Posted on June 15, 2020
As the Covid-19 virus spikes again and some are hitting the pause button on re-opening, I’ve been wondering how the introverts are doing. I find I’m a subset of their type: an empath who needs a great deal of solitude to calm down from feeling too deeply what goes on in my relationships, my locality, and our world.
When the pandemic began there were proud memes from the introverts who’d hit the jackpot with “shelter in place”--free to be, and not have to mess with all of thee! Others, as in the essay entitled Isolated by the Coronavirus? Welcome to My World detail an everyday existence with poverty and disability “in the clutches of the mental health industry” with a grim approval that others were about to understand how it feels.
As for me, what initial glee when my spring break ended the school year and hence, my job—oh, the things I’d get done and discover! Besides, I have Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that affects balance and hearing. Crowd noise is jarring, and LOUD noise is painful. Once your average festival-goer, parade-watcher, and sign-carrying demonstrator, over the years I’ve backed away from large venues. I don’t miss them.
But what surprised me is how soon I started to miss people. I don’t mean just my peeps. I mean everybody.
The first sign was a song.
As the pandemic spread and the horrors were reported in large cities, nursing homes and meat-packing plants which I don’t have direct contact with . . . I felt an overwhelming urge to listen to David Bowie sing, “Five Years.”
The song depicts the public hearing the news that “Earth was really dying” and only five years of life remains. Verses cover reactions in the street as everyone learns this, as well as the thoughts and emotions ravaging the singer. In an oddly prescient twist, the singer, confronted with certain death, calls out for his mother as a real man famously did in our times, George Floyd.
In 1972 this was sci-fi glam perhaps, but with a rare sadness that in 2020 I can relate to. Especially these lines that kept playing in my head, where the singer looks around at humanity and feels an inner shift:
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I'd need so many people
I fully accept that not everyone views the pandemic as a tragedy. I’ve spent enough time on Facebook and personally with those whose worries are for their liberties and the economy. If you are one of them, you won’t want to continue reading this. If the next crisis, the one that jolted the globe about police brutality, hasn’t shaken you either, please do read elsewhere. I’m at a loss as to what can soften such persons’ minds and hearts. What new insight can I add about racial injustice that hasn’t already been spilled out with such passion and force that demonstrations yet rage around the world?
So the following is but one story. About how global events, heart-fully considered, jettisoned me past anxiety, tears, but mostly, Fear. Capital F. If anything is new here, it is a singular twist on a confrontation with Fear. I’m going deep.
I live in a mid-size university town, and have for thirty-five years. I came here to go to graduate school and stayed. I have a love-hate relationship with the place, which is in so many ways like a small town. In a conservative area of the country, my town is the progressive oasis. That has a way of both freeing and warping people, which I won’t go into here. But I have been wondering for a year now if perhaps it’s time to move on.
Listening to Bowie’s classic imagining of end-times, I drove downtown, which is normally vibrant all day and into the night. Of course it wasn’t then, and of course that was weird. So weird that I couldn’t go back again until things started to open up. Weird not as in it offended my need for sameness. Weird as in, oh I bet this is hurting so many folks in so many ways, and somehow that hurt me.
I never thought I’d need so many people.
For some reason I kept thinking of how years ago, when I heard updates about my father’s last days, I felt terrible for his struggle with pain and dementia. Sound normal? Not when you’d spent decades identifying the man as the Main Problem in Your Life, spent decades of dollars on therapy centered on What He Did, and kept picking men who let you down in similar ways. I always figured I’d savor his demise and dance on his grave. Didn’t happen! Still hasn’t.
Driving through my town after so many months muttering “I’m done here!” and fantasizing about moving to the mountains, I was surprised by tears of sorrow for the empty streets, and how much I knew it rattled my fellow citizens. It wasn’t that I missed the bars and restaurants I rarely frequented anymore. They were a face on a body though, a body of folks. I thought about the people who scoffed at the numbers of sick and dying as Bowie sang:
I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor
Drinking milk shakes cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine
Don't think you knew you were in this song
So what about the conspiracy theorists?! I needed them too, the lovable kooks!
Because when roots go down into a place, it becomes family. And for however long you take them for granted or complain about what they do, if you lose a piece of family, you hurt.
I can’t pretend to explain how energy connects us, though medical doctor Larry Dossey and science-reporter Lynn McTaggart have done extraordinary work showing the non-locality of our thoughts and prayers, their ability to impact the health and well-being of others. The garden-variety empath in me felt the fear and confusion in the ether of those downtown blocks. The engaged-Buddhist in me didn’t look away, and the misanthrope I thought I’d become didn’t hop to indignation about how it served everybody right. I just felt very, strangely bad for others. For us.
If you’ve been told all your life you’re “too sensitive,” I feel for you in these times. “Empathy” gets sticky when a favored human trait morphs into the more questionable embodiment of an “empath”, a person overwhelmed or at least tuned in mightily to emotional currents in human beings, or animals, or landscapes.
Author Judith Orloff has a survival guide for empaths that explains a great deal. On most of the “self-assessments” I checked off everything—yup, that’s me, mmmhmm, me too. When you find yourself pinned down by a UCLA psychiatrist who is an empath herself and specializes her practice for empaths, it’s hard to wiggle out. Curious if you are one too? Take the test here.
I started to wonder how indeed are the world’s empaths coping with Covid and police brutality? I was crying constantly, daily, at the TV news, until I had to limit myself. Where is the line between chronic worry and opening to the sufferings of the world?
Then came the reality of loneliness. I missed work. My daughter was locked down in a group home for disabled adults, my other daughter too busy with school online and intent on social distance. My dog passed a year ago and I’ve not obtained another pet. I hesitated to bother my friends too much with video chat for most of them at least had other people in the home. Two years isn’t long enough to grieve the death of a spouse fully, so all that rose up again. And the cold weather and rain wore on and on.
I’d hungered to be a hermit with carefree hours for so long! It was ecstasy for about a week. As re-entry began, many didn’t trust the virus was a goner. My state has been sensible and slow about re-opening, but the fear is still there. With not much else to do, I decided to talk to Fear.
I started with a concept I’d used in the past: inviting Fear to sit down and tell me what it wanted. In this technique, you trust that Fear has a reasonable angle, an urge to protect you. You find the gold vein that makes sense, and negotiate with Fear to lose the irrational, paralyzing part of its modus operandi.
That. Did. Not. Work.
Not this time. Something more sweeping yet darker was pressing on me. In meditation I took a deep breath and dove down. Here’s what came to the surface. I speak only for myself, but suspect the universality of the following claim:
At root, all Fear of other people is the fear of being killed. (Fear of death itself is a separate matter.) I speak of the fear of having your life ended by another’s hand, or by suicide, which feels like being killed because survivors report a helplessness to stop themselves.
TV, movies, and video games don’t help, I realize this. The pictures that get embedded in our heads are of atrocity. We all buy in or feel the strain to consciously avoid looking.
But what about communities whose daily lives are shaped by this fear of being killed? As a white woman in a modest but safe neighborhood, I have no experience. I can only wonder how a black man can go out and about without fear, how a black woman can craft a life in a sea of circling sharks. They must be warriors toting courage everywhere.
After police shoved a 75-year-old demonstrator to the pavement to bleed unconscious, still in the hospital for his injuries, I’ve incorporated one of our times’ new injunctions: no free pass for uppity elders. That layers an extra level of fear onto this old activist’s heart.
If you live alone you can sink into fear so much you clutch at the thought of leaving the house. Someone might give me the coronavirus, and my immune system is not that great! What if police start shooting, right in front of me!
I could feel this phobia coming on, like a noose tightening. I was watching myself (meditation helps cultivate the observer) over time and that’s when I took the leap and landed at the bottom of it all.
It’s not only that my first memories of my father were of his murderous rage when spanking or slapping his children. It isn’t just that being a woman in patriarchy means constant strategy to avoid violence which can be fatal. Add on the replays of war, racial tension, refugee camps, and all the ways we’re destroying species, green space, and the ocean. That’s quite a load--who wouldn’t want to scream their head off when it can’t be blocked from mind?
But I also knew the bliss of growing up in suburban neighborhoods where we kids played outside from daylight to dusk and parents often sent us out to it, safety no issue. I grew up with ample time spent on a family farm with a super-special cousin my age, plus aunts and uncles and older adults, and a second church I knew as well as my hometown’s. I survived the Sixties with an unsullied memory of what it was like to cleave to a tribe that actually believed we could transform the world.
Fear had harbingers of Hope along for the ride.
