Doing community-level healing RIGHT 11/12/2012Posted by ALT in Historical Context, Philosophy/Spirituality, Survivor Voices.
Tags: intergenerational trauma, Native American, Sand Creek Massacre, Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Walk/Run, spiritual healing
Can you see it? Do you see the gaping soul wound in our society? It has many facets, myriad layers: the valorization of death and abuse,* promulgated through supposedly “light-hearted” entertainment for mass consumption. The unstoppable drive to commodify everything – let no space remain private, let nothing remain free of a price-tag (the death of the personal, priceless life). The indiscriminate psychiatric drugging (forced, if necessary) of children, adults, anyone who doesn’t quite “fit” into a highly artificial consensual reality designed to free us of any and all moral qualms so that we might give ourselves up fully to the consumerist frenzy, human cost be damned. We wander, drunk on possessions and electric lights, more and more oblivious to the world of the simple, human.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this country was built on a consciously planned and mercilessly executed genocide spread over several generations. And today we see a significant portion of our economy – our livelihoods, our lives — built on the production of killing machines.
Were we as a society foolish enough to think there would be no consequences for placing death above life?
I believe we are in need of healing. On a vast, societal level (that also acknowledges and encompasses the small, local level – right down to the individual). I think that healing needs to address several centuries’ worth of pent-up, intergenerational trauma sustained by the many peoples of this land, and the land itself. It would also have to address some of the mechanized institutions of ongoing wounding (for private profit, for the advancement of state power, etc.) whose actions are so very widespread these days.
To fully accomplish the level of healing required will likely take something or someone truly extraordinary. Perhaps, as John Perry suggested, we are in need of a visionary or two that can show us the way.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t get started without him!
Getting started: One example of a seriously inspiring community-level healing project
Sand Creek, CO was the site of one of the numerous cold-blooded massacres carried out against Native American peoples. In this case, about 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children, and elders were gunned down by US cavalrymen in what had been designated as a “safe camp” in 1864. As a recent Boulder newspaper article stated, “the gruesome killing and depraved mutilation of people’s bodies that occurred at Sand Creek are unparalleled in U.S. military history. Reports of the slaughter horrified the nation and a Congressional investigation condemned the massacre, but no one was punished. Colorado landmarks honor the perpetrators: Evans, Chivington, Downing, Nichols.”
The Restorative Justice movement teaches us that everyone involved in a crime or injustice (victims, perpetrators, and the community of people whose lives are touched and altered) needs healing and must participate in the healing process.
…How does healing happen? The Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples themselves initiated a process 14 years ago… Over this month’s Thanksgiving holiday, Cheyenne and Arapaho runners will complete a 170-mile Spiritual Healing Run/Walk from the Sand Creek Massacre site to Denver.
- from a Boulder news article about the event
I love everything about this healing project. First of all, it takes time – they’ve been doing it every year for the past 14 years. And though they’ve made some amazing progress (remains of Sand Creek Massacres victims being held by several museums and national parks were repatriated in 2008), the work is far from over, and each year the healing process is renewed.
This event sets aside the passive identity of “victim” and allows human beings affected by this tragedy to take on agency and work together for healing. There’s a role here for everyone – Native and non-native alike. In 2008, the organizers even chose to stage the event in honor of a non-native, Army Captain Silas Soule who refused to shoot unarmed people at Sand Creek, brought the atrocity to light, and even testified against his commanding officer.
This is not some kind of branded marketing scheme, a pink-washed “awareness run” a la Race for the Cure. It is something much deeper. Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders have stated, “The Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk is a prayer. It is not a race. It is a commemoration for the victims and survivors of the massacre, and for healing ancestral homelands.” A conscious and intentional effort towards real, spiritual healing.
A call to Boulder residents puts it this way:
Through ceremony, remembrance, prayer, honoring, and running, the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples seek healing. Will we meet them on this healing path? We cannot change history, but we can seek to build honest, healthy relationships in our time, in this place.
Tags: Carmelo Valone, dehumanization, homeless, Kelly Thomas, police brutality, schizophrenia, Talk of the Nation
Have you heard the story of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless man diagnosed with “schizophrenia” who was beaten to death by 4 policemen last July in Orange County, California?
It’s reemerged as a topic of discussion recently because of an Op-Ed piece published in the Los Angeles Time by a psychiatric survivor named Carmelo Valone. Entitled “My Kelly Thomas Moment,” the author makes no bones about it: this could have been him.
