When I first met Deron Drumm and Linda Lentini during the one-week accelerated recovery support specialist training at Advocacy Unlimited (AU), I shared my story with them, which I had written at an event promoting “mental illness” recovery. I talked about my human experience of what happened to me using all the language I had learned going to mental health services.
They told me to take a second look at my story. When I took another look, I saw that I had asked for help, looking to live a “better” life, but ended up homeless with my kids instead of having the home with the white picket fence and Mercedes Benz that I desired. I was more overweight, with medical diagnoses that I did not have before asking for help.
Yet I was giving speeches of thank you for the labels and the people who provided them to me. As I look back and ponder, I can also see that gratitude moves you forward. I was just grateful for where I was at and the people that were in my life at the time that supported me to help myself move forward.
Taking a second look meant I had to start accepting personal responsibility for moving my own life forward. I started practicing shame resilience, forgiving myself, forgiving others, and unlearning using language that was defeating me from having my best life experience.
I had to take back my autonomy so I could be confident. I found it isn’t about what someone else thinks about me or says about me. It is having confidence within myself. I discovered that I had a lot of learning to do, but I was moving in the right direction all along. I tuned into Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, Lifeclass, and Masterclass. I watched YouTube, and TED Talks that share innovative ideas. I was reading works by James Mapes, Kevin P. Chavous, Eckhart Tolle, Brene Brown, Ralph Ellison, Gabor Maté, and gaining awareness of many other spiritual teachers and motivational speakers. I was learning about human resilience from people who have gone through adversities and are sharing with the world and living an exceptional life, learning what that means for them. These are all good starts, but it still has to validate my own human experience. People are speaking their truths, and it is not all right or all wrong. I have to ask the questions about what that means for me.
I joined the AU team in July 2016, working in the Community Bridger role, and almost a year later, I joined the advocacy education and outreach team. At the time, Deron had renamed the advocacy education training Sacred Activism. He shared with us that he wanted to bring balance to activism and believed that people could heal themselves from within.
Deron shared that Andrew Harvey talked about people finding peace within and going off to live in India or the mountains, deciding not to be bothered with the injustice that is happening in the world. He also said that on the other extreme are the people who care and are angry about the wrongs of the world. Sometimes they don’t get listened to because anger shuts down conversations, and you have two sides fighting equally for what they want but not being able to hear each other to bridge the differences.
Here is what I have come to know: labeling anything takes away the validity of the work that people do. I would rather not say “angry activist.” People are passionate about human rights and justice. The world has moved forward in miracle-working ways because some people got angry and wouldn’t sit quietly and wait for their turn at the table. They have transformed some tables and built their own tables.
Here is the thing that Deron stressed: we need to take care of our health, so we don’t burn out. It is possible not to burn out, and live a beautiful life, even in the midst of chaos. Life situations are not all good or all bad. Life situations are just happening.
I know that if I had stayed sad, I wouldn’t have taken back my voice. I got angry about the microaggressions that I was experiencing. Injustice just doesn’t feel right when people are taking away your worth to be seen, heard, and valued. It hurt more because the microaggressions and harassment were coming from the people in the professional roles that I had once looked to and waited on to say when I was “good enough” to be a “good citizen.” The anger helped to move me forward, but keeping that kind of pain too long in one’s body turns toxic to one’s health. At some point, I had to forgive and let go. I now look for how to create change, instead of fighting people doing what they are used to doing that profits them.
One primary reason why I am not labeling anyone an “angry activist” is because getting to know myself, I now understand why I rarely spoke up. I’ve come to see the internalized oppression that I experienced being a black woman in the world, especially while working to live. In workplaces, when I spoke up, what transpired was punishment, something taken away, or getting ignored. Other people that look like me learn to keep their heads down and do the work to get that paycheck.
I’ve experienced a lot of microaggressions. I’ve seen internalized oppression and learned to grin and bear it; people don’t dump that kind of pain on others if they are not feeling the same pain inside themselves.
I live through that kind of treatment because it helps me to transform myself, to free myself from myself. I know not everything is about me, and I can’t change anyone else but myself. People are in pain, and we continue to hurt each other. Losing empathy for the pain someone else is feeling may be what leads to anger.
However, if you have awareness, it hurts to see that you have hurt someone else. Brené Brown, the author of The Gifts of Imperfection, says, don’t shame people; respond to them with love. Eckhart Tolle says, you can’t fight the ego and win, just as you cannot fight the darkness; you have to shine light into it. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, hate cannot drive out hate; only love could do that.
