HEALING AND EMPOWERMENT Adapted from an Address to Georgia Consumers
by Sally Clay
I don't think I will ever recover from mental illness. The last time I got manic five years ago, I holed up in my apartment, turned up my stereo as loud as it would go, and embarked on a psychedelic trip to nowhere. This was the same trip I have taken countless times, for nearly 40 years. Although I have never used street drugs, my manic episodes are remarkably like LSD trips. They always start with intense visions of spiritual power and worldwide enlightenment. They always end in disaster.
During that episode, I was enjoying the first part of the mania, listening to my favorite rock artists and gathering all of their messages about saving the world. Unfortunately, my stereo was directly below the bedroom of a young professional couple. When I get manic I do not sleep, and my loud rock music continued well into the night. Shortly after midnight my unfortunate neighbors began calling, begging me to turn down the music. I said "yes," and turned it down a little. But within 10 minutes the urgent prophecies and visceral rhythms captured me again, and I turned the music up. Within the mania I could not permit anything or anyone to interrupt the imperatives of my delusions-not my neighbors, not my friends, not anybody.
Somewhere in the middle of the night of the second day, after several fruitless phone calls to me, my neighbors called the police. The police came to the door and warned me about the loud music, and I promised to turn it down. But soon I turned it right back up.
On the third night, the police were not so patient. They arrested me, turned off the stereo, and took me to jail. I spent the rest of the night on a hard metal cot in a cell. In the morning I went home again to my stereo. I was dragged off to jail three times, each time returning to my apartment and my fantastic mental journey, which became progressively wilder. One night, I decided to get drunk and became even crazier than I already was. This time an ambulance came to get me, probably summoned by my desperate neighbors. I was taken to the local hospital where I slept off the alcohol in the emergency room. In the morning, I was assured that I was in the hospital on a voluntary basis. All I had to do was to have a brief interview with a psychologist and then I could leave.
If only I could have kept my mouth shut! I managed to have a fairly rational conversation with the psychologist until I blurted out, "Where is Dr. Kevorkian when you need him!" I meant this as a joke, but the psychologist did not laugh. She decided that because of that statement I was suicidal-and in two shakes of a shrink's tale, I was whisked away to the psychiatric ward on the top floor and involuntarily committed.
I spent a miserable week on the psych unit, forced to swallow medicine that I tried to refuse. When I was finally released, I found that I had lost my job, had been evicted from my apartment, and faced a stiff fine, possibly even a jail sentence, for disturbing the peace.
That is how I wound up moving from Massachusetts to Florida. As with past manic episodes, I had to pick up the pieces of my life and start again from scratch. It was not so easy this time because I was not as young and resilient as I once had been. After that brief time of mania, I had to cope with weeks of depression and despair. Nevertheless, within a few months I settled down in my new home and again resumed my career.
There are plenty of people who do recover from mental illness. Tipper Gore has recovered, and so has Mike Wallace. Yet most of us who identify as mental health consumers have not really recovered. A "final" state of recovery is no longer my goal, for I have learned that someone with serious mental illness does not have to recover to be successful. For the last 20 years I have worked as a peer advocate for people with psychiatric disabilities, started two drop-in centers, and helped to form a third one. I have been hired as a consultant by a number of organizations and I am on the steering committee of a major federal research project. This work has changed my life forever. I have not recovered, but I have healed from the wounds of stigma and shame. I have friends and a successful career. I have found my place in the world.
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Becoming stabilized is not the same thing as recovering, but it is essential to gain some control over our own minds and not to live at the mercy of our delusions or hallucinations or depression. For some consumers, the medications taken while in crisis are sufficient and once the emergency is over they can get off the meds and maintain stability. For others, it is necessary to find the right dose and continue taking it to maintain stability. For still others, meds and other forms of psychiatric treatment are not the answer, and tools for stable living are found in a spiritual context.
In my case, all of these tools apply. When I am in the midst of a manic episode, only psychotropic drugs will bring me down. After I am stabilized, I continue to take a low dose of lithium. Before my last episode I had tried, with the help of my psychiatrist, to discontinue the lithium-but clearly, that did not work. Now I am back on the lithium, despite its side effects.
