Before I came into Quakerism I was a career mental patient. I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, left my job as a Chicago Public School teacher and went on disability. I researched my condition and read that I had a chemical imbalance that would get worse with time; I read that I needed to take medications or I would become violent. In addition to the drugs, I was taught to track my moods on a chart each evening. The chart rated my feelings such as “irritability” “excitability” “distractibility”. I was to monitor my moods and make appropriate life style changes. For instance, one night watching an episode of The West Wing got me excited about some political idea. My then therapist told me that I should stop watching The West Wing.
My life turned into a series of intensive outpatient therapy programs, self-care activities, group and individual therapies, medical appointments and the occasional self-help book. Because CBT therapy taught me that I had distorted thoughts, I stopped trusting my instincts and perceptions and as a result became dependent on other people to define me and dictate their expectations of me. I became a good patient, a good daughter, a good aunt. I was docile, well-behaved, subdued. Family members had a manual that explained who I was and what was to be expected of me. How I was to respond to the world became prescribed. When side effects of the medicine manifested, like gaining 100 pounds, having swollen joints that made it difficult to walk, not being able to add, and being unable follow small talk – I was taught to accept these side effects because the alternative would be a lack of stability and safety.
In this state of despair, confusion, and low self-confidence – while not being able to problem solve or communicate – a stranger felt that I owed him my body. Having lost all sense of self-esteem and agency I complied with his expectation. A few weeks later I went to my first Quaker Meeting.
At the time, I did not recognize the connection between these events. I don’t remember googling the Meeting, driving there or walking in the door for the first time. But, I do remember my first Meeting for Worship. I remember the serenity of the space, the feeling of communion with God that reminded me of the Eucharist of my youth, and the idea that I was connected to the people in the room even though I had never met them before. And I remember how the bench I sat on creaked when I shifted my weight.
Over the next few months of weekly Silent worship something started to happen for me. Slowly, I became angry. I know that isn’t the typical effect of Quaker worship. I imagine that people especially don’t want to hear about a growing sense of anger from a mentally ill person, but that was my experience. I think I sensed that anger wasn’t a socially acceptable response to Quaker worship. I wanted to be a good Quaker, so I wasn’t honest with myself or the people around me about what I was experiencing. Instead, I deflected it and got irritated with other people.
Being that I identified as mentally ill, I identified these thoughts and feelings as delusions. But looking back, I don’t think that’s essentially accurate. I absolutely was experiencing severe emotional distress and extreme anxiety, but when I think about my unrest at that time, I think I was coming to a Truth about myself. I later recognized myself in these words from Margret Fell: “Now, Friends, deal plainly with yourselves, and let the eternal Light search you, and try you, for the good of your souls. For this will deal plainly with you. It will rip you up, and lay you open, and make all manifest which lodges in you; the secret subtlety of the enemy of your souls, this eternal searcher and trier will make manifest.” I later looked back at this time and realized that the Light was dealing plain with me, ripping me up and laying me open. This was my early experience with Quaker worship. I was being torn apart. At the time I suspected “illness” but in the Light the truth of my life could not escape. I had given up my identity, cognitive function, physical health, economic independence and dignity. In the Silence, I was coming to the unsettling Truth that my life was completely derailed. In the Light and the silence of Quaker worship I believe that God pulled me to the only sane response to my situation – anger and unrest.
I didn’t have an awareness of this at the time; all I had was my anger and unrest. These feelings and lack of awareness led me to have a breakdown/breakthrough. The fact that I ended up in the hospital points to the idea of a breakdown, but what happened to me there was a turning point in my life and thus I recall it as a breakthrough. I was still on high dosages of Depakote. So high in fact that the doctors said they could not raise my dosage any higher. So, they took me off all my medications (I was taking 13 pills/day at that point) and started me on a new regimen. When I came off the Depakote, it felt like my brain opened up for the first time in years. This had such a profound impact on me that I changed my name. When I left the hospital I had the sense that my insides did not match my outsides so I decided to spend that summer traveling to sort myself out.
