Can We Allow Suffering?

Karin Jervert
43
2979

Of all the labels placed on me throughout my 20 years as a consumer in the psychiatric industry, psychiatric survivor feels the truest. At 21, I was labeled Bipolar and have been recovering from that diagnosis, and the treatment that came along with it, ever since. Encountering the forces we levy against emotional distress in our society up close, despite the trauma I suffered because of it, did eventually afford me something wonderful. It offered me the wisdom and compassion to know to ask myself this question when someone I love is in pain: Can I allow this suffering?

When I find I cannot hold someone’s suffering—when I feel that I cannot “allow” it—I become forceful and solution focused. If only they did this, I think. Or, this helped me, it should help them. I try desperately to eliminate their pain. In my experience, it is never helpful. In fact, it’s mostly harmful.

I am not alone in this tactic. An entire industry is based on this very human, very common, reaction to suffering. The inability to allow it—the inability to hold it with nonjudgmental compassion—whatever its manifestation.

One of my hospitalizations occurred days after 9/11. My suffering around this national trauma was met not with compassion, but with a particularly destructive force to disallow it—even deny it. My heart was so overwhelmed by the event; blackouts, confusion and strange ideas led me to being forced from cars to emergency rooms, to ambulances, to a mental hospital in the middle of New Jersey and finally, to an isolation cell—entirely covered in tiny green tiles floor to ceiling—with only a battered old mattress in the center. Somehow, my suffering had led me there, drugged without consent, isolated, involuntarily committed, when I was, like so many others, just brokenhearted.

No psychiatrist, nurse, or social worker asked me what it felt like to watch as nearly 3000 souls left this planet in flames; what it felt like to be so afraid. There was a strange silence around it, as if this horrible event was unrelated to my mental state. The only language was of disease and a broken brain.

For years, I never thought of my suffering as something that deserved anything but force in response: suppression, drugs, hospitalization. Until I started to look back on all this and it all seemed like punishment for suffering too greatly, too powerfully; that I was not allowed to suffer this way. So, I began to broaden my idea of what was acceptable suffering, and my healing began. My fears of my own and others’ suffering lessened. What before was something to pounce on, to solve, to fix, became something to witness, to honor, to allow.

Most of the professionals in the psychiatric system have had this potentially destructive human instinct to disallow suffering labeled as healing, as service to those in distress. A psychologist I once hired referred to the fact that people in emotional distress are often in the grip of fear as the justification of psychiatry’s intervention—justification for suffering’s eradication. This psychologist was trying to say that my fear of my altered states, or in other words, my distress, made them problematic and made the “fixing” of them a compassionate act, not a forceful or invalidating one. Because I was afraid, doctors were transformed into saviors.

My point was that there was something to be learned from the altered states and that there was something to be learned from this fear of distress—that intervention, or force, was denying me the opportunity to learn and grow and heal. “Even fear has something to teach us,” I remember saying. My belief is that this fear, residing within the “patient” and the “healer,” has been instilled over decades of stigma, punishment, and oppression of the people who experience distress in extreme ways.

Sitting in a psychiatrist’s office becomes a negotiation between two people’s relationship with their own pain, and the influence of the culture and medical system surrounding them. In America, the stigma of suffering makes its way into the conditioning of both people in that room. One actor with the “authority” and agency to act upon the suffering, and the other engulfed in the feeling of powerlessness around it.

Both are engaged with the fear of pain, sadness, and grief. One with the same instinct that I have periodically, the instinct to eradicate it. Following this path, society has gone so far as to label some manifestations of grief as a mental deformity, a disease inherent only in the sufferer’s biological system. As we saw with my experiences on 9/11. Those who experience extreme suffering are somehow… broken.

This is a community of healers gone awry. Healers in the grip of their own fears, reinforced by an industry profiting from this particularly cruel form of fear mongering. As humans sometimes are with each other, an industry has codified and amplified.

I have sat many times in a psychiatrist’s office feeling they might scream at me, “For God’s sake, don’t remind me of the existential grief I also face!” With this method of “healing,” our suffering is compounded over and over. The harm done is best encapsulated in the statement “what is meant to heal us, destroys us—what is meant to make us sane, makes us more insane.”

I spent 4 years suffering from suicidal thoughts that were a side effect of a neuroleptic I was prescribed. For 4 years, none of my doctors made this connection. Many times, my helplessness was compounded by the reactions of professionals who would rather not see my suffering writhing around in their office, and considered shutting it down a favor to me. One psychiatrist told me that I was being “defiant” because I wanted to die, because I said to her, “I just can’t do it anymore.” It felt almost as if she was angry at me for my desperation. As if the clock was ticking on her tolerance of my suffering.

