Transcending My First Memory

I’m going to share with you some things that have been kept quiet in my family for many years. It starts with my first memory. My first memory is of my dad beating my mom. It’s a sad memory and I’ve rarely told it to many people. I can still see my mom, in desperation, trying to fend off my dad.

We never talked much about abuse in my family, but it regularly occurred. It’s time to shine a light on this and move forward.

I am a survivor of traumatic neglect and a witness to domestic violence and child abuse.

I was a quiet and somber child, very observant. I rarely got in trouble. I also experienced a lot of anxiety.

At about the age of 8, I was asked by a judge who I wanted to live with–mom or dad–as my parents went through a divorce. I picked my mom. I thought this would be better and in some ways it was. However, my mom soon married another abusive man, who not only chased her around the room with an ax, but who also abused, in various ways, my two younger brothers.

As a bystander, as a child, I didn’t know what I could do. But when the man my mom married came into my room and told me to pull down my panties, I knew what to do. I pushed him off the bed. But there was little I could do to prevent the abuse happening to my mom and brothers. Occasionally, the man my mom married would want us other kids to participate in abuse and torment. I always refused.

The man my mom married died in a blizzard. I’m sure this was sad for my mom, but it was liberating for me. I attended his funeral and, when a box of Kleenex was passed to me, I looked at it like, “What do I need this for?”

However, I had to live with my dad again for a while. It was during this time I experienced neglect. I was about 12 years old. Although my dad sometimes cooked–and I remember the things he did cook–there was often very little in the fridge. I remember ketchup sandwiches. I even remember stealing money from my dad to buy food from Taco Delight.  Some of my friends’ parents noticed these things and reported them to my mom, who was doing her best to tie up loose ends with the man who had died in the blizzard.

When I was about 13, while living back with my mom, I experienced my first bout of extreme sadness. It was depression.

At 14, I became pregnant. I also moved to a different state–Florida.

Florida has a law which states that every county has to have a school for teen parents. I attended one–now called The Chiles Academy. Of course, I gained a high school diploma, but I also took parenting classes and learned about various kinds of abuse and neglect. I tried to raise my daughter differently from how I was raised. I went by the book. I never, ever wanted her to experience the things I experienced.

My time at The Chiles Academy was great. My relationship with my daughter, I think, was great. After four years–and after meeting many different politicians and leaders–I graduated with a high school diploma.

I decided to go to college. I applied for Daytona Beach Community College (now, Daytona State College). I did fairly well in all my classes–except Math. However, I decided I was ready to transfer, so I applied to Stetson University. I was accepted.

Being a non-traditional, working class, commuter student at Stetson was, well, different. I didn’t come across many other students with my background. Very few of them could related to the experiences of being a young parent.

And, all the while, I was barely treated for the abuse and neglect I experienced growing up.

However, even though I didn’t make too many friends on campus, I did find solidarity and support in the campus culture. Many Stetson faculty, staff and students are involved in the community and social justice activities. I got involved in social justice issues.

I wrote two theses: one on facial affect (for psychology) and one on colonialism (for philosophy).

Not long after I graduated undergrad, my dad got sick with cancer. I had to travel back to Texas to deal with his death.

Soon, I applied for graduate school at the University of North Florida. While there, I did very, very well in academics, teaching and research.

Still I had not gotten help for my abuse.

I had learned to be distant from my feelings. I didn’t take time to process things and transcend them. However, I spoke out about injustice toward anyone else whenever I could. This was empowerment for me. It was as if I was making up for all the times I couldn’t do anything for my brothers and mom. I sometimes wonder if other people who are passionate about social justice are survivors like me.

While in graduate school, I had my first experience of psychosis. Of course, the current routine is: drug them up and hospitalize them.

I wasn’t seen as a survivor of horrific things who had accomplished so much. I was seen as a “schizophrenic.”

New research sheds light on the traumatic experiences people have which lead to psychosis. Instead of seeing these as “ill people” with an “incurable brain disease,” we should look at them as potential survivors of domestic torment and adversity. After all, if you don’t think I experienced adversity, you don’t know the statistics on teen moms. Merely graduating high school is a very real accomplishment for people with my background, let alone going on to college and grad school.

If you glance around my portfolio, you’ll find I have indeed accomplished a lot. My most recent accomplishment is what I’m doing now: transcending my negative childhood experiences.

