Prozac. My hypomanic reaction to that drug earned me the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the subsequent adverse reactions to the steady stream of drugs that followed led to myriad other diagnoses and, eventually, electroshock, which was deemed “medically necessary” due to my worsening “mental illness”, which was “treatment resistant.”
I remember reading “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” in my youngest daughter’s Laura Ashley wallpapered room, the four of us piled on the WWII hospital bed I had spotted on the ceiling of an antique shop in Vermont on our way home from visiting my mother in Syracuse, New York. It was one of many ideas Martha Stewart imparted to me. This is one of my last memories of the peaceful life I had with my children before biopsychiatry ripped us apart.
Although I have often reflected back on those nights of bedtime reading these memories have taken on a newer and more relevant meaning since Gary Greenberg invoked the title of that children’s book in his excellent article for the New Yorker, “The Rats of NIMH,” following Thomas Insel’s blog, “Transforming Diagnosis,” in which for a brief moment, the director of the NIMH disavowed psychiatry’s bible, the “DSM-5.”
In his article, Mr. Greenberg described Insel’s statement about the DSM as “nothing more than constructs put together by committees of experts. He continued, “America’s psychiatrist in chief seemed to be reiterating what many had been saying all along; that psychiatry was a pseudo-science, unworthy of inclusion in the Medical Kingdom.”
The point at which he tied this to “The Rats of NIMH” was when he implied that Insel himself was a rat (the word rat being used to mean “bad guy”) intending only to advertise the NIMH’s billion dollar baby, RDoC, a research project intent upon realizing the dreams of biopsychiatry and fueling a resurgence of research and development for a psychopharmaceutical industry beginning to despair of its future.
As much as I appreciated Gary Greenberg’s article, I feel it incumbent upon me to rescue the Rats of NIMH (who rescued Mrs. Frisby), both to save their reputations and to raise the story itself to its rightful position. It is the perfect allegory for the psych survivor movement.
For those of you who have not had the pleasure of reading Robert C. O’Brien’s 1972 Newbery Medal winning book, “Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH,” here are the Cliff Notes. Trapped in cages by the NIMH, a group of highly intelligent rats who were the subjects of experimentation, fooled their captors into believing they are less than exceptional and bide their time as they study copiously and plan their escape.
Once emancipated they flee to the countryside, and underground they build a peaceful civilization employing all the latest technology. A generation passes, and only two of the original group that escaped remain when their leader, Nicodemus, agrees to come to the aid of Mrs. Frisby and her son (who are badgers not rats) in honor of those who came before.
Meanwhile the rats are diligently working on “The Plan” to abandon their dependent lifestyle and form their own independent farming colony. In devising this plan there is a philosophical divide among them and a group of the rats defects. This incident attracts the attention of a group of men who plan to exterminate the rats. In the end, despite adversity, two casualties and the loss of their home, the rats survive.
The parallels here to the psychiatric survivor movement are eerie to say the least. Even stranger, as I write this remembering how I first read this story to my children it is almost as if I had been reading my destiny.
My own captivity spanned nearly two decades, and indeed I was no more than a lab rat ingesting chemicals that not only were experimental, but reserved for those of us considered less than human (“mentally ill”).
When finally I began to understand the oppression I had been subjected to, as a result of researching both the drugs and the history of psychiatry on the internet, and reading Robert Whitaker’s “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” I had to keep a tight lid on what I was learning so as not to experience further coercion. In secret, I connected with hundreds of other lab rats like myself, many of whom had been organizing to save others.
Like the Rats of NIMH our movement is divided. There are those of us who are willing to remain as consumers in the mental health system, or work as “peer specialists,” while at the other end of the spectrum there are those who will not rest until psychiatry ceases to exist as a medical specialty. And, while we argue and debate, new laws are sweeping the country whose explicit intention is to force chemical compliance which has been documented to shave at least 25 years off the lifespan of anyone who is captured.
In my daughter’s tiny bedroom as she hugged her stuffed rabbit, Hester, the “Rats of NIMH” was an exciting storybook adventure. In the New Yorker Magazine, “The Rats of NIMH” was a metaphor for collusion and corruption between government and medicine.
In the world of surviving psychiatry, “The Rats of NIMH” is an allegory for a group of people despised as diseased rodents who are becoming resilient survivors capable of making a more compassionate and sustainable society for all. Badgers included.