It will not surprise Friends that my summer of traveling and sorting myself out landed me at Pendle Hill. I first came to Pendle Hill as a sojourner, and then realized that I wanted to apply for the student program. In my application letter I wrote about my recent experiences and how I wanted to live somewhere where I could learn to manage my illness, not have my illness manage me.
When I started the term, I fell into community life and largely forgot the stated intention on my application. It’s not that I had given up on the idea of not letting my illness manage me, it’s just that I was too busy doing my daily job, learning how to throw pots in the studio, going to classes, and making new friends to think much about mental health. I was healthy. I even graduated from therapy. At that time, I would never have thought that I was recovering. I didn’t understand recovery as a concept that could be applied to my situation. I just thought that my environment was working for me and I guess I thought that as long as I was in a nice environment, my health would stay stable.
I was unaware at the time that Pendle Hill also provided me with opportunities that would transform how I functioned in any environment. One aspect of the change came from a deepened spiritual practice and Meeting for Confession. (Yes, we invented that.) During that first term I went to worship, took a prayer class and learned from my spiritual nurturer how to be present with God while doing mundane tasks. We talked about Brother Lawrence and the spiritual practice of peeling a potato. I brought this idea of work being prayer into my housekeeping job and as I scrubbed baseboards in the wee hours of the night held in the Light the troubling events that led up to my summer of travel. I brought to the Light the negative memories I had from my Meeting and forgave the people who hurt me. And then I came to a deeper understanding. I had to forgive myself for the sexual experience I had committed previous to joining Quakers.
I wanted to confess this, so a group of Friends gathered for a Meeting for Confession. I read my confession and my friends spiritually and physically held me. It was the most gathered experience of my life. I felt sacred accompaniment as I laid this burden down. The experience of Meeting for Confession didn’t end with this gathering, though I/we didn’t know that the experience of confession and laying down of my old self was continuing over the next months.
I started to realize that I wasn’t only confessing to my compliance in the unfortunate sexual experience. What I needed to make amends for was what I started to call “a life-less lived”. I needed to move away from the life in which I limited what I believed about my self-worth, my character, and my life expectations that led me to make such a poor decision. I had a series of clearness committees to sort this out. First, I had a clearness committee to be clear that I would never go back to my old life. The next clearness committee was about writing about my experiences. Looking back, I can see in that clearness committee I gained an understanding that I was being led into a writing/creative vocation. I look back now and see these clearness committees as a part of the Meeting for Confession because I was laying down an old self, making resolutions and finding a new path.
The second lasting influence of the year was my spiritual nurturer. She taught me how to interact with myself in a completely new way. When I was irritated by something we didn’t talk about how to avoid or reduce the feeling of irritation. Instead, she would ask me, “What is God inviting you to?” Instead of responding to life with therapeutic tools, I learned how to be faithful. The questions she taught me to ask, “What is the invitation?” “Where do you feel that in your body?” “What image comes to mind?” “What feels like home?” “Where is God in that?” all slowly led me forward on my spiritual path. She kept me from problem solving, reduced my anxiety, turned me from self-analysis to a more sacred self-reflection and taught me how to recognize Grace. This was the greatest gift of my life. I was starting to explore a real relationship with my God and was slowly forming into who He knows me as, not what can be represented by a diagnostic manual. Before learning these skills I never once considered making a life decision based on what made me feel connected. And in the years leading up to Pendle Hill, my choices always reflected the question, “what will keep me stable?” Asking myself, “what is God inviting me to?” was a tremendous shift.
Another learning that would have a lasting impact was from my permaculture class. The teacher, Joel taught us about design principles and how to use everything in the garden. When we called something a weed, he would correct us and rattle off 2 or 3 things that plant could be used for. There was no reason to pull out or poison plants in the garden, it was better to find a purpose for them that aided to the overall garden design.
