“The color of truth is grey.” Andre Gide

Unhappiness with our lot in life is not an illness.  Learning ways for our communities to increase their members’ capacity for empathy and compassion is a more worthwhile pursuit than discovering new psychiatric drugs.

Understanding how people utilize their biology and developmental experiences to best access their potential and how some of us come to overcome emotional and physical pain eludes formulaic solutions.  We have learned only a few of the elemental factors that have the potential to nurture the transformations that we seek.  Yet I believe that we have within us an innate need to aspire to realize our unique potentials.  Unfortunately for many of us, the required freedom to pursue our goals is not equally distributed among us.

I am convinced that there are many paths that can help you realize your desire for personal growth and transformation.  I believe that if you are persuaded by some “expert” that you must limit your aspirations, you will be Limited. Because no two of us are alike, we must resist our culture’s reliance on some designated expert to find a uniform panacea for everyone to adopt.  Most of us are social creatures with a need for contact and relationships. Yet we must leave space for those of us who desire periods of self-imposed solitude.  Not fitting into the mainstream is not a disease unless one’s culture only leaves room for mindless conformity.  Exempt are those who have some outstanding talent that is revered by the community.  Then you will be considered eccentric rather than a deviant who is to be controlled. The freedom to be eccentric or different should not be an entitlement that is only given to those who have extraordinary gifts

If you are made to accept that you have only one primary option it is likely that you will continue to be stuck where you don’t want to be.

Endorsements of unique products (supplements, drugs) or methods (types of exercise, psychotherapy, prayer, meditation) are ubiquitous.  Who hasn’t heard the familiar refrain, “I tried everything but nothing worked for me until I tried _____.”  Although some of us are successful in finding what helps propel us forward in our quests, too often we become discouraged by our failure to find the right model to meet our needs.  I believe that if you persevere and remain open to possibilities, you will have the opportunity to find what works specifically for you.  My experience has taught me to be wary of guaranteed paths to success.

Below are some suggestions that I found to be helpful:

  1. Maintaining the steadfast unyielding belief that change is possible.
  2. To expect the desired changes to occur.
  3. The willingness and patience to apply self-directed discipline to the practice of the chosen endeavor.
  4. To be open to self-reflection in evaluating the benefits of what is being tried.
  5. To ask for and consider the feedback and support of those who are familiar with you.
  6. To move on if you have given sufficient time to what you have attempted and there are no hints of positive results to encourage you to continue with this method. Choose another path for bringing about the changes you desire.
  7. Finally, recognize that your attempts that have not worked are not failures. Each effort you make is a potential success that may become manifest at a later time.  In fact, you might re-try at a future date what has not worked in the past and find that it does work when the timing is different and when different needs, values and priorities have emerged.  Remember that we are dynamic and changing beings.

Of course, the above suggestions are not definitive, but merely offered to encourage a Never Give Up attitude in service of keeping hope and possibility alive.

A few pithy insights from French author and Nobel prize winner Andre Gide:

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”

“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight, for a very long time, of the shore.”

“Dare to Be yourself.”

 

In a Time of Fear and Scapegoating of the NOT US

Every soul has to learn the whole lesson for itself. It must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Many of us see the end of the old year and the beginning of a New Year as a time of reflection.  My contemplation turned to thinking about what I had published ten years ago in A Fight to Be.  What follows is a short piece from that work that I believe remains relevant for today’s fearful and troubling times.

When I think of the wide array of people who have struggled, who have won or lost or who have remained stuck in their struggles to become, I do not see illness. Instead, I look at the dynamic interplay of courage, fear and safety, where individual and social structure clash. Childhood nightmares inform us of the intensity of fear that the mind can create. Fear restricts the roads and landscapes available in one’s journey through life, but it can also generate the motivation necessary to make powerful changes. Although some are blessed to be born with the temperament, abilities and tools that initially enable an early integration of fear-courage-safety, for many, this key triad is in an unstable flux that demands vigilance. Balancing and resolving the shifting requirements of this life-long developmental task has no immutable rules, laws or guarantees. A bolt of lightning or invading virus can cancel all prior resolutions.

