The Dawn of a New Paradigm

For most of my life, the idea that people could suffer diseases of the mind seemed obvious. As a young boy I’d watched my mother cycle through many psychiatric hospitalizations and rounds of shock treatment. Although she never seemed any less miserable upon returning from these confinements, I accepted that she needed them. After she eventually killed herself, I concluded that the treatments hadn’t worked, not that she’d been misdiagnosed.

During my first year at junior high school, my sister lost touch with ordinary reality after months of heavy LSD use. Weeks after her last dose of the drug, she continued to speak of forces and beings I couldn’t see. She also seemed unable to resist staring at the sun. It became my job to protect her from this and other dangers in the days leading up to her psychiatric hospitalization at UCLA medical center. That something had gone wrong with her mind seemed obvious, and I never doubted that she needed the powerful antipsychotic drugs she hated.

When I suffered my first major depression at age twenty-one, following disillusionment with my graduate school program and the death of my beloved grandfather, I assumed my family’s genetic tendency toward mental illness was now manifesting itself in my own brain. I was sure of my “brain disease,” and I obediently accepted the judgments of the experts who treated me.

A few years later, medical school taught me about the various illnesses of the mind, and I dutifully memorized the DSM criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and so on. I never questioned the concept of mental disease, or the biomedical hypothesis that it resulted from brain dysfunction.

By age forty-two I’d been depressed to varying degrees for two decades. But now I faced a new, massive stress as my surgical career collapsed due to neck disease. My mood plummeted in short order, and I became acutely suicidal. I presented to the mental health department and requested hospitalization. As ever before, I ascribed my misery to a damaged brain, and accepted the judgments of the psychiatric clinicians, even after they ordered legal confinement (since I had voluntarily requested admission, this violated state law). I had a mental illness, after all, and they were the professionals.

The following half-dozen years were the worst of my adult life. Not only did I feel depressed and horribly anxious, but the powerful new medications that were supposed to be helping with these problems wreaked havoc on my body. I grew obese, slow-witted, and clumsy. My cholesterol and blood sugar levels skyrocketed. I suffered embarrassing hormonal aberrations that only worsened my self-image and confidence. Suicide ceased being a temptation, and instead appeared nearly inevitable. I couldn’t work, I looked and felt awful, and there seemed no way to escape the downward spiral.

That’s when I finally woke up to how the traditional mental health system had failed me. For years I’d avoided looking at my mother’s outcome as a warning. I’d watched my sister’s life unfold tragically without recognizing that the psychiatrists never did much to help her. And I’d repeatedly submitted to that same systems’ ministrations since young adulthood, despite the fact that I never seemed to improve. Now my body teetered on the edge of collapse, my mind felt clouded and useless, and I grew more depressed than ever.

I was fortunate to live near a mental health department staffed with young, forward thinking clinicians. Seeing its possibilities, I dumped my elderly psychiatrist and finally started getting effective help. The new providers encouraged me to cut my medication load and take up meditation. They provided industry-standard cognitive behavioral training, but they also connected me with a practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) who taught me how to sit with my emotions rather than run from them. Around this time I also met Tom Wootton of Bipolar Advantage, who taught me how mood fluctuations can be harnessed for creativity and engagement rather than treated as ‘symptoms’ and suppressed with drugs.

Encouraged to embrace my emotions rather than view them as diseased, and under the guidance of a psychiatrist who promoted my spiritual development, I quickly improved. Depression and anxiety melted away. Naturally, I still felt sorrow and fear, sometimes to powerful degrees. But I learned that while moods may feel overwhelming, they don’t necessarily disrupt my ability to remain clearheaded and stable. I also saw that they constantly change, and that even the darkest feelings eventually lighten. I began to understand and trust my mind. I ceased feeling hopelessly mentally ill. Over the next several years, I tapered off all the psychiatric medications and continued to thrive. I shed seventy pounds and felt healthier and more stable than ever before.