 

 

I Was A “Very Stable Genius.” Then I Developed Schizophrenia. Now, I’m An Unstable Genius.

Ask anyone who worked with me. I was 100% philosophy, 100% of the time. Effort and study creates genius. And I think I was one. A stable one, too.

I was in the middle of my graduate thesis when madness creeped up on me. It began slowly, with things I could handle, like derealization. Then, one day, I cracked. I was triggered by something in an e-mail to me. I responded by joking about it, but it really put unwanted thoughts in my head. I didn’t know how to handle unwanted thoughts, so I tried pushing them away. Little did I know that when you try to push unwanted thoughts away, they just become stronger. This quickly escalated into OCD with psychotic features–then schizophrenia.

I was full-blown mad. Again, ask anyone who was around me at the time. I was also a full-blown genius. The current going theory is that people who experience the kind of anxiety I experienced, while being top-performers, are the best of the best.

I don’t think I’ve lost any cognitive function, which sometimes goes along with schizophrenia. And I’ve been studying ever since I was diagnosed. As I said, effort and study makes genius. That, along with flexibility and imagination, gives you people like John Nash, an unstable genius.

I’ve seen memes recently mocking the president for calling himself a stable genius. Perhaps he is. I certainly haven’t mocked him for saying this.

But it’s important to understand a two things: (1) genius is about work. One doesn’t typically become a genius by not investing time into one’s area of expertise. (2) there is nothing wrong with being a little unstable. I have been known to become psychotic. So has John Nash. Each of us has accomplished things in life–and he is what many would think of as a true genius.

What many people are worried about is whether the president will do something rash in his alleged instability and, for example, bring us to war. He could. But he could also just be performing Madman Theory, which would not only scare some of us, but also our enemies. Either way, instability does not necessarily equal violence, so trying to guess the probability of the president pressing the button is currently, with the information I have, all for naught.

 

Justice at Both Ends: Preventing and Treating Psychotic Disorders through Social Justice

Introduction

It seems like a cruel joke. People who are already in disadvantaged positions are, on top of that, vulnerable to brain disorders. Then, the society that produced the disadvantage (poverty, racism, sexism, etc.) stigmatizes the person for having an illness.

I want to be transparent here. I am diagnosed with schizophrenia. I live openly with my illness. I am also trained as a philosopher. I had my first psychotic break in graduate school, where I was studying ethics and political philosophy. My doctors told me to apply for disability, but I wanted to work. After a series of various jobs and hospitalizations, I finally applied for—and was granted—SSI. The day I was granted SSI, I cried. It had been an extremely rough ride.

One of the jobs I applied for, and kept until I was hospitalized, was as a case manager. As a case manager, I was trained to treat people in a holistic way. I was to look at each client from a variety of perspectives. But, also, I was trained to advocate for justice for my clients. That’s what I want to focus on here.

Theory and Practice

I want to set aside the theories of justice we learn about in school for a minute, however important and interesting they are. Although my academic training is mostly in philosophy, I have also done an assortment of different work. I have had time to think about—and live out—the issues I am discussing. So I’m not going to apply any certain theory of justice to the problems I am discussing. Besides, Bernard Williams would think applying a theory to a problem the way that is often done would be really uninteresting. And, of course, I want to be interesting.

I am also not going to get into a debate about psychiatry versus psychology. Brain versus mind. I think training as a case manager was good experience for me in diffusing that dichotomy. I am trained to deal with both medicine and psychotherapy, as a case manager. And I am trained to think about the soul and the brain, as a philosopher.

However, I am going to refer to schizophrenia as a brain disorder in this paper. Because that’s what it is, whatever, ultimately, causes it. There is something going on differently in my brain when I am psychotic. I’ll set aside issues of dualism, materialism, and so forth, and let other philosophers better trained in that area deal with those issues.

I am also going to set aside cultural differences. Although there has been interesting anthropological work on the differences in the expression of psychosis, there is also consensus that psychosis occurs in every culture. What I will focus on, however, is treating psychotic disorders in the United States. That’s where I live and am best trained.

“What happened to you?”: Social Causes of Schizophrenia

We know that social factors can be a cause in brain disorders. For example, Holocaust survivors are at an increased risk of developing schizophrenia. There is, we may say, only so much a mind can take.