I had my Kelly Thomas moment on a hot summer night in Boston in 1995…The Boston police officers who responded that night weren’t exactly boy scouts when they restrained me, but I did live to see another day. Because of that, I’ve had the chance to improve, something Thomas didn’t get….
It would be easy to conclude that Thomas was homeless by choice because he refused to take medication to treat a range of symptoms that had been diagnosed as schizophrenia. But things are more complex than that. I myself have never been truly homeless, but I have refused mental healthcare on many occasions, often when I was at my most vulnerable… I am today a functional part of this dysfunctional world we call Los Angeles, and it has been quite a while since I needed any form of inpatient treatment. But there have been times — and this is not an easy thing to admit — when mental illness took over my life.
- Carmelo Valone, in “My Kelly Thomas Moment”
Fact of the matter is— when it comes to alternative experiences of reality, or “mental health challenges” (if you’d like to call them that), psychosis, mania, extreme emotional states; fact of the matter is, it could be any of us.
As a society we long to place the mentally ill in some kind of category separate from the rest of human existence, so that we can chant blindly to ourselves “this would never happen to me, this would never happen to me.” Folks, that’s dehumanization; and aside from being a terrible way to handle the blessing that is human difference! individuality!, it also leads to all sorts of behaviors that are absolutely unacceptable. Like forced electroshock.
Like beating a man to death in the street.
Back to the testimony of psychiatric survivor Carmelo Valone.
Valone was interviewed briefly by Neil Conan on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” yesterday. I highly recommend you check it out. He expressed himself admirably, even in the face of some very negative opposition (check out the caller – a psychiatrist – at 11 minutes in… YIKES!). Through it all, he maintained a position that I applaud: namely, that the behavior of a person like Kelly Thomas or himself comes primarily from not being heard, from being stigmatized and isolated by his label, from being made hopeless by the lack of compassion from his fellow men, from being dehumanized.
Some stand-out moments:
VALONE: [...] I almost – I almost want to say that these police officers were the mentally ill ones, and Kelly Thomas was the sane one in the situation. I mean, they tasered him. They smashed him with the taser, buttons, the flashlights. They broke his throat. I mean, it’s horrifying. I mean, I had nightmares about it for months, and I feel very badly for his family.
CONAN: Of course, the police officers have something to say on their side, as well. They felt threatened by someone who is out of control.
VALONE: He had no weapons though, you know? He had no weapons. He wasn’t posing any sort of threat from what the witnesses say.
- From Valone’s interview on “Talk of the Nation”
VALONE: […] I didn’t become violent because I stopped taking my medication. I was violent because I was frustrated because no one was listening to me, OK? This is a problem I’d heard, time and time again, because I have friends that are in the psychiatry field – a number of them. And people seem to equate not taking the medication with violence.
- From “Talk of the Nation”
Who’s on Trial?
2 of the 4 officers involved in the death of Kelly Thomas will stand trial, one for second-degree murder and the other for involuntary manslaughter. But let’s not pass it all off on them. WE – as a society of humans – need to examine ourselves. Why are the homeless so maligned? Why are the mentally ill shunted off to the side, neither to be seen or heard as they struggle to speak about their experiences?
Let’s all take a close look at the myriad ways dehumanization darkens our coexistence. With warmth and a little loving kindness, perhaps we can shed some light on the reasons why, 15 years ago, Carmelo Valone wandered the streets of Boston, hopeless and without a voice; why Kelly Thomas walks the streets no more; and why so many of us can, heads held high, walk right past the suffering of our fellow human beings without a glance.
Tags: APA, DSM-5, Occupy the APA, Paula Caplan, psychiatry
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I received a request from Paula Caplan today calling for psychiatric survivor stories. I promised to post it here [see below]. Paula is one of the most vocal critics of the forthcoming DSM-5, and she will be speaking in Philadelphia on May 5th as part of the “Occupy the APA” festivities. Your survivor stories will be an extremely important contribution to the cause of telling the American Psychiatric Association to stop labeling, dehumanizing, and condemning human beings who happen to experience things differently. If you have a story to share, please consider doing so!
(from Paula Caplan)
Paula J. Caplan, author of They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal, would like to receive one-page (yes, just one page, please) brief summaries — even bullet points will be fine — from people who have been harmed in any way by psychiatric diagnosis. These are to post on her psychdiagnosis.net website, where she has had 53 stories of harm but wants more recent ones. The writer will have the choice of having their real name, a pseudonym, initials only, or “anonymous” used when their story is posted. The one page should consist of the following information:
(1)Psychiatric label(s) I was given
(2)What was happening that seems to be why they gave me the label(s)
(3)The kinds of harm I suffered because of getting the label(s)
Please send by March 23 to firstname.lastname@example.org
Is a mental illness like diabetes? 02/21/2012Posted by ALT in Mental Health Awareness, Survivor Voices.
