When our son Chris began developing psychotic symptoms at the end of high school, the course of his life for several years became all too predictable. Hospitalized in Toronto in his second year of university, he dropped out and moved back home. On the journey toward healing we navigated a bumpy but interesting ride through Switzerland, England, France, the USA, and cyberspace. I kept a journal of our progress, which became a literary endeavor as time went on.*
We started out following the mainstream. Chris enrolled in an outpatient early psychosis program.
“As you can see,” explained Doctor R, “social integration is the principle preventive therapeutic treatment, but we also believe that the judicious use of medication is equally important. We prescribe different kinds of medications, but we have found, in the ten years the program has been operating, that one particular neuroleptic drug, clozapine, seems to be producing especially good results in the patient population.”
The problem with this approach? Chris wasn’t recovering. He took the pills. He dutifully attended the early psychosis program where a fleet of professionals were on hand to help him. But he wasn’t getting substantially better, nowhere near the point where I thought he should be. Was I in denial? If denial is not going along with the idea that schizophrenia is a lifelong disease that can only be managed, not cured, then yes, I was in denial.
To extricate my son from the “patient population” as much as possible, Chris and I headed to wilder terrain. He finished up with the day program, continued with his weekly psychotherapy sessions, gradually, over the years and under supervision, lowering his medication to well below the lowest recommended dose, where it stubbornly remains today. By reading everything I could get my hands on, I learned about his condition — from everything except the medical model narrative, which I found depressing and not well informed. Authors I had only a passing acquaintance with before now felt like long-lost friends: Carlos Castanada, Herman Hesse, R.D. Laing, and Thomas Szasz. I had never heard of Joseph Campbell, but after wading into the waters that the schizophrenic is drowning in, I came away with a more optimistic view of my son’s future. I would accompany him on the hero’s journey. There is a literary precedent for this: the hero often has a sidekick who‘s there to assist him.
Chris and I were watching Superman. Chris’s eyes were glued to the screen for the entire film. As Superman struggled to overturn a crystallized landmass that threatened to end life on earth, I whispered, “Hey, I’m enjoying this movie, too,” but the roar of the continent being lifted up drowned out my attempts at small talk.
Watching the film, I was struck by the resemblance between Chris in his deteriorated condition and Superman when he was exposed to green kryptonite—helpless, enfeebled, stripped of his powers, hovering in a twilight zone between life and death. In my mind, Chris is a kind of superhero. He has exceptional intuitive capabilities and huge reservoirs of empathy and compassion that enable him to achieve oneness with All-That-Is. He understands that the destructive forces in the universe might cause the world to end—by fire or by ice.
As we left the theater, I wondered how I could help Chris return to earth, as Superman had done after a long absence from our planet. Chris would have to learn how to channel his gifts in ways that strengthened him. He would have to learn resilience so that he could cope when people, situations, and substances weakened him.
The non-medical people to whom we turned for help moved Chris forward in small, incremental ways and were well-versed in their Joseph Campbell. Crucially, in my opinion, they did no harm. The mainstream medical community might question the evidence base for what we did, but its incomplete and conflicting evidence for its drug therapy liberates some of us to try alternatives. I also have one important thing going for me that medicine overlooks: I’m the mother. I know my son better than anybody, and I observe and continue to take notes. I had an agreement with Chris that, as much as possible, I would undergo the same therapies as he. Admittedly, I did this partly for the material (an unusually good story!), but mainly because I didn’t think it was fair to slap him with the identified patient label, meaning that there was something uniquely wrong with him that needed fixing while there was nothing wrong with me. Our common ground is that we are both in this to strengthen our overall health. (The fact that Chris doesn’t have a driver’s license almost guaranteed that I had to be at many of those appointments with him. Make mine a double!)
Doctor B found that my assemblage point had travelled up the panic-and-anxiety line on the right side of my chest. After locating it, she handed me over to her assistant, who asked me to stand with my back to him. He told me to tighten my sphincter and hold my breath, and then he delivered one quick thump to my right shoulder blade, catching me off guard. I emitted a little squeak as the air left my lungs.
So, that’s the famous shaman’s blow! I thought as I recovered from the shock. With my assemblage point in its rightful place I hoisted myself onto the examining table and stretched out on my back. Doctor B handed me a large, heavy quartz crystal wand that I struggled to keep upright over the center of my chest for twenty minutes as the gem lamp’s transducer pumped emerald vibrations to my liver.