Because quantum leaps aren’t rational, I can’t pinpoint the steps out of my bad moments in quarantine. But somehow instead of being totally freaked by contemplating the Fear of all Fears, I felt the most immense peace breaking free inside of me. Because I saw that we all are Fear-full of the same thing: being extinguished by mean people. Yet in reality there aren’t “killers” at every turn who are the Others waiting to slice us down to size, either verbally/emotionally (“soul murder”) or physically in hatred. Most of us are merely slogging along, raw as hell, but doing our best. Seeing that, the conclusion was this: below the crossfire, we all want the same thing.
What if every time we experience a negative reaction from someone else, it triggers an unconscious Fear of being killed? On some level, hasn’t “society” been sliding toward viewing every other person as a potential threat? This sounds a tad paranoid but it isn’t conscious. I would have scoffed if prior to my meditation you’d told me I was that unevolved. But I wonder: how many are goaded to daily anxiety by original traumas of course, but also by an ongoing awareness that one’s nation if not others are “out of control?”
I know what comes next will sound trite, but it blew my mind. I had to go out for errands after this particular meditation and needed a walk. Suddenly I saw everyone, in every car, on every sidewalk, differently. I was no longer wary, comparing, feeling superiority or envy, or even nursing a belief that if I could leave this town I’d be happy. I kept whispering to myself: “we all want the same thing!” And what might that be?
Love that is genuine and peace in neighborly communities. Our first choice isn’t to be competitors or soul-murderers jockeying for positions of safety or advantage. Of course some get addicted to the adrenaline rush of adversity. But scratch that behavior and you find the soft, let-down hurt beneath. Holy moley, I'd given lip service to the theory before, but never been so invaded by its truth and so astounded by its impact.
The ton of anxiety-weight this lifted is gratefully noted. I still cry at the news, though. I still haven’t figured out what to do to aid racial justice. I continue to wear a mask and keep distance. But I finally get one thing: all those people out there are so, so, very tired of strife. Just like me.
This whole episode wasn’t a revelation about belonging; it was an understanding down to my bone-marrow that I never was separate in the first place, that I was the one who pushed away others from fear. There are legitimate things to watch out for; there are legitimate things to fear. But there is no one to fear, not even Donald Trump—a sad little boy gone berserk inside the oval office. Most definitely: keep tabs, resist, vote, and persist. What goes around comes around, and that’s not a vengeful wish. That’s simply a strongly held belief that Good does triumph.
More good things return. Here comes my town, inching toward signs of vibrancy, little by little though it still seems too easy to park on a Saturday night. Here comes my sanity, crafted from quarantine’s gift of self-reflection which is there for the taking. Eventually, it’s possible to come back to who you were all along. A human being and not a human fearing, refurbished with a knack for hope.
Posted by Sue Westwind on June 29, 2020Normal and boring does have a certain appeal right now. Looking at going back to work when (should I say “if”?) the schools open, sounds like a relief AND a danger to be in such a possible stew of infection. Thanks for reading and may these words not replace Be Well forever: Stay safe!
Posted by Joyce McCullough on June 29, 2020
Glad that quarantine has helped with new perspective on life. Fear of dying alone in a hospital has gripped me at times. The world seems so chaotic right now. I long for normal, boring stuff. Thanks for sharing your heart.
Posted by Sue Westwind on June 25, 2020
So moving and brilliantly said. I hesitate to make Covid all about death, though I’m hardly one to gloss over Death or make it the elephant in the room. And people our age with certain health conditions, as we see the tremendous surge happening again, and the distraught health workers, the ICUs running out of room…is this humanity’s Waterloo? At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna in the Love and Light Brigade, I would emphasize the “we are all interconnected” aspect as you said. What happened to me, and it seems to be holding, was a great simplification that may be the truth: that no matter how we run around looking like idiots who want more stuff, more protection, have more fear and snarl at the Other…it is true that at the basic level (beyond the need for food and shelter and health of course…or can we tease that and the next thought apart?) all we really want from each other is love that is the real thing, and a peaceful existence in the human nexus. So I am tremulous before the great work of seizing this opportunity for us all, to do better, to wake up, to take off the masks internally though we will need cloth coverings over our breath for some time to come! I guess you could say that somehow, I found my faith in people again.
Posted by Sue Westwind on June 25, 2020
Thanks for your support for the piece, and you’re right, we probably all have empathy and introversion to a degree. As far as talking to Fear or opening to the suffering of the world, it can’t be explained in a how-to, nor ample reassurance given that if you try it, it won’t hurt. Again we must look to highly realized spiritual people for how they do it, and find that it actually gives them ease in their lives and passion in their steps if they don’t shut out any realities. I can’t report on the inner states of gurus who withdraw from the world seen as sinful/misguided, or because bliss-out was an available avenue: did they shut things out to maneuver their peace? I can look to our great engaged activists who draw from a spiritual well, and find proof that they don’t run from their own fears or the plight of humanity and the Earth in any fashion, but rather respond with more ease because they aren’t holding themselves shut, afraid of the pain.
Posted by Bruce B Blank on June 24, 2020
I saw a most interesting film last night. It was ‘Color Out of Space’, based on the macabre masterpiece by H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft wrote pulp fiction back in the 40’s that created the Cthulhu ‘Mythos’ – the idea of horrible forces from another dimension invading our world, rendering everyone susceptible to a creeping madness, passed from one to the next until the entire World fell. It was a brilliant exercise in fear, possession and loss.
Like those Lovecraftian invaders from beyond, the Covid19 pandemic is not to be reasoned with or dismissed. It is pervasive, stealthy, unrecognizable. It shape-shifts into our friends, family – maybe even pets. The one you stand next to getting coffee could be your executioner. It could be your lover, your children. Who is the Spectre of Death? Everyone. No one.
So, yeah. I get the panic. Americans didn’t pay attention. We even had a President who thinks the problems are with numbers, not people. Now after everyone was sent outside to play, they return with more death. You don’t have to be much of an empath to grasp with is happening. The Monster is Back, baby – and like any good horror film sequel, the body count always goes up.
It’s an individual test: how do we choose to react when death arrives at our door? Many, many countless men and women are demonstrating kindness, courage and a willingness to sacrifice even one’s own life to help another. Not just the nurses and doctors – all who stay on the job and help out. Others will horde their toilet paper, peek through blinds and check their ammo stockpiles. These are the dangerous ones – because fear has gripped their hearts.
If one realizes that life is sweet because of death’s inevitability, AND that we are all interconnected – then that monster may still bite but – as Shakespeare noted – Death has lost the sting. So it’s perfectly fine and indeed healthy to feel fear for others, to bring hope to others and to even forgive oneself for needing that alone time, the need to connect on the phone, or even wander the streets at night. We define the quality of our existence by how others remember us – and how we choose to react to those mysterious unseen forces: Monster? Friend? Love? It’s coming for us all – so we best be ready when it does.
Posted on May 31, 2020
This post was rough-drafted before drive-thru food pantries, empty grocery store shelves, and threats of massive food shortages. There’s a mountain of evidence that what you eat can make or break your mood--but suddenly eating clean seems secondary to staying fed. Does that throw the importance of the discussion out the window? Or do I just go with it like we’ll be “back to normal” any day now?
Feeding America does extensive studies on food insecurity: “Households that . . . lack access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” Their models show food insecurity will burgeon on local levels. Pre-pandemic stats were already at 37 million persons, including 11 million children. One post-virus scenario predicts a rise to 54 million, or 1 in every 6 persons.
The same folks hit hardest by food insecurity are most devastated by coronavirus—seniors, people with chronic illnesses, people of color. The connection is poverty, equaling density of population plus poor healthcare--it’s been charged that eating well is expensive, and I’ll address that. "Mental health issues" due to the pandemic are reportedly on the rise. Food justice plus insights about food and mood are needed now more than ever.
The coronavirus is an opportunity to overhaul the unworkable. That’s why I’ll wrap up this up with a vision for post-pandemic food security that also keeps us sane—a vision, not a scientific assessment or administrative policy. I’m only a mad priestess with belief in a future we cannot see. But eating for health isn’t rocket science. It could be a bigger factor in saving us than anyone can yet imagine.
Don’t believe everything you think.
Too much mental chatter too easily fosters debris I call toxic thoughts—chronic and debilitating, unlike a flash of genius or creative brainstorm. I refer to those thoughts that fuel fear or hopelessness, the ones that call you a failure and a waste of anyone’s time, that urge you to hide yourself for good.
Sometimes we can’t shut them up. Sometimes the cognitive-behavioral tricks of asking ourselves, “is the content of that thought REALLY true?” or snapping a rubber band against the wrist to stop the thought, works. Sometimes that’s too much effort when the voices are demons on a mission.
