Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series written by Sean Gunderson, who was detained by the criminal justice system for 17 years after receiving a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict. The series documents the life of a forensic psychiatry patient—a world that few know, and which has rarely been written about by a former inmate. New pieces will be published the first weekend of each month. The full series is being archived here.
In this scenario we will learn of what is quite possibly the most important tool that we will use throughout our journey toward freedom. This tool must be cultivated at the pace of life, not at the pace of how we would like life to move from our modern western perspective. That is, expect this process to take many years to come to fruition. However, trust me—it is the most worthwhile venture that we can undertake while in a zone of active hegemonic conflict.
This tool is so powerful that it can transform your life both within the detention center (DC) and beyond its walls in The World. Simultaneously this tool is one of the simplest tools that we could possibly imagine. This tool is the mental state of equanimity.
It is such a potent tool that I have chosen not to refer to it as a “weapon” as I have for other tools that we have discovered along our journey toward freedom. Rather I have decided that the term “superpower” is the most fitting word in our language for it. While the term “superpower” may or may not be so fitting in The World, in the DC there is really no better tool to overcome the constant threat of death than equanimity.
In order to understand why equanimity is so potent in the DC, one must first develop an appreciation for altered states of consciousness (ASC). ASCs are underappreciated by our modern western society. In general, not only do we not understand them, but oftentimes we are scared of them. There are no schools that one can attend to learn about ASCs and how to navigate them.
ASCs include a wide spectrum of human states of consciousness that extend from the extremely positive to the extremely negative, and some ASCs can be a mix of both. ASCs include but are not limited to: so-called psychosis, detention, trauma, drugs, grief, so-called depression, joy, love, and sex. Love, sex, and trauma can also be shared ASCs, which can increase their potency. These ASCs are powerful and can change the course of one’s life forever once experienced.
It is important to note that ASCs are neither inherently positive nor negative; however, it is how they are understood subjectively that leads to a positive or negative outcome. In order to survive a nearly 20-year nightmare, I could not afford to see ASCs as innately positive or negative. Indeed, my life depended on me being able to see each ASC as neutral so that I could successfully navigate the experience toward a positive outcome. It is this knowledge that alchemizes the ASC into a tool of transformational growth. In this scenario, we will allow equanimity to directly face the threat of death and witness its power.
Under Illinois law, an inmate found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) can only be confined in a DC so long as they are considered mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others, and no longer. At least this is how the situation is presented on paper in the statutes that govern the NGRI legal status in Illinois. This is a sort of “bait-and-switch” scam in which the NGRI inmate, their families, and the public are led to believe that the psychiatric DC in which the inmate is confined is really a “hospital” with “civilized” laws governing it.
However, the reality is that many NGRI inmates arrive at the Elgin Mental Health Center (EMHC) quite stable and not dangerous, as they have likely been sitting in the county jail awaiting trial for years. Whatever sort of so-called psychosis they were in at the time of the offense has usually stabilized after a few years. If the law were followed in accordance with its obvious intent, then many NGRIs would be immediately released. I might even have been one of those inmates. However, when I arrived at EMHC I found out that the laws governing the NGRI were routinely ignored.
As I awaited trial in the nation’s largest mental institution, Cook County Jail, for nearly 2.5 years, I had been told by my attorney at the time that I would likely earn my conditional release from the DC after 6 to 12 months. After 2.5 years in one of the most dangerous, dirtiest, and scariest places on earth, I was too eager to hear those words. I began to revel in what I might be able to do upon release. These fantasies usually consisted of returning to college and having fun as an average middle-class 20-year-old male would have fun in our society: college parties and girls. I was naïve to the reality of what I was about to face.
I had felt a calling to begin a meditation practice since age 17, when I had my initial spiritual experience which led me down this path of navigating the ASC that is so-called psychosis. I ignored that calling and perhaps that is what led me down such a harsh path. As my trial approached in early 2005, I finally felt settled enough to begin my meditation practice.
In retrospect, it seems completely irrational of me to have passed up the opportunity to begin my meditation practice soon after my arrest and detention in jail. However, I now recognize that the trauma of being arrested and detained (especially as a youth of only 18 years) prevented my mind from settling adequately to start my meditation practice. With the trial approaching and the fact that all three court evaluators determined I was insane at the time of the offense, I was now focused enough to do something meaningful with my life.
