August 20, 1985, driving through Dallas, Texas, was the day that all days since August of 1971 were leading up to. How did I arrive at that fateful day? It’s kind of a long story. And I kept notes for all of it.
In 1971, my husband, children and I moved back to Oregon and bought a 20-acre farm with a real log house west of Portland. I felt like it was heaven on earth. I had come home. I was teaching the deaf in a designated school in the Portland school system.
Since I was feeling a lot of stress about my marriage, I decided to check out possible physical reasons for the stress before I went for a divorce. The doctor prescribed Sinequan, an antidepressant. After taking this drug I was awake for seven days and nights. And you know what happens to the mind if awake that long! I really doubt that I would ever have had even one episode without that push from Sinequan.
It took all seven days and nights before my husband called the doctor who said: “Discontinue it.” I started being able to get up and get dressed, but the state my mind had reached during those seven days and nights started coming and going. It continued on until I was hospitalized in a mental hospital where I watched a psychiatrist write “Undifferentiated Schizophrenia” in my file.
I saw that “doctor” twice while I spent seven weeks there. I tried to have a conversation with him but he wouldn’t have any part of that. There was nothing you could call “therapy.” Since they all believe in biochemical and hereditary causes, why should there be therapy?!
Within three days I was OK. In the hospital I didn’t feel like I had the sole responsibility of my whole family on my shoulders — I didn’t have to take care of everything. I felt safer there.
We had a set time to shower in the hospital. We had to undress completely, stand in line, then use a shower that had walls but no shower curtain while the nurse stood on guard and watched everyone. For some reason, I always thought of Dachau. One night they gave me Thorazine. I started fainting every time I was upright. A nurse came and sat by my bed taking my blood pressure off and on till morning. No more Thorazine.
The school district asked me to resign from my teaching position. I wasn’t on tenure and I had only two weeks of sick leave, and I was in the hospital for much longer than that. Since my son was deaf, from meningitis when he was a year old, teaching deaf children was my life. My heart broke as I wrote a letter of resignation. But that was easy compared to what was going to happen to my body after starting an antipsychotic drug, Stelazine. Hell on earth was my term for it. Besides short-circuiting my central nervous system, causing tremendous muscular aberrations, it stopped my menstrual periods, my breasts drained profusely, my manual dexterity was shot, I couldn’t even fix my hair! And NO emotions.
At the end of 11 months I had had enough and stopped taking it. I had suffered through my first dehumanizing incarceration in a mental hospital, followed by a year of traumatic assault on my body by medication for “mental illness,” by which time I decided I would rather be “crazy” or dead than have to live with that medication that was making me a zombie. I refused to continue to suffer that hell just to make other people feel more comfortable when faced with what they didn’t understand.
By the time I was hospitalized again in the spring of 1974, the “delusion” that I was going to find my father had settled in. A number of occurrences and events were centered on that thought. At the beginning, I was in no way a person who believed in paranormal experiences or psychic events of any kind. But as the episodes started, I began to have some psychic experiences. At first they were so beyond my idea of “normalcy” that they helped push me into psychosis. Gradually, I learned to accept them as part of my experience so they did not have a toxic effect on me.
There were two more hospitalizations which were made more dehumanizing by being put in the “quiet room” on the whim of a nurse who left the bathroom door locked. Altogether, I had five incarcerations.
I started seeing a clinical psychologist who was the director of a day treatment program that I was going to as frequently as five times a week. He kept saying, “You are the only one who can know how you feel.” Though the relationship was interrupted by a continent when my therapist left Oregon for New York City to work on his PhD in 1979, it remained an undercurrent throughout the following years. That psychologist had become not a guide, but a catalyst for the lonely, perhaps dangerous journey I made into the depths of my mind.
I thought at the time, and for a few years afterward, that the psychosis was the worst possible thing that could have happened to me. By the time it was all over a few years later, I knew it was the best thing that could have happened to me since these episodes were ultimately the only thing that could give me back what I had lost of normal mental functioning. They were my mind’s way of reconstructing itself.
When the third person in my immediate family was diagnosed as schizophrenic, I knew that someone had to do something to save my four children and grandchildren. So, following in my father’s footsteps, I volunteered. I gave in to what felt like a “spiritual calling” that had been chasing me to some degree or other most of my life but had become a tsunami two years earlier. My sister’s episode was the stopping place. I had to finally stop and face “the calling.” If there was something I was supposed to do, I wanted to get on with it. If there was something I was supposed to do, a way would be made. If there was something I was supposed to say, the words would come. I stopped avoiding what my feelings had been telling me I had to do. I said, “Yes, I will write. I give my life.” I couldn’t run anymore. There was no hiding from the inside of me.
Then all hell broke loose.
Somehow I had come to the realization that summer that something in me was broken. I couldn’t even tell anyone what it was. But I knew there was no medication, no therapy, no book, no psychiatrist that could fix what was broken in me. I knew it was between me and a higher power. At some point I posed a thesis: I WANT. If I (ego) will allow it, the organism will proceed in the pursuit of the satisfaction of that want. I would do my own research on my mind. I put my life up to follow/allow the polestar of my instinct and an unknown greater power. I started trying even more to write about everything happening with me.
I didn’t know that I had never fully experienced my emotional pain until I was thrown into an altered state. With “psychosis” I plowed through layers and layers of pain, alone in the night. I “wailed,” to the calf in the pen, to the stars, to any spirits that might be around, and to the night. A friend heard me once and said, “I knew it was coming from your soul.” I resolved at least one major trauma during each episode — including the trauma of having had a child as a result of rape. I began to realize there were gradually lengthening periods during the “episodes” that were the only time in my life I was free from what I would later come to call an “undercurrent of pain.”
