Decolonizing our minds: freeing our spirits — another story of recovery

Leah Harris is one of the many wonderful people I’ve met through all the varieties of work I do online. We had a conversation about language one day and and how it can define how people feel about themselves. Leah volunteered to write about it for the blog. I was tickled that she’d be interested to do that and when she submitted what she had written, thrilled.

Leah is an activist and was interviewed on Madness Radio a couple of years ago. It’s very moving and after you read her piece here you might want to come back up here and listen to her speak. She’s a gifted poet among other things. Madness Radio described her like this:

Psychiatric survivor and leading advocate Leah Harris reads her powerful poem I Was a Teenage Mental Patient and discusses how communities can work to prevent suicide by looking beyond mainstream approaches and rethinking our alienating school system.

Listen here:

And lastly she has a delightful personal blog in which she shares her life as a single mother. I can highly recommend it to all the parents of young children I know who read this blog, but I’m not a parent and find it very inspiring as well. This Mama’s Dharma.

So after that introduction here is the beautiful piece she wrote for this blog. I might add that this thoughtful piece also reads as a recovery story and there will be a permanent link to it on the Recovery Stories page, whose tab is at the top of the page.

Thank you Leah. Now the article:

Decolonizing Our Minds, Freeing Our Spirits
Some thoughts on a language of liberation

All that we are is the result of what we have thought.
The mind is everything.
What we think, we become.


Perhaps it might be intellectual indulgence to be writing about language while people’s rights are being violated on a daily basis, when people are suffering in institutions with and without walls, when people are dying from toxic drugs. But I think it’s a tremendously important task to begin to shift the way we think, to decolonize our minds and embrace a broader perspective on what it means to be fully human in a crazy world. I believe that we create our own realities, and it is through thought and language that we determine the course of our individual and collective existence.

Let me give you an example: my journey to liberation from mental colonization began when I was eighteen years old. I was sitting on the ratty old couch in a group home I had been living in, my hand covered with third degree burns from a fire I had accidentally started while in a pharmaceutical-induced haze. I had just been released from yet another hospital for a half-hearted suicide attempt, something that had become a pattern for me. I was sent home with yet another drug and made to promise that I’d make yet another appointment for therapy with yet another therapist that I could not relate to at all.

From childhood, I had alternately fought and reluctantly accepted a view of myself as “sick” and “disordered.” The acceptance was winning. I hated the labels but identified with them at the same time. I didn’t see a way out from the box they imprisoned me in. By the time I was eighteen, I was well on my way to becoming a perpetual “patient.” I had no tools, no frameworks, with which to redraw the maps in my mind. This is the power of psychiatric brainwash.

On that couch, I had a transformative experience. It was one of those inexplicable moments in which you transcend yourself and see things in a completely new way. I clearly saw two paths ahead of me: one path worn and familiar, the path of the “mental patient.” That path was sterile and without life, without color—a concrete path. The other path was bumpy, muddy in places, obscured with brilliant wildflowers and overgrown trees. It was lush and challenging and it beckoned me.

Suddenly, for the first time in my life, it occurred to me that I had a choice—at that point in time I could decide that I was no longer going to consume what they were offering. In that moment, my entire life changed. With my rejection of the system that had long killed my spirit and numbed my mind with drugs and psychobabble, I stepped on to a new path—a path uncertain but filled with possibility. It was a long, hard, lonely road decolonizing my mind. Every time I had an extreme emotion or heard a voice that scared me, I thought that maybe I was wrong and they were right and that I needed to go back to their system.

But slowly, I discovered that I could survive extreme emotions, I could work with voices. Amazingly, I noticed that without psychiatric intervention, I could emerge out of emotional distress relatively quickly. Every time I had this experience, it fortified my identity as a sensitive human being on a very human path. Messy perhaps, but far more beautiful than the sanitized, manicured path psychiatry would have had me tread.

When I ceased to be a “patient,” I began to live again. I discovered new identities, identities that nurtured my spirit and allowed me to dream big. Lover, student, truth seeker, writer, human rights activist, artivist—and most recently, mother.

I have gotten feedback from many people that when they got a psychiatric label, it was a relief because it gave a name to what they had been experiencing. I don’t discount the importance of having a framework with which to make sense of our experiences, but does it really have to take a psychiatric diagnosis to validate your life path? Who wants to be defined by a so-called illness? How empowering is that? These labels shut down understanding. They reduce the mystery and complexity of our experiences into a diagnostic category that impedes healing. These terms colonize us, and foster dependency on a system to “fix” us. After all, if it is an “illness,” we have no control over its course, and must hand our power over to others who do.

