The Wind Never Lies

Steven Morgan
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When I was young I believed the world spoke to me.  Lightning split across the sky to the pulse of my thoughts.  Rings around the moon prophesized the apocalypse.  My cat winked at me to let me know he understood.  Clouds parted like curtains to welcome a shining God.

For most of my youth this deep connection to the Natural world mystified me, pulling me into forests and spinning my imagination wild.  Then at age twenty-two I finally discovered its secret.

Earlier that year I had been diagnosed with major mental illness.  Suddenly I had wondered – often painfully – how much of my past was led not by free will or cosmic connection, but by disease.  As I searched for answers, I absorbed medical texts, self-help books, and bestselling memoirs.  I grew increasingly vulnerable to biological explanations for my behavior – Your brain is broken – in part because these theories absolved me of guilt and responsibility for experiences that were shameful.  For instance, I was relieved to learn that repeatedly tapping in patterns of three to save my grandmother’s life was caused by an overheating of my caudate nucleus.  And I felt less maniacal knowing that six months contemplating death every hour was caused by low serotonin.

Yet the flipside – the explosive creativity, moments of divine insight, periods of super-wit and magnetism, communication with Nature – was not so easily resigned to biological determinism.  How was I to make sense of this paradox, that while some mood swings are grave and disabling, others are rich with meaning and evolvement?

According to the respected literature Bipolar Disorder is a disease of the brain.  This means I would have to deny scientific reason to cherry-pick which extremities are diseasified and which are not based on their subjective worth.

At the time, I needed answers, not another harrowing epoch of existential angst, so I adopted a mental illness worldview and began to label almost everything that veered up or down in my experiences as caused by pathology in my head.  In effect, I re-authored my life story, tossing fragments of my history into clinical categories of mania and depression.

One day I came across text that specifically labeled “believing the wind is communicating with you” as a symptom of Bipolar Disorder.  I immediately thought about my friend.  She had also felt a deep connection to the world, and she was also diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.  We had shared moments of profound synchronicity in which the wind had danced inside our unmedicated conversations at exactly the right moment, too right to have been a coincidence.

With my new perspective, there was only one explanation for this experience and others of a similar nature.  They were simply neurochemical errors devoid of meaning.

From then on, the world still spoke to me, but I stopped listening.  When the wind would swarm me at too perfect a moment to be coincidental, I would remind myself, “The wind isn’t speaking to you.  You have a mental illness that makes you believe otherwise.”  I began to lose trust in my intuition and the significance of my experiences, and the way I made meaning of the world suddenly became a suspect for deceit.  Such is the effect of being diagnosed with an illness that presumes to know your mind better than you ever can.  You resign your voice and become a doubter.

***

My resignation to a forecast of disability was short-lived, however.  I have always harbored a fierce independence that – whether consciously or unconsciously – puppeteers my actions, and eventually we sought to unwed mental illness.  But first I had to make major life changes.

At the time I was fulfilling a typical Bipolar prognosis by living at my father’s house as an unemployed artist.  My fresh diagnosis was an ace in the hole to excuse inaction, but I felt ashamed and irresponsible for not holding my weight as a man.  In an effort to jumpstart my life, I dove into a respectable social program that trains and places promising college graduates as teachers in the poorest areas of the country.

Here was a chance to reclaim my dignity.  Here was a challenge to prove I could be successful just like everyone else.  Here was an opportunity to show my friends and family I was not a lost cause naïve to the real world and blanketed by idealism.  I invested all my pride in the endeavor, throwing away my Bipolar label overnight and the sedating mood stabilizer that came with it.

My training consisted of grueling eighteen-hour work days for five weeks straight.  At first I was vivacious, often praised by my colleagues for creativity and energy, but by the end I had completely burned out.

I headed to my assigned region of South Dakota with barely any life-force.  In a lonely house along a dirt road, I was overwhelmed by sleeplessness, paranoia, disconnection, feelings of abandonment and utter exhaustion.  Despite a desperate attempt to revive myself with exercise and meditation, I eventually fell apart and landed in a hospital.

Here is what I wrote several months after the experience:

When I walked into the hospital, slow as a ghost, my arms bloodied and face covered in agony, I noticed the hospital workers noticing me.  It felt very intrusive, and I wore a scared, nervous face in front of their inquisitions, both verbal and silent. 

“Soooooooo, how long you been bipolar?”  The doctor’s chirpy South Dakotan accent made the question all the more intolerable.  I felt like her question was cruel, invasive, insensitive, ignorant, said with a doctor’s ease while I sat there in the gloom of my misery expected to answer in a coherent way. 

“What kind of question is that?” I replied.  I wasn’t confrontational.  Indeed, I was scared because deep down, the question made me feel more insane than I had previously acknowledged.

Even now, I can feel the humiliation of awakening in that rocky bed:  eyes weighted with tears, skin torn by teeth marks, throat lined with liquid charcoal, hand punctured by IV, thoughts clouded by haldol, heart stinging with guilt, mind terrified and confused.  And I recall the doctor inches away from my face holding a pill between her thumb and index finger.  “This will make you feel better,” she smirked with vague condescension, as if the boundless suffering before her was just another Bipolar gone off his meds…shame on him.

I cannot explain in words the trauma of those months.  What I can tell you is that for years a mark had been appearing on the center of my chest that changed in color according to my moods.  Though it had arrived in a shade of light brown, the year after South Dakota it doubled in size – like a virus spreading – and deepened into a blood red.  Every morning thereafter, I saw that mark in the mirror and it reminded me of my utter failure at life, as inescapable as my breath beneath it.

I wanted the rest of the world to see my pain too.  One night, after drinking and ripping car keys across my forearm, I took a razor and shaved my head – a highly symbolic act since growing out my hair had led to my first girlfriends – then grabbed a knife and hacked away at my face, chest, and arms.

