Am I a peer? I don’t know what that word means, peer. Peers are people who struggle together, I guess, but what are we struggling for?
Maybe I am still struggling to find my own story.
As a teenager, I spent 17 months in a therapeutic boarding school. It was an old dude ranch in Southern Arizona where you lost all contact with friends from home, rode horses, and went to therapy groups. At night they would shine a flashlight in your room every 20 minutes, to make sure nobody was running away or committing suicide.
Most of the guys hated it, but it seemed alright to me — there wasn’t much, if any, of the abuse that plagues those places. Sometimes they made you sit in silence for three hours until you confessed every rule you’d ever broken and then took away talking privileges for a week as punishment, but I liked the silence.
The staff seemed to like me, too. I was one of the only kids who didn’t pile into the big white van for a monthly visit to the psychiatrist. Instead, I played in a band and ran meditation circles five days a week.
The boarding school revolved around peer-based structure and support, and I liked that. After I graduated, I worked various jobs that involved helping people through difficult times; what I’d seen and learned in boarding school provided me with skills and a model. When I learned about “peer support” a few years later, the underlying premise made perfect sense. I’d been peer-based for a long time.
Within the mental health system, peers are people who identify with a mental diagnosis and in turn offer peer support to people struggling with similar issues. But as a continuation of the civil rights era’s mad pride and psychiatric survivor movements, peer support can have more radical implications, as a means of dismantling systemic oppression by creating non-hierarchical healing communities that exist outside of the mental health system.
This civil rights movement has no clearly defined name; many people involved simply refer to it as the movement. The cause is not limited to radical applications of peer support but can refer to any activists working toward similar goals. Over the years I’ve moved through both camps, “the system” and “the movement.”
In college, I read books by people like Howard Dully, who received a lobotomy when he was twelve years old. But my knowledge of the system and its horrors — debilitating medication cocktails, forced electric shock treatment, programs riddled with abuse — was mostly secondhand. Alongside sinister clinicians, I figured, there were masses of benignly incompetent ones, and good therapists seemed like a rare and exotic breed.
At twenty I thought I’d found a good therapist, who I will call Dr. Reynolds, a psychoanalyst admired in various circles for his ability to treat psychosis. A fierce critic of the biomedical model of “mental illness,” he had been a keynote speaker at ISPS, the International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis; with such a pedigree, I figured, he must be pretty good. I was no stranger to far out experiences — I had taken a lot of psychedelics as a teenager, and in more recent years, I’d sat a lot of silent meditation retreats — but when I first started seeing Dr. Reynolds I didn’t think of myself as psychotic.
A lot of people look down on psychoanalysis. Mention the word to a stranger, and there’s a good chance they’ll say, “Wasn’t Freud just an asshole who thought every son wants to kill his dad and have sex with mom?” I didn’t believe in the Oedipus complex per se, but at least it recognized the human psyche’s penchant for dark, primal, and bizarre stuff. My early introductions to sexuality were painful and confusing, and when I was fifteen one of my friends was involved in a brutal murder. Years later I still found myself unsettled by these encounters with humanity’s shadow side. I had questions and fears that hadn’t been addressed in boarding school, and I thought psychoanalysis might offer a map for this terrain.
At the beginning of therapy, I believed that deep darkness was a universal part of the human condition: we’ve all got it but only some people are willing — or perhaps forced — to face it. As the treatment progressed, however, Dr. Reynolds assured me that I was particularly disturbed. “You’re way out on the distribution curve,” he would say.
Dr. Reynolds informed me that I had a psychotic core, and lambasted all the adults in my life who were oblivious to this, especially my parents. He said my many years of practice as a Theravada Buddhist were not spiritual development but a kind of pathological self-destruction. This was shocking to hear, as I was deeply involved in Buddhism and considered it a great boon in my life. When a lot of my friends were struggling with addiction, it helped me stay sober.
Dr. Reynolds also criticized my interest in psychoanalysis. I found reading psychoanalytic texts inspiring for my own reflection and personal growth, but Dr. Reynolds would not permit me to talk about this in our therapy. He told me my understanding of psychoanalysis was idiosyncratic and pathological, and said my ability to study complex theories was evidence of a split in my personality between the intellectually capable and emotionally psychotic parts of myself.
