Crisis is (un)Learning

Sera Davidow
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The mission statement for the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community’s (RLC) peer respite (Afiya) is:

“To provide a safe space in which each person can find the balance and support needed to turn what is so often referred to as ‘crisis’ into a learning and growth opportunity.”

Although I sometimes question our choice to use the word ‘safe’ (given how impossible an absolute version of ‘safe’ is to achieve and how saddled with distasteful meaning such a term can be within the mental health system), I’m not sure that statement could otherwise be any more straight forward and meaningful. Yet, so often, It’s unclear what meaning people are truly making of it.

In fact, I’ve been a part of the RLC since before it was funded at all, and in that time, I’ve seen a whole host of phrases surface that we use throughout our community (and beyond), and that I’m not sure people truly understand. From “making meaning” to “voices are real” to “people are the experts on themselves”… People nod and even smile, but don’t really get it. The biggest trouble is that they think they do.

So, in the spirit of moving more people to the ‘get it’ end of the spectrum, here’s a little starter chart (that perhaps people can add to in the comments section):

chart 2

It’s funny, though, that some of these concepts are so hard for people to take in…Funny because they apply so readily to any and every life. As best as I can tell, the disconnect comes from the fact that we’ve all been taught to think about people who’ve been given psychiatric diagnoses or who are acting ‘crazy’ or who are hospitalized because they’ve been deemed ‘out of control’ as other. When those parts of ourselves get so big and colorful as to lead to some such grand intervention, we seem to intentionally blind ourselves to their much more readily relatable roots – the points at which we could see ourselves reflected back.

In fact, for some, I think that process of ‘othering’ is something of a survival skill because letting in the idea that ‘us’ is ‘them’ feels too dangerous. The idea that any of us is capable of getting to such an extreme place is too frightening to bear.

So people become the ‘sick ones’, the ‘mentally ill’, the group of people for whom we may be able to feel some sympathy, but who are certainly nothing at all like ourselves.

And, as such, people get angry when asked to relate the realness of their religious deity (that they cannot see or hear) to the realness of another person’s voices or unusual beliefs that are equally as intangible. They set clear demarcations for just how far those who have been psychiatrically labeled can be trusted to be experts on themselves, and they impose strict limitations as to what risks might justifiably be taken (most that they themselves would never accept). They value their own lifelong learning capacity, but create or misuse words (such as the ever-beloved-by-the-Treatment-Advocacy-Center-set ‘anosognosia’) to describe their own lack of faith in another’s capacity to do the same.

Of course, so much of this is less about learning than unlearning. To learn what these words and phrases truly mean… to be able to wield them in any sort of useful manner… means breaking down untold numbers of misguided assumptions and things we ‘know’ to be true and, more than anything, fear. And unlearning is painful. It’s something our minds fight against, even to our own detriment (or that of those around us). Our brains tend to feel around for that one little speck in all that lies before us that re-enforces what we believe, even when all that surrounds it offers up evidence that screams for change.

And, so instead of unlearning and growing, we get articles like the latest New York Times editorial, “How to Help Save the Mentally Ill from Themselves”, and other such blatantly pro-Murphy Bill pieces interested in pushing more of the same. No matter what. Including good sense. Though, perhaps that’s better than when people adopt our words and phrases as if they do understand. It’s easier to understand your enemy when they’re not pretending to be your ally.

I’ve been reminded many times recently how ‘crisis’ really does lead to (un)learning, and how it can, in fact, unite groups around common causes, bringing new relationships and illumination all around. I’ve seen that happen individually for people I know, and also for my community as a whole.

(Shameless plug ahead) In fact, I’ve seen it up close and personal in the Greenfield, Massachusetts part of our RLC community as of late. Unfortunately, the threat of loss of a substantial portion of the RLC’s budget in that area rode in on the heels of a statewide threat of a similar nature that had only just been conquered. In the face of this crisis, we’ve all been forced to sharpen our understanding of what our community means to us and others and to learn how to make use of words in a way that conveys that adequately to others. We’ve developed new connections and worked on repairing old hurts. We’ve learned from one another and each taken turns stepping forward, some of which is represented by this article (Saving a Real Life Saver) by Lance Smith and this short film put together by Evan Goodchild:


We’re still working through our budget ‘crisis’, but we’re a stronger community for going through the process together. We’re also not waiting for state or federal funds to save us (though we are working on that too and wouldn’t turn them down if they do come along!), and we’re on our way (albeit in fits and starts) to making up the difference. (Check out our fundraiser below if you are curious or want to help! All brands of support are appreciated!)

