Before I learned about mental illness, diagnosis, stigma, trauma, pain body, universal pain, eugenics, state hospitals, dungeons, the ego, Salem witch trials, witch doctors, demons, psychotropic drugs, crisis, politics, or recovery, I was just me.
I was born in Jamaica, West Indies and I spent many days in the sun, rolling down hills, walking to school barefoot, walking to church on Sundays dressed up, playing in streams, and catching butterflies. I was called a quiet child; people spoke about me like I wasn’t there and sometimes cooed at me because they said I was always smiling. One thing I know for sure was that I was always observing, wondering, and learning.
I was physically, verbally, and sexually abused as a child, and because of this, I started judging people around me, always wondering who would hurt me next. I didn’t like the word ‘no’ because child molestation left me with little sense of boundaries; accepting and saying ‘no’ brought me discomfort. The first time I told my mother about the abuse, I already had three children of my own. We got into an argument. My mother reached out to hit me, but I stood firm and told her not to put her hands on me. She called the cops to make me leave, because she couldn’t accept ‘no’ either.
Growing up, I had no confidence to speak up for myself. I was bullied in lower school for my dark complexion and my accent, and because of this, by the time I got to high school, I was fighting fiercely. I even became the one who’d jump into a fight for my friends. Years later, a beautiful young woman who worked at a bank remembered me from high school, and told me how she’d also had a bully who picked on her every day and made her school life miserable. She said that one day, I went up to the bully and said, “This is my friend and I want you to leave her alone.” The bully never bothered her anymore and her life became better because of it; she wanted to thank me after so many years. That’s who I am and it seems that’s who I’ve always been when I’ve been fully aware. It is part of why my children thrive, because I wanted better for them even when I didn’t know how to ask for it for myself.
CHOOSING MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES: MY FAMILY, MY LIFE
When I was twenty-three years old, family and friends were dying around me from gunshots due to drugs, and I lost my grandmother, whom I’d never reconnected with after leaving her in Jamaica at eight years old. I was in an emotionally unsupportive relationship, and when I cried, I was told, “Things happen. Just get over it,” and ignored. Because of this, I isolated myself from friends and family, and blocked out the criticism and the continuous trauma of wondering who would get killed next.
I gave all of my attention to my daughter, but when she turned six, I found myself more and more frustrated as I tried to get her to listen to me. I know now I was putting all the negative attention that I was stuffing inside of me down on her. I found myself yelling and screaming, breaking things, and I didn’t want to beat my child like I’d been beaten. She was getting bigger, so I didn’t want her molested like I was. I decided to reach out to psychiatry for help with her. I was told she was intelligent and I was asked, instead, if I would like some help. I agreed. I was taking out the emotional pain physically on myself with bulimia, occasional starvation, and tears. I watched people on television getting better with psychiatry, so I thought I was clever to do something that people around me weren’t doing. Some months into therapy, I recognized that I’d begun to look at my daughter like I’d looked at my mother, hence the short temper and frustration aimed at the wrong, innocent person. I tried to set limits with her and make time alone with her without her baby brother. I began to say ‘no’ to her like I’d wanted to say but couldn’t as a child.
With therapy, however, came drugs. They sometimes left me feeling like the statue of David, but mostly they just left me numb. I didn’t know I was pregnant the first three months of my third pregnancy. My baby had a heart attack the first few days of his life and was on digoxin for a year. He never held his bottle and had some learning difficulties. His social difficulties had me again throwing my fears onto my children, and any time they changed, I’d emotionally fight them because of it. But as they were my children, and because I’d never been able to ask questions myself, I taught them to ask questions and to speak up. They often told me I was being over-protective, so I learned to let go whether I wanted to or not. I was still dependent on psychiatry at that time, so I accepted the diagnosis they’d eventually give my son and instead of encouraging him to work harder, I pacified him and allowed him to do the bare minimum, because of what I was told the diagnosis meant. It wasn’t until he finished high school and had nothing to do that I decided we needed to take action. I asked myself, how do I see myself living with this young man? I saw us living independently and so I worked to move us towards that.
