A physician once said, “The best medicine for humans is love.” Someone asked, “What if it doesn’t work?” The physician smiled and said, “Increase the dose.” –Anonymous
Many traditions and individuals speak of the power of love, some speaking directly about the power of love to heal. This makes sense; we are beings of love. But through our lives, we lose connection to this aspect of ourselves. This can happen for many reasons and manifests differently in each of us. But as the Dalai Lama has said, “The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence.” And when we are loved by others and able to return to the essence of love in ourselves, we heal.
I have found this to be true in my personal journey. Just over three years ago, I was close to death. And with love, I am healing.
My journey began in 1995. I was a senior in high school, celebrating my last day of classes. I was playing tennis with friends when the school counselor came and took me off the tennis court. Earlier that week, I had shared with two teachers that I had been feeling suicidal. And now I was being taken to a hospital.
Though not suicidal that day, seeking relief, acceptance, and love, I willingly entered the hospital, having no idea how my life was about to change. That day was the beginning of a deep journey into the depths of despair.
During my second hospitalization that summer I was medicated for the first time. Side effects were immediate, and medications and diagnoses were changed and added. And that was only the beginning. Over the next twenty years, one medication turned into trials of at least twenty medications, up to six at any one time. Over those twenty years I also made five serious suicide attempts, two near-fatal. I had between eight and twelve ECT treatments (ironically, I don’t recall the exact number). And I spent two years in a state hospital.
Today I am not only medication-free but also thriving. While many people in my life are delighted by my transformation, most did not think it possible. So how did I transition from being a chronic, “seriously mentally ill” psychiatric patient to a vibrant being? Truthfully, I am still trying to answer this question definitively, to understand the story of my life. But this is what I know:
My awakening and transformation began about sixteen years into my journey, during my state hospitalization. There I was introduced to the peer movement. Once discharged, I trained to become a peer specialist, though I did not stay in this role for long, opting instead to return to school with a goal of bridging my personal and professional worlds. Not long after I was back in hospitals, again fighting for my life.
Months later I was thrown out of a private treatment center and involuntarily admitted to an inpatient hospitalization. The discussion amongst my treatment team was for me to return to the state hospital where I had been once before. I knew this would not be helpful in the least and could possibly be life-threatening. Thankfully, it was just before Christmas and virtually every practitioner was away from their office. And somehow, without any confirmed follow-up treatment plan in place, I convinced the hospital to discharge me. And they did.
Though physically free, I was still emotionally and spiritually captive. Further, I had been disowned by many family and friends. I had nowhere to live and little money. I felt desperate in a way I had not before, and my life was again in my hands. This time I started living.
I booked a room in a local motel and searched the internet for area resources. Through the provider directory here on the Mad in America website, I found a handful of providers in my state. And by chance—or what I prefer to call synchronicity—one was a psychiatrist in the very town I was in.
I’ll always remember sitting in that psychiatrist’s office for the first time. Over the phone I had shared very little, fearful that she would not work with me given my “high risk” status as I had heard so many times before. After I shared my story and my desire to taper off my medication, she sat back in her chair and said, “Wow.” My heart was racing, feeling that she was my last hope. I’ll always remember the words that followed: “I can’t keep you alive, but I will work with you.” That was the beginning of my life as I know it today.
Now off medication for nearly two years, I know that I never needed those medications. And in all likelihood they made things worse, perhaps precipitating many years of unnecessary distress and most of the events that compose my life. I also know that it is only through good fortune, some intentional manipulation, and a series of synchronistic events that I am physically, emotionally, and spiritually free today. And unfortunately, as many of us know, my story is not unique. And not everyone is as fortunate.
Throughout my twenty years of medical treatment in psychiatry, my rights and wishes were frequently ignored, disregarded, and violated. I lost my inner compass guiding my way, and many other things as well. While I continue to release anger about, shed tears for, and heal from these experiences, I also feel deep gratitude. What I endured strengthened my spirit and moved me closer to my purpose. And, at the same time, it is my deepest wish that others do not have to endure the same painful experiences to realize their greatness.
So today, in my work as a professional in the same field in which I started my journey as a patient nearly twenty-two years ago, I continually seek to understand how things could have been different for me and how they can be different for others. In doing so, I reflect on what supported me—and continues to support me—on my journey. I’ve employed some of the best and most cutting edge treatments, both conventional and holistic, and I truly am stunned when I realize that of the vast array of techniques and approaches employed, those I credit with saving my life are human qualities. And if I had to name just one, it would be love. Unending and unconditional love.
In reflecting on my recent work, I am reminded of a poignant story illustrating the power of love. I work with an elderly woman who, according to her therapist, has some of the most entrenched and all-consuming thoughts and feelings he has experienced in over twenty years of practice. After sitting with this woman one day for over twice the allotted time of our appointment, working hard to collaborate with her on something that she might find helpful to ameliorate her intense emotions that are so uncomfortable and intolerable for her, she asked me for a hug. My hug appeared to calm her more than hours of collaboration, therapy, or any medication, herb, or alternative treatment she had tried. It is love that she sought. It is love that we all seek. And it is love that heals.
So now when I see this woman or others, love is the primary remedy. And if it is not enough, I increase the dose.
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.