we aren't taught to wield...
Sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures. I was twenty when I realized the organizing principles of my life were no longer serving me. Relying on my therapist, surviving from one session to the next, one season to the next, a terrifying prospect had begun to make itself clear to me. I was getting better at coping, that was for sure. But it meant one dangerous thing. That my breaking points, when they came, were getting worse. Withstanding was not the same as overcoming. If I didn’t find a new paradigm, my life would soon be cut short. It was only a matter of time before the breaking became irrevocable. Unrecoverable. I remember the chill winter day. Walking home from school. Crossing the footbridge over the river, trudging through the neighborhood towards my house, desolation clouding my perception, as thick as the lake-effect snow and clouds masking the sky. I slid open the door to the garage, entered, and pulled the door closed behind me.
Sitting in the front seat of my first car, a blue 1987 VW Jetta, I started the engine, figuring it wouldn’t take long for the exhaust to fill the garage. All I had to do was wait. How much time passed? Twenty minutes, forty? I don’t know. The anticipation brought a sense of alertness. Adrenaline. I wasn’t getting sleepy. I was impatient. Agitated. And I had to pee. Finally, the urgency of my bladder forced me out of the car. I didn’t want to piss myself, waiting to die. I cut the engine. Went inside to use the bathroom. I didn’t go back to the garage.
It took a few more months before I was ready to make a shift. A few more months of maintaining, slipping, recovering. The constant back and forth continued, the erratic up and down shuttling of moods and conclusions and reckless decisions, before I was ready to see things clearly. I’d begun dealing drugs. Nothing too serious, I told myself. Just a way to earn some extra pocket money, pay for my books next term, get my own marijuana at cost. I felt enterprising. Clever. But I was smoking opium, too. And my nurse practitioner had told me that she wouldn’t prescribe my medications anymore, if that continued.
Of course, I didn’t see the problem. Opium didn’t seem to affect me the way it did others. It made them sluggish, ambitionless, at best, fanciful. My friend Aaron remarked how just one sweet lungful of the thick, floral smoke could render him content to simply sit quietly, engrossed in staring at his own shoes for hours. Opium made me energized. I felt enlivened. I wanted to climb trees. Something about my brain was definitely different. Looking back now, knowing what I do about the neurology of my mind, I can begin to understand this. If a nervous system is constantly wired for emergency, as mine is, then depressing it would elevate me. Liberate me from the constant perception of a crisis about to unfold, release me from my psychic crouch, always poised expectantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. It granted me a break in the clouds, some clear space in which to attempt asserting my own will and volition for once. No wonder I felt like climbing trees. It was as though my energy were unleashed from the futile battle of my brain against itself, and I could finally do what I wanted, for a change.
Despite that, I tried to understand the dangers, if not how she saw them, then from my own side. One, I knew it was addictive. Supplies were limited and unreliable, therefore it was dangerous for opium to become something I had to rely on. Two, I still valued my mental health resources, and didn’t want to lose a provider who had treated me with respect and empathy for nearly three years. Plenty of other doctors and psychologists had failed me in that regard. So if I weren’t going to climb back into the car in the garage again, I’d better not burn those bridges. Three… there was no three.
The operating assumption until that point was simple. There was something wrong with me, and I couldn’t handle it on my own. What, exactly, was wrong, was still a matter of debate. It would be another sixteen years until a full battery of neuropsychological evaluations ascertained that, by modern standards, I had ADHD. Which, it turns out, is not diagnosed in girl children nearly as often as in boys. Which, it turns out, is often masked by extreme creativity or intelligence, only becoming apparent when life’s pressures finally exceed one’s ability to muscle through and achieve one’s aim. Which, when coupled with childhood trauma, and while simultaneously creating its own trauma through years of mismanagement, can - especially in young girls - be misdiagnosed instead as bipolar disorder or depression. I didn’t know any of this yet. All I knew was that something was wrong with me and I couldn’t handle my own mind. Couldn’t rely on it. Couldn’t trust it. Sometimes, sure. But sometimes isn’t enough. Not when the stakes are so high. It was clear to me that by the next winter, the next downward spiral, climbing out of the garage wasn’t going to be an option. Coping wasn’t any kind of solution. I’d be in too far by the time things fell apart again.
“For someone so smart, you sure are stupid,” my mother would say to me. In a way, not in the way she meant it, she was right. I needed a new way of seeing things. Twenty years of being told I was too much, believing I was too much, meant that I didn’t see my sensitivity and intelligence as gifts at all. To me, they were a curse. A liability. They set me apart from others, kept me aloof, removed. Unintelligible. Distant. I might impress my professors, but I constantly alienated my peers. To be honest, I held myself so apart, I didn’t even consider them peers. When I’d started college after three years of boarding school, I was dismayed at the lack of intelligence I perceived in my classmates. ‘This was supposed to be a good school,’ I thought. ‘Why can’t these people even think or write? Is the whole world going to be like this?’ But I digress. For someone so smart, I sure was stupid. Seeing everything in terms of right or wrong, win or lose, broken or whole. And I’d rather be broken and smart than dumb and whole. I thought being intelligent required suffering. ‘Look around,’ I thought. ‘Only stupid people could actually be happy in a world like this.’