It’s not an accepted norm to connect dark moods to what the body imbibes, except in the case of substance abuse. I didn’t start out thinking about food when I fell for a number of therapies, from Carl Rogers and Fritz Perls in the Sixties, through feminist therapy, psychosynthesis and “parts parties,” Jung and transpersonal approaches . . . I learned a lot and love it all. But I’ve been watching something within myself for two decades, even though I still tend to run first in the direction that mind/soul are so lofty and complex the body couldn’t possibly have anything to do with my depression, anxiety, or inertia.
Time and time again I am proven wrong.
For me certain negative thought-trains attach to particular physical issues, I’ve learned through rueful hindsight. With awareness, you too might notice a match-up. The way it presents will vary among individuals, but will be consistent within the individual.
For example. Accidental ingestion of gluten or dairy and I hear mean self-talk with the knock of migraine on the right side of my face. If the headache goes full-blown, thoughts have a sinister tone: paranoid, focusing on other people’s shortcomings, feeling rejected. With dairy I weep, but gluten makes me surly.
Take sleep, an everyday thing. Too little sleep for a stretch, and to my mind I’m a fraud at large—can’t these people see through me? Surely they can tell I’m seriously deranged and about to scream uncontrollably any minute now!
When I haven’t spent enough time in Nature, it’s all about avarice. I want more. More attention, more money, more movies, books, more time on Facebook. Jittery, prone to feelings of emptiness, I’m a rat running the walls of my cage, blocked at every swerve.
It’s so hard to stand back from these states, to stop ruminating about other people or your own “faults,” to check in with a question or two. Like . . .
What did I eat lately? What is that smell coming from construction in the building and is that why I'm queasy? When’s the last time I took a walk? Been awhile since I did that special self-care thing (not junk food or other addictions)?
In my early days with nutritional strategies, I waxed ecstatic about what saved me from chronic physical and emotional pain. I shared my supplement choices, and still follow most of these to this day. I wrote about my saga to health in my memoir. But there’s been a new development.
After a decade of newfound energy, clarity, and optimism--the migraines, fatigue and deep depression returned. Weird! I was scrupulously following my diet. More gluten- and dairy-free items were on the market. I lived in the country and was outdoors all the time. True, relationships at home weren’t the best, so I blamed my malaise on that. I had a new job and didn’t like getting up early. There were plenty of places to point a finger.
Then I heard about the Paleo diet. Oh, how the fads come and go. Today Keto is all the rage but it’s similar to Paleo: keep it low-carb. Loading carbohydrates results in visceral fat, the killer kind; it also turns to sugar in the brain and that leads to the demons known as toxic thoughts.
Human bodies are the same bodies we had as hunter-gatherers, before agriculture. The cultivation of grains, beans, and certain starches, say the Paleo-diet folk, didn’t do us any favors because our digestion can’t handle it.
Which leads to more than tummy-aches. Witness the digestive disorders that pair with “mental” disorders. Too many studies to list; look on PubMed Central, home to this fantastic article: Gut thinking: the gut microbiome and mental health beyond the head.
Back in the cave-wo/man days we ate meat and lots of fresh foods. Nuts and seeds. Plentiful greens and roots. Immune enhancing berries plus fruits with skin for fiber. Paleolithic peeps ate plums, pears, dates, figs, grapes, olives, and oranges. They ate things we don’t, such as ferns and cattails!
No grains though. No refined sugar either--no surprise.
Grains are high in phytates or phytic acid, an antinutrient because it binds to minerals we need—iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc—then our bodies can’t use them. Mineral deficiency equals poor immunity, bad skin, brittle bones, PMS, fatigue. Cows can break down phytates, we can’t.
Ditto harm from lectins in grains, another antinutrient. They’re a great defense to have if you’re a plant. In order for the plant to survive, lectins irritate our digestive system so we don’t digest their seeds (we poop them out). For us lectins can mean diarrhea, bloating, reflux, nausea or vomiting.
Finally, despite all the celebration of “whole grains,” their nutrients just aren’t that bioavailable compared to meat, seafood, fruits and veggies.
A word about Grain Brain, as neurologist David Perlmutter calls it. He elaborates how eating grains causes dementia, ADHD, anxiety and more. Grains bring out the villain: inflammation. Commonly chowed-down grains also spike blood sugar fast—bread and white rice are notorious.
Luckily, kicking grains for me did the trick. Not only did my energy surge, migraines stopped, depression skedaddled and I lost seventeen pounds.
Prior to that I’d been pretty smug about my gluten/dairy-free choices. But in truth they were processed, refined foods. Cookies, chips, pasta galore, and grains: primarily rice. So much rice, and white-rice flour as if that was any better than the Pillsbury staple.
The phrase “food as medicine” is music to my ears. Two significant eras of food-change rescued me from depression, chronic fatigue, migraines, plaguing muscle cramps, and such sore joints it hurt to walk. It was so huge in my life that I always ponder: what holds people back, suffering but too dispirited to let go of their processed-carb comfort foods?
I recall a local healer telling me that “some people just don’t want to feel better!” I knew there had to be a better why.
But there is a scary aspect to ditching the crappy habits. Who will support me? What if I change too much? Will there be new expectations: be stronger, work harder, never fail? What about those people who won’t like the new me and try to derail my efforts? With coronavirus picking us off in droves anyway, why try?
We don’t lack for theories about why the obese can’t self-regulate, why bulimics choose to vomit and anorexics to starve. When I had a hypnotherapy practice, I worked with young women with food issues. The heart of their task was to connect with the Inner Child and find out what she really wanted and needed. Then we’d enlist the client’s adult-self in real time to help the Child discover ways to meet these root needs.
Food can be an addiction but outside of weight-loss groups we’re as reluctant to talk about it as the Victorian Age was to discuss sex. More than one well-educated friend has refused to converse with me about food allergens/ intolerances. So much shame and fear of blame; to them, decorum dictates that what they eat remain a highly personal, private matter.
I’ve modified my Paleo diet over time to include the occasional lentils, white beans, and tofu. If going by the book, that’s too many carbs and I’m cheating. But I’m ambivalent about meat eating: too much meat and I feel bogged down, yet without it I’m weak and tired. Unfortunately the Paleo way throws us onto the horns of a dilemma regarding the consumption of the flesh of animals.
This planet can’t support its population eating meat at every meal, not the way we consume it in mass quantities, not the way we raise livestock for consumption. Corporate meatpackers strong-arming their workers back to the lines without providing coronavirus testing only highlights Mass Meat as central to feeding a nation and keeping the economy going. The obvious answer is to support small sustainable farms, but can they meet the ravenous demand?
To unpack the shame and blame that hovers around food choices, we might cease berating ourselves and look to the onslaught of propaganda by Big Food,Big Ag, Frankenfood or Fake Food. Advertising, packaging, FDA-protected secrets to increase “crave-ability” and of course high trans-fats, high sugar, high salt are their game. Here is the heart of the argument about why “eating better” appears more expensive: concerted corporate ability to provide junk at low cost keeps us captive, while their government-buddies assist in the con. The bombardment of information from Experts with vested interests is so overwhelming it dismantles the will.
Somehow standing in the grocery line we forget we’re limited to products that a moneyed minority chooses to stock there and call food. We forget also we are fed research on "mental illness" bankrolled by Bigtime Pharma, with its tentacles into Congress and certain media firms, its big laughter and belittling of the idea that the wrong foods can make one crazy.
We get caught in a web of anxious, emotional baggage around the simple and basic act of nourishment, and that is where the food-powers-that-be would prefer to have us: blaming our own lack of “will power.”
But there’s more: an opioid mechanism when it comes to staples like gluten and dairy. These foods are literally drugs. They contain fake endorphins--morphine-like peptides. After tearing the gut lining these peptides travel through the holes (leaky gut) to the brain. It’s what makes that crusty bread or smooshy ice cream such a high. The problem is when the feel-good wears off. Withdrawal! Give me more!
Why “got milk?” when no other species drinks milk of another species on the planet, when it’s known to worsen asthma, migraines, allergies, digestion, sinus infections, and anemia (iron deficiency)? Why do we think that 50 years of hybridizing the hell out of wheat would have no effect on us? I wish we had the kind of addiction services for foods known to hit on opioid receptors as we do for painkillers.
I don’t believe that if truly healthy choices were the only choices, people would rather starve.
The reason I’m fascinated by the subject of food and behavior boils down to what’s at stake: the children. If I hadn’t raised a daughter with autism whose needs alerted me to why I was so dangerously depressed and anxious, I’m certain I’d be fully disabled by now or dead from suicide. And it all started when I was a teenager, wild and oppositional—eating big hunks of cheese and downing quarts of milk, mad for bread, bread, bread plus pasta by the plateful.
