My name is Sean Gunderson. When I was a young child, I wanted to grow up to be a number of different things: a professional hockey player, a US Marine, a veterinarian, and even… a psychiatrist! However, life apparently had other plans for me. Instead, I grew up to be a lifelong mental patient.
Maybe you did not think that this was something to which one could devote their entire lives. This is understandable. Children do not grow up with dreams of becoming a lifelong mental patient. Furthermore, adults do not understand that it is a life path that can be carved out for their own children, one which the child can forever be relegated to once orthodox mental health treatment is provided. Indeed, the “symptoms” of so-called mental illness may subside, permanently in some cases, but the label of “mentally ill” will forever haunt its recipient like the specter of the damned.
My path to becoming a lifelong mental patient began in October of 2001 when I had a very unusual and intense spiritual experience. It was so unusual and intense that any and all conceptual models offered to me by my American culture were inadequate to understand what had happened. As a result, I did not change anything about my life, despite my intuition telling me to start a formal meditation practice. What did I need meditation for? I was a young man in white middle-class America. I had an abundance of comforts available to me to assuage any sense of dissatisfaction that I might have in the depths of my consciousness. I did not have to deal with certain inherent aspects of being human; rather, I could simply turn on the TV, play video games, listen to music, etc. These comforts, which serve as an achievement in the history of human civilization, nevertheless also served as a persistent distraction from more meaningful inquiries into my own human nature.
I made it through the holidays in 2001 without any thinking that I identified as abnormal. However, toward the middle of January 2002, I began to notice that my perceptions were changing. I did not understand what was going on; I kept thinking, “This is not normal, but I can get back to normal.” I was utterly lost in the sea of consciousness, drowning in my own thoughts. I felt overwhelmed by what was going on inside of me, and I tried to use what conceptual models were available to me to attempt to interpret my experience.
As I identified my spiritual experience in October 2001 as the beginning of the change within me, I tried to apply religious conceptual models. Growing up Catholic and attending Catholic schools, I naturally turned to Catholic conceptual systems to make sense of what was going on. Unfortunately, this probably made me more lost. I began to feel a spiritual energy around me, what we might call the aura. While we all emit electromagnetic fields, I became acutely aware of my own in a manner that I had not previously experienced. I could feel that this energy was “spiritual,” and in the Catholic conceptual framework, spirit is synonymous with God. Thus, in my desperate attempt to make sense of an overwhelming and intense conscious experience, I reasoned that if this energy was God and it was always around me then this must mean that I too am God.
What an insight, I thought! If God is always around me, I must be special. As I lived with this conscious experience for weeks, then months, I began to incorporate this perception into my very identity such that I identified as God itself. Seeing myself as the Messiah helped me to make sense of the very unusual experiences I was having. However, I did not realize how inadequate this conceptual model was to help me integrate these experiences into daily life and “return to normal” as I knew that I could.
I began to build an entire network of ideas around this notion that I was the Messiah. This network of ideas would be called “delusions” using the conceptual framework offered by psychiatry. I had strange beliefs that I was here for some sort of great mission. At last, I had found a way to make sense of my experience! Unfortunately, the very conceptual system that helped me to make sense of my own experience was putting me out of touch with the people around me, including those I loved. This compounded my confusion, for at last my internal world made perfect sense, but now my external world was beginning to crumble.
I began with notions of a peaceful global takeover, using peaceful protest to achieve my “mission.” I was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I saw the power of nonviolence for achieving social goals, and I felt that this was going to be the foundation of whatever I was here to do. This insight seemed to fall into place once my internal conceptual system made sense to me. That is, once I “figured out” that I was the Messiah, it made perfect sense to use peaceful protest to achieve my vague goal of global takeover. However, once I began to accept that my relationships with those around me were crumbling, I became distraught and started to give up on the idea of a peaceful global takeover.
That summer, my parents began to pressure me to seek mental health treatment. I was no longer the son they knew; rather, I adamantly believed that I was the Messiah and would not accept anything less than their acquiescence to that notion. I recognize in hindsight that I likely sought their acceptance of my out-of-touch belief system because I was unsure of it myself. Thus, I thought that if someone else besides me believed I was the Messiah, then it must be true.
As damaging as orthodox mental health treatment turned out to be for me, in my parents’ defense, they were presented with said treatment as the only viable option to help their son who was quickly changing before their eyes. They were genuinely trying to help me, as so many other families do for their loved ones. However, our mental health system continues to fail them by trying to fit the unexplainable into a neat little package that anyone can digest. I am confident that my parents were told early on some variation of the official story of mental illness, that their son had a “biochemical imbalance” that would need to be corrected with psychiatric drugs. They swallowed this convenient narrative, as is the intent behind it.