I don’t know when that undercurrent of pain began. I couldn’t remember it ever not being there, though I could not name it for many years. It may have been with me since I was three years old and my father left to fight in WWII. Apparently, back in the 1940’s people couldn’t put two and two together to figure out why a daddy’s girl would have a personality change when her daddy left forever. Upon receiving the news of my father’s death in action when I was five years old, my mother was unconscious in bed for three days before she woke up. Later problems with her brain indicated she had had an aneurysm. So there were three days where I was in a suspended state with no stability — my father gone, my mother lying in bed like she was dead, and a grandmother who didn’t believe in hugging grandchildren.
My mother took me to the doctor to see why I wasn’t playing. She adamantly insisted until the day she died that I was too young to be affected by it all. And if I tried to tell her how I was feeling, she was quick to laugh, saying “It’s just your imagination” and turning her back to me as she walked away. She only hugged me when I was sick (which I was a lot) and the word “love” was only used in reference to God and country. I was supposed to know she loved me because she was my mother.
On August 20, 1985, I was driving through Dallas, Texas, heading for Shreveport, when items in the environment “grabbed” my attention. First, a sign that read “End Construction,” followed by a sign on an overpass for an avenue with the same name as my therapist, with a rainbow to the left of it. I saw this as a sign that I had reached the end of what had been going on since 1971 — the reconstruction of my mind. I had reached the finish line, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
At that time I had not learned of synchronicity so I thought, “This is just fitting into my fantasy.” But I was comfortable with that — it didn’t upset me in any way. And my mind stayed on the fantasy idea. Having had some education on the development of young children, I knew that fantasy and magical thinking are a normal part of child development. I suddenly wondered: had a stage of my development been short-circuited when my father left?
Going east toward Shreveport, a blue flatbed truck with an “Old Blue” sign on the back passed by me. Something about that “Old Blue” made me think of my father. I decided to fantasize that my father was driving that truck. And I did. Wonderful, happy feelings surfaced as I watched the truck ahead. I let the fantasy continue, that it was my father driving the truck, and I experienced feelings similar to what I must have experienced as a child when I was with my father — feelings of being safe, protected, taken care of, loved, of not having to worry about my safety or care. Most of those feelings left with him.
And then — I turned the fantasy off! I was able to turn it off! For the first time! Previously, during the episodes, I was “fantasizing” but I could not make it stop.
I thought maybe I needed to do a lot of fantasizing to finish out that part of me that had been undeveloped, so for a few days I reveled in fantasy whenever I got the chance. The best part was that I could put it down! After a few days it seemed to start slowing down so there was less and less fantasy. I knew I had made a breakthrough. And I felt like I could finally bury my father, though I had not known I needed to.
After that experience, I started wondering if the so-called “delusions” I’d had during the episodes were really fantasies, but since I had no idea what fantasies were at the time, I was stuck with framing them as “delusions.”
Through my keeping a chronicle of everything, I was able to keep track of the step-by-step development of my ability to fantasize, starting at an intellectual level with exercises with my therapist. After I learned the true meaning of fantasy, that it also entails emotions, I could look back and honestly say I hadn’t known the meaning of fantasy. If I had reached the fantasy stage as a child, I had absolutely no memory of it. I had never had any emotions with my mental pictures or whatever they were. NEVER.
That day, August 20, 1985, marked the end of all psychotic episodes for me. Within five years I had regained my National Teacher of the Deaf Certification and started teaching again, eventually retiring in 2011.
Supposedly, a Mayflower captain once said in reference to Columbus: “He didn’t know where he was going, he didn’t know where he was when he got there, and he didn’t know where he’d been when he got back.” That pretty well sums up my inner experience from 1971 to 1989.
I went back to Portland in early 1986 and became involved with the “consumer” movement there. It was a start. I went to a few meetings with professionals. From that I could see that “we” (the consumers) didn’t have a chance. The parameters of discussion were decided before we got there, and no consumers were in on the decisions for parameters. The philosophical decisions were made by the “professionals” and we were allowed to putter around in their decisions. Although “they” didn’t consider them philosophical decisions — they believed they had the facts.
Interestingly, a friend of mine had an article published in local media about mental illness and some things that could be helpful (that I had found helpful, too). He was not identified as having been mentally ill himself. He got two letters from professionals saying, “Obviously, you know nothing about mental illness.” And all I could think was, this is the kind of people that have such control over our lives! I saw a lot of “I’ve found something that works!” with not one response from professionals to find out more about it.
Clinging impotently to their biochemical and genetic theories while being deaf to the sound of the machine age creaking to a halt, the authorities in this country — the country for which a father so willingly gave up his life — refuse to recognize that his very act of self-sacrifice started a little girl down the tumultuous road leading to “mental illness.” Pedantically, they maintain that the daughter he died to defend — from the Nazis, men trying to make a “perfect” species — has something WRONG with her that they have to correct. Even if it kills her when she reacts traumatically to the physical, mental and spiritual rape perpetrated upon her being in that hero’s very homeland.
And now the authorities in this homeland, in their efforts to make a perfect species, want to permanently rid the hero’s descendants of their genetic “imperfections,” possibly eradicating once and for all a life-saving, experiential potential for self-reorganization of the human psyche that can rescue them from the locked goose-step “Heil APA” machine parade.
How much trauma does it take before one starts getting “chemical imbalances” or “psychotic episodes”? The biomedical model of “mental illness” is based on what is becoming an archaic belief in the human body as a machine.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.