Tags: biopsychiatry, diabetes, medication compliance, mental health, schizohprenia, stigma
Having a mental illness is like having diabetes.
It is the most resounding mantra of mainstream mental health. I probably heard it hundreds of times in the first few months of my employment in the mental health system; investigating the true meaning of this phrase was literally my entryway into critcal thinking about mental health care in our society.
What does it really mean when someone (almost inevitably a professional) says this?
They say it means a reduction of stigma — for if mental illness is like diabetes, it’s nobody’s fault, right? Just a biological fact of life for some folks.
Paradoxically, they say it means there’s something fundamentally flawed and wrong about your brain, your neurochemistry. They say this chemical imbalance can only be corrected with lifelong medication compliance. Adherence to the doctor’s orders gauruntees you a good life (or the best possible under such conditions); non-compliance is a recipe for disaster.
Is this comparison of mental illness to diabetes in any way useful, or is it misleading and inherently stigmatizing?
Let’s let someone who has truly lived this metaphor, experiencing it first hand as a pschiatric survivor, answer the question for us.
The following are excerpts from a brilliant essay published anonymously in 2006 in the Schizophrenia Bulletin. The author, who reports a diagnosis of “schizoaffective disorder,” explains eloquently and succinctly why, for him/her at least…
Having a mental illness is NOT like having diabetes.
The Hospital Experience:
A diabetes patient in hospital can expect a clean, hygienic ward peopled by staff who treat the patient with respect, as an equal, who explain the illness and the treatment regime, and who co-opt the patient as an important agent in his or her own recovery. A psychiatric patient, however, might well find a ward that is rundown and peopled by staff who do not seem to have the same expectations of respect for patients and of a generally good professional working relationship between staff and patients. A psychiatric patient might instead, as I did in one of my hospitalizations, find staff who avoided talking to the patients as far as possible and whose only interaction with patients was to give commands.
The author is not the only one to have observed this trend of the division between staff and “patients” in mental hospitals. See this fascinating study for more.
Schizoaffective disorder rips straight into the heart of the family, causing shame, anger, guilt, and self-blame from parents and siblings, as well as casting blame on the patient. Parents ask, where did I go wrong, and patients ask, if I had had a different upbringing could I have avoided this disease? With diabetes, however, there is no sense of blame, guilt, or shame; rather, people hear the diagnosis, learn (perhaps over time) about the condition, and come to accept the limitations of the condition.
In (naturally occurring) diabetes, there is no place for blame. It doesn’t appear to be a particularly useful or therapeutic concept. I find myself thinking that the same is probably true of mental illness. There’s a firestorm of protest going on over at Mad In America right now about Michael Cornwall’s supposed blaming of families for the mental illness of their children (the article which stirred up so much criticism happens to be one of his best — I highly recommend you check it out).
Ultimately, I think we are best served by abandoning the conecpt of blame altogether. One commenter there put it so well:
I think that the problem of laying the blame on families is better resolved by getting the blame out of the equation rather than getting families out of it. It’s not about who did what to whom; it’s about understanding that we become who we are within the relationships that are important to us, so understanding them is part of understanding who we are. I think it’s when we take those relationships out of the equation that people start to look broken or crazy or mean.
So the first step is to get rid of blame. The next is to understand the significance of the relationships.
Kermit Cole, commenter at Mad In America; emphasis added
And now back to our anonymous author…
Diabetes treatment does not require the same sacrifice of personal privacy that nonmedical treatment for schizoaffective disorder does… Diabetes medicine does not change who a person is; it does not turn one into a zombie, negating the highs as it flattens out the lows; it does not change the way one operates or, in fact, change what it is to be that person. Medicine for schizoaffective disorder does.
Finally, the author suggests an alternative metaphor:
If I could choose a replacement analogy, I would say schizoaffective disorder is like a whirlwind: it comes out of nowhere, strips you naked and sucks you dry, and swiftly vanishes, leaving you empty and shaken but alive, wondering if it really did happen and whether, and how soon, it will come back again.
“He Was Square Inside and Brown” 01/22/2012Posted by ALT in Children's Mental Health, Survivor Voices.
