To My Fellow Ex-Mental Patients in the Aftermath of Psychiatrization: We Heal

I cried this morning as I thought about the depth of the violations we face as mental patients, especially those of us who were psychiatrized as children and teens. To have psychoactive chemicals coursing through our veins every minute of every day through our most formative years… The years when we’re meant to be figuring out who we are, what our bodies mean and how they work, what we believe in, who and what we’re drawn to, what drives us, what matters… There are no words to describe what this means, what this really means, for not just us in our own individual lives, but for American society. For the entire world. No words.
 
But let me now say this: though the despair swept over me this morning and I cried for a while, it wasn’t long for the deep faith that churns at the very core of my being to reemerge. For while they may have taken our bodies, our minds, our sexuality, our creativity, our passion and our sense of connection to self and world through our years of psychiatrization– our entire identities, enslaved to them– they never, no matter how hard they may have tried, came close to touching the fire of human spirit that burns in each and every one of us, and it is this– this fire of second chances, of awakening, of perseverance and determination– that fuels the process of healing and reclamation that we are all going through as ex-mental patients, together.
 
We have many grave doctor-induced physiological injuries to heal from: our guts are shot, our cognition sputtering, our muscles aching and our bodies stuck in fight or flight; the overwhelm and fatigue and terror and angst and panic and despair and numbness and paranoia; all those terrifying moments of feeling possessed or occupied by thoughts and sensations that are strangers to us… There’s no doubt about it: our central nervous systems, these intricate beautiful biologies that forge the seats of our souls, have been gravely harmed by the pharmaceutical bomb of so-called “care”. But we. Will. Heal. We are, already, healing. We will keep healing, until we feel fully settled into the potential for life that they took from us for all those years, but were far too weak to forever hold onto.
 
I have healed so much, already, nearly six years off. Every day I am blown away by this fact– by the continuous unfoldings of awakening that make themselves known to me day in, day out. I am transformed, and transforming, continuously. I feel powerful, and awake.  Sensitized so acutely to life that it sears me with pain as it fills me with joy.  And the more I wake up, the more it hurts.  I despair, every day, at the fact of what happened to me and to so many of you. What’s happening, as I write these words, to so many millions of our fellows out there.
 
There’s more healing for my body to do — plenty more, I know, though this is now an exciting instead of daunting fact to think about — and though the dark cloud of pain and despair often moves through me, I always find myself afterwards, on the other side, sitting once again in the bright beautiful awareness that I am coming alive– that we, together, are coming alive, more and more every day. Our bodies are regenerating themselves, right down to every last cell.
 
To my comrades out there– today, I think especially of those of you who lost your childhood and adolescence to the Mental Health Industry– hang on. Let those clouds of despair and fear sweep over you and move through. Know that that bright beautiful awareness of aliveness is waiting patiently within you, and will emerge in due course, whether five minutes or further down the road of time. Together, we are reclaiming our bodies, our minds, and our lives. And together, we are building a future in which growing up and being alive in this world is no longer something to modify or “treat”.  A future in which we no longer turn to professionals and pill bottles to navigate our pain, but instead, to each other. We’ve started, already.
Sun and Life, Frida Kahlo.

Sun and Life, Frida Kahlo (1947).

Beyond Labels

labels, these arrangements of letters put upon us by oppressors of all kinds– especially ourselves. “happy”. “sad”. “manic”. “balanced”. “sick”. “well”. “functioning”. “unproductive”. “mentally ill”. “mentally healthy”. “acceptable”. “normal”, or otherwise.

a word, today, i see as nothing more than a cloak: one thrown over the mind, the identity, eventually the soul. some are deceptively well-meaning– word-cloaks that imply you’ve “made it”, that you’re properly “fitting in”, “acting acceptably”, “being appropriate”. others, of course, are so thick and heavy that they smother, in the snap of a finger, the very essence of your being: “bipolar”. “depressed”. “schizophrenic”. “borderline”, to name a few.

these words i’m using to write these very sentences– it must be said they barely touch the essence of what i really, truly, feel about this matter. for all words make sentences, sometimes lifelong ones.

becoming an ex-mental patient is about far more than shedding the psychiatric labels that have come to define our lives and determine what psychoactive chemicals may be circulating in our bloodstreams, electrical currents through our brains, restraints around our ankles or wrists, plastic mattresses beneath our backs.