Can you let someone suffer? It’s a hard question to be faced with. Can you let them be confused? Grief stricken? Suicidal? I believe in more cases than you think, the answer is yes if the answer to the following two questions are yes for you as well: First, do you respect all beings’ autonomy? Can you respect a suicidal person who chooses to die? Can you accept a depressed person who refuses medication? A psychotic person who does the same? Can you look a totally mad person in the eye and say, “I respect your decisions”?

Second, do you have the ability to not only empathize with suffering, but to sit with it—unarmed with the instinct to eradicate it? Empathy can be uncomfortable, our desire to protect ourselves can lead to what can be akin to an attack. Yes, empathy can be a force for helpful action—but do-gooders are often oppressors, too.

You might ask, if we allow suffering, how do we help people at all? A Buddhist teacher I once heard speak said his goal in life was to be safe for others. In allowing distress, we make the expression of it arise within a safe space—we become that safe space for a person in desperate need of it. Today, there seem to be fewer places to express extreme grief without the ammunition of psychiatry aimed at you.

In 2015, years of suffering manifested one night in hours of crying at a friend’s house. It was my 35th birthday dinner. What they did that night is an example of allowing suffering non-judgmentally, compassionately, without the instinct to destroy it. As I cried—wept, really—my friend told me to lay down on the floor with my head in her lap. Three other women there that night came into the room when they heard me and sat next to us on the floor. One with their hand on my leg, the others just sitting near.

No one said a word. Their quiet witnessing offered all the solace I needed. They surrounded me with unarmed love, even as my cries must have been disconcerting as they intensified. This is a kind of love that sees immense pain and is determined to witness it without fear, to let it move through the person—let it arise and pass away.

Allowing suffering seems so counterintuitive in the modern mental health paradigm. But, in respecting another’s autonomy and refining our ability to sit with our own and other’s pain, we open the pathway for those in distress to heal. I believe that is all you can do—allow suffering, however it manifests, let it arise and, as it will, pass away. Repression, invalidation, disallowing, punishing, force—all these are death to someone in mental distress.

You want to save someone’s life? Allow their pain. Give them back their power. It is most likely the many ways their pain has been disallowed, denied, their choices overridden, that has led them to the despair they feel. In a way, the psychiatric system is the cause of the disease it diagnoses. The system instills fear and attempts to eradicate the most natural experience—suffering—along with our ability to be in relationship with it within ourselves and between each other.

***

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.

43 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Karin,
    this is a very powerful story. I’m very sorry for all you suffered just because others couldn’t handle your grief.

    I did much the same for my wife as I walked with her thru the healing journey, though I always told her I was ‘sharing’ and ‘helping to carry’ her fear so that she didn’t have to do it alone. It seems we possibly mean the same but say it differently as your friends appeared to do for you the same as I did for her.
    Best of wishes,
    Sam

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Karin. It was really insightful. The description of your 35th birthday was beautiful. I am so glad your friends were able to share that moment with you and acknowledge your pain.

    We’ve forgotten how to show any modicum of compassion and decency to those who are suffering, and that’s what makes distress isolating. Through our faith in science and technology, we’re led to believe that we’re not supposed to experience suffering anymore, so we outsource its “handling” to “professionals.” You’re exactly right that we’re disregarded as broken. And this just furthers the process by which we all become alienated from each other and our feelings. What does it even mean to be human if we can only relate to each other on one dimension of constant happiness?

  3. Another artist attacked and defamed as “bipolar,” for distress caused by 9/11/2001, here. I didn’t even know the “mental health” industry thought all distress, including legitimate distress caused by 9/11, is distress caused by “chemical imbalances” in people’s brains, until I picked up my medical records. How insane can they be?

    And they certainly do target us artists. Let’s hope some day we fill the art history books with the truth about psychiatry’s crimes. I escaped back in 2009. But I was recently attacked by another psychologist after a show of my work. He attempted to steal all my work and money, via a BS “art manager” contract. No doubt because my art work was “too truthful” and “prophetic” for him.

    I think psychiatry and psychology need to be reminded that “a picture paints a thousand words,” thus artists have a powerful communication tool. So regularly and systemically attacking the artists isn’t the best idea. Glad you, too, escaped, Karin. I like your work. I’ll have to listen to some of your “voices.”

