“Why did the doctors tell me–an intelligent, gifted person–that I would never work, would never get through school, would be on medications for the rest of my life, and should stay on social security disability indefinitely? I tend to excel at whatever I do, but I was told I’d never do anything beyond a social security check.”
Contact info: Portland, Oregon,USA
Currently doing: Mike is Program Coordinator of the da Vinci Employment and Education Program and Program Coordinator of Renaissance. Mike also enjoys chess, reading, and spending time with his family.
Mental health experience: Inpatient, Outpatient, Commitment, Psychiatric Drugs, Forced Treatment, Coercive Treatment, Restraints, Solitary Confinement, Attempted Sexual Abuse
Psychiatric labels: Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Psychiatric drugs taken in the past: Lithium, Haldol, Prolixin, Stelazine, Thorazine, Mellaril, Trilifon, Zyprexa, Triavil, Imipramine, Tegretol
Off psychiatric drugs since:
Recovery methods: Social Activism, Eye Directed Desensitization Therapy, Self-Help, Friends/Family Support, Peer Support, Regulating Sleep, Exercise, Diet, Spirituality, Meditation, Literature, Art/Music, Consumer-run Groups, One-on-one Therapy, Psychiatric Drugs, Group Therapy
Greatest obstacle: Overcoming close mindedness both within himself and the mental health system.
I had what might be called by many people, myself included, an ideal childhood. Both my parents were very nurturing, and early on, my father helped me create a lot of self-confidence.
Then when I was 14, things changed. My father, who had been very supportive, started becoming verbally abusive, and I just couldn’t figure it out. Here I was, I’ve got a near 4.0 GPA and good job, yet I had disapproval from my father.
So I started smoking pot when I was 15. Huge mistake, I admit, but at the same time, it’s something that I easily could have forgiven myself for. Well, one day my father found my stash. He confronted me, and ended up forcibly dragging me downstairs to the backyard.
And then he hit me. He hit me in the head and knocked me down, asked me to get back up, and he hit me again. My own father, who helped me believe that this world was a wonderful place, was suddenly terrorizing me.
I felt extreme anguish over this and I decided to turn my life around. I was not going to deviate from perfection one iota. Well, there is no such thing as perfection and I ended up becoming extremely depressed.
I went without sleep for about a month. Towards the end of that period, I started having all kinds of thoughts that weren’t at all real, but to me they seemed very real. One of them was that my parents had rabies and my dog had rabies and I had rabies, and the police sheriff was going to come out and shoot us all. It was at that point that my parents brought me in for psychiatric help.
It was 20 hospitalizations later that I got the treatment that could have kept me out of the mental health system entirely. But rather than dealing with this initial traumatic event with my father, my first psychiatrist diagnosed me as having paranoid type schizophrenia and put me in Woodland Park Hospital at the age of 15.
My father’s abuse was addressed once in a session that I had with this first psychiatrist. Actually, my mother was the one who brought up what had happened, how my dad had hit me. He said, yes, he had done it and he explained that I had been smoking pot. And the psychiatrist said, “Well, gee, you know, if my son had been smoking pot and I found out about it, I might do the same thing.”
So here’s this very important event that occurred in my life that I have since learned really was the foundation behind all of my “illness,” and it was just swept under a rug by a psychiatrist who basically okayed my father’s actions.
So I began to internalize the diagnosis and see myself not as Mike Hlebechuk, a human being, but rather as a paranoid schizophrenic. My belief in self was diminished to the point of thinking that I was worthless. I was the illness, and I was an illness to whoever was around me.
When I got a new therapist, Dennis Fluorendo, I didn’t mention it to him for a year. I thought, well, geez it’s in my chart and everybody knows, and it’s not important because that’s what parents do, they hit their kids when they smoke pot and they’re justified in so doing because the psychiatrist said so.
When I finally told him about the experience, Dr. Fluerendo listened very carefully, but I didn’t learn what type of impact it had on him until afterwards. I secretly followed him down to an employee’s only area, and I saw him hitting a punching bag, hard. He was in a state of total rage. And then it dawned on me just how significant this event ought to have been in terms of the therapy that I should have been receiving.