The ASC that is long-term detention is insidious, as it integrates into one’s very personality. While detained, it is extremely difficult to separate the influence of the DC from innate aspects of one’s personality in one’s own subjective world space. Where do “I” end and where does the influence of the DC “begin”? I look back at those 2.5 years sitting in jail and I see the potential to have begun cultivating the superpower of equanimity at any time. However, the influence of the DC prevented me from seeing this potential and taking action on it. On top of that, I was still navigating the ASC that is so-called psychosis.
About one or two months before my trial, I came to a “eureka moment” which propelled me toward my daily spiritual practice. I had spent the previous two years using what few pleasures were available to me in jail to distract me from the inherent misery of living there. These pleasures did not bring me anything close to real “happiness” but rather only distracted me from my own pervasive state of dissatisfaction in life. In Sanskrit, the term for this pervasive state of dissatisfaction would be Duhkha. The ASC in a DC makes Duhkha so prominent in one’s subjective space that it is hard to even find distractions from it.
I had tried all the meager pleasures that were available to me in jail: cheap commissary food, caffeine, cigarettes, sleep, cards, other games, etc. None of these helped to meaningfully distract me from my own Duhkha. I longed for the pleasures that would be available to a 20-year-old in the US. I thought that they could finally help me escape my own dissatisfaction with life. The ASC that is long-term detention allowed me to learn otherwise.
Soon before my trial, I realized deep within me that the pleasures of jail were not fundamentally different from the pleasures that I was accustomed to in The World. It’s just that in The World, these pleasures are of higher quality and more abundant. This does not make them any more capable of vanquishing dissatisfaction with life, but rather it makes them more insidious. The pleasures of our modern world have the potential to distract someone for the duration of their entire life. Focusing on acquiring these pleasures can obstruct someone from finding equanimity in their lives and realizing that it is more valuable than any pleasure that our modern world can offer.
It was at this point that I committed to my daily meditation practice. I knew deep within me that whatever I was supposed to find in this life was related to this practice.
After being adjudicated NGRI at my trial, I was sent to EMHC about one month later. Soon after arrival, I was told that I would not be released in 6 to 12 months as I had been led to believe. Rather, I would be fortunate to leave in about three years. This estimate was based on the severity of my offense and the maximum term of confinement as an NGRI, which is called the Thiem date in Illinois; this is equivalent to the maximum sentence an NGRI would have received had they been convicted and sent to prison.
In other words, I was not being evaluated for release in accordance with the law based on my mental state at the time of the evaluation upon arrival at EMHC as an NGRI. Rather, the treatment professionals had arbitrarily decided that due to how the public might (or might not) react to my release based on my offense, that I would be there for a minimum of three years. At the time, I did not know how to respond.
I had just begun my meditation practice and it would take years to successfully cultivate the superpower of equanimity, so I found myself in a panic. I had planned to take the psych drugs or Brain Damaging Therapeutics (BDTs) for the 6 to 12 months and then get released. I did not particularly like the BDTs, but I convinced myself that I could take them for about a year. When I was told a minimum of three years, I was in shock.
I was already experiencing strange side effects, including sexual side effects, which were exacerbated by the fact that I was a 20-year-old heterosexual male who was not open to the idea of sacrificing my sexuality for any reason. Indeed, I was unsure that I would ever be able to express myself sexually if I remained on the BDTs. Between the side effects and the fact that I was not eager to spend more time in the DC, I chose a path that was both the best and worst decision I ever made. It was the decision to refuse the BDTs.
My attorney at the time would not support me on an open refusal, despite that I felt it was best for my mental health. At least if I had to do three more years, I would do so without the torturous effects of the BDTs. I decided to openly refuse anyway, as it is a statutory right in Illinois. Soon after my first open refusal, my treatment team came to “talk” with me. This talk was really just an intimidation tactic.
They told me quite clearly that a single refusal of the BDTs had already extended my stay past three years and with each subsequent refusal more time would be added before they could recommend me for release. Essentially, a single refusal bought me about another year. By the time that I succumbed to their intimidation, I had probably added about a decade to my time. Due to the threats I received from my treatment team, I had opened the gate to another ASC: hopelessness.
