My journey these days is a path of deep listening which brings me towards spirituality and, shall we say, unseen dimensions. I serve as a bridge between the walking wounded (both labeled and unlabeled) and those willing to work on healing deep trauma wounds. How did I get here?
I believe the experience that reinforced my path more than anything else was suddenly finding myself in another dimension at the age of 16. Catapulted by unhealed trauma, including the murder of my father 18 months previously, I was swept up in a vortex of undenyingly powerful energy. It was a force to be reckoned with.
I had decided not to believe in a God prior to this but on this evening, God spoke directly to me. Along with that communication I felt an absolute oneness with the universe. All of my senses were heightened, feeling vibrations of nature and of all of life itself—birds, stars, trees, people—all of it. I wanted to get to the President of the United States so I could be part of building strong, connected communities, including stopping crime and violence.
I told my mother a tiny part of what I was thinking and the next day she took me to a psychiatrist who instructed my mother to take me directly (no stopping at home) to the local hospital so I could be admitted to the psychiatric ward. And this is when the thrilling and exciting other dimension became labeled schizophrenia and then, after crossing the six-month threshold, became a label of chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia.
During my 15 months locked up (after being transferred to a long-term facility) I mastered the art of suppressing this “Godly” experience and was released to home, where I completed high school and engaged in life in the community—college, Peace Corps, graduate school and then finding psychiatric survivors who taught me about mental health oppression.
By the age of 50, I found myself at the White House in Washington, D.C. advising senior officials on healthcare policy as part of my job as Director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery.
What is the lesson for me? I don’t believe in accidents. This is spiritual. I believe that everything that has happened in my life has a reason, and the invitation is for me to understand that reason. Tapping into courage, I allow myself to feel vulnerable, which has opened up a spaciousness of wisdom.
What I want to share with you, dear readers, is how spiritual experiences like mine have been reflected in so many people’s stories of being labeled with psychotic disorders.
In December 2020, I convened two groups on “Mental Health Liberation and Spirituality” during a virtual International Re-evaluation Counseling (RC) Ex-Psychiatric Inmate Weekend Workshop.
I told my story of experiencing a spiritual emergency that the psychiatric “experts” labeled “schizophrenia.” I described how I was forcibly drugged and locked in a seclusion room because of that spiritual energy. And I explained how, years later, Janet Foner (who at the time was the RC international leader for Mental Health Liberation), told me that there was never anything wrong with me.
After a lot of emotional release work, re-evaluating and wrapping my mind around this seemingly radical concept, I realized it was true. My mind/spirit was searching for my genuine self which resulted in a sudden eruption and release of profound individual and collective trauma, which I am still coming to understand over 45 years later.
Then I told the group about where I am now. About how I am learning to slow down in order to listen more deeply to myself, to my body, and to other people (including indigenous people and their connections to the earth), and how I now eat mostly unprocessed and plant-based foods. This has resulted in my being able to feel my body more and to sense intuition, energy, and vibrations—all of which reinforces my exploration into listening more deeply every day.
I’m listening more deeply to myself and allowing myself to feel, to be more and more vulnerable. I cried about this being our first workshop without Janet. I think about how much she changed my life and impacted so many people and some of those people will never even know her name. The ripples of her teachings have gone far and wide. Nobody could do it the way she did it. We wouldn’t be here without her.
And so many others shared similar experiences—the way that they experienced spiritual awakenings and energy, and the way that led to psychiatric hospitalizations for many.
A Catholic person chose another Catholic person to counsel her, seemingly to feel safer in sharing that so much about religion and spirituality feels “crazy.” She feared having her thinking dismissed as crazy. She said that when she looks at the threads of the religious stories, it looks like there is some source of love in the center of the universe holding us. Sometimes you can’t tell it is there, other times you catch a glimpse of reality—that there is something bigger holding us. That is what saved her life. Just getting an occasional glimpse of that is what got her through.
Another person spoke about how she appeared ‘psychotic,’ resulting in her mom staying with her all night before she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital the next day. That night her mom shared with her a spiritual resource her dad had introduced her mom to—a yoga/meditation book that changed her mom’s life. At that moment she (the client) “got it.” There is something bigger than all of us. Prior to that she had found that reading religious texts were a potpourri of intelligence and distress that didn’t make sense.
Another person spoke about her life as a crushing weight of ‘you should be like this and not like this’ and sometimes she felt stuck between radio stations, with so many oppressions making life harsh. Sometimes, she could catch a glimpse of reality—that there is something bigger holding us. That is what saved her life. Just getting an occasional glimpse of that is what got her through. During those times it seemed like she wasn’t crazy.
Another person shared that her hospitalizations were related to her being very angry at God for having everybody get confused about her, and it was her fault. During one hospitalization a psychiatrist said that one of the five categories of things that happens to people is mystery (it doesn’t fit into the other four categories) and that was what she had. She yearned for her experience to be meaningful and came to see that there was potential magic, and old things to figure out.
Another member was raised a very strict Catholic and spent more than half of his teenage years in an institution to become a monk where you assume a group identity and do everything as a group. When he left the monastery, there was no group around him and he felt he couldn’t do anything for himself—like being a baby. This led to a “mental health” crash.
He laid on the ground for many hours, nobody talked to him, no one asked why he was on the floor. There was no one to help get him up, no one understood. He was brought up to believe other people were more important and that he didn’t have any needs; He could not say what he needed. He had grown up with a lot of violence. Many years of being quiet led to him exploding, resulting in him lying on the floor. All he needed was for someone to get down on the floor with him and just be with him, but no one was willing to do that for him.
The last summary I will share was a person who said that this was such a big subject. She had never worked on it and it was helpful to listen to everyone else’s story. She realized she was not alone. She referred to her “mental health” experience as “heightenedness” (and I believe she briefly mentioned the labels of schizophrenia and manic depression). She said she didn’t need a label; it was so frightening.
She felt that she had influence over the wind’s direction depending on her thought patterns. She pondered about how she could use spirituality to make her life more meaningful. She studied pictures from the Bible and was very moved by the story of Jesus Christ being sacrificed. She thought she needed to go through this crucifixion.
She spoke about how dangerous it was in the hospital; nurses told her she needed to go to church because she was damned and needed to repent her sins. She still has heightened experiences, but is finding meaning in them.
After everyone shared, we closed with a one-sentence takeaway or highlight:
- It is good to have an open mind, and know that there is more in life than the material world.
- Being allowed to talk about spirituality in our safe space as ex-psychiatric inmates was enlightening, helpful, and hopeful.
- Several people spoke of how important it was to have space to talk about mental health and spirituality and that they were going to look for more space to do that.
Many people told me after the topic group that they wanted to meet again, so I have continued to host meetings on this theme. Spirituality is an integral part of humanity, and it is wrong for it to be dismissed as a psychiatric disorder.
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.