Freaking out therapists: on being subject to the clinical gaze

I shared the below little blurb with friends. This post is my further musings on the topic.

freakNothing like freaking out an otherwise really nice therapist/spiritual teacher with my story. Oh my…it’s a rather sobering fact that even relatively enlightened folk want to RUN RUN RUN from the likes of me quite often…it’s like they imagine I’m far worse off than I am…a vortex of horror…their fear is HUGE and some sort of judgment comes up…it’s mostly sobering because I don’t need them anymore these days but I know far too many folks without the sorts of emotional and intellectual resources I have been able to develop who need people to help them and what is available most often are people who are terrified of some of the terrain we’ve encountered. And while I don’t need them at this juncture, I could have benefited deeply from guidance as a young woman. It still hurts to see how my life story…my experience freaks people out.

The issue with this man, at least in part, was a deep attachment to DSM labels and the sort of BS he got in his training…conditioning that psychiatry has inserted into the minds of almost anyone who gets any sort of western training in psychology, social work, psychiatry etc. When one bumps up against such a person who is not aware of how deep the conditioning runs then the minute one reveals a history that includes a psychiatric label the person who is subject to the conditioning leaves the present moment and stops being with the other…they are no longer speaking to the person in front of them but at them through the dark lens of a psychiatric construct. Such a person becomes immediately dangerous if the person they are speaking to is in a vulnerable position, expecting and needing care. This is the reality for most people who enter the mental illness system.

Basically when I encounter folks who cannot put aside the conditioning of their training I will simply not share personal information or allow myself to be vulnerable if at all possible because it’s dangerous to risk retraumatization. Yes, the psychiatric system was deeply traumatizing.

In the above incident I approached this man because he is doing deeply inspired and lovely work that I’ve been studying. I am taking a class in which some of his work is part of the class curriculum. I made the mistake of assuming he was more broadly enlightened than he is based on the work I’m familiar with. This is not to damn him. He’s truly a lovely and inspired man in parts of his life. He is also not awake and aware in other parts of his life. Kind of like ALL OF US. The trick is being aware of the people we’re dealing with. We must learn such discernment then we can both keep ourselves safe and interact with others as is appropriate without putting ourselves at risk. I am planning to continue studying the work of this man because it’s helping me grow. I won’t, however, trust him with vulnerable details about my life again unless he manages to wake up to his conditioning.

The reason this particular encounter bothered me is precisely because this therapist is a lovely human being in many ways. And it underscored how risky it is for people who desperately need support. I may not need therapists anymore, but when I was a young woman I sure as heck could have benefited from some of the fine people I now know as peers, colleagues, and partners. I know that young people today are also most often not finding what they need when they meet with any sort of emotional crisis. The mental illness system is dangerous. And far more dangerous than the man I spoke to above.

I tell the story of when in my early 20s I reached out to Stan Grof, “spiritual emergency expert” here: Rethinking madness

Grof is a great example of an also relatively enlightened man who could not see past a label some random, ignorant psychiatrist applied to me when I was in crisis. These labels become blockades — firewalls of sorts. People simply stop seeing you as a distinct, unique human being. And the reality is there is nothing to be labeled bipolar. NOTHING. No labs, no distinct reality. It’s a fiction. A large spectrum of phenomena gets labeled bipolar at the convenience of the mental illness system and pharmaceutical industries, while wreaking havoc on the lives so labeled.

undiagnosed myself a long time ago. The label means nothing to me and yet, if I discuss my history of having been labeled some people will  still try to drag me down with it, using it like an anchor. People like the man above will grab onto it and insist that it must still have some merit. WHY? Man it’s an ugly reality and we need to beware so that we might heal with the help of real healers who don’t see us through such a damning lens.

By the way, when I contacted the man I refer to in the first paragraph, I didn’t even know he was a psychotherapist…he doesn’t bill himself that way anymore. He’s active in spiritual activism and calls himself a spiritual coach. His psychotherapy training, though, is what I got, well, assaulted with. A very subtle assault, perhaps, that has taken a couple of days to reveal itself to me in all it’s complexity. I’ve been contemplating our conversation and all the layers of it since it happened.

