Actually, that is “recovering from having been labeled mentally ill”.
Back in my early 20’s, I got deeply involved in something called “Reevaluation Counseling” – a peer-counseling movement with a big emphasis on “emotional discharge”, big physical/emotional release of feelings in deep crying and sobbing, screaming, pounding, etc. I reclaimed my ability to feel and release my feelings. Supported by a kind “co-counselor” who would hold my hand or hold me in their arms or just look at me with love and confidence, I would actually weep, wail, moan – none of it in any way theatrical, just the genuine release of old pain that I finally had the courage to face, feel and release. It didn’t always all get released in one session: the really tough stuff I might have to return to several times, but over time – or sometimes actually in just one session – things did get released and I felt lots, lots better. Freer, stronger, more self-confident. I trusted myself more. I believed in myself. I felt confident in myself.
Over the next 20 years, life was not always easy. I lost a job – actually a couple of jobs. I went through a divorce. I had to come home to a house where my son no longer lived. Then his mom and I moved hundreds of miles apart – and my son went with her. There were lots of things to cry about – but fortunately I could cry. I could actually cry by myself – and feel better from doing so. I know that doesn’t always work for everybody, But especially I could do this with wonderful, supportive, loving, affectionate co-counselors. It kept me going. Even with all the onslaughts, I felt like I was getting stronger – that my life was in some meaningful ways getting better.
Then, in my 40’s, I contracted mental illness. I know that’s not quite how it works, but in a real way that’s how it has always felt. It was like coming down with cancer. There was my life before mental illness – and a very, very different life after mental illness.
I lost my belief that feelings were something that I could – with enough support and determination and courage – move through and keep moving. This was different: this was a disease. These were not healthy and completely releasable feelings – these were “symptoms”. No longer was it true that “I know myself best and – with enough support and tears – I will not just fix this problem, but I will get my life back on track and keep growing.” In co-counseling, the word was that I will keep “Re-emerging”. I had always believed in this. I had experienced myself as definitely and confidently “re-emerging.” I was sure there was no limit to how far I could take this.
Then I was stamped with a diagnosis. I had “clinical depression” – which meant that I could no longer just release my feelings. I couldn’t even rightly understand them – the doctors knew all this much better than I did. No more co-counselors – I needed the help of trained professionals. “Healing” was, unfortunately, not part of the equation. This is something you never will actually be able to heal from. You can cope. You can manage. You trust your doctor. You stay in “treatment”.
You hold out the desperate hope that If you find the right doctor you might eventually find the Holy Grail – a medication that actually makes you better. Oh, it won’t actually really make you better – nothing can do that. But it might do more than make you feel a little better – the most I ever got. It might make you almost “feel like your old self again”. Certainly, in various therapy and support groups, I did hear people say that Lamictal or something else had done that for them. And God knows there were TV commercials with beautiful actors who now were leading happy and even beautiful lives.
“This disease will be with me forever. I must always stay in treatment. I must always trust my doctors. I must always take these stupid, poisonous drugs – for the rest of my life. The best I can really hope for is to be compliant, to maybe not go back in the hospital, to somehow slide through this lifetime without killing myself.” They turned me into a fucking zombie.
Oh, the drugs,.. My initial deal with the devil went like this: I was trained as a psychologist in the 70’s. Between that professional psychological training and my immersion in peer counseling, I really believed that everything was psychology – that everything had plasticity, could change.
Then a smart and kindly man psychologist, when he could not “get me through” my sex abuse memories, convinced me that I also had “clinical depression”. He had me see his psychiatric associate, who – in addition to being definitely brilliant – was young and beautiful and exotic and wore very tight, very short black skirts that I will never forget. When she looked me deep in the eyes and – in truly a very compassionate way – said, “Dr. Dan was right. You do have clinical depression. It is a biochemical condition, probably hereditary. You will have it forever. We will work together to try to find the right medications for you. They may not make you all better, but your pain should be less and you should be able to function. You will have to keep taking your meds, probably for the rest of your life.”
I drank the Kool Aid. I looked back deep in her eyes and basically pleaded. “I will do anything to have this pain be less. I will accept whatever diagnosis you give me and wear it as a badge of honor. Just give me your drugs.”
