The Right to Own Our Mental Health

I heard it again at a recent Christmas party, as my girlfriends from high school were sharing the “whatever happened to…” of the last 30 years. Another friend had suicided, the second in our class of barely 30, and this one by an overdose of antidepressants.

I came home heavy-hearted. Not just at the tragedy of a life needlessly lost, but the means of her going: during the hormonal uproar of my 30s, I’d attempted the same thing. It took far too many appointments with far too many psychiatrists whipping out scrip pads the moment I sat down in their office, far too many descents into pharmaceutical hell, before I finally found people who would teach me to manage my turbulent thoughts and emotions, not manipulate my brain chemistry.

Evidently, my high-school friend had not been so blessed.

So what I am about to say is rather passionate – and there have been those who have told me it is uncompassionate. I hope not…from personal experience I have profound empathy toward women suffering in these circumstances….and a great deal of anger regarding what I see as destructive and disempowering patterns in addressing their suffering. And I am speaking specifically of some – many, I believe – women’s experience, based on my own history and that of women I know, not to imply that men have no mental health issues, but simply because I cannot represent their experience.

First of all, the physiological facts. Let’s face it – the environment in which we find ourselves is growing steadily more toxic, loaded with chemicals known to disrupt hormonal activity. Add this to the imbalances of the Basic American Diet (a.k.a. B.A.D.), high in chemicals and low in genuine nutrients, possible food allergies or sensitivities, along with the high stress of daily living (whether working at an outside job or inside the home), topped off with the hormonal ebbs and flows that a woman’s body normally undergoes during her childbearing and peri/menopausal years….

The truth is that all – yes, all – of these factors can affect the mind, and are rarely if ever looked at in an initial psychological workup (or often in the average medical exam).

That’s not even touching on the silencing wounds that women may experience in the family, in school and in church, wounds that cannot be verbalized because they go to the level of profound feelings of shame and unworthiness – even unworthiness of life. How many women, suffering these wounds, succeed only in describing the most superficial emotional symptoms, and feel ashamed even of admitting those? And how many psychiatrists, running on a ticking clock, diagnose only on the basis of those superficial symptoms, and miss the core of the problem completely?

That was certainly my experience….and from talking with other women, I know I was not alone in this (though I certainly believed I was at the time).

Instead of an exploration into all the factors that might be causing a woman’s suffering,  however, she receives a new diagnostic identity (“clinically depressed,” “bipolar,” “depression/anxiety disorder,” or what have you), a scrip pad is whipped out and the latest drug is prescribed for the perceived pathology… sometimes, theoretically, to dial down the symptoms until she can learn to do it herself through therapy.

More often, however, therapy is severely limited or left out of the equation entirely, based on insurance restrictions: it’s costly and uncertain, dependent on the therapist’s skill and the patient’s willingness to heal. Now, so far from empowering the patient to take any personal, active ownership of her own mental health,  supplementary drugs (with side effects including suicidal ideation even in adults) are being promoted in case the original antidepressant doesn’t solve the problem!

And with the message being subliminally repeated again and again – doctors and drugs make you better, your experience is chemically based or pathological, you are sick and we have the cure – there is nothing to suggest, instead, that the client has control of her mind, that she can choose her thoughts, that she can imagine more than one interpretation to an incident or a conversation, that she can reframe and heal from past or present traumas, that she can own her feelings and perceptions and intuitions and deep wisdom,  that her mind is her sacred territory and not a chemist’s test tube. In fact, the very people who claim to be helping her are, instead, leading her deeper into disempowerment and dependency.

As James Hillman points out in The Myth of Analysis, the roots of this pattern go back to the beginning of psychiatry as a science, back in 1817, when psychiatric pioneer Jean-Etienne-Dominique Esquirol equated visions with hallucinations, thus effectively placing matters of soul on a par with pathology. The pattern, driven by the rationalist French Enlightenment, continues to influence psychiatry even now…and while psychospiritual therapy is gaining ground, psychopathology and psychopharmacology still have a firm grip on insurance payouts.

All of this, of course, is light-years from Jung’s view that the patient held the keys to his or her own process, that s/he had the intuitions and connection to Spirit/Source necessary to effect healing from within; the therapist’s role was to support the work. Or even from the Buddhist technique of contemplative therapy, using meditation as a tool to become aware of and rein in rogue thoughts and emotions. Both of these are facilitated approaches; both place a high value on the client’s own inner awareness and guidance system.

