“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” — The Buddha
Our life and career trajectories are largely driven by our predominant thoughts. If we are consumed by feelings of powerlessness and negativity our lives tend to manifest those feelings. My belief in these statements leaves me with an uphill battle against the realities of the field I work in. I am constantly around people who build their lives around negative beliefs. More specifically, I am around people that build their lives around being “broken” because of something they identify as being a “brain disease.”
It breaks my heart to hear the way people view themselves. In my advocacy class recently a man said that “once he accepted that he had brain damage his life became more manageable.” I asked him if he had been in a car accident. He said that his “mental illness” was his brain damage. Brain damage? That was a new one for me. I was on an employment panel at a conference recently where someone said they could “not work full-time because they were bipolar.” Responding to a question I posed, this person said they had never tried working full-time but they just knew it was impossible. I saw a young woman’s “treatment plan” the other day and it said her goal in life was to “control her anger.”
These experiences are just a small sample of the heart wrenching tales I hear on a daily basis. These concerning and erroneous beliefs have little to do with emotional experiences and a lot to do with the mental health system fostering “brokenness.” If one is told and believes that part of who they are, will always to some extent negatively influence their life and that this negative influence is largely out of their control – they inevitably forfeit ambitions and dreams to complacency. Once someone believes their suffering is a permanent pre-disposition to be wary of – and doesn’t entertain hope of suffering being a transient experience – they often surrender personal agency and resolve.
When someone receives a mental health label it is common for them to internalize and reinforce the idea that it is in their best interest to lower their life expectations. The accompanying advice is often to avoid stress and to seek federal disability assistance. Many people have called me wanting to share their excitement about being given federal assistance. Receiving government disability benefits has been distorted into a cause for celebration and a source of pride. Getting entitlements is inappropriately seen as an end in itself, not a means to an end. I simply cannot share their enthusiasm for getting on a program which statistics show is usually lifelong.
I wish I could believe that people being told to avoid stress and get on benefits was becoming a thing of the past. That people being encouraged to frame their lives around being sick was also becoming a thing of the past. Sadly, these devastating lies are still being conveyed. About eight months ago, I hired a man in his twenties named Greg Benson to work as a human rights advocate. At the time I hired him he was working in a peer specialist role at a mental health provider. He came to my attention because – well, frankly – he had a big mouth in meetings. Greg had been an all-state athlete and a top student in high school. Upon graduation, he had his choice of elite colleges to attend. During college he dealt with what he identifies as intense emotional experiences. He spent some time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. During this period he was told to avoid stress and to lower his life expectations. He was told the goal should be to get on SSI. He was also told that any efforts he made to be well that did not include medications would likely fail.
Fortunately, Greg did not listen – at least not for very long. His presence in my office is a constant reminder of why I need to never stop fighting for change. The young man who was told that he should aim for being on disability responded to the tragedy in Newtown with incredible passion and strength. Not only did he excel in a high stress situation, his energy pushed the rest of our team. I remember many days basically making him go home at night. What if he had been “compliant” with his “treatment.” Would he have been on a path that would have seen his life end at 53 – the average year of death for people accessing public mental health services? Would he have the joy he now has with his family and friends? Would he be free from medication “side effects” as he currently is?
I am deeply grateful to have people like Greg and many others in my life that inspire me to keep pushing the envelope in advocacy. People whose mere presence demonstrates the failure of biological psychiatry. In some ways the stories are a double-edge sword for me. I am constantly inspired by the likes of Greg Benson. But it also makes me hurt even more for the people that spend their days waiting for the next “episode.” I think of the great things they could be doing with their lives. I also think of all the people who died way too young believing that they were getting all they could out of life.
I wonder if acceptance of the idea that one cannot work full time because of a “brain disease” or that one should limit their exposure to stress, really ensures that one will maintain a “limited baseline stability” and never “relapse” into “acute” suffering? Or does it exclusively ensure that one will never incorporate more rich texture or enjoyment into their life? Why not try to build our lives around seeking fulfillment and joy instead of detaching from life and gradually accepting desensitization to dissatisfaction and a dulled spirit and sense of longing and yearning – as immutable components of reality.
Life can be hard and unpredictable. Belief in one’s abilities and in the ability to manifest some of life’s outcomes does not guarantee an avoidance of suffering. But for me, I do know that my years of negativity, lack of personal agency and embracing my diagnosis led to destruction. I gave the world negativity and it gave it back. I decided to try something else.
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.