Part Three ~ Integration
I don’t know if severe clinical depression was an experience I ‘needed’ to have. Maybe it occurred in part because a crash, a low phase, was necessary to balance out the high of mania. Maybe I was processing the trauma of the whole experience. It’s likely there was a chemical component - perhaps I had used up a 6 month supply of all those happy brain chemicals in a matter of days or weeks and needed to rest and rebuild them. Or if psychiatry has it right, then I’m at the mercy of a brain that will continue to cycle through these highs and lows for the rest of my life. Hard to say.
I have ultimately come to believe that things are shifting, healing, and changing in their own time. When I get impatient, when I pressure myself into an externally imposed timeline of how I “should be” feeling, what I “should be” doing, where I “should be” at - this is when I suffer. At this point, there is truly nothing for me to ‘do’. Except to humble myself daily before something greater, and attempt to trust that this unfolding is perfect in its imperfection. I need only step out of my own way, to see the ordinary magic that is already present - within this process, within us all.
I finally trust the meaning that I’ve made out of this experience. I trust that it was necessary, that it carried messages and teachings. I know that I have spent the past several years opening up - exploring yoga, meditation, acupuncture, plant medicine, shamanic ceremonies. Through these practices, I have discovered over and over again what my childhood dance teacher could have told you 20 years ago - that I am very flexible. My flexible body allowed me to contort myself into all sorts of crazy yoga postures, and my flexible mind has allowed for the inclusion of various alternate viewpoints, realities and experiences. But even the most flexible elastic will snap if stretched too far.
And snap I did. I snapped, and for a second, it was beautiful.
But then people got scared. I got unlucky and experienced some nastiness within the psychiatric system.
The help I received actually did some harm.
I became very afraid. And then I closed down.
I shut down to different realities, to other ways of knowing.
I shut down my ability to communicate, to relate, to care, to love.
I shut down my personal sense of power, my creative impulses, my sense of worth, my right to exist.
And when people feel they have no right to exist, they decide that they might as well die.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the ego - not the Freudian ego, but rather the idea that we’ve each built an identity for ourselves - beliefs about what we are, our personality, abilities and skills, which combine to create a mental construct of “self”. These fixed, secure, unshakable ideas of who and what we are can be limiting. They may feel safe in their familiarly, but they are like sturdy, rigid walls. And if we are not careful, we can wall ourselves off, seal ourselves in - into windowless rooms, airtight houses, stagnant stories. With no room to breathe. If we begin to tear down the house, to see beyond what we’ve decided that we are, it doesn’t come easy. Negative emotional reactions surface suddenly, like poisonous asbestos hidden within the walls.
“Hello, I am Madison. I do yoga and am a good acupuncturist.
I am smart and sane and dependable and have many friends.”
How quickly these ideas are burnt to the ground when you find yourself in a mental institution - certified, unemployed, and incapable of pursuing the activities to which you’d attached so much of your identity. I felt like I then spent an entire six months just staring in shock at the shattered remnants of my carefully constructed ego.
Once totally dismantled, it exposed an astonishing amount of underlying fear, self-loathing, pride and anger. In my depression, I probed further into these with morbid fascination, a sort of psychological self-mutilation which caused even more suffering. Probably not a terribly helpful practice. It’s quite the combination - shattered ego, flooded by negative emotions, closed down by fear, cut off from self worth. No wonder I was so damn depressed.
Thankfully, things have begun to open back up again. I seem to have re-assembled a modified sense of self. I feel more secure, more loving, more able to express. I’m definitely not feeling the need to push for more dramatic openings, though. I am happy to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground - no need to experience another manic episode, to bomb down my house of ego, to try to exorcise all the nasty dark aspects of my psyche. I am clearly a bit more sensitive than I’d previously admitted, and being more gentle with myself has proved somewhat challenging. But I am learning.
I will just settle for understanding myself in a different way - a less bold and fearlessly trusting way, to be sure. These days I feel a hell of a lot less certain that I know exactly who I am. But I am also more confident in my ability to be accepting of myself regardless of the circumstances I find myself in. I can love and appreciate the achiever, the accomplished, the driven, the brilliant; and still witness and see value in the broken, the terrified, the depressed, the insane. I can attempt to hold and own both of these realities simultaneously. To integrate two seemingly opposite halves into one messy and complex and infinitely interesting whole.
