[Editor’s note: due to personal circumstances, the author has chosen to publish under an abbreviated version of his name.]
After hearing the following account, people whose lives have not been impacted by the mental health system have told me it could just as well have happened to them. That isn’t something one often hears when considering the likelihood of being labeled with schizophrenia.
In 1981 when I was admitted to a private psychiatric hospital, the psychiatrist, along with a clinical team of social workers and therapists, knew nothing of the terrible ordeal I had suffered during the previous year. After observing me in their Intensive Care Unit for three weeks the psychiatrist took me into his office. I sat there in a Prolixin-induced stupor as he dialed Social Security to inform a rep that I had paranoid schizophrenia. I’d been admitted to the private psychiatric hospital before the practice of trauma-informed care became acceptable. According to the National Center for Trauma Informed Care, trauma-informed care is “an approach to engaging people with histories of trauma symptoms and acknowledging the role that trauma has played in their lives.” What was the clinical team thinking then? If they believed my condition to only be the result of a genetically inherited illness or chemical imbalance they couldn’t have been more wrong, and thus couldn’t have mistreated me more wrongfully than they did!
The previous year, at age 20, I had withdrawn from a state university after not being able to keep up with the classwork. Soon afterwards I moved to Tucson, Arizona to live near an older brother, and thus began an adventure that I can only compare with Voltaire’s character Candide for its scope of misfortune. It even included a modern day version of the infamous Dr. Pangloss.
Before I could afford to pay for my own apartment, my well-meaning brother arranged for me to stay at the home of a psychiatric nurse who was his wife’s friend. At the time that nurse was having an extramarital affair with an ex-Lutheran pastor who had become a Bioenergetics therapist. Soon I met this therapist at my brother’s home. A week later I met him again by coincidence at a local fast food restaurant. There he handed me his business card and while staring at me with cold, blue, mesmerizing eyes suggested I visit him at his Tucson office.
In our first session, the therapist told to me that many people live in pain due to “chronic muscular tension.” He described how “defensive body armor causes intramuscular holding patterns.” And he showed me a diagram of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This was all a preamble to what he planned to do to me — tear me down and rebuild me from the ground up!
Subsequent sessions usually began with him getting in my face like a drill sergeant and then insisting repeatedly that I ‘get out of my head.’ By his tone and expression I could tell I wasn’t doing it to his satisfaction, and he’d progressively get louder and more demanding. The effect of his constant berating caused me to withdraw and even impaired my cognitive functioning. At around the time of this treatment, a supervisor at my job took me aside to tell me that my coworkers thought I was “mentally retarded.”
Other exercises the Bioenergetics therapist had me do included violently pounding a couch with a tennis racket, repeatedly swinging my elbows back while shouting “get off my back,” being propped against a wall with my knees bent until I could no longer support myself (he called that “fathering”), laying across a stool while he pushed down on my back and chest with all his might while exhorting me to express how it felt, and gouging my limbs, back and my face with his hands to tear apart the fascia that was causing me to hold in pain. He’d been a boxer and jazz pianist and had very strong hands.
At the conclusion of each of the sessions he’d simply send me out his office door literally foaming at the mouth with a rage that he claimed had been inside of me all along. I later read that the prevalent criticism of Bioenergetics is that it arouses intense emotions without attempting to help the patient process or handle them. That was definitely true in my case.
But as painful as the bodywork was, the things he claimed to know about my upbringing were even more so. In a portion of each session he’d direct me to curl up in a fetal position and with conviction in his voice tell me such things as “your father was an animal who never wanted you around,” and “ he was so cheap about heating your house you’d been nearly frozen as a child.” He believed that someone had attempted to strangle me as a child and repeatedly demanded that I tell him who’d done it. And during one session my mother somehow managed to phone his office. After a few words he extended the receiver toward me so I could hear my mother yelling, and then he abruptly hung up on her to tell me that I’d been “emotionally shattered as a child.” Later he claimed that my father was inhabiting my body cavity and he spent considerable energy and effort trying to exorcise him from me. I only just recently learned that creating false memories in a patient is a prosecutable offense.
My final encounter with the therapist was very telling. It happened in a pharmacy near his office. He told me that he was there to prescribe himself codeine to numb his pain after just learning that one of his patients had killed herself. He then made a gesture of pointing a gun to the center of his forehead and pulling the trigger. I could recall having recently seen that patient crying uncontrollably during the monthly group sessions he called his ‘Bioenergetic Community.’
During the same time period as these sessions I worked at a Tuscon resort hotel as a dishwasher. I was youthfully naïve about the hazards of hard labor and threw myself into the job enthusiastically. It was a grueling grind amidst the nerve-wracking clamor of pots and dishes that left me feeling almost shell-shocked on a daily basis.