I started reading textbooks of psychiatry, thinking I could help others now that my own problems had receded. I applied to psychiatry residencies and psychology graduate programs, but was rejected by them all despite my rather stellar academic background. It became obvious that the programs felt uneasy with my psychiatric history, which I’d disclosed in the naive (or stubborn) belief that it should qualify rather than disqualify me for work in the field. Now I had a new reason to suspect systemic problems in the mental health industry. If it distrusts those who have most used its services, how compassionate can it really be?

So I started exploring critiques of the field. I learned how the pharmaceutical industry manipulates doctors through slick marketing and expensive perks. I discovered that the ‘science’ behind mental illness is far from conclusive, and that drug studies have been hopelessly tainted by profit motives. I awoke to how the field of psychology has been long on theory and short on evidence right from its beginnings. Consider Freud, who refused to believe his patients’ reports of incest, and instead built an entire psychological theory to blame the minds of victims rather than the cruelty of powerful males. That Freud’s theories were so influential despite this dismal start should make us question the current dominance of the unproven “brain disease” hypothesis.

What’s a naive physician to do when he wakes up to how he’s been trapped in a failed paradigm for his entire life? How does he respond when he discovers that his mind works perfectly well without medication and suffers no dreadful, genetic disease? Does he meekly and quietly disappear? Or does he start to speak up?

Understand that there are well-meaning and ethical professionals out there. Many mature, wise individuals work in the field, including increasing numbers who challenge the failed mainstream paradigm. Many theories of mental life have merit, and some very beneficial philosophies have arisen over the years, including the recently emerged “Positive Psychology” movement.

On the other hand, the reason people make so many jokes about “shrinks” is that they so often sound both pompous and clueless. Given such attitudes and a compromised research base, can such individuals be trusted when they proclaim that those who struggle with mental distress have “brain diseases” and need medication for life?

It’s time for those of us who most understand mental distress to speak up. We who’ve suffered with depression, anxiety, confusion, delusional states, and so on are in the best position to understand them, especially if we’ve managed to work through our difficulties to achieve a balanced, peaceful state of mind. We are also most aware that mental health problems as currently defined are not always negative. The ‘system’ has so focused on the shadow side of moodiness and perceptual alterations that the enhancing aspects have been forgotten. But most of us who’ve struggled with powerful mental states recognize that, properly harnessed, they confer a kind of grace. They allow us to feel and embrace the depths of reality in ways that those with more ‘stable’ minds cannot. They awaken fonts of creativity and insight. Kay Redfield Jamison describes these benefits in her book, Touched By Fire, but they are no secret to those of us who’ve seen the situation in a balanced fashion, and know both its shadow and its light.

Mental health care is poised to change. If those it treats demand better, it will move in the direction of empowerment and spiritual growth. But if we remain silent, it is more likely continue to cater to the profits of pharmaceutical companies and the constraints of long tradition. The new paradigm could blossom into an entirely new system of care, or it could be given mere lip service. As someone who lived through four decades of darkness under the old system, and then awoke to an entirely new life after five years of new ideas, I plan to do my part to knock the traditional paradigm of “brain disease” off its undeserved pedestal. I look forward to celebrating as a new era of mental health care dawns.


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The Dawn of a New Paradigm — 29 Comments

  1. Well, someone who leaves behind his old skin (the identity that was imposed on him by others) and opens himself to new horizons that meet better his inner essence and his sense for the truth, is healthy!
    Well done!

  2. Duane–

    Thank you for the comment, and also to the link to your poem: lovely and moving. Kaleidescopes looks like an interesting site. Who is behind it?


  3. Will,

    Thank you.
    Kaleidoscopes was put together by a friend, Mands from South Africa.

    With gratefulness, for your message, and all you’re doing!


  4. Hi Will, excellent post. I’ve just started following your blog and find it very inspiring.
    I too am one of those starting to wake up and see the reality of psychiatry, and also currently going through withdrawal from an antidepressant.
    I am so glad for people like yourself who question the system.

    All the best for your recovery.

  5. Duane–

    Thanks for the connection to the Mental Health Freedom and Recovery Act. I put listed it with my suggested links.