But the greatest preventative for me has proved to be a spiritual practice. If I were to choose a watershed moment in my life, a time when I finally gained confidence that I was worthy to live alongside other people without the shame of being mentally ill, it would be when I first visited Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD), the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, N.Y. In an interview with Khenpo Rinpoche, the abbot, I fervently described the fantastic journeys I had taken in my mind-all the times that I had visualized scenarios for changing the world and saving other people. As I described these psychotic episodes, I hung my head in embarrassment, but admitted that I could not get it out of my head that there was truth in these visions and that was why I kept coming back to them. I begged him to give me a spiritual discipline that would protect me from these painful episodes and that would cure me from mental illness.
To my great surprise, Rinpoche smiled at me and said without hesitation that, if I felt that I had learned something from my experiences, then I should take what I had learned back to the community and use it to help others. It was as simple as that. He did not even give me instructions in the esoteric spiritual practices that I had gone to him hoping to receive.
That was in the late 1970s. After my interview with Rinpoche, I returned to my home in Portland, Maine, and continued trying to hold down a job and live my life. I did not know what to do with the advice my teacher had given me. It was not until 1981, and another involuntary hospitalization, that I finally figured out what I had to do. I joined the Alliance for the Mentally Ill and later organized one of the first consumer-operated programs in the country, the Portland Coalition for the Psychiatrically Labeled. I spent several years working for the Coalition, all the while continuing to experience yearly manic episodes and hospitalizations.
In 1987, I finally returned to KTD for serious study and took up residence in Woodstock. Rinpoche gave me instructions in the Green Tara meditation, which I began to practice daily, along with other practices at the monastery. By regularly following these spiritual disciplines, I trained my mind and finally found mental stability. The manic episode that I described earlier is the only one I have experienced since I started the spiritual discipline, now nearly 15 years ago. As a result, I no longer have to live under the constant threat of psychosis and I am no longer helplessly dependent on the mental health system.
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The currently fashionable view of mental illness is that we have a "broken brain." Under this view, the very defectiveness of our brains means that we cannot decide for ourselves. Especially it means that we cannot be trusted to choose our own treatment or our own way of life.
Under the medical model, the definition of recovery is usually limited to the idea of stability. Adherents of the medical model usually believe that recovery means symptom management-that if mental patients would only take their meds, everything would be fine. But as consumers, we know that, although medications can manage our symptoms, they cannot give us quality of life.
I for one reject the medical model. I am not simply a brain, an object that can be broken. My life is much richer and more complex than that. If I am not allowed to choose my own way of life and to work for my own empowerment, my mental stability will remain fragile and I will always regard myself as defective and hopeless.
Although recovery would be nice, the important thing is not whether we are "normal," but whether our lives are satisfying and meaningful. For me, recovering from mental illness would be like recovering from being human. The manic highs and depressive lows I have experienced for all these years are, for better or worse, part of who I am. If I were given a magic pill that would clear up my depression, I would not recognize my own mind. If I were given another magic pill that would put the reins on my flights of manic fantasies, I might be a lot more sensible than I am now, but I would no longer be "me."
My definition of recovery is the same as what I believe it means to be fully human: to treat oneself and others with loving kindness and respect, and to recognize the buddhanature that is in everyone since birth. If I do not regard myself as a human being with buddhanature, then I will be forever defined by my illness.
If I can live every day in my community alongside other people who have needs, desires, and problems just as I do, then it really is not so important whether I still occasionally cope with my particular symptoms or foibles-whether they be called mental illness or not. I have learned several tools for maintaining my equilibrium, not the least of which is my daily sadhana practice. Still, I will always be vulnerable to the extreme highs and lows of bipolar disorder, and there is always the possibility that I will suffer another manic episode. I have to live with that, knowing that at least now I have the ability to get through such an episode and get back on my feet.
I know, too, that buddhanature can never be lost or taken away. My own identity-who I am as a human being-is who I have been all along, and that is something good. That has never been broken.
**** COPYRIGHT 2002 Buddhist Peace Fellowship ****
Published in THE TURNING WHEEL, Spring 2002, ISSN 1065-058X
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