Radical Acts of Community Healing and Self-Love

Karin Jervert
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One thing has remained true for me as I’ve reflected on my journey into and out of the psychiatric system. My society—the education system, culture, economy and government that I existed within as a young woman—relied on me to internalize blame for all the ways it had failed me. The unfortunate, and often dangerous, “safety” net for the emotional repercussions of this toxic arrangement was psychiatry. It was psychiatry that then dug deep to nurture this seed of self-blame by planting the identity of the “mental patient.”

Capitalism, psychiatry, and all its tendrils in my world seemed to have run on the fuel of my own self-hatred—my own belief that breaking down under the pressure of this was my fault. Now, I clearly understand that society’s gears are greased with the oil of our collective shame for things we did not cause, and in fact, are victims of—the continuation of things like sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism all depend on the victims themselves believing they are at fault for their consequences. This shame robs us of our power to demand change.

Self-love, therefore, became for me a radical and revolutionary act of activism against this system. At its foundation was the rejection of “disease” as a label to define the uniqueness of my mind.

Recently, I was asked a question that put into relief this corrupted relationship between some individuals and modern society. “How do you reconcile your belief that most diagnosed ‘mental illnesses’ are not a disease, but then say that Soteria houses are an important way to reform care?” Although my answer was hard to articulate at the time, I understood the implication here was the underlying question: How can people need care and not be clinically ill?

I admit, I resented this question for a time as I chewed on the intention and cultural assumptions behind it. First, it occurred to me that needing care within a Western society is so stigmatized that one cannot seek it without the label of disease, disorder, or deformity—without being labeled abnormal. This realization is tragic to me, especially in the context of emotional suffering. It poked at my psychiatric survivor wound, as such an assumption was behind much unnecessary suffering in my life.

As this question settled over a few days, I started to think back on a story I once heard from the writer Michael Meade about a tribal community in Zambia that lives by the idea that in order to heal the individual, the whole community must be healed. No one’s distress exists in a vacuum, isolated, disconnected from the whole—or just within an individual’s “broken brain.” This tribe understood that we all exist in relationship to each other continuously, and when this relationship becomes unbalanced in any way—perhaps as ours has, based on emotional blackmail, gaslighting, heartless productivity, and othering—they do not isolate and blame the one who manifests that pain; rather, it is a collective pain, healed through collective ritual.

The disintegration of this core belief over the development of modern society reveals a wound that desperately needs tending. The proliferation of the idea that seeking care is always equated with illness is perhaps the blade that caused it.

This tribal belief of community and individual healing manifests in Zambia in a ritual around a tooth, an ancestor’s tooth. Even here, in the below quoted text, Meade casually uses the word “sickness” to refer to the emotionally distressed—even when talking of natural emotions like jealousy or rage. I balk at this, of course, but I am curious if, in the case of emotional suffering, the Zambian tribe themselves would have used this word. My hunch is that it is Meade himself, existing within the exact framework in the West I speak of here, who felt the need to use the word.

Meade says of the ritual:

“When someone in the village is sick or disturbed, they imagine it is caused by an ancestor’s tooth that has gotten inside that person. That person’s sickness affects everybody in the village because they are connected with one another. So they make a ritual to get this tooth, this sickness, out of the person.

“But the tooth won’t come out unless the truth comes out. And the sickness includes all of the hatreds and conflicts felt by everybody in the village. The sick person has to express what’s really troubling him or her, and it’s usually not very noble. It’s jealousy or rage or another of those darker human passions. But the tooth won’t come out of the sick person until all of the troubled feelings come out of everybody else in the village. The release happens only when everything comes out, in the midst of dancing and singing and drumming. The whole village gets cleansed by the release of the tooth through the release of these difficult truths.”

In this ritual, everyone understands their relationship to one another’s distress, and the means of resolving the distress is built around this wisdom. There is an effort to overcome the shame of it, too, which is the foundation of healing, through dancing, singing, and drumming, and each member of that community expressing their truth.