But I was still having a very tough time. I was initially placed on antidepressants and a short time into that, I started having what I later learned are called “delusions of grandeur.” I would tell people that that I was a 3rd degree black belt, and other things that weren’t true.
Of course, at that point my diagnosis was changed to bipolar. I was placed on Lithium, a drug I would be on until 1987 when it would begin to cause my kidneys and thyroid to fail. I started to stabilize for a little while. However, Lithium didn’t change the fact that I was still living in the same house, and feared that at any time my dad might hit me again.
So from the ages 16 to 18, I ran away about seven times, each time either hiding out on a Greyhound bus or hitchhiking. I would go to L.A., Denver, Salt Lake City, any place but Portland.
And I continued to have manias and depressions, and they became more and more intense. In times of mania I believed I had evolved into Michael the Arch Angel. I wrote these amazing epistles and once I even convinced some priests in Mount Angel that I was who I claimed to be.
When I was depressed, I would occasionally become suicidal. I had these elaborate plans for ways that I could make it an accident so nobody would feel bad or feel guilty for my having died.
During these years, over two decades that I was in the mental health system, there were some people who were working very hard to help me. But there were other people who, though I believe they were trying to help, I can wonder why they did what they did.
Why did the doctors tell me–an intelligent, gifted person–that I would never work, would never get through school, would be on medications for the rest of my life, and should stay on social security disability indefinitely? I tend to excel at whatever I do, but I was told I’d never do anything beyond a social security check.
In 1987 I started to prove the doubters wrong. I was elected the first President to the Board of Directors of Mind and Power, Inc., which I believe was the first totally consumer-run agency in Oregon. At that point I decided for the first time in my life that, rather than letting the mental health system dictate my life choices for me, I was going to make my own choices about my treatment and how I would conduct my life. When I did that, personal power started coming into my life.
From 1987 through 1997, I was only hospitalized three times. Prior to that I was hospitalized 17 times. Now, you can do the math, but my life was getting a lot better since I decided that I was going to take care of myself and make my own decisions.
Finally in1997, at the age of 38, I told my current therapist about everything that had happened between my father and I when I was 15. He asked me if I had ever heard of a type of therapy called “Eye Directed Desensitization Therapy” that was used for Vietnam vets for getting through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So I decided to try it.
It had always occurred to me that I might have PTSD from the event with my dad way back. But since I stopped seeing Dennis Fluorendo when I was 20, every subsequent therapist didn’t even consider the fact that PTSD can manifest itself in things like manias and depressions.
The therapy in 1997 allowed me to go into the trauma I experienced with my father and relive it, to experience the pain and anguish in a controlled environment. As a result of this, I only think about the trauma when I choose to and when I do, it’s not that painful.
I’ve been getting more and more solid all the time, and for the last two years now, I haven’t had anything that you could call symptoms of mania or depression.
In fact, I went off of all psychiatric drugs six weeks ago, and since then I’ve gone from 135 to 147 pounds. I’m much more healthy. I’ve been more stable. I’ve had better mental acuity and so forth. It seems that once I received therapy for PTSD that my illness, for all intents and purposes, went away. And I’ve recently reconciled with my father as well. So by that I think I’m kind of cured.
And I’m very glad to now be working within the consumer/survivor movement. I’ve been working full time since May at da Vinci, where I can, to some extent or another, help ensure that people are not just automatically placed on meds without exploring what is happening in their lives.
At my new job, I’m helping to work toward an ideal mental health system where what the recipient of care says is given a lot of weight. Where a person is allowed to make their own choices. Where a person is allowed to fail. Because if we aren’t allowed to fail then we’re really not allowed to succeed.
Interviewer’s Comments: Mike is an amazingly articulate and thoughtful person who is doing great work now at da Vinci in Portland. He is a great person to contact if you are in the Portland area and are interested in working within the mental health system as a consumer/survivor.