Alongside a second hospital stay, it was becoming too difficult to deny I had serious problems, and equally as alluring to again accept the bottomline that mental illness explained me.  Tired and defeated, I stopped trying to connect the dots and came to see my breakdown in South Dakota as the result of quitting medications, getting manic, and crashing into depression.  With that association in mind I became terrified of discontinuing medications ever again.  And there were plenty of people to confirm the wisdom of my fear.  In fact, I soon discovered that all Bipolar advice orbits around one unshakeable core:  Whatever you do, no matter how good or stable you feel, NEVER quit your meds, or else…

This way of thinking is justified by the belief that Bipolar is an incurable chemical imbalance in the brain which medications help restore.  Given the overwhelming presence of this theory in the media, medical texts, and amongst professionals and peers, I presumed it was backed by hard science and became invested in taking pills for the rest of my life.

I even began openly expressing to others that I was taking ‘my meds,’ as if the choice made me a ‘good patient’ worthy of inclusion and accolades.  However, my emergence into a walking advertisement for the pharmaceutical companies came at the price of repressing internal conflicts.  Indeed, no matter how much support and validation people offered, no matter how many times I reminded myself mine was a medical disease ‘like diabetes’ which required medical solutions, the pills never quit instilling within me their unlisted side effects of shame, unnaturalness, isolation, and dependency.  It is simply impossible to forget you are crazy when you eat from five bottles of pills every day.

Still, I could not consider quitting medications because I could not think outside my experiences.  To survive then, I lowered my expectations and silenced my shame.

And with that I swept away the shards of my identity, aimlessly crawling through a new world where the limit came before the sky, and I solemnly accepted that my mind would forever be prisoner to the punishment of my brain.

***

After a brief relationship resurrected feelings of abandonment, the mark over my chest was aching and my soul was sinking.  In response, I sought some project to once again restore my worth.  Eventually my efforts transpired into creating a film about Bipolar Disorder.  I sold many of my possessions to purchase film equipment, all the while rationalizing a need to push myself into highs and lows to make the movie more realistic.

After months of mad creativity, I recall an evening where I could not form sentences from beginning to end.  A couple of days later I wrote a suicide note and tucked it into my mattress, then checked into a hospital.

My previous hospitalization had been relatively helpful, but this stay was pure damage.  Having my shoelaces taken away now felt degrading, pointing to stick-figured faces – Happy, Sad, Angry – while setting a daily goal now felt infantilizing, smoking in a cage with other demoralized people now felt depressing, being locked indoors after voluntarily checking-in now felt infuriating, being told not to carry on conversations with the opposite sex now felt discriminating, and being observed every fifteen minutes during my sleepless evenings now felt invasive.

Yet my integrity was buried beneath a need to be liked, so I behaved as a good patient, never connecting my humiliation to external circumstances.

After a week I lied to the psychiatrist about my suicidal status, and upon release I made a vow:  I will never return to a psychiatric hospital, no matter what sacrifices are necessary to stay afloat.

To pass each day I drank just enough beers to sedate my thoughts.  To pass each night I popped sleeping pills at dusk.  Though I remained desiccated by suicidal thoughts for months, I knew from experience that eventually the pain would dissolve.

There was also a reason to be hopeful.  While researching the aforementioned film, I had met a woman who raised money for me to attend the state’s Certified Peer Specialist Project, which trains people with psychiatric labels to work in the mental health system from a peer perspective.  Though I knew nothing about this line of work, I was encouraged by the prospect of employment.

At the two-week training, I kept my recent hospitalization a secret, and was skilled enough at hiding disillusionment to push through classes for the first week.  Then, over the weekend break I hiked eleven miles to a desolate beach.  As I stood in front of the ocean, I was starving to feel her presence but could not connect.  Nature was severed from my nerves.  An immense rage swept me and I screamed at the full capacity of my lungs, then flapped in the sand like a fish out of water, murmuring and drooling and gasping for life.

When I returned to the training I broke down sobbing to a peer.  She listened to my confusion and loss, then revealed some of her own struggles, particularly as a writer.  Referring to a creative project she was working on, she said, “If I don’t finish this, I will have failed at life.”  At any other time, in any other context, her words would have slipped by, but instead they flipped a switch.

Suddenly I realized I too could fail at life, which meant I too could succeed, which meant that life was not just a careless unfolding but purposeful, and if she could emerge from immense struggles to inhabit meaning, perhaps I could too.

This brief sense of optimism carried me through the second week of training, and upon returning home I began the slow work of moving away from lost causes and toward some kind of intentional, integrated life.

_______________________________________________________

 

Jim was a 60-year old bear of a man, fluff but stern with eyes that frequently watered from inspiration.  He sat on a meditation cushion on the floor to look upwards at me as a gesture of humility.  There was a seriousness for truth in the air which I immensely valued.  He never reduced any of my experiences to mental illness nor used any diagnostic vocabulary, but I still subscribed to those contexts for making meaning.

At our first therapy session, I poured out my Bipolar story while he listened patiently, still as a rock.  In the final minutes he responded: “Now, I would like to tell you about myself.”  Then he happened upon exactly the right words, in exactly the right no-bullshit tone, with exactly the right conviction:  “Steven, I too am a wild man.”  And he meant it.

From then on, I knew I would be leaving practicalities at the door.  Our work was to map dense forests of archetypes, dreams, gods, love, manhood, and madness.  He introduced me to the work of Carl Jung, whose concepts were a lantern in the darkest realms of psyche.

During our fourth meeting together, I haphazardly recalled a dream.  I had always dreamed vividly, often shaken in the morning by their complexity of imagery and intensity of message.  Though I had derived some truth from them in the past, I had never been able to decode their ultimate function.

The dream I spoke of contained a buffalo, who appeared near the end and told me, “Do not be afraid.”  I remember feeling the dream was inconsequential, but Jim treated it with sacredness, remarking, “Steven, there is nothing meaningless about Wakan Tanka.”  Wakan Tanka is the name given to the Buffalo/Great Spirit by the Lakota Sioux, whose land I had lived on while in South Dakota.  Though I had failed to make the obvious connection, Jim helped me realize that the buffalo’s appearance in my dream meant something.  I was being communicated with.

The more I gave attention to my dreams, the more they responded, and soon I was navigating symbols too multifaceted to be trivialized in words.  The immediate effect of this experience was profoundly healing.  For one, the messages directly opened up locks to expansion and elevation, but more significantly they became an umbilical cord back to God.

