There are common themes among the thousands of psychiatric survivors I’ve known, worked alongside and consulted with over the past 15 years. We all want to use the hard lessons we’ve learned from falling prey to psychiatry to help others.
Every single one of us has a dream to spare someone else the harm we went through ourselves.
The process of emancipating oneself from psychiatry teaches people a lot. There are almost universal lessons about the nature of reality, conformism, and living healthfully by one’s own rules.
This is why many psychiatric survivors feel an unspoken bond with one another. Anyone who’s been through med withdrawal knows it has a death and rebirth quality. There’s a sense of coming back to life with renewed vigor and optimism.
There’s also a resentment and anger that a system supposedly there to help and heal can often do exactly the opposite.
It’s been 15 years since I went through psychiatric drug withdrawal after being bedridden for two years while on a drug cocktail. I’ve gone through many phases, from being so acutely aware of what psychiatric meds do to the mind that I didn’t want to be in the same room with anyone on them, to speaking up immediately and without reservation in opposition to anyone who even mentioned a psychiatric diagnosis.
There were phases where I wanted to move on with my life and forget the whole thing. Along the way I’ve worked in childcare, sales, food demoing, modeling, theater, tea packing, and other things.
After six years of consulting with others coming off meds and almost 15 years leading support groups and trainings and speaking and writing publicly, what I feel most called to now is to share what I’ve learned with those who have come off psych meds more recently.
The psychiatric survivor movement, as incohesive as it might have become, has deep roots (and history) in learning from and liberating one another.
People who’ve been around the movement for a long time have deep wisdom, and those who are newer have fire, passion and rage. Sometimes we all have all of it, of course. Yet, over the years, my fire and passion for talking about psychiatry has dampened.
In fact, I’ll be totally honest: I’m sick of it. When you’ve had the same conversations over and over and heard the same stories again and again with a few changed details, you want to move on to something different (or at least bring new life to it).
I still care as much as ever about helping people become liberated from psychiatric harm. Yet the process of talking to people about the same exact topics in the same way gets tedious. I once blurted out that I was “bored of it” on a speaker’s panel about someone who had been force-drugged and killed by police. I immediately wished I hadn’t spoken my mind, but I couldn’t unsay those words, and I knew regardless of how shameful anyone might say they were, they were my truth.
Drained would be a better word than bored though. It’s not that I’m bored of hearing people talk about police force-drugging a young woman, leading to her death. It’s that I’m drained by talking about it in the same way and not seeing the conversation evolve. I’m drained by talking to people who might be first discovering basic truths about the mental health system that I’ve been aware of for over 15 years.
When we hear about the exact same type of injustice and suffering that we know so intimately again and again for that many years, it is human nature to start to numb out about it a bit. It’s like how school shootings and all mass shootings were such a shock when they began, but now that they are happening every week, it seems, many of us tend to only feel acute emotions about the ones we are somehow more connected to.
Call me a sociopath if you want, but I think there is only so much of looking at the same type of suffering that one person can take before putting up a buffer to it. It becomes too much. We become desensitized to the very thing that used to be our most tender button.
I notice, though, that my excitement comes alive when I consult with people recently off of psychiatric meds who are interested in doing work similar to me. Almost all of the people I have worked with have told me they want to either create art and writing about their process, or do some kind of direct helping with others who are getting off psychiatric drugs, or both.
When I talk to people who feel ready to move into reaching out to others in these ways, I feel certain that I am the right person for them to consult with. On the other hand, when I talk with people who are early in the process of psych drug withdrawal or early in discovering that psychiatry is dishonest and harmful, I do not.
There are people who would be much better than me to counsel/consult and talk to those in early withdrawal phases, and those who are first starting to see that they have been harmed by psychiatry.
Whenever anyone reaches out to me for a consultation, I want to do everything possible to help them. Yet, sometimes I am not sure I am the right fit. There aren’t many people working in this way to refer them to, who have both the experience and passion and are in the phase of psychiatric survivorhood that would be a better match.
Yet there are thousands of people who could work in this way and be good referrals with a bit of practice and awareness of what those in psych drug withdrawal most need. For most psychiatric survivors, it is somewhat instinctive, yet the passion that drives us to want to help others can sometimes be (rightly) so strong that it scares people. This can be an obstacle to creating space for the actual experience someone is going through.
Sometimes newly liberated psychiatric survivors can be headstrong and talk more than we listen after being silenced for so long. This is understandable. Once we move into the phase where we are ready to help others, we need to listen though. We need to be willing to learn and keep an open mind, while holding strong to our own truth. It can be a delicate balance, but I think it’s the exact calling some of us have.
