“It’s important that we share our experiences with other people. Your story will heal you and your story will heal somebody else. When you tell your story, you free yourself and give other people permission to acknowledge their own story.”
– Iyanla Vanzant
I have spent a lot of time talking to politicians, media members and those working in the mental health system about the failings of the current method of viewing and treating emotional distress. I have come to the conversations armed with stats and outcomes about the bio-medical paradigm. I have found that the people I speak with do not doubt the facts conveyed. They seem to agree that the current state of affairs is not good. The difference is that I think the tragic outcomes demonstrate the failure of the current system. The folks I talk to tend to think things are so bad because “mental illness is just that serious.”
Recently, I sought to meet with an influential state senator who, rumor had it, was being pressured to support a bill on forced treatment. I asked a colleague of mine to join me because she lived in his district and was involved in politics. We arrived at the senate chamber and were ushered into a conference room. Fifteen minutes later the senate aid came into the conference room and informed us that the senator was running late. Finally, the senator joined us. He asked what he could do for us and I launched into a barrage of facts about how bad forced treatment is and about the outcomes of pathologizing human emotions.
He asked a couple of simple questions while appearing anxious to get to his next appointment. Then my co-worker began telling her narrative in a beautiful and compelling manner. She told the senator how she had been homeless, how she viewed herself as disabled and broken and how things continually went wrong for her. Then she told him how things started to go right. She talked about mutual support and the opportunity to believe in herself through work and education. She said she now has a graduate degree, directs a great program and has a happy family life.
As she spoke, I saw him sit back in his chair. The questions he started asking were much more profound. He was clearly inspired by her story of hope, transformation and healing. When she finished, he looked at me and said, “Do you have a story like hers?” I said I did. He asked me why I did not tell it.
I did not use my story because I had stopped leading with my heart and had started to lead with my mind. My mind wants me to make an argument against force and the current paradigm based on data, measurable outcomes and research studies. People entering the mental health system are dying 25 years younger than everyone else. There are 850 people a day added to the social security disability rolls due to mental health reasons. On and on I go citing my proof positive that the system needs to be gutted and rebuilt. I attack the current paradigm without conveying the message that we need to do better because better is possible. Our stories are what show that better is possible.
Sharing healing stories is important for many reasons, including helping those who are suffering. I know without a doubt that my journey out of the depths of despair would not have been possible without the people that shared with me their personal narratives. It was through these inspiring stories of resilience, strength and courage that I came to cling to the age old belief that if one person can, so can another. The wonderful people who shared their truths with me gave me hope, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that I could get through the darkness.
Through the stories I learned ways to find meaning in suffering and ways to move through it. Many of the methods people used to move forward in their lives did not work for me. But that is not the point of telling our stories. The point is to show that healing, transcendence, transformation or whatever one seeks, is possible. Healing is a creative act— there are many paths. It is the possibility of bettering one’s human experience that is the important message.
I think it is imperative that we speak our truth about the current paradigm. Studies, books, blogs that unmask the truth about how our society treats emotional distress are important. Protests are important. It is also imperative, in order to bring about a paradigm shift, to tell our stories.
People need to know that struggling today does not mean struggling forever. Sometimes we need to speak from the heart about the things that help us without the rhetoric and attacks on the things that do not. A message filled with love, compassion and understanding is one that is readily received.
I believe our collective anecdotal history is essential for a paradigm shift from medicalizing human emotions to a paradigm that contextualizes the experiences. I believe above all that people can heal from, recover from, experiences that are called by our society “mental illness.” I do not believe this fact because I read it in a book. I believe it because my life is filled with people who have spent significant time in psych hospitals, prisons, and/or have experienced homelessness, and have found ways to reshape their lives. The beautiful people that I am so grateful to know have found meaning in despair and have found the strength and courage to seek out their current life path. There is no question that they are stronger and more compassionate people because of their experiences. There is also no question that they are the lucky ones who found something to believe in or someone who believed in them.
Our stories can shift the belief that people cannot heal and recover from emotional distress. If society truly believed people heal and recover then there would be considerably more outrage over the current outcomes in the mental health system. If people believed that struggling with your human experience today does not necessitate struggling tomorrow, there would be more money and willingness to explore the paths through which humans navigate strife and struggle.
Life can be incredibly hard. Life can be incredibly beautiful. Without the former we would not truly appreciate the latter. The hard times are transient for those with the right support and hope. Our collective stories make a compelling argument for better for all those who are struggling now. Not just better, in fact, but much, much better.
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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.