From Mental Patient to Healer: My Story of Overcoming Insanity
“Stand up straight!” Don’t pick your nose!” “Speak like a man!” These are some of the commands from my mom that I endured as an adolescent. Dad once said, “I heard you got an A on a report. How come you didn’t get an A+?”
No wonder I felt stupid, ugly and clumsy growing up. I was in pain but didn’t know where or how to express it. I was shy, and isolated myself from my peers.
Fortunately, Mom sent me to camp every summer year after year. I learned to appreciate nature and developed curiosity about much that I’d observed. I found some answers to nature’s riddles in science classes and was more comfortable with test tubes than people. Entering college, I had a dream of becoming a PhD biochemist, doing teaching and research.
Developing Psychosis With No Alternative Treatments Available
During the late ’60’s, while still in grad school, I became involved in the emerging counter-culture revolution: radical politics, communes, alternative schools, rock music and psychedelics. For me the wonder of attending the Woodstock Festival was not so much about the music as it was about genuine brotherly love — sharing and caring for one another. During the storm, our neighbor’s tent was destroyed. We had no problem taking him in.
This era gave hope for a better world and was quite a contrast to my academic lifestyle, with its competitive “publish or perish,” backbiting, “old boy’s club” reality. The counter-culture theme in those days was “tune in, turn on, drop out.” I’d invested so much, I couldn’t just drop out. This conflict of lifestyles was exacerbated when I gained awareness from my inner experiences–experiments with psychedelics. Eventually I began having flashbacks to those experiences without the drugs. I thought that someone was putting drugs in my food, that I was being watched and followed, and I started hearing voices.
Some people ask me if taking psychedelics made me crazy. I think that they opened the doors to the reality of who I was and to my past. This was too much for me to comprehend, and created the psychosis.
One day I took a drive out into the suburbs to get away from it all. I thought I heard a helicopter following me and, to escape, drove my car off the road, hitting a tree. I was not hurt and the car undamaged.
Mom brought me to a psychiatrist who listened to my story for ten minutes and said that I needed to be hospitalized. I didn’t know what else to do. He was the authority and I had no alternatives. From inside the mental hospital, I made my decision to drop out. The dream ended. I was too sensitive to continue in the academic lifestyle.
Ten Years of Hospitalizations
Hospitalizations became a routine for me when I had psychotic breaks. The stays usually lasted a month, the time it takes to evaluate anti-psychotic medications.
My brother had spent some time in Berkeley, California, and suggested I go there because they had more knowledge of how to handle dropouts like me. I took his advice and my life became a steeper roller coaster ride, with even deeper lows and highs.
I joined a group at the Berkeley Rap Center, a free clinic using Eric Berne’s transactional analysis, and embodying the ideas of The Radical Therapist, that the main cause of mental illness was capitalism.
To overcome my shyness, the group’s leader gave me an assignment. I was to go to the campus and meet young women. I approached one and said, “Hi, my name is Don. My therapy group told me to meet women on campus.” Her response was: “Hi. I’m Sylvia and I have the clap.”
One hospital stay was at Napa State. My therapy there was talking to a medical doctor for ten minutes once a week. He told me that, similarly to a diabetic with insulin, I’d need to take Thorazine the rest of my life or I’d have psychotic attacks. I was lucky to get out of that hell hole. I’ll not go into that story here.
As a young adult I was back living with my parents. This became an increasingly intolerable situation. Finally, after a few months, I acted out and Dad brought me to the hospital with the same result: medications and boredom.
How I Beat Recidivism
This was my fifth hospitalization. I was fed up with the revolving door, and made a firm resolution that when I got out I’d never return again. I believe that when we take our fate into our own hands, the Universe cooperates.
Three actions helped me to conquer this malady.
First, against the advice of my friends, who said it would be impossible, I got an apprenticeship at the university with a professor in the fiber arts department. While in California, I picked up a simple form of weaving and wanted to get more seriously involved. It was a very meditative and relaxing activity resulting in a physical product.
This gave me new identity as an artist and kept me busy and off of the streets and away from the bars.
Second, when I got out of the hospital I did not follow their recommendations: medications, outreach programs and living in neighborhoods with other ex-patients.
Third, I entered therapy with a very special psychologist after waiting two years for her appointment calendar to clear. We had two sessions with Mom and Dad. She told me that there was a family problem and that I displayed the symptoms.
She used the Gestalt therapy method, and trained me in dream analysis. She advised that whenever I heard voices, I should check out where there might be rejection in my life instead of listening in. Using this approach, over time, the voices decreased.
During my hospitalizations I was a member of the local chapter of the Mental Patients Liberation Project, whose purpose was to alert the public of the dangers of psychiatric oppression. We distributed pamphlets, spoke to classes of nurses in training, held a panel discussion on suicide and did some advocacy work in hospitals.
Understanding My Purpose
Fast forwarding over many years, I experienced therapies, workshops, men’s groups and living in intentional communities. In 2003, I retired from a career as a chemist and moved to a small magical city in central Mexico.
To keep in touch with friends and relatives I sent out a short blog every few months. Although I’d not seen myself as a writer, I got a lot of good feedback to that effect.
In ’95, using my journals, I began writing my experiences as a mental patient, hoping that this might provide some closure on those dark times.
In 2007, I met a woman who had won national writing awards. She asked me to send her my manuscript. Her response was: “I got so involved in reading it that I forgot to go to my yoga class.” She also sent me several helpful editorial comments.
I began attending a weekly writing group and read several how-to books on memoir writing. I now wanted to publish, and, as I mentioned earlier, I believe that when an intention is strong, the Universe provides for it.
I was in the “zone!” I met my cover artist in a hostel in Oaxaca, engaged with a web designer I met on the beach who also introduced me to social media and I got a friend to help me with formatting. I self-published with an online firm that placed me on Amazon with a paperback and Ebook.
Then came the next hurdle — promotional speaking engagements. In the audience were friends and relatives. Also there were many strangers. “Who cares about me and my story?” I thought. I got up my courage and overcame this fear, finding that everyone has a story and we all have overlap we can identify with.
As my legacy, I help people who are in trouble as I was. I provide young adults, recovering from schizophrenia, different forms of online self-care, as an adjunct to the mental health mill. My goal is not only to see recovery, but to assist them in actually thriving in life.
(All photos feature, and are courtesy of, Don Karp)