On the edge of despair in midlife I found warriors like early anti-dairy pioneer Frank Oski, (Don’t Drink Your Milk!), a pediatrician and medical specialist in children’s cancer at John Hopkins Children Center. It was a cardiologist whose bestseller about Wheat Belly reached the masses in 2011. Countless websites and bloggers are there for support; I like the moms or nonprofits, as opposed to doctors trying to sell products with their information.
But it helps to acknowledge how personal this is: food can be a friend, a sensual partner, a sanctuary in a world that’s artificial, over-stimulating, and hostile. Where loneliness and mistrust prevail and community is a lost art.
Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score explains how some persons feel safer when they literally carry more weight into the world. Many have escaped bullying by becoming obese. Women report feeling insulated by extra pounds from unwanted male attention.
But why do adults traumatize one another and children in such record numbers anyway? Is it “just life?” “The way we are?” Are some criminals simply born that way, some heads of states gladly dictators from stored mean in their genes or because absolute power corrupts absolutely?
Or is there an easily correctable problem staring us in the face?
Barbara Reed Stitt was a parole officer who grasped how many juvenile offenders could be turned around once their diets were cleaned up, and convinced quite a few judges to support her view. Her classic Food & Behavior: A Natural Connection makes a staunch case for “the biochemistry of crime” as hypoglycemia, nutrient deficiency, allergic reactions and toxic metals.
A study of 3,000 incarcerated young offenders whose junk-food snacks were replaced by nutritious ones showed notable decreases in anti-social (fighting, disruption type) behavior and suicide attempts. Conclusion: “Because the implementation of sound nutrition was inexpensive and easy to implement, and because it benefited personal health, it should be implemented whenever possible.”
Another study in the UK, replicated by the Dutch Ministry of Justice, gave nutritional supplements to 231 juvenile offenders and saw a 37% decrease in violent incidents, and an overall 48% difference between those getting them and those on placebo. For a pointed, accessible and readable plea for how to reform the criminal justice system, I urge you to check out an argument backed by 78 studies, here.
In memory of George Floyd, brutally murdered by a police officer’s knee on his neck while three officers stood by: it all spirals back to social justice. Prison populations were the subject of the above-mentioned studies. Who makes up the largest percentage of prisoners? Poverty-trapped persons of color. Where are the environmental hazard-sites and food deserts most often located? In their communities.
Everything is connected.
Even the pandemic in the air. Because sugar and carbohydrates sabotage the immune system, increasing the body’s risk for disease. Because meat eaten without moderation drives hot-spots of infected persons back to work to keep those factory-knives chopping. What if a second wave of infections halts air travel, closes ports, and food corporations go under?
What to eat then? Alternate proteins to meat-splurging are good fats like nuts and seeds and avocados and eggs. As the Earth recovers from our polluting ways, plentiful fish without toxins will be there for us again. If dark chocolate makes it into this new time, we’ll have a bit of delight that ups our immune systems too. These are a few of my favorite things; not all are local fare everywhere.
We may be forced to get cozy and grow our food together, learn to forage for what’s wild and nutrient-dense and share the bounty as in the children’s story, Stone Soup. Am I dreaming?
Some of us have been waiting for this idyllic way of life with its appropriate-technology twist for some time. Many are already living it. Some of us have been lazy, too lulled by convenience, or cut off from community in these fearful times.
Come on you virus, make it happen! Awaken us to the link between the hand’s labor, love for the outdoors, and nourishment. Usher in serious shared solutions and snuff out stupidity. Will survival of the fittest mean that persons most curious, inventive, and willing to try new things will thrive? That social justice will replace partisan gun-slinging because there is no other way to carry on than by relying on one another?
Allow me my visions where we man-up, woman-up, nonbinary-up to reclaim the world, and in the process find that our thoughts wash clean of violent intent, bodies heal their chronic woes, children can learn again and elders be useful . . . all because a bat shed some cells into the human horde, forcing a tailspin of dysfunction and division until we found our way.
We may look back on this madness that is 2020 so far and shake our heads, count some new blessings born of new priorities, and sigh with relief because those were the Bad Old Days.
Posted by Sue Westwind on June 4, 2020
So many great points made here, heartening to read, especially about kids who might grow up less addicted to bad food. Awesome dedication to cardio, Bruce, and micro-plastics it’s true are doing who knows what to us–they certainly are responsible for inflammation plus immune and reproductive dysfunction in fish–one study said that the offending stuff actually reaches the brains of fish, causing “anxiety-like behavior.” Rachel Carson is surely turning over in her grave… I might mention that instead of focusing on protein, try focusing on FAT (the good kind, not trans fats, but they’re in processed foods which you so wisely avoid)–nuts and seeds and avocados and olives can replace brown rice, for example. After awhile, believe it or not, your body switches over to craving these fats and not so much the carbs. Thanks for sharing!
Posted by Bruce B Blank on June 3, 2020
I was really pleased to see this article connects the dots on the link between societal dysfunctions and the food we eat. I worked as a Class supervisor with Child Start, the 1-5 pre-school services and, after a few years of testing, the national Head Start nutritional program went to minimally-processed foods with an emphasis on fresh veggies and fruit with eggs (where allergy appropriate). We teachers saw dramatic reductions in strung-out emotional kids – so we know the junk food diets and high sugar/fats intake in poorer families was linked.
Over the years I have made the personal choice to cut way, way back on processed foods. We grow our own veggies now – share with local organic farms and support independent growers through farmers markets and direct to table food programs. The author has pointed out my grain eating habits and I am looking deeper into that. I had problems with a totally vegan diet (terrible bloating and gas), but the Paleo really doesn’t work for me either – I felt constipated and worn down from high amounts of protein. Part of that is aging – the body at 70 simply doesn’t need 3000+ calories a day.
I want to emphasize the importance of sustained cardio exercise in food assimilation and body health. I work out between 1-2 hours per DAY on sustained cardio and lower body workouts through cycling. It’s been a life saver.
One thing not mentioned is the increasing danger of micro-plastics invading all branches of the food chain. One of the top priorities for human and wildlife help is the elimination of plastics as a means to transport and store foods. This didn’t exist up until 40 years ago.
Posted on May 1, 2020
Why is it, when it comes to “mental health,” the US is still a nation drugged to the gills? One in six people take a psychotropic drug. We shoulder our “disorders” like the inevitable baggage of modern life and never ask are we cured yet?
Americans believe we’re the best at medical (which includes psychiatric) treatment. That China and South Korea blew our doors off turning around their coronavirus problems should be cause for pause. That both natural treatments for coronavirus getting some press now—Vitamin C and Vitamin D--are also antidepressant and anti-anxiety solutions in the “alternative mental health” world, is an interesting coincidence.
In the mental health system, guardians of the drug-‘em or shock-‘em approach claim there are no alternatives: they call nutritional strategies or energy work unproven, tell us they don’t work--without a glance at the studies that show they do. “New Age . . . too woo-woo.”
There is far greater profit, not to mention a sense of belonging, in blind following of that long-time married couple, Psychiatry and Pharmacology.
Yet two things endure: the swelling stream of persons willing to indict “medication” for its wicked side-effects, and the massive failure of psych drugs to actually affect a cure for so-called mental illness. Pulitzer-winning journalist Robert Whitaker has painstakingly probed the science of outcomes to find that psychiatric drugs in the long-term create the very monster they set out to address: psychosis! Especially when people attempt to withdraw from them.
But there might be even deeper attitudes that block change. Strangely, they even show up in those who agitate against forced drugging, calling out Psychiatry’s abuse of power.
Why do many of the anti-drug, anti-psychiatry advocates who say they believe ardently in “alternatives” (there’s even a major conference by that name) seem so lukewarm to the concepts of food-as-medicine, detox, nutrients for the body that re-balance neuro/immune/ hormonal/ digestive systems that directly affect thought/emotion/behavior?
The “alternative” these advocates favor is peer support--an effective and brave effort to tell the professionals to get the hell out of our heads. But think about peer support in conjunction with functional medicine, and you could be talking cures. Hold on, they say, we told you to keep medicine out of this picture!
But get this. Many of the same advocates are quietly taking supplements, re-calibrating their bodies with the right foods or Eastern medicine . . . while remaining hesitant to mention it.
Many years ago at a conference I lunched with one of the movement’s leading lights whose name generates ultimate respect. He was all about social justice issues in the mental health system and I revered him. When I asked why a conference on alternatives had no workshops beyond peer advocacy and how to fight the power, he sneered that he hardly thought that justice would be done by providing the oppressed with “buckets of vitamins.” Later in the same conversation, he admitted to spending a great deal of personal income on nutritional items to optimize his own mental health.