I’m not saying I  believe the brain can’t have organic or chemical disorders; certainly the boundary between physiological, psychological and spiritual affects appears to be very porous: autism is being linked to environmental toxins and extreme depressions to postnatal hormones; thoughts are known to affect brain chemistry;  and psychologists from C.G. Jung to Dr.  Maureen B. Roberts have reported remarkable results in treating schizophrenia without anti-psychotic medications. For this reason, I believe that chemical treatment as the default  serves the insurers’ and pharmaceutical companies’ bottom lines at the expense of the client’s true healing.

And frighteningly, as Big Pharma gains an ever-tighter stranglehold on health freedoms, this default appears likely to become more the norm, not less.

I fired my last psychiatrist for that pharmaceutical default, and was blessed – and driven – in pursuing healing on my terms. My late husband’s work with an international men’s organization led me to a women’s personal growth community that provided my first taste of Jungian deep-process work. From there I went on to experience healing insights through Earth-based spirituality, shamanic paths, Five Elements acupuncture, Reiki, mystic spiritual traditions,  diet and supplement changes, and have been blessed with the help of rare and wise healers and teachers all along the way …..it’s been a long and continuing mind/body/spirit path, with plenty of twists and turns and switchbacks and heights and depths and detours.

I’m recognizing now that that ongoing experience has not only been a life-saving process of personal healing, but also a process of claiming my mind and soul, my right to my life and self-determination, from a grossly dysfunctional culture that cynically fosters a half-life of profitably marketable distractions, addictions and dependencies rather than placing a value on personal awareness, aliveness, and inward and outward responsibility.

It’s a process necessary and unique for each of us…not just a self-indulgent exercise in achieving  personal wholeness, but a culture-saving process that makes it possible for us to take an effective role in healing our society and our world.

If we do not recognize the patterns that bind us psychologically, how can we work to change them, or recognize the impacts (good or ill) of the patterns that guide other cultures? If we’re not awake to our culture’s (and our own) blind addictions and dependency on outward solutions and outward scapegoats, how can we stand for responsibility in ourselves, our communities, our nation, or our planet?

Looking from this perspective, my friend’s death is not just a tragedy for herself, her family, and all who knew her – but also for the world. And the conditions that led to her death – her death, and that of how many others? –  represent the grossest possible social injustice.

Seeking What’s Essential

I saw a church sign today, offering the week’s Sunday sermon: The Tragic Fall from Faith to Religion. The preaching was long past, so I don’t know what the gist of the message was, but the topic stayed with me. It reminded me of the verse from the Tao te Ching (translation by A.S. Kline):

When the great Way is lost
There is ‘benevolence and rectitude’.
When cleverness appears
There is ‘great ritual’.
When the family is not harmonious,
There is ‘filial piety’.
When the state is in chaos
There are ‘loyal’ ministers.

The message appears to be that when the essence is (apparently) lost, we turn to the empty forms to maintain appearances…but what happens when the empty forms – being empty – no longer satisfy?

But I have a further question: If the essence is so easily lost, was it really there in the first place – or was it just a childlike belief in a wish-fulfilling god like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy?

Many people say that this is the question that led them away from any spiritual practice:  because the magical wish-fulfilling god faded, and the forms failed to satisfy, there’s nothing left to believe in.  It’s easy to give up on the whole deal and turn to distractions: workaholism, TV, gaming,  “retail therapy,” various addictions to stay busy (or sedated) and keep attention focused outward.

But every so often the Essential breaks through on the heels of illness, death, broken relationships, loss of a job or a pet – and the questions begin to surface from underneath the piles of distractions: what does it all mean, anyway? Why am I here?

With popular wisdom holding that legitimate answers come from outside – i.e., that authorized ministers or psychologists are the proper ones to provide answers to such questions – we may seek Essence in predigested religious studies or self-help programs. We may zero in on a favorite preacher or motivational speaker and follow his or her every seminar, book, and CD, finally referencing our chosen guru in every conversation.  We may take process workshop after process workshop, structured retreat after structured retreat…struggling to hold onto our hard-won learnings and insights in the cold light of the workaday world…

And if we’re lucky — and aren’t distracted from our goal by the vehicles we’ve chosen to get there – we might begin to connect with Essence, step by slow step.

So what’s the answer? If even religious and motivational inspirations are not solutions but means to an end – where can we turn? Who has the Answer?

