Speaking with the “enemy” and speaking of recovery

By Leah Harris

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, goes the saying.

My spiritual practice and basic reading of Buddhist philosophy has taught me that it is not other people who are the enemy but oppressive states of mind: fear, ignorance, greed – the things that drive us to hurt and oppress others.

I wrestle with these questions as I prepare a presentation to a group of psychiatric nurses holding a conference on recovery. It will be the first time that I speak formally to a group of mental health providers. Some of the attendees will still be in nursing school, and some will be long-time psychiatric nurses.

From a certain point of view our real enemy, the true troublemaker, is inside, says the Dalai Lama.

Given my experiences in the mental health system, I have a deep, abiding, built-in distrust of all providers. I am aware that I am still making them the enemy. But hey, if the Dalai Lama can hang out with the Chinese, than I can talk to psych nurses, right?

I think about my friend Mindy Lewis, author of Life, Inside, a spectacular memoir about her psychiatrized adolescence and its long-term impact on her life. Now she gives talks to psychiatry students on Grand Rounds. She’s written about this experience in the book a bit, too. I know it’s been a healing one for her in many ways and has had a profound impact on the students as well. I am aware of a lot of other folks in the mad movement who interact daily with mental health provider people, or work within the system itself. I admire them for doing that, but I don’t know if I am that bridge-building kind of person. I may be too close to my anger and pain. Too raw and unhealed.

I struggle – not just because of my discomfort in speaking to providers but also because I have some concerns about the whole “recovery” movement in mental health. The concept of recovery, as defined in the National Consensus Statement on Mental Health Recovery is extremely positive in some ways, stressing self-determination, recovery as a non-linear process, respect, responsibility, peer support, etc. I know a lot of people worked very hard on the statement and I respect their effort and convictions.

But one of my worries is that mental health professionals will jump on the hot and trendy recovery bandwagon but twist it to suit their own purposes, skipping over the “self-determination” piece and finding a way to dictate “recovery” to the “patient.” I worry about “peer support” becoming a way to turn peers into an even lower-paid sub-class of caseworkers, in the name of “recovery” and providing “peer led” services. I am told that this is already occurring in some settings. The potential for the recovery concept to be co-opted is great.

I have also been thinking about what recovery means to me personally. Truth is, I don’t wish to recover from the “symptoms” that got me into the system in the first place. My experiences of madness, no matter how frightening they can be at times, are intrinsic to my being and I wouldn’t ever wish them away. I love my mind, with all its complexity and quirks and blips.

What do I need to “recover” from? Not madness, not a “brain disorder,” but from the way I was treated as a young woman in mental health systems. My psychiatrized girlhood represents a cumulative pile of frightening and painful experiences that I am still struggling to make sense of, to make peace with.

Recovery is a word that worries me for another reason. The recovery movement, by and large, seems to be divorced from our civil and human rights. There are concepts that approach it – like “self-determination,” but the Consensus Statement is basically silent about our rights. It’s a dangerous omission, in my view.

How can you begin to recover from anything when you are being drugged, institutionalized, or electroshocked against your will? How can you recover if you are given drugs without being told about the potential side effects (including death) or potential (almost guaranteed) difficulty withdrawing?

Which brings me back to working with the “enemy.” If the psychiatric nurses are the not, themselves, the “enemy,” they are part of a system – an industry – that is still actively denying human rights to my brothers and sisters and promoting harmful “treatments.” They are part of a system that is still predicated in large part on fear, ignorance, and greed.

I still don’t know what I will say to that room. In some ways, all I have is my story and what follows from it. Clearly I have much left to do in healing my own response to mental health providers as a group, which often involves fear and a fair bit of loathing.

One thing I will need to say to the room is that it’s great to be discussing recovery and hope and all that, but recovery without human rights is essentially meaningless. In my view, one thing that would go a long way to healing the pain and oppression of the past and present is for more providers join us as allies in the struggle for our human rights.

Call me idealistic, but I would like to help build a world predicated on the human rights framework, which also just so happens to includes the highest ideals of the recovery movement as well: freedom, dignity, autonomy, self-determination, and a holistic approach to well-being, both as individuals, and within our communities.