I believe that the price of predictability and safety is too steep.

Can we evaluate our evolutionary progress as a species by calculating the percentage of human beings who experience more joy than pain during their lifetimes? While the volume of information we are exposed to has increased exponentially, our capacity to absorb and use that information lags far behind. While the human population continues to increase, the diversity of other complex life forms appears to be decreasing. While people are being told that there are greater numbers of emotional problems and behaviors that deviate from the norm, the norm itself is shrinking. While the need for tolerance and compassion is increasing, competition for shrinking resources feeds our intolerance for the not-us outsiders. Identifying those that are different from us as the source of our misery enables us to avoid the pain of our existential angst, but at too great a cost – alienation from self and others. It is essential to create and multiply the number of acceptable and productive roles available to all people. With our increase in numbers and technology, our humanness needs more encouragement.

Is it any wonder that the people who do recover from extreme and painfully troubling emotional states are the very ones who have challenged and rejected the mental health enforcers’ pronouncements and carved their own way into a new life? The people that I know who have transformed their experience are easily recognized by their passion, vitality and appreciation of life. They are winners by virtue of having engaged in the process of peering deep inside and not being destroyed by what they encountered. Victors in the fight to find meaning and identity, they are reminiscent of people who have survived near death experiences – their understanding and identity changes.

When you allow yourself to descend into the depths of an altered state, the need for safety moves from foreground to background. When you pass death’s threshold as described in near death experiences, safety’s demands are radically modified. I believe that we actively make a decision to let go when we enter a different realm of consciousness. In time-tested mystical traditions, one’s decision is reinforced by a commitment to rigorous preparation. Most of us do not have the determination, clarity of vision or access to that special guide who is right for us. Instead, we accommodate to our fears and life demands. But for those who must deal with too much fear, who cannot navigate the limited number of paths presented to them, who lack the skills, self-esteem, societally approved competencies, who have been hurt repeatedly, who feel the constant pain of extreme sensitivity, who have not learned how to trust or love, or have never been loved in a way that matched their needs, who see no future and abhor themselves and hate their life story . . . when critical mass is reached, there is a choice – to forgo safety and risk all. Our culture reflected in our mental health system is not a facilitator of growth and change if it cannot permit a person to risk one’s life in an attempt to create a future which is not a continuation of a predictable and horrific past.

The Wisdom of Personal Stories

The 18th century philosopher, Rousseau believed that we are different than all other animals because of what he called our perfectibility.  We are capable of developing and changing.  The gift of possibility is there for us throughout our lives.

Neuroscientists have now recognized that the brain keeps growing. Just like other muscles, we must use it or lose it.  It always has the potential to change and grow regardless of our age or condition. This concept – neuroplasticity has finally achieved some mainstream credibility. Humans are a work in progress.

From antiquity to the present day, madness has stubbornly resisted numerous and varied attempts to unlock its unwelcome grip on human beings. Historically, people who experience extreme mental and emotional states, struggle not only to find their way, but even more so from having to endure harmful treatments. Too often, desperate, ill-conceived attempts to control, prevent, and eliminate this frightening and confounding human condition (many times more disturbing to those around them} have resulted in severe and painful damage to the minds and bodies of people whose voices, rights, and feelings are scorned.

Until the latter half of the 20th century, knowledge of madness was the exclusive domain of the professional observers and treaters of madness. By virtue of being mad, a person was deemed to be without credibility and unable to contribute any meaningful knowledge to help understand madness – their own and others.  But the compelling need to give testimony to what one has experienced and witnessed has defied all attempts at suppression.  A vast store of once rarely read first-person stories bears witness to the need to reclaim their voices and find a way to speak of their own hard fought for wisdom.  I wonder why so much useful information that comes from their lived experience does not get used and valued.

