I wrote an article on coercion in care some years ago, here on MIA, and I wrote about my own experiences, of psychosis and catatonia. I was asked to write more about my journey to healing, but to tell you the truth, that first article sent me into a spin, and it has taken three years to feel ready to write this. That last article, where I dived so deep into my experience of isolation cells, forced injections and catatonic horror, opened up yet another layer of my hidden memories. It was, nevertheless, what pushed me over the last big threshold on my way to healing. A few months after writing the article, I was flooded by traumatic memories, that I now could experience and remember for the first time without going psychotic. Remembering them consciously healed something, it restored my memories that had been scattered and fragmented, and that had haunted me as irrational fears and hallucinations.
In short, my illness and recovery story is as follows: At age 17 I had an intense reactive psychosis, which nonetheless had a fairly positive prognosis. Doctors said it might be a one-off, and never repeat itself. At 25, I had an experience of psychosis after a trip to Amsterdam, and six months later I experienced psychosis in London, where I had just moved. I was hospitalized for a month, on both occasions. A few years after this, I ran out of my mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medication due to some unforeseen happenings on a longer trip abroad, and I quit the medication almost cold turkey. I didn’t get any withdrawal symptoms, and neither did I get any psychotic symptoms, so I never started the medication again. I was living a normal life, without any mental problems, medication or need for therapy, for almost ten years.
At 36, I gave birth to my son, and was hospitalised with a postpartum psychosis when he was six days old. From this postpartum psychosis started a six-year period of repeated psychosis and hospitalisations, while at the same time I was trying very hard to work on my healing and my own personal development. I was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, and doctors didn’t give me any hope of healing, but I was determined to find a cure. In the end I did. I tried a new healing modality that helped me remember and work through the trauma memories that had caused my psychoses. After my psychotic symptoms disappeared, I rested for one year. My head was pretty mush. After a year of rest I returned to part-time work. It took some time for my cognitive abilities and focus to improve, and for my body to get used to existing in a relaxed state. But time really heals.
In 2014 I was pretty much living in schizophrenic hell, a lot of the year. Somehow I managed to function in normal life anyway. I wrote to one of my mentors: “The trauma memory is in your face all the time, it gets reflected to you from everywhere, and it takes all your attention. Normal life is just like a distant place that you can barely see from behind the fog. All your energy goes to managing with the trauma memory, and it takes such incredible focus to be able to just find the same pair of socks for my son from the sock drawer, or to be able to pay bills. You have to go through every day pretending not to see the trauma memory, but it is there all the time, and it takes so much energy to handle it, and it makes you so endlessly tired.”
I could go to the shop and in the car some red light would start to blink. This would send me into panic, because I knew it was a message from the spirits that they were coming to get me. If I only managed to act normal, to fool them that I didn’t see them and wasn’t afraid… then maybe I would make it. While driving my car to the shop, and driving through fields with no houses or people, I was suddenly taken over by horror: everybody had died, the world didn’t really exist, I would be stuck in this place alone, forever. I tried to handle the situation by strictly focusing on where I was going, “just drive, just drive.” At the shop I saw some of my neighbours, and while talking with them, I wasn’t sure whether they were dead or alive, whether they were just some evil spirits trying to trick me. My life depended on being able to just act normal, to not show them I knew them. If only I could talk normally so that nobody noticed anything, I would survive. The shop was five minutes away from my home, but I would lose track of time. It would feel like it took a whole day to go to the shop and back. I later wrote to my mentor and meditation teacher: “To some people it is just that they pop to the shop and back, but for me, it’s like climbing Mount Everest. I should try to understand that people don’t know how hard it is. They’ve never had to climb that mountain. They don’t even know such a mountain exists.”
I had a pretty good intellectual understanding of my problem: I knew that some traumatizing events, that had happened during my first hospitalization at age 17, were what was haunting me. I knew how this was probably caused by some connection disturbance between my prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, which had prevented my emotionally charged memories from processing in a normal way. But this knowledge did not help me to solve my trauma. The trauma memory and the emotions connected to it would surface, and my mind would go into psychosis. It repeated itself so many times that my condition was becoming chronic. It felt like it was just getting worse, more intense and terrifying each time, and that there was no way out. Well, except for accepting my condition and staying on lifelong medication to prevent new episodes, which was the only solution my doctors saw for me. But I had read too many healing stories, I could not accept what the doctors said. I knew there had to be a way to heal, and I was going to find it.
