Over 40 years ago, when I was first a mental patient, I escaped from the ward, and wandered into a day room for elderly patients. I was heavily sedated, and I sat down in a semi circle of silent elders, who stared back at me for what seemed like several hours, but was probably only a few minutes. I was convinced that my life had passed away in the dream of being a mental patient, and that I was now old myself. I was actually twenty three.
This story now seems symbolic of how disabled I felt taking psychiatric drugs. They never worked well for me. Partly this was because I was forced to have chlorpromazine (thorazine in the US) against my will several times, which felt like a terrible assault. It led to black outs, amnesia, and generally an uncomfortable feeling of being strangely divorced from the world around me.
Some years later during another hospitalisation I was made to take Haloperidol, which had the effect of sending muscles in my neck and face into spasm, so that my head was twisted violently. My face made grotesque masks, while my teeth ground together as if they’d break. The spasms extended to my back, so that I was thrown to the floor as if by an invisible wrestler, like the Brad Pitt character in the film “Fight Club”. Nurses at first thought I was ‘acting out’, and didn’t believe this was the effect of the drug. I think this is a sign of how little the people who administer drugs know about the effects they have.
After my last hospitalisation in 1985, I told my doctor that I intended to stop taking psychiatric drugs. He said I would be ill for the rest of my life, and applauded the fact that I had found a job as a hospital porter since ‘you’ll be in the right place when you get ill again’. It wasn’t encouraging, but I stopped taking the drugs anyway. For two weeks I had horrible flu like symptoms and felt dreadful. Then quite suddenly one morning I felt better, much better, than I had since I started taking the drugs. I never took drugs again or went near a mental institution as a patient.
I think the fact that I’ve survived, thrived, without drugs or the mental health system is largely because shortly after that time I found a support group for mental health system survivors using Re-evaluation Counseling, and I’ve continued to use this method to this day. With a supportive group of peers I’ve been able to deal with the issues my life has thrown up, and continue to do successful paid work for the last twenty five years, including managing the UK Advocacy Network for 8 years. It’s also led me to the idea of a safe place that would be run along Co-Counseling lines, and help people get off psychiatric drugs.
Survivors, relatives, and worker allies who use Co-Counseling have been meeting for many years to support each other to heal from our mental health experiences, and think about what a rational system might look like. Previously on this blog, Janet Foner has written about the Master’s thesis in Community Psychology she wrote in 1986 on an alternative center that would use Co-Counseling. Through her enthusiasm and efforts, she has built up a team to bring that vision to reality.
The Co-Counselling process relies on the ability to release or to discharge feelings involved with old, painful experiences, and to re-evaluate them. Both these processes are impaired by psychiatric drugs. We think that humans have a natural healing process and that this shows in, for instance, laughing and crying. We think these lead to the release of old hurtful experiences that are causing our minds to work in unhelpful ways. Discharging distress is the way we heal, and drugs make it hard for us to do that.
On a typical day, residents will have several Co-Counseling sessions. We may begin with one-way counseling, if a person doesn’t have enough attention for someone else, but the aim would be for a peer relationship as soon as possible. Paying attention to, and thinking about, someone else’s struggles is a very useful and empowering thing to do, and an important part of the healing process.
As far as possible, staff and residents will interact with each other as peers, not as patients and providers. People will plan their own healing process and proceed at their own pace. There will be time for residents to garden, exercise, create art and other activities that take their attention off the emotional work. It’s important to get a balance between dealing with difficult issues and having attention on present time activities.
Before coming to the Center, residents will be encouraged to form a support team in the community where they live. When they return home the support team will continue the work begun at the Center. Former residents and their support teams will remain in touch with people at the Center by phone for follow-up as needed. Support is a key issue in coming off psychiatric drugs. I was lucky to make it, but many people, including friends of mine, try to get off drugs on their own and if they fail, get disappointed and too frightened to try again.
Most facilities that treat people with “mental health” issues do so in ways that disempower people, as well as encouraging long term use of drugs. They may not want to, but if one set of people are defined as ‘experts’, and the others as passive recipients, this is fairly inevitable.
We’ve talked about the Center becoming a training facility where doctors, mental health workers and others can come and learn about the process of coming off psychiatric drugs safely through using the techniques of Re-evaluation Counseling. We envisage that once proven, this example can be replicated, and many other such Centers will be set up. Some people have already expressed an interest in this. We hope in the end that the model of healing without drugs, with peer support, will become the norm, and replace a system based on drugs and shock.