I hope that this (the coming together and learning from one another) is also what’s happening to a national community of people who know that the Murphy Bill (H.R. 2646) is not the way to go. If those who are pushing it up the legislative hill truly understood what was meant by ‘crisis’ is (un)learning, they’d probably switch sides. It’s up to us to help them figure it out… or at least to help enough others to do so that the hill becomes insurmountable.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Sera,
    Thanks for this article; I agree with pretty much everything here. I think this Massachusetts community must be very helpful to people. Do they do any studies about how the outcomes are for people who have stays at this community?

    Regarding this, “And, as such, people get angry when asked to relate the realness of their religious deity (that they cannot see or hear) to the realness of another person’s voices or unusual beliefs that are equally as intangible.”

    It is interesting to see how people cannot square their (arguably irrational) belief in “God” with other people’s unusual beliefs. An argument in favor of a belief in God being rational could be that many people believe it, so it would be considered a consensus belief, but there is still no scientific evidence for God. I am an atheist who believes religious beliefs to be deluded superstitions intended to ward off the fear of death. and generate the illusion of a sense of order and meaning in a universe which may not have any.

    In my view, such delusions (i.e. believing in God) are adaptive because they promote attachment to other believers and lessen anxiety about death and meaninglessness. So evolution and natural selection would have selected for humans to have the delusion that God exists. But it seems like the more science learns about the vastness, emptiness, and unpredictability of the universe, the less likely it seems that humanity is special or that any God created the universe with humanity in mind. It’s sobering to think about this. It’s probably the case that there is no God and nothing after death.

    It’s grimly entertaining to read people refer to “anosognosia” in people with “mental illness.” The irony is that people like Jaffe and Fuller are much more deluded than those people they believe to have brain diseases, because those people have no such thing and are actually correct to deny that they are (medically) “ill”. Jaffe/Fuller are the ones relying on blind faith in believing that some brain disease is causing delusions or hallucinations, given that so-called schizophrenia doesn’t exist and no biomarkers have been, nor ever will be, found for it.

    I wish I hadn’t, but I did click on the NYTimes link and read Norman Ornstein’s profoundly ignorant and stupid article. It is sad that people who are presumably intellectually intelligent cannot think outside the twisted lens of mental illness that they view their own loved ones from. Nor consider that their misunderstanding their child’s problem as a brain disease may have contributed to their death. Perhaps Ornstein’s son didn’t get better partly because his parents misunderstood him as having a brain disease rather than as a person going through a meaningful psychotic experience.

    It was so ironic when Ornstein said about the Murphy detractors, “Their concerns are focused on civil liberties and are sincere but they come from failure to grasp the deeper traumas that can destroy lives.” This is not only false on the surface, but is even more pathetic when you think about how denial of trauma and life stress being the cause of psychotic experience is at the core of the mental illness/brain disease viewpoint that Ornstein endorses. And for God’s sake (see how I did that), Ornstein should at least admit that AOT is nothing more than forced treatment.

    I guess one has to consider in the final analysis that people like this Ornstein are well-meaning but ignorant, and only know the mental illness or brain disease model that blankets us in this society.

  2. You must be in a prolific spell, Sera, I’m surprised you’ve caught your breath already after last week. 🙂

    I knew I would want to throw up so avoided reading the Times piece until just now. And I want to throw up. Not only the article itself but the bulk of the comments. How soon do they close the comments section after publishing? People here need to know right away when something like this is published so we can add some enlightenment and clarification, and make sure that the responses are at least balanced.

    Also we need to know who the Democrats on the Murphy committee are, as they are the ones holding up the Murphy bill for both SAMSHA and AOT reasons; we need to intensively lobby them to maintain their positions. And we need their phone numbers.

  3. Thank you for your community service and this excellent article about terms used by the “movement” to describe helpful vs. unhelpful attitudes towards a person in “crisis.”

    However, I believe that you overlooked the underlying difference in understanding mental distress and the role that plays in attitudes. Does a “crisis” exemplify “mental illness” (operating with a brain or “mind” disorder) or does a “crisis” exemplify the natural neurobiology of unbearably intense emotional pain from unusually distressful experiences? If a “crisis” is believed to express “mental Illness,” then medicine seems logical, and the meaning of a “crisis” or voices is unfathomable and judgment about oneself is poor (including “anosognosia”). But if a “crisis” is understood as expressing emotional pain from distressful experiences, then it all has meaning and the individual is best able to guide their journey to emotional well-being.