Advertisements

About Leah Harris

Storyteller, mother, dreamer, survivor.

22 Responses

  1. I wrote in an email to someone today:

    unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it…I have experience on both sides of the fence so I see part of my role and journey to be open to the “enemy” to some extent…

    I understand them in ways that many survivors can’t…I’ve been on both sides of the fence….

    and it also means I get attacked from all sides which is no fun!!

    I am an active bridge builder—he wrote back that those who stand in the middle of the road become roadkill. I’ve been told such things before. And yes I do indeed get attacked from all sides and it’s never pleasant.

    Though the fact is I am not in the middle of the road—I am all the way on the other side, but I have not forgotten being back there in the dark and so I have a dark gift, one that makes some who would be my allies today hate me because I don’t hate the “enemy” enough.

    If I were to hate the “enemy” I would have to hate myself too because it is part of my history and part of what has made me. And so I live with conflict and compassion anger and hatred as well as understanding and softness as my constant companions.

    on the stuff you say about recovery I absolutely agree:

    But one of my worries is that mental health professionals will jump on the hot and trendy recovery bandwagon but twist it to suit their own purposes, skipping over the “self-determination” piece and finding a way to dictate “recovery” to the “patient.” I worry about “peer support” becoming a way to turn peers into an even lower-paid sub-class of caseworkers, in the name of “recovery” and providing “peer led” services. I am told that this is already occurring in some settings. The potential for the recovery concept to be co-opted is great.

    This I believe is already happening. And recovery has been bastardized to mean taking drugs and functioning as well as possible quite often—which often also means barely functioning. Without any belief that real autonomy can be achieved. I worked for some of these agencies and my clients were such people living limited lives while all us providers used the language of recovery, but it was not accompanied with the inherent belief that they all had the potential to truly be what they might be if given the right supports of which we were simply unaware.

    Recovery is a word that worries me for another reason. The recovery movement, by and large, seems to be divorced from our civil and human rights. There are concepts that approach it – like “self-determination,” but the Consensus Statement is basically silent about our rights. It’s a dangerous omission, in my view.

    YES.

    Call me idealistic, but I would like to help build a world predicated on the human rights framework, which also just so happens to includes the highest ideals of the recovery movement as well: freedom, dignity, autonomy, self-determination, and a holistic approach to well-being, both as individuals, and within our communities.

    Amen, I share your idealism.

    Like

  2. Hi Leah,

    Good for you for talking to the nurses.

    I liked your statement:

    What do I need to “recover” from? Not madness, not a “brain disorder,” but from the way I was treated as a young woman in mental health systems. My psychiatrized (YOUNG ADULTHOOD) represents a cumulative pile of frightening and painful experiences that I am still struggling to make sense of, to make peace with.

    I THOUGHT I WAS READY TO TALK TO OTHERS, BUT LAST WEEK THREE SEPARATE INCIDENTS HAPPENED which shows me that I am still to raw to speak to others without bringing back horrible feeling of inadequacy and fear or backsliding.

    I am just now sure…but I kinda to believe to keep your enemies close…but I am not able to yet.

    Like

  3. I know where you are coming from, so every chance I get I speak one on one. I am emotional and not gonna say I’m sorry for it,and don’t bother to temper it unless I am talking to my ex my kids or in a court of law. Some people do not know from emotions and it frightens them, but of late I have people say they will pray for me, invite me to their church, or have had an experience.
    I met a psych ward nurse, and older woman from my home town a certain shrink in town did lots of ESTs. So I did not get ticked at her as she shared with me, something she did not have to.
    Out of 4 shrinks I saw in year 2004, not one told me I was manic. However a nurse practioner did, asking me if I needed to go in the hospital. Last time that happened I had to go through in humane tested by 3 or 4 men before I was deemed alble to check out. NO way.
    My NP however did not call my shrink, and as a result I did a lot of damage to my finances. She jerked me around later on on another matter, I checked in with 2 friends, and then walked in her office and demanded my records. The meds she had me on were doing plenty of damage also.
    I then wrote her a letter, explaining how she let me down and that she indeed was a doctor and no more than a pusher. I was warned noT to contact her again by the office; she took a job teaching….