it’s also about shedding the labels on the flip side, the ones that arise out of the Myth of Normality, this false prophet we’ve come to worship as though it’s only before its knees and in its phantom mold that we might feel like we’ve finally “arrived”. for it’s there– beyond not just the dark prison bars of the so-called “mental health system”, but also the bright, glistening, well-manicured lawns of the put-together-high-functioning-smiling-with it-successful-accomplished-perfect-happy American Dream– that we become truly free. free to feel it all– all that comes with being alive in this world, especially the agony and despair and angst. free to simply be. not to Be Something. just to be, whether that being agonizingly hurts or feels entirely peaceful or quietly aches or sends surges of pleasure through every cell.

freedom is when you have no words that follow your being, for those lettered cloaks that once covered the indefinable essence of what it is to be alive have been shed in your wake.

i am grateful that i’m free to yearn and struggle and suffer and feel peace and joy and purpose and passion and cry and scream and ache in those fields beyond all words. if we’re to build a future beyond the Mental Health Industry, it’s there. and they run on and on and on, unendingly. there’s space for all of us there, to be indefinable.

wheatfields-under-thunderclouds-vincent-van-gogh

“Wheatfields Under Thunderclouds”, by Vincent Van Gogh.

Six Years After Booze

Six years ago yesterday, I came to in a glass-walled observation room on a psychiatric unit of a hospital, faced with a choice: get myself out of there so I could kill myself, or make a change. A big change.

My life by that point had disintegrated into hopelessness, despair, alienation, and overwhelming emotional pain— most of this, I couldn’t see then, arising from my fourteen-year relationship to the mental health industry. Countless “professionals” had taught me to see myself as “sick”, as a broken brain with a lifelong need for “meds” and expert intervention who’d never be fully human. A life sentence of “serious and persistent mental illness”… what a perfect recipe for suicide, I now see.

Booze, by then, had become the one thing keeping me from killing myself—after all, drinking yourself into oblivion on a near-daily basis is a pretty effective way of forgetting that all you really are is a defective mental patient. But it also, as one might guess, had become a bit of a…. well… problem. And so on that morning in the psych unit, as I lay there wracked with a hangover and my typical morning-after despair, something deep within me—my human spirit, I now see—made me realize it was finally time for The Bottle and me to go our separate ways.

For a long time afterwards, I thought of myself as an “addict” or “alcoholic”. After all, I’d been indoctrinated into a labeled existence where every painful emotion or scary thought or problematic behavior could easily be defined as a “symptom” of something, whether that be “bipolar disorder”, “borderline personality disorder”, “major depression”, “eating disorder”, or “anxiety disorder”. So “alcoholic”? Totally, I was an alcoholic. Met the criteria to a T. Throw it right down there on the list. It would take me nearly three years—long after I’d left behind my mental patienthood—to realize I was still boxing myself into just another category of “other”.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of myself as an “addict” or “alcoholic”, and even longer since a psychiatric label has enslaved my identity. I still choose not to drink today, but it’s not because I think I “have a condition” or “am” some “illness”. It’s because I spent enough years saturated in psychoactive chemicals—most of them called “psychiatric medications”—and it feels pretty damn good today to just be. To be in my body, in my mind, in this world. Don’t get me wrong… To be can really hurt—holy hell, can it really hurt—but in life beyond the mental health industry, I know now that the hurt in being human is nothing to be gotten rid of, whether through a shrink or a pill bottle or a bottle of booze. It’s something to listen to, to explore, and to celebrate, because I’m alive. I’m fuckin’ alive.

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Recovering Myself: A talk about coming off psychiatric drugs and finding a way out of the mental health system

In November 2015, I traveled to Anchorage, Alaska thanks to the generosity and support of Jim Gottstein and the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights.  I met a bunch of really wonderful, inspiring people, including ex-patients, folks currently in the process of coming off psychiatric drugs, and family members of people who lost their lives to psychiatric treatment.  Here’s a video of my talk, Recovering Myself: A talk about journeying through the mental health system, in which I share some of my story and reflect on how I came off psychiatric drugs and left behind my psychiatric labels.