    I assumed that a “crisis” expressed insanity before experiencing the symptoms because I could not imagine experiences as distressful and painful; I thought that I was too “centered.” More importantly, I previously assumed that a “crisis” expresses a mental or brain disorder because it appears so contrary to previous assumptions about “normal” mental or brain functions. Assuming that a “crisis” expresses a brain or mental disorder is a logical deduction from false assumptions about how a “normal” brain functions.

    Experiencing mental distress taught me that our culture is wrong about “mental illness” and “mental disorders;” they are the natural neurobiology of painful emotional suffering from distressful experiences. My experiences with mental distress initiated an exploration of the pseudoscience of the popular paradigm and the real science of human psychology. I explain the normal function of the brain and the nature of mental distress online at NaturalPsychology.org; it is true, elemental science. I believe that understanding mental distress is the key to reversing a history of disenfranchising those among us struggling with painfully distressful experiences.

    Thank you again for your community service, Steve

  4. Dear Sera, you write: As best as I can tell, the disconnect comes from the fact that we’ve all been taught to think about people who’ve been given psychiatric diagnoses or who are acting ‘crazy’ or who are hospitalized because they’ve been deemed ‘out of control’ as other. When those parts of ourselves get so big and colorful as to lead to some such grand intervention, we seem to intentionally blind ourselves to their much more readily relatable roots – the points at which we could see ourselves reflected back.

    In fact, for some, I think that process of ‘othering’ is something of a survival skill because letting in the idea that ‘us’ is ‘them’ feels too dangerous. The idea that any of us is capable of getting to such an extreme place is too frightening to bear.” in the context of your en-titled promise: Crisis is (un)Learning.

    Which I agree with from the perspective of un-learning the sense that I knew myself, simply because I could speak, read and write the common words of our social communication. A process of unlearning this deluded sense of reality, which the existential psychiatrist sums up, quiet intuitively, in his comment: we are all in a posthypnotic trance induced in infancy. The trance state illusion that words involve a solid sense of reality, rather than a vicarious sense of reality.

    In everyday practice, the best way I can articulate my previous self-ignorance of a language based sense of self. Is that, before reading Alan N Schore’s landmark book “Affect Regulation & the Origins of the Self,” in 2007, I knew more about the internal functioning of my motor car, than I knew about the internal function of my body-mind. Before 2007, I was lost in the double-bind paradox of my non-voluntary & voluntary responses to the reality of being. Taking my daily experience for granted, as I thought I saw an obvious reality, beyond my skin. While remaining comfortably numb, to the reality of “how” I do, seeing.

    Hence, my seemingly paradoxical comments here on MIA, as I try to turn a socio-political agenda towards the more profound question of what madness is, if it is not what the high priests of psychiatry, say it is. While my current medication free self-regulation, comes from unlearning a too “obvious” sense of “us & them” and through a broad reading education, coming to appreciate why, professor Jaak Panksepp suggests “we are all brothers and sisters under the skin.”

    While in terms of un-learning a paradoxical sense of material reality, you write:

    “I’ve been reminded many times recently how ‘crisis’ really does lead to (un)learning, and how it can, in fact, unite groups around common causes, bringing new relationships and illumination all around. I’ve seen that happen individually for people I know, and also for my community as a whole.

    (Shameless plug ahead) In fact, I’ve seen it up close and personal in the Greenfield, Massachusetts part of our RLC community as of late. Unfortunately, the threat of loss of a substantial portion of the RLC’s budget in that area rode in on the heels of a statewide threat of a similar nature that had only just been conquered.”

    This paradox of personal survival and spirituality, by which we are; caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender. -Jackson Browne. While, unlearning a sense of reality “out-there,” by appropriate education about reality within, can, in my experience, bring a depth of awareness, about the nature of our own “bio-energetic” economy. Especially, the systems of unconscious projection, by which we create the material survival needs of our social world.

    Why is it, that “the politics of experience,” has a habit of maintaining the status-qua? And are we, in this century, on the event horizon of understanding the formative causation and morphogenesis of our human mind? Which in terms of our personal evolution, requires knowledge of early life development and why “the attempt to regulate affect, is the driving force in human motivation” -Alan N Schore.