How can mental health professionals understand complex life stories, when they are content to work with stereotypes – categories (diagnoses) that are used to explain what we do and who we are?   I see too much value given to simplistic formulaic responses that are revered as evidence based treatments. I think we can guard against going off course by looking at how people live their stories.  What do people do when unfolding events do not match the script that they and their families planned and envisioned?

A friend, who is a lawyer, well respected for her mental patients’ rights work, condensed her personal work philosophy into the four following statements:

1) No matter how messed up people are, force and violence and coercion usually make things worse.

2) No matter how messed up people are, almost always they will have a pretty good idea of what they need and what will work for them, and since most treatment is guesswork and the best treatment involves respectful attention, mental health treatment should aim its guesswork at respectfully attending to what the person says he or she needs and working with them on that.

3) Leaving people in the places where they live and where they have natural communities is almost always going to be better than locking them up in places like hospitals, where the primary goal is going to be the maintenance of order and control  (no crying, no sobbing, no raised voices, no being really upset in mental institutions).  I think institutions and the practices they breed, like seclusion and restraint are fundamentally inhumane, and they don’t help people get better.

4) The worst thing that can happen to anyone in severe emotional distress is to be labeled a mental patient.

People need safe affordable places to live, educational opportunities, friends, intimate relationships, to have families, raise their children, get jobs that give them the chance to advance and be able to see the future with hope and optimism.  We need communities that can tolerate, no better I should say appreciate and benefit from difference so that those who look act or perceive differently, can still find a community or social network of their choice where they can be fully integrated and valued.

Mental health services are most useful when there is a collaboration where growth and development permeates the relationship — where there is respect, dignity and equality.

No one is immune to the physical and emotional pain of living.  Such is life and perhaps especially so in these times that we live in.  Who would not want a quick fix…a pill…a strategy – one that works quickly with no ill side-effects …. one that would not interrupt the pursuit of our potential or corrupt our values?

Human growth and development thrives in an environment where there is support, encouragement — and a dynamic balance of risk and safety.  When there is no clear evidence of  harm to others, the quest for identity, authenticity, and the struggle to realize and act upon one’s potential should be a right for all.

The Education of Mental Health Professionals

Last week I spent two days giving talks to students and faculty at Northern Colorado University.   In the evening of the first day I spoke to a large group and the next day I was invited to speak to a class of nursing students and later to a class on diagnosis.   What has always surprised me when I have presented at universities is the lack of exposure to both the new and old concepts of what has proven to work, and the ground-breaking people who have been important influences in my thinking.  So before introducing topics such as the importance of trust, choice, risk and programs such as Hearing Voices, Soteria, Diabasis and Open Dialogue, I would ask, “Has anyone has heard of . . . .”  One or two hands would be raised by faculty to acknowledge recognition.

When illustrating the difficulty of establishing trust, I cited Thomas Szasz.  I was proud to have met with Szasz for lunch at his house where he spoke on the demise of trust in the psychotherapy relationship.  He said that trust is compromised when therapists had become arms of the government and were subject to mandatory reporting requirements.   Szasz lamented that therapists had limited confidentiality protections as compared to the absolute privacy that is the province of confession to priests.  Since no one knew of Szasz I was disappointed that my argument could not be supported by the weight of his reputation.  See the link for Szasz obituary in the NY Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/12/health/dr-thomas-szasz-psychiatrist-who-led-movement-against-his-field-dies-at-92.html

Similarly, R.D. Laing was unknown.  The Hearing Voices movement, Loren Moser, Soteria and Open Dialogue were not part of the students knowledge base or curriculum.  Having important figures, programs and research ignored and absent in the education of mental health professionals keeps us stuck and continuing to rely on ineffective harmful interventions.  However what is encouraging to me is the interest shown by students when exposed to the hope and possibilities contained in critiques of mainstream models of mental illness.

