“Sometimes I have this tremendous sadness because I think that I might be in a much bigger place than I am now. I’m happy with my life but I’m also 51 years old. I might have been where I am now twenty years ago had all this not happened. I figure I’m here in spite of the mental health system.”
Contact info: Oakland, California, USA
Currently doing: Kris is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She also conducts storytelling workshops, and is a performance artist, actress, storyteller, and community organizer.
Mental health experience: Shock, Inpatient, Outpatient, Commitment, Psychiatric Drugs, Forced Treatment, Restraints, Solitary Confinement.
Psychiatric labels: Depression, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Anxiety Disorder.
Psychiatric drugs taken in the past: Forcibly drugged with unknown psychotropic drugs in late 1970’s.
Off psychiatric drugs since:
Recovery methods: Peer Support, Family/Friends, Time in nature, Re-evaluation Counseling, Reichian body work, Massage, Self-Help, One-on-one Therapy, Group Therapy, Diet, Exercise, Social Activism, Spirituality, Literature, Art/Music.
Greatest obstacle: Trying to heal and authentically be herself in the midst of a distressed society and mental health system.
I grew up in East Tennessee, near Appalachia. I never saw my father. My mother, with only a ninth grade education, had a really hard time, thus I had a hard time. When I was in my teens, I was very, very depressed and I attempted suicide a bunch of times. In spite of all of these mental health problems, I escaped the mental health system. I think if I’d come from a more middle or upper-middle class background, I would have entered the system in my teens and who knows what would have happened then.
When I left home to go to college, those depressions disappeared. I went to a college where you had to be poor and you had to be from Appalachia. It was the first racially integrated college in the south. There are photographs from the 1800’s of black and white faces in Kentucky – Berea College.
Then, it was the mid-seventies and I was in my mid-twenties. I was traveling for three years on $3,000.00 I had saved from waitressing. I was a dropped out, hippy traveler. During these three years, I went to Europe, North Africa, and then I traveled over land to India through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I was basically alone.
At some point, I had some sort of emotional crisis, breakdown. I call it a breakdown and attempt to make a breakthrough. My guess is that a lot of things built up over a period of time. It was pretty stressful as a single woman traveling through all these countries.
Soon, I quit sleeping. I had a lot of energy. Then, there was some kind of incident in the hotel where I was staying. One traveler had his passport and traveler’s checks stolen, and I kind of jumped in and helped organize a search. When things didn’t turn up, the person accused me. I hadn’t done anything! Somehow the police got involved and that’s where it all gets very foggy for me. I ended up in the hands of the police, and got really hysterical because I was so scared.
The next thing I knew, I found myself locked in a New Delhi mental hospital. I’ve always been very drug phobic because my mother was a prescription drug addict. While I was in this hospital, they drugged me a lot. When the drugs wore off, I would fight and then they would drug me some more. This went on and on and on. I didn’t know if anybody in the world knew I was in this hospital because the American Embassy didn’t notify me.
When I wouldn’t really submit and “calm down,” they gave me electroshock. It was one of the most terrifying experiences I have ever had. I remember thinking “Okay, you really are in serious danger here. You could lose your life. You have no power. Figure out what these people want as fast as you can and do it.” That is what I did. I got cooperative.
After a short time they let me go. I decided to return home and the US Embassy put me on a plane. When I came back to the U.S., I was briefly hospitalized. I don’t know what kind of condition I was in when I entered the hospital, but I was definitely far worse condition after I was released.
When I arrived, a man who worked for the government met me at the airport and asked me if I wanted to go to my family (who I was not very close to at all) and I said no. So he booked me a hotel room and I didn’t sleep at all that night. I knew I was in total culture shock. When he came to see me the next day, I said I wanted to see an acupuncturist because I knew I had problems. He said he would take me to a doctor.
He took me to the locked ward in Staten Island Hospital. As soon as I realized where I was, I completely panicked. The next thing I knew I was put in a padded room.
I got out of this hospitalization by becoming really passive. I became a good girl as quickly as I could. I said that I would like to go to my family. I figured that part out. And I really do believe if I had said that initially when this man met me at the airport, I would have skipped the second hospitalization. I had been on my own for three years and I wasn’t close to my family. But I stayed with my brother and his wife for about a month or two.
At that point, I immediately started working to prove that I was normal and okay. After a few months of living with them and then coming back to San Francisco and trying to get my life back, I couldn’t tell people what had happened. I had such shame. I can remember finally whispering it to somebody and just bursting into tears.
After that hospitalization, I could have become a chronic mental patient. Instead, I fought to get back to myself. I got my bachelor’s degree, and then was awarded a scholarship that paid all my tuition to get a master’s degree. At that time I barely knew what a master’s degree was, but I went after it!
At the university I was very out in every sense of the word–as a lesbian and as a psychiatric survivor. I spoke up a lot. All of a sudden, my self-esteem rose.
It was while I was in graduate school that I found out about the antipsychiatry movement. It was the year that the electroshock hearings were held in San Francisco. I heard Leonard Roy Frank on the radio talking about it, and I literally jumped on my bicycle and went down to the studio to talk with him. From there, I went to the hearings and testified. I had never done anything like this! David Oaks from Dendron encouraged me and asked me to consider a report on the hearings. I was excited about the prospect of doing the report but I had concerns about my writing. David shared that I was a good writer, and it really meant a lot to me.
I think the main thing that aided my recovery was that I never accepted any psychiatric diagnosis. Another thing was co-counseling. I had good therapists who listened to me.
Feminism was also really helpful for me. One of the things that I often say when I give talks is that I’m the third generation female who spent time in a mental hospital. My maternal grandmother died in the state mental hospital. As an uneducated woman, she was very depressed, and actually worked in a brothel to support herself at one point. When I was an adolescent, my mother voluntarily put herself in a hospital. I am a third generation female, and there is nothing genetic about it. It is about the oppression of women.
These days, my activism has mostly been in the form of pulling people together. We activists and particularly psychiatric survivors don’t always get along well. My role has often been simply weaving people together, encouraging them, inspiring them, and being hopeful. I’ve done a lot of cross-disability organizing, mostly through networking with people with physical disabilities, and I feel it’s really crucial that we get together as activists and fight to make things right. I’ve really enjoyed getting close to a lot of people with disabilities and working together, both through activism and art, and in a number of other ways.
As far as art goes, I love acting, storytelling and performance art. I really feel that art is an important and powerful part of changing the world, not to mention keeping us healthy. A lot of my activism is through art.
It also involves sharing my own story. I’m really proud to be a licensed marriage and family therapist given my background. It’s a big deal, but it’s also a big challenge sometimes to take myself seriously as a professional.
Sometimes I have this tremendous sadness because I think that I might be in a much bigger place than I am now. I’m happy with my life but I’m also 51 years old. I might have been where I am now twenty years ago had all this not happened. I figure I’m here in spite of the mental health system.
What I’m dealing with now is how to come into my own, how to be authentically, 100% me. This has been a challenging road, but I feel I am finding my way.
Interviewer’s Comments: When you meet Kris, one of the first things you notice is Kris’s vivaciousness and enthousiasm. Her positive energy and attitude touches everybody she comes across.