Mental Health Liberation and Spirituality: Ex-Psychiatric Inmates Share Their Thoughts

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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:

  1. It is good to have an open mind, and know that there is more in life than the material world.
  2. Being allowed to talk about spirituality in our safe space as ex-psychiatric inmates was enlightening, helpful, and hopeful.
  3. 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.

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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.

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Lauren Spiro
Lauren’s vision of social justice and mental health liberation focuses on developing our capacity for feeling deeply connected, appreciating the vast creative intelligence of the human heart and mind, and inspiring compassionate action. Her life’s mission is to embody inner peace to co-create global peace, thus she curates transformative learning experiences. She co-founded two non-profit corporations and Emotional CPR (www.emotional-cpr.org) a public health education program that teaches people how to support others through an emotional crisis. She is a multi-media artist, a 20+ year practitioner of yoga and meditation, the first Director of the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery, has been featured on national media, and consulted on numerous federal projects. Her memoir paints a poetic picture of her journey into madness and her pathway home. She has an M.A. in clinical/community psychology. For more information see www.Laurenspiro.com

24 COMMENTS

  1. I honestly wish I could get past the connection to Scientology here. On the surface, the fundamental concept of co-counseling sounds lovely.

    Spiritual practice (which I differentiate from religious belief) was one of the things that psychiatry and science/medicine worship took from me. I suppose I am still atheist in the sense that I don’t believe in gods/Creator. But as I’ve begun to explore what I do believe and what makes sense to me, I notice that everyone has an opinion about my beliefs that they feel at liberty to share and question me. This seems to create more rifts than unity. I think psychiatry thrives off this conflict. It ultimately means I keep that aspect of who I am close and mostly secret, which is unfortunate.

    Your story is still inspirational for many and I am a huge fan of eCPR.

  2. I am a schizophrenia sufferer. I like all you are doing and saying.

    However, *and forgive me as I am writing in rush here* I do want to say that the “spiritual” can be a way to tumble into a hellish abyss of nightmare hallucinations. When that occurs a schizophrenic craves dull, ordinary, practical, solid, predictable, normal reality.

    Too many people think spirituality is all fluffy and charming and then say that wicked fairytale “demons” are preventing them from flouncing on unicorns and wearing stardust in their hair. I join you in feeling that society loses out on silencing the giftedness of the spiritual. I just do not relish the further adoption of a stance that sees everything spiritual as healing. I do not think humans are meant to be overly spiritual all the time….lots of the time yes…all of the time probably not. We need to occasionally scrub the u-bend of the toilet.

    • Thank you for sharing this. I think the people in the article are talking about a different experience than yours, and I think it’s very important to acknowledge variety of experiences. Some people love voices they hear in their head, some hate them, and neither are “right” of “wrong” – this is just how they feel.

  3. This is an interesting article. Your experience about God talking to you reminds of the old Lily Tomlin joke that it’s okay for you to talk to God, but, for God talk to you is considered a form of “craziness.” It, in my mind, be considered, the “Joan of Arc Syndrome,” the Patron Saint of Paris, France. If you do read the biographies of so many of the Saints, you will realize that if they had these experiences in the 20th/21st Century World, they would be considered “mentally ill” and “drugged” into silence. Actually, since my “walk-away” from the evils of psychiatry, etc. my faith in Jesus has become stronger, but, as I subject to human weakness, I have days my faith seems to vary. But, I know one thing and this keeps being affirmed almost daily, Jesus loves me always, while psychiatry, etc. never ever did; because the latter is nothing by true evil. I think my thinking that psychiatry, etc. is true evil is reflected in how they are fearful of talking any sort of religious or spiritual belief systems of the “patient” in any type of “therapeutic setting.” Additionally, how many times do they consider religious/spiritual experiences, a symptom, an hallucination, a delusion, that needs their intervention in order to squash it for good? And, of course all therapists, psychiatrists, etc. are well trained to not mention their personal religious belief systems with their clients. However, Buddhist thought has made some inroads in CBT, DBT, and the teaching of mindfulness and meditation. But, this dismisses almost all who came from either traditional or Charismatic Christian background or even Jewish backgrounds. It is almost a slight of hand message that growing up in the Western Judeo-Christian background is what’s causing you alleged mental illness. Thank you.

  4. “Spirituality is an integral part of humanity, and it is wrong for it to be dismissed as a psychiatric disorder.” I couldn’t agree more, Lauren. And I do know of a lot of people, myself included, who had spiritual experiences misdiagnosed as psychiatric disorders.

    And, in my humble opinion, this is a particularly pernicious and hypocritical – systemic problem of the “mental health professions.” Since the ladies in my childhood church did confess to me that the church had “partnered” with the DSM “bible” thumpers. A couple of pastors of a different religion did confess to me about this “dirty little secret of the two original educated professions.” And I have medical evidence that a supposed “holistic Christian talk therapist,” of my childhood religion, was instead, a Holy Spirit blasphemer. Which is the “only unforgivable sin” within the entire Holy Bible.

    So I thank you, Lauren, for pointing out this systemic problem with the “mental health professions.” And I do so hope the “mental health professionals” will rethink their “right” to blasphemy the Holy Spirit, never bother to repent, change from their evil (systemic child abuse covering up) ways, and utilize their malpractice insurance for what it is intended.

  5. Lauren it is fantastic that spaces are provided for people to speak about what they are thinking/feeling.

    It reminds me of how often I suffered, simple things like being a a bit shy years ago about using a toilet in someone’s house.
    Of course it’s not a big deal, yet if I share that nowadays, no one says, Oh me too.

