As someone who had a lot of psychiatric drugs as a young man, sometimes against my will, I wrote a chapter for the recent publication Searching for a Rose Garden about my experience of working with the Sunrise Center Project, a survivor-run project aiming to help people come off psychiatric drugs safely using the tools of Re-evaluation Counseling (also known as Co-Counseling). Janet Foner wrote about the project for Mad in America in April of 2015. I wrote an abbreviated version of my chapter for the Sunrise Center website in July of 2015, and this current piece is intended as an update on how we’ve progressed since those articles and since the publication of Searching for a Rose Garden last September.
Our long-term goal for the Sunrise Center Project is to set up a residential center where people can get the support they need to come off psychiatric drugs safely. This will be somewhere in the US, although we are an international project and hope to eventually have centers all over the world. (At the moment I’m the only board member not based in the US, but previously there was a board member in Canada, and other members of our fundraising committee join the regular conference call from Israel and England.) We’re fundraising toward setting up a center, and we’ve been organising local events in towns where our supporters live. We’ve previously held three quilt raffles, and we’re now designing a crowdfunding project to help people on a low income to get to our workshops.
Until we’re in a financial position to open a center, we’ve been developing our knowledge and practice by running weekend-long workshops. At first these workshops were based on the East Coast of the US, but in December of 2015 we had the first one on the US West Coast — during 2016 they ran on both the East and West Coasts, and hopefully that will continue as an annual pattern. The workshops are a chance for members of the board and fundraising team to spend time with people who are either trying to come off psychiatric drugs themselves or are allies to people who are. (We encourage people coming off drugs to form support teams in the areas where they live, and all those people are invited.)
The workshops are designed to suit the needs of participants. Everyone (board members, people trying to come off drugs, allies/helpers) usually takes some time to work on their own drug histories, including street drugs and anesthesia. “Working on” in this context means taking time to be listened to, telling the story of how drugs played a part in our lives, and “discharging” about any aspect of that experience that still is distressing to us — i.e. laughing, crying, sweating, shaking, raging about it.
At the last workshop the leader demonstrated counseling someone wanting to stop taking drugs, focusing particularly on the issue of being in charge of her support team. There was also a counseling demonstration with a member of the support team about their own feelings of impatience with the slowness of the process. This is a really important part of our philosophy. We don’t think it’s down to just the person trying to get off drugs to deal with their issues and feelings about it. We think the people around them need to deal with their own issues and feelings about the process too.
This workshop also focused on a “5 point program” that Janet Foner has developed. This is useful practice for anyone concerned about getting and staying well, so here’s what she has written:
- Organise enough support for yourself, including lots of two-way listening sessions in person, if possible, or if not, by phone. Each one has an equal turn to be listened to without any interruption, advice, comments, etc. When it’s your turn to talk, say whatever is on your mind. Build trust as you go and agree on how long a session you want, making sure you each get equal time. Agree to keep confidential everything that is said. Set up a support network of listening partners, so there will be plenty of people you can call when you feel “down.”
- Use at least some of your sessions to make the commitment to focus your attention off distress and onto what’s good in the world. Repeat the commitment and release the feelings associated with it. Use this version, or make up your own: “I don’t have time to focus my attention on my distress. There are so many things I would rather be doing, like: (name some). So I decide to focus my attention off my distress, and onto pleasant and rewarding things. And that means…” Usually the next thought will be exactly what you need to do to refocus onto pleasant thoughts.
- Use at least some of your sessions to think about your life and what you need to do to make it just the way you want it; to have your life and environment be so exciting and fulfilling that your attention is pulled out of distress, daily, by the way your life is. Then make the changes you’ve thought of, even if they take several years and lots of
- When it’s your turn in a listening session, keep at least some of your attention focused on good things, not on your distress. Don’t dive into the distress headfirst. Think of the distress in your mind as a swimming pool. Your job is to tread water and keep your attention way above the water. This doesn’t mean you don’t deal with difficult things, just that you deal with them while remembering the good things in life at the same time. You can tell about a past incident by describing all the horrifying details, and get sunk in the process, or you can say something like, “I’m alive!! I made it out!!” in a joyous tone of voice and still work on the same material, but focused on the positive. However, don’t try to make this process be like a cookbook. Sometimes, for example, in order to focus off a distress of “Don’t tell” or “Hold in everything,” someone may need to tell the gory details.
- Do lots of things you enjoy every day. When you are feeling fine, make a list of fun things you like to do. When you feel terrible, take out the list and do some things on it, even if it feels impossible at first. Your mood will eventually improve. Get more fun things into your life. Strategize ways to fit this in even if it seems you “don’t have time.” In the long run, get yourself out of boring, unchallenging, bad situations (see #3 above) so that you always have fun.
At the moment we’re only inviting people who have knowledge of Re-evaluation Counseling, the tool we’re using, to these workshops. Eventually when we have enough experience this will change, and we’ll be open to additional people and their supporters. People who’ve been to the workshops have been very positive, including doctors and people working in the mental health system as therapists.
I look forward to hearing your comments.