Tags: compulsory schooling, conformity, dehumanization, institutions, suicide, teen suicide
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This is a poem written by an anonymous high school senior in Alton, IL two weeks before he committed suicide:
He Was Square Inside and Brown
He drew… the things inside that needed saying.
Beautiful pictures he kept under his pillow.
When he started school he brought them…
To have along like a friend.
It was funny about school, he sat at a square brown desk
Like all the other square brown desks… and his room
Was a square brown room like all the other rooms, tight
And close and stiff.
He hated to hold the pencil and chalk, his arms stiff
His feet flat on the floor, stiff, the teacher watching
And watching. She told him to wear a tie like
All the other boys, he said he didn’t like them.
She said it didn’t matter what he liked. After that the class drew.
He drew all yellow. It was the way he felt about
The Teacher came and smiled, “What’s this?
Why don’t you draw something like Ken’s drawing?”
After that his mother bought him a tie, and he always
Drew airplanes and rocketships like everyone else.
He was square inside and brown and his hands were stiff.
The things inside that needed saying didn’t need it
Anymore, they had stopped pushing… crushed, stiff
Like everything else.
Tags: 1960s, adoption, mothers, teenage pregnancy, trauma, unconditional love
A mother’s unconditional love for her child, denied systemically, but springing forth in all its glory despite numerous institutional/institutionalized attempts to quell it – this is the story told over and over in The Girls Who Went Away: The hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade.*
And it has moved me deeply.
The book is about pregnant teens from the 60s who were sent to institutional homes for unwed mothers to have their babies quietly, and then pressured (or downright forced) to put them up for adoption. At this time, out of wedlock, teenage pregnancies were an unspeakable shame to the family and simply anathema to the social order (though in another decade that would change completely) – and this was seen as the only possible course of action: go far away, have the baby, and then forget it ever happened, move on. When the mother returned home, the subjects of her pregnancy and the birth were so taboo that many were not allowed to speak of it (or their feelings about the experience) ever again.
Until now. This book is about these mothers, and what’s more – it is told by them. The author (Ann Fessler) interviewed over 100 birth mothers, and includes many of their first person retellings of the pregnancy, birth, and the lifelong impact these events had for them. Fessler also shares her own personal story – she is one of the children that was “given up” during this time period, and it is breathtaking to follow her questioning of the dominant adoption story, ultimately finding deeper meaning and her own biological mother’s love.
The dominant frame story in our culture about teen birth mothers being that they:
- Aren’t prepared/ready for their babies and don’t have the capacity to take care of them
- Don’t want their babies
But this doesn’t begin to express the complicated emotions and stories of birth mothers. It is truly powerful to hear their retellings of the unbreakable bond, the love, they carried for their surrendered children throughout their lives – children they carried for nine months and then perhaps never even saw again. Nearly every woman reports being told that she would “forget,” move on with her life to have other children and not remember the relinquished child. But they could not forget. Take this letter, which Fessler received after the publication of the first edition, for example:
I went out today at lunch to buy your book, hoping it will give me some insight as to what my mother went through. She died a few years ago on her 70th birthday. When she was in the hospital, delirious and hallucinating from a serious infection, I learned that my mother was one of the women you write about. She spent hours crying and begging, “Bring me my baby.” When she regained consciousness she did not recall telling anything but I spoke with her about it and she did—in very few words – confirm her ordeal. She was weak and very sick. I was never able to get more information before she passed.
In that moment at the hospital, her entire life made sense to me. She was a woman who had a sense of sadness and longing her whole life. It burdens me beyond comprehension to think of her sadness and despair and of her never being able to speak of it or share it with anyone.
Many years later, on her deathbed, this woman was calling for that long lost child, who she had not even spoken of to her family! Ah, love is amazing.
A few excerpts
The love the new mother felt for the child, despite her best efforts to follow the social worker’s advice and not form an attachment:
It’s funny. The whole time I was carrying my daughter, I told myself that I wasn’t her real mother. I really believed that. I knew that I was carrying her but, you know, that was the party line, that’s what they told you. The social workers said that you were carrying the child for someone else. And I really went along with that in my head. I guess in a way I was less tormented because most birth mothers didn’t have that kind of detachment. They knew that they were their child’s mother. They knew what they were losing, and I was just totally out to lunch in that department. Until my daughter was born. I realized at that moment, that’s not the way it works. She was my daughter. I realized that fully, in every way, she was my daughter.
