It is a beautiful road and satisfying journey from labeled to healing to healer. Yet after decades as a patient in the U.S. mental health system, to even believe that it is possible is a small miracle. I’d like to share how I got from there to here, and the lessons it’s taught me about myself, my child, and society.
From Breakdown to Breakthrough
On the day in 2016 when I drove around aimlessly, got lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and stopped at a kind stranger’s house, no one asked me why I was confused and in distress…not the kind woman who answered the door, not the five policemen who responded to her call, not my teenage son who came to get me, not my brother who took me to the hospital after I begged to be left alone with my journal, not the doctors who drugged me into a state of stupor before locking me up. Everyone was laser-focused on my Bipolar Disorder diagnosis from 18 years prior and that now-very-stale chemical imbalance theory. They didn’t bother to ask about the immense grief and trauma I was experiencing after my partner left me for another woman and I was let go from my job after 35 years of service, putting my retirement benefits and livelihood at risk. To put it bluntly, my life just sucked and I crashed—but no one listened.
After I was released from the hospital and spent a few weeks recovering, I returned to the office. Even though I had technically been terminated, by union contract agreement my employer still had to keep me on the payroll for a year. So they removed me from my position in a busy college-student learning center and banished me to a faraway office down a faculty hallway, isolating me from my previous team and stripping me of all of my duties.
At first, the exile was humiliating and infuriating, especially since I had spoken to my supervisor the day before, who hadn’t mentioned any of this. However, the new solitude allowed me to rethink my career and circumstances. I kept my office door open, and colleagues that saw me there questioned my relocation. Transparent about the reason for my lengthy absence, I witnessed something magical happen. Just about every person I told had their own story to tell about “mental illness.” Before long, word got around that Mary’s office was a safe space to share, and students, faculty, and staff began stopping by to talk about themselves or family members. I would not be surprised at all to learn that I helped more people that year just by holding space and listening than the school’s counseling center did.
Since I didn’t have any required work-related responsibilities anymore, in between drop-ins, I spent my time on the computer making connections in the local and global mental health community, reframing my idea of madness, learning about the latest treatments for emotional distress, and conducting a fierce job search in the university system to save my retirement. I spent my days wisely, using my vacation time to meet with other local mental and emotional health advocates. I took related master’s-level courses online, even driving out of town during spring break to meet one professor. And I wrote my memoir.
One week before my contract was up, I accepted a dream job offer that kept me in the university system. I could never have predicted that that frightening and desolate time would prepare me for a bright and very different future. Not only was I able to retire with full benefits, but also I was introduced to a mental wellness community alive with people and resources, far removed from the established system and its definition of “mental illness.”
I permanently exited the mainstream U.S. mental health system in 2017, energized by a new assurance that the system (not me) was crazy and feeling a glorious sense of “normalcy” for the first time in nearly 20 years. The best part of this personal transformation is that by the time the pandemic hit in 2020, I was able to sit back on the sidelines and watch with a smile of satisfaction on my face as the society that had once certified me as insane went mad before my eyes. I certainly do not enjoy the distress so many of my fellow humans are experiencing right now in our fear-based culture, it’s just that I am in a much more relaxed position to assist rather than join them. With all of the emotional coping skills I earned during that year in work-limbo isolation, I developed what it took to handle the lockdown, so a worldwide virus scare was easy to navigate in comparison.
What Are We Doing to Our Children?
Now that I can observe the world through the eyes of both a former psychiatric “patient” and a healer, there is something that does scare me. A lot. That is the increasing practice of labeling and drugging our children. After viewing the movie Luna during the Mad in America screening last February, I noted a disturbing statistic:8.5 million children in the United States are on psychiatric medications right now. Five million of them are under age 13. Reading those statistics reminded me of a conversation with friends I had several years ago at brunch, when the conversation drifted from recipes to mental health. It was revealed that the children of three-quarters of us had been medicated for some type of attention-related diagnosis, and many of our nieces and nephews—toddlers!—were also being diagnosed and medicated. Even back then I thought, “My God. What are we doing to our children?” I’ve been paying attention to this troubling trend ever since, so when I saw those statistics on the screen, I cried.
I’ve also been noticing the damage early labeling has done to our young people, reading many articles about the psychological effect of such labels before their brains are even developed. I remember being assigned the label of Bipolar Disorder at the age of 34 and how debilitating it felt, so I can only imagine the hopelessness of being singled out as “disordered” as a small child, growing up believing there’s something wrong with you because of the way you behave or interact with the world. How do you fit into a society that has branded you with a giant red letter “D” from the beginning?
My curiosity on this topic brought me to research Adam Lanza, the young school shooter who received his first label at age three. I don’t claim to know all the circumstances of his short life or what prompted him to carry out his violent crimes, but I do know that he had at least nine labels assigned to him before he was 14 years old. And after he took his own life, he earned another label: “Monster.” James Knoll, a forensic psychiatrist, summed up the shooter’s mental state with a quote that stays with me as I live my mission to see the labeling process stopped: “I carry profound hurt—I’ll go ballistic and carry it onto you.”
I myself am “guilty” of having once held tight to the chemical imbalance/genetic cause beliefs, like most of my generation, and automatically passed those beliefs on to our children. That’s why, when my son was going through his own emotional crisis as a teenager after his father and I divorced, I took him to a psychiatrist. It should have been a red flag that I had to call 16 of them before I found one who was accepting new patients. On the day of my son’s first appointment, we were still in the waiting room three hours past our scheduled time. My wiser-than-me son looked at me and declared, “You can wait here if you want, but I’m walking home now.” We left together and never looked back. I am grateful for that moment, because had we stayed, he would have been labeled and drugged like so many others, a fate that I did not want for him and intuitively knew was wrong. At the time, though, I may have supported the idea because “that’s what our system says we need.”