Another leading figure gave acupuncture treatments, and in a recent documentary quickly mentioned the role of “food allergies” in mental-health struggles. Yet later on camera he disparages the idea of “broken brains,” asserting that mental-illness matters should largely address interpersonal relationships.
A local activist, considering the work of Dr. Mark Hyman’s food and nutrient strategies needed for mental wellness, solemnly told me she would put these ideas in the same category as her friend who believed that real-time aliens from outer space were responsible for our mental-health crisis.
On one listserv, an anti-psychiatry author repeatedly trashed me for talking about Dr. Hyman, even after others told him to calm down. “Polemical” was one of the nicer insults he leveled at me for discussing food intolerances, nutrients, the gut and the brain.
After all these years, I’m beginning to understand these folks on the front lines, many who fought their way out of years of forced drugging. The red-flag word, right up there with MEDICINE is probably BRAIN. How’s your brain? Their response is, never you mind!
They have reason to be nervous. Medicine on the brain throughout history meant psychiatrists drilling holes in the prefrontal cortex, (lobotomy), zapping brains with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, “shock”) insulin coma (injecting persons with large doses of insulin daily and repeatedly over several weeks), whole-body restraints (straps and straightjackets), blasts of cold water in bath boxes, dunking devices, ladder and bucket contraptions, the fever cure (injecting mental patients with malaria), eugenics (the effort to sterilize or kill the mentally disabled), Freudian psychoanalysis which cruelly blamed mothers . . . generations have been forced into brain-and-body-shattering experiences in the name of medicine for the broken brain.
It was a holocaust of souls and lives, going back centuries when “the mad” along with criminals and the poor endured nasty confinements, or were forced onto a literal “ship of fools,” many of which traveled the sea channels and rivers of Europe to isolate them from society. Medicine’s interest zeroed in as the industrial state viewed insanity as a moral failure against society that needed to be fixed for the greater good.
Enter pharmacology! Dispense the drugs and empty the mental hospitals. As Whitaker’s research shows, the assault-the-brain approach was compressed into pills launched with great hope, but of dubious help and a lot of harm--even now, courts regularly mandate forced drugging, and forced drugging of children and the elderly is rife . For a first-person account that eloquent encapsulates the anti-psychiatry view today, look here.
I’m intensely sympathetic to this view and highly supportive of its focus on social justice issues. My brother spent decades in the mental-health system, was destroyed by drugs, and died much younger than he should have. His brain’s fate was a loss for science: he had dual degrees in chemistry and physics and swooned for a good math theorem.
Our family once got him started with nutrients to replace drugs, but the psychiatrist in charge would not play ball when he started to improve, and his girlfriend, a fellow lifer in the system, did not like my bro’s new clarity and confidence. Both she and my brother were beaten down by the county mental-health monopoly, by years of drug-fog and by poverty, to the point where they couldn’t speak truth to Power and hope to survive.
I was luckier. Though forcibly hospitalized and drugged, I resisted. I was a teenage hippie barred from recreational substances of my choice who found it hypocritical to swallow the hospital’s drugs. My confinement only lasted six months--I went back to pot and alcohol with such a vengeance I never noticed any withdrawal from the Mellaril.
The anti-psychiatry, peer-advocate movement has every right to rage at how brains and bodies are broken by psychiatry. For some it’s a lifelong struggle to recover from the damage done by quote-unquote medication. The important work they’re doing by calling out biopsychiatry as it’s operated since the 1950’s is incisive and necessary.
But still remains the problematic brain. A soulless, secularized culture views human beings as walking brains (good) with unfortunately attached unruly bodies (bad). I think therefore I am. What’s below the neck is somehow another territory--digestion and sexuality and defecation are down there! Make the lower regions out of the picture, servants to the brain that has the decorum to keep its weird-looking gray matter out of sight behind our interesting faces.
We’re decades into the science of the smart nature of the gut, often called the “second brain.” Ditto the immune system and its hand-in-glove relationship with the brain. You can Google the specifics, because in a sense it’s old news, though very important news, and still overlooked. Even the oldest (and in bed with Big Pharma) umbrella organization for patients, the National Institute for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) now on their website gives a nod to nutrients like fish oil, folate, and the detrimental role of gluten. We’ve come a long way, baby!
But until there’s an end to the double-sided coin of bowing to the brain experts or rejecting all brain-talk with suspicion, then “Houston, we have a problem.” Both stances miss out, letting either veneration or vilification of the brain go to their heads.
I suspect that many anti-psychiatry advocates downplay a nutrient path for fear of another force. Doctors. The power of a doctor addressing mental health, no matter how maverick or friendly to natural-medicine on PBS, is still suspect. Too many have played God (and Executioner) too long. The aura of such overpaid and over-glorified health workers continues to promote submission. No one impassioned for social justice likes “experts” lording it over the little guy, especially when it comes to the mysterious and complex brain.
Yet it takes guts to step out of line with medicine-as-usual, a powerful lobby. A healer shouldn’t be suspect because they carry MD behind their name, even if their specialization is psychiatry. Secondly, young people drawn to be natural healers should be rewarded for choosing that path if called to it, because someone has to usher in change.
Too often alternatives can be expensive because insurance companies won’t be pried loose from their lascivious affair with Pharma, which deplores alternative medicine. Often the poor-and-disabled can’t get access to the testing and nutrients they need. This should be a paramount social-justice issue, but we’re still in a fight for the right to basic “healthcare reform” at the moment.
Until then maybe we could examine the patterns of cigarette smoking and food abuse among some of those tied to psych drugs and ask about adding more peer-support toward budgeting their funds for natural-health options. I don’t say this blithely, for I’m aware of the addictive nature of those substances. But peer support in addiction recovery is already an idea in practice.
Here’s another rationale for the brain to break free from its overly invested handlers, a fairly new concept known as neuroplasticity. “Plastic” here doesn’t refer to that awful stuff clogging the oceans. The brain is pliable or “plastic” because it can literally change itself in startling ways, rewiring and rejuvenating.
Science used to think that people lost brain cells at predictable stages in life--poof, they’re gone for good—and that the brain was a fixed and stable thing: certain areas of the brain were assigned to specific functions, period. Turns out the brain can remodel itself and even grow new neurons; it makes re-connections and alterations over various locations that lead to healing, re-found skills and other positive outcomes. Here’s the rub: the “plastic paradox.” Brain changes can also be for the detriment, because the brain can restructure itself to be more rigid and unenlightened.
Predictably, psychiatry proudly claims medication and psychotherapy, even shock treatment, as agents of neuroplasticity—ignoring the real harms caused. But read this account of one professional’s hymn to the plasticity of the brain, giving the usual nod to medication and psychotherapy, but clearly excited about something else:
"Hannah W." . . . presented for treatment as a 27-year-old single woman who had a difficult early life with many losses and traumas, and who had experienced over fifteen years of severe depression and panic disorder. She also had a number of ‘stress-induced' medical illnesses including colitis and severe asthma. Her depression and anxiety responded to medicine and psychotherapy, but to me the more interesting thing was that at a certain point she became passionate about yoga. She practiced yoga on average 2 to 3 hours a day, and after a few months, she described how she was able to feel sustained sense of calm and wellbeing for the first time in her life. For what it's worth, her asthma and GI symptoms became much less severe, perhaps a result of her physical changes.
I don't have MRI scans for Hannah W., but I'm willing to bet that treatment and her regimen of intense yoga caused measurable changes in her brain. Specifically, I think yoga allowed her to decrease the activity of her brain's fear center, the amygdala . . . The fact is, we now have the tools to study the effects of treatment and behaviors like yoga on the brain-on the brain's anatomy and the function of specific centers. (Psychology Today)
Anyone who does yoga—and 36 million Americans do--knows how over time, one’s body becomes a flowing whole, ever more supple and in tune, as one’s hurting “parts” shift from pain to breath-linked connection. Resources for using yoga for mental health are widely available--one free method for taking charge of changing your brain and so much more.
We needn’t split into camps that either exalt the brain or reject the brain. By shunning anything medical, anti-psychiatry folks are holding to the ol’ mind-body split. This firm grip on Cartesian duality furthers what holistic psychiatrist Kelly Brogan describes as a “mechanistic perception of the body as an input-output machine” quite separate from the mind. Sadly, she says, this suppresses a more healing view that “honors the body as an emergent representation of the soul.” (1)
But we needn’t go completely brain-ape either. There are bigger fish frying us, every body-part of us. The effects on our emotional and energetic bodies via chemical load from cheap products and bad food is a microcosm of the planetary, ecological crisis which makes “mental” health much less of a mental matter. It’s hardly as if all that gunk out there stays in the environment and never enters us. Heart, lungs, brain, liver, spleen, reproductive organs, skin--name the organ, it harbors environmentally-caused hurt. The World Health Organization (WHO) now calls air pollution alone a silent public health emergency, affecting every organ and cell in the body.