What is Compassionate Activism?
Compassionate Activism is a gathering of information from many different resources. So many people have been fighting for decades for human rights and justice in mental health, and they’ve shared what they learned—how to take care of themselves, and their knowledge of what has happened. The CA training has compiled information to share with people who work in recovery support roles, service provider roles, educator roles, as well as the general public. We are meeting in curiosity; we all bring our worldviews to the table, share, and learn together.
CA encourages people to “take a second look,” as Deron and Linda advised me to do. It is not the easiest thing to do, as we have learned the language and lived the life that profits some while others suffer. CA is about gaining information that can change hearts, because then the mind will follow.
Knowing what has happened before us, we could light a pathway to where we want to be, so sharing the history of mental health in America and other parts of the world is a big part of Compassionate Activism. Learning about what is not working and also sharing what is working. Learning about the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Fair Housing Act, holistic healing, legislative advocacy, and public speaking.
CA also looks at how forgiveness, empathy, and compassion moves us forward to connect with self, others, and everything in the world. People have learned and used the term “mental illness” for themselves and others for years (sometimes for decades) and may not have any knowledge of informed consent.
CA training doesn’t blame or shame anyone. It is geared towards education a person can use to strengthen themselves from within, to move forward, to make fully informed choices. It is about the personal responsibility to educate oneself and make decisions for one’s overall well-being with confidence. People get the opportunity to gain knowledge for themselves so they can advocate confidently as well.
I think of one of the Haas Business School at the University of California Berkeley mottos, to “question the status quo.” I didn’t question anything. I was exhausted from a turbulent childhood experience. I stayed compliant, waiting to live, until it just didn’t work for me anymore to let someone else decide my worth.
We are taking a look at the spirit of human resilience through spiritual teachers from various backgrounds, starting by looking at ways of reacting to sometimes challenging situations with The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and Sacred Activism with Andrew Harvey, looking at forgiveness taught by Jack Kornfield, dignity with Donna Hicks. We look at how money makes a difference in your life situation by taking a look at Cardi B, sharing her story. People on the team also share their stories. I share what getting beyond the story means for me. This life journey, we are doing it together. Some of us get the opportunity to “…fail early, fail often and fail forward,” as Will Smith describes in his viral motivation video. However, some of us don’t get that second chance when there is a label of “mental illness.”
I learned from people who work tirelessly for the rights of people who are receiving mental health services that laws are being passed—but they could take decades to implement. I notice what people go through; people are born, experience adversities, suffer, lose their rights, and die before getting validated or getting to the peace and freedom we all desire.
Still, honestly, we need our autonomy, our awareness, our dignity. It might feel respectable for a moment standing next to a person of power or titles, but that doesn’t last long; we want that inside of us, and awareness helps us move forward. I noticed that connection, relationships, and how we treat each other one-on-one are meaningful, regardless of titles. I saw that respect is a minimum in our day-to-day lives.
So, while the politicians are politicking, we do need to advocate and reach out to them and share our stories. But what stories are we sharing with them? Are we only sharing the stories of the language we learned from therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers—the stories they learned from the DSM? This outlook on our human experience works for some, but not for all. We could relearn how to tell our own stories by looking at many other stories. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us about the dangers of the single story.
There are many stories, and we need to keep sharing our stories and learn that we can get beyond the pain of the horrific circumstances that we experienced. Those stories need to be told, but as I said, we still need to treat each other with dignity and respect each day. That is where it counts.
I’ve looked at who profited when I was using “mental illness” labels and calling my self “mentally ill.” I did not. My kids did not. We have felt the oppression of it, and we are still working our way out. Acceptance that I just didn’t know works to let go of the shame of feeling misled and miseducated. But taking personal responsibility is now my job; to learn and get to know myself.
An excellent example of the Compassionate Activism training working well is the interaction with Bay Path University occupational therapy masters program graduate students. It is an opportunity for people who are in preparation to work as service providers to get one on one experience with people who have used mental health services. These engagements allow people to meet as people, without labels. They shed light on the ongoing modern myths of “mental illness” and the origins of the DSM, as described by James Davies, that cause discrimination against people who seek help for their pain and suffering.
One goal is to teach the graduate students to get to know people without prejudgment, without thinking that you know someone by a label. When we see the humanness in all of us, the light and the dark, we can choose to treat each other how we want to be treated. I don’t think of an us and them. We are all doing this messy, beautiful life thing together.
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.