WORKING TO LIVE
I used to work in peer support at a behavioral health clinic, and found that the psychiatrists and social workers had no respect for my role. I believed that if I did the work to the best of my ability, this would have been enough, but when I spoke up to ask for help in getting information on recovery out there to the people, I was basically told that I was making co-workers uncomfortable. My colleagues showed micro-aggression and harassed me, the supervisor bullied me, and the organization eventually sent me to see a psychiatrist. Prior to that job, I’d done on-the-job-training at a video production company where I was treated with respect and my creativity was celebrated so I knew what was possible in a work environment, and that there was injustice happening to me. I thought I could work at the clinic and share what I’d learned about working to live with people, and that the psychiatrists and social workers who were working to live themselves would have my back. But instead I saw at this organization a need to keep people on drugs, and to keep people compliant. I saw that once a person is reduced to a diagnosis, she’s always a diagnosis.
The first year after high school was difficult for my son; he became bored and said he was depressed. I took him to a therapist for the first time since he was fourteen, when he saw someone for only three months, after which the therapist said my son didn’t need to see him anymore. I remember asking him, “Are you sure?” He said, “Yes, he worked on all the tasks we set up with him and he gets it.” This was the first time I heard a therapist say, “No more therapy.” By that time, I had been in therapy for over twenty years.
Because I was off psychiatric drugs at this point, I knew to tell the therapist, “No drugs, just therapy.” They told me that is not what they do; drugs were part of their protocol and if they prescribed a drug and my son didn’t take it they would put “non-compliant” in his charts. I surely wasn’t going to make the same mistake I made with myself using those numbing drugs for years while dreaming of a better life. I realized I had to make some changes in our home, and that I needed to communicate better with my child to see what was going on in his life. I had to do the work. I was trying to throw this work on psychiatry, but because I’d recognized the way people with diagnoses are viewed at the behavioral health clinic I’d worked at, my instinct as a mother told me to wake up.
The best part in this journey with my son has been stepping back to see him for who he is, and to see his hopes and dreams as separate from mine. He did just fine figuring things out for himself. He’s found groups and a community that interests him at community college. He loves to dance and auditions for dance groups and shows. I am there to support him, respect him and be patient knowing how long it took me. I know that he can do it too and I expect that he can and he believes that he can.
My second child was reading at three years old. I was told he couldn’t attend pre-K because it was for children who needed to learn their alphabets and numbers. I was offered and accepted a position for him at a special needs school that had a program for kids who didn’t have special needs; I thought it was better for him than sitting home at that age. I don’t know how it affected the kids there but it was nice to see him reading to his classmates.
When he was in kindergarten I learned the word ‘rambunctious’, as that was how his teacher described him. He didn’t get into the private school in kindergarten like his sister did. (On visiting day, he ran from one side of the room to the other and slid under the chair.) I remember just thinking to let him be free. I’d started out with my daughter, having her sit properly to pose for pictures, refusing to go outside and play with her, only wanting to sit in the house and read. The free spirit I’d had as a kid on my island was nowhere to be found. But it came back with my son: I let him play. He is a natural artist with a great imagination, and he always loved to draw and tell me stories about the characters he drew. I didn’t ignore him. I wrote the stories out for him when he couldn’t read and write, and once he learned to write, he wrote his own stories.
He was sent up from kindergarten to the first grade part time for math and reading, and when he moved to a new school, the teacher sent a note home every day for the first two weeks telling me he was behaving badly. I asked for permission to observe him in class. I sat in the back row and watched my son finish all the work on the blackboard in five minutes. It was apparent that my child was bored and needed to be challenged. The notes about his bad behavior never mentioned that he was done with his work and had nothing to do! Suppose I hadn’t gone in to watch him—I can’t help but wonder if this teacher would have sent him to be diagnosed! My son would eventually attend the same private school as my daughter, receive a full four-year scholarship to Columbia University, and then go on to Berkeley Haas Business School in California.