I knew that I could not continue openly refusing and still expect to be released before I die. However, I also knew that I could only take the BDTs for relatively short periods of time, which was nowhere near the three years I was initially promised and definitely not the decade or so that I calculated based on the specifics of the threat I was issued by my “treatment provider.”
My response was to begin an extended campaign of covertly ditching the BDTs. This decision took me on an intense and arduous journey through the Illinois forensic mental health system and included two trips to the infamous maximum security Chester Mental Health Center. Throughout this journey, staff had continually thought of various ways to coerce me onto the BDTs. I am here today able to write this because I both resisted the BDTs and spent the time that they “gave” me cultivating the superpower of equanimity.
Openly refusing BDTs in the Illinois forensic system is essentially a death sentence for anyone with a long Thiem date. I calculated that if I were to remain in the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) until my Thiem date expired, I would be close to 70. This sort of pressure is something that no human should have to face, especially someone who is actively traversing the ASC that is so-called psychosis.
Yet, it was the only path that made sense to me. I had to refuse or ditch the BDTs and I had to find my freedom. I realized that earning my freedom in the consensus reality that we all share began with earning my freedom in my subjective world space. This special subjective freedom could not be found in the meager pleasures available to me in any DC. It could only be found within me, by connecting to the innate silence that is a part of the human experience.
Indeed, numerous esoteric teachings both eastern and western promote the idea that the external world is a reflection of our internal state of mind. My plan may have been called “delusional” at the time by any psychiatric authorities who controlled my life; however, I am now living proof of its efficacy. I found my freedom within and now I am a free man in society, able to contribute to my society in hopes of helping other people. I realized this dream not by adhering to the belief system that is the biomedical model of so-called mental illness, but rather by adhering to ancient spiritual philosophies and their related practices.
As the years went by, my meditation gradually went from a generally unpleasant “chore” that I had to do daily to my favorite part of the day. As my practice improved, I also noticed that I was calmer throughout the day, and I realized that I could “take my meditation with me.” My foundational practice was to be mindful of the breath in and out of my nostrils as I could do this anywhere in the DC and had plenty of time to get good at it. After I got good enough at quieting my mind, this state of consciousness would stay with me no matter what I was doing.
Equanimity is the only state of consciousness that I would choose to be in when I was continually threated with a socially acceptable death (SAD).
By 2011, I had a different attorney who wanted to help me openly refuse BDTs and assured me that I could still get released. He did not paint a pretty picture, however, as he advised me that I would have much work to do to convince the authorities at EMHC and in the court system that I was “no longer mentally ill and dangerous” as the statute requires for release. He laughed at the idea that someone—even a fully compliant inmate taking BDTs religiously—could get released in 6 to 12 months as my other attorney told me. Indeed, I am a free man today because this attorney told me the sobering truth that I needed to hear. I finally had hope, even if it was a tiny ray of it. It was equanimity that helped me traverse the ASC of total hopelessness to finding that tiny ray of hope.
Once I began to openly refuse, I would face various pressures to get me to resume taking the BDTs. This was often presented as a choice between listening to my attorney or listening to the treatment team. In other words, my treatment team would advise me that if I continued to work with my attorney and openly refuse the BDTs, the treatment team could not support me. They advised me that I would have to rely entirely on my attorney to earn my release.
At least this tiny ray of hope was more than what the treatment team was offering. Working with them would have led to one of two outcomes. I would have either allowed them to destroy me with BDTs or I would have played a very long cat-and-mouse game in covertly ditching the BDTs until my Thiem date. What the treatment did not understand was how much I had cultivated the superpower of equanimity by the time 2011 came.
Equanimity allows one to see any situation as essentially the same, but not in a neutral or apathetic manner. Rather, equanimity grounds one’s entire life in a state of contented bliss that makes even direct death threats navigable without losing control. Furthermore, equanimity is also necessary for navigating ASCs, which is something that our modern western society does not teach us.
I also was well aware that the BDTs made maintaining equanimity for me significantly harder, but not impossible. So, while the treatment team thought they were coercing me toward taking the BDTs, my interpretation was very different. The two choices they presented me with were to continue working with my attorney and making excellent progress toward even deeper states of equanimity or work with the treatment team and cease to make progress toward cultivating equanimity and perhaps even regressing slightly. When framed like this, my choice was obvious.