 

Citizen Rights

“For your own good is a persuasive argument that will eventually make a man [or woman] agree to his [or her} own destruction.”  Janet Frame

It is unfortunate that in the twenty-first century it is still necessary to advocate for consumer/survivor/ex-patients (c/s/x) to have the same rights as any other citizen.   Discrimination begins with the selective withholding of decision-making rights from people who have a disability label.  For c/s/x to realize their potential, they must be afforded the same rights and opportunities as other citizens, including the right to make what others might consider to be bad decisions.  To choose to subsist on a diet of greasy, fat-laden fast food, to attempt to make a solo voyage around the world in a small boat, to repeatedly choose incompatible marriage partners may be poor decisions, yet almost everyone is free to pursue such choices.  The exception is if you are a person who has been diagnosed to have a major mental illness.   For c/s/x, the choices can be restricted even if a decision does not violate civil or criminal law.

Too often c/s/x, unlike their fellow citizens, find that their rights are addressed as privileges to be earned.  When equality is diminished and differences are emphasized, recovery becomes elusive.

Below are a few more quotes from the magnificent writings of Janet Frame. She spent four and a half years out of eight years, incarcerated in mental hospitals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.  Thought to be hopeless, Ms. Frame was being considered for a lobotomy, which was only cancelled when one of her poems was published and received critical acclaim.  Now considered to be a national treasure of New Zealand, one can find information about her at the official website of the Janet Frame Literary Trust: http://janetframe.org.nz/default.htm

“They meant abnormal.  Divisions of the kind were fashionable at that time, and it was so easy to stifle one’s need to help by deciding that help could neither be accepted nor understood.”

“So we went to bed, assaulted by sleep that fumed at us from medicine glasses, or was wielded from small sweet-coated tablets — dainty bricks of dream wrapped in the silk stockings of oblivion.”

 “Possibility was not a bag or box that could be closed and sealed, it was a vast open chute which received everything, everything; one could not choose or direct or destroy the powerful flow of possibility.”

 

 

 

“The town drunk is an elected office.” Mark Twain

When I ruminate about how much better the healing professions could be, that process sometimes elicits a memory of a discussion that took place during one of the classes in my post-doctoral training in family therapy.  The five of us in the class, two psychologists, two doctoral level social workers and a psychiatrist would meet weekly for a year in the office of the psychiatrist who was the director of the program.  One of the discussed topics stimulated the two psychiatrists to guiltily reminisce about their feelings during medical training and the disconnect between their lived experiences and the current buzz about a need for a more humanistic approach to medical care.  They commiserated in a shared understanding that what they said was a too common experience for purposely overworked interns – almost a mirror of what it is like when one pledges a fraternity.

Each of them laughed sardonically, with eyes downcast in recalling being awoken in the middle of the night after being asleep for only a few hours while trying to recharge after having worked 36 straight hours.  They knew they shared with their fellow interns the unseemly, hard to dismiss wish that if the patient they were summoned to attend were to die, they hoped he would die quickly so they might get a few more hours of sleep.

This memory evokes some of the difficulty a therapist faces in the conflictual role of being there for the client, yet ultimately being an agent of the state who is legally required to break confidentiality under specific legislated conditions.  Thomas Szasz attributed the inability to maintain absolute confidentiality as the foremost barrier to providing effective psychotherapy.  He lamented that therapists had less legal protection to maintain confidentiality then the absolute privacy of confessions made to a Catholic priest.

Whether it is in psychiatry or general medical practice, the pressure to be quick and impersonal runs counter to good practice.  Too much of the healing balm of compassion and empathy is missing.   It is very difficult to provide aid that can be life-changing in a culture where healers are functioning with a mandate to be risk averse and having to conform to reporting requirements that sacrifice trust.