How is it that our culture has evolved so far from this understanding? That individual healing is community healing and vice versa? That the truth heals, and no hierarchy of power protects you from your responsibility to it? How have we come to a place where one cannot seek out community care without being ostracized, stigmatized, and pathologized, as I and so many others were and continue to be?

Is our society structured so firmly around othering people who do not perform or conform—even in the midst of great grief and pain—that seeking help becomes an argument against their abilities to contribute instead of an opportunity to reflect as a whole about how the systems of support have failed that person?

This is a deeply embedded idea. One that wrenches us from each other, from caring for one another simply because we understand that society is an organism, an ecosystem, fragile and dependent on each node existing in harmony with the whole. We are all surviving as a community within the constraints of the nature of human existence itself—which includes seeking care at different times in our lives. Stigmatizing and pathologizing this fact removes us not only from the self-love we need to thrive, but from accountability to our own contributions to other people’s suffering.

Underlying it all is this groundlessness where togetherness and community should exist. Where connection should allow for care without stigma, we instead throw our fellow community members into a medical system that requires a diagnosis of chronic illness, a system often outside of, and naive of, our community’s needs. We allow our fellow community members to be passed through a kind of algorithm that is cold and detached from their humanity. Creating anonymity where there should be knowledge of one another.

I have a hard time understanding how we have allowed this to happen. Allowed a question like this to exist in our minds: If you ask for care, how are you not sick? Compassion is the basis of care, and care is a system of support on every level of our existence as humans, in families, friendships, and within ourselves. Seeking it should not stigmatize and ostracize us, it should enmesh us further within the human family.

The wisdom, like that of the Zambian tribe Meade speaks of, that I’ve seen alive in queer communities and the psychiatric survivor ecosystem, must permeate the boundaries of our hurried, profit-driven, productivity- and conformity-preoccupied society and become the foundation of our future.

It seems that, as a whole, our society’s foundations and motivations around caring for one another remain corrupt, and values such as tending the relationship between self and society/community have been swept from beneath us. And on this groundlessness we have built houses of suffering and blame. The problem I see is the scope of the damage. How can we possibly create enough change, space, and justice to heal?

The answer, for me, comes from my struggle with trauma and the psychiatric system and is: In any way we can, big or small, as long as we are trying. It’s not always a grand effort—it’s accountability in your closest friendships, it’s a radical self-love, it’s telling your truths to power. It’s every way you manifest the understanding, day to day, that you are connected, that we all are connected to one another—and in considering this your biggest, most profound responsibility in life.

It is how deeply you know that we are living on and within a living organism that we must protect and care for by correcting imbalances in power and waste, in the voiced and the voiceless, and most of all in how we care for one another.

***

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.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Oh, you lovely woman! I didn’t even know how low it was before your words filled my cup. I feel like I’ve come home from a long journey in a foreign land and am hearing my native tongue for the first time again.

    The Zambian ritual you write of is so far removed from the Western way, it feels like a dream to think our culture could transform in such a way in any of our lifetimes. But my inner optimist still yearns for such an outcome. You are right; we must all do our part. Big and small. Perhaps through millions of small efforts, such a grand transformation could be possible.

    Thank you. I needed this.

    • I agree with kindredspirit. And I think I agree with absolutely everything you stated in this blog, Karin, which does not happen often. “… it’s accountability in your closest friendships, it’s a radical self-love, it’s telling your truths to power.” I couldn’t agree more, that those are the true paths to healing. And I agree, we do also need to heal our society, in order to bring about a better world for all.

      I will agree also with a comment that David Healey stated about Jim Gottstein’s book, “The Zyprexa Papers,” which I just read in an email, and seems relevant to this discussion. Since all of us in the West have been lied to about so much, especially by psychiatrists. But also by the other doctors, bankers, media organizations, politicians, the pharmaceutical industry, etc., etc. “It takes a certain amount of time and distance to write a book [or a blog] as good as this.”

      It takes time to overcome the justifiable anger – at being poisoned, defamed, lied to … – do truth seeking research, digest the staggering societal betrayal of the corrupt systems within our nations, and get all the truths out.