While diagnosis had disconnected me from others and my own experiences, my dreams mended this separation by reconnecting me to humanity, the divine, Nature, and also to the inseparableness of the three.  Their mythological nature made me feel important again, as if I were decoding a great secret that was inaccessible to – or at least denied by – most people.  There was admittedly a dangerous element of ego-satisfaction (“I’m special!”) built into this process that would need addressing later on, but at the time the pride was absolutely necessary for restoring my sense of value to the world.

Of course, nine months of therapy was not all “Ah ha!” moments.  There was grieving over relationships and suffering from opening the floodgates of repression and clearing the spiderwebs to my past.  But Jim became a father in these scenarios, validating my secrets and loving me for the volatile creative spirit that so infused my passions yet isolated me from others.  He even told me once he loved me, and he meant it, a moment of naked humanity that single-handedly patched a tear in my heart.

All of my work with psyche culminated in a peak experience.  I had been reading Eastern spiritual texts for years, but despite a brief flirtation with meditation in South Dakota had yet to actualize it.  One night I decided to try again, and as I sat in the moonlight in front of a white wall, a surge of energy transmuted me, presenting a ritualistic dance of truths and visions that shook my consciousness to its core.  For the two months that followed, I lived behind a colorful trance through which I could see auras and vivid patterns everywhere.  At first, meditation fostered this psychedelic experience, but as the intensity faded it became a vessel for me to a clearer and more direct world.

During this time of evolvement, I used my training as a peer specialist to work at a progressive recovery center for adults with diagnoses.  Inspired by the beautiful people who came there, I began to grasp the concept of recovery in mental health.  To me, recovery meant that I could live a meaningful life with illness.  My self-conception shifted from believing disease fueled my emotions to believing disease fueled some of my emotions, and I graduated my story from I am Bipolar to I have Bipolar.  Still, I was locked into psychiatric seermongering that my brain would forever be hostile in its natural state.

Then one day everything changed.

***

After moving to Vermont for a new job, I began attending meetings and trainings with individuals who were leaders in the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement.  At one of these week-long trainings, one of the facilitators was a bright and humane man whose empathic charisma immediately earned my respect.  Midway through the week, he revealed he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was not taking medications.  Now, until that moment, despite all my research and conversations, I had never met nor heard of anyone diagnosed with major mental illness who was successfully living without medications.

I was perplexed.  I probed for his secret, and he smiled warmly, replying, “I believe that if this is something you want to do, you will find a way.”  The integrity in withholding his path empowered me to find my own without his influence.  Yet his presence was enough – a living example that life without medications was possible – to inflame my will.  The second before I was staying on my chemical regime for life.  Now I was interested in quitting.

I approached withdrawing with caution.  There was enough distance between my present experiences and past meltdowns to forget the force of cyclonic emotions.  I was terrified that my brain would revert to its diseasified operations once relieved of its medicinal police.  I cut most of my doses slowly to test the outcome, while maintaining a commitment to a healthy lifestyle as fundamental to staying centered.

The whole process took six months, after which I noticed two shifts:  my mind sharpened and my heart opened.  Both of these factors were double-edged swords.  On the one hand I could think more clearly and feel a wider spectrum of aliveness.  On the other hand my restored intellect would once again lead me to face the graveness in our world, and my increased sensitivities would once again produce dense emotions in response.

But the real challenge came to my identity.  At first I was too occupied with watching for signs of mental slippage to indulge in existential contemplation.  But after a few months, as I realized I was clearer and even relatively grounded, the question inevitably arose:  What happened to the chemical imbalance in my brain? 

To find answers I started researching heavily.  Instead of relying – as I had in the past – on government agencies, major organizations, professionals, and bestselling books for explanations of mental illness, I went straight to the source:  to the scientific journals that provide empirical evidence to support or refute psychiatric theories.

***

The first and most striking fact I unearthed was that a chemical imbalance had never been observed in a human brain.  Surely, I thought, this must be a mistake, as everything I read elsewhere concluded that an imbalance of neurotransmitters was the cause of mental illness.  Such a ubiquitous claim would have to be backed by solid science, right?  I then discovered there was no way to measure live neurotransmitter levels in the human brain, so there was no “healthy level” of neurotransmitters by which to even make comparisons.  Furthermore, I learned that if chemical imbalances did exist, they could be caused by a person’s experiences.  Therefore, if I did have an imbalance, I would have no way of determining whether it had biologically erupted to cause my psychological, spiritual, and emotional crises, or whether it was a biological reflection of them.

Soon enough, I realized that even though the chemical imbalance theory was a gross oversimplification of how the brain and mind operate, it was coasting through the masses on a wave of propaganda designed and funded by pharmaceutical giants, who directly benefitted from its treatment implications.

As my presumptions fell apart, I investigated more into the concept of psychiatric recovery.  I found that nearly all long-term studies indicate that the majority of people diagnosed with major mental illness significantly recover over time.  That was news.  Furthermore, I learned that medications are ineffective and even harmful to a large minority of people with major diagnoses, and that some alternative treatment models which use little or no medications have produced better results than treatment-as-usual.  That was news, too.

But if mental illness is a brain problem, and if people who experience mental illness can recover significantly, what happens to their brain problem?  Is it fixed?  Was mine fixed?

At this juncture I stumbled onto neuroplasticity.  In science, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s natural ability to change, adapt, and heal across the lifespan.  I learned that the brain was highly malleable, changing its structure and chemistry in response to both internal and external stimuli – from thinking positively to experiencing trauma.  Most importantly, I learned that utilizing the brain’s natural potential to heal, people were recovering from massive strokes, head traumas, overcoming learning disabilities, rewiring obsessive-compulsive behavior, erasing the pain of phantom limbs, restoring memory acuity, enhancing cognitive processing during old age, learning to see without eyesight, strengthening muscles just by thinking about them, using meditation to create lower-stress neurological states, and on and on.

If people could train their brains to overcome these problems, why not major mental illness?

The research base for neuroplasticity and psychiatric recovery was small, but there was enough evidence to strongly suggest that many of the biological abnormalities correlated with psychiatric symptoms were reversible or could be compensated for by other areas of the brain.

And so I quite naturally asked, had my brain physically changed?  Had my lifestyle changes reversed my mental illness on a physiological level?