In my work, I try to use what I think will help a particular individual discover alternative ways of thinking and feeling about past and present constructions of self, and how old and new possibilities might be acted upon.  I strive to work with the following principles to achieve these goals:

  • Trust – Avoidance of all forms of force and coercion
  • Believing in the essential goodness of all who come to see me – unless clearly demonstrated otherwise
  • Being flexible, adaptive and creative
  • Knowing the limits of my impact
  • Courage

As a therapist I believe that all of the guiding principles in our work must be continuously examined and altered according to the unique make-up and needs of the people with whom we work.  Difficult as it is, I must navigate and dance within shifting terrain; to know, understand and judiciously exercise influence so as not to overpower the potential development of a mutually acceptable perspective and desired destination for our therapeutic journey.

Relationships are key.  As therapists practicing in a western culture, we fill a relationship void for people who are going through confusing and extreme cognitive and/or emotional states.  We take on the role of “rented strangers,” a role once filled by caring Dutch uncles, friends, spouses, lovers, uniquely empathetic family members and accepting communities.  We therapists would be naïve to think that psychotherapy is the only way for a person to get unstuck, heal and develop.  A trusting bond, one of mutual acceptance with a friend/lover, a new job in which one re-connects with a buried competency, attention to ignored health and well-being, a new environment, a believed possibility, spiritual inspiration; any of many combinations can be transformative.  I see my therapeutic role as an attitude engineer, a venture capitalist of the psyche collaborating on a blueprint for a yet to be built bridge – a bridge from a life mired in confusion and pain to a shore line denoting ever-expanding hope and possibility.  I may need to pitch in to do some of the bridge construction, maybe even carry my client onto the bridge, but she must believe that the bridge is sturdy enough and long enough for her to do the bulk of the work to succeed in making her goals attainable.

 

The Power of Diversity

In sociology, stigma is defined as something that prevents a person from being accepted into normal society.   https://www.reference.com/world-view/sociological-definition-stigma-6e94fe5a36dc02c3#

If we look at stigma as arising from the fear of things perceived as unfamiliar and judged abnormal, then we must think of challenging stigma by making the characteristics associated with stigma more familiar and thus less fearful.  For me, central to stigma is discrimination and exclusion.  The antidote:  working with someone as a colleague, knowing such a person as a neighbor and friend.

The hard fought battle for accessibility, fueled by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, has made jobs and community participation possible.  Whereas it is easy to observe the progress that has been made in the realm of physical (observable) disabilities, there has been little progress for those who have been defined as mentally ill – those crazy people. 

For me, the key to the lack of progress is the failure to use what we know about how to diminish Fear.  Horror movie producers utilize a basic principle:  the dreaded monster is not clearly seen until the climax.  If we are given enough time to see the movie monster, familiarity diminishes the required fear of the movie-goer. Throughout history, those of us who have experienced anomalous, extreme mental states, regardless of the causes, have been removed from our communities.  That isolation makes re-entry, with the added burden of stigma, a formidable life-long task for many of us.

For years I have been disturbed by the various attempts made to extinguish stigma.  What I have seen are futile public education campaigns that barely make a dent in the public consciousness.  Typically, such campaigns center on education about the nature of mental illness and the current treatments that are in vogue and validated by testimonials.   Popular are statements equating mental illness with other forms of manageable illnesses that can be treated with medications. 

 Some pundits speak of what a dangerous time we live in.  Random, unpredictable violence is attributed to people with mental illness.  The media thrives on sensational stories while citizens desperately look for predictability to soothe their fears.  The other, the different, become the target.  Control with its illusion of safety, is believed to be attained by identifying, excluding and isolating those projected to be dangerous. 

 In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, makes a compelling argument that statistics show a decrease in human violence.  Yet his treatise does little to challenge our heightened perception of lurking danger.

Fear remains high.

I offer my thoughts as to what I believe to be keys to more effective approaches to overcome the exclusion and isolation engendered by stigma.  Inclusiveness is the antidote. 