I see an analogy between drugging those souls who might be “different,” and straight-jacketing the environment with toxic fumes and toxic sprawl. All that is wild or unpredictable must be contained . . . or obliterated. No questions answered or care forthcoming for those who might impede the stampede stoked by greed.
The mental-health industry is literally contiguous with planet-rape and profit-addiction. Think about all those antidepressants, benzos and anticonvulsants that slip past water treatment facilities and run with your tap water. How about the link between bipolar disorder and air quality, and the correlation between poor land quality with personality disorders? Now picture Pharma lobbyists, along with insurance company, hospital and other health product peddlers traversing the halls of Congress, rubbing shoulders with the oil and gas industry, which they outspend. Comrades in arms?
In the end, anti-psychiatry’s biggest fear is the push for conformity, the danger of letting a profession dictate how one should think and feel and behave. They highlight the vendetta against the untamed and unexplored, since a so-called psychotic break can be a profound dip into a different reality: not necessarily illness, but something unknown, and threatening to others on the approved path.
However. Millions anguish due to their own thoughts and feelings, and see nothing spiritual about it. They want balance and wholeness again, to get rid of the voices that urge suicide, that isolate, that tug down a good day into sordid criticism and self-hatred. I reject the division between the “mentally ill” and the “worried well.” Suffering is suffering, and I’m a dreamer for the day that the Pharmafia and PsychoDoctor Inc. are trounced in support of natural/functional/energy medicine. Or at least an integrative approach that looks fairly at what both sides have to offer.
No more scapegoats necessary.
We should be concerned that the “tools” for understanding brains are kept in the hands of an elite profession financed by Big Pharma. Contrast the practices of integrative/holistic/natural healers who spend far greater amounts of time with their patients, insisting that the patient become an active participant, a student of themselves. In other words, take charge and stand beside the practitioner, don’t crouch as an underling to the almighty doctor.
Is anti-psychiatry’s suspicion of every M.D. warranted? Watch for another underlying culprit here: class war. Most mental-health advocates place their work firmly within the disability rights movement. Persons with disabilities experience poverty at a rate twice that of persons without disabilities. Wouldn’t a shifted paradigm that embraces cures, and advocates for the dissemination of those cures, ultimately serve the effort of taking down class distinctions?
No matter our take on “mental” health, I wish we could marry our pieces of truth together. Mental health, planet health. Non-conformists, peer-supporters, or broken brains crying out for real cures that go to the root of real problems. . . a new vision calls for multi-vision. We can talk openly about class, about disability, about elitism and oppression. But there is no reason to overlook a way out of this stand-off just because we are mired to our camps, afraid of each other’s brains.
- Brogan, Kelly, M.D. Own Your Self. Carlsbad: Hay House. 2019.
Posted on April 22, 2020
The virus from hell . . . the Earth speaking back to sloppy human greed . . . the suffering of animals in fire, flood, and hurricanes . . . the golden age of dystopian novels and film . . . welcome to our big world of worry now. Around the edges of crisis after crisis, new terms have been coming to the fore that fascinate me—evocative words, sometimes poetic, often cumbersome--though ultimately their effect is downright chilling. They center on human emotions as we face dire planetary events.
None of these words are easy to love: they call for a new view of the anxiety, grief and despair generated when one feels overwhelmed by current world crises, from climate change to coronavirus. Listen to these up and coming words with me, because later I’d like to ask you something.
Ecocide may be the most familiar of the bunch. Environmental destruction, but with a sinister twist: add the qualifier, “willfully done.” Some lament that ecocide isn’t formally designated an international crime. Think genocide, infanticide, suicide…this use of the prefix “eco”--often attached to denote something “green” and feel-goodly--makes me shudder.
The following pair, I promise, is not all dark. Informally scientists call our times the Anthropocene (Greek for “recent age of man”) epoch. Britannica explains it as the geologic interval when humans made a significant impact across the earth’s surface, oceans, atmosphere and chemical cycles—from 1950 to ongoing. Its more hopeful descendant waiting to be born is the Symbiocene epoch when, you guessed it, humans and nature reconcile, and we're not worrying our heads off about the future of life itself.
Glenn Albrecht is a philosopher generating a batch of vocabulary so strange to the ear it makes my head spin:
. . . positive psychoterratic states such as topophilia and biophilia and . . . new concepts of soliphilia, sumbiophilia, endemophilia and eutierria.
Wait—what? More from him in a moment.
This one is easy to relate to: pre-traumatic stress, commonly known among soldiers about to be deployed into combat. It is now used to characterize the anxiety of activists working on the front lines--to reverse climate change, for example. People without symptoms might know the feeling, as we hunker at home and worry for the COVID 19 pandemic to come knocking on our door.
Solastalgia (kin to nostalgia) is another Albrecht creation: the distress caused by environmental change that you yourself have personally lived through. Drought, hurricane, open-cut coal mining, devastating wildfires . . . he says it’s the feeling of being homesick while still at home and the landscape you love changes, often for the worse.
And there’s terrafurie: a form of anger explicitly directed at those who maintain the social and political status quo and do nothing to stop the Earth from being destroyed by humans. I know this one all too well!
How do these new words strike you? Do they add to your allostatic load? That’s the wear and tear on your nervous and endocrine systems from chronic stress. Do you think these feeling-states will ever become bonafide mental-health diagnoses? Should they? Or are they the word play of philosophers, leading us into creative thinking about Earth and emotions? But to what end?
How should the mental-health establishment respond to these feelings we have--with therapy and drugs, never speaking of the tangible dangers unfolding planet-wide, their focus only on "coping?"
Now from new words to simple words anyone can understand--on a bumper sticker. I bought it months ago because the stark yet comforting message grabbed me: We Are All in This Together. Superimposed on Earth floating in black space, I hoped it was the perfect line to reach anyone, no matter their views. So when I saw an article on mental health and coronavirus with the same title as my bumper sticker, I had to dive in.
Lucy Johnstone is a British critic of the way we do mental-health matters in the Western world. She challenges us to re-examine concerns about a pandemic-related, mental health crisis that experts warn will come. Yes, folks are anxious, sleepless, feeling trapped and depressed. But be careful, she says, of how this is likely to play out.
COVID-19 is extracting widespread terror and feelings of helplessness because the disease causes an entirely rational response to a major threat to our whole way of life . . . as a species. Doesn’t sound like mental illness to me. Sounds like my bumper sticker: we are all in this together. Says Ms. Johnstone:
(T)he more we label our understandable human reactions as mental health problems or disorders, the greater the temptation to focus on individual “treatments” instead—whether psychiatric or psychological/therapeutic. I have seen both groups eagerly priming themselves to receive all the new customers created by the crisis… [Johnstone, as a Psy.D, speaks as an insider.]
Instead of uniting us in solidarity, diagnostic labels isolate and silence us, and give us the message that we are not coping as we should be able to…
(D)iagnostic labels and the “mental health” discourse actually prevent us from dealing with the wider reasons for our distress, by disconnecting our responses from the threats.
Yes, but what about necessary compassion and the need to address our burdensome feelings? Dr. Johnstone says to focus on the problem of the pandemic through communities of action, support, networking, friendships and mutual care.
We are going to have to face the fact that this outbreak was not only predicted, it is the direct result of thoughtless industrial spread and consumer greed on animal habitats, driving them closer to us, exposing us to their microbes unfriendly. Yes, the pandemic is our fault, collectively—not that of the furtive Chinese or the filthy bat. A chief official at the United Nations spells it out here.
Now--how can we, together, fix the problem and heal? Dr. Johnstone:
Only a few weeks ago, someone who was too scared to leave the house in case they contracted a fatal disease, and spent most of the day washing their hands and wiping down doorknobs, would have been regarded as having a severe case of “OCD.” Now it is the description of a responsible citizen…Never was it more obvious that distress makes sense in context. Abnormal situations lead to unusual or extreme responses. If we are fearful, then so we should be.
Healthcare staff may be deeply shaken by the suffering they saw, but we don’t have to call it an outbreak of “PTSD.” People who have lost their jobs are likely to feel desperate, but we don’t have to describe this as “clinical depression” and prescribe drugs for it. The economic recession that will follow the pandemic may lead to as many suicides as austerity measures did, but we don’t have to say that “mental illness” caused these deaths.
I wonder what Lucy Johnstone would think about the new cache of created words and phrases to describe ways in which we’re falling apart over massive environmental change. She's opened my eyes to the bottom line: no matter how compassionate or evocative, we don’t need new labels in the DSM (the diagnostic bible of the mental-health profession)—because no matter how new and fancy the terms, the end result is the same (drugs and therapy, stigma and the cloister of private experience).