The various staff at EMHC tried different ways to coerce me into taking the BDTs. Some were done in one-on-one “therapy” sessions. Other times they would coordinate as a team and try to intimidate me in monthly treatment review meetings. They would also try to use the pressure of group settings with other inmates to coerce me onto BDTs.
These attempts to “help me see the treatment that I needed,” usually amounted to various types of threats and attempts to control me through fear. I was told on more occasions than I can count that I “will never leave if I do not take” the BDTs. I was encouraged to “get comfortable” in the DC as I would probably die there. I was told that I “lacked insight” for refusing BDTs and even that I lacked insight for working with an attorney instead of placing total blind faith in the treatment team. Apparently, treatment teams do not like such competition, as they expect a monopoly on the mind of an inmate.
Each time that I was told these various SAD threats, I retreated to my world of equanimity. A death threat seen through the eyes of contented bliss is still contented bliss. I do not doubt that those who threatened me had no understanding of the powerful state of equanimity that I carried with me throughout my entire day.
For years I was pressured in various ways to give up my path and consent to the BDTs. After some time, I was able to get my oppressors to all but give up. Generally, by around 2014, my treatment team had given up trying to convince me to take the BDTs. Most staff just saw a “dead man walking;” that is, a man who had made the choice to rot away in the DC without BDTs. Still, I continued to cultivate my superpower of equanimity.
After a few years of successfully openly refusing the BDTs, I became confident enough to begin talking more openly about my refusal. The culture in a forensic psychiatric DC is extremely ideologically oppressive. Staff openly promote lies related to the BDTs. These include but are not limited to: telling inmates that they have a “biochemical imbalance” that BDTs can fix; telling them that BDTs for their so-called mental illness are just like “insulin for diabetes” (many inmates had developed diabetes as a result of taking the BDTs, so such a simile was fitting); telling inmates that they need to take the BDTs to get released; telling inmates that an anti-Parkinson’s drug, Cogentin, can remedy all their side effects; telling inmates that they will be “mentally ill for the rest of their lives” and will need to take the BDTs for life; and telling inmates that not taking BDTs will guarantee them a relapse.
At some point, I decided to not just cultivate equanimity, but rather to apply it. I realized that confronting these fictions was the ideal application of my superpower. By this point, my life had but a tiny ray of hope, so what did I have to lose?
Slowly over time, I became fed up with hearing such overt falsehoods promoted by treatment professionals who should have known better. It took me years just to see that my own path was valid and that I did not have to hide in the shadows. I began by making clear in group settings with other inmates that the various falsehoods promoted by staff were not true and that I was living proof of it. However, due to the extreme oppression of the environment, I would think of subtle and clever ways to do this.
I may ask “innocent” questions, such as, “Can you cite your source for the claim that mental illness is the result of a biochemical imbalance? I am a curious person, and I would love to read this research for myself.” However, as I became more confident, I would be blunt, “I am not aware of any research that validates your claim that psychiatric drugs are ‘just like insulin for diabetes.’” I would also speak up to counteract any assertion that an inmate “needed to be on meds for life.” I would say things in group settings with other inmates like, “I do not take psych drugs and I am doing just fine, you all know me and see how well I am doing and it has nothing to do with psych drugs.”
After some time of doing this, all while rooted in equanimity, I was able to get most staff to refrain from promoting known falsehoods in any group setting in which I was a participant. However, I was told by other inmates that some of these same staff would still make these false claims in groups in which I was not a participant. I could tell that some staff did not appreciate my courage to confront these lies in the heart of their ideological torture chamber.
Between 2011 and my release in 2019, I had become one of the most influential inmates at EMHC. I had a network of associates, both inmates and staff, who would share information (intel) with me. In the last few years of my detention, I realized, based on the intel that I was receiving, that I was “blacklisted,” as I have come to call it. This essentially meant two things.
First, that the administrative staff (ADMIN) did not like what I was doing and that they did not want to deal with me. They either wanted me silenced or released, but simultaneously did not want to actively support my release. They hoped that either they could break me and get me to cave to their ideologies or that my attorney could convince the judge to release me based on my sustained stable behavior and the abundance of positive chart notes made by my treatment team at the time. Indeed, my treatment team had come to support me, but did not want to do the official paperwork to recommend to the courts that I deserved my freedom. Perhaps this was due to the fact that such official paperwork would have to also be approved by ADMIN, and they knew that ADMIN would be very reluctant to sign off on my freedom.