 An encouraging sign of progress is the increasing valuation of people with lived experience or perhaps more aptly, experts by lived experience.   I have been fortunate to be a psychiatric survivor and a psychologist.  In my dual role, I have been privileged to be invited to speak to students and faculty at various universities.  While responding to questions I frequently say, I know that among you there are those who have had experiences similar to what I have spoken about.  Wouldn’t it be enlightening if students and faculty could freely discuss their experiences with anomalous and/or extreme states of consciousness?  Theories and treatments could be evaluated and new ideas would be generated when considered through the lens of those with lived experience.  I have suggested that I would not need to be invited to speak if openness was supported so that those resources that were already there among students and faculty could inform.  My wish is for lived experience to be valued as a credential, and a special effort be made by universities to support such students who are in various stages of overcoming adversity.

Last week I attended the American Psychological Association Annual Conference.  For many years I have attempted to support and encourage those psychologists with lived experience to consider being open about their background – that is if they are in a position to do so.  I regret to say that we still remain few in number and those who disclose are usually near the end of their careers.   A few of us who are open, along with a law professor, have recently co-authored a journal article surveying discrimination in state licensing laws for psychologists.  The article “State Psychology Licensure Questions About Metal Illness and Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)” is scheduled for publication in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

 Another critique of mine is directed at the often cited remarkable people who have made major contributions.  Anti-stigma campaigns cite famous figures who have struggled with mental illness.  Mentioned frequently are: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Virginia Wolff, Beethoven, Sylvia Plath, Issac Newton, Judy Collins and many others.  My objection:  Do we have to be famous with extraordinary talent in order to be accepted?  Does one become extraordinary simply by virtue of having recovered or transformed their experience?  Do those in various stages of recovery need to act super normal with no eccentricities in order to be included?  Perhaps we see here why so many remain “the hidden recovered.”  Some years ago I developed a three hour recovery training module for the 18 New York State psychiatric hospitals.  Former patients presented to hospital employees about their experiences and the factors that propelled their recovery journeys.  The most profound feedback came from ward staff.  Many said they were not aware of what these former patients expressed.  Most salient of the comments was:  We never see the successes, we only see the failures who are readmitted.

 I remain hopeful.  Progress is slow.  The fight for passage of the ADA was a protracted battle where many heroes put themselves on the front lines.  I believe our progress is dependent on more of us accepting the risk of being open and joining in the fight for rights and Justice for All.

I borrow a principle which I believe comes from the Western Massachusetts Recovery and Learning Community that I put in juxtaposition to the popular “recovery is possible.”

Recovery is PROBABLE

 

 

Madness and Freedom

When I switched web servers I discovered that subscribers to my blog were not automatically receiving my blogs. I am sending out this blog to see if it has been corrected.

What follows are two poems that explore madness and freedom. Madness has long been a topic for both famous poets and psychiatric survivors (some are both) to grapple with meaning.

In a Dark Time by Theodore Roethke

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood–
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is–
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Giving Meaning To My Life

This blog is a little late.  My excuse:  I was asked to write a brief essay on The Meaning of Life.  I did not know the person making the request so I looked at the website.  I was stunned to see the amazing group of people who had make contributions.  I felt honored and privileged to write on this weighty topic.  I found myself thinking about it for several days – wondering what if anything unique I might have to offer.  What I wrote is below and can also be found at:  www.excellencereporter.com

Locked in the seclusion room of the mental hospital, secured in restraints with mind-numbing psychiatric drugs coursing through my body, my spirit found a safe hiding place where it could hibernate.  Such was the major crisis that would be instrumental in determining the trajectory of my life.  I was blessed to learn that the human spirit has the power to overcome an imprisoned broken body.

I am not privy to a universal truth that would assign and define a meaning that all living organisms share.  I humbly submit what gives meaning to my life: that the unknown and unknowable nurtures in me an awe and respect for the power of spirit.  My good fortune obliges me to use what I know in service to others.  I believe that each of our lives has unique meaning that emerges as we play out our corporal existence.