The biggest impact came from the arts and spirituality program, which helped me reestablish my sense of creativity. During my sojourn, I felt like God was calling me to write. I spent that week sitting on the back porch of Firbank penning a novella. When the semester started, I found myself forging a close friendship with a sculptor. We spent countless hours in the studio her working on various feminine figures, me working on an endless mosaic project. During my time there, (with the kicking art studio, other creative types all around me, and an extremely supportive and patient teacher) I fell into doing some kind of creative work everyday. Over time I started to identify as a writer and an artist, but that took awhile. At first, I was just playing in the art studio. By the end of my second year at Pendle Hill I had written a memoir about how my spiritual journey had entangled with mental illness and was developing it into an art book series that I would use in ministry. Without trying, but by paying attention to invitations and listening to what felt right for me, I had developed the beginnings of a ministry centered on both creativity and mental health.
Spirit led me into this vocation and ministry so slowly and silently that I didn’t realize that it was happening. Others didn’t seem to realize or recognize it either. So, when it came time for me to leave Pendle Hill to start a ministry I encountered a number of external and internal blocks and what turned into a fight for my identity. During this time I was identifying both as “mentally ill” and as a writer/artist. But this was shifting. I remember being irritated, for the very first time, when someone said, “Bipolar is just a small part of who you are”. I think in my heart I stopped recognizing “bipolar” as ANY part of who I was. But cognitively I still believed the medical model that said that I had a chemical imbalance that would only get worse as time went on.
While I was ready to move forward with this ministry, there was an assumption that I had had my “healing experience” and that I would lay down my creative work and return to my life as a mental patient in the care of my family. Pendle Hill as a transformative experience wasn’t completely realized. For my part, I still believed that I had a “chemical imbalance”, so I was unable to say why I felt these changes were permanent or articulate well why I felt the advice was misplaced. I was reminded to think about my stability, but I knew I felt called to share my writing. I left divided between two conflicting ideas about myself. In the year after I left Pendle Hill my mental health became both worse and ultimately better.
During that year a splintering occurred. The part of me that believes myself to be a mental patient broke off from the part of me that knows myself to be a creative person and whole member of the community. Sometimes I acted and thought of myself as an artist/writer/Quaker and during those times I surrounded myself with people who responded to me as an artist/writer/Quaker. But, I also literally had a voice in my head that was telling me that I was deluding myself if I believed myself to be a valuable part of community. “Voice” insisted that my perception of myself as writer/artist/Quaker proved that I was a delusional. And when I shifted my perspective to that framework, I sought out people who confirmed my status as a mental patient. This shifting became so intense that I almost killed myself.
I know that none of this sounds like good news, but it was a process that I needed to go through. I didn’t have a breakdown; I had a breakthrough. And what made that possible, in addition to excellent medical/mental health care, was what my spiritual nurturer taught me. While I was splitting, I was still asking myself the questions she taught to me. When I responded to emotional distress and extreme states with questions like, “What is God inviting me to?” “Where am I feeling this in my body?” “What feels like home?” my response to these conditions shifted and helped me not find relief from them, but to live into them and find out what I needed to know from them.
Eventually, that path of looking for Grace and continuing to sit in the silent truth of the Light led me to healing and recovery. I realized how a childhood trauma had impacted my life and my overall self-concept. I came to this understanding standing next to Lake Michigan after a painful Meeting for Worship while visiting 57th Street Meeting in Chicago. Voice harassed me through Meeting, followed me to a coffee shop where he screamed over my journaling, and then menaced me as I walked to the lake. Standing next to the lake, hearing a flood of insults, I tried to center and see what God was inviting me to. I slowly became aware that Voice was an echo of my history. Because I could respond faithfully, I could hear what Voice was saying about me, know where in my past he came from and walk away from his opinions entirely. I stopped believing him.
It was around that time that I decided to leave my Meeting. I listed good reasons at the time, but looking back I think I just needed space to adjust to this new concept of myself. And to be clear, I still had residual emotional distress, I had to piece my life back together and I had to work through anger. I didn’t trust people, particularly Friends. I realized later that the anger I directed towards other people who I thought were stigmatizing me was really anger at myself for having spent all those years as a mental patient. I also continued to have transliminal experiences such as hearing voices and seeing visions. But I kept responding to them by trying to see what God was inviting me to and as a result started to see that these experiences could be used for good.