  4. Karin, powerful stuff. And I’m entirely agreed that suffering has to have a place, that suffering often has a meaning, and that what it may often mean is: I’ve become disconnected from the belonging that is core to humanness. Which is why the kind of generous caregiving you have described can be so powerful. Thank you for this story.

  5. “It felt almost as if she was angry at me for my desperation. As if the clock was ticking on her tolerance of my suffering.”
    “In a way, the psychiatric system is the cause of the disease it diagnoses.”

    Yes, SO true Karin! It’s very evident there is little to no compassion or empathy in psychiatry. Psychiatrists do act annoyed, irritated and yes, even angry at people for experiencing difficult life circumstances. Most of us have this innate feeling of wanting to solve someone’s problems or suffering but it’s extremely harmful and further traumatizing when psychiatry invalidates, labels and punishes people for their trauma or problems.

    Thanks for sharing your story Karin. Best wishes on your journey of validation and healing.

    • “Stopping suffering” or “controlling symptoms” are extremely nihilistic concepts that deny the reality of being human. Instead of “stopping suffering,” any real help has to focus on making SENSE of suffering and helping people assume more control of their lives, including dealing with the ongoing effects of past and current abuse. If we focus more on stopping ABUSE (including the abuse of power) than stopping the feelings of those who have been abused, we’d be getting more onto the right track.

  6. Emotional pain is a signal that we’re missing something, connection or support, something vital our mind believes we need. We need for the pain to be acknowledged and understood so we feel known, cared about, and belong. Then the purpose for the pain is fulfilled.

  7. Karin,

    Wow. You only describe your experience here briefly, but I understand what you said. How tragic – really like a nightmare, to be punished at rock bottom, too weak to lift oneself up. It’s almost as if there is so much to say about how this system is so cruel, that there could never be “enough” time or patience for us to hear them all (let alone to have survivors write them out!). A few things you said reminded me of what happened to me, and my heart goes out to you for what you’ve described and especially these things, because I “recognize” them. The years of no one questioning the drugs, the suffering that comes from it; punitive actions against your grief; “defiance.” There is something wonderful that can be taken from this kind of awful cruelty, as you’ve said about your own journey; I don’t know if what I’ve gathered from mine is like what yours is like, but you clearly have love. That’s something for everyone to aspire to. Thank you for writing this and expressing this sentiment and wisdom so eloquently!!! I’m sorry for what you’ve lost (I think we all lose a few things in the journey). I hope you never lose your fabulous self. I would love to get your memoir when it comes out!!!

    Sending my prayers <3

  8. Karin, thanks for writing this; i greatly appreciate the wisdom of your experience and thoughts, and the resource they represent personally to me.
    Recently, aged 49 after I survived an horrific, random, violent assault, I found myself served up to ‘psychiatry and psychology’ (for insurance purposes related to my injuries).
    I have had to defend myself from being pathologised and medicated by practitioners who are clearly not confortable to sit alongside me in my strength and vulnerability.
    I am particularly concerned about the inequity of this (supposedly) therapeutic relationship, (as you note: “One actor with the “authority” and agency to act upon the suffering, and the other engulfed in the feeling of powerlessness around it.”), in terms of who keeps the record and who makes report – ie who gets to be ‘author’ and who gets to be ‘subject’.
    It seems to me a decidedly dysfunctional and abusive system/paradigm that stamps a person with psychiatric diagnoses, that will erode their freedoms and agency, instead of being able to appreciate the humanity of their sensitivity and intolerance to the atrocious and insufferable.
    I will look forward to reading your book. Thank you again. Sarah in New Zealand

    • “I found myself served up to ‘psychiatry and psychology’ (for insurance purposes related to my injuries).”

      “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.

      I required a report for insurance purposes and have had my life literally ripped to shreds for no other reason than disagreeing with an abuser. I had no idea that I could now be snatched out of my bed, tortured and kidnapped and that this was all lawful because ‘mental patient’. And this can occur each and every time I disagree with someone. They call it assessment and referral.

      Nice work Karin. Timely reminder as I sit with a friend who is in tears whilst undergoing cancer treatment. I feel so helpless, and yet know I have done all I can and must accept rather than do.

      • Do you know what I find really interesting is that in order to be released by my kidnappers I had to agree to do the exact opposite of what I was told to do by the psychiatrist who wrote the report.

        I have one of the best psychiatrists in the State tell me to do something, and then I am ‘spiked’ with benzos, have a knife planted on me to obtain a police referral and give the appearance of lawfulness, kidnapped and locked in a cage for 7 hours of interrogation only to be told that if I don’t do the opposite of what the clinic psychiatrist told me, they will pin me down and force me to do what he told me not to do. He was of course no longer my psychiatrist and I was therefore not actually a “patient” and all this was criminal but … point that out to public officers and they will ‘fuking destroy’ you and your family.