I had read a lot of stuff about psychosis and healing on the internet, and pretty early on I found Sean Blackwell’s website and bipolarORwakingUP videos on YouTube, which gave me explanations that I had not found elsewhere. I emailed with Sean over the next few years, now and then. During my most difficult year, 2014, when my trauma memory had been “in my face” for months, I happened to see that Sean was coming to Europe, and that there was a possibility to book a healing retreat with him. With a 20-year history of recurring paranoia, I didn’t actually qualify for doing Sean’s healing program, as my problems appeared to be too difficult for his retreat format, but he agreed to take me on, because we had known each other for a long time and I was living mostly free of medication.
Ever since I had had my postpartum psychosis in 2008, I had read a lot on psychosis, schizophrenia and healing. What really resonated with me was the theory that a psychosis could be a healing crisis, an episode where some traumatic subconscious material has surfaced, and the psyche is trying to reorganize and heal past traumatic events and memories. Also, the view that a psychosis has spiritual aspects felt true to me. It was as if the postpartum psychosis had opened up a new level in me, opened up my senses and sensitivity, my ability to experience the world in a different way. It expanded my awareness of myself and the world.
After my postpartum psychosis I had started to meditate and do visualisation and relaxation practices. Even though I had several psychoses over the next six years, it felt like my quality of life improved, and that I was somehow getting stronger in myself. In 2013 I connected with a Finnish meditation teacher, and went on his meditation course that he held in my town that autumn. It really brought my trauma memory to the surface, and sent me into an extremely difficult period of massive anxiety and fears, as well as being half-psychotic for months on end. I did manage to function in everyday life though, to look after my child and our home. I was on sick leave for about eight months, and during this time I worked a lot on building myself stronger, through body relaxation practices, visualisations and meditations, and through doing art, music and dance. My meditation teacher was an invaluable support, and I leaned heavily on him during this time. I wrote a book full of emails, which he patiently received, and commented on when necessary, and we had long conversations on messenger. I was hospitalised twice, the year that followed, in spring and in autumn. The whole thing was quite a nightmare for my family, but my husband of that time and our friends supported me patiently, as they had done for many years already.
In November of 2014, Sean came to stay at my house for a ten-day retreat, and my childhood friend Britt-Marie, who had a calming presence and insight into the workings of the psyche, agreed to be my support person. I have to say that if I had known what I had to face, I am not sure I would have had the guts to do it. It is difficult to explain the fear you feel when you see the world disappearing from under your feet, when you have no reality to grasp. It is sheer terror. Maybe only those who have experienced it can fully understand.
I knew that the aim of the retreat would be to open up the suppressed trauma memories, to bring them into consciousness, so that they could be processed and through this turned into “normal” memories. My problem was that these traumatic memories were so deeply hidden in my subconscious that I could not access them. This was a natural protective mechanism of the brain, that I somehow had to override, to be able to heal. Prior to Sean coming to my house, I had tried to face my trauma many times, but each time that it would rise to the surface, my mind would go into a psychosis, and instead of healing, I ended up being retraumatised by yet another hospitalisation which included forceful injections and eight hours in an isolation cell. It felt like a right Catch-22. Mission Impossible! But I just couldn’t give up. I had a life, a family, a son. I had to find a way.
During the healing program that Sean did for me, we did one or two Bipolar Breathwork (his technique) sessions every day. Before my first session I told Sean I was scared… I was not sure I could do it. He did reassure me that I could trust myself and my own innate healing capacities, and that my body and mind held the knowledge of what I could and could not handle. The breathwork sessions proved to be very freeing although intense, and the first sessions immediately made me feel lighter, giving me confidence to trust the process.