Sometimes I thought Dr. Reynolds was an asshole, but I was deeply invested in the therapy. To get to his office in the winter, I would bike six miles in the snow. My anger and mistrust of him, he said, were a result of my paranoia and latent psychosis. A part of me was really angry, and even when we spent sessions yelling at each other, it felt incredibly helpful to have somewhere to express this anger. At the time, I thought he was the only person who could see the “real” me, the anger and darkness at the depths of my soul.
After two years of meeting together multiple times a week, I had my first proper psychotic break. At first I understood this as linked to my spiritual and Buddhist practice — I was on a deep journey of personal growth. A couple months battling holographic demons while avoiding their dark portals and the wormholes of cosmic hyperdrive was just a part of that journey.
But the experiences during this time were so terrifying — and so far out of the ordinary —that I couldn’t make it through on my own. I became dependent on Dr. Reynolds and his help; I let go of my spiritual practices, accepting more and more the reality of my own “psychosis.” To his credit, a lot of mental health professionals would have insisted on hospitalization followed by longterm antipsychotic regimens, but Dr. Reynolds safeguarded me from becoming a chronic psychiatric patient. After a few months, I came out the other side without too many battle wounds.
Losing my mind was surprisingly helpful for my “professional development.” A few months later, I got hired by a local social work organization serving individuals and families within a fairly traditional, trauma-informed framework. Although I didn’t disclose my personal experiences, I earned a reputation for skillfully supporting “difficult” individuals.
I also started working at Afiya, a peer respite in Northampton, Massachusetts run by Wildflower Alliance (formerly known as the Western Mass RLC). Serving as an alternative to psychiatric hospitalization, Afiya is run entirely by people with lived experience of trauma, extreme states, and/or mental health diagnoses. It is a remarkable place — a true refuge for those who need something beyond what the traditional system can offer.
My life at this time was a quiet contradiction. Weekends alternated between psychoanalytic conferences, ISPS gatherings, and events like the Mad in America Film Festival. In each place I met people from around the world, respectively dedicated to psychoanalysis, alternative treatment modalities, and the movement.
In the movement, we talked about society’s use of diagnoses and “mental illness” as tools for coercion and oppression. In my therapy — and in my private life — I studied psychoanalysis, identified as psychotic, and believed that madness was created by deep disturbances within the psyche. At my social work job, while I would speak out against unhelpful and downright stupid practices, I didn’t talk openly about my involvement in the movement, nor my own therapy. I stretched myself between these overlapping yet disparate worlds, simultaneously going deeper in each direction.
Since the movement generally encourages self-identification of one’s own experience, in principal I could have talked to others about my experiences in therapy. Certainly anyone staying at Afiya could really be themselves, and no one criticized them for their worldview or preferred methods treatment. But outside of Afiya, when faced with loud and angry movement folks who rail against the system and its providers, I lacked the moral courage to be myself, to own my experience and worldview. I was afraid people would turn on me if I “came out” about my preference of psychoanalysis.
Although I had given up meditating after the breakdown, my years of Buddhist practice also informed my perspective. The Buddhist teachings reveal that hatred does not cease by hatred, and likewise, I don’t think we can hate our way into a better world. Even though their criticisms were justified, some folks in the movement seemed really hateful, and I had a hard time trusting them.
Sometimes the hostility and competitiveness of movement leaders was downright embarrassing. I remember one day at a movement organization when a group of college students came to visit. The leader of the movement organization spent the first few minutes of the meeting asking them what other places they had visited, then spent the next twenty minutes criticizing the shit out of those other places. It just seemed petty, but the message was clear: other people suck, don’t be like them.
After some time it felt like I had to “choose” between the movement and Dr. Reynolds, and he eventually won. With his approval, I decided that movement leaders were basically hateful evangelicals, fighting to create a new system that would ultimately be just as violent and destructive as the one it replaced. I decided to leave Western Massachusetts, severed ties with movement folks, and wrote a scathing resignation letter to the Afiya leadership team. When Sera Davidow, the director of the Wildflower Alliance that runs Afiya, received my letter, she wrote me an email saying she was doing her best to remain open and curious about what I had written, and asked if we could meet. I declined.