I want to share what I have learned about what it has actually been like to support people in psych med withdrawal, with those who have the passion and intensity I had when I was more newly free from psychiatric drugs.
This helps me keep my passion and sense of purpose for something I’ve been writing, teaching and learning about for nearly my whole adult life.
We like to say in this movement that we are “experts by experience.” This is true. Many of us are experts by knowledge and research as well, and the combination of these facets brings the wisdom to connect with, inspire and mentor one another.
Though therapy might not be a popular example among readers here, it fits. Therapists ideally learn knowledge about healing from trauma, yet no matter how much they know, they can only be beneficial to people if they listen with humility and compassion.
It’s similar to what I do when I consult with people in psych drug withdrawal. Much of what I do is listening and expressing understanding. Much of it is about connection, empathy, and dare I say love, for our fellow humans.
Listening to people’s suffering is not always easy no matter how much knowledge one has. As a trauma survivor myself, I have learned skills that make it doable, though (with support from many others).
In my consulting work, I’ve made up a lot of my own rules, set my own boundaries, and learned things (sometimes the hard way) as I’ve gone along. I can be rebellious and desiring to do things my own way and reinvent the wheel.
Some of the hardest lessons I have learned in my work with people in withdrawal has been around boundaries. It’s been important for me to only work with clients who respect me, and to have clear policies, which I list on my website, so that I can point to them if someone does something that would be harmful to me.
We are all different as well, and what works for me might not work for you. Behavior that is unacceptable to me might be fine for you. I’ve had to continuously refine my policies to reflect what I could actually manage as a human being. I had to let go of other people’s expectations, and set my own standards in order to be most effective (and stay sane, healthy and balanced myself).
I have had clients harass me both sexually and emotionally/mentally. Supporting people who have had a lot of trauma to begin with, AND are being affected by severely mind-altering substances and withdrawal from them, is not always romantic. People can fly off the handle and be aggressive, hypersexual, or lacking in compassion, and as a psychiatric survivor, you know they aren’t entirely in control of their own behavior.
For those who tend to be empathic and sensitive, like myself, this can be deeply hard. We can start to feel like the therapists and professionals we resented ourselves, when we set boundaries to protect ourselves. The difference, for me, has been that I set boundaries without pathologizing, and I am often transparent about my own needs. This feels vulnerable, but the right fitting people appreciate it. I built my business with vulnerability, authenticity and honesty, so hopefully those who are drawn to me want that.
Oftentimes, though, simple boundaries need to be set up, and expressed in a straightforward way. As trauma survivors ourselves, allowing abusive behavior is never a good move and can lead to resentment as well as overwhelm.
I’d like to share what I’ve learned about how to have boundaries and how to do this work in a way that is effective over the long term. A big part of it is non-attachment and letting go of the savior complex. Frequently people reach out to me in hopes that I can save them or their adult child from psychiatry. They might see me as a beacon of hope on the other side of psychiatry’s darkness.
It can be tempting for me to want to fill that role for someone, since of course I DO want to be a beacon of hope for people. Yet, I alone can’t rescue someone from the throes of psychiatric abuse. I have come to see myself as a stepping stone on someone’s journey. I’m one person along the way who can provide some knowledge, healing reflection and a supportive message.
There have been times where I’ve had to level with people and say directly, “I can only do my best. I can’t guarantee anything.”
Besides my desire to teach people what I’ve learned about helping people in psych drug withdrawal, I’d like to mentor those who are interested in a creative and mostly online business similar to the one I created.
The way we learn, communicate and exchange information has changed since I started this work. When I started out, I did mostly live speaking events and self-published print books at the local copy store in my small town. I started a blog on a site called “gather,” which no longer exists, and even then, no one I knew had heard of it and I didn’t have any social media accounts.
Things have since evolved to personal blogs, Facebook groups, guest blogs, videos, teleclasses and now an online course I’m teaching. And of course they will keep changing. Someday we’ll be communicating through the voices we hear in our heads and psychiatrists who thought we were crazy will be sooooo outdated (okay, that’s already been happening in my world all along).
My hope is that anyone who is starting out consulting with or mentoring others has the knowledge, skills and confidence to go for it. None of us are perfect and there’s no one right way to help people or engage in mutual liberation.
Due to the reflections I’ve shared here about what inspires me currently, I’m starting a course to share what I’ve learned as a way to contribute to a growing field of knowledge, experience and solidarity. We as psychiatric survivors are needed more than ever.
I see us creating larger and more reinforced safety nets in the years to come and hope my course can be a part of that. You can learn more about it here.
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.