In Bipolar Breathwork, with music in the background, the mind goes into an altered state, which allows subconscious material, memories and feelings, to surface. A lot of it is cellular in nature, and the body is doing what it needs to do, opening up blockages and releasing trapped trauma energy in order to rebalance the system. During my fifth breathwork session, I experienced a moment where I went out of control. For one second I entered the memory of the terrifying place I had been in, 25 years earlier — I was suddenly in the memory that I had sealed, to protect my own mind, and never wanted to reopen again. Throughout all the breathwork sessions I had freely allowed my body to move as it wanted, but still remained in control of my movements. Now, I wasn’t in control. I was in a place of bottomless horror, and my body jumped like at a heart restart, I shouted in panic. Sean rushed to hold me, and although the jolt only took a few seconds, it took me ten minutes to calm down, I was shaking and crying. The remaining breathworks were calmer, but this jolt in the fifth breathwork was really the breakthrough. It opened up the sealed box. I had not been getting actual memories during this incident, but those started to surface a few months later, during the integration of the healing retreat. And that was the really difficult bit.
Sean’s healing program was crucial for my healing, but I received mentoring and support from other talented healers too. My soul coach teacher James Twyman was always available for me to call, and through my Finnish blog I had connected with a psychiatrist called Jeremy Wallace, who I confided in a lot during this process. Jeremy told me that to heal from schizophrenia, you kind of have to “revisit hell.” Yeah. You do, that is an accurate description.
In the months after the retreat, I processed a lot of my trauma memories through writing emails to my meditation teacher, or Sean. It was the method that worked for me. I would sit down and write and have no idea where the words would take me. I just had to follow. They took me to places that felt too scary to go to, but I knew I had to go there anyway. One night, when I had massive anxiety, I started to write, and the core of my trauma memory appeared in the text. I was so scared to put down in words what I experienced, but something in me pushed me to do it anyway. I wrote about dying, about crossing over to the other side, about being surrounded by spirits. It was about my catatonia-experience, that I had had during my first hospitalisation at 17. I wrote, “OMG can I actually remember this, and not be psychotic!?” The feeling of experiencing all those things that I normally experienced during psychosis, without being psychotic, felt unreal!
I have to say it is much easier to experience fragmented trauma memories in a psychosis. I understand now why the mind throws you into another gear. The things that once traumatised you were so difficult, that to manage with them you need the superhuman powers that you feel you have when you are in a psychosis. You need to feel like the hero on the holy mission to conquer the dark forces, because that is what you are actually doing, within your psyche. You need a mode that somehow blocks at least some of the fear, because it is just too much for you to feel, otherwise. Our minds are well adapted. There is a clever mechanism that helps us manage the things that are too difficult for us to experience.
After my memory surfaced, I had severe anxiety for days, being on the brink of going psychotic again. I couldn’t stay at home, because of our child, so I checked myself into the hospital for a week. It felt therapeutic to check-in voluntarily, and there was not even an isolation cell on the ward I was on. In the hospital I was working on facing the difficult memories, the “hallucinations.” It was so, so difficult. I kept getting triggered by things constantly. In the morning, a nurse came in and wanted to take a blood test, which triggered the memories of the forced injections, and I nearly fainted. When I went to the bathroom, on my first morning in the hospital, I got a panic attack: the tiles reminded me of the isolation cell. I rushed out of the bathroom, heart racing, and I remember looking at the toilet door thinking, oh great, now I REALLY have a problem… Later, I went outside to go for a walk, and I entered the elevator to take me downstairs. As the elevator doors closed behind me, this suddenly triggered memories of having been brought to the hospital by police, believing that people wanted to kill me. I had to use all my mental relaxation tools to manage the 15-second ride down to the bottom floor.
I knew I should not try to escape these triggers and situations, but just face them. It was so very exhausting though. I never knew when a trigger would show up and completely overwhelm me. I remember asking the staff every half hour to let me go sit in the telephone room, where I could listen to meditation music for a while on my phone, to calm down a little. But the anxiety was a constant companion. At night I cried in terror, while someone from the staff sat holding my hand, helping me go to sleep. Once a conversation triggered me so much that I ran to the office to ask them to give me tranquilizers immediately — I thought I was going to die. I sat on the sofa shaking for ten minutes while again, someone was holding my hand.