Still, if I wasn’t going to kill myself, I needed another way.
I started looking for magic, which I’d believed in so deeply as a child that it had been a lifeline. I started looking for miracles. It was then that I discovered Trungpa’s book, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. A warrior path appealed to me. It already felt like I’d been at war. Discipline and grit and perseverance were all my existing coping mechanisms. Stubbornness was my specialty. Fighting was familiar. ‘Bring on the warrior way,’ I thought. But Trungpa taught about softness. Sympathy. The warriors he talked about weren’t armored fighters at all. They were meek, perky, outrageous, inscrutable. I got the feeling that I was onto something. If I really had this basic goodness he spoke of, if there was something fundamentally good about me, then maybe I could learn to ride my mind. Fumbling onwards down this unfamiliar path of perception, next I found an eight-cassette tape set of teachings by Deepak Chopra on Synchrodestiny, Chopra’s term for “harnessing the meaningful coincidences of life to release the perfect destiny within.” Now we were talking. I listened to the tapes in my walkman, trudging over the bridge to school, and back home. I listened to the tapes while cooking, while shoveling snow. Combine that with Hagakure, a treatise on samurai warriorship that I discovered watching Forrest Whitaker in the film Ghost Dog, and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao de Ching, which I couldn’t pretend to understand, but always enjoyed, and I was beginning to cobble together a smattering of new premises, a shaky new foundation for my life.
Things didn’t get easier right away. I got pregnant, and had an abortion. My house was broken into. My cat was hit by a car. But these events didn’t derail me. I was learning to see things differently. Learning that perception was something I could exact some control over, rather than simply be controlled by. I was becoming a more active participant in my own life. Learning to be proactive, instead of reactive. Learning to cultivate states of mind and views that could accommodate extremes without succumbing to them. I was beginning to challenge the underlying assumptions of my life. The medical model of mental health was losing its grip on me. Ever so slowly, it was giving way.
The assumptions of modern mental health, at their core, are based on a simple idea: viewing tension as bad, as a disease. Dis-ease being untenable, the system pathologizes any inability of an individual to function, e.g. behave, in a way that integrates them neatly into society. Just as our modern education system evolved based on the needs of a capitalist economy, its real goal not the education of children, but the production of a docile workforce, our healthcare systems evolved based on the financial interests of insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and the power and influence they could exert over medical providers. It was not about health nearly so much as man’s dominion over women and nature. Herbalism being suspect, its largely female (in Europe and colonial America, at least) practitioners were cast as witches, and burned. Midwifery, traditionally a woman’s domain, was usurped by males bent on medicalizing childbirth so as to lay claim to the life-giving power that nature had endowed only to female bodies. Obstetrics, a field based on brutal and nonconsensual experiments performed on Black slave women and indigent Irish immigrants, consolidated the power of life and death into the hands of male obstetricians, turning the very fact of being female into an illness. Something to be controlled. Defeated.
In the same way, the theories and practices of mental health were far less about wellbeing than fitting in. If a person suffers from a divergent way of experiencing the world - and expressing that experience - then they must be controlled. Treated. Their ‘symptoms’ suppressed. Nowhere did I encounter the notion that I carried any intrinsic power. Critical theory and postmodern thought might hold sway in my classrooms, injecting me with a sense of possibility, an alternate reading of the world, and I feasted on them there. But the idea that there might be some actual value to my unique perspectives and experiences didn’t carry over into the realms of therapists, psychiatrists, and the like. There, my experiences were simply to be managed. There was no whisper about the power I might actually hold. About the true purpose behind my coming to this earth with the brain and body and spirit that I have.
In another place and time, divergent persons like myself might have been upheld as respected and treasured members of our societies. We’d have been the healers, the shamans, the artists. The scribes, the leaders, the hunters, the chiefs. We would have been the priestesses, we would have been the priests. We would have been brought up to appreciate the treasury our nuanced perspectives, taught how to ride the vast energies that fueled and coursed through our selves in unique ways. Celebrated for our ability to track game on foot, to run for days on end, our unmatched endurance and perseverance ultimately overwhelming our four-legged prey. Celebrated for our ability to speak to the buffalo or the antelope or the seals, asking them to give of themselves to nourish our village, offering their lives knowingly in exchange for our own. We would have been consulted for our insight and advice in times of conflict and uncertainty. We would have been respected for the deep emotional and spiritual labor we performed as our service to others, processing grief and loss and trauma and hope and healing on behalf of our families, our villages, our tribes. We would have been implored to create our sacred art, perform our sacred rituals, be the story tellers and story keepers and story carriers of our times. We would have been initiated, in countless ways, into the art of being fully human.
But in this time, and this place, in a country under the sway of centuries of white supremacist culture in all its objectifying, colonializing, medicalizing, extracting, exploiting, divide and conquer blood and glory. In a country where the plain truth of this cultural agenda has, until quite recently, been systemically and vehemently denied, by a so-called patriotic propaganda stream intended to whitewash history, presenting subjugation and subservience as success, here, no. We are not taught to wield our power.
We are told that what we possess, in fact, isn’t creative power at all. We are told that what we have is ‘something wrong.’ ...