Certainly this was the case with obsessions and compulsions.  Whereas I once ‘got stuck’ performing irrational rituals all the time to relieve anxiety, years of challenging my thoughts had equipped me to disengage from habitual mindstreams.  With the power to observe and respond in different ways, I completely eliminated most obsessions and compulsions.  Studies into Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder have visually documented that such efforts actually rewire the brain.

But Bipolar Disorder was different.  It was always presented as chronic, persistent, and lifelong.  Was I just in remission like the literature said, an unmedicated brain temporarily strong but ready to surrender at the first invasion of stress?

I was not satisfied with that hopeless hypothesis.  It seemed a slick way to firewall psychiatric creed – “No one beats Bipolar Disorder” – against anyone who is well without medications.  So I changed the question from Am I still Bipolar? to Who decides what is Bipolar and what is not?

I was amazed that by merely asking a different question, I encountered a hidden world of alternative perspectives.  I dove into criticism of psychiatry – most notably into its history – and grew outraged at what I found.  I came to realize that mental illness was a culturally-defined construct, prone to bias and judgment.  Indeed, I learned that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by professionals to diagnose people had no medical objectivity whatsoever, and was instead a collection of opinions about behavior that changed with social trends.

There was no doubt that people with major diagnoses underwent profound psychological, emotional, and spiritual suffering.  Yet the evidence that such suffering was caused by a biological disease was flimsy, no more convincing than the evidence that such suffering was caused by a complex psychological reaction to overwhelming life circumstances.  But biological psychiatry had won the rights to define mental illness, in no small measure because it met the ideological needs and financial ambitions of pharmaceutical companies, who in turn funded many of its institutions, scientists, and research grants.  The endless other vessels to understanding behavior – sociology, psychology, anthropology, mythology, spirituality, or just plain ol’ individual interpretation – had been overpowered.

As I learned and integrated this information into my worldview, the glue that stuck mental illness to me loosened.  I started to wake up to a different reality, one in which I used terms like experiences instead of symptoms, trauma instead of disease, problems instead of illness, and neuroplasticity instead of chemical imbalance.  I engaged in a process of re-authoring my life story once again, casting off the disease paradigm and shifting my self-conception from I have Bipolar to I am fully human.  At the same time I experienced an incident of painful discrimination that reminded me of my status in society.

I had applied for an expensive scholarship to attend a breathwork retreat with progressive psychiatrist Stanlislov Grof and Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield.  My scholarship was approved, after which I was sent a standard medical questionnaire.  At the top it indicated the workshop was not appropriate for people with certain conditions, including those “with mental illness.”  However, I assumed the workshop’s pioneering facilitators would factor in my current health, which I documented in detail as evidence that I was “appropriate.”  After a lengthy discourse with Dr. Grof’s assistant in which I further pleaded my case, Dr. Grof personally rejected my scholarship on the grounds I was a risk.

I was totally devastated.  My enormous efforts to arise from the restraints of diagnosis were simply not enough to convince others I was not disabled.  No matter how I conceived of myself, my psychiatric history would forever follow me.  Though I found my ensuing rage challenging to navigate without medications, I was equally thankful that I could feel such intensity again.  In the past, I would employ coping skills to eliminate strong feelings, but this time I used them as a catalyst for action and advocacy.

Over the next year, I translated the research I had gathered into written resources and presentations.  I worked with other mental health workers to create more recovery-based environments, while bringing my new perspective into support groups as a facilitator and educator.  I also began sharing my story publically, and each time I uncovered more and more of my authentic voice.

And something strange happened:  that mark over my chest that had gauged my pain for eight years, that had been confirmed by a dermatologist as a stress indicator and not an allergic reaction, that had physically mirrored my mind as it shattered and my heart as it choked, that mark of suffering disappeared.

__________________________________________________

 

It has been over five years since I quit medications and seven years since I last entered a hospital seeking help.  Nothing has been steady, and I have stumbled along a rocky path that is at times overwhelming, at times insightful.  Such is life, and I am grateful for it.

Each day, my story grows and changes in unpredictable ways, but one thing has become clear in my understanding:  I am not nor have I ever been mentally ill.

Yes, at certain times I fit all the criteria for Bipolar II in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but the conclusions of a small group of academics who create taxonomies of human behavior hardly constitute my truth, thus I grant them no authority.  Instead, I perceive my experiences as a complex manifestation of intrinsic character, society and culture, relationships, physical health, biological processes, past experiences, collective energies, and forces beyond my understanding, and each varies in degree depending on the situation.

But none of my experiences are ill.

Indeed, I cannot believe that I have something inside me called Bipolar Disorder, for my thoughts and emotions which could be labeled as such are not separate from my selfhood and therefore I will not postulate them as disordered.  That would be denying and perhaps hating myself.  All of it – the ups, the downs, the middle ground – is me.  I cannot apply the same logic of having a disease like diabetes toward the myriad of feelings and experiences that I essentially am.  Otherwise, I would have to split my mental content and emotions – both of which often escape my conscious control – into healthy and unhealthy compartments according to arbitrary judgments from doctors whom I have never met, and to be honest, that’s absurd, dismissive of existential purpose, and detrimental to the integrity of my complex existence.  It also breeds more inner conflict.

I believe that in most instances, though not all, the reduction of experiences to biological causality sucks dry the poetry of life and denies that extremes can in fact be the final, necessary, and dangerously unpredictable step before new maturation.

So where does this leave me?  Things come up, things go away, and when they do, there I am.  The wind blows, but it never lies.  When despair arrives, I am despair.  When fired up arrives, I am fired up.  If I choose to sink back into a witnessing state cultivated by meditative practice, I am witnessing.  States of existence – dangerous to judge and painful to deny, rolling on and on and on, each one pushes toward the next by some force which I do not comprehend.  It is the Great Mystery, and I feel utterly okay not having figured it out.

This is not to deny the impact of extrinsic events upon well-being.  Like nearly everyone who receives a major psychiatric label, traumatic experiences have influenced me and continue to contribute to my suffering.  As a society, we all need to wake up to the obvious connection between trauma and psychiatric disorders.  But just as I am no longer willing to resign my belief that the wind is communicative to a neurochemical error, I am equally unwilling to resign my emotional states solely to the past.  In all truth, there is no way to neatly sum up why I entered a psychiatric hospital in 2004.  It all happened on the tail end of 24 years – that’s 756,864,000 seconds – of being alive.  And who could possibly understand such an expanse?