      But I will say, I do see this happening. Some are calling it “the great awakening,” however I do know the masses are still largely unaware. But since hope is also of key importance in healing, we must “keep the faith.”

      As a fellow artist and psych survivor, it does seem to me that the psychologists and psychiatrists do target us artists, in part, since we’re not here to “conform.” The artists, likely many of whom are also avid researchers, are the “canaries in the coal mine,” warning our society that we’re on the wrong path. But the realtors know it’s wise to “follow the artists,” for a reason.

      The artists are creators, and history documentarians, but we are not followers. The psychiatrists are looking rather foolish today, because they were merely followers of the pharmaceutical industry. And the psychologists, and other DSM “bible” billers, are looking rather foolish, because they are followers of the scientifically fraud based psychiatric DSM.

  2. You are a fantastic writer. A pleasure to read. And it is great to hear someone willing to jive with the hard necessary questions rather than push them aside. Good on you for being brave in this way. I respect you for not shirking difficult questions like a teenager slamming a door. I like your vision of care. My only proviso is that whether you call schizophrenia a label or not, it IS a cluster of dreadful symptoms few survive with any ease. As such it is for many schizophrenics felt and discerned by them themselvs as a state of dis-ease. It feels like feeling really really really really really really ill. You cannot shrug off such an intense and life shattering illness by just saying the illness is caused by social inequality or even that it is caused by being given “a label”. I tried this in my kitchen two decades ago and I still feel appalingly ill. I need care and Soteria sounds wonderful. But much of what I feel I need my care to be is to have people acknowledge the depth and intensity of how ill I feel….so actually how ill “I” feel….not my whole street or nation. I do not want my schizophrenia urgent crisis care to be having to wait until Mr Thomas next door fixes his self inflicted alcohol addiction. Nor do I want the millions of schizophrenic children to have to wait to get into Soteria whilst the collective “we” in society find a common bond with eachother, marvellous as this vision is. I suppose I want for you to reach higher with your delightful anthropology and do better than just attending to the demographic you may feel a kinship for. What may work for the tooth tribe may not work for the schizophrenic tribe. Please do not get me wrong, I see what you are envisaging and it is very close to my own writing over the years. We are very similar. But I just feel that many people on this site choose to believe that the ill feelings a schizophrenic feels, ill feelings few have actually experienced for themselves, are just whimsical trauma that can be worked through. Nothing could be further from the truth. Schizophrenia is a living death. I am sure those good folks working at Soteria have a firm grasp of this actual reality. Yes, the pills rarely cure schizophrenia but that does not mean schizophrenia is easily cured by nothing but a coffee and muffin in Mr Thomas’s parlour. I get tired of being muffled by muffin mentality when it comes to an illness that makes me feel so very ill I spent years doing desperate tribal things on a hill. All to no avail. If you will permit me, and many choose to dislike me for being truthful, I would like to encourage you to continue to mine the fabulous heritage of anthropology and leave no stone unturned in your quest to seek alternatives, but alternatives need to first acknowledge there actually IS a real illness with which to be alternative about. I believe that few bother to check out how ill that illness feels. Instead they try to marry it with their own condition as if it is the same thing. If it is the same then we need not have Soteria at all, we schizophrenic people can just get better on muffins from Mr Thomas.

  3. “How do you reconcile your belief that most diagnosed ‘mental illnesses’ are not a disease, but then say that Soteria houses are an important way to reform care?”

    Well this question, EVEN if you cannot answer it, the question itself is silly and the absence of a ‘satisfactory’ answer is not evidence of illness lol.
    It’s a very misinformed question, and of course psych is always throwing silly stuff out there, because they bank on the premise that the majority of people don’t think about these things, or at least not until their brain feels the effort.

    The reason they ask, is because they know that it’s a BS biz.

    Excellent article Karin. Really well articulated and you really never need to explain yourself to people that ask you to ‘prove’ or disprove.

    We know enough that the best results come from community efforts, and if it’s disease, these efforts would not work.

    The difference between a “Forest school” and mainstream school is that in mainstream there is an adhd kid on drugs and in Forest school, there is potential. No disorder. No drugs.
    So does the child have ADHD?