I believe the answer isn’t a secret, it’s not trademarked, and it’s nobody’s intellectual property…in fact, it’s so obvious it appears banal. And in the end, I don’t believe that the answer we personally recognize as Essential is necessarily accessible by anyone else’s process. In the end, when all the outside answers prove insufficient, it’s time to set sail upon the unknown to find the Truth within.

My experience: there’s all the difference in the world between attaching blindly, forcefully, to predigested concepts, memorizing approved doctrines and translations, rejecting all but imprimatured verbiage, hoping that somehow, someday, the sanctioned truth will trickle down from head to heart, versus connecting to Spirit experientially in oneness with the earth, the stars, the whole of creation… sitting still, touching and sensing, questioning insights and beliefs, and allowing Essential understanding to arise from within.

My experience:  there’s an enormous difference between laboring under guilt for real or imagined sins, versus witnessing cherished certitudes, wounds, fears, habits as they show up in my life, and compassionately choosing how to deal with them. Allowing chasm-like experiences of emptiness, nothingness, grief, to discover that Essence is as close as my own heartbeat. Discovering that when I finally get my yammering mind to turn off its protests, complaints, excuses, and be quiet, Essential knowing can finally show up.

I  believe that it’s ultimately up to each of us to move beyond chapter-and-verse literalism or osmotic absorption and find the thread that ties belief to Essence for us alone.  Daring to step outside the catechetical box to seek and recognize who, or what, the reality of God, Goddess, Spirit, Higher Power, Source, Essence, is in our authentic experience…and to build a real faith on that recognition. Growing beyond childish wish-fulfillment and rote religion to own our mature spirituality.

As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning:

Ultimately (we) should not ask what the meaning of Life is, but rather must recognize that it is (we) who are asked. In a word, each is questioned by Life, and we can only answer to Life by answering for our own life: to Life we can only respond by being responsible.

Is it frightening? Of course! Does it get easier? I would tend to doubt it….

But the question is – do we choose a life of empty forms and empty distractions, or a voyage of discovery, however challenging?

Finding the Secret Magic “They’re” Not Hiding From Us

It’s one of the most powerful marketing secrets out there: that most of us have a hidden, painful sense of inadequacy… a lurking subconscious suspicion that some super-informed and miserly “They” are keeping all the ability, the skills, the knowledge about useful (or lifesaving!) topics from the rest of Us.

Just take a look at the pages that came up in a quick Google search (these are selected from the 95,900,000 results listed!)…

  • 20 Things They Don’t Want You to Know
  • Natural Cures They Don’t Want You to Know
  • Debt Cures They Don’t Want You to Know
  • The Weight Loss Cure ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About
  • The Secrets Creative People Don’t Want the Rest of Us to Know

Doesn’t it sound like there’s massive conspiracy to keep the information we need out of our hands?

As a copywriter I can tell you, however: while there are certainly big secrets being kept (the scope of the Gulf oil disaster, the health impact of GMO’s – pick your issue…), it’s a pretty fair certainty that the “secrets” listed above aren’t among them.

These are pseudo-secrets – solid, practical, available knowledge, enticingly labeled and posted behind multiple sales spiels that tap into our inner victim, compelling us to click through and read the article and/or buy the info-product ….proving the effectiveness of that headline template over and over again.

Yup, it’s a template, recommended by just about every copywriting course I know. Tapping into our underlying feelings of victimhood is that effective.

Let’s take that headline on creative people as just one example (and as a disclaimer, I know the woman who wrote it. Promoting Us-vs-Them victimization or disempowerment is completely against her values, vision and mission; the event she was promoting intentionally disproved the premise – but not the power – of her headline).

To look at the number of web pages focused on boosting creativity (a quick Google search turned up 2,090,000 or so), a lot of people are feeling uncreative these days. And when you look at the rising cultural pastimes – surfing the Internet and watching television – the reason quickly becomes apparent: we’re becoming passive receivers.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: it’s easier to relax and enjoy the fruits of other people’s creativity than it is to create our own, and as we exercise our creative muscles less and less, the harder it becomes to use them at all…so we become increasingly dependent on outside sources. And the cycle deepens….

Worse: if you’ve grown up with the idea that you’re not creative – that you couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, or draw a stick figure – you don’t have a lot of incentive to try.

But there’s a cost to sitting back and receiving, buying into this sense of powerlessness.As visionary theologian/author/educator Matthew Fox writes in his revolutionary book Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet, creativity is an inescapable element of our humanity, which we ignore at our peril:

We are a species and indeed a civilization very prone to dictatorships; that is, to addiction. It is as if we want to turn our power over to others….I propose that most addictions come from our surrendering our own real powers, that is, our power of creativity. We get a temporary “high” from a shot of some external stimulus, be it nicotine or sugar, speed or acid, sex or more money, entertainment or television – and that is our sad substitute for the joy and ecstasy of creativity and creation.