What is important to me now is to take full responsibility for what I do, to know that there are storylines that glimpse truth, and to learn and experiment with living in ways that are intuitively authentic.  And since intuition and authenticity grows, there is no endpoint, no enlightenment, no final solution to or ultimate recovery from suffering.

And thank God, for what a liberation it is to know that – just like you – I am plainly human:  irreducible to theoretical constructs, unfathomable in my fullness, aching and celebrating with pain and love, moving in all directions at once, complex and stacked, an imperfect being and a sliver of God’s perfection.

Alas, it’s a diagnosis that works for me.

29 COMMENTS

  1. One of the best. A personal interpretation of your own life, snatched from the jaws of the ideology that would presume to impose its interpretation on you.

    But isn’t it tragic and sad, that if this entire essay were to be recited by the author at a commitment hearing, it would be used as further evidence of his brain disease and used to justify caging the author and assaulting his brain with forced drugging.

    While individuals can, with great painstaking work, carve out some solidity and freedom for themselves, society stands ever ready to snatch it away.

    Naming and shaming Dr. Grof, was necessary and brave.

  2. A beautifully written and powerful story that should be mandatory reading for anyone working in the mental health field. Your search for the truth about your own experience is such a powerful indightment of Biological Psychiatry and an inspiration to all to who have been labeled with so-called mental diseases.

    I love your description of how your journey led you to seek out and learn real science (as opposed to their sham science) and wield it as another tool in your struggle for liberation.

    I hope to find ways to pass on your story in my work in community mental health.

  3. Steven,
    As I’ve already told you, I find this piece of writing to be one of the most powerful articulations of what it means to become imprisoned by psychiatry, and more importantly, what it means to free oneself from its grasp. The journey you went on, that first led you so far into the dark that you didn’t know up from down, next led you to begin to question, and finally led you to your own Truth, is unbelievably parallel to my own, and I love knowing that there are many more of us out there who have walked the same journey.

    You write, “Such is the effect of being diagnosed with an illness that presumes to know your mind better than you ever can. You resign your voice and become a doubter.” I got teary when I read that, because that was exactly what happened to me. Still today, though I know the Truth, I sometimes find myself in moments of intense self-doubt, wondering whether I can trust my gut and my thoughts, or whether maybe, just maybe, I’m really at root just a self-destructive, self-sabotaging, less-than person with a deep-seated “death wish” (yes, four or so years ago, I got extensive “psych testing”, including the lovely Rorschach test, and this is what the experts wrote in my report, and what I was told about myself). Although these moments of self-doubt are very brief, and I am quickly able to check in with my own reality and acknowledge that I am none of those things, they are intense, and they bring me right back to the thirteen years I spent with a silenced voice and an infinitely deep well of self-doubt.

    This is the conundrum of leaving behind the mental health system– I’ve found that in order to do it, I needed a spark inside of me ignited that I didn’t even know I had, and thus that I couldn’t just turn on myself. Without that spark– which for me was one of hope, of self-determination, and of realizing that I was no different than everyone else– I never would have left, and today, I would either be dead by suicide, or still floating around like a disconnected zombie, waiting to get enough courage to end it all. Unfortunately, I can’t pinpoint exactly why it was that I got that spark, or how. I just did, at the moment I was meant to, I guess, and in my opinion it is a light that only I could turn on, despite not even realizing it was there all along.

    Your voice, my voice, and the voices of each and every one of us who has been labelled by psychiatry, are all vital to this cause, and I feel such beautiful, intense joy knowing that you’re working as hard as you are up in Vermont to spread the message it is clear we are both destined to carry. I am honored to be a young person in this civil rights movement with you, and I am excited by the future, because I believe in my heart that we all have the potential to dismantle the psychiatric institution of Biopower that has so many of our fellows voiceless, hopeless, and drowning in self-doubt.

    Onwards,
    Laura

  4. A brilliant exploration of your inner journey Steven, and a wonderful example of where the debate about mental illness needs to go, imo. I’ve struggled with the same issues, having a diagnosis of bipolar type 1, which does fit observable behavior patterns, in terms of a cyclic organization of mobilizing & immobilizing energy?

    I remember the great relief of a seemingly accurate diagnosis, some ten years after an initial diagnosis of schizophrenia, and despair of further decade of hit and miss medications. Suffice to say that the strength of my psychotic episodes never unabated, whether on or off medication.

    Like you I stumble along a rocky path, with faith in my birth right nature and its God evolved, surprising capacity for intuition. Deciding five years ago, that the remainder of my life would be spent trying to understand this experience from the inside out. I completely agree with your sentiment;

    “And thank God, for what a liberation it is to know that – just like you – I am plainly human: irreducible to theoretical constructs, unfathomable in my fullness, aching and celebrating with pain and love, moving in all directions at once, complex and stacked, an imperfect being and a sliver of God’s perfection”

    Although I have a slightly different intuition on the nature of God. Its an intuition that will not leave me alone, and has haunted my life since my first out of body experience, aged 12. The silver of God’s perfection, in my intuitive sense, are all those chemical elements within, which form the reality of that warm heart phrase, “we are stardust?” A phrase which perhaps we can begin to embody, if we accept the need for shift in self-interpretation, from object-like analogy to chemical. All the research from the early 1990’s on, points more and more to an overwhelmingly chemical constitution, misunderstood by classical cause & effect thinking? A cause & effect logic, stimulated by our vision of the separation of objects.

    Understanding slivers of truth, has shifted my own self-interpretation towards sensing a chemical frizz within, which organizes my bipolar energies through my heart/brain/body systems? A shift which as JZ Knight suggests in very popular documentary, “does this notion diminish God, no, it opens the door to allowing God to be, to realizing we are the Universe, we are fearless entities after a dream?” The Universe evolving into a form which acts upon itself?

