Orange Water Wound
No way to close or bridge that Canyon.
Only one way to get over it
is to go down through,
Or take the turnoff around
to the paisley escape in a dirty yellow wake,
Or copter over in a buzz
if you’re rich in the myth of gilded magnificence… but
then you’d lose it never knowing
in the screwing of it up
the blue shade
of pure cold silence
So I just had an appointment with Dr. Liyun Yuan. I normally agree with Sera Davidow that most doctors don’t deserve the title more than a waitress with four kids and a daddy in jail, but Dr. Yuan deserves her title. In the beginning, European doctors were not healers, but teachers of a knowledge to disseminate. American medicine professes the knowledge of healing, so Dr. Yuan is a medical professional, a healer, a hepatologist, and a doctor all at the same time.
My cirrhosis is an issue. My liver struggles to clean the accumulation of “poisonous toxins” out of my blood, resulting in muscle weakness, fatigue, and encephalopathy. My anxiety is also an issue. My system struggles to trust any doctor, particularly those who listen to ethnocentric psychiatrists who have a different world view about what behavior means, what behavior communicates, and how to treat the animal once it has been traumatized.
Doctors with a diagnosis on the chart seem bent on whitewash. But Dr. Yuan tells me, “Yes, your spleen is grossly enlarged, you have a life-threatening illness. But you could live another 30 years. And it is very difficult for patients who have been very active to learn to live with encephalopathy.” Between my cirrhosis and my anxiety, I can hardly think. I shouldn’t be writing, but it is a coping skill. I beg you humor the illness.
The doctors I now meet with on Zoom seem also very tired and full of anxiety. COVID has softened the crowns on many of us. Human beings with computers and phones seem bundled in the same deck of cards laid out on the screen. Somehow, “their” white walls are no different than mine. I can’t see the glazing in the windows or the gold-embossed degrees. I have worked brutally hard to come to my room and they have worked brutally hard to come to theirs.
After my appointment with clarity and caring, I danced in my studio/Olga’s library/closet/junk room. There isn’t much room to move between a broken wheelchair, brown boxes, my funky Yamaha keyboard, and a T.V. tray with my laptop, speakers, and a cup of coffee. Medicine Dance is the most important form of emotional regulation I have found. The practice of listening to and responding to the body, to the breath and the heartbeat, has given me the ability to survive two years in a wilderness of isolation from doctors with borders. As with Shambala or Zen meditation, the dancer focuses on the still point of the present moment, the point of “Be still, and know I AM.” In dance, the student focuses on the breath, or on the movement of the joint of the thumb, or on the feeling of the second vertebrae. What is moving? What moves me? What shakes me? What propels me? It is a practice of incremental understanding that survivors learn the hard way.
As I lay in my chair, feeling the relief in my emotions, feeling the flaccidity in my gut, the weariness in my back, I began remembering two men in my life who were very, very Good. One of them was an evangelical missionary and one of them was a psychiatrist. They came to their work with a great depth of empathy. They saw terrible suffering around them. They themselves suffered to compassion. And they had tools they thought might help ease the pain.
My father came out of the terrible Depression of 1928, made more intense by the excesses led by the people in the federal government after World War I. His mother had 12 children on a little farm with a man who drank. When my father was 14 years old, he found a great part of God in a revival meeting. He found forgiveness and kindness in a cornfield. At that point, he had hit the bottom, and he found the hope that would sustain him until he was 91 years old.
My father could never have gone back to that life of violence, insanity, poverty, and gross neglect he had escaped. He had been born again, and when you are no longer one of the unborn, you cannot go back. Later, as my father got ready to leave the farm for Bible College, his younger brother, who was 14 at the time, pleaded with him not to leave him alone. My father could not stay. His brother shot himself. My father was driven by suffering, trauma, and hope to the Navajo Reservation. And there he proceeded to teach Navajos at a boarding school how to assimilate into the bewilderment of the European-American culture in which they had become engulfed. My father believed in his medicine. His favorite verse was, “How shall they know without a preacher?”
In 1988, after nine years of struggling to survive my own history of trauma, I finally hit the bottom. I met Dr. Stephen Hayes at Ingleside Hospital in El Monte, CA. When I called my father and told him that I was at Ingleside Hospital, I heard a gasp. He thought I was making a cruel joke. I did not know that Ingleside Hospital in Nebraska was where they incarcerated my grandmother after she attempted to kill my father and two siblings with an ax. As a boy, he had seen her there in terrible distress. The tortures in American mental “hospitals” were not worse than now, but they were physically graphic. Instead of psychotropic restraint, they used straps. Their isolation chambers had steel bars. The ignorant derision of the staff was not whispered in passive/assertive asides, but said aloud. My grandmother was forced to take shock “treatments” in lieu of caring by other people who had been through the violence and famine of the American economic Depression. She was, too, given a diagnosis based on textbooks on “scientific” studies in eugenics. When she returned to society, she carried the brands, although they were not so prominent on medical records and fingerprinting as they are now.
If you have ever sat for hours with a person who is suffering terrible, terrible anxiety, shut down emotionally to the point of paralysis, or whose natural voices of healing are stifled or cheerleaded into violence by violence, you are confronted by two parts of wisdom. The first is that you would do anything, anything, anything to end their pain. And the second insight you become conscious of is that you might do nearly anything to shut them up.