I had a few breakdown moments, but most of the time I looked fine, on the outside. I had learned to control my anxiety, to not let it show. I spoke with staff about everyday things and walked around like there was nothing wrong with me. A schizophrenia patient learns to do this. We have to fool people that everything is okay, and that we are “normal,” because if people knew about the reality inside our head, they might do horrible things to us, tie us in belts, force-feed us drugs, inject us, or lock us up alone in isolation, which is the worst torture ever. So we learn to “act normal” as if our lives depend on it. It becomes automatic. It becomes normal to us. And over time we forget that there is another way to exist.
I had an intense week of facing trauma memories, and was still pretty wobbly when I came home. But something amazing started to happen. For the first time in 25 years, I could consciously remember what had happened to me, and along with this all of my so-called hallucinations and fears just faded away. There were those ‘Eureka!’ moments: “Oh THIS is what that experience of intense panic, that time when I had to open the front door and that time I played hide-and-seek with my son, referred to!” I could remember the original trauma, and understand how it had reflected itself back to me from everywhere. And with these realisations, those reflections disappeared. It was almost as if I could feel something clicking into place in my head, and healing.
After the reflections had disappeared, it still took a long time to recover. After having come out from the war-zone, from the hell of the daily battle against the monsters and demons inside my head, I was exhausted. I was planning on returning to work within a few months, but I needed a year to rest. The brain can recover, but it takes time. And for a long time I could not even think back at where I had been. I had some kind of after-shock, when I realized in what kind of horrific reality I had lived.
A year after my last hospitalization, I went back to part-time work at a children’s daycare. I had been away from working life for 2.5 years. I was still tired, and had occasional flashbacks. But with time, this improved. I did another healing retreat with Sean, in autumn of 2017, because although I was out from the schizophrenia-zone, I still had other issues to work on. Over the next year I got involved in projects that required the ability to work in a team, create new solutions under pressure, and handle a lot of responsibility and stress. For me, it was easy. So much of my brain capacity and energy had gone to handling my trauma memory, and now all that capacity was freed up for something else. I had so much energy I did not know what to do with it! My teammates told me that they admired my energy and my speed, but some people said that I spoke too fast, worked too intense, and that I needed to slow down.
The common view in mainstream psychiatry is that every psychosis harms the brain, and that over time cognitive functions get impaired. This might be the case if a psychosis becomes chronic, as in schizophrenia. But my experience is that living in a psychosis forces your brain to “stretch” — you develop extra capacity to handle things. I was pretty much living a normal life, even working some of the time, while having all of my psychotic problems. After the psychoses faded away, I no longer needed to fight monsters, but I still had that extra capacity left. It felt great. At the moment I feel that after 11 periods of psychosis (which includes one with three days of catatonia), my brain has never worked as well as it does now.
It was an ordeal to go through, but in retrospect I see that it gave me valuable gifts also. I learned so much, especially about mental healing. I connected with wonderful people and fantastic mentors that have made my life so much richer and helped me find my path. I learned about advanced tools for physical and mental well-being. I found balance and inner peace, as well as my life’s purpose. It gave more than it took.
I am so grateful for being where I am today. Sometimes I can get moved to tears from just feeling the sun on my skin, or enjoying a cup of coffee with a friend, or watching my son do tricks on his bike. Every day is a gift. Against all the odds, I got my life back.
It did require a lot of dedication though, hard work, seven years, and faith. Yes, I never doubted it was possible, and had I doubted it, I probably wouldn’t have healed. It was an extremely difficult process to go through, however. Keeping a difficult trauma memory in check with medication is the easier option than opening it up and living through it for a second time. I managed to do this because I found really talented mentors and healers with cutting-edge knowledge, and had good support from family and friends who believed in me.
Living with schizophrenia is torment, and my heart goes out to those who suffer from traumas and life experiences that have broken their minds. I hope that my story and experience can help others to find tools for healing as well. I think that if healing is possible for me, it should be possible for anyone.
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.