Great article by Paul Levy (a pioneer in the field of spiritual emergence, and a healer in private practice) regarding psychiatric abuse (psychiatry’s invalidation of trauma and protection of the abuser). Psychiatry makes the sane ones.. the sick ones, the invalids (the in-valids).
I am a survivor of severe psychiatric abuse. There was a year or so in the early 1980’s when I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals at least four times. During my visits to the hospital I was in the midst of a spiritual awakening that I was struggling to contain that was triggered and complicated by extreme psychological abuse at the hands of my father, who was a very sick man. I was suffering so deeply from the psychic violence perpetrated upon my mother and me by my father that it was making me “sick.” One of the most difficult parts of my ordeal in the hospitals was not being listened to by the psychiatrists, either about the abuse by my father or the spiritual awakening. Spiritual emergences/emergencies oftentimes become activated because of a deep experience of wounding, abuse, or trauma. In its initial stage, a spiritual awakening can look like and mimic a nervous breakdown, as our habitual structures of holding ourselves together fall apart and break down so that a deeper and more coherent expression of our intrinsic wholeness can emerge. The spiritual awakening aspect of my experience was so off psychiatry’s map that it wasn’t even remotely recognized. Instead of hearing me, about either the abuse or the awakening, I was immediately pathologized and labeled as the sick one. Being cast in the role of the “identified patient,” I was assured that I was going to be mentally ill for the rest of my days, as if I was being given a life sentence with no possibility for parole, with no time off for good behavior. The fact that I wanted to dialogue about this and question their diagnosis was proof, to the psychiatrists in charge of me, of my illness. The whole thing was totally nuts. Fully licensed and certified by the state, the psychiatric system’s abuse of its position of power was truly unconscionable. What the profession of psychiatry was unconsciously en-acting was truly crazy-making for those under their dominion. I was lucky to escape the psychiatric world with my sanity intact. Many others are not so fortunate.
In not listening to what I was saying about the abuse being perpetrated by my father, and pathologizing me instead, psychiatry was unwittingly protecting my father. It was as if the field of psychiatry had become subsumed into unknowingly becoming an instrument for a deeper, archetypal process of “protecting the abuser” to play itself out in form and in real time. Having my father be care-taken by those in a position of potential authority over him, combined with my being solidified as being sick by those in authority over me was a doubly sickening experience. It was only years later, long after I had left the psychiatric community, that it began to come out in my family that my father was both criminally and morally insane, a genuine psycho-sociopath who was truly a danger to others (note – in trying to decide whether to use the word “psychopath” or “sociopath,” I’ve decided to create a new term – “psycho-sociopath” to describe my father’s condition. It “sounds” right). In not listening to me or recognizing the reality of my father’s virulent pathology, the psychiatrists were complicit in the abuse.
One example to illustrate my point about the extent of my father’s illness should suffice – A few years before they both died, my aunt Helen, my father’s only sibling, during the one and only conversation in which I ever received validation from any family member about the abuse from my father, asked me if I knew who Hannibal Lector is (from the movie “The Silence of the Lambs”). After I answered in the affirmative, she then responded, chillingly, by saying, “That is the sort of person your father is.” By breaking the vow of silence in the family system that typically surrounds and protects the figure of the abuser, my aunt, my father’s sister, was not only letting me know and warning me about the type of figure with whom I was dealing with in her brother, she was giving me a gift. By blowing the whistle, she was putting words on what I was non-verbally experiencing first-hand in my relationship with my father. She was helping me to name my experience, to language the extreme challenge of what it was like to have been this figure’s son. Thirty years ago, as is typical during early stages of abuse, I hadn’t yet developed the psychological fluency I have now to articulate my experience. I wasn’t at all surprised by what my aunt had said, and immediately recognized what she was pointing at. The abuse from my father wasn’t obvious physical or sexual abuse, but was more hidden and covert, a psychological rape of the soul, a true mind-fuck, that only someone as psychically close as a parent can perpetrate. At that moment when my aunt spilled the beans, my experience was that she had become a channel for the voice of the unconscious, what I call “the dreaming,” to come through. She was acting as an oracle who had spoken the magic words that helped me to get a handle on what was happening within myself.
During my hospitalizations I was trying my best, giving every signal in the book, to get across and communicate about my experience with my father to the psychiatrists. As if invisible, I was neither heard, seen, nor understood, however, within the walls of psychiatry. I was continually telling the psychiatrists about the abuse that was going on, and yet, as if I was speaking in an alien tongue, the psychiatrists never had any clue that there was abuse going on. My perceptions were deleted from having any validity whatsoever. Being concretized as mentally ilI, I was being treated as a mental “in-valid.” The longer I was under the psychiatrist’s care, not surprisingly, the sicker I got. As time passed under their watch, the spiritual awakening component of my experience faded into the background, and the abuse came to the fore, front and center. Then, in a crazy-making double-bind, the fact that I wanted to talk about the abuse with my father became the very thing for which I was pathologized. Crazier still, in a seemingly never-ending game without end, my attempts at meta-communicating about the nature of the double-bind I found myself in was itself pathologized. The psychiatrists weren’t just not hearing me, they were actually perpetrating a hard to pin down form of psychological abuse. It was as if I had fallen into a hell-realm, was calling out for help, and no one, least of all within the hallowed halls of psychiatry, could hear my cry.
A dreamlike image comes to mind that actually happened to me that speaks louder than words. I’m locked up in a mental hospital in the midst of having a full-blown spiritual awakening. I’m sitting in my room in the hospital meditating. I am, moment by moment, watching my thoughts arise and in their very arising naturally dissolve back into the spacious emptiness from which they arise. I am dis-identifying from my thoughts, and more and more recognizing that I can just rest in the spacious emptiness which is our true nature. In addition to freeing my consciousness from the limitations of the conceptual mind, meditation is the one thing I’ve found which is healing the abuse from my father. Into the room comes the psychiatric ward attendant, who surreally happens to be one of the big high school basketball stars in the city in which I grew up, and he is stopping me from meditating. I am not allowed to meditate. He has it in his notes that meditation caused my illness. From the point of view of seeing the dreamlike nature of what was happening, he was my own inner obscuration manifesting, both literally and symbolically, in living, breathing color in front of my eyes. It was as if I was having a dream, where my inner process was manifesting as my seemingly outer reality.
While under their “care,” the psychiatric system wanted me to sign on the dotted line, making it financially worth my while if I agreed to take on their idea of who I was. In a truly insane logic, the fact that I refused was more proof to the psychiatrists of how crazy I was. While I was under their power, it was a waking nightmare – The more I was solidified in the role of being the sick one, the sicker I got, which, in a diabolically self-perpetuating negative feedback loop, only confirmed to those in authority how sick I truly was. In my “treatment,” I was energetically beaten within an inch of my psychological life, as if I was continually getting hit over the head with psychic baseball bats. The extent of dis-service and mis-treatment that I received from the “mental health” (sic) community has been so traumatic and overwhelming that it has taken me almost thirty years to even begin to wrap my mind around the horror of what played out. The abuse I suffered at the hands of the psychiatric community, which was true psychological violence in the flesh, is so beyond my comprehension that I’m now just beginning to even find the words. I struggle because the abuse was truly “unspeakable,” a form of torture. Tragically, both of my parents died convinced, with the psychiatric community’s blessing, that their only child was mentally ill. I have no family left.
Another dreamlike image from my experiences: A psychiatrist who I’ve been seeing every week for a number of months has so little idea what to do with me that he sends me to a supposedly cutting-edge and brilliant psychiatrist at Cornell Medical Center in New York who will surely know