About twenty years later, a kind friend convinced me that the reason I had for so long been unable to shed even one tear was my meds. I went to my current psychiatrist – who I liked, respected and trusted – and put the question to him. He was gratifyingly honest in his reply: “Yes, it’s probably the meds. They take the drastic excesses off your mania and depression, but they also tend to flatten everything else. You have to decide if the trade-off – to reduce your pain – is one you are willing to make.” For him, clearly, the trade-off would be worth it. This was why he continued to do that work. He believed in this – it was his religion.
He didn’t come right out and say, “Yes, you really need to make the trade-off”, but I heard that from him. I decided to take the soul-killing drugs in hopes that they would make my pain bearable – that I would not do the unthinkable, fuck up everybody else by killing myself.
I am so, so blessed that – in my current “woke up” state – the healing process is miraculously fast and efficient. From my “Integrity moment” on June 26, I started – with some help from my friend Doug DeCarlo, who had been reading about the process of “spiritual emergence” in Stanislav Grof’s book The Stormy Search for Self – to try on the idea that I had never actually had a mental illness, but that my process of spiritual emergence – the true Self pushing through all the hard layers of personality – never got enough support by anyone who understood what I was going through. Without the positive vision and the guidance I needed, I started to unravel – and getting a mental health diagnosis and being put on potent drugs sealed the deal. I was no longer “emerging” – I was sick.
By last Saturday, I had gotten so strong and clear and sure that I was never mentally ill – that my grief and rage around the 30 years that “they took from me” finally clicked in. I was so angry and feeling so much pain that – even with all the miracles I have had around me lately – I felt daunted about could I ever get through this one.
In about a week, I see my newish psychiatrist. She is smart and thoughtful, personally hip and obviously, reassuringly carries some values and lifestyle connections with me. She knows about and is open to some new treatments I also am interested in. Bless her heart, she has been willing to help me try to get off the drugs – even as she told me it might not work, that I might end up deciding that i really needed them.
And, as far as I can tell, she is still about 80% imprisoned in the same psychiatric model in which she was professionally brainwashed for so many years – and which pays her bills. She has never in any way questioned my “bipolar disorder” diagnosis and has for a year never hesitated to keep writing me prescriptions for potent combinations of psychiatric drugs – three different ones at a time.
In the middle of my grief and rage on Saturday night, my image was that I would spend most of the 30 minutes in this next psychiatry appointment standing – not passively sitting – raging at her about “what you people did to me!” I would maybe preface it by saying, “You only carry responsibility for the last year of 30 years. You are in many ways better than the rest. But you are the psychiatrist in the room right now – and you are still part of the problem. So now you get to hear this.” And I would rage at her.
That was my image Saturday night. Then I went to church at my beloved Jubilee on Sunday. Jess Powers, a traveling singer-songwriter who was in town for the weekend – to see her friend, our minister Amy Steinberg, herself an amazing musician – offered a song about self-forgiveness.
While overtly the theme of the song was self-forgiveness, I took her words and beautiful music directly to where I needed it – to forgiving the psychiatrists. I cried very hard through the whole song – not in pain, but from relief and release. Tears of forgiveness: “Oh my God – I’m letting go of all that hatred, all that rage! What an unbelievable miracle!!”
About four minutes after Jess started singing, she was done – and I, also, was basically done. The anger was 90% finished (there still is a little bit popping up – in my therapy session yesterday, in my writing about all this, etc.). I can see that I still am carrying a lot of grief about the “thirty lost years”. I think I will probably save some of that for my psychiatrist to hear and see next week. She doesn’t necessarily need to receive my rage, but I think that she really does need to be confronted with my grief. Even if I know that I am going to heal from all of this – maybe already am healed – I want her to remember the sight of me grieving my “30 lost years”. What I really would wish for is for my psychiatrist friend – every time she is about to give someone a psychiatric label, every time she is going to write a prescription – would think of me and at least pause a moment to think…to remember the awesome power in her hands to help or to harm.
I know that, in this here and now, I am healed and whole. I may never completely understand why that experience of 30 years wandering in the mental illness desert was just the right experience for me in this lifetime – any more than I will ever completely understand the meaning and value of being raped by my uncle for four years of my childhood. But I already have glimpses with each of these parts of my life around how they have made me deeper, more compassionate, more real, more humble and more loving.
And I have been given the unbelievable gift of “waking up”. And, at 73, I still have potentially many wonderful years ahead of me.