When I returned to Massachusetts in 1981 I was a shell of my former self. I was so physically drained and emotionally depressed I couldn’t get myself out of bed for a week. One day when my mother tried to prod me to get up, I flailed out with my arm, accidentally breaking a nearby window and badly cutting my hand. After receiving several stitches at a medical hospital I was transferred to the aforementioned psychiatric hospital. Based on my overall condition it should have been obvious I’d recently been through a terrible ordeal, but no one on the clinical staff cared to question me about that possibility. And even if they had, Bionergetics was so hardwired in my mind it’s unlikely I could have answered them.
And to make matters worse, the brainwashing I’d been subjected to was about to be outdone by treatment with mind-numbing antipsychotic drugs. Talk about adding insult to injury! We’ve heard the term ‘medication arsenal’ referring to the vast array of powerful drugs at the disposal of psychiatrists. Well, it was as if a veritable psychiatric Maginot Line lurked waiting for the appearance of vulnerable and confused people like me to pepper us with every type of pill they could muster. Among these drugs was Thorazine which I was forced to take — it caused me to faint in a rest room and strike my forehead on a toilet, resulting in a gash that required six stitches.
The diagnosis of schizophrenia stuck to me for decades. Psychiatrists and clinicians in day treatment programs simply piggybacked on the initial diagnosis rather than form their own opinion. And they had ample opportunity to do so with me attending groups five times a day, five days a week. Sitting through all those groups surrounded by psychologists all treating me for schizophrenia basically conditioned me to accept it as being true. Despite the fact that I demonstrated lengthy periods of health and normalcy such as normal dating, working in a managerial position, running the entire Boston Marathon and developing and directing a peer counseling program, these clinicians all chose to focus solely on my symptoms. Looking back, I see those achievements as strong indications that something about the diagnosis was wrong and those clinicians completely overlooked that probability.
In 2001, after release from another hospitalization, I was outside doing calisthenics when I suddenly experienced a significant and lasting improvement of my visual perception and mental health. I was convinced that I had cured myself of schizophrenia and even had an article about it published in a reputable psychiatry journal. I now believe that I had finally shed the lasting vestiges of the impact of the Bioenergetics. I suddenly felt very connected to my surroundings in a way I hadn’t been before. It also felt like my traumatized personality had reestablished itself. I felt right in my mind, along with a sense of self assurance.
Then I was able to recognize a clear pattern: all the behaviors that got me hospitalized had extreme emotions driving them. The rageful outbursts, hostile confrontations and suicide attempts all stemmed from the emotive escalations that had become wired into me since doing Bioenergetics in my early twenties. These emotional escalations were often accompanied by paranoid delusions, a symptom then associated with schizophrenia, but recognized more recently to also be caused by trauma.
With that pattern in mind, in 2015 when I started having my meds prescribed by a nurse practitioner at Mclean Hospital, I wanted to set things straight. I described to her in detail what had happened to me in Tucson. She then shared my account with her supervisor, a psychiatrist with a PhD. Based on the Bionenergetics and other damaging experiences I’d had in the mental health system, he concluded that I didn’t have schizophrenia, but rather an iatrogenic illness — that is, an illness which is caused by treatment. In a letter I requested documenting this finding, my nurse writes:
“Aaron’s functioning and stability have improved over time, and his cognitive functioning lacks some of the hallmark impairments in executive functioning and information processing. These differences from the classic presentation of schizophrenia often point toward a strong environmental influence on the etiology of the psychosis.”
“When emotional trauma has a strong influence on the development of psychosis you don’t have that same genetic loading producing a progressive illness.”
“The term iatrogenic describes illness that occurs as a result of medical treatment. This has certainly been Aaron’s experience; Aaron’s degrading encounters with the mental health system over the years have triggered and re-triggered that initial bioenergetics trauma, making most of his ‘therapy’ an ongoing input into the feedback loop of trauma>—psychosis>—trauma.”
In my case, an uninformed diagnosis resulted in a near lifetime of mistreatment and misunderstanding. How does one account for such a significant error? Perhaps it’s their desire to maintain their power that keeps mental health professionals from acknowledging the ability of a patient to tell them anything insightful. Or, it could be that graduating from a prestigious school with advanced degrees makes them arrogant and overconfident. I once had a psychiatrist who actually said to me, “With all my advanced degrees and experience you dare question me?” Ironically, it was that same psychiatrist who prescribed the antipsychotic drugs that have left me permanently afflicted with tardive dystonia. (See article, ‘A Struggle to Forgive: My long battle with dystonia.’)
Having my diagnosis changed has felt very liberating, but it hasn’t much reduced the effect of the stigma I’ve internalized. It’s very difficult for me to socially connect with people other than those with mental illness. And it’s evident that many relatives and friends are still reluctant to connect with me. As a result I am still socially isolated. I can only imagine how different my life would be today if, at age 21, I’d been deprogrammed instead of being drugged and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
I feel strongly that behind every stigmatizing psychiatric label is the individual’s equally valid account of how they became ill, and possibly one that contradicts the experts as did mine. Our stories or personal narratives are constantly being misconstrued and misappropriated by mental health professionals in the form of pathologizing progress notes and other clinical documents. It’s important that we reject these textbook constructs and with our own true words reclaim our health and lives.
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.