It’s funny how life confirms your beliefs, and as attitudes change, so do the people you meet. Five years ago it seemed obvious that the mood instability and chronic melancholy I suffered directly resulted from the trauma of my past. Over and over I met others from devastating childhoods who seemed to grapple with the same emotional issues: high sensitivity, easy sadness, chaotic relationships, erratic performance, and so on.
Every time I heard of another disastrous upbringing from someone who seemed to struggle just like me, it confirmed my belief that childhood trauma had wrecked me.
These days, I’m less sure. Several times recently I’ve spoken with others who suffer from similar mood issues and sadness, but whose childhoods were not as glaringly awful as mine. Intact families, superficially normal parents, and safe homes seem to be no guarantee against adult angst. Of course, the underlying theme in these cases betrays a more subtle dysfunction: the lack of genuine trust and selfless love. Overbearing mothers, stern fathers, resentful parents, capricious decisions, and chronic stress can all feed into later problems.
Progressive forces within the mental health services encourage meditation. My personal experience convinces me that meditative practice can help a person learn to cope with dark moods and sorrow. It can teach one to appreciate the full spectrum of human emotion rather than always striving to feel ‘good.’
My meditative work began in 1987 soon after I first attended Alcoholics Anonymous and faced the program’s advocacy of spiritual growth. I realize now my good fortune in finding AA at age twenty-eight, since the twelve-step movement was perhaps the earliest major mental health program to advocate meditation as a tool for psychic wellness.
But AA’s theological language troubled me, because my scientist father had raised me as an atheist. I did not feel comfortable with overt references to God as a divine and omnipotent personality. In working through these conflicts, I tried a number of churches and spiritual traditions. I soon discovered a Quaker meetinghouse near my apartment. Because my maternal ancestors had all worshiped within the Religious Society of Friends, and because I’d been raised to respect the values of that group, finding the Fifteenth Street Meeting a few blocks from where I lived in New York felt like a Godsend.
My childhood didn’t always seem so perfect. For years, decades even, I complained about it to anyone who’d listen. It never took long to get sympathy, or shock, or a compliment on how well I’d turned out, “in spite of it all.” My story of a disastrous upbringing served me well, I suppose, but it’s time to move on. Nowadays it seems very clear that I owe my present satisfaction with life to the way my family raised me. It no longer looks like a disaster, it looks spectacular! Not easy, not desirable, and nothing I’d wish on another, but ideal for my needs.
Since I manage to fit my family of origin’s dramatic tale into about every third essay, it is likely that most readers already know it. But for those who may not have heard the saga, I’ll pen a brief summary:
What do you find hardest to accept?
Are you most troubled by grim facts of life? For instance, are you dismayed by the rampant cruelty and injustice in the world? Do you resent corporate interests for destroying ecosystems in the name of greed? Do you find happiness difficult in the face of inevitable death and tragedy?
Or are painful states of mind more challenging to embrace? Do you resist chronic feelings of depression? Do you shove anxious feelings out of awareness? Are you locked in a wrestling match with your despairing emotions?
Is it regret that plagues you? Do you obsess about the might-have-been’s that will never be? Do you hate how your life has played out? Do you wish for a less chaotic past and a more pleasing present?
Or are you in fact most dismayed by your own personality flaws?
Acceptance underlies most of my recovery from what was once diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
As earlier posts have made clear, I no longer buy into the concept of ‘mental illness’ because the phrase refers to putative brain disorders that are viewed as irreversible. My recovery demonstrates that my formerly intense moodiness did not result from a structural or genetic neurologic condition, but rather from errors in relating to the chaotic vicissitudes of life. My instability resolved once I learned to accept my experience, no matter how painful.
Healing through acceptance used to be a common theme in my blogging. I learned from those earlier posts that many people feel uncomfortable with the idea on first hearing. In fact, I resisted it myself. Aren’t some things in life simply unacceptable?
This past weekend I enjoyed the company of more than a dozen men during a casual retreat near the shore of Lake Tahoe, which straddles an alpine stretch of the border between California and Nevada. We know one another through involvement in a 12-step program.
I’m a relative newcomer, having first participated in this gathering only four years ago. This group has met annually in early summer for each of the past thirteen years. I feel honored and fortunate to be tagging along. Most of all, I feel greatly uplifted and supported by the wise example of so many who have succeeded in overcoming their problems.
This blog has touched on addiction issues in the past, but most of the time I discuss my experience with fluctuating and (especially) plummeting moods. Still, substance and behavioral compulsions qualify as mental conditions just as much as depression or so-called bipolar disorder. On the other hand, addiction recovery programs (and especially Alcoholics Anonymous) have logged much longer and more successful track records than any system for treating other types of mental distress and behavioral turmoil.
The kinds of behavior that now get referred to psychiatric wards were considered evidence of spiritual illness or demonic possession. When this system of belief functioned at its healthiest, the deeper value of the person was not questioned; it was instead assumed that mystical torment obscured a sufferer’s brighter lights.
However, in some case inflexible religious attitudes probably stigmatized many people that our society would try to view more compassionately. When such cases are considered, labeling someone ‘psychiatrically ill’ may seem preferable to declaring him or her to be in the clutch of demons.
On the other hand, the elevated states of consciousness that have informed saints and prophets throughout recorded history are now considered delusional, hallucinatory, and insane. So whereas traditional societies would honor those capable of expanded consciousness, conventional psychiatry has defined spiritual ecstasy as a disease.
Although my last post argued against viewing psychiatric drugs as scientific miracle pills, it remains true that some patients experience decisive improvement on medication. I believe such individuals are fortunate. As my writings have made clear, I did not enjoy much success with drug treatment.
Lack of efficacy combined with dreadful side effects led me to taper off the medications, slowly and over several years. If the pills had worked for me over the long haul, I’d probably still be taking them.
Pragmatics, not ethics, determine my opinion here. I see little reason to argue against pharmaceuticals in those cases where life feels enhanced and neither adverse effects nor expense have proven troublesome.
Even so, as a physician I can affirm that limiting the number and dosage of medications to the minimum necessary for the desired effect is always a good policy. As a human, I can endorse occasional reevaluation of life strategies as a wise practice.
The pharmaceutical industry promotes the misconception that psychiatric drugs are, essentially, vitamins: permanently necessary for mental health. This is simply untrue. Some patients may need medications for life, but clinicians do us a huge disservice when they assume this without proof. The only way to know for sure is to occasionally try the alternative: professionally guided drug reduction.