    Is it time to find unity in all our various slivers of truth, to change our metaphors of self-interpretation, and allow a feeling of unity, beneath our idealized theories? Consider;

    “Huxley accepts the textual facts for what they in fact seem to be and then illustrates them with a telling chemical metaphor that we might now recognize as an early traumatic model for the mystical, perhaps best expressed in this story in the mystical life and psychological sufferings of Dick Price. Here is how Huxley put it in 1944:

    “Nothing in our everyday experience gives us any reason for supposing that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen; and yet when we subject water to certain rather drastic treatments, the nature of its constituent elements becomes manifest. Similarly, nothing in our everyday experience gives us much reason for supposing that the mind of the average sensual man has, as one of its constituents, something resembling, or identical with, the Reality substantial to the manifold world; and yet, when that mind is subjected to drastic treatments, the divine element, of which it is in part at least composed, becomes manifest.”

    And from my own stumbling, fumbling exploration of inner mystery and intuitive metaphors of creative meaning;

    “Quiet an experience to live in fear, isn’t it. That’s what it is to be a slave.”

    A slave to our denied and unconscious motivation?

    The movie Blade Runner has been voted the best science fiction movie ever made, and its exploration of the human condition is layered with metaphor and meaning from beginning to end. Rutger Hauer’s immortal line “I’ve seen things you people would not believe,” resonates deeply with my experience of psychosis. The innate anxiety of being self-consciously human begs for meaningful interpretation in each new born generation. As anxious questions about being plague each of us to one degree or another. Questions like “how should I be, how will I cope and where do I belong?” After doing my best to highlight differences between our common consensus reality, and natures reality within. How it stimulates varying levels of consciousness from surface image and subjective awareness, to increasingly subtle depths of a sense of oceanic oneness? Its time to state more simply an understanding of my thirty two year journey and my five year road to recovery. A road which has been a steady process of self-discovery, beneath the subjective norms of common awareness. What started as a need to understand my apparently diseased brain, led me into a deeper understanding of my dis-eased body-mind, through the daily practice of subtle sensation awareness. Education was the key factor early on as I read more detailed explanations about my brain-nervous systems hidden activity, with a “wow there’s whole different world inside me,“ beginning this five year process of self-revelation and re-interpretation. There are few experiences like altered states of mind, and seemingly crazy behavior’s which so demand a deeper examination of one’s own reality? A deeper examination than any cognitive awareness is capable of, in my humble opinion. Even though it was our amazing cognitive capacity for objective observation which educated me towards deeper insights, only a daily practice of sensation awareness beneath my chattering mind, has set me free from fear and the slavery of ignorant self-doubt. Sensate awareness has quickened my life-long fascination with myth, metaphor and meaning, making me wonder about our current age and its yearning for existential meaning and new way of being?”

    http://www.born2psychosis.blogspot.com/p/chp-12.html#understanding

    In deep gratitude for your shining example of our need to articulate to ourselves, and mainstream consensus reality, what the experience of madness actually is? If we don’t believe in mental illness theory, what is it that we are recovering from?

    Can one recover from the human condition, or only seek its further maturity through a deeper understanding?

  5. An incredible chronology, it in so many ways reminded me of my climb out of the abyss. The honesty and vivid reality I’m sure will be a catalyst and motivation for all who read it.

    Thank-you for masterfully affirming what I know to be the truth.

  6. Stephen, Fantastic piece.I think it will be Mad Pride classic. Have you read my new book, The Spiritual Gift of Madness..?–I’ll come back to that. (I discussed it on Coast to Coast 2 weeks ago, along with Paul Levy who is in my book and whose trajectory is remarkably similar to yours.) “Mental illness”” “biochemical imbalances”etc are self fulfilling prophecies–and very socially destructive. I am a renegade psychologist. I read this quickly because I’m short on time now.
    I’ll re-read it again later. Powerful prose. I was glad you finally ended up rejecting the lynchpin in the psychiatric delusional system–“mental illness.” I’ve long been frustrated with transpersonal psychology for not having the courage or moral integrity of Szasz or Laing. Grof was supposed to be on the more radical wing of transpersonal psychology. He never transcended his Freudian background. So really he was a gatekeeper. He decided there is a small elite of spiritual people who have been “”misdiagnosed”” as “mentally ill.”” THAT became transpersonal view. What garbage. Thus Grof reifies and reinforces the construct of mental illness and obscures the fact that it is only a construct. I say that EVERY psychiatric diagnosis is a misdiagnosis. Grof rescued a small elite. Ken Wilber was worse–prepared to throw ALL “schizophrenics”to the psychiatric wolves, he wielded his “pre/trans fallacy” in order to relegate spiritual experiences of psychiatric patients to realm of deep pathology. Wilber was a transpersonal emotional lobotomist.
    But here is the point of my book. Those labeled mentally ill are forerunners in the process of spiritual evolution–a process that Psychiatry is trying to suppress.And is largely successful. I advocate that the Mad Pride movement, or at least forces in the movement, return to its original inspiration as expressed in The Icarus Projec5t Mission statement: Madness consists of mad gifts that can contribute to the transformation of the planet. That was affirmed and then abandoned by nthe founders of TIP. As you can see inthe interview in my book with my friend Sascha DuBrul, cofounder of TIP. He abandoned mad gifts perspective 4 years after he formulated it–unfortunately.
    I propose a Mad Pride metanarrative –R D Laing came close to formulating this in 1967, but Laing was too individualistic to think in collective terms.. Many of the mad think they have a messianic mission to save the planet. Psychiatrists say this is the most profoundly pathological delusion, example of “grandiosity,” narcissistic blah blah blah. I say the mad DO have a messianic mission to save the planet, that their sense of mission is their prophetic calling–that from the ranks of the mad will come many of the catalysts of messianic transformation. nI say we need grandiose vision. I use the term mad strategically in order to put out there a metanarrative as an alternative to psychiatric metanarrative.(I am not trying to essentialize madness which is really mystical experiences under certain social conditions.) But also as an alternative to psychiatric survivor metanarrative. The latter is true but it’s too restrictive–its too secular.It cannot be truly transformative. It does not affirm the spiritual gifts of the mad, their capacity to play a critical role in saving the planet–it marginalizes this. And that is what we need to do–as many of the mad recognize–save the planet by collectively taking the leap into higher state of consciousness.
    My book is published by a large “new age”” press. I am finding in general that there is far more openness to Mad Pride in those circles today. Evenb though Sascha abandoned made gifts he has been networking at Esalen. You can look at my book –subtitled The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement–at Amazon. My own 2500 word description of book is “Author’s Statement” under Customers Reviews.
    http://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Gift-Madness-Psychiatry-Movement/dp/159477448X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1345510111&sr=1-1&keywords=farber+gift

    And see whether you resonate with my Mad Pride metanarrative–derived largely from Indian sage SRi Aurobindo–and based on the experiences of the mad.
    Let’s see Stephen do I have your email?(I never know who is on one of my Facebook sites) I have to run right now.
    I’m at [email protected]
    Thanks,
    Seth
    www
    sethHfarber.com

    • “I’ve long been frustrated with transpersonal psychology for not having the courage or moral integrity of Szasz or Laing.”