Nonetheless I’m drawn to the efforts of ecologists and philosophers to challenge the old labels with new words that connect us in the hardest of times. Citing trauma-expert Judith Herman's prescription of solidarity, truth-telling, and social action for healing “collective trauma,” Dr. Johnstone leaves us with this reminder:
“We need a new narrative of shared distress to replace the failed one of individual disorders.”
Amen to that. Side note, important note: run a search on all the press that Vitamin C and Vitamin D are getting as helpful fighters against the coronavirus. Those waiting for their new clients in the coming “mental health crisis” won’t mention the role that both these anti-viral nutrients have in addressing anxiety and depression, either. C plus D equals a win-win, and don't overlook Vitamin A or powerful herbal antibiotics either. But that's the subject of another post to come.
See you next time with “How’s Your Brain? Depends on Who’s Asking.”
Posted by Sue Westwind on May 11, 2020
Mary, I’m struck by your sensible use of labels: having the word “depression” helps you to take control. And yet you get that it serves no one if we start labeling individuals worried about coronavirus or climate change or the planet…and making them feel “sick” for their thoughts. Well said, all of it!
Posted by Mary Waters on April 30, 2020
Your article is thought provoking. In its entirety it made me both sad and grateful. I can see the usefulness of new words for new observations. I am extremely thankful I am not feeling the anxiety of the virus as described here. I am calm knowing I am not in control. I take all precautions to protect others from me since I’m high risk. I have had such a full, loving and adventurous life and am totally satisfied. I have no regrets. I’m peaceful and I’m not letting go of that. Yes, I have bad days.
I also see the words to describe observations of human behavior beneficial. There is a lot wrong with the medical and mental health systems yet in order to study behavior, labels are helpful to keep the students/teachers and helpers to be on the same page. I have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. Having a label helps me move in the right direction to offset triggers &/or decompensation. I have depression yet now when I feel it coming I take action to do what I can to turn it around. I do not believe people are labels or rather many labels combined.
I would never call what we are experiencing PTSD. We are in the mist of major trauma right now. We do need new words in order to deal with a new reality we are entering. Survivors will come through this in many different forms. We will continue to need new words to describe how human existence has changed.
Posted by Sue Westwind on April 30, 2020
You’re so kind, and thank you for reading! I’m glad to hear that the new words hooked your attention, oh ye of anything but a simple mind!
Posted by Rita Wilson on April 29, 2020
Sue, you always amaze me, a simple minded person with very little knowledge of “mental health and healing”, with your ability to write in a way, on deep topics, that grab my attention and instill a desire to know more. New words? Novel idea to me, but there you go with ease. Your blog will be interesting and informative on many levels.
Posted by Sue Westwind on April 24, 2020
Raymond, if there’s an ultimate message to this post it’s that there is an alternative path to what ails us that veers from drugs and psychotherapy’s sanctioned methods one-on-one behind closed doors. In the case of widespread distress about what’s happening to the environment, we need to watch out that these feelings don’t just become another “problem” that an individual is having. That deactivates solutions to sustainable global change and makes it the individual’s fault for being so sensitive, if not “dis-ordered.” To me, the potential of coronavirus solutions used already in China and in New York’s Northwell hospital chain, namely Vitamin C, and the Vitamin D studies in Spain, are another way of looking at alternatives we all could share–each of us has a neuro-immune system, and we don’t need a doctor to try these natural methods. As for being a word nerd hooked by every new phrase–notably from outside the mental health system–that describes the interplay between Earth-crisis and our emotions, I have no excuse nor certainty of the practical use in that.
Posted on April 16, 2020
Who calls herself a priestess--and what’s she so mad about? Or is she mad as in crazy? Or both?
A priestess might be a woman considering the various angles of “mental health” and fighting for clarity about what helps to heal the body, spirit, mind--and the Earth.
She may have frequent, intimate dialogues with water, land, sky and flame who tell her: do this for us, please; what’s happening at human hands is insane. The mad priestess is a conduit. There are many of her ilk among us.
It doesn’t matter whether the priestess is angry-mad--or crazy-mad—the two are famous for one-and-the-same. If you can’t handle your anger, you need therapy, right? Especially if you’re female and don’t properly blunt your voice.
You might be crazy with grief, with loneliness, with the curve balls life’s thrown at you. You might be at the end of a rope that is only fitted to your tenuous grasp, and not know why.
You might handle it by learning how to priestess.
Is that nuts, bonkers, mental? Priestesses don’t exist, except as figures of archaic lore—sibyls and seers—long before asphalt and computers and stuff, right?
Today the work of a priestess might be directing intention toward the rhythm of change in service of communal health, and guiding others who will listen. She can only do this in her own chosen way.
A priestess works undercover and that’s hard. But she is handling it, studying the ley lines of madness that run through her people and her world. She turns to the felt experience of body and spirit, searching for clues as to why humans are chronically sick or sad; why we lash out and stoke fear against select Others.
Or why we are despoiling this lovely home we’ve been raising ourselves on for over 200,000 years.
Ever heard of madness as “spiritual emergency?” A spiritual crisis. The feeling that you’re “losing your mind” may come on suddenly, intensely, and be quite disorienting:
Spiritual Emergence is a natural process of human growth and transformation characterized by increased awareness, greater sensitivity and richer connection to others and the surrounding world. These experiences may seem unusual and challenging either to the experiencer or to those around them as they can seem outside of everyday reality. It is common to become more concerned with social, economic, health, and ecological issues and the bigger questions in life such as purpose, meaning and values.
A priestess isn’t just sitting on her cushion meditating. She is “concerned with social, economic, health and ecological issues…” as she navigates the dark night of the soul. The year 2020 looms with consequences if those with fearless, outraged, and caring voices choose to stay mum.
Call me a mad priestess then, trying to resolve a spiritual crisis on a threatened planet where species extinctions, nuclear weapons, and war against people of color escalate daily.
Speaking out is in my nature. An earlier blog was called The Nutrient Path. My book tells the story of a double healing in my daughter with autism and myself: Lunacy Lost: A Memoir of Green Mental Health. From 2008 to 2011 I created and facilitated a course in alternative mental health called Natural Mind. I earned a certification and practiced as a Holistic Mental Health Coach, lead nature-spirituality groups, and taught workshops on myth and ceremony. But this effort will be different.
I see “mental illness” shifting its shape. It leaks beyond the stigma for “those people” and into us all. This did not happen overnight.
In the Seventies there was an early sign: Christopher Lasch’s groundbreaking book, The Culture of Narcissism deftly warned about a widespread, unhealthy me-ism. Prozac hit the world between the eyes in the late Eighties, and the proliferation of antidepressants and antipsychotics claimed many, killed many, and made some kill others. That was new.
Now the president of the United States is openly called “unhinged,” a sufferer of “narcissistic personality disorder,” cited to show “impaired mental capacity” in public letters from hundreds of mental health professionals, His own cabinet once talked to the FBI about invoking the Constitutional 25th Amendment to remove him from office as mentally unfit. Vanity Fair describes Trump’s meltdown over COVID 19, reporting on his fears that the press tried to contract the virus in order to give it to him on Air Force One.
How does this whack our perception of mental illness when the topic is regularly paired in the news cycle with a nation’s chief executive?
But there’s more. The Pharma-folks who brought us psychiatric drugs with black box warnings about suicide/homicide finally gave up on new R&D into all that. They moved on to the opioid crisis, paying even greater fines for lying and misleading than before. Yet people are still dying like flies from addiction. Nonetheless their business in antipsychotics, antidepressants, and benzos is still going strong enough for them to boast predictions for the market into 2029!
And what’s up with making it easier for persons designated “mentally ill” by Social Security to purchase firearms without that pesky background check —while the same forces who rushed this through proceed to blame mass shootings on the mentally ill?
Half of the population says keeping up with the news cycle causes anxiety, depression and PTSD, according to the American Psychological Association. I come awfully close to losing my moorings while watching news of the coronavirus: nurses and doctors pleading for mere masks and gowns, refrigerator trucks full of dead bodies because the morgues in some cities are full, governors forced to bid against each other—and the federal government!—for essential medical equipment, only to see their orders evaporate when outbid.
“Mental illness” has long meant stigma, a trash bin for placing losers and the lost with their little diagnosis tags as a consolation prize. I know the drill. As a teenage runaway who found herself institutionalized in 1969… as a family member to those labeled schizophrenic, depressed, or bipolar…as a mom still parenting a young adult with autism who can’t find her way.
My older brother once remarked, “I’m interested in the nature of reality.” He struggled most of his life with the collection of symptoms known as schizophrenia, but this remark was no nutty non sequitur. He was referring to the one thing he never lost--an unflagging love for mathematics, physics and chemistry.
