Of all the labels placed on me throughout my 20 years 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.