      Laing forcibly drugged people at Kingsley Hall. Szasz wouldn’t dream of it. In terms of moral integrity, the two names don’t belong together. Szasz has it in spades. Laing was a different story. Nice cute theorist, but not much else. In my opinion.

      I like the secular psychiatric survivor movement. I hope it stays secular and gets even more secular.

      Romanticizing what gets labeled “madness”, ain’t the way to go.

      I’m pleased to see you have gravitated here though Seth Farber. You wrote a couple of books that are very interesting and an important stepping stone in the tapestry for people who are just starting to question psychiatry’s ideology.

      • I just saw this comment now.
        First thanks for the welcome.
        My new book BTW is more philosophically ambitious–just as I encourage the mad movement to be more spiritually ambitious. Check Amazon.
        First of all Laing did not forcibly drug “people” at KH. Typical example of a rumor. KH was a real sasylum.
        Except for Clancey Gigal. In other words Laing forcibly drugged one person–Sigal. That’s not to defend it but it is to point out Sigal was the exception.
        Sigal had also been a friend of Laing. So thre was an interpersonal dynamic there that was warped in some way. But Sigal was a peer of Laing so it’s not quite the same as routinely drugging patients. It had to do with Lang;s sado-masochitic relationships with many of his peers.
        Laikng took a far more radical stance towards “schizophrenics” than anyone in transpersonal psychology at that time. If you don’t believe that you have as evidence not only The Politics of Experience but also The Voice of Experience written in early 80s. Laing viewed many of the mad as spiritual pioneers. He deconstructed the concept of schizphrenia.
        Whereas Grof affirmed it and exempted a small elite
        which only reinforced the construct which Grof believed in.
        Calling Laing’s theories “cute” is like calling eidegger or Krishnamurti cute. They were all trying to convey something about a Reality that transcended the senses. I am indebted to Szasz–RIP– since he wrote the Foreword to my first book. However Szasz did not understand Laing just as he would not have understood the others I mentioned. They all described Reality Szasz was too much of a rationalist
        to prehend.Thus Laing’s book were far more profound than Tom’s. They had greater depth because they gesture toward the Infinite. Best, Seth

        • I just saw this comment now.
          First thanks for the welcome.
          My new book BTW is more philosophically ambitious–just as I encourage the mad movement to be more spiritually ambitious. Check Amazon.
          First of all Laing did not forcibly drug “people” at KH. Typical example of a rumor. KH was a real sasylum.
          Except for Clancey Sigal. In other words Laing forcibly drugged one person–Sigal. That’s not to defend it but it is to point out Sigal was the exception.
          Sigal had also been a friend of Laing. So thre was an interpersonal dynamic there that was warped in some way. But Sigal was a peer of Laing so it’s not quite the same as routinely drugging patients. It had to do with Lang;s sado-masochitic relationships with many of his peers.
          Laikng took a far more radical stance towards “schizophrenics” than anyone in transpersonal psychology at that time. If you don’t believe that you have as evidence not only The Politics of Experience but also The Voice of Experience written in early 80s. Laing viewed many of the mad as spiritual pioneers. He deconstructed the concept of schizphrenia.
          Whereas Grof affirmed it and exempted a small elite
          which only reinforced the construct which Grof believed in.
          Calling Laing’s theories “cute” is like calling Heidegger or Krishnamurti cute. They were all trying to convey something about a Reality that transcended the senses. I am indebted to Szasz–RIP– since he wrote the Foreword to my first book. However Szasz did not understand Laing just as he would not have understood the others I mentioned. They all described Reality Szasz was too much of a rationalist
          to prehend.Thus Laing’s book were far more profound than Tom’s. They had greater depth because they gesture toward the Infinite. Best, Seth
          That is not to say Szasz did not make great contribution. Of course he did. I discuss that in an essay that will be posted here soon. And in my book.

  7. Hi Seth, thought provoking comments about messianic vision?

    “I say the mad DO have a messianic mission to save the planet, that their sense of mission is their prophetic calling–that from the ranks of the mad will come many of the catalysts of messianic transformation. nI say we need grandiose vision.”

    “Madness consists of mad gifts that can contribute to the transformation of the planet.”

    In my own journey, of exploring euphoric states of “oneness,” previous interpretations of self-referential ideatation, have become trans-personal, as species rather than individual or tribal metaphors of our existential reality?

    John Weir Perry, cautions against projecting the subjective experience of madness onto the world “out there.” Hence, is it a transformation of the planet, which required to move humanity forward, or a transformation of the way humanity sees itself, and its relationship to the planet and the Cosmos?

    An example of a shift in trans-personal metaphor, would be Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, “take this cup away from me,” as a species resistance to mature self-awareness and the realization of what we are?

    In evolutionary terms, if we are indeed made of star dust, and according to quantum theory, there is no separation, then how do we change our metaphors of self-interpretation to embody this reality?

    How long before we realize that God is imagined in our image, as we continue to mature into what we are? The Universe in a manifest form which is perceiving and acting upon itself? Consider;

    “Human cultural history goes back about five thousand years; however the existence of the homo sapiens species can be traced back at least 500,000 years. Thus in some sense it can be said that humanity has evolved through qualitative changes of consciousness during the life of our species. Human beings seem to exhibit free will, a phenomenon reminiscent of the unpredictability photons and sub-atomic wave-particles display.