Before he died he was quarantined in a nursing home, ravaged by C. difficile, with several textbooks literally stacked around him. In his bed, next to his pillow, jostling the aluminum bars raised to keep him from falling out. His books were bricks of solid knowledge he’d never crack again, their dark colors stark against the white bed sheets. “They’re like his teddy bears!” an administrator crowed. Simply more evidence to the observer that my bro was a crazy man.
I suggest it is the duty of all mad priestesses to join artists, shamans and consciousness-researchers, mathematicians and spirituality-of-science buffs in looking into the Nature of Reality, crazy as that may seem. To what end? The more you look, the less is ironclad; you just might understand how little you can ever profess to know about another person’s reality.
Often, there’s a heart-tie that spurs the interest. For me, even though that brother has passed, there’s still the unstoppable drive within my family that someone--at least one in each generation—be labeled mentally ill. A need to attach this person, for the long-term, to the most dangerous drugs psychiatry has to offer, to ensconce another lifelong consumer into the machinery of the mental-illness industry.
Despite writing a book about the roots of this on our father’s side, which my family did read, the pattern unfolds with a life of its own. It’s partly why I must come forth as a Mad Priestess now--I’m watching helplessly as the next generation falls in line.
A young person who should be grabbing life with body and soul finds himself so wracked by drug experiments he threw up bile for months as the professionals attempted to “adjust his medication.” In a year's time he seemed to have shrunk in stature, though others said my reaction was an optical illusion--instead, his changed appearance was due to weight gain from Risperdal--"well worth it," in their minds. Eventually a hiatal hernia was discovered, which can be a side effect of antidepressants. This is a human being who's been on many cocktails since he was a little boy: Ritalin, Adderall, Abilify, Lithium . . . and has begged to get off his meds.
He is talked about behind his back by other family members; he has been the chaos that wears out his parents; there are triangulation's that regrettably I got caught up in, all of us trying to help. The professionals’ answer was to peg him to one of today’s trending labels, bipolar, with its concomitant med-checks, psychiatrist visits, therapy sessions, support groups, and medications that will define his life.
As with most of our afflicted, it’s his oh so vocal, too public suffering that family members fear—the outrage he expresses over his loneliness, envy at what a sibling has, anger that spills everywhere because he yearns for a romantic partner to marry and raise a family with. How human: he feels life passing him by.
It is suffering, it is sorrowful, but is it mentally ill? Proponents of the “genetics” argument, take note: adopted from another country, he is not genetically descended from the bloodline where our mental-illness tragedies have clustered since the 1800’s.
But the family pattern grinds on--the Mad Priestess’ calls to alternatives ignored--because no one can deal with him: he’s too raw, too open about his pain.
And it’s frightening to look ahead: who will be next? The newest generation, not even in preschool yet…which of them will be chosen to serve the stigma someday? Due to adoption plus marriage, they don’t carry the genetics for “the family disease” either.
May this tithe to madness end, with courage instead of fear. Because it takes courage (and stamina!) to sit with persons in their sadness and loneliness. To not feel so threatened you must keep them drugged (feelings zipped up and out of sight, or displayed only in the properly enclosed mental-health settings), because their big black hole (spiritual crisis?) comes too close to triggering your own.
A mad priestess asks: what is this thing we call “mind” anyway? If I’ve learned anything, it’s that healing is done by, for and with the body and spirit. Popular definitions of mental health latch onto the phrase well being--emotionally, psychologically, socially. Such talk focuses on absence or lack of fulfillment rather than “happiness.” Few in the trenches bother to pin down exactly what is mental or of the mind. The soul is a forgotten subject; behavior is the obsession.
Why must we be honest about all potential causes of madness and cures? Because the suffering is real, and millions need help. Carrion industries are happy to profit by exploiting stigma and pushing drugs. Alternatives with promise and track records are pushed to the sidelines. Have we given up? Dystopia, I bend my knee to thee?
Worldwide, stats claim 1 in 4 adults, or 450 million people, fall into 300+ official diagnoses--from old favorites like major depressive disorder, to current spawn such as internet gaming disorder.
Women and men end up with different diagnostic labels, but the rate of “mental illness” is divided equally between genders.
Teen suicide is up, emotional suffering among millennials and Gen Z burgeons. For elders, it’s the prospect of dementia, the fastest growing “disease of the mind.”
So who among us can forego concern?
This blog will endeavor to explore some roads less taken to a possible solution. Here are some things the Mad Priestess will mull:
- What do toxic substances have to do with a diagnosis of mental illness? How can foods and chemicals make you crazy? Can the right foods heal you? How is exploring this line of thought NOT the same old song & dance of Psychiatry that says mental illness is a biologically defective brain?
- What about practices that focus on energy or spiritual healing, is it woo-woo hype? Can we sort the possible from the unattainable?
- What is Ecotherapy? Ecosexuality? How’s it done? Can it make a difference?
- How do indigenous cultures view mental illness and why is that important?
- What to do as the world grapples with collective violence and hate speech that appears as madness visible? Is there reprieve in raising one’s voice to be heard? Can healing be found in the path of service?
What choice do we have but to serve? asks the Mad Priestess in me. It seems that my generation, baby boomers, have failed our world. But signs indicate that older women especially will be seen and heard at the ballot box, as women in general move to challenge the consensus-trap of despair.
Mad priestesses who’ve had enough, me-too minions with stories in tow, grandmothers who know that future generations are The Point Of It All... I may be crazy with optimism but I believe--yes, we can—that women will steer us back to reason and care as the gold standards, bringing us Home.
Home: we know it when we see it, smell it, touch it, care for it. Looking for a home that promotes sanity? Spend time in Nature. Whether it’s caring for meticulous gardens or hiking wild pathways, we take to the outdoors to ease heavy hearts, negative thoughts, and lonely self-importance.
No one, on any side of any political debate, believes the loss of our Big Home, the Earth, is allowable. We argue about the timeline or the signs of danger, but generally agree that this planet supports us with bounty and grace.
Sometimes I wonder if humans are worth the effort, although I keep reading their books, seeking out their thoughts, marveling at their feats of courageous resistance. Yes, there are many fine minds out there, fashioning truth to tell.
Many of them wonder if the path to environmental destruction we forge is the ultimate madness untreated.
But this globe on which we spin--that has me addicted to such beauty and the potential to nurture all beings back to paradise—hasn’t it ever captured you wholly when you slow down to note the clouds, push toes into grass blades, get mindful with water or stare transfixed into a bonfire? If you said yes, then you and I are united by a secret: Earth matters.
I’ll risk being called crazy to dance with an anger that can spark compassionate, sane outcomes for the many nations--not just human--that span this blue-green expanse.
A Home worth fighting for, and I’m mad for Her to stay healthy.
Posted by Sue Westwind on April 19, 2020
Thanks for your comment, Joyce. I know your heart and how it aches over all that’s going on. It will take such an effort to get this healing done but I’ll try to report on new ways to look at things because as we all know, something’s gotta give on this troubled globe.
Posted by Sue Westwind on April 19, 2020
Bruce, I’m grateful for this comment because our times could use a rebirth of the idea that it’s the culture as is that’s crazy-making, not our individual brains! Those who can juggle their fury and tears, as you put it, may turn out to be the ones to lead the way.
Posted by Sue Westwind on April 19, 2020
Thanks David! Your kind words give me courage to forge on here. I’m so struck with what new territory this is psychologically for individuals–yet a chance to heal it collectively is there, given the shared experience and how there’s no “stigma,” just urgency if not emergency. What a blessing though that while we are stuck in our houses for quarantine, She is beginning to heal from our polluted ways and re-beautify so beautifully!
Posted by David McCullough on April 18, 2020
In a nutshell – to summarize your writing with a colloquialism pertinent to the subject of your blog launch – you have eloquently laid out the scope of the human malaise that is rapidly threatening our very existence on the planet. With personal, anecdotal references that reveal much of your motivation for seeking healing, while giving us an emotional tie to unite with you in empathy, you have delineated key problems that are contributing to the general inability of the human race to process and deal with the very real existential crises that we have placed in our path, and threaten not only our emotional health, but our physical existence on the planet.
You speak from experience, and with conviction. No sugarcoating here. We are in trouble.
But you give us a glimpse of transcendence, and I look forward to seeing you expound upon what you see as a path forward, a path that presents hope. “I may be crazy with optimism but I believe–yes, we can—that women will steer us back to reason and care as the gold standards, bringing us Home.” Why wouldn’t it be Mother that leads us, that calls us Home? Well done.
Posted by Joyce McCullough on April 17, 2020
Look forward to hearing more on how to heal our world.