    It’s a small example but it took me 50 years to realize that the majority of people will NOT talk about the stuff that goes on in their minds.
    So it took me a long time to realize that the observant psychiatrist or therapist really had a LOT of secrets 🙂 And I realized it was very unfair for sharing to go only one direction.
    And I also realized that most of the MH industry is really like criminal interrogations. Underneath it all, the basis of it is some weird measurement. I can’t even refer to it as moral or social.

    • I think some of the better therapist training these days does encourage therapists to share more of the weird workings of their own minds, because that does help put things in perspective. Or also to share just how common certain mental phenomena is – even if the therapist doesn’t experience it. Without this kind of sharing, people can end up feeling kind of helplessly different, rather than maybe only needing to change a few things to get moving in their valued direction in life.

      • “Normalization” was to me the most essential element in approaching people in distress. Letting people know that their reaction to their situation was pretty common, and that lots of other people had experienced similar struggles or engaged in similar coping strategies. Helping them see that their reactions were less the issue than the things they were reacting to. Which is pretty much the opposite of what most people experience when they encounter the “mental health” system.

      • Unfortunately, no matter how better therapist training is nowadays and into the future even, it is doomed to fail and should fail; because, unlike education, which sometimes borders on this: THERAPY, ESPECIALLY TALK THERAPY IS THE FORCED SHARING OF MINDS. I wish I could underline or make bod the word; FORCED; as that is the key word. As long as we put people into a situation that is basically an artificial and contrived “friendship” it is not only doomed to fail; but, should not survive. And, I, say it should not survive, because its survival is antithetical to the survival of humans and thus humanity. It is babying human beings to prevent them from growing up or rather from allowing them to make rational decisions about how they wish to live their lives. Therapy is a lie and couple with the drug use, psychiatry, etc. supports, it is nothing less than dangerous. It is nothing less than brainwashing at the expense of a healthy population. That is why the word therapist breaks down into “the-rapist.” Therapy is nothing but “the rape of the mind.” Thank you.

    • Psychiatry can jail and even drug you if you say or appear in the “wrong way”. They aren’t there to have a social relationship. They are there to decide how you need to change to fit social expectations. It is a criminal interrogation. One where you don’t get a trial. The evidence allowed is what the people making money from drugging and jailing you say.

      I remember a survey about how maybe 50% of people had thought about suicide. It seems a likely possibility that many psych “patients” are people who didn’t decide that silence is survival. Little good comes from sharing intimate details to someone in the psych cult. Massive harm is the typical result.

  6. Dear Lauren, you wrote: “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.”

    An experience of Universal Oneness I share with you & have been trying to comprehend since the first ‘rebirth’ of my ‘sensory’ nature in 1980, moments after an authentic prayer to the God of my childhood Memory. An experience that saw my family and friends become increasingly concerned about my mental health in the weeks that followed. And of course, we all know how that story goes within the medical model of our human experience of mind.

    1980, was coincidently the year DSM-III was published as a ‘categorization’ guide to making a living in mental health, so long as people can ignore the inconvenient truth that there is no scientific pathology test to confirm the ‘subjective’ nature of a so-called, ‘professional’ diagnosis. And after 28 years of trying to be ‘normal’ & going along with the getting along of being socially normal within an increasingly mad world, I rebelled in 2007.

    Spending 3 years in Buddhist Thailand in order to integrate, by way of embodying the latest science of our human nervous system. While here in a year numbered 2021 (when did that categorization of reality begin, I wonder?) I now practice Plato’s Metempsychosis method of ‘transfiguration’ before the Sun, each morning & evening. Watching & Re-Membering (“What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” (Matt 26:40,41), as I notice ‘how’ Gaia gives birth to the phenomenal nature of day & night.

    As Plato suggests I float back down the river of memory to re-member my own birth agony of almost three days stuck in the birthing of my mother, bringing my 5 external awareness senses back online, so to speak, and allowing my 6th sense of ‘introception’ to synchronize the nature of my reality with the nature of reality, here on Earth. Using our current scientific world-view to understand the great Christian story as a ‘metaphorized’ history of humanity & the perceptual paradox of the human condition?

    While reading the story of the Nazarene I now ask myself “what kind of blindness would a wise King of Jewish Philosophy cure?” Which I try to remember as normal folk laugh at me filming the sun appear to rise each morning & respond with, “you believe the sun is moving?”

    Please see my comment to the wonderful Michael Cornwall here: https://www.madinamerica.com/2021/05/remembering-jay-mahler/

    In which I write of my early morning experiences thus: Anyway, perhaps when you and David are at Esalen facing the sun next time, you might discuss spirituality from a scientific world-view by consulting & meditating upon Earth-Axis Rotation? Which for San Francisco at: Latitude: 37.4225° 37° 25′ 21.09. Involves the Speed: 827.28 mph. Please see link for a one world meditation here: http://www.unitarium.com/earth-speed

    And as I approach my 70th birthday, still prone to wondering about life and its purpose here on earth, I ask myself “is God a Person or is God Creation?” And watching for one hour each morning & evening I ponder life on the spectrum, the Spectrum of Creation? And I wonder if MIA can transcend the politics of experience to answer Michael’s decades old question “if mental illness is not what psychiatry says it is, what is it?”

    Is it the existential need we all have of truly Waking-Up, here in Heaven?

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