    From the evolution of the universe we have just briefly traced, there seems to emerge patterns, pulsations, vibrations and cycles. The loss of uncertainty, the entrapment of spirit in matter as we descend from the photon to the molecule, seems to be balanced by the increased freedom, the rise of matter into spirit, as we ascent through the plant, animal and human kingdoms. The orchestration of the universe is a most complex and subtle symphony.” _Jeffrey Mishlove, PhD.

    “The more conscious you become, the more aware you become
    of how unconscious you’ve been.” _Patricia Sun.

    The Self-Reflecting Universe Within?

    “The earlier concept of a universe made up of physical particles interacting according to fixed laws is no longer tenable. It is implicit in present findings that action rather than matter is basic. . . This is good news, for it is no longer appropriate to think of the universe as a gradually subsiding agitation of billiard balls. The universe, far from being a desert of inert particles, is a theatre of increasingly complex organization, a stage for development in which man has a definite place, without any upper limit to his evolution.” _Arthur M. Young, The Reflexive Universe.

    http://www.born2psychosis.blogspot.com/p/chp-12.html#understanding

    Regards

    David Bates.

    • David
      I did not check back–until now by accident. So I had no idea anyone commented. I waiting for Kermit to post my essay
      here. It explains my thesis–my messianic-redemptive paradigm of madness.
      For some reason there are question marks inserted by mistake.
      There certainly IS a species resistance but Jesus is hardly an example of that. Nor is that a good example. A more telling comment was “Father forgive them because they know not what they do” It’s more significant because death is I posit unnatural. If we surrender the ego the body would not be subject to mortality.
      I’m surprised you posit a dichotomy:
      ‘John Weir Perry, cautions against projecting the subjective experience of madness onto the world “out there.” Hence, is it a transformation of the planet, which required to move humanity forward, or a transformation of the way humanity sees itself, and its relationship to the planet and the Cosmos?’
      Obviously both are necessary, the latter is precondition for former. Perry was too cautious in that statement, biasing the question by referring to “out there.” Madness does reveal something that is not just “in here.”It gives access to universal archetypes which can be and must be incarnated, em-bodied in the world.
      For example if humanity comes to see life as sacred we would not tolerate a military machine whose purpose besides making money is to rein down death.
      But global warming tells us the jig is up.We have 5-10 years to save the earth. We need to start by treat nature
      with reverence.
      But Perry says we only truly act when we feel asense of urgency.
      SF
      Anyway I discuss in my book
      And in my essay as soon as Kermit gets around to putting it up–hopefully within a month.

  8. Steven, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I study Psychology and did nearly quit my course when I had to do Abnormal Psychology. It made me physically sick to write my essays. Coming to this site I feel there is hope for a change in psychiatry.

    Thank you

  9. Thank you for this very beautiful and reassuring story. New to the website, yours is the first full, and long, post I have read. A fine introduction to a new way of veiwing mental ‘illness’. Though none of it is new to me, I have been relatively alone up until now. I am marked by how a label of mental illness not only serves to separate us from the rest of society, but as you so beautifully and clearly explain, separates us from ourselves and everything that makes being human worth being human. If there were one thing that these labels do that is dangerous, it is precisely dividing the human psyche into the acceptable and unacceptable, giving power to that false belief that an ‘other’ inhabits the mind and must be controlled, stifled or even killed. And yet it is in befriending this other that we discover that it is no other than ourselves in our myriad complexity and beauty, reaching out to understand the world we encounter. And you put that perfectly in this post. Thank you for sharing.

  10. “And thank God, for what a liberation it is to know that – just like you – I am plainly human: irreducible to theoretical constructs, unfathomable in my fullness, aching and celebrating with pain and love, moving in all directions at once, complex and stacked, an imperfect being and a sliver of God’s perfection.

    Alas, it’s a diagnosis that works for me.”

    thank you, Steven.

  11. Thank you Steven Morgan. Your story is beautifully written, eloquent and helpful. I hope many more people read it than already have. I do not want to invalidate your experience with exclusion from the Grof workshop, nor to try and “fix it” but feel like saying, I did some breathwork workshops, not with Grof but some of his trained acolytes, and afterwards concluded that the claims they made for being able to speed up the process of healing were probably manipulative and untrue, and thus outrageous. I also found the process harsh, annoying and even exploitative for reasons I won’t elaborate on here. At the time, Grof and his wife were being touted as the latest cutting-edge gurus of humanistic psych, and I lived in San Francisco Bay Area at a time (the 1890’s-90’s) when it seemed socially “normal” among some folks to sample every latest psycho-spiritual pseudo-scientific workshop that sold itself with the same techniques as any product in a TV ad that claims it can fulfill our dreams or provide a quick fix some problem we don’t even really have. Anyway, the Grof thing may well have helped some other people, but for me, it seemed like one more slightly traumatizing encounter with yet another snake-oil salesman. The only thing I’ve personally found that really works for me is “focusing” — a method of reading signals from the physical body that University of Chicago psychologist Eugene Gendlin described in the 1970’s. I read a five dollar paperback about it and was able to apply the method right away and engage a years-long process of slowly, gently, gradually changing my brain to a more balanced and healthy state than I used to have. There’s lots of free info about it on the internet at http://www.focusing.org if you’re curious. However, it seems to me you’ve found a path of integrity and purpose that certainly needs no unsolicited advice from others… thanks again for your extraordinarily clear and encouraging story.

  12. Hey Steven

    I enjoyed reading your post. I stumbled accross it in Google and was drawn to check it out due to your reference to the wind. I was diagnosed bipolar 1 in 1978. Its been a long journey and I can identify with YOUR story. Recently I have been synchronously introduced to the likes of Carl Jung, Wayne Dyer, Joseph Campbell and in particular the concepts of the collective unconscious, ego, surrender. I have a blog page http://www.meccamaz.blogspot.com and if you scroll down, you would find my story entitled “The Answer is Blowing in the Wind”

    Good luck finding your truth. You surely seem to have great intention and a wonderful mind.

    Namaste Maz

  13. Wow. Beautiful, layered story. I’m still emerging from a chrysalis, and it hurts terribly, but I’m starting to see the light. Thanks for sharing some of your journey. I love Jungian Psychology too – it gives me a space to explore and release so much of what I am tempted to call delusions when I label myself as ill.