Through googling about the benefits of mental illness, I stumbled upon The Icarus Project and the Mad Pride Movement. Finally, I found the framework for everything I had experienced in the past years. I found that many people see the “chemical imbalance” explanation of mental illness as a myth and understand that mental trauma is the result of a number of social and psychological factors. Most importantly, I found the concept that people with severe mental illness can and DO recover. I read about the concepts of mad gifts and started to think back to what I learned in permaculture class. I wasn’t a weed that needed to be pulled out or poisoned. I am, just as I am, part of the overall design and if there are things about my mind that make me different, this does not mean that I am useless or dangerous. Extreme states can be cultivated and used for the good of community.
I took this idea and decided to focus on writing a novel about a biblical figure that is outcast because of a socially constructed condition. In the past, I had a series of imaginings about homelessness so real that part of my psyche seems to believe that I actually slept on the streets. If I can imagine extreme and abstract situations with such vivid detail that the act of imaging becomes experiential, why not put my sensory experiences into a fiction piece that can help show people what the experience of living without shelter looks and feels like? That’s what God is inviting me to. He doesn’t want me to make the extreme states go away. He wants me to use them for good.
I also started to workout. When I came to terms with the childhood trauma, I felt for the first time since my youth that I wanted to live to be an old lady. Previously, I think I always believed that I would die in some kind of self-violent way. I know I am recovered from that experience because soon after coming to terms with that trauma, I looked at my 300-pound body and thought, if I want to continue to live I need to fix this. I started a faithful fitness and diet program. I’ve already lost 40 pounds.
As I shed the idea that I was a mental patient with a “chemical imbalance”, I started to take more responsibility for behavior, which led to better relationships. Specifically, the “chemical imbalance” theory had been particularly destructive for my family. My mother recently told me that she never believed the things the therapist said about me, but that she didn’t know how to be supportive, so they tried to help me “manage” which put me in an unnatural perpetual child role. Once my family and I could see that recovery was possible, the difficulties that developed from my parents having to care for an adult chronically ill mental patient started to heal. The mental health system put us in a dysfunctional arrangement in which they felt responsible for my “care”. With my liberation, I am able to take part in a healthy family dynamic as just another adult who can care for all members of my family. When free from self-involved symptom management, we found that I am a person capable of loving others and contributing to my family in meaningful ways.
Eventually, I returned to my Meeting. When I found the language to understand my process of recovery and liberation, I wanted to share it with others. When I realized how important Quaker spiritual practices had been to my transformation, I knew I needed to reconnect with people who share my faith. I also became more involved with the consumer/survivor movement. In December, I was able to attend the Alternatives Conference – a peer advocacy conference where I learned leadership skills, communication strategies, sharing resources for healthy community building, and maintaining healthy relationships during crisis. I was able to help found The Philadelphia Radical Mental Health Collective. I am involved in The Icarus Project – a radical mental health community and have found many allies in the consumer/survivor movement. I am an active and contributing member of many communities – a feat unimaginable when I was living as a mental patient who was warned against emotions evoked from solitary TV viewing.
These days writing, researching, creating artwork, community involvement, exercising, and prayer fill my days. I continue to cultivate and share my mad gifts while I recover from mental trauma and liberate from management-focused treatment protocols. I believe that Quakers could do much to promote self-determination, recovery, liberation and human rights of people of with a psychiatric diagnosis. Looking ahead, I want to help people caught in chronic disability to use spiritual discernment to find their way to a more fulfilling life. I want to help Friends understand that Quakerism can be a part of the path towards recovery and transformation.
Through Quakerism I found my God and myself. I started to see myself as God sees me. And in knowing myself as God knows me I was able to find a community of people like myself who see me as a person and peer, not a diagnosis. In this journey and in these Quaker and Mad Pride Communities, I found something that I had not experienced in all my years as a person managing an illness. I found hope.
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