    The last shrink I had, was Indian and we had a great relationship. I warned her that she had better have another line of work to fall back on, and 2 months later her office notified me she was taking a year off, which left no one at this certain hospital in shrinkdom!!!

    Now, I do write letters, and I am not as caustic now, but I make my point. I don’t dance around, I come right out with the truth which I can back up, and I feel that is the right thing to do. Experiencing what I have, what we have makes us, mentors if we wish to be and the worls at large needs our information. Having my records helps but it takes a lot out of me to read these and really nderstand just what went down. I have complaints to file ect, right now but am waiting for the right moment…
    A good exercise is to write an angry letter to anyone who hurt or misused you. Spell it out, curse, and let it rip. then seal it. and set it aside. Then write a return letter of apology from the one who hurt you, full of love, every word exactly what you need/want to hear, Seal and put away. A book that helped me was the Four Agreements, and as I have evolved, my spiritual naure has brought me much peace and happiness, even in my alone times. Aloneness is necessary for true spiritual growth. Buddhism teaches me as does the Tao to be the warrior, and know my rights are justified as they apply to many others. It is not singular or seperate, We are all connected.

    Like

  4. A good one and a half year ago or so, a friend wanted me to come along with her, and interview a shrink for a journal. I clearly recall my immediate emotional reaction… first to the request, and then to me actually saying yes – as I didn’t want to let my friend down. For a good week I paced my apartment, trying to figure how I could extricate myself from what simply was dreadful, just the mere idea. That it was the very same shrink, I had been asked to go and see for a label and a prescription a couple of years before, didn’t make things better… Luckily, my friend found someone else to accompany her.

    Since then, I’ve been facing the enemy directly once, doing the keynote address at a hearing. It was tough, to say the least, and I remember someone saying afterwards: “Wow, you got increasingly angry towards the end, didn’t you?” You bet I did! Interestingly, I got a lot of positive feedback from people, who already were critical in advance, from survivors, while I actually was attacked through the backdoor especially by one “expert” present at the hearing. He didn’t approach me at the break, or anything, which he easily could have done. I was there, and although I can get emotional, I don’t bite. He wrote an e-mail to the organizer of the hearing where he called me a Scientologist… Indeed, none of the present “experts” or politicians approached me.

    My own thoughts about working in the mh system actually are widely consistent with Leah’s. As I see it, it is almost impossible to be accepted by this sytem, and at the same time stay faithful to one’s own experiences with and knowledge about it. In other words, as a survivor, you have to give up your integrity, if you want to keep your job inside the mh system, peer support or other, for longer than five minutes. And I’m not sure, if this kind of compromizing is really effective when it comes to bringing about change. It seems to me, that there are other, probably more effective, ways. One of them definitely is to speak out about one’s own experiences, for instance in front of professionals. No one says, it needs to be in an angry fashion. But I think, it’s nevertheless important to make these people realize, what “the good” they assume they’re doing actually does to people. How traumatizing it can be, and often is.

    In my keynote address at the hearing, I didn’t but refer to (scientific) facts. I didn’t attack anyone personally. I just confronted the profession with their own science, and asked them to open their eyes, you might say.The ones who did attack personally, where the professionals themselves. They made me their enemy. I didn’t ask for that. But if someone chooses to try and make me their enemy, instead of engaging in some sort of constructive dialogue, that respects me and my viewpoints, just as I am expected to respect them and their viewpoints, I’m out of there.”Let go of what you can’t change.” Which isn’t to say, I won’t fight at all. I just won’t fight on an ad hominem level. I don’t see a danger of becoming what you fight, of making yourself your worst enemy, unless you engage in fighting at that level.

    As for recovery, yes, the same has already happened, that always happens to any system-contrary concepts, that get adopted by it: it got turned into the opposite of what it originally meant. Here in Denmark, the system defines recovery as just another, trendy, term for rehabilitation. That says it all, I guess. BTW: Ron Unger had quite a few awesome posts on the matter on his blog. The one, that went down. Hopefully, he managed to save at least some of them, and reposts them some time on the new one.