A young mother questions the trope that the child is given away to someone who can care for him better:
I want to make the point that he was taken from me. I never gave him away. He was never meant to be a gift. If anything, the gift was that I thought I gave him the parents he needed. They were the gift. They were the gift to him. My son was not a gift.
Mothers reflect on the role of trained professionals and institutions in their stories:
I wasn’t supposed to see him [my son] at all. They said, “You shouldn’t see him, because you’re going to forget and have other children.” They said, “Write down on this side of the paper what you can give your baby. Write down on the other side what the adoptive parents have to offer.” … They said, “Well, just picture what he’s going to look like. You know, he’ll not have the nice clothes that the other children are going to have and on the playground, they’ll call him a bastard.” And I believed that. I remember writing down they had money, they had a father, they had a house, and they had clothes and food. And on my side I only put down love. That’s all I did have.
What’s shocking to me is sitting with other birth mothers and hearing them tell the same story. I thought, “My God, there must have been a textbook.” You looked up how to get babies away from their mother, and this is how to do it. There must have been, because we were all told the same thing. Even the story about the playground. I’ve heard it from other people and I’m thinking, “Oh my God. It was a script. It affected me so much, and here it was just a script.”
I feel as though I was preyed upon by this system, by these people that I was surrounded by. Not some nebulous thing but real human beings, real people had a hand in taking my son away… I was not able to ever mourn my loss of him or be able to express how sad I was. Nobody ever said, “Oh, I’m sorry…”
All of that came to a head when I realized that this wasn’t a good thing. It was in everyone else’s best interests. It was the convenient, expedient thing to do at the time, but it wasn’t really in our best interests. It was not a win-win situation. In my opinion, it was a loss for him, too. He didn’t get to know his mother and father. We didn’t get to know our son, and be with our son, which we should rightfully have been able to do. The winners were the … social workers who got to do their job in the way that they thought they should do it. We lost and we lost big. I mean, we lost the most precious thing in our lives that ever was or ever will be – our baby. Nothing can ever make up for that.
The feeling of worthlessness instilled traumatically in the mother via this experience:
Then they [caseworkers] would say things about the baby. It’s always “the baby,” never “your baby.” And they were not talking about adoption except to say, “This experience will end. You will forget that you were here. You will forget that you went through this. It will all be in the past. Given time, it will fade. You will get over it. You know what you did was wrong? You know that you are not really worthy of keeping your child? You can’t provide a home for that child. You can’t provide anything that child needs. That child needs a mother and a father, and the things that they can give that child.”
I remember feeling almost not deserving of having or keeping my child, but also feeling I don’t have the right to be a mom. I don’t have the right to be a mother. So we really heard that on almost a daily basis [at the group home]…
And on the indescribable joy of finding the relinquished child again, after all those years:
I got to the agency and they put me in this little room, an interview room, and the social worker said, “It will probably be about ten minutes and then I’ll come to the door and I’ll knock and I’ll let her [your daughter] in.” So I sat there waiting. And I was totally shut down. I mean, devoid of any worry, of any fear, of anything. And I remember thinking to myself, “You know what, this is it. This is it. You get one shot at feeling this feeling. You can put it away, you can shut it down, but you know what, this moment will never come again and if you stay shut down you’re not going to show your daughter who you really are and what you’re really about.” It was a physical thing I had to do. I mean, I physically had to get in the moment. And I did. I mean, when the knock on the door came my daughter got to see who I really am. Not a fake, not a phony, but somebody who really was in that moment for her. The social worker opened the door and she said, “I want you to meet your mom. This is Sue. Sue, this is your daughter.” And this beautiful young woman walked through the door.
We looked at each other. I mean, we were both stunned, because she looks just like me. We were totally stunned. We hugged each other, that wonderful sustaining hug, and then we leaned back and the tears were streaming and we started to laugh. I mean, how could you not laugh? It was like looking at yourself.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there’s just no replacement for the not-of-this-world, truly unconditional love that a parent has for his/her children.
A few more goodies:
Ann Fessler, the author, is interviewed by Diane Rehm, along with two birth mothers who contributed their stories to the book.
An excerpt (one woman’s story, from beginning to end) from the book.
* The mention of “Roe vs. Wade” in the title is more to imply that abortion was illegal and therefore not an option during this time period, than to indicate an ideological stance. The author expresses no opinion about the abortion issue, which I greatly appreciate. This book is not about proving a point politically; it is about letting these women – who have been silenced for so long – tell their stories. Hurrah for survivor voices!