    • There are lots of programs to help people with things that are not “mental illnesses.” Why would we not be able to provide a process for people to re-integrate their lives without requiring that they have a “mental illness?” Churches, support groups, hotlines, meditation groups, Tai Chi classes or meetings, community get-togethers, all of these things happen all the time with participants able to join without subscribing or being “diagnosed” with anything. Why not Soteria House?

      • You and I agree often.

        Nobody should be an authority on someone else’s perception of what besets their inner self. The person themselves must be the authority, judge, chooser of what belief and definition best describes their condition. I cannot be an authority on Steve. Neither can you be an authority on me. Nice insn’t it? Which is why I enjoy using my authority to know what feels best for me and what feels accurate for me is that my schizophrenia is a mental illmess, in as much as my mind feels ill to me in a way only someone with the exact same hallucinations and delusions and paranoia could understand. This is not to snub anyone else’s experience of what they believe they have, any more than a pregnant sixteen year old might be deemed to be snubbing the workaday muscle aches of a construction worker if she said only another pregnant sixteen year old would understand her.

        I am the authority on my illness and I know it is a mental illness and as such merely dropping a word like diagnosis will not cure it.

        I think what is going on is alot of fear about confidently coming from a position of being an authority on “you”. If any person feels anxious that other people have more authority than they themselves have and those people could muffle “your” own authority and choices then you will want to undermine their “authority to know themselves” in order to protect or assert your authority to know yourself. But that is just daft if instead we can ALL agree that NOBODY has the right to undermine our own individual authority to know ourself. If I say I feel ill and I call it my mental illness it means nothing to your authority to know that for you, you do not feel ill and you do not have a mental illness. Some folks feel they have a rash from an allergy to slippers. Others who do not have any allergy really have no right to undermine the authority of the person who experiences the allergy and is happy to pay to see an acupuncturist for it. If you think the allergy person is being duped then you may express your alternative hypothesis as an offer of your compassion, but compassion can only be “an offer”. The moment compassion gets worked up into evangelizing or preaching in order to undermine the authority an individual who is the only one who has to the “expertize” to fully know themselves, then compassion moves from a beautiful “offer” to starting to sound like coercion, which is not compassion. And is what psychiatry has been so bad at. I worry that any compassionate venture, even Open Dialogue or even Sotria houses, can change in this way from offering compassionate help to help someone with their authority to know themselves to just becoming a threatening new type of authority, often through being threatened by someone happily believing whatever they like.

        I am “FOR” all of us believing what we like.

      • And some of the mainstream religions have “partnered with,” and are “conspiring” with, the DSM deluded “mental health” workers. So those lazy pastors and bishops, within those paternalistic churches and religions, don’t want to end their “partnership” with psychiatry’s and psychology’s multibillion dollar, systemic, primarily child abuse covering up, system.

        https://www.madinamerica.com/2016/04/heal-for-life/
        https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2019/01/23/18820633.php?fbclid=IwAR2-cgZPcEvbz7yFqMuUwneIuaqGleGiOzackY4N2sPeVXolwmEga5iKxdo
        https://books.google.com/books?id=xI01AlxH1uAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

        Because the scientifically fraud based, systemic child abuse covering up, DSM “bible” system “is too profitable” for the doctors and pastors within those religions, and their hospitals, to give up.

  4. I always enjoy reading your essays Karin, your a beautiful writer, and I almost always glean emotional insights from the depth of your well written narratives. Big thanks for fitting Michael Meade into your essay! Man…its so cool to see his wisdom reaching so far and wide (beyond men’s issues).

  5. I had missed seeing this wonderful blog until now Karin. Thank you, it’s beautifully written with so much wisdom and truth. I have seen quotes that ‘to seek help is a sign of strength’ but because psychiatry is so consumed with maintaining power, control, income and ego they of course view it very differently. Anyone seeking ‘help’ is labelled by psychiatry as weak, defective and disordered no matter what hardships, oppression, adversity etc. they are dealing with in life.

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