The short version of this story is that I gave up on my dreams. That’s why my first recovery story was called, “Taking Back the Dreams.” It’s shown below as videoed by the National Empowerment Center after I rode my bike to Alternatives 2009 in Omaha, NE. I also had a spiritual crises around that time in my life, was using pot, and didn’t have a lot of friends and meaningful connections. What if someone had simply addressed those four issues? Maybe I would never have been sucked into the disability industrial complex. Now I know that there is no science behind the DSM, that no chemical imbalance has ever been shown in mental illness, and that labels are most useful for billing health care funders. I am wondering if all someone had to do was say, “You can still reach your dreams. Let’s just reassess your goals and see how they match.”
Judi Chamberlin, one of the founders of the consumer movement, said that “Emotional distress is usually a sign that a person’s life is intolerable.” In her pivotal book, On Our Own (essential reading for all revolutionaries), she said that person’s “loving family” may have some dark painful secrets, that a person’s “great” job may actually be boring or degrading, or that a person’s “happy” marriage may indeed be completely unsatisfying and unconnected. If a person works through this distress and makes necessary but sometimes painful changes in their life, then they can move forward with a better situation. However, if a person enters the mental health system, the job of the mental health system is to help a person tolerate the existing situation, to be able to stand the emotional distress without feeling so much suffering. The mental health system does not work to help people examine their lives and make radical changes.
The Icarus project has the best suicide prevention poster that I’ve ever seen on this topic. It says, “Sometimes wanting to kill yourself just means you don’t want to live the life you’re living. You can change your life with that power. What the hell. You were going to lose your whole life anyway. Why not lose your job, your pretenses, fears, adherence to society’s standards, shame. ‘I have found some of my suicidal episode to be strangely liberating that way. I wouldn’t take back any of what made me who I am today.’ ”
In Robert Whitaker’s book Anatomy of an Epidemic, he tells many recovery stories, and one thing he noticed is that people say, “I wasn’t that sick in the beginning.” I have the same story. I was in grad school, working on a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences although I didn’t really love the field, but it seemed OK. Sometimes I wondered if I should try teaching instead. I remember taking New Year’s day off to walk around in the woods and try to figure out an answer. I prayed, “God, I’ll do anything for you, I’ll quit this chemistry program if that’s what you want me to do.”
I felt like I got back the answer, “Would you lay down your life for me?”
I said “Yes.”
Then I felt like I got the answer back, “Well, do it.” Since it was cold that day, about fifteen degrees, I took my coat off and put it back in the car and went and sat on a rock in the woods and waited for the cold to take me. After maybe half an hour or so I came to my senses and put my coat on and went back home, shivering like crazy. I sat on the heater vent under a blanket and talked to my husband at the time but he didn’t really have answers for me. I didn’t talk to anyone else about what had happened.
I was still having doubts about my life and goals for the next few months even though I was doing well in grad school. I was awarded a big fellowship that was going to pay for my next three years of education, plus a smaller award to go to Florida to learn how to use a special chemistry analytical instrument. I was also wanting to start a family and just several months earlier my husband and I had decided to stop using birth control pills.
I was in the airport headed to that Florida training and my flight kept getting delayed. Every time a delay was announced, I’d go out to the parking lot and smoke some pot. It was pretty strong stuff, too. I’ve quit since then because the hangover was starting to last for two or three days afterwards and that was no fun.
I think it was the fourth delay when the ticketing agent starting talking to me and for some reason, I started thinking, “I can’t do this. I can’t be a full time successful busy scientist, and full time mom all at the same time.” I pretty much freaked out and started crying in the airport and the ticketing agent finally helplessly offered to give me my suitcase back. I called my husband to come get me and he did. He told me I was just freaked out because I’d smoked too much pot but I was convinced there was something more wrong with me. As I scientist, I totally believed in the chemical imbalance theory and hadn’t quite realized how important the other aspects influencing my life at the time were.
I went home and canceled my hotel and rental car for that trip and got the chemistry training postponed so another person could attend. Then I started looking online for an explanation of what I was feeling. The symptoms didn’t really match up with any mental illness that I could find online (and there were lots of symptoms lists available). Finally I found Bipolar II and saw that people didn’t really have to have very much mania to get that diagnosis.
I went to a counselor at my school a couple of days later. I remember telling her what had been going on, and I told her that I had felt like I’d been given directions to kill myself a few months earlier and that now I was afraid to pray and connect with God anymore, and I really missed it. I even cried a little when I said that to her and normally I am way to tough to show that kind of emotion. She didn’t talk about the spirituality all, though, just asked about my “symptoms.” They hooked me up with a psychiatrist right away. He got me on meds after a 45 minute interview that didn’t ask me anything about my pot use, my spiritual life, my lack of friends, or my career doubts. All he was trying to do was to see which disease list I matched up against, and none of the symptom lists involved those kinds of questions.
So I got put on lithium and told I had this Bipolar II diagnosis and I believed it. I had to go back on birth control pills and give up my hopes of starting a family. When lithium didn’t solve my problem, Depakote got added three weeks later, again without any discussion of the other issues going on with my life. I still wasn’t that sick and was able to gut out another year of grad school. But I was gaining a lot of weight and becoming more and more hopeless. Eventually I had to get out of grad school with just a masters degree because I was so tired from the meds that I wasn’t getting enough work done. I continued to have problems in the work force and I got fired from two more jobs, decided I didn’t like teaching that much, and then my husband at the time, my only social connection, told me he was thinking about divorce. Then I really crashed hard, ended up in this horrible hospital where they gave me seven shock treatments until my mom came and rescued me out of there.
Eventually I realized that no one was going to fix me, and I’d have to take responsibility for myself. I realized that if God wanted me dead, I would be dead, so I must still have work to do. I starting building a new life instead of trying to get back to my old life. I found a new career, dog grooming, and started working full time again. I found the alternatives movement and realized that 60% or more people could completely recover. I started connecting socially through the cycling and disc golf communities and getting more exercise. I got off Depakote and lost the 60 pounds I had gained on it. I realized that making an Olympic team and earning a masters degree were actually successes and not failures even though I had been aiming for something higher. I found a new church home and got back in touch with my spiritual life. (That’s what my love poem for my new fiance is about.) Most importantly, I developed resiliency, the power to support myself through tough times. Bicycling, and exercise in general, is one of the most essential things for me.
But the question is, what if someone had just helped me develop resiliency at the beginning instead of giving me meds and a label? What if someone had supported me through my crisis without giving me a lifetime sentence? Without the hopeless diagnosis, I probably wouldn’t have hit nearly so low a bottom, the “deepest, darkest of pits where I feared my life, and family, and career were over.”
The National Empowerment Center tells a story of two college students going through similar existential crises, where one enters the mental health system to “treat” his emotional distress and one is simply supported to explore the root cause of the emotional distress. Now I am starting to wonder what would have happened to me if I had been able to have a different path. More importantly, how many people in our society are now entering our disability system because so many industrial interests profit by sending people down this wrong path?