Somewhere along the line, we lost track of the potential diversity of human experience. It’s not surprising that a culture which emerged from colonialism would insist that we conform psychiatrically as well. Exposure to someone living an alternate reality can be frightening, and this fear narrows our points of view. We begin to pathologize experiences, instead of striving to understand them. We ask, “What is wrong with you?” instead of, “What has happened to you?”.
Shame and isolation make it unsafe for those us us with lived experience to freely speak out, but the heart of social change is storytelling. We must open spaces for diversity of experience and for honest conversation. We must allow the crazy people to find each other, to help each other. There is a natural process involved in healing and in recovery. If we can shift the authority and power of the healing process away from external forces - from our doctors and therapists - we can connect with an innate capacity that comes from within each of us.
It isn’t linear, this process of being human. It’s just not possible to keep steadily getting better and better, smarter and richer and more impressive and accomplished. Sometimes we can’t help but come crashing down. It is quite amazing though, how once we are truly shattered - not just hitting rock bottom, but lying strewn across it in a myriad of rough and unsightly fragments - we just do the same thing we have always done. The same thing we will always keep doing.
We take a breath, and then another. We accept. We allow.
There’s really no need to rush and try to put ourselves all back together again, to deny and hide how broken we really feel. Because once we begin to own our brokenness, own our unsightly fragments, we find that our experience isn’t so different after all. And by being open about my experience, I gain exposure to the raw, real and true experiences of so many others.
And then we get to heal together. <3
“I believe in mental diversity: each of us is different, and in a complex human world we are all on a continuum where there is no real standard of “normal.” Emotional crisis may be difficult and chaotic, but it is always there for a reason and it carries messages that need to be listened to.
Madness is a natural adaptive response to the context and circumstances where people find themselves: what gets called “psychosis” is not a disease or problem within the individual, but a mysterious break in social relations and a desperate search for a way forward. Even when holistic health can offer support and healing physical wellness plays a role in recovery, the inner meaning of suffering remains. Psychosis usually reflects conflict that needs to be addressed: conflict within families, in society, and inside each of us. This breakdown, if responded to with optimism and support, can lead to new life options and become a positive and restorative breakthrough. While I am not against medical treatment or medications, and I support the usefulness of prescription drugs to suppress difficult experiences, medications, diagnostic labels, and hospitalization also carry a great risk of making things worse.” ~ Will Hall
“This movement is not a “recovery” movement, a “peer” movement, or a “mental health” movement. It is a human rights movement, and must be understood no other way. Until our emotions, thoughts, and unique realities are defined solely as a part of the broad spectrum of human experience, never as “symptoms” or “mental health issues”, we will remain mired in oppression. When I identify as having “lived experience”, it isn’t of “mental health challenges”, or of “disorder” or “illness”; it means that I’ve lived the experience of being oppressed and dehumanized, and that the only thing I’ve “recovered” from is psychiatry, itself.
Countless people share the same story, whether they’ve awoken to it or not, and this is why we are here, today, uniting our voices. What those of us with “lived experience” do share is the experience of being oppressed in the way that those with non-white skin, women, or those with non-heterosexual orientation have been oppressed. Time and time again, those of us deemed outside the acceptable “norm”— a very small and homogenous group of centralized social power— have been stripped of rights and treated as less than human. And just as the civil rights movement, the women’s lib movement, and the LGBTQ movement have fought to dismantle this power structure, so must we.” ~ Laura Delano
** Wow! Still reading? I’m impressed. Nicely done, you tenacious human.
First of all, I’d like to send mad love to those brave souls who shared their stories with me when I felt all alone in my crazy. I’d also like to express my adoration for both my biological family and the friends who are my family - the ones willing to spend time with me in an exhaustingly manic state, who loved me enough to risk my wrath and had me committed anyway, who were willing to venture into the wacky land of the psych ward for visits and coloring, and who sat with me in the deepest depths of depression. This has been one hell of a wild ride, and I definitely couldn’t have managed it alone.
Questions, thoughts, feedback? Feel free to contact me anytime.
Experiences and stories of your own to share? I’d love to hear them.
Some resources that propped me up along the way, in case you are interested:
Be well, all.