This community is growing rapidly, and I think the most beautiful aspect of having an eclectic group of folks together in one place is that we all have different stories to tell. Parts of all of our journeys inevitably intertwine in the continuums of triumph and struggle, but we all have our own lens to share. The idiosyncratic blend of colors we each bring to the world is something that ought to be more celebrated in spaces outside of Dear Hope, but until the world takes a turn in a more loving direction, we will always have this space to share those bonds.
I bring this up both as a reflection on a personal level, and as a bridge into the current mental health system and the way that it views each of our stories. Many of you that come in contact with this piece or the site in general will have had experiences with the mental health system. This can include anything in the area: counseling in a personal or group setting, medication, Crisis, hospitalization, interactions of any kind with a social worker, and so on.
In America, the current system takes away each of our unique blend of colors. I can recall every screening I have ever taken for a mood or panic disorder, and they are bland enough to be themes to peeling wallpaper. Essentially, the system runs on grouping unique humans into large blocks of disorders based on arbitrary symptoms. These symptoms are due to a “chemical imbalance”, and therapy and medication are the solutions to these abnormalities. Subjects like suicide, death, hearing voices, and panic are not discussed out of some false fear that discussion of these deep and difficult emotions will be “triggering”. How can we grow when our deepest roots of struggle are pushed back down?
Around this time last year, I attended a health fair in which I saw a table display that particularly piqued my interest. I saw a boot, which was particularly beat down and worn, that had a handful of flowers placed in it, symbolic of the infinite co-existence of struggle and recovery with an emphasis on optimism for the latter. I had a very pleasant conversation with Evan and Dani from the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community, and I walked away from the table with my head in a whirlwind and my hands full of resources.
The Recovery Learning Community, RLC for short, is a community in which humans support humans, no bullshit. This community contains four brick and mortar centers, one of only thirteen peer-run respites in the country, and countless support groups in which peers offer stories and suggestions, but more importantly, love and support. Everyone who chooses to join and participate in the community, always coming and going free of charge as they please, has identified with having lived experience with struggle, oppression, or trauma. These terms apply to myriad situations; the wide scope of pain in life can apply to bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, homelessness, addiction, forced hospitalization and so, so many more. Simply stated, those who have struggled come to share stories and make connections. Healing, while never an easy process, is made so much easier when we open the door for these connections to be made.
The RLC has helped pioneer two major alternative groups for mental health in America: Alternatives to Suicide and the Hearing Voices Network (HVN). While the latter has its original roots in Europe, the RLC has been vital in bringing this group across the ocean and across America. What these groups do so well, and so differently from the resources that we see abundantly, is that they promote free will. The mental health system sees the struggles we endure as “sickness”, and this sickness must be disposed of if we are to live a healthy life. Alternatives to Suicide says that despair is a normal part of life, not a sickness. HVN says that hearing or seeing things that other folks don’t perceive is a fairly common experience and that voices can be powerful and inspiring. Even just with a very basic description, it becomes apparent that connections and relationships are far more powerful than describing surface-level symptoms and being placed into a pathological category.
I began attending an Alternatives to Suicide group a few months ago. My experience with the traditional mental health system going into this time was, well, very much traditional. I’d seen a handful of therapists over the years, been labeled as various diseases, cycled through clusters of psych meds, and in the eyes of the system, I was being treated and handled in the best way possible. However, I couldn’t ever talk about wanting to hurt myself and die every day. When these subjects are discussed in the current system, people get uncomfortable. Those in clinical roles, generally, are scared of dealing with these very big emotional experiences. As many of you know, the result of this is Crisis, involuntary hospitalization, and involuntary medicating. If you want death so badly, then you must be cured. In an even more transparent sense, those who identify with experiencing intense and direct suicidal thoughts should be cast away from normal society, tucked in behind the locked doors of a psych ward, where those who are “healthy” don’t have to deal with them.
I did not talk for my first few meetings, thanks to both my poor experiences in discussing suicide in a clinical setting, and to my absolute hatred of being the center of attention. What I heard from others, though, was incredible. Stories of love, loss, pain, struggle, and oppression were told with such openness and authenticity. It was so powerful for me. So when I did open up about my experiences with wanting to die every day since I was thirteen, I was not met with a finger in my face pointing my diseased self towards a psych ward and sedating medications. I was met with questions. How did my emotions look through these experiences? What was going on in my life? If I wanted to talk about how I wanted to kill myself, I’d be welcome to. This experience has been more therapeutic to me than any therapy session ever was.
Now, I don’t want to come off here as saying that clinical resources are useless, because they certainly are not. Medication certainly helps many, including myself, but I do not think it should ever be forced on anyone. On a further note, I believe that the intent of doctors and shrinks are not always at the best interest of the patient. When I started my benzodiazepine regimen, I was not told that three beers would cause me to black out. The side effects of psychiatric medications are rarely explained in full, and very often not explained at all. Taking Lithium as a prime example, the mood stabilizer is known to have long-term detrimental effects on the kidneys and liver. If medication is in the picture, the picture should be as transparent as it possibly can be. There is an abysmal lack of transparency in psychiatry.
As for therapy, the theme of free will applies here as well. If it weren’t for my current therapist, I would be in a much different place. However, I know that many therapists cannot be held in this regard. Many are unhelpful, and I’ve heard (and experienced) in many cases of therapists doing more harm than good. Even within my positive experience of growth in therapy, I could not talk about death or suicide, and the structure was more built on change than acceptance. If the fears of being put in a locked unit without a phone or shoelaces, being forcibly restrained, and being forced to take pills were quelled, then therapy would look much different.
For many it will certainly be uncomfortable to change an entire schema of how mental health is viewed. The most compassionate and caring people I have ever known still see struggle in its infinite manifestations as “mental illness”, and that is okay. One of the major ways in which we have had our struggles validated is by engaging in the current mental health system. I know that before I received a diagnosis, I did not feel that my emotions were valid at all.
For those of you that have only had exposure to the chemical way of thinking in terms of mental health science and treatment, it is certainly not the first attempt at pushing the “mentally unwell” aside. Aside from a few ethical attempts at moral treatment by the Quakers centuries ago, those who have struggled have been oppressed again and again. The eugenic model of the early 20th century gave scientific validity to a model that said those who were “mentally unwell” had a “germ plasm”, and the solution to eliminating this plasm from society was a mass incarceration into asylums in order to sterilize those who were struggling. Carnagie and Rockafeller funded this stuff. Horror stories such as this go on and on in the way mental health has been treated. For some high-quality reading that discusses the entire history of how mental health has been treated in our country, check out Mad in America by Robert Whitaker. It is equally eye-opening as it is horrifying.
The chemical model is just another attempt to marginalize struggle. While it is undoubtedly an improvement from a concept like eugenics, it still maintains the intent to separate, not to come together. I think there is no denying that ultimately, the solution is for us to all find common ground. Parts of the system do work for many, but peer-based models like the RLC improve both the parts that do and don’t work. There is nothing more powerful than the ability to have perpetual free-will, and there are few things more therapeutic in this world than genuine human relationships and connections.
The conversation has been started. So let’s see how we can change the conversation so that we all can experience life where we have spaces to feel and live without any judgment or marginalization. Let’s ask the really tough questions. Let’s continue to dig deep and expand on models that work for everyone, because everyone deserves to live the best life that they can live.
Remember, you are not alone,
and you are loved.
PS: If you’re interested in reading more about the RLC, check out their page here.
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