The second element of being “blacklisted” was that staff would spread gossip about me and try to convince other inmates and staff to distance themselves from me. There appeared to be an active campaign undertaken by ADMIN to isolate the inmates who openly refused BDTs (there were more than just me), perhaps to weaken us socially. That is, I was “blacklisted” along with a handful of other inmates.
As we shared stories, we could see similarities in how the staff approached us compared to inmates who were BDT-compliant. We had come to be a sort of band of brothers and sisters in there. We all knew how unpopular open refusal of BDTs was and how hard it was to get out. Simultaneously, we were admired by many other inmates who only dreamed of being able to navigate the criminal justice system and their so-called mental illness without the debilitating and torturous BDTs. It was this perceived status by other inmates and even staff that made us such a threat to the ideologies upon which the DC was founded. We were simultaneously the most respected and revered inmates and the most hated.
I recall receiving intel from inmates close to me who were BDT-compliant. I would hear of the members of their treatment team advising them to “steer clear of Sean” and that “Sean thinks too much for himself and that is dangerous in here.” I was shocked that such “professionals” would resort to petty gossip to control inmates. However, I also recognized that anything is really on the table in hegemonic conflict. It is no less a conflict than outright war; however, the nature of the struggle is different in that it relies entirely on controlling others through consent.
In these moments of despair, in which I did not know how the future would play out, my superpower of equanimity kept me going. I could listen with courage as I heard evidence of a campaign to target me and other inmates openly refusing BDTs. I knew that if equanimity got me this far, that I could trust it to help me secure my own freedom.
As the court process played out, it became clear that my understanding of the situation was correct. My treatment team did not file official paperwork for my release, but otherwise actively supported it. ADMIN looked for every possible way to distance themselves from my release. They must have thought so little of me that they presumed I would fail in the World. The only thing that they signed their name to was a proposed conditional release plan that the judge ordered them to put together in accordance with state law. However, ADMIN made clear they did not support my release.
At the end of September 2019, the judge ordered my conditional release, and about one week later I was living in a group home on Chicago’s infamous west side. I traded BDTs and SADs for real gunfire in the warzone that is the infamous Austin neighborhood of Chicago. Once again, my superpower of equanimity helped me to deal with the gang violence that permeates every corner of Austin.
I attribute my relatively quick unconditional discharge in April 2021 to my equanimity. I am now able to live freely wherever I want and share my story in my own words.
Equanimity is integral to navigating ASCs. If long-term detention is the “altered state,” then equanimity is the “fundamental state” that keeps all ASCs in balance. Perhaps my insights can point to one of the fundamental problems with the language surrounding so-called “mental illness.” So-called mental illness is presented as negative as it is presumed to be pathological. However, the gross lack of scientific evidence to support the claim of biological pathology opens the door to alternative interpretations of so-called mental illness.
Specifically, it can be conceptualized as an ASC that can lead one into a powerful transformational growth process. This means that it is not a negative thing, but rather a neutral thing that can become a profoundly positive thing, so long as the individual experiencing it understands how to traverse it as an ASC.
I believe that our society is utterly deficient in our understanding of and language to describe ASCs. With equanimity, even the most extreme ASCs like so-called mental illness and long-term detention can be successfully navigated, but this is not an overnight process. Perhaps if we begin by teaching our children about the significance of ASCs and allow them to get comfortable with ASCs, we can make progress in reconceptualizing so-called mental illness. I suggest that we start with grief, as it is an ASC that we will all experience.
If there was one thing that I wished in retrospect, it was that my parents instilled in me the importance of mental silence and its role in cultivating equanimity. I would have been prepared to face any ASC with a solid foundation of equanimity.
At this point in my life, I feel I have demonstrated my adeptness at navigating some of the most challenging ASCs, including so-called psychosis, long-term detention, and trauma.
I have come to say that “The greatest act of rebellion is to be genuinely happy.” When I say this, I am referring to equanimity. It serves as the foundation of a genuine lasting happiness that I can carry for life, no matter the circumstances. It also limits other people’s ability to control me. I was able to resist strong pressures to succumb to false and harmful ideologies because I was genuinely happy.