While lying in this ludicrous pose I asked her if she’d heard about Prince Charles’s keynote address that he’d delivered to the World Health Organization a couple of days earlier, in which he’d stated his belief that national health systems should take more account of alternative treatments such as homeopathy and acupuncture. Doctor B confided to me that there was growing concern among established Harley Street doctors because some members of the Royal Family were seeing homeopathic doctors and other alternative medical practitioners on a regular basis. I laughed, my mind flashing back to a tabloid image of Princess Diana smiling, and waving to the press, after having her colon irrigated at a London clinic.
The people that Chris and I continued to consult with over the years didn’t talk of mental illness as a brain disease, a chemical imbalance, or a problem with one’s genes. Depending on the therapy, they spoke in terms of restoring life force energy, changing cellular vibration, allowing the energy of our ancestors to enter our consciousness, learning to listen — and, therefore, understand — and building a self.
Here’s a small sample of where we went on our journey:
Family Constellation work was developed by Bert Hellinger (1925 -), a German psychotherapist and former Jesuit priest who spent many years living among the Zulu people in South Africa. It is based on the premise that patterns of behavior can be carried forward for generations, especially if an ancestral family member experienced loss or injustice. Constellation work is designed to help participants resolve these issues and thereby avoid perpetuating destructive patterns. It’s hugely emotional and therapeutic. Be prepared to cry — a lot. Accept what “is,” forgive, and move on.
The Alexander Technique was developed by F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), a Shakespearean actor from Australia who lost the ability to project his voice. His Technique is a process of self-inquiry that enables a person to release unconscious habits that put strain on the body. Alexander’s approach to self-examination required consciously stopping the movement pattern he was executing to decide whether he wanted to continue it, change it, or stop it altogether and do something different. The technique he developed seemed like an approach that Chris could use to address the “action/no action” dilemma he frequently encountered in relation to using both his mind and his body. He might finally learn how to choose.
The Tomatis Method: Doctor Alfred Tomatis (“tom-ah-TEECE”) (1920-2001), a French otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist), distinguished “listening” from “hearing.” In his view, hearing is passive, whereas listening is an active process. Listening ability allows us to focus, which has profound implications for spatial awareness and control of bodily movements. Listening is important for “most skills involved in communication, verbal as well as non-verbal, socialization, language and learning.” The ear charges the brain and nervous system with electrical energy, and its proper functioning is essential to motor skills, balance and coordination, and, of course, hearing. The treatment primarily involves listening to high-frequency music through headphones, e.g., Mozart concertos and Gregorian chants, for two hours a day. “Using both bone and air conduction to hear and listen is crucial for the development of a self,” the directrice said. “You will hear your true voice for the first time.”
Chris’s observations about how he benefited from his Tomatis sessions: Now, with this heightened emotional sense, he found that when he listened to people, they weren’t just “a body in space” anymore, but he heard the subtext of their concerns; their emotional presence makes them “people.”
Sound waves: This particular form of sound therapy is used experimentally on both plants and humans.
“The sound you are about to hear is produced by my invention, the Bioscope system, and is the frequency of the color red,” the speaker said as he flipped a switch on one of the components. A low, rumbling sound emanated through speakers positioned in the corners of the lecture room. After several minutes, I was shifting uncomfortably in my seat. Mercifully, the sound stopped before I felt compelled to run for the nearest exit. “The energy released in the Big Bang, which approximates the sound you just heard, continues to imbue human beings, plants, and animals with a unique harmonic resonance or life force,” the speaker said. “Exposure to sound waves and electromagnetic fields affects us in various ways — some positive, some negative. We may sometimes require rebalancing to stay healthy.”
During Chris’s second sound therapy session with the inventor, he had the first of many out-of-body experiences. I asked him to keep a journal of these experiences, which occurred regularly during the year he was having his treatments. Here is what he wrote after his second session. (He was initially bothered by flies in the room.)
I began to fall into a trance, an aware sort of sleep; instead of relaxing into my body and dreaming, I left my body and began to experience the room while my body “powered down.” First I said to myself, this is just a sound, a basic unrefined sound but just a noise really, and then my head refused to make any noise, any comment or utter any “thoughts” as I was released into the space or “aura” around me.