        Amazing the things you can get people to do with the slander of mental illness as a weapon. Tortured, kidnapped and when you complain about it they unintentionally negatively outcome you. Or was this the ‘Abraham test’? Lets see if he will really kill him if we (the gods we are) ask him to. Check, Dr “i’m the boss around here’ is a killer.

  9. “For God’s sake, don’t remind me of the existential grief I also face!”

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Being repressed is a woe of many a shrink. It makes them angry, angry at others “weaknesses” weaknesses that they were not allowed to “wallow” in. I really believe there is some needy personality hidden behind that mask, and it gets acted out by the subject in front of them. We know we are all interconnected and there is a great mystery as to what feeds us.
    It is time not to feed their needs. We know it is impossible to be emotionally neutral.
    I don’t profess to know their needs….i am looking at possibilities. I just don’t want to be part of their energy sucking manners.
    They should grow up and serve the people that come to them. The way they treat subjects is beyond anything rational, it has no common sense, absolutely ZERO scientific basis or value.
    They never even entertained the idea that perhaps they chose a profession for being able to finally have a feeling of control. But it is an illusion. One truly never has complete control.
    One thing I am completely sure of is that they really don’t believe their own practice and end up mostly spouting silly dribble to protect it. And it is far from just psychiatry that engages in these ridiculous narratives (whether authentically believed or acting the role/mimicking) running amok in their heads.

  10. Karin,
    As a former inpatient and now, years later, a practicing therapist, I greatly appreciate and heartily agree with your message.

    You might enjoy this excerpt from a blog I wrote about yoga and psychotherapy. ( https://www.thomasabartlett.net/single-post/2017/09/11/Yoga-and-Psychotherapy )

    “ There is a wonderful passage found in RD Laing’s Divided Self, which he got from Franz Kafka: “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

    What is Kafka saying? To be human, we have but to suffer, but insofar as we try not to, we only make our suffering worse. Not to mention miss out on life.

    This insight might serve well as a litmus test to distinguish psychotherapists worthy of your trust from those you should probably avoid. If any therapist seems ready to take away your suffering for you, whether through techniquery, all-too-knowing explanations or drugs, she probably is not all that in touch with her own suffering.

    Suffering is the paradox at the heart of therapy. Many patients come more or less asking us to help rid them of their suffering, to *cure* them. Our job is really quite the opposite, to enable them *to* suffer, “

    Tom Bartlett

  11. In keeping with my psychiatric label of *religiously preoccupied*,
    I’d like to note a relevant situation with the book of Job. He sat mourning, over dead children and covered in ashes with boils head to toe. A wife telling him to “curse God and die” and so called friends who spoke exhausting philosophical dialogue about why he “deserved” this and how his faith wasn’t correct, and “who did he think he was for questioning the God of the universe?” etc. To me this closely reflects the same image of the circles psychiatrist methods take, reasoning away the pain and attempting at mental manipulation of the patients’ reality as He sees it.
    The interesting point is in Job’s compassionate response. The requisite to his healing and restoration was to pray for his friends.
    As if ” bless their hearts, they don’t know what they’re doing”

  12. Hi Karin,

    Love this. As a 30 year family physician I always struggle with allowing suffering, as physicians are trained to minimize suffering. I try to meet patients where they are and see if we can figure out together what path to take. It is hard to resist the urge to fix things!

  13. boans, Karin, Sam Plover and Rainbow: I am appreciating your commentary. I have been thinking, even from my secular view point – that the times when I have been able to reach peace in my heart around the harm that has been done to me in the guise of help, is when I have been able to embrace the understanding you refer to in: ” bless their hearts, they don’t know what they’re doing” and “forgive them, for they know not what they do” and also “there are none so blind as those that cannot see”. I am very grateful to have been able to access forgiveness – it has most often been when I have found some freedom from the reach of that harm, and much more challenging when the harm is current and the threat at large. Sarah Preece, NZ

    • I guess I see the reality that the threat is always there, if not for me, then for scores of kids and teens, young people. I think my unforgiveness is really about their existing power. So in that way, I spread my gospel to my daughter in law who uses words such as ADHD and is a teacher. And I cannot spread my gospel by saying they don’t know what they do, but rather that they indeed know what they do, they have been told repeatedly.

      But I can see that peace is good for the individual.

LEAVE A REPLY