Today at the state hospital where I work, our leadership staff had the entire professional staff hear the professional and personal presentation of a fellow mental health professional talk on this lady’s story of recovery. This was as remarkable story and “witness,” as they call such a presentation in the fundamentalist Southern religious circles as I have ever heard.
I was a little uncomfortable at the start of this presentation in all honesty as I knew this was going to be one of those riveting moments in anyone’s journey of self-improvement, self-discovery and professional development that I have had many times over my working and personal “career” as a mental health provider. This lady had already presented her story and stories all over our large hospital to every unit and service in the hospital over the past few days. I had attended one such session with the staff from my unit and heard her unique style of presenting and remarkable, make you sit up and step outside yourself, re-examine your oldest most stubbornly held precepts, kind of talk. I had already started letting myself undergo the beginnings of what I knew by today was shaping up as a personal “paradigm shift. I was also curious to see how she would present herself and her story to a very large conference room full of many professionals such as I who can be an intimidating audience. I was also curious to see what additional she would have to say as I had been nailed in my psyche by what she had had to say the first time I heard her speak a day before, as well as the reactions of my colleagues. How many would be moved? Would they be as moved as I had been?
Her talk was frank and wasted no time as she moved to share “my story,” with everyone. She quickly but piercingly relate her early entry into becoming a seriously disturbed person coming out of a background of abuse and horror as a kid and teen, substance abuse by age 11, suicide attempts by age 17, innumerable years of dozens of psychiatric hospitalizations in both premiere private and public psychiatric facilities, “self-injury” meaning I thought to be ‘cutting,’ and being what we call so unkindly, a ‘borderline’ personality disorder. As my peer group has already treated such patients, we got the shorthand code immediately. I could feel everyone start to remember such persons we have treated through our years, our failures, persons we have lost to suicide, persons who never got better, defeated us and our sense of futility. I had grown as a therapist type psychiatrist, a psychodynamically and even psychoanalytically trained psychiatrist and ‘cut my teeth,’ on such patients for decades. Some of my peers got a little uncomfortable and I cold feel that around me. But I was heartened to see many of us, open up, and let her simple but profound words reach us.
The presenter spoke of mistakes by some of the many professionals and therapists she had had over a couple of decades. She spoke of her initial halting steps towards “recovery,” as she began to have “hope,” for herself again and move toward academic, personal and career growth. her message, so simple but strong, began to take shape as she spoke of what had helped her, the provision of hope, a long-term relationship with a good therapist, wisely utilized medicines to manage her inside and outside discomforts emotionally. Over and over her primary theme of the importance of what I will call ‘personal hope for oneself’ came through. I found myself thinking once again of how our systems of care at times are not designed to help foster this all important ingredient that is needed to give one the courage to take on change, to forge ahead in personal change efforts even when you are feeling shaky about the whole enterprise.
Over and over her primary theme of the importance of what I will call ‘personal hope for oneself’ came through. I found myself thinking once again of how our systems of care at times are not designed to help foster this all important ingredient that is needed to give one the courage to take on change, to forge ahead in personal change efforts even when you are feeling shaky about the whole enterprise.This has worsened I think, in the last 20 years in mental health care as we have moved to a style of care that is more and more impersonal, and wth more emphasis on biologically practiced psychiatry where everything is a malady that is biologically based and to be treated with a medication. Where psychotherapy is doled out to others or not done at all anymore, because “insurance won’t pay for it,” where limits are imposed monetarily on the time and effort needed for personal development, where limits of coverage are imposed. Where readmission or ‘recidivism’ rates are worried over, statisticized, but not understood at all as symptoms of a system that is in places not able to provide what is known to have been needed for many decades in this field.
But I found myself most of all glad and very grateful that the leadership of my hospital, found it compelling enough to take the time and expense to spend the money and put this remarkable lady and apostle of recovery before us. Hearing this lady witness to us has been a true personal paradigm shift for me as the philosopher Clifford Kuhn described in his eponymously named book wrote decades ago. I can recall other many mentors that have affected me the same way, from Auschwitz survivors I met as a teenager in Israel, men of depression my father took into our household from his mining crews wherever we lived, the profound people and families we came to know all over the world where we travelled and worked, professors of every stripe, rare politicians who really served their people, psychiatric and psychoanalytic mentors and UNC, Michigan and Duke, patients who poured their hearts and experiences to me over many years work with them, leaders in other mental health fields who challenged personal and professional outmoded views, victims of segregation in the South years ago who befriended me as a youth, and on and on.
As always, it is hard to get “jolted” in this manner and takes a while to internalize, get used to the new signposts inside. I know I will have a time of internalizing all this, but it will be good, and as I learned many years ago as a youth and then an apprentice professional accolyte in mental health, I will “trust the process.” I hope you do too.