    Like

  5. Darby Penney

    I don’t think most people who work in the mental health system are willfully ignorant – they have been fed a line of bull just like people who have been diagnosed. Many of them will respond positively to the opportunity to hear a different perspective, and I think Leah should be applauded for offering it to them. I think she is right that it’s ignorance and oppressive mindsets that are the enemy. And while I think of people who oppress us as adversaries, I don’t think if them as enemies.

    Like

  6. Marian..
    I can’t figure out what your piece is supposed do when I checked the HTML…

    I’m really messed up today…can barely think and I’m in pain. Sorry.

    thanks everyone…I’m gonna be taking a break again, most likely, for a good part of the day.

    Like

  7. Darby…just want to quickly say I agree…I’ve been on the front line with good people who simply have been grossly misled…as I was…that’s not to say there aren’t a fair share of sadistic assholes out there…I’ve been treated by them.

    I still have friends I made while working in the system (co-workers)…they respect what I’m up to and I’m working on them but a lot of this shit is just deeply ingrained…but it’s not inherent evil in these people.

    Like

  8. Darby Penney

    Well, I worked for many years in the system, so I know there ARE certainly some inherently evil people working there… but psychiatry, Big Pharma, and professional training schools have just thoroughly brainwashed people and most people who work in the system have never been exposed to other perspectives. Some are open to hearing them, some are not.. but it’s kind of cool when you watch the lightbulb go on over a professional’s head!

    Like

  9. Randy

    As I have worked with clincally trained professionals over the past few years, I have been heartened to see the impact of our work. People *know* the system and its mindset has been wrong, but they are aware of no other options. When a new (to them) way of looking at the world is presented, they fall upon it with great hunger.

    Like

    1. Some people are ready…but by no means all of them…if they were we wouldn’t have such a huge problem.
      I’m in ongoing talks with my psychiatrist who put me on my 7 drug cocktail. It’s civil, but it’s all a “planting seed” project…he doesn’t really believe me…but I also know he knows me well and knows I’m not stupid…so I plod along…sticking shit in his face from time to time.

      Like

  10. Darby Penney

    A psychiatrist taught the breathing and meditation techniques at the yoga retreat I was at over the weekend. He believes that persistent demands for alternatives to meds from people in the system is the most effective way to get docs to change.

    Like

    1. that makes good sense…

      my present doc who allows me to teach him about withdrawal is a good man as well…he calls me his “recovery girl” and he’s invited me to talk to a class of his student before and I even took him on and completely contradicted something he’d taught the class—-that antidepressants can cause bipolar!!

      I told the class the truth…that ADs can have an adverse reaction causing mania. If one comes off them quickly they will be fine…

      He thanked me for my participation!! But he is still handing out prescriptions…oh yeah.

      Like

  11. Blabla

    Ok first of all, You say some beautiful and interesting things, however, i think your understanding of buddhist philosophy is a bit off. As someone who grew up very close to the 78th patriarch and the daughter of a zen master as well as a dharma teacher who founded the first buddhist catalog company in the north east back in 1979 and on top of that i was literally born inside a kwan um zen school by midwife, and was brought up there… I wanted to point out some small things… For example, there is no “I”. That is just the ego. A construct of the mind. All there is in Budhism is this moment and your actions in it. That is it. So who you are is totally dependant upon the actions you make in this moment and how they affect the world. When the Dalai Lama talks to the chinese, he is talking to a part of himself. A part of himself he doesn’t have an easy time with. A friend of mine used to say before he died, (je jung bosal) “whole world single flower.” The dalai lama is a pettal of the flower as are the chinese he is speaking to. 1 flower many parts…. All seeing the world from their own perspective. All perspectives equally false. There is no truth beyond the one you create in your mind reality is no different than history a lie marginally agreed upon. So if you think that is the same as you talking to psych professionals you are not entirely incorrect.

