In 1996, at the age of 24, I had my first episode of what doctors in Belgium would later define as ‘psychosis’. I want to start off by saying that I really don’t like the term ‘psychosis’. I consider what I experienced to be extreme states of consciousness or emotional-spiritual crises, not manifestations of some kind of disease. I don’t deny needing help when I was going through these states. What I did not need was the kind of help I got here.
In any case, the trigger for my first crisis was working too hard: I temporarily combined two full-time jobs as a teacher. I know: that’s crazy. But I was young, and I thought I could handle it for a few weeks. After that period, I thought I would get offered a permanent job as a teacher in that very nice school. Things turned out very differently…
My first crisis was extremely frightening. I had no clue as to what was happening to me, and my family and friends around me reacted with a lot of apprehension and fear. That increased my own fear, frustration and anger. The treatment I got in psychiatry did nothing to help: patronizing staff, forced drugging with injections, isolation, restraints… It was all deeply traumatic. Some parts of the ‘treatment’ felt extremely inhumane to me and rather typical of the Middle Ages.
I remember needing a long time to recover afterwards. I was depressed, numb, had nothing to say, even though I had always been a very talkative person. I felt like a bird with its wings clipped off. This lasted for about a year. Then I found a new job, not as a teacher this time, because I associated teaching too much with being in crisis. I was rather lucky because I was treated by a psychiatrist who believed in lowering and stopping my antipsychotic medication fairly soon. The next nine years I did fine, without taking any psychotropic medication.
In 2006, I gave birth to my daughter Lisa. Three months later I had an episode again. History repeated itself. I was treated identically in another Belgian psychiatric hospital. This meant I was force-medicated, secluded and restrained all over again. That experience was hell.
My altered state had hellish parts, too. Yet there were aspects of it that were quite heavenly: I saw beautiful visions and experienced an indescribable sense of all-knowingness. I also saw how the world would end (by some kind of nuclear explosion) and received the key and unbearable responsibility to stop this from happening. I somehow believed I had only five minutes left to do the job. Luckily Albert Einstein appeared and told me that everything, including time, is relative. A very friendly man, by the way.
My third and last episode took place at the end of 2008. By and large it felt like a repetition of the episode in 2006: the same vision of the apocalypse and a feeling of omniscience. The same harsh treatment in psychiatry.
In my altered state, I had suddenly understood the mystery of life and the universe, and it all seemed incredibly simple and logical. Unfortunately I could not retain this knowledge in my normal state of consciousness: it evaporated like a dream you can’t remember. After this third episode, doctors gave me the diagnosis ‘bipolar’.
What does all this say about Belgium, the European country I live in, which borders France and has a population of around 10 million? In 1996, 2006 and 2008, I was treated in three different psychiatric hospitals, in three different cities in this country, but each time I felt the treatment I got when in crisis was inadequate. At times it was inhumane. I discovered soon enough that I was not an exception, that people in crisis were treated this way all the time, that it was how the psychiatric care ‘system’ functioned in Belgium, in Europe, in large parts of the world at that.
I decided I wanted to do something about this. I wanted to make some kind of difference so 10 years ago I joined UilenSpiegel, a small non-profit organisation representing the interests of (ex-)users and survivors of mental health services in Dutch-speaking Belgium. I also started two blogs (in Dutch) last year: one about the use of seclusion in psychiatry and its traumatic effects, and one about the link between “psychosis” and spirituality and the search for alternative responses to emotional-spiritual crises. I do not know whether the pebbles I am throwing in the river will change its course, but we are a lot of pebble-throwers, and Mad in America is one considerable pebble. So here I am.