Last year on this day I woke up crying and angry. I was emerging from a 3 week long cough which finally ended when I broke up with the guy I’d been seeing. I’d gotten this horrible cough (which landed me in the emergency room due to asthma) while working a new job at a Montessori day care, which, despite everyone’s enthusiasm about Montessori, clearly didn’t have my name on it. I knew I had a different mission in 2013.
The guy I’d been dating had been on a mood stabilizer for about 10 years after addiction, alcoholism and other things resulted in him being labeled and identifying as bipolar. I didn’t know any of this when I met him. He was a math professor, a gym junkie and one of the most charismatic people I had met in awhile. I adored him and will never know whether or to what extent the mood stabilizer was the cause of certain things he experienced or didn’t experience, despite being a sensitive, intelligent, attractive and spiritually focused person. There were things about him I knew pretty well were caused by the drug to some degree, which he was the first to bring up, yet to him there was no safety in going off the drug.
I say all this about him to illustrate the nuances of psychiatric drug harm. Most of us would agree that those on 7 drugs who are basically incapacitated would be better off without them or on far less of them. We probably also all know at least one somebody who is on just one mood stabilizer or antidepressant who says the drug helps them and they can’t live without it. I’ve been in love with individuals in both camps. And who are we to tell someone what to do or even what we think of their choice if they haven’t asked? This question isn’t as easy as it seems if you are in love with someone and they are taking substances that nearly killed you and have killed others you loved. Still, the humble part of me knows I can never ultimately declare what is best for someone else, what will save their life, what will kill them.
It’s amazing how much life or death conversation and thinking psych drugs inspire. In a way this seems to miss the point since our lives are obviously about something far more profound than weird chemical combinations that we don’t understand. Yet they are what our first-world society has in place to respond to the life or death existential (and holy) questions and crises people tackle.
There’s something about life or death existential crises that interest me like nothing else. They are like nuts that need to be cracked open, that have good food and nectar inside if we don’t fear them. Of course we do fear them. Yet shying away from any question out of fear eventually leads us to despair.
So after this relationship, this 3 week long cough, this failed attempt to work in preschool for 40 hours a week for $9/hour, I knew I needed to devote 2013 to what mattered most to me-moving towards these questions with others equally interested. I knew there were many people who wanted to live without psych drugs, or with less of them, and to come closer to the questions that provide us with nourishment if we can brave them in supportive community. I knew I wanted to be a resource for all of those people. My tremendous suffering from my own existential holy despair was designed to go to good use.
Up until January 1, 2013, I had done most of my “mental health” work under men who had started groundbreaking organizations. These men had helped so many people with their courage, intelligence, vulnerability and willingness to share their lived experience of breaking free of the mental health system, creating support networks and finding holistic health alternatives and other resources. They had inspired me, believed in me, given me opportunities, taught me a lot and in some cases been role models. Yet working “under” them or for them had gotten harder and harder for me, and eventually became intolerable.
Working under them and being paid by them meant I could hardly ever execute my own ideas without running them by these leaders. In December 2012, I fell into a pit of near suicidal despair at being *told* what to do rather than consulted and by January 2013 I finally knew what I needed to do to get out of it. I needed to start my own teaching and coaching business, which I’d had as a side project for several years but never fully invested in.
Working as my own leader and guide this year, I was able to offer certain services that I never would have had the confidence to express in my own words if I still had to answer to an older, more experienced, more educated man. I am quite susceptible to second guessing myself (as well as being second guessed) when I am in that position. I dreamed of bringing my intuitive and healing gifts and skills into supporting those who are choosing to come off or stay off psych drugs.
My dreams that came true this year showed me so much about being a psychiatric survivor, a leader and a voice of change. They showed me how important taking action on our dreams really is, how I will never believe I can do something until I do it first, and that anything is possible. They showed me how our biggest offerings to others often lie tangled up in what the mental health system would call our illness. They showed me how important it is to never ever stop dreaming and envisioning life as I’d like to see it. I’ve probably touched several thousand people this year in some way with my writing, speaking, classes, website and coaching (none of which I could have done without the help of many others). This is such a small amount in the grand scheme of things, and how many people have lost all hope in the hands of psychiatry, or who’s self perception has been severely cropped and limited by a label. I also know that no dream I have is mine alone and I could not have had any of my successes without the help and support of others, which was abundant, and which I believe will always be abundant when we follow our dreams.
As I sit here, writing at a desk, as I do every morning with a cup of tea, I glance over at the label on the tea bag, which says, “dream.” Amidst all of the oppression we face, I would like to keep coming back to that word. The testimonials I received (mostly this year) are evidence to me that every once in awhile our dreams come true. Every now and again believing in our dreams, against all odds and all conventional thought, can work. Having belief in ourselves from that all knowing place that is stronger than any opinion, label or judgment is sometimes all we have. And all we need. Until we find ourselves among those who see us, know us at our essence, and believe in us, once again.
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.