Respecting my children and separating the pain of my trauma from them has been the best thing I could’ve done. When my son was stopped by several police cars looking for a suspect while on his way home from school—he was riding his bicycle and had his hoodie up– he did the best thing he could in the moment: he cooperated, allowing the police to do their job even though he was clearly being seen as a suspect based on his appearance. At the end, he shared with them about Jesus and his trips to Europe during the summer of 2014. He then posted on his Facebook page that he will ride with his hoodie down from now on and gave the glory to God. Friends and family were upset because they know the nature of this young man; I decided to listen to him, and learn how he was feeling. I’ve come a long way with my son: years back, he called me to say, “Mom, I’ve been hit by a car, but don’t worry, I’m alright.” All I could do was lay down on his bed covered up with a blanket, numb with the psychotropic drugs I was then taking. I couldn’t release the pain until a year later, when I’d remind him of the accident and ask him questions and he’d tell me, “Mom, I let it go. Stop. I give glory to God.” I get that now. It is better that I feel pain when I should and use my God’s gift of tears to let it go.
AWAKE / I AM NOT ALONE
It took coming off psychotropic drugs completely for me to become awake. I had the doctor I was seeing wean me off, though she didn’t want to (instead she suggested I take different drugs.) But here I am almost two years later and I am feeling all of my emotions and managing them well. I knew best what I needed, and I trusted myself. Life has shown me that I can endure many trials and tribulations without giving up, and I trust myself today to reach out for help if I need it. When I turned to the mental health system for help at twenty-three, I was frustrated, and sick and tired of being sick and tired. All I was given was a diagnosis and drugs. Over the years, the diagnoses would change from bad to worse, and I eventually realized that one of the diagnoses I got is given to people they don’t like or think won’t recover.
I am so glad I didn’t know what these diagnoses meant for many of those years because I was just me, trying to figure out life by asking people whom I thought knew the answers better than me. I’m also lucky that I had a good support system. I remember when my children were young and my therapist reported me to the Department of Children and Family services. I called a friend to come and sit in the meeting with me, because I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but I knew I needed someone there whom they would respect. They told my friend about all of my negative behaviors, and that my children were resilient. My friend said to me after the meeting, “Of course the children are resilient; they have you.” He encouraged me despite the labels. I have my friends who’ve been there for me through the years as unconditional supports, without judging me and giving me encouragement. I’ve since realized from witnessing others and looking at my own journey the devastation of hopelessness and helplessness that comes from accepting these diagnoses instead of accepting responsibility for oneself. I am reminded always now that I know myself best.
Before I realized these things, I simply didn’t know. I have to forgive myself for that and just accept that this was how it was. For example, I never learned about proper nutrition and how it affects the brain. When I was starving myself or practicing bulimia, what I really needed was this kind of education, not psychotropic drugs. I complained about not wanting to be overweight and was told certain drugs didn’t cause weight gain, but I went up to over four hundred pounds. When I stopped those drugs I lost seventy pounds right away. I now have to eat healthy and exercise to get the rest off, and I am learning and keeping myself well.
My journey has been about finding peace in my heart and my mind regardless of whether I’m a size eight or size twenty-eight, or living in the suburbs or an urban area, or in a homeless shelter or on a family or friend’s floor. I’ve found my way to knowing who I am. I get to feel sadness and anger without being consumed because I know the “why” for my pain and I get to make choices for myself. I feel love, joy, kindness, and connection. I respect all life. The journey with my children has been my biggest teacher and still continues today. I would like to share all the names of the spiritual teachers whom I learn from today but it is a long list. What I will say is that my journey started with my grandmother Mum reading Bible stories to me every night before I laid my head to rest on my island. I lived in a small board house with a zinc roof, and the rain sounded like music to sleep under. Memories like these along with empathy, gratitude and forgiveness are what I choose to move through the burdens of trauma.