We ended up finding a psychologist who worked with both of us to develop our emotional, language, and communication skills… drug-free. This doctor didn’t work with insurance companies, and as a single mom, I overloaded my budget. Yet this was my first lesson that working outside of the mainstream system could be more beneficial, which set me on the holistic path I walk today. Investment in human capital is a worthy one because our children are priceless.
Eventually, I left my son to voluntary solo visits, and when he ended his time with this doctor, I sent the psychologist a thank-you note. He sent back a note thanking me, saying that it was my ability to admit my unintentional role in contributing to my son’s crisis and to change my listening habits (rather than relying on the system to change him) that ultimately helped him. I still have the note, and 10 years later my son and I have a special relationship.
These tried-and-true, new-and-better, drug-free alternative treatments have not yet made their way into recent “reputable” medical and academic journals, the mainstream media, or the general population, which can be frustrating to those of us who have lived the psychiatric system experience and to practitioners who are leaving that system in droves.
Meanwhile, children are no longer being “diagnosed” just by clinicians. They are transported to doctors’ offices by desperate and eager parents equipped with recommendations and labels from the Internet, school officials, and well-meaning yet uninformed family members. Many of these parents expect drugs for their children as an easy fix for these perceived diagnoses. The frustration of practitioners who recommend drug-free solutions first but are rebuffed by families is a common theme during podcasts, interviews, and webinars.
We have let down our children (and ourselves) by losing touch with parental intuition and automatically handing their care over to professionals and so-called experts at the first sign of a problem. Both of my children are adults now. I am grateful that they were raised before the labeling/drugging craze, and in an era when parents weren’t overly distracted by devices and information overload. Then and before, parents knew their children best. Now that is seldom the case, because parents aren’t paying close attention to their children anymore—that is considered someone else’s job. “Attention Deficit Disorder” is no longer a phenomenon primarily of our youth, but a label more fitting to describe adults! As my son’s therapist showed us, we need to focus on what’s going on with our kids and adapt our own behavior rather than locate the problem within the child.
For example, when I was helping my son, I had to take a deep dive out of my own emotional state and into his, which took a great deal of worthwhile patience, attention, and active listening so I could hear and understand his suffering, even when he shared stories of pain that—in his perception—had been inflicted by me. I believe that is the best tool we have to assist those who are experiencing any level of mental or emotional distress: careful, attentive, silent listening without interruption and certainly without labeling. This has also been an essential ingredient in every article, book, and movie I have read or watched regarding the stories of people diagnosed with the scariest of labels and identified as hopeless, yet who have ventured on not only to recover but also to rise beyond and to inspire people newly diagnosed by the system. These are the examples we must follow.
Change Is Happening!
There is no doubt that a paradigm shift is happening, at least in terms of the grassroots efforts growing in the mental health world. This community is ripe with opportunities to offer hope through the ever-expanding areas of transformational medicine, narrative change, and trauma-informed care. In popular platforms, spiritual emergencies are now being recognized as spiritual awakenings; psychosis is an experience to be had, not a curse to be feared. The need to remove labeling is being discussed widely. Soteria Houses and therapeutic communities and retreats rather than institutions are being sought after as recovery spaces. Non-pharmaceutical solutions to emotional distress are emerging. Concerns and conversations about the overuse of drugs are exploding. And, as in the case of myself and my son, people are believing that they are having normal human responses to life experiences rather than accepting society’s explanation that they are mentally ill.
Because of my new mental health connections, I am being invited to attend webinars and participate in classes and groups that support this recovery paradigm. I am also enrolled in a master’s program for Integrative Health and Healing where I am supplementing my classwork with research on mental health, trauma, neurodiversity, and neuropsychology. I aspire to continue on the doctoral path because there is so much happening globally to change the system, and I am curious to learn and spread the word about it with like-minded people.
And I want to send the message to every person labeled that if I can do it, you can do it. After I graduate, I plan to assist those who have the scariest DSM labels and those experiencing “psychosis” (as opposed to “afflicted by” or “suffering from” it). There was a time when people would’ve believed or told me that I was crazy. Now they admire me for this new vocational choice or call me brave. I find some humor in the latter because I can’t find anything courageous about treating my fellow humans with compassion.
I am learning much about the role that existential factors play in emotional and mental distress. Thankfully, the genetic and chemical imbalance theories seem to be taking a back seat as the ideas of epigenetics and traumatic causes come into play while more non-pharmaceutical solutions are developing. It is refreshing to see individuals and organizations dedicated to promoting these treatments; this can’t happen fast enough.
Back in 2016, there was a time when I wished someone had held my hand or taken the time to listen to me so I could have avoided that hospital stay and the hellish days that followed. Yet by having that experience, I was forced to figure out a way to work things out on my own, and I created a customized treatment plan consisting of time in nature, human connection, writing, and finding nonjudgmental listeners. In the process of implementing it, I discovered myself and so many others who have been through this and are now helping others as a result. There is a whole new world out there that is changing the scary face of “mental illness” to a kind and smiling one. I am excited to be a part of that and relieved that I am no longer alone.
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.