Preface to “The Medicine Pouch”
I have had an issue with my mind for 54 years. For the past five years, I have found myself in a bubble. I am living in a bubble of stability, safety, joy, and humanity. And clarity.
We can use our bubbles, whether they last one day or one week or forty years, to feel for those experiencing the daily torment of shame. rage, fear and confusion. We can hold the beauty. We can let know anyone who cares to hear it, that love exists, even if human and temporary, that life is not a cup half full. It is filled with oxygen and substance. We can write about a life that is full and vital and far more expansive than we ever imagined. This LIFE, which is all we have to work with.
They tell me that they think this bubble is temporary, that at any time I can slide back into psychosis and suicidal depression. I do not believe them. You know that you are well when you have tested it, and the ship that you have been building actually holds water through most of it. Wellness is having somewhere to go. When you hold your head up, some people think you are looking down your nose. That is impossible for me; I have been tied up, face down on a mat for seven hours with my butt hanging out. But I do often find myself holding up my head. I am that happy. I have now been well for five years. I believe that quality health care works.
However, I realize that I am an experiment. They may be right. We will have to see what happens in the few years. And if night comes again, if I am locked in, I know that you will reach in through the bars to hold my hand, as I am holding yours today.
Peer Advocacy: A Fellowship of Suffering
Every person who has ever existed has suffered mentally. What is mental illness? It is rage, shame, fear and confusion caused by trauma, whether it be physical, social, or emotional. If this trauma is severe, prolonged or begins early in life, and if the sufferer does not make an emotional connection with other people, the mental illness becomes more complex and more defined.
Mental health research done without full participation by members of the community has led to all kinds of ridiculous innovations such as stocks, ice baths, incarceration, homelessness and illegitimate conservatorship. Mental suffering is treatable by clarity and kindness. People who have recovered from mental suffering must become part of the treatment.
When most people see mental illness, they see the extreme visual forms such as suicide, homicide and homelessness. In America over the past one hundred years, there have been major advances in the treatment of trauma. And there are abundant resources to help the mentally ill. But because mental health is not perceived to be a common right of every individual, and the common good of society, it is not made abundant to the community as yoga centers, gyms and dentists. In the United States, there are at least fifty different health insurance plans that do or do not cover the full spectrum of quality treatment now available. You must be either extremely wealthy or extremely impoverished to access the best possible care. In other words, you must deteriorate into severe mental illness before you can begin to get help. This creates a divide between the community and the recipients of mental health treatment: people do not enter the system until they are violent, homeless, incurable and needy. Peer advocates working together may be able to provide organizations to work on these issues.
Why Suicide Bridge?
Mental health is for everybody. Trauma exists in varying degrees in every person, in every religion and culture. Some people respond to the confusion of physical brain differences with rage and confusion. Some people respond to emotional deprivation by shutting down, refusing to take help from people they fear may rip down their defenses before they are ready. Some people have fought in a war so long they have come to believe there is nothing but threat and violence; they no longer have a reason to survive, but some mysterious force keeps them alive. Some people do everything they can to hide away the suffering of others in order to protect themselves, because untreated mental illness is contagious. Untreated mental illness is contagious. It must be dealt with. Informed, courageous peer advocates can listen.
In the United States, community mental health centers have brought the traumatized into the community where they can participate in the community, connected to housing, education and employment. This has made it possible for many more to recover from illness after it has become severe. However, there are two problems. Some people still need voluntary, residential education and treatment. They need to be temporarily removed from environments that are toxic or when a daily rhythm must be established in order to teach a person to function. And community mental health centers offer no remedial job skills or basic literacy while a person is in treatment. If a person is in the community mental health for ten, twenty and even thirty years, they are unable to function in education or a job. They end up “recovered” with no job history, no education, no credit, no place to live and no reliable transportation with which to get to a job. Peer advocates may be able to help each other become stabilized.
High quality health care can include intensive psychotherapy, relevant and intelligent support groups, the free expression of music, art and writing, safe living spaces and informed, competent bio-medicine. But trauma is individual. Mothers are as vital to the mental health system as psychiatrists and psychologists. Emotional intelligence can be nurtured with books, parenting, coaching, ecology, awareness, a touchdown, crystals, a new wrench, a hard run, a concert, a calico cat, a tomato, a nap, an IPad, a job, a new color, a prosthesis, an armistice, a fireplace and a birthday card. I am not implying that serious mental illness can be cured with a birthday card. We must look to experts who have developed treatments that work, not matter how woo-woo they may sound. However, current treatments include jail, T.V., whiskey, overwork, neglect, ECT, war, Ritalin, high doses of pharmaceuticals and being shot or beaten to death by police. If we are stubborn, peer advocates may begin to hold “mothering spaces.”
Mental health is for everybody. Mental illness is primarily a matter of deep, prolonged social and relationship trauma, in addition to head injury and physical differences. There is an insistence in public mental health on medication to turn the brain off, when mental health requires full awareness and independent choices. Suffering is the human condition, as is wisdom. Lovingkindness, clarity and effective treatment are human gifts which we give each other.
The most effective treatment for mental illness is the support of people who have lived through suffering, are actively aware and who are self-sustaining with the help of the community.
There is a terrible responsibility in writing and speaking out about hope. The real fear is not so much that the business will fail, but there is always the possibility that one may not have the strength to continue to model recovery. But I have found that hope exists, often in small bubbles of light that come and go. If you truly believe that the process is hopeless then you have never recovered from mental illness.
I believe that the wellness lies, not in more research, but in the slow build of momentum among people who have been in the lowest places and have found that wellness for themselves. Peer Advocates need to be encouraged, educated, funded and employed who have the skills and the passion to get the job done. The organizing and planning and funding and battling and crying is going to be so easy. All the essential work is set up and running. The hard, hard work has already been done. All we have to do is write our heads off, be ourselves, make connections, read the paradigms while holding them loose, keep on storytelling, communicate in foreign languages, heft the sandbags, run like mad and fill in all the little gaps.
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