I was coerced into a mental health facility where I was immediately prescribed psychiatric drugs, which I took without much question. I did not think that they would change my belief system; after all, in my world at the time, I really was the Messiah. What could this modern-day chemical do to change that?
If I had known back then what I know now, I would have vehemently resisted drug treatment. Shortly after being prescribed Risperdal and Celexa, I attacked my parents and grandmother with the smallest knife I could find. Despite the drugs and disconnected belief system, somehow there was still enough of “me” present so that when my mother ordered me to drop the knife, I complied. Although I may have told myself and the court system that I intended to kill them, I seriously question this intent. As a very fit, 6 ft. tall 18-year-old male, I failed miserably at that task—I not only did not kill them, I did not even cause permanent damage beyond a few scars. Who says that failure is useless! That was the best and most important failure of my life. I love my family and I look back at that failure with gratitude. I could not imagine what my life would have been like had I succeeded. However, the court system did not see it that way.
Despite the fact that I was clearly out of touch with reality, had caused minimal damage considering the extreme potential for it, and that I dropped the knife as soon as my mom ordered me to, I was shocked to see the prosecutor dramatically increase the charges from aggravated battery to attempted murder—against the wishes of my family who did not want charges filed; they only wanted me to receive the help that I needed. In Illinois, if found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI), my aggravated battery charge would have carried a maximum term in a mental health facility of seven years from the date of the offense. This would have been 2009 and pretty much a guarantee as we do not have indefinite automatic commitment in Illinois. However, attempted murder carried a term of 60 years in a mental health facility, unless I could convince the authorities at the facility and the courts to release me early.
As I went through the court system, I was upfront and compliant with the authorities. I told them that I had recently begun taking Risperdal and Celexa just weeks before the offense. The possibility of a drug-induced violent episode was ignored. Also, the fact that I dropped the knife as soon as my mom told me to was ignored. In Illinois, the NGRI defense required that the prosecutor prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I committed the act I was charged with, and that I prove by clear and convincing evidence that I was insane at the time of the crime. I imagine that since the evidence that I attacked my family was clear, the prosecutor merely went through a formality and my lawyer decided not to fight it. As this was an attempted murder trial, mens rea (the intention to commit a crime) should have been addressed. While it was clear I had attacked my family, it is hard to imagine how someone who stopped attacking when asked to do so could have the intent to kill someone.
In retrospect, I realize that this was not really important to the NGRI. The NGRI is not really about helping “sick” people so much as it is about providing evidence to prop up the already-debunked chemical imbalance hypothesis. There is an implicit agreement between the NGRI defendant and the authorities in the mental health and court systems that said defendant will voluntarily accept the narrative that they have a biochemical imbalance in their brains and need psychiatric drugs to correct it. This way, over time our culture will become filled with people who vehemently proclaim that they were “saved” by the mental health system, which has corrected their biochemical imbalance and given them a second chance at life. As this agreement was implicit, I never got the memo and decided to take a different path…
At one point while adjudicated Unfit to Stand Trial (UST) in the forensic system, I cooperated with any and all drug treatments they prescribed. I was definitely their guinea pig. I was prescribed the maximum legal doses of various psychiatric drugs, to no avail. My delusions remained. Interestingly enough, this reinforced my delusions. You see, prior to agreeing to be their guinea pig, I told myself that if I was not really the Messiah, the drugs would work and that belief would go away. But if I really was the Messiah, then the drugs would have no effect. I was unaware of a third possibility: that I was not really the Messiah, and the drugs would not make those thoughts go away because they do not correct any known biological pathology.
After playing guinea pig for quite some time, I became more delusional as the promise of correcting my “biochemical imbalance” failed miserably. I was now reassured that indeed I was the Messiah. After all, these were medications that corrected known biological pathologies in all the other mental patients around me… right?
In Illinois there is a strange phenomenon that occurs. Without active collusion, somehow public and private attorneys alike tell their clients going for the NGRI that they will be released in 6-12 months. I have heard this from numerous forensic patients—I was no different. I approached the NGRI system with the belief that my commitment would be short and sweet and that in less than one year I would be back to living in the community. This never happened. I came to jokingly refer to the IL forensic mental health system as the “Gilligan’s Island of the Criminal Justice System.” For those of you who recall that show, Gilligan began his very long journey by departing on a “three-hour tour.” In much the same manner, the story that I was led to believe, that I would be free in less than one year, turned into nearly two decades.