So I shared the above quoted piece that I started this post with friends yesterday as I began musing about the issue. One friend pointed out that he was not really so enlightened.

And yes, she was right…I said “relatively” enlightened because the thing is he’s a awesome guy  in so many ways….his work in the class I’m taking has been an exciting discovery…so it was all the more shocking and painful to learn he couldn’t cope with my reality…

Another comment from a friend:

I think a lot of therapists don’t encounter much beyond bourgeois neuroses and lifestyle problems and many certainly don’t encounter clients who are empowered and don’t readily take the infantilized patient role. When I studied clinical psychology, this was almost a given in most of the courses. The whole undercurrent was that the client was to be treated like either a naughty or uneducated child so that the psychologist could assert their role. It was psychological theater, not psychological practice. One of the big reasons I didn’t go into it. (Reading a lot of RD Laing & Foucault among others also was influential in that)

She got it too.  Totally…but it never fails to be disappointing when you think you’re dealing with someone who has gotten beyond that and I’ve now met a lot of people who have. Still the norm is like this guy…even among some of the relative “greats” out there…and again, it’s horribly  disappointing when I incorrectly think I’m talking to someone who has gotten beyond their conditioning.

When I contact people these days for consultative purposes regarding my health and wellbeing or just because I am a student of the world around me and I want to learn, learn, learn, more, more, more.  I reach out now as a peer, as a colleague or as a partner. Gone are the days where I naively consulted “experts.” If someone does have the dubious distinction of being an expert I generally am not interested in consulting them unless they have the humility to understand that there is always far more unknown than known in their understanding.  Certainly there are many lovely such people that I’ve had the fortune to meet, but such folk remain far from the norm. I can learn from these snobby sorts by reading their work, I don’t need to engage with them on a personal level or if I do I do so carefully without allowing myself to get vulnerable. That is okay too. I like learning from people who are different from me, it just pays to have discernment about the need for my own appropriate boundaries.

So the people I really like to seek out to learn from are those who also want to learn from me. Learning is most lovely when it’s a mutual endeavor I’ve found. This is true whether I am talking to others like me who have vast amounts of common personal experience seeking wellness and/or understanding of the nature of reality or if it’s people who have professional experience, also like myself, in whatever field I am interested in. So it might be psychotherapists, social workers, various sorts of MDs, nutritionists or spiritual teachers. I cast my net wide and I utilize many disciplines so that I might understand both my experience and the world around me. This is my work and vocation now.

I use the word peers in the broad sense of the term, not whatever the psychiatric system imagine that it means: Definition of PEER: one that is of equal standing with another : equal; especially : one belonging to the same societal group especially based on age, grade, or status), or a approach people like colleagues (which is another form of peer, really) and lastly as partners (once again a sort of peer). If people cannot enter in such a relationship with me I’m not particularly interested in engaging more than superficially.

Thanks to Jacqui Dillon for tweeting the subtitle (on being subject to the clinical gaze) which I then added to my original title.

See here for a collection of related posts: The divide between client/patient/consumer and professionals (with list of links)

from that post:

I went ahead and used the term patient in the title as it’s the most disempowering word by most people’s estimation, though I’m not really sure why. Frankly with the mental health system being such as it is today using words that are supposed to “empower” the patient, like “consumer, ” are at best Orwellian.

I collected the pieces from Beyond Meds that speak to my experience as both a professional and a patient in the mental health system. As someone with lived experience as both a mental health professional and someone who was once treated with psychiatric drugs and various kinds of therapy, including forced “treatment,” my experience allows for some interesting and sometimes uncomfortable insights into the mental health system in the United States. I have worked closely both as colleague and as patient with social workers, therapists and psychiatrists. I know these people both as my oppressors and my colleagues and friends. These experiences illuminate the true muddiness of human reality that extends to the chaos and ugliness of the mental illness system. (see the collection)

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