Just Me: A Series of Reflections on Trauma, Motherhood, and Psychiatry

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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.

 

WAKING UP

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.

 

EDUCATION

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.

 

SPIRITUALITY

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.

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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.

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22 COMMENTS

    • Someone Else

      Thank you.
      On Inner Peace – I am constantly learning.
      On children being a mother’s true joy – once I stopped trying to see all I wanted to be in them, I am able to enjoy their uniqueness separate from myself. There is a book by Dr. Shefali Tsabary, The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children, that validated what I had come to understand in life and so much more.

      Blessings to you also,
      Corrine

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  1. Thank you for sharing your journey. Several things that you wrote really resonate with me, about diagnosis and about off-loading the responsibility onto others when it should be undertaken by you. Mothers (and fathers) can work wonders, but first it takes understanding of what may be the problem, then plenty of focus and commitment. Well done!

    “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.”

    “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.”

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    • Rossa Forbes

      Thank you for saying well done!

      There are so many that are being labeled who are suffering. We live in a society where titles before and after our names mean so much more than the person sitting in front of us. I remember writing in my poetry, the empowerment and emphasis on “I”m a lawyer, I’m a doctor.” I am guilty of that mindset and needed to learn to respect everyone individually and trust myself.

      Life is a journey and everything counts, if I didn’t see behind the scenes at the behavioral health clinic, I would probably be still writing speeches thanking the therapist and doctors for the labels, and blank faces that they showed me sitting across from them.

      Getting the opportunity to look back and see that when I sat and shared my hopes and dreams they did not see all that I can be, I saw that. So yes you are right, mothers and fathers can work wonders, that’s why we must share our stories so others may take back their lives.

      Corrine

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  2. Deron,

    The feeling is mutual, I’m a proud to know you as well! I appreciate all the work that you do at Advocacy Unlimited, Inc. http://www.mindlink.org.
    It was almost two years ago we ran into each other at the train station in New Haven. I shared with you the progress I was making and you told me you could tell that I wasn’t on any more psychotropic drugs because you didn’t see that glossed over unfocused look in my eyes. You said you felt energy and life coming from me. You told me that I must read an article by a friend of yours Laura Delano, Finding the Meaning in Suffering: My Experience with Coming off Psychiatric Drugs (in a Nutshell), and you were right, it was an amazing read and confirmation to stay strong.
    Greg and you were very encouraging for me to share my writing at MIA, that you appreciated my voice. Thank you for that!

    Corrine

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  3. Thanks so much for sharing your story. It is very encouraging for me to hear from other mothers how they have helped their adult children. It is hard for us to watch our son struggle and sometimes I just want to give up, but then I wake up and read a story from you that gives me hope! Thank you and God bless!

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    • madincanada

      I get so much from so many, I am humbled to be able to share this part of the story that others may be encouraged as I have been. I can’t use the word help when it comes to these young people I get to use the role mother to connect with, we are just learning and living one moment to the next with each other, sharing, caring and sometimes having to let go and then rebuild again. I don’t know the struggle you have with your son but I see that you are on MIA learning, sharing and reaching out, your kind words are appreciated. Thank you and God bless you too!

      Corrine

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  4. Corrine, thank you so much for your story. You reinforce my resolve as I am approaching nearing the end of a long withdrawal, many drugs. You mentioned working with mental health professionals in a a peer role. My work in a similar setting was my wake up call. I was treated as a nincompoop by a man who was at the same level in the county human services system as I had been in my previous career. He had no idea who he was talking to. I realized he was treating me that way ONLY because he knew I had a diagnosis. The behavior is inexcusable regardless of my history, but so starkly due to the diagnosis, it startled me into reality. His behavior and the almost identical behavior of my psychiatrist were affirmations of my decision to free myself from that oppression.

    Your kids are fortunate to have a mom they can see took charge of her life (and theirs). You help the rest of us by your example.

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    • seventhsense

      I am glad to share this part of the story with others. You say that you are “…approaching nearing the end of a long withdrawal, many drugs.” I only know for sure my own experience on that subject. I see a lot of information here at MIA on the subject to educate people.

      The peer support roles are very valid and worthy roles and the people who do them impress me all the time. I mention my role at the behavioral health clinic, it was a few sentences in a short paragraph. I wrote over eleven pages telling the horrific details in that environment for many months, it is a big subject. There are so many of us telling the same story about these environments.

      Thank you for the comment on the kids, I feel I am the fortunate one, a work in progress. When we share our stories we are all mutually supporting each other. Thank you for sharing and encouraging!

      Corrine

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    • wileywitch

      I feel like that is a big statement, it makes me want to say, I don’t know what is best or work for anyone else, I respect everyone’s path that they take. I could only share my story. I know at one point I got an “uh oh feeling,” when I asked for the drug I saw on television that described all the things I felt I needed from a pill, and was told no, that I had to use one with an unknown long name before I could get to the one I saw on TV because of my insurance. This made me think “why.” Once I started thinking I didn’t stop, then I started asking questions until I figured it out. but I had to ask for myself. I learn a lot of coping skills to take care of my emotions, from a lot of people that have been there and done that before me.

      Corrine

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  5. Hi Corrine, I just wanted to write and say congratulations on your story. It was so moving and full of hope, and full of so much love for your children which was so wonderful to read. All the lessons you have learned will be of so much help to other people reading your story. Wishing you a great year ahead full of peace and tranquility.
    Dylan

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    • Dylan
      Thank you for taking the time to read my story and write your comment of congratulations and wishing me peace and tranquility, you know how important that is to hold on to. I continue to learn and grow. Once I learn, I don’t want to unlearn, but I realize that I do have a choice.

      Spiritually I was always growing in awareness, as I mentioned my grandmother always read bible stories to me as a child. I have been reading interesting books and participating in Oprah Winfrey’s Lifeclass, and Super Soul Sunday, there are so many spiritual teachers and leaders who share their stories and what they have learned and overcome, at http://www.oprah.com or on Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).

      I want to take the opportunity to share this list of organization and people in the recovery support business that has been supportive. I got great information and training from Advocacy Unlimited (AU) http://www.mindlink.org, Focus On Recovery-United, Inc. (FORU) http://www.focusonrecovery.org, Intentional Peer Support (IPS) http://www.intentionalpeersupport.org, emotional CPR http://www.emotional-cpr.org, Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) http://www.mentalhealthrecovery.com, Laura Delano’s website http://www.RecoveringfromPsychiatry.com and Chaya Grossberg has a strong campaign Breaking Free of Psychiatric Drugs http://www.chayagrossberg.com. Of course, there are so many more recovery organizations, people reaching out to support other people and the internet makes it easier now, than in the past. Staying connected is important to me, I continue to learn more each day and would like people in my ordinary position to be able to do the same.

      It was so nice to meet you at the First Mad In America Film Festival, Arlington, MA back in October 2014, your vision, performances and music is inspiring. http://www.facebook.com/dylantighemusic
      Thank you for sharing and doing what you do!
      Corrine

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