While I could likely write an entire book on the details of my experiences in the IL forensic system, the best and worst choice I ever made was to not participate in the official narrative of the biochemical imbalance. This refusal to participate, aided by the so-important-it’s-practically-sacred statutory right to refuse psych drugs, allowed me to not merely survive the system, but to thrive despite its best efforts to destroy me.
As the implicit agreement is to acquiesce to the biomedical model, I was a bit of a rebel. I was outspoken about the lack of scientific evidence to support the chemical imbalance hypothesis; I filed frequent meritorious grievances; I filed non-frivolous pro se lawsuits to attempt to enforce my rights in a place where rights are routinely ignored. I did all of this while remaining fully cognizant of what was going on around me and I was able to articulate this. I also was a bit of a hero both to patients who saw me as saying the things that they only wished they could say as well as to staff, many of whom could not understand why I remained committed despite the obvious reality that I could function in society.
The dark side of all of this is that as a patient openly refusing psych drugs, I was “blacklisted” as I called it. That is, I would not find help from key players in a system that sought to make me into a living example of why the chemical imbalance hypothesis should continue to be taken seriously, despite a gross lack of evidence to support it. The apparent goal of the forensic system is to release patients and have them praise the psychiatric system that “saved them” from their “biochemical imbalance” and taught them that psych drugs are just like “insulin for diabetes.” Testimonials from real people are powerful, perhaps powerful enough to compensate for the lack of science. In the face of unsubstantiated scientific claims, who is going to argue with a mental patient who attributes their success to the psych drugs that are correcting their biochemical imbalance? If they went from absolutely off-the-wall crazy to stable and able to return to society, well maybe there is something to this biomedical model after all…
Once blacklisted, the only way out was to fight the system using hegemonic tactics; that is, gaining control over my environment through gaining the consent of others. The foundation of this was my solid, stable behavior over the years without any psych drugs. It was hard for people to label me as “mentally ill” based solely on my behavior. I carried the “in remission” label attached to my previous label of “schizophrenia” for years. It was the system’s way of acknowledging that there was really nothing wrong with me. Slowly, I was able to convince various staff that I was suitable for release.
I had to face staff who were intent on making an example out of me. This led to numerous and repeated forms of retaliation aimed at destabilizing me and convincing me to be passive, obedient and unquestioning. In all, I was detained for about 17 years. To this day, I live with emotional trauma, as well as severe back pain from being forced to sleep on surfaces that did not provide adequate support. Perhaps it would not have been so many years if it was not for a top administrator, Dr. James P. Corcoran, intentionally falsifying court reports to make me appear worse than was the case, among other forms of retaliation. In the months before my conditional release, he was exposed and embarrassed in front of the judge who ultimately conditionally released me in September of 2019.
In April of 2021, I was finally unconditionally discharged from the criminal justice system. This is what currently allows me to speak openly about my experiences. It is no hyperbole to say that had I talked openly about my own perspective on my experience in the system, I could have been dragged back to detention for years. However, despite my freedom from a system that tortured me for years, I am nevertheless relegated to the status of lifelong mental patient. Due to my previous states of consciousness, that label will likely follow me for life. I did not intend to play such a social role when I was younger; now, as an adult, the best that I can do is be living proof of why such a label is inadequate to capture my experience.
In reflection, I interpret my own “psychosis” as but one step in a transformational growth process. In navigating such a process successfully, despite numerous obstacles along the way, I am better for it. I have often been told that I am “the sanest person in the room.” This grew out of the daily discrimination that I faced—and continue to face—with the label of “mental illness.” I am presumed sick and disabled until I can demonstrate otherwise, and thus that is my lifelong task: to demonstrate otherwise. I want to show people that so-called psychosis can be interpreted as a potential gift that must be cultivated and in doing so, the person will not just heal their “psychosis” but can uncover important qualities that they may never have known they possessed.
My meditation practice has certainly made me the most content person in the room, if not also the sanest. I have learned how to be genuinely happy in the worst of circumstances, so that I can share that happiness wherever I may go. I was taught by my family to make my corner of the world a better place to be. While certain people’s egos may not be comfortable with how I go about this, my intention will always be there. Indeed, my experience has taught me that I am not here to make another person’s ego comfortable. As a result of my experience in the system as well as successfully resolving my transformational growth process, I like to say that the greatest act of rebellion is to be genuinely happy. It was this genuine happiness that prevented me from going along with a harmful system merely to get released. It is this genuine happiness that remains with me to ensure that I will be able to deal with a potentially lifelong label of “mentally ill.”
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.