Dr. Reynolds encouraged me to write letters like that. He was always saying, “You have to take a stand for what you believe in.” He took pride in my newfound ability to express myself, which was essentially modeled after how he talked to me. I would get into small conflicts with friends or family, and then respond by writing them the most intense hate mail. I wasn’t just burning bridges, I was dynamiting the entire landscape.
Sometime after quitting my job at Afiya, I unexpectedly took LSD for the first time in nine years. It was not an easy trip, but afterward it felt like something powerful moved within me. Dr. Reynolds told me the acid destroyed our years of work together.
In the next few months, I began to reclaim my spirituality. I told Dr. Reynolds he was wrong about my spiritual path, that this was something fundamental to my being that he did not understand. I could no longer concede to him on that.
Dr. Reynolds was having none of this, and we fought for weeks. I wanted him to acknowledge that he had been mistaken, to recognize the value in my spirituality. He refused. He gave me an ultimatum, saying that either I needed to accept his perspective, or leave the therapy.
This was shocking. Even though I knew he was wrong about this particular issue, I still deeply valued the therapeutic relationship. I suggested a possible compromise; we would take a break from our sessions for a month, allowing both of us to get some perspective.
Our final session before the break was a difficult one. I still hoped he would realize his errors, and was very angry with him. We ended the session affirming our agreement to meet again in a month.
Fifteen minutes later, I received an email from Dr. Reynolds. He said that I had developed a malignant view of him, and it was no longer possible to continue our therapeutic relationship. After four years of therapy, the dude was terminating me via email!
I was devastated.
I always had difficulty talking to other people about Dr. Reynolds. Meeting with him multiple times a week for years, I shared everything with him, the most vulnerable and private aspects of my life. The relationship so intimate, I told myself, so idiosyncratic, that it was impossible to explain to others.
After he fired me, this impossibility of communication only increased. What do you say to people about a thing like that? My therapist thinks I’m too psychotic for therapy. It would have been a great time to connect with movement folks, but I’d excommunicated myself.
I didn’t know what to say, to anyone, so mostly I said nothing. I began therapy eager to learn more about my self, and ended feeling despondent. I had betrayed Buddhism and the movement, then Dr. Reynolds betrayed me. Clearly it was all bullshit — and with that realization, part of my being disappeared. I shut off my inner world, sought refuge in television and work. A deep part of my confidence was destroyed. It took months to feel like myself again.
I can’t say I regret the therapy though, not entirely. There are clear ways Dr. Reynolds negatively impacted my life, but I was a willing participant in the relationship. Dr. Reynolds helped me develop a capacity for intimacy and friendship that I otherwise lacked, and many of my closest friends are people I met during those years of therapy. He also helped me unlock some of my artistic inhibitions. During our work together I was involved in some very satisfying creative work, and after our “break up,” creative projects were what led me out of bleakness.
Did Dr. Reynolds create my “psychosis,” manipulating my trust and self-image, and driving me temporarily mad? Or did he intervene in my life at a critical juncture, did he save me from what could have been a lifelong struggle with madness and dehumanizing psychiatric systems? Maybe my difficulties were due to a spiritual awakening that I foolishly let be pathologized. Can all three possibilities be true?
I found new perspective on these questions through rekindling my Buddhist practice. At its core, Buddhism provides frameworks for a deep understanding of the mind and heart in terms that are not dependent on Western psychology, and I’m grateful for that. Which isn’t to say Buddhism is perfect, because it’s not. Mainstream American Buddhism has been colonized by mental health professionals, and many teachers believe that people like me should not be allowed to meditate — but that’s another story.
I still believe psychoanalysis offers a deep and profound understanding of the human psyche, but I don’t idealize it anymore. Just like any other profession it contains a variety of theories and practitioners, including paternalistic authoritarians like Dr. Reynolds. But I’ve also encountered psychoanalysts who appear as realized as any religious saint, and their therapeutic approaches offer a stark contrast to Dr. Reynolds.
