When I read recovery stories, I am sometimes challenged by the prospect of thinking about my life in linear terms, “Here are the years that I was Sick, here are the steps I’ve taken to become Well.” Nothing is ever quite so simple in my mind. How does one adequately capture 23 years of distressed dysfunction, and all that such a span of time entails? It is difficult to tell a survivor story without telling what, precisely, you survived. The world is full of trauma, slow and sudden, sustained and quick-wounding.
I tend to think in geodesics, in some fuzzy-system algorithm that I don’t fully understand. For a very long time, I thought that everybody thought in pictures and dreamt in color and saw shapes in everything. I thought that everybody noticed.
As it turns out, that apparently isn’t exactly the case. There is ample evidence that automaticity and regimentation in our frameworks of experience lead to an enhanced ability to filter stimuli. In other words, many people do not notice the vast majority of their lives.
It’s true, some people have learned to practice mindfulness and some have been lucky enough to be nurtured in an environment that values the skill of knowing what is going on around you. Some of us just can’t help it. We notice things. We cannot stop noticing. The modern life can be a bit much for those of us who care to notice. It is abundantly beautiful and complicated and simple and tragic.
Isn’t it interesting that “Stress” has been shown to exacerbate or bring about the onset of psychiatric symptoms of disorder? Isn’t it interesting that a great deal of our stress is specifically people or task/event related?
Since slowly realizing that perhaps my quirkiness was more than a flawed personality and that my distress was caused by more than a chemical imbalance, I have been talking and listening to people, trying to figure out how we might be able to see the world in the same way and learning deeply about just how truly different we all – each and everyone of us – are. I have also been noticing the ways that we are all the same.
I have found a lot of people that seem to process in a way that is similar to mine, the not-so-simple result of an “intelligence” aggregate that leaves us brightly scrambling in some areas while other areas are bounding ahead in svelte dominance. We are always traversing the cognitive intelligences, leaping and lurching across the span of emotions that exists between words and space.
My story almost killed me and, in some ways, it probably actually did kill some version of me, perhaps even several. This is a good thing. Those stories weren’t doing me or the world any good at all.
I knew I was smart, but what did I care about the word “genius.” I heard the word uttered, once, at age twelve. A set of numbers, and a vague sort of immature pride in how remarkably clever the story I’d told about the picture was… a hard-lined sketch of a girl by the water, with trees in the background, a field at right, a picture of somewhere that seems far away, where the sun would be lighting the grass… and there would be a boat, and she was a little pensive, but she knew that there was always someone watching. I liked telling the stories, it was my favorite part of the testing, though the electrodes were interesting, too. The current conducive gel was cold, and I wondered how I fell asleep so easily?
I wasn’t even tired. I was wide awake, but somehow I fell asleep fast and when I woke up they told me that I wasn’t an epileptic.
I lived in a state of misinformation for a very long time. I was not ever told how my brain works, only that it did not work the way that it should. My recovery began in earnest when I began to recognize that perhaps what I had been told about myself was incomplete and sorely biased. A lot of people go through identity crisis. However, I lived in a constant state of never quite being sure who I was or who, for that matter, anybody else was. People did not make sense to me. They are surprising and hurtful, surprising and kind. They care about things that I don’t care about and sometimes they laugh at the things that I love.
When I was four, I stood at the edge of the play area at the preschool. I watched the kids running and it didn’t look like fun to me. I felt weird. I wanted to go home. This was a problem. I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was not having fun.
By the time I entered high school, I had already had extensive psychological evaluations and had been in a locked facility for almost six weeks. It was there, at an outpost of a late-1980s for-profit chain of adolescent treatment facilities, that I learned I “had depression” and “tended to be manipulative and destructive, with suicidal tendencies and ideation.”
We said it like catechism, “My name is Faith, I’m 13, I have…” If we did not say it, if we sat in our chairs and sullenly stared at our hands, notes were taken about our “behavior” and if we questioned these notes, or raised our voice at all, we were put into a “Quiet Room” with literal padded walls, clad in vinyl for easy cleaning lest someone bleed in there.
If the way that a person experiences the world leads them to increased vulnerability to trauma, or if they experience trauma in things that most people do not find traumatic (such as fluorescent lighting) and are then punished for their attempts to communicate distress, painful pathology arises within cognitive/emotive frameworks that may not be inherently distressing or destructive.
On the days I went to school, I would rub the stiff brown bathroom towels against my eye – wide open – until I managed to scratch the cornea. That way, I would get to go home because of a “problem with my contact lenses.” I was in 9 different educational placements before I finally dropped out.
At age 25, I had navigated four psychiatric commitments and was taking 9 pills per day. My hands shook so badly that I could not sign my own name. I slept in anxious fits and the sheets smelled sour like chemicals. These were not good times.
Several years ago, I began experimenting with being very honest about my history in the psychiatric system. I left less and less out of my history. I put the lost years back in and filled the gaps in my story with the truth.