To contemplate the meaning of life was more important to me during the years I struggled to emerge from my formative cocoon.  Now I am aware that meaning is manifested in the way I live my life rather than in the ruminating. philosophizing and searching to conquer life’s mysteries.  My decisions and the actions they generate are guided by an experience-based pragmatism vested in intuition, empathy and compassion.  Meaning is embedded in the tough choices that inform my attempts to live with integrity.

What clears my vision and supports my journey are principles forged in a crucible that challenged my survival.  I believe that in our darkest moments or in our greatest highs we have an opening to find the courage to seek clarity within our hearts.  Meaning is developed through events where circumstances do not allow equivocation.

I offer what gives me meaning – what I strive for within my imperfect life.  I wish for one principle to be accessible to all:  A Never Give Up attitude that makes you available to the always possible mysterious miracle that hovers in all of our lives.

NAMI and ME

NAMI and Me

Every soul has to learn the whole lesson for itself. It must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

For years, I have spoken with passion and rebelled against the purported medical “incontrovertible truths” that mental illness is the result of a broken brain, non-contextual, and manageable but not curable with an array of psychiatric drugs (with little discussion of the potential life-long adverse effects on body and mind).  NAMI, as a national organization, has held fast to its uncritical support of psychiatric drugs, while being rewarded with major financial support from Big Pharma.  NAMI has reflected the polar opposite of my beliefs, promoting policies I have railed against, most particularly in their denial of hope and change.  I write now about both of these – to passionately re-state my absolute belief in hope, and to acknowledge humbly the change I have witnessed in myself –towards many things, including my stance towards the families that make up NAMI.  But I do remain strongly opposed to policies that lobby for easing forced treatment requirements and more hospital beds instead of less restrictive interventions.

The shame of it is that this massive organization may be the only one that offers solidarity and community for families. When one becomes a member of NAMI, a family can find a common bond with other families that have loved ones whose distress has been inexplicable and beyond the help they have sought from experts.  Many find solace in not being alone and isolated.  They are taught that no one is at fault because their offspring suffer from a biologically-based illness.  The NAMI literature advises families to regard treatment and outcome as similar to how one deals with diabetes.  Also conveyed is the explicit message that since it is a disease, there is no stigma attached to it and that members can join an important mission of NAMI – to fight stigma.  Paradoxically, research and common sense experience have demonstrated that stigma is not eradicated by adhering to an illness model.  A much greater impact accrues from strategies that combat stigma by making it easier for people – all people – to be integrated into communities where there is safe affordable housing and employment with a livable wage.

 

So what propelled me to speak to a NAMI meeting?  I believe that after decades of activism, the passion and anger that drove me has changed.  I believe the anger is gone and the passion that remains is imbued with greater compassion towards the people who seek understanding and community that local NAMI groups offer.  I have become more open, more aware of complexity and I have a greater recognition of how much I don’t know.  When I looked around that meeting room, I was acutely aware of how much pain and suffering those who were there had experienced and how those emotions still remain close to the surface.  Clearly, the mental health services they had sought had failed them and NAMI was the default organization that gave them support and sustenance.  NAMI’s positions were reassuring and also instilled the belief that promoting the work of NAMI was a contribution they could make and be proud of.

 

Last week when I spoke at the Boulder County Annual NAMI meeting I described the Hearing Voices movement and other alternatives that were emerging that were showing positive research outcomes.  I said that I was encouraged by the budding recognition by state and federal funders of the benefits of employing peers who were experts by virtue of their lived experience.   I saw eyes opening in curiosity and I would like to believe hope.  I was surprised.  There is so much more that we know is now available which supports the individual road to recovery and infinite possibilities of yet untapped potentials.

 

People in all their diversity must be valued and raised up above the rigidity of dogma and old paradisms.  We have only begun to explore what is possible for the mind and soul when working in synchronicity.  May we all remain open and Never Give Up!