These days I take a broad view of healing. We should be wary, I think, of deifying any particular treatment. When someone is struggling, they should have access to a variety of healing modalities, and as a society we need to remove unequal financial structures that disproportionally elevate certain treatments while making others inaccessible. We need to develop a larger cultural awareness about the historical harms caused by mental health practitioners, so that people are aware and cautious of the ways “healing” can go awry. We should also emphasize that there are many paths for individual and community healing — the arts, for instance, can change lives — without relying on the mental health system.
My biggest regret from my therapy years is the way I hurt and betrayed people. I regret leaving the movement like I did. I see now that this work is deeply needed, and truly radical.
Last year I found myself back in Western Massachusetts, in a bad spot and with few options of where to go. I’d just finished a long meditation retreat, ten weeks in silence meditating up to sixteen hours a day. At the conclusion of such retreats, returning to “reality” can be difficult even for psychologically robust individuals, and participants spend multiple days focused on integration before going home. Unexpectedly, I had to leave just before the integration period. I hadn’t experienced a major crisis since that breakdown five years prior, but suddenly I found myself in a tricky spot. I knew staying at Afiya could be helpful, but I was worried dangerous government agents were watching me and I didn’t want to drag anyone else into it.
Although we hadn’t spoken in three years, I wrote to Sera Davidow, my old boss, and explained my situation. It was holiday season but Sera wrote back right away. It’d be reasonable enough for her to reply with some quip about the dude who writes vicious letters only to come crawling back — after all, Sera can be fierce in her criticisms! Instead, she showed me what it really means to stay committed to friends and community.
“I’m definitely not going to tell you to stay away for being watched,” she wrote. “If people are watching you, I’m cool with taking that on and trying to help you figure out why and what to do about it. I don’t know where we’d be as a community if we lived in fear of supporting each other to get through that sort of thing, or in fear of people watching us or our friends and needing to sometimes stand together to push back.”
Despite our complicated past, when it came down to it, she had my back. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I went to stay at Afiya, where I was greeted warmly by a former coworker who had also received my vitriolic letter. We stayed up late into the night, talking like old friends.
A few days later, I took the bus to Holyoke to meet with Sera at the Wildflower Alliance office. I wanted to apologize, and explain, in person. I wasn’t the most eloquent that day, but I rambled through what I could. Sera didn’t offer me my old job back or absolve me of my guilt, but I didn’t expect that. What mattered was that she was willing to listen, talk, and reconnect. My experience that week embodied everything I love about Afiya — the radicalness of this movement, the ideals we struggle toward.
I’m still not sure what it means to be a “peer.” I haven’t suffered enough to be a psychiatric survivor, I’m too Buddhist to be a fighter, too indebted to psychoanalysis… who are my peers?
Sera Davidow has cautioned against the name, and associated ideology, of what’s sometimes called the “peer movement,” because the term “peer” doesn’t carry enough intersectional emphasis, but I still find myself considering what it means.
I’d like to be peers with anyone struggling against persecution, anyone struggling toward the promise of dignity and respect for marginalized communities, for freaks and weirdos. To fit the diversity of our experiences, maybe our definitions need to be as flexible and individual as we are.
Perhaps what makes us “peers” is that we’re choosing to stand with one another as equals. To admit that none of us have the one-size-fits-all solution, and we must value our different perspectives, weaving them together to make our movement strong.
For me, destroying the old system isn’t enough. Buddhism teaches forgiveness as a central part of liberating the heart and mind. What would it look like, I wonder, to forgive Dr. Reynolds? Can I be honest about our relationship, and its difficulties, while letting go of my resentment?
I’m not saying anyone else should adopt my religious values. We need boundaries to protect ourselves, and that looks different for everyone. But for those who feel the call, it is another ideal to strive toward: offering transformation for those who hurt us — or at least holding in our hearts that possibility. If Dr. Reynolds ever wrote me, himself in a bad spot, could I welcome him back the way Afiya welcomed me?
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.