I could see my body lying down from four feet away in any direction, and it was the best impression or image of myself that I’ve found in a long time, better than any mirror image can give. Those flies that I found so irritating I now realized were in harmony with my feelings of irritability that I had carried in with me, and I could fly around the room as if the flies were part of me. The only pain I felt was at the head level, when I could see that a big dark block at my head masked or obstructed this free flow of energy I experienced. To stand up in that state would have been impossible.
Rapport–building: By the time Chris was in his mid-twenties, I’d developed several coping strategies. I continued reframing my thoughts in order to stay positive about Chris’s recovery. In addition, I would occasionally imitate some of his behaviors, a technique that I later learned is called “mirroring” and is used as a rapport-building exercise in therapy.
I found Chris’s ghostlike presence unsettling, so I decided to try being ghostlike myself. Upon arriving home, I slid my key as silently as possible into the lock, opened the door, and stepped lightly over the threshold, taking care to oh-so-silently shut the door behind me so that nobody would know I was there. (If I could have slipped in through the keyhole like a “real” ghost, I would have.)
I glided past Chris without acknowledging his presence and quietly busied myself with whatever tasks I needed to do. I tried hard not to rattle the dishes as I put them away, and I spoke loudly enough to not appear conspicuous but quietly enough to achieve the desired effect.
My efforts seemed to make an impression on Chris. On several occasions, he tapped lightly on the door of my bedroom, where I had deliberately holed up to avoid him. When I didn’t immediately respond, he opened the door to check on me, asking “Is there anything I can do for you, Mom?”
“No, nothing at all,” I murmured as I continued my reading. “Please shut the door behind you when you leave.” The hoped-for results were not long in coming. I would hear Chris’s key turn firmly in the lock and then, “Mom, I’m home!” Bang, bang, bang went the pots and pans.
Homeopathy works at the conscious and subconscious levels to bolster the life force. It is the leading alternative treatment prescribed by doctors in Europe and is even more prevalent in India. It was once mainstream medical treatment in Canada and the US — a statue in Washington, D.C. honors its founder Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843). Homeopathic remedies are based on the principle that “like cures like,” meaning that a substance (e.g., cuttlefish ink) taken in extremely small doses will provoke a healing response, whereas the same substance taken in a much larger dose would cause harmful symptoms to manifest. The substances are diluted to tiny percentages per million parts with alcohol or water, then vigorously shaken, a process called “potentization.” In its purest form, homeopathy is the antithesis of today’s polypharmacy. Classically trained homeopaths believe that the smallest possible dose of a single remedy is the most effective. When treating a patient, a homeopath takes careful notes in order to understand the whole person (body, mind, and spirit).
Chris returned from his first visit to the homeopath with a vial of potentized phosphorus. After reading about this remedy online, I knocked on Chris’s door.
“The homeopath figured you out on your first appointment,” I said when Chris opened the door. “You are like phosphorus!”
He allowed me to enter his room, so I perched myself on the end of his bed and read from my notes:
“Phosphorus types are characteristically pale and often blond. They like to please people and are so emotionally sensitive to others that they often inappropriately cross boundaries in an effort to be helpful. Similarly, others cross their boundaries until they learn how to say no. They attempt to avoid conflict and confrontation in an effort to keep the peace. They dislike being alone and can be overly attached to home and family. Easily exhausted, both mentally and physically, they need to honor their own limits.”
“Is that you or is that you!” I said, putting down my notes.
“I don’t know,” Chris said, irritated. “Is there anything good about phosphorus?”
I picked up my notes and continued reading. “Highly likable; poetry-loving romantics; infectious smile. They love to sing. Oh, and get this: They often have strikingly red lips!” I looked up and said, “This was something I noticed about you when you were born.”
Chris was unimpressed at first, but soon he was grinning. (Having a sunny disposition is a phosphorus trait.)
“And then there’s this: ‘They are so light and airy they appear to float.’ I’m amazed at how well this description fits you!”
Chris is now thirty-four, living at home with his parents, and started spreading his wings several years ago through his music and stage work. Over the years I’ve learned to sit back and enjoy the ride. Had we not taken the scenic route, I might have given up on Chris early on because I would have fallen victim to mainstream thought, which “awfulizes” psychosis (as MIA author Ron Unger terms it). We’re not done with the journey, but it’s coming to a close. I’ve done what I can. It’s his turn to drive the car to places he wants to go.
I’ll be there, cheering him on from the sidelines.
*Portions of this post are from my book, The Scenic Route, used with permission of Inspired Creations, my publisher.
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.