  6. PHil–

    Glad to hear from you, and good luck with the withdrawal. In my case, success depended on going slowly and meditating mindfully. By remaining patient and accepting some increased emotionality, one can break free.


  7. Beautiful honest writing. Thank you for sharing your story. It is important for people to hear over and over again how there is light at the end of a harrowing journey like yours. Taking back control and making a healing plan that doesn’t involve drugs is frightening and overwhelming for far too many who have been duped by the psychiatric industry. You have given them hope.
    thank you

  8. Kristin–

    Funny, I didn’t realize how much this line of writing would mean to people. Seems obvious, now that I’ve started it, but until responses like yours started coming it, I didn’t realize that the mere telling of this story would find such resonance with others. I’ve been blogging here for two years now, and have always believed that just a small fraction of readers would really connect. But the story of escaping the medical paradigm is much bigger than a mere tale of overcoming hardship, I realize now. Thanks to commentators like you, I’ve awakened to the world’s need to hear this kind of narrative of finding freedom. The warm response from readers encourages me to enlarge my efforts.


  9. No website. I give ip! Can anyone help me find an ACT therapist in Oklahoma? I know this is a backward, tornado alley state, but there are a lot of searchers here with no help. Thank you!

  10. Sally–
    I’ll ask my own ACT therapist here in California. He seems to know the resources and perhaps can provide a lead. I’ll let you know.

    ps (later): He suggests you try this link: Find an ACT Therapist. He says he found three in OK using it. Good luck.

  11. Hello Will,
    I can relate to some of your background, and especially your views. I also had a narcissistic, abusive, alcoholic father. Luckily, my mother was the opposite – a compassionate and kind individual, who had worked as a registered nurse at a VA hospital up until my birth in 1942. (Eventually I was the oldest of 6 kids.) When I was about age 12, she told me emphatically to never go to any kind of psychotherapist. (I suppose she had witnessed the pre-frontal lobotomies, electric shock treatments, etc. of that era.)

    Upon graduating high school, I went to Rutgers University on a four-year-full-tuition scholarship. I soon became racked with anxiety to a partially disabling degree. (I know now it was a type of OCD). Before the school year was out, the stress was apparently causing me to go bald. That was the last straw. I had only just turned 19. I became suicidal. Remembering my mother’s words, I would not see a “shrink,” but I did go to a regular MD. He and his prescription were no help at all. I felt that at the very least I absolutely had to get out of Rutgers. Although I had managed to keep my grades acceptable I quit at the end of the school year, thus forfeiting the remainder of my scholarship. (I know now that I was suffering from an unusual form of OCD.)

    For the next several years I worked mundane jobs, while on the side I modified and raced motorcycles. The actual process of racing was exhilarating and required full concentration, which thereby provided temporary relief from troubling thoughts. Also it provided the possibility of getting killed, which was okay by me (although “a part of me” wanted to live). At 26 I became a “tree man” – clearing power lines by climbing methods (where the bucket trucks could not go). This enabled me to be doing dangerous, mind-focusing (meditative) work, five days/week.

    But my OCD developed new symptoms. At age 30 I finally went to a psychotherapist. I presented a problem in regard to feeling very guilty. Within a few months she convinced me of the irrationality of it, which was a great relief. Then I gave her a deeper problem – the one that emerged at Rutgers. In a year’s time we were unable to put even a dent in that one. I said good-bye. Over the next 16 years I was intermittently in and out of therapy with a variety of therapists. In 1988 I quit therapy totally, thinking that perhaps the entire field of psychotherapy was not advanced enough to deal with my main issue. (If I had found a good CBT person, it may have been a different story.)

    My first therapist (who initially helped, and I still appreciate very much) had indirectly inspired me to start seriously studying human nature, and furthermore, to try to learn what is actually true of reality (since there was/is no such consensus on many issues). My spare time was spent reading. In 1974 I closed my tree business and audited classes full-time at Livingston College (Rutgers) including psychology, philosophy, comparative religions, anthropology, sociology. Then, for 6 months I traveled the US and Canada visiting communes. Upon running out of money, I settled in Seattle, working various jobs until becoming a self-employed auto mechanic, which lasted for the next 20 years.