This was a powerful “aha” for me. Even as a writer, producing copy for clients upon demand, I knew I wasn’t going as deep as I could if I dared. I was being creative, sure, but there was something missing. And I was looking at the experts – coaches, copywriting gurus, etc. – and thinking, “Perhaps if I took just one more course…….”

I didn’t find the answer until I went for a two-week training out of state, and returned to find my home reeking and filthy and my garden dying from the neglect of the person I’d (unwisely) employed as house/cat-sitter. I was battling my way through costly repairs, replacements, and cleaning to reclaim my home, feeling my energy steadily sliding into depression and victimhood…

…And then I read this, also from Creativity:

When our ancestors discovered fire back in the savannahs of Africa over a million years ago, they set out on a great journey. When they arrived at the place we not call EuroAsia, the ice age broke out. There they were, fresh from the heat of Africa, forced to live in caves for seven hundred thousand years. Did they give up? Did they fall into masochism and say “Woe is we!”? No. They got to work. They put their imaginations to work. They learned how to prepare hides, sew warm outfits, hunt animals for food and clothing, and how to tell tales around the campfire and entertain themselves. In short, this is where our creativity came to birth.

And I realized: my creativity isn’t limited to the work I do for my clients. My creativity can dictate the mundane choices I make as I live my life. I can sit feeling victimized and depleted, or I can use the skills and tools I have at hand to envision new answers, craft new solutions.

I gathered the materials I’ve collected for space-clearing and got to work…and the energy of my home – and my mind – changed. As I moved through the house, smudging and singing “We are the rising sun – we are the change – we are the ones we are waiting for – and we are dawning – we are the rising sun,” I began to embody the song as a truth in my life.

And out of that truth arose a question: What if – just as a wild possibility – I’m feeling uncreative because I am simply not recognizing the creativity I use every day?

What if creativity is not just about writing copy…producing works of Art…or even saving sanity in a high-stress situation? What if creativity can show up in something as mundane as crafting a healthy dinner from mismatched odds and ends in the fridge…rewiring your home’s electricity…or negotiating a truce between two arguing children?

In a culture that identifies creativity with the computer-generated, special-effected, airbrushed, Photoshopped megaprojects featuring an elite class of Beautiful People, such everyday practical creativity comes off looking as glamorous as a tone-deaf shower singer.

But – if what I was reading and realizing was true – creative skills don’t need to be flamboyant and artsy; they’re also mundane, everyday, practical, as much a part of us as our thumbs. Perhaps they’re not producing a blockbuster movie, a million-dollar art sale or a lifetime income in book royalties – but we could not survive without them.

“But leftovers and fuse boxes and peace among the kids – that’s not a creative legacy,” you might think.

Or is it? Food on the table, lights in the dark, and lessons in living together…these make up the most basic legacy of all, one of nurturing, protecting, civilizing.

My mother wrote many emphatic op-ed columns on conservative politics and religion – but the earth-loving values she lived were the legacy she gifted to me. And while my husband left a massive artistic and spiritual legacy, his carefully-drawn schematic of the wiring he installed in our house is the practical legacy that has kept our lights lit, our basement unflooded, and our frozen foods unthawed. We pass on all sorts of legacies in ways we’d never expect…or necessarily intend.

Of course creativity takes many forms, from a leftover casserole to an  electrical schematic to Michelangelo’s David or James Cameron’s Avatar….but that experience of reclaiming my home taught me that honoring the creativity in our mundane, everyday choices is the foundation. Consciously developing intentional, creative solutions for the challenges of our daily lives, rather than going with the easiest default — clearing the energy of the house instead of wallowing in victimhood – making up a new recipe rather than hitting the speed-dial for pizza – talking with the kids about (creative!) problem-solving techniques rather than plunking them in front of the TV.

To adapt another quote from Matthew Fox: Creativity is not just about (artwork). It is about ALL your creative energy put to good use. We practice our creativity in the ways we choose to show up, in all the facets of our lives…in the beauty we enact, as well as the beauty we create.

So far from conspiratorial cabals of Grinchlike gurus hiding secret knowledge from us, the real question becomes: what are the secret gifts that we’re hiding from ourselves?