Through radical mental health and the process of becoming a Peer, I found the language and ideas that formed the basis of my recovery. I hadn’t quite realized how much I had wanted to just be honest about how hard it all is sometimes, to be honest in my admission that I understand what it is like to want whole-heartedly to simply die and to find the most beautiful things to hold onto as you try to stay alive, about what it is like to live moment-to-moment, everyday a crossroads, a conscious choice. I wanted to be honest about how hard it is to feel at odds with the world you live in.
I am often crediting people and particular technologies with saving my life. I’d have to say that the sociology professor who taught me about objective participant observation did me a great service in doing so. I think sometimes that dissociation saved me. In times of significant indignity and emotional trauma, such as forced injections and dealings with the police, I could simply shut down and consider the circumstances with a buffered and detached interest. Finding ways to look at what was happening to me in terms of broad context, making the personal political, was a life-saving mechanism for me.
“This is happening because they do not see me clearly. They do not understand what I am saying. They are operating from a different perspective. Words mean different things to them. Crying is bad. This is happening in the framework of an oppressive and inhumane system of social control, but they are trying to be nice. They are following the rules. Follow the rules and you can go home.”
Delusion has been helpful, as well. Note: Delusion, logically, does not exist. There is no such thing as a false belief. If you believe in something, it’s real.
“This is happening because I am going through a test and there is a strong possibility that the nice officer is Illuminati, but he might not know it yet…”
Delusion can also be frightening and worrisome. However, rarely is it as frightening and worrisome as real life.
When I speak about recovery I make it clear that, to me, this is not an issue of eliminating my psychiatric symptoms, my lofty highs and my tragic lows, my far-flung thoughts and peculiar imaginings, the things I notice and the way that they stick in my mind and unfold. These are the things that make me who I am and I am learning to manage myself in a way that empowers me to live my life as I see fit.
I began to recover in earnest defiance when I realized that I had “been written all wrong” and that all the people who, on a regular basis for years, offered their professional opinion on the inner-workings of Faith R. Rhyne really had no idea what they were talking about. I was playing a part. They were playing a part. I became what they told me I was, because that is what happens to people. I became a loser when I lost myself to their perception.
They say that Mind is our perspective. I saw myself as I saw them seeing me and they saw me as I saw myself.
I hit the diagnostic marks for more than a couple SPMI, Axis 1 disorders. However, I don’t think that I was, upon birth, doomed to have a mental illness.
I may have been blessed with a brain that works in interesting ways and a keen sensitivity to environmental stimuli, a strong visual memory and a way with language.
These attributes didn’t turn into a curse until I went to school and experienced invasive psychiatry.
I understand that people have pain. I have pain. It comes and goes, sometimes several times in the course of a long day or a short hour. I live with active psychiatric symptoms. I understand that such things exist. They can be profoundly distressing, given circumstances and reactions.
I wonder sometimes if I would have the disorder that I have if I had not had some of the experiences I have had. I am pretty sure that I would probably be a brilliant academician or quirky vagabond or meticulous gardener, a brilliant homeschooling mother, fearless and self-assured. I could be all those things, and have – at various points – been all those things. These are the parts of me that got obscured. These are the parts that I had to fight to keep and some of them are badly tattered.
They got torn up in all the construction and deconstruction, damaged in the treatment.
I have had three severe and total breaks, when I lost control of consciousness and could not adequately navigate my experience for long periods of time. All of those times are bracketed by significant social/emotional/frightening event trauma. Bad things happen to people.
This is a truth we all must share. We live in a world where very bad things happen.
I do not ever diminish the profound struggle it sometimes is to stay alive in such a cruel and confusing world. I do, however, need to question the etiology of mental illness and the “therapeutic value” of approaching people with complete disregard for the legitimacy of their human experience and the truth of the pain that some stories carry.
To suggest that our concerns – be they symptom or side-effect – are not relevant is to suggest that we have no authority in determining who we are. That is disabling in a very basic way.
There are a lot of lies in medical psychiatry. For all the lives that have been “saved” far greater numbers have been lost. If we consider figurative death, when people shut down and resign themselves to a life of endless misery or when they are assisted in doing so by practices such as malpractice and chemical/social restraints of humanity, well… the figures must be staggering.
I don’t want medical model psychiatry to exist anymore.
There are better ways. We know this to be true. These are the facts that hold my attention. I am a problem solver by nature, but sometimes it takes me a while. I do know that, as psychiatric survivors, it is vital that we stake our claim on the legitimacy of our voices.
We are The Experts and The Professionals.
They need to listen to us.
They are making terrible mistakes.
Giving children risperidone!? What a dreadful idea!
This is why I keep trying to sort my ideas and clarify my voice. Good stories are powerful.
The more people tell their stories, the more the truth prevails and that gives me Hope.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.