    Now I’m 69, never married, and still study on the side (while doing tree work again to supplement my soc. security).

    For me, a good understanding of the evolution of the cosmos and biological evolution has been tremendously helpful. This is foundational for understanding who and what we are, and can be extrapolated to indicate our general purpose of life, and even on to include the spiritual realm.

    Like you, Will, I have not had much luck with various drugs. For a few years I liked valium, but the side effects caused me to give it up. Of the non-drug therapies, Cognitive Therapy (self-administered) has helped me considerably.

    I agree with you that “mental health care is poised to change.” I also agree that “the field of psychology has been long on theory and short on evidence right form its beginnings.” Clinical psychology especially has been and still is, ridiculously unscientific. Consider Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) of the 80s and 90s, which supposedly uncovers repressed memories of sexual abuse sometimes including Satanic Ritual Abuse, and which, in many cases, has lead to so called Multiple Personality Disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder). This type of therapy (the greatest fiasco since pre-frontal lobotomies) has resulted in thousands of people (usually fathers) being falsely accused of sexual abuse (usually by adult daughters deluded by therapists).

    I believe this stuff emerged in large part as a result of the influence of “radical feminism” in the universities (in conjunction with Post-Modernism) with roots in the 70s and blooming in the 80s. (Note that I distinguish between equity feminism, which has been very helpful for women and society – and radical feminism, which is dishonest and harmful.) Good people in the realm of psychology such as Elizabeth Loftus, Paul McHugh, Carol Tavris, people of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and many others have worked to turn the tide on this sort of therapy, but it is certainly not yet extinguished. RMT nowadays is focusing on post traumatic stress disorder, as well as supposedly repressed abuse and DID.

    It’s amazing, but not surprising to me, that even with your outstanding background you would be discouraged from entering the field of clinical psychology. I suspect there is more than one reason that the programs “felt uneasy” with you…

  12. Fred–

    Thank you for sharing your story. I see its similarities to mine. I’ve had some therapy nightmares in my past, but only recently did I start to see the larger pattern and how my personal experiences are just single examples of systemic abuse. Yes, the recovered memory fiasco is a great and unfortunate example of how therapists can misuse their awesome influence over clients. Here’s another on a much smaller scale: one of my first therapists convinced me to enter medical school when my real love was ecology. He himself had been unable to get into medical school and got a psychology PhD as a second choice. Because of his narcissism, he assumed that medical school was my dream, too. Being young (22), depressed, afraid, and naive, I followed his advice. Much of what I’ve suffered in the past ten years around not being able to continue as a surgeon came out of his pushing me off my desired direction into one more fitting to his worldview. This same therapist later sent me on a blind date with another of his clients, telling me she and I would “either get married or kill each other.” We did neither, but we did live together for five chaotic and painful years, solely because we were put together by our revered therapist. It’s hard to believe I was ever so young and easily influenced, but my upbringing had not taught me to trust my own desires. These and other stories are for another post sometime, but I have many bones to pick with the mental health industry. I sincerely hope we see this new paradigm come to fruition. And you’re right, my attitudes probably got me in as much trouble with the counseling and psychiatry programs as did my history. Thanks so much for the interesting comment.


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  14. I am impressed with what you, Fred and Will, share in these last comments. I think I also have to share my experience that may resonate with yours. (I, however, need time to re-work some of my texts – most likely, I will make my own blog soon).
    By the way, I got a glance under this post because I was looking for one of my comments in which I said continuous use of drugs equals inflicting trauma on the brain. (I couldn’t find it, after all). So, through a link in one of the blogs mentioned on this site, I found a document that may confirm this. It is quite medical and I am not able to judge how relevant it is but it may be of interest to you, Will.
    Psychiatric Drugs as Agents of Trauma by Charles L. Whitfield, MD

  15. I actually have not experience with drugs; that’s why I am cautious about expressing an opinion.

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