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.