    The human paradox? As the experiential lessons of Zen Buddhism teach. Like when I was in Laos & asked a Buddhist monk about how I should understand reality? Bang! He hit me on the head, with wooden mallet. Lesson; you can only FEEL it. Which is the real secret to my medication free, self-regulation, the unlearning of a thought sense of my own reality and a re-orientation to feeling it.

  5. Hi Sera ,
    The 2 days before your article which talks early on about the idea of safe space I was thinking about the idea of sanctuary and wondering if ever there really was any truly protecting space for the hunted besides maybe the vast wilderness in the distant past . If now safety means having disguises prepared and fresh identification papers at the ready or moving to Uruguay where Julie Green MFA says theres a town where there is only one psychiatrist for 7000 people and drugs if someone feels they need them can be got at a pharmacy without prescription and the people share info about what works or not and a lower cost of living . So maybe it has one psychiatrist too many , still sounds like a paradise compared to the USA draconian corporate everything & tightening .
    I really like your list of definitions and certainly believe that Western Mass RLC should be supported to the max .
    Also I was thinking about how to describe a phenomena that I see is a huge factor in all our problems . How the mainstream sanctioned guilds the AMA the APA and the ADA (dental assn.) cross fertilize each others nest eggs with iatrogenic pseudo scientific procedures and substances , (Psychiatry being probably the worst) while limiting other first do no harm modalities , strategies and healing arts , and basically circling their super cumbersome carnival “medicine ” wagons as they work ever harder to gain legal mandates for coercive practices that damage the human being. Of course Rockefeller petroleum based medicine,including operation paperclip universities , and Pharma cartels and Insurance for mostly unhealthy modalities doesn’t help us either .
    Murphy Bill ? Aren’t we at a stage in our “democratic ” development here in the USA where a policy is first put into force and then the legal sanctioning follows ? Isn’t that the new world order for “security’s” sake ?
    I’m still anti -psychiatry and I’ll find $20 for the RLC as so many of the wealthy on the east coast and everywhere else are so tight and self centered that the buffalo on the nickel sh–s just thinking about them .
    Take Care , Fred

  6. BTW , I’m finally started reading Robert Whitaker’s and Lisa Cosgrove’s latest book Psychiatry Under The Influence .It’s scary what the meeting of psychiatry ,big pharma , and insurance company’s , have constructed . I’m wondering if “cognitive dissonance” in this case is just what Hannah Aren’t described as “the banality of evil ” . Later she said to paraphrase that sometimes in human history evil moves rapidly across the land like a prairie fire . Isn’t greed especially within the one percent wielding unregulated pseudoscience, in so many area’s regardless of the damage to human beings , that very prairie fire cris-crossing our country and beyond ?

  7. Regards the internal change that was the process of my un-learning, the delusion that I knew myself, simply because I’d grown to adulthood taking for granted this habituated process of thinking & speaking. I have just completed my latest attempt to articulate the lived experience of psychosis, from the perspective of R.D. Laing’s conception of ontological insecurity, explaining how I used Peter Levine’s “sensate” awareness approach, to make the words of recent neuroscience discovery, flesh. Specifically, professor Stephen Porges articulation of nervous system dissolution. Which I believe, brings a neuroscience confirmation of Ronnie’s “experiential” understanding of schizophrenia. Through his extraordinary “appetite” for being “with” people, compared to a “categorizing” aversion towards other people.

    May be read on academia.edu here: https://www.academia.edu/18666917/4_Words_Nervous_System_Mental_Illness

    An essay which explores the formative causation & morphogenesis of my mind. In the existential context of my personal evolution.

  8. Hi Sera,

    Thanks so much for your insightful and right-on-target article.

    I loved your chart: I found it chilling because it’s so true.

    What you say here really resonates with me: “Though, perhaps that’s better than when people adopt our words and phrases as if they do understand. It’s easier to understand your enemy when they’re not pretending to be your ally.”

    The people who belong the the middle group–“You’re on the right track (sorta)”– are the ones who can be most confusing and frightening because they appear to be your ally. They go along (to a certain extent) and then end up sticking you in a hospital.

    I also really loved what you write here: “Our brains tend to feel around for that one little speck in all that lies before us that re-enforces what we believe, even when all that surrounds it offers up evidence that screams for change.” I think this is true of people who defend the status quo in the MHS. I also reflected how true this has been of myself as I’ve come up against the need to break down taboo psychological territory within me. That is, the need to change vs the pressure (within and without) not to. Thank you for putting into such eloquent and precise words what I’ve grappled with personally for so long.
    And thanks for your article at large!

    Best wishes,
    Elizabeth