This does not discount other factors involved in developing brain disorders. However, I want to discuss various abuses and forms of disadvantage at play in developing psychotic disorders.

Prior to taking up research specifically on psychotic disorders, I did a great amount of research in Native Studies. Native Studies is an interdisciplinary field, and I had to learn and read in many different fields—anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, law, criminal justice, philosophy, to name a few. In the social and psychological work I read, it was clear that the effects of colonialism had an impact on the minds of indigenous people. They are at an increased risk for many illnesses, including brain illnesses.

This informed my early notions of brain illness: that it’s mostly social. So, when I became ill, I didn’t know what caused it. (It could be, however, that I have, in fact, experienced a lot of hardship, and was prone to developing a psychotic disorder.)

I eschewed psychotropic medications, and psychiatry in general. I was held, for periods of time, in hospitals and told to be “compliant” (to take medications). I sought out therapy, however, and had a few wonderful counselors. Counselors, I knew, treated things differently. They are not medical doctors shoving, as it were, pills that caused me horrible side effects down my throat.

Eventually, however, I was given an antipsychotic that both managed my symptoms and didn’t cause side effects. I am now a firm believer in taking the appropriate medication at the appropriate dosage, along with therapy, case management, and so forth.

One of my good friends, who, for reasons to protect them, will remain anonymous and vague, works for the military. This is not a delusion. They really do work for the military, and they are not the kind of person you would imagine an ethicist would associate with. The fact is, it’s their job to kill people efficiently and effectively. They are not a soldier. They make the plans that others carry out.

Let’s just say that this person knows how to inflict all kinds of torment on people. (This does not carry out into civilian life.) This person once asked me the most important question anyone ever asked me about my illness: “What happened to you?”

They wanted to know what kind of torment, abuse or disadvantage I experienced that made me have schizophrenia.

I wanted to tell them that I was a teen parent, who had to fight for her education, and was treated very badly by, especially, conservatives as a teen parent. I was told I was going to Hell, and funding for my high school, which was my joy and hope in the world, was always threatened.

I wanted to tell them that I had experienced sexism in the field of philosophy that made me very uncomfortable.

I wanted to tell them that I experienced a lot of sexual harassment when I was working as a teaching assistant.

I wanted to tell them that academia is not made for parents, especially teen parents.

I told my counselor instead.

Stigma

There are at least three kinds of stigma: (1) Self-Stigma, (2) Other Stigma, and (3) Stigma by Association. The literature discusses each of these.

Self-stigma is when a person internalizes the stereotypes and “othering” the society holds about them. They may think they are, in fact, a bad person for having schizophrenia. They may think they are at risk for committing violence. They may think they should be punished, or closely watched. This can cause a person to have low self-esteem, live “in the closet,” and not seek treatment.

Other stigma is when people who do not experience psychosis have negative views and discriminate against people with psychotic disorders. This can include not wanting to date a person with schizophrenia, not wanting to have conversations or be friends with people with schizophrenia, and not wanting to work with people with schizophrenia.

Stigma by association is when people who are associated with a person with a psychotic illness feel shame about having that person in their family, school or workplace. They may lack education about people with brain disorders, and there is evidence that proper education about these issues can lessen stigma by association.

Stigma can lead to discrimination by making people treat one differently. As someone who has dealt with gross amounts of stigma, I can say that people have treated me as a potential threat, a wild-eyed disarray, and needing to be “compliant” and tamed. This, even when my symptoms, which have never been threatening, were at bay. Stigma leads one to “see” you differently. It leads to bias in how your actions are interpreted.

I have learned to deal with stigma by living openly and “calling it out.” I risk all kinds of things doing this, but it’s the only thing I know to do.

Justice at Both Ends

We may live in a world where luck is involved, but there’s luck and there’s luck. We have the ability to change our world, to make things better for other people and ourselves. We have the ability to reduce the amount of negative luck people experience. For example, if we alleviated poverty, there would be fewer brain disorders, just as if we reduce child abuse, there would be fewer cases of child PTSD. If we want to reduce the amount of brain illness in the world, we need to be committed to justice.

At the same time, there are people who do and will continue to suffer. For those people, we need justice at the tail end—we need justice for people with brain disorders. This means making people feel OK with accepting government benefits, increasing government benefits so that people with brain disorders are not living in poverty, and, of course, reducing stigma.

I hope I have made a case for justice before and after psychosis.