When I entered Ingleside Hospital, I had been working as a word-processing tech with McKinsey & Company, Downtown L.A. I had at that point come to the bottom. I could no longer function in the disconnect between images of violence, rape, and the emotional dysregulation of “business” and the violence, rape, and emotional dysregulation I witnessed every day Downtown. I worked on Hope Street, eight blocks from Skid Row. When I fell into the mental hospital, there was nothing left of me but hope.
Dr. Hayes saw that I was not getting up again. He was a tower with a beautiful laugh. He gave me the first dose of a massive experiment of pharmaceuticals that would not end until I ended it in about 2016, in a slow titrate of my own isolated experiment. During those years, the “medicines” continually stopped working as my physical body attempted to return to healthy stasis. I was sent back to the “hospital” over and over for “med adjustments,” which involved withdrawal and new experimentation with medications approved by the FDA in desperation. Dr. Hayes certainly believed in his medicine. After he died of a heart attack, subsequent psychiatrists believed in their debilitating psychotropics and I was assimilated into their religion out of desperation.
Since 1947, European American education has not nurtured or collaborated with Native insight, history, or wisdom used for centuries on this continent. Since 1988, psychiatry has not nurtured or collaborated with the insight, history, or wisdom provided by Survivors of violence and social suppression at least since Dorothea Dix stimulated these discussions in the 1800s. Since 2015, psychiatric force has become business as usual in such L.A. County hospitals as LAC/USC County Hospital, Huntington Hospital, Del Amo, and Las Encinas Hospitals. We are given brochures on rights and threatened verbally. Clean rooms, tiny windows, genteel straps, drugs, paperwork, and police revolvers replaced naked bodies that can be photographed when the L.A. County Department of Mental Health records were dumped into the same databases with the Health Agency’s and we were forced to provide our fingerprints to the county. The tiny, endless replications of careful wording by social workers, case managers, “therapists,” and “doctors”—opinions of our behavior— have apparently been preserved in perpetuity, but Prototypes Behavioral Health will not release my personal notes to me.
Medical doctors, with no interest in my journey or my increments of insight gleaned over 30 years, continue to throw “bipolar disorder” in my face, a “condition” which I now believe was, in my case, emotional dysregulation due to trauma, which I can work through with physical movement and artistic creation. I do not believe I have a physical “disease” called bipolar disorder as it is defined by the DSM-5. If I am wrong, then at least I know that 25 years of treatment by the LAC DMH has been counterproductive, while the current treatments I choose to live with are fully satisfying and have brought not only my body but my mind back to a wholeness I want to live with. This is a complex state-of-being with my physical struggles.
The Navajo and every Indigenous group I have studied agree that trauma and suffering are genetic. Mental illness, and social illness, and disease are in our DNA. The difference between Indigenous Western Medicine and European Western Medicine is that, from an American or German perspective, genetics are static and must be surgically removed or drugged to numbness, while for the Navajo and Lakota, intergenerational suffering is a tool for the strengthening, resilience, and adaptability of all of our myriad clans and an abundant opportunity to come together to story and laugh. The Indigenous World encourages diversity and healthy growth of the tiniest parts of nature, while the American Education stresses conformity and assimilation. Indigenous Wisdom works with the evidence base of all the senses, seen and unseen, while American Evidence is confined only to what we can see on a dot plot. The American Solution is to cut and disappear, while the Indigenous Wisdom includes celebration, full disclosure, and nurturing wholeness. There are elements of disease and limited functioning in every organ of a physical body. The antidote is not to fuse the heart into a lung, or the intestines into the brain.
We must believe in our medicine. We cannot have matriculated to our understanding, we cannot be unborn, we must build on what we know. What my father did not see is that we must be born again and again and again, to face our own deaths and mortality and trauma. Surely American Science must see the evidence of the results of mental health treatments banging on the tinted windows of their BMWs on Wilshire Boulevard and down Hollywood Boulevard.
Missionaries and psychiatrists have failed in their mission, not through lack of compassion, but through lack of willingness to take a long walk down the street for a sandwich and a long, long talk, to ask the neighbors what they might need and to ask the people what they already know. Illness is the refusal to die every day with those who have been continually dying in an American epidemic that could only be shut down during a virus, not quarantined in a community mental health center, under an overpass, or in a convalescent home.
I will fight no more forever. I surrender. However, long as I live now, I will continue to speak. I cannot not. I am a poet. In the future, I will share more of my perspectives on my diagnoses, and will share my personal experiences of health environments at Prototypes Behavioral Health, Del Amo Treatment Center, and hospitals in Pasadena, Torrance and Los Angeles. I need to talk about the myriad branding irons now used by the DMH to stigmatize us into compliance. I am now a missionary seeking an elixir, and a two-year-old throwing a tantrum. I am an old crow. I squawk. I acknowledge my own ignorance, arrogance, and mental illness. I can change and adapt to be born again, again. I still have that hope that the three doctors who collectively did not see me longer than two hours, who judged me incompetent based on written history, would do the same for themselves. There must become a sharing of culture and education in L.A. County.
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.