Let’s reject that sort of colonization and declare our independence. Let’s embrace and claim the beauty and pain, the full spectrum of our experiences. Together, let us break down the walls of isolation that would have us thinking that we are the only ones who have gone through extreme states, or have heard voices that delighted and scared us. That we are the only ones who have wanted to die.

I have found great validation of my experiences, not from any psychiatric label but from friends in and out of the “mad movement.” They have shown me that I’m not alone. I’ve talked about my extreme states and have had friends say, “Oh, you heard voices? You thought you were the Messiah? I’ve been through that too, and here are some of the things that have been helpful to me.” Through skill-shares and educating myself on alternatives to corporate psychiatric schemes, I’ve discovered many non-pharmaceutical, non-invasive ways of healing my body and spirit. I feel part of a community of people who struggle to stay afloat in a sea of toxic culture.

Today, I have tools with which to rebuild when I am broken. Today, I also appreciate the brokenness and the cracks that let the light in.

I contrast these experiences to being in the hospital – we could have been of great support to one another, but we were isolated by the oppressive structures that were always monitoring us. There was the ever-present threat of being put on restriction if staff got wind that we were getting too close to someone or (gasp!) starting to love another “patient.” Most conversations were regulated and moderated by the keepers of the ward. Conditioned by psychiatry, I learned not to let anyone in, and I remained isolated and ashamed.

In my mid-twenties I discovered the mad movement, and with it a whole slew of other labels: ex-patient, psychiatric survivor, consumer, user, consumer/survivor, and the oh-so-compelling acronym “c/s/x” (consumer/survivor/ex-patient). These terms, while all partially accurate, still define us primarily in relation to an oppressive system. Perhaps those of us who have been labeled, and deeply wounded by those labels, are especially sensitive to the ways in which language can limit us and liberate us.

The “consumer” flag perhaps troubles me the most. It is the passivity implicit in the term that disturbs me. Yes I can be an “educated consumer,” an “informed consumer,” but in the end, “consumer” implies that I am not an entirely active agent in my own destiny. They are selling, and I am buying.

It’s also true that I was once a “patient,” and I am a “survivor of psychiatric abuse.” That is an important part of my history, and as a result, I have dedicated my life to fighting for the rights and dignity of others who suffer psychiatric abuse.

But I need to go beyond even these labels.

I don’t know if I want to define myself as the survivor of bad things that happened to me. I want to use my story, and our collective stories of oppression and liberation, to fight the soul-killing institutions and human rights violations that persist in the name of “treatment,” but at the same time I believe that we can dedicate an equal amount of energy to envisioning and creating a world that is safe to go crazy in, or better yet, a world that does not drive people to madness.

Perhaps this would be labeled as “grandiose” (haha!) but I personally embrace the term “mad visionary.” Many of us, having experienced extreme states of consciousness, have developed an ability to look at our society in unconventional and creative ways. We see how various institutions and oppressions are connected, how all life is interconnected. (Often we got labeled as “ill” for the ways in which we have seen and experienced interconnectedness or oneness.)

Using our unique life stories, talents, and gifts, we can each find a way to move beyond confining language and to embrace conceptual frameworks that will revolutionize our realities, individual and collective. Personally, I find the language of human rights to be extraordinarily liberating. The human rights paradigm recognizes that we are all people desirous of basic freedoms and safety. It matters not if we are “well” or “ill,” “normal,” or “disordered.” Article 5 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights says: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Human rights language affirms our basic humanity and demands a world in which we take care of each other and treat one another with kindness and respect.

I see our movement as a kind of underground, stealing back truths from industries that would have us only consume what they produce, whether it’s ways of viewing ourselves or specific “treatments.” They would have us believe that we are so “sick” that we don’t know what’s in our own best interest, and we resist that determination with all our might. We are teaching each other how to get free – free of oppressive structures, free of toxic chemicals, to learn how to heal our minds and hearts and bodies. It’s not always easy, but I’d prefer to struggle in freedom than to be numbed into complacency.

Ultimately, decolonizing our minds is about being open to unknown possibilities. It is about releasing the need to label and process every facet of the human experience. We are far more complex and magical than any label can capture – when we embrace this, our horizons literally extend into infinity.

(anti) copyright Leah Harris, March 14, 2009

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