    You say something beautiful about loving your mind… And i know a zen master that says that to love is simply to be present for someone or something always and that is the greatest love there is. And i admire the courage you have to face something you both love and fear but love enough to become so committed to it. When you could always pump your system full of drugs and not really be there for it. Most people don’t love themselves enough to commit to their entire being. They tend to view the world in black and white when the reality is it is varying shades of grey. Nature has many sides and some more directly oppose eachother than others. And some folk like warm weather and some like cold. And some folk like happiness and some actually thrive on their own suffering. And then there are those who say “Both sides of the coin are part of the coin, i love my mind i will be present for the hard parts and the easy parts.”

    Don’t make recovery in your mind. Don’t make sick. Just be there where you are now in this moment. Have you ever read The Human Route? It is a beautiful poem that asks a very pertinent question at the end. The first time it was read to me i was still inside my mother. When i was about 3 i started to wonder about it and to ask myself that last question. I didn’t have an answer though till i was about 25. When it hit me like a ton of bricks exactly what the answer was. And it was an amazing feeling….

    Practice practice 10,000 years and perhaps one day you will wake up like buddha. I wish you all the luck in the world.

    Like

    1. blabla you say:

      i think your understanding of buddhist philosophy is a bit off

      I consider that rude. We are all on a journey to understanding here—that appears true of you too. Please withhold such personal judgments in the future.

      The comment policy ask that we respect one another. When it comes to interpretations of religious philosophies I think we all have a right to see things a bit differently.
      thank you.

      also if you choose to post again please use a real email address or I will not approve it.

      Like

  12. Selene

    Darby … I agree very much with what you, Gianna and Leah have said. I’m angry at my situation, but I really don’t believe the psychiatrist who initiated me into meds did so with malevolent intentions. In fact, his biggest selling point for Xanax was that he took it himself.

    I also have to claim responsibility for the role I played. I wanted uncomfortable feelings to go away and, in the back of my mind, knew meds weren’t the answer … but was still willing to take them rather than feel the discomfort. I was just as misinformed as my doctor. Neither of us was worse or better than the other.

    That’s not to say I haven’t met some crappy psychiatrists over the years because I have. Usually, they were just small, insecure men who became defensive at the slightest bit of questioning on my part. But still, they are also wounded in many ways and are grossly misinformed … not setting out purposely to harm.

    I believe that whenever there’s a system that harms, it’s harmful to all. We’re all caught up in the harm caused by medicine, including psych medicine. The “providers,” on some level, become victims of their system as well.

    S

    Like

  13. I believe it is very rewarding to confront the abuser with courage. I have done it many times now. While you will feel fearful at first you will feel better afterwards.

    We hurt each other for many reasons but when people become part of an oppressive system they are usually blind to it and convince themselves they are doing good.

    I have great confidence in your future talk with psychiatric nurses, leah. It is very good it is happening. You have amazing insight , courage and understanding.

    I look forward to hearing how you get on.

    Good Irish luck!!!

    Love and support,

    Mary.xx.

    Like

  14. Cannot thank everyone enough for their insightful and honest comments and experiences.

    Selene – I really did need to be re-reminded of the fact that all are harmed by oppression. No question that these systems hurt everyone. I do still feel that at the end of the day the doctors get to walk out of the institution and go home – they administer the shock, they do not receive it. They make the choice whether or not they want to take psych drugs yet deny others that choice. I just fight for people to have the same choices that their psychiatrists have!

    Blabla – thank you for all these points. Your thoughts are very poetic and beautiful. I explored the poem you mentioned and I must say I am not yet sure of the answer. Glad you have found it.

    I believe very much in the concept of Indra’s Net – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indra's_net
    for me, one of the most elegant models of interconnectedness. I found this somewhere online last night but forget where: “The moral of Indra’s net is that you cannot damage one strand of the web that is the universe, without damaging the others or setting off a cascade effect of destruction.” Very powerful statement for all of us engaged in social justice work.

    I appreciate the perspectives of Randy and others that some providers aren’t aware of alternatives to the system…and we can educate them on that (if they are open to it). That does make me feel a bit hopeful – if I can perhaps reach one nurse in that audience then it will not be a waste of time.

    Gianna – I love what you said: “And so I live with conflict and compassion anger and hatred as well as understanding and softness as my constant companions.” That pretty much sums it up for me as well.

    Like

Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s