“Looking back, I realize that I was heartbroken because I was in this horrible living situation and not getting any support or validation for how I was feeling. Instead of dealing with that, they shocked my mind. This treatment was completely and totally irrelevant to what was going on for me. What I was going through was an emotional thing and not a mental thing.”
Contact info: Portland, Oregon,USA
Currently doing: Barb is currently an administrative assistant for a family sexual abuse treatment program. She is also a licensed massage therapist and volunteers at Project Quest, a social action video collective.
Mental health experience: Shock, Inpatient, Outpatient, Commitment, Psychiatric Drugs, Forced Treatment
Psychiatric labels: Agoraphobia, Major Depression, Schizophrenia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder
Psychiatric drugs taken in the past: Stelazine, Elavil, other pills for side effects
Off psychiatric drugs since:
Recovery methods: Energy work, Self-Help, Peer Support, One-on-one Therapy, Group Therapy, Diet, Exercise, Social Activism, Spirituality, Meditation, Literature, Art/Music
Greatest obstacle: Her chronic fatigue and difficulty having enough energy
Like many people, I come from a very dysfunctional family. My dad was a rage-a-holic, and my mom was enmeshed in everyone’s affairs. The main thing I remember about my childhood is trying to be perfect and being terrified. I was especially terrorized by my dad. I had a brother and our mom did not protect us. There was also sexual abuse from my maternal grandparents.
All this was compounded for me by the fact that the Vietnam war was going on and my father would insist on having the news on while we were at the dinner table. So here I am living in this isolated, dysfunctional family, and having to watch the Vietnam war at nights. We watched people getting slaughtered in the war. I was feeling pretty hopeless and saw that the outside world did not look much better.
In 1969, when I was age 16, my mom started taking us to our family therapist. He somehow identified me as having a specific problem, and he advised my mother to take me to a psychiatrist. I found sessions with him to not be very therapeutic. The psychiatrist also had me on medications like Elavil and Stelazine. I was very resistant to taking these drugs.
The medications made me drowsy. I would save them up and taking them on the weekends so I could sleep through the weekend. I eventually ran out of the pills prescribed for the side effects. When I was at school one day, I felt like I could not function. I went to the nurse and asked her to go home. She asked me what was wrong and I told her I needed to go home. She finally called my mom to take me home and she called the psychiatrist that I had been seeing. He said, “Well if she can’t function at school, let’s put her in the hospital.”
That night I was taken to the hospital.
I remember being terrified about this. I began to have involuntary muscle movements, which was very frightening to me because I didn’t know what was going on.
I eventually found out that the side effects I was experiencing were from the antidepressant medication.
They decided to start me on shock treatments, which I really did not want. I had a series of 10 that were given to me every other day. I spent a lot of years in therapy as an adult, not only from my family situation but also for the shock treatments. The shock treatments in those days involved them coming in and giving me a shot to dry out my mouth. Then they put the electrodes on my temples, which were hooked up to a machine that had the voltage. Next they would come in and give me a shot of sodium penathol, which was an anaesthetic. This would be my last memory of what was going to take place. They would then do the shock while I was out. I would wake up with sore temples from where the electrodes had been and I would have no memory.
Looking back, I realize that I was heartbroken because I was in this horrible living situation and not getting any support or validation for how I was feeling. Instead of dealing with that, they shocked my mind. This treatment was completely and totally irrelevant to what was going on for me. What I was going through was an emotional thing and not a mental thing. I guess the theory in the psychiatric world is that your thinking is screwed up but I don’t believe that is true. I think that children who are abused have a lot of feelings that they have to deal with. My experiences were never dealt with.
Instead I had group therapy with this same psychiatrist who was ineffective when it came to one-on-one treatment and in managing group therapy. I was in there with a lot of teenage kids. In fact, this was what they did with teenage, depressed kids back in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Part of the hospital experience was good because I met a lot of other kids who were supportive and fun to be with. I had not had a lot of fun in my life up to the time. Another positive part of being in the hospital was that it took me out of my family situation. Therefore, I started to feel better when I could remember what I was feeling. They were shocking me every other day, which was disorienting to me. But this was better for me than being in my family situation. After the three weeks, when the treatments were over, they had me return home to the same situation that put me there in the first place.
I had managed to be a straight A student up to that point but I became completely sick of school. I barely made it through my senior year and then I went off to college. I eventually dropped out of college and ended up moving to California, which was as far away as I could get from my family without leaving the country. I settled in San Diego and began working there.
In my late teens and early twenties, I drank a lot and did a lot of drugs. I think in a way this was good for me because it helped me at that time. I think if I hadn’t been doing these things I might have killed myself. But it wasn’t good for my liver. I ended up with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and a lot of physical problems. I went through that phase where I was pretty much repressing memories and coping through drugs and alcohol.
Eventually I quit drugs but I kept drinking until I was in my mid-30’s. I was also a workaholic, working incredible hours of around 90 hours a week. I was working in the mortgage business, which pays well but is very stressful. I would spend the weekend drinking to recuperate from the stress and anxiety of the job. Whenever I wasn’t working, I was drinking and I consistently had a hangover. I realized that kind of life needed to change.
I quit this position and took a job as a VISTA volunteer at a mental health agency in Alaska. I was working in a mental health clinic in a department for chronically mentally ill adults. I was thinking about going back to school at that time and getting a psychiatric degree but I wanted to see what it was like first in the system before I went to school for five years.
At this clinic, they were basically trying to get people on SSI, get them medicated and into housing. There was very little time spent with people to try to work on their core issues and get to the root of the problems they were having.
At the time a woman I was working with was seeing a therapist who was outside of the agency. I went to one of this therapist’s workshops and was impressed, so I started seeing her. She helped me to understand that the whole system can be wrong and screwed up, and also to recognize that working in the mental health system was not what I really wanted to do.
I got into massage, completing a year of training in Anchorage. There I was introduced to the holistic health field, which made a huge difference in my life. I quit drinking, smoking, and eating meat. I started eating healthy foods and changed all my personal relationships. I changed my whole perspective on life and the way I lived. The massage therapy program I became involved with was oriented towards mind-body connections, spirituality more than just a physical sports massage area. That also helped me a lot.
I currently work in a mental health agency with sexually abused children. I find that a lot of these kids are seeing a psychiatrist and are on medication, which I have some problems with. I think it is so important for kids who have been hurt to be helped while they are kids so that they don’t have to go through this whole thing of being hurt, repressing that and then spending a lifetime in therapy as an adult. I am really happy with the social workers and art therapists whom I work with. I think that nontraditional therapies like art therapy are great for these kids and really empowering work can be done with them.
I am finally at a point that I am not depressed any more. I still have some anxiety and there are times when I really can’t work 40 hours a week and do a lot of volunteer work on top of that. I am working now 30 hours a week and doing a lot of activist work. I am involved in a video collective, using videos as a tool for social change. We have a cable access program and distribute our tapes to libraries and universities. We tape lectures, rallies and demonstrations. I do a lot of stuff with animal rights, women’s issues, environmental issues, homeless, being lesbian, mental rights, etc. A really big part of my healing is using my experiences to try to help others.
Interviewer’s Comments: Like many other interviewees, Barb experienced an abusive family environment that was compounded by further abuse in the mental health system. But being very resilient, Barb has channeled her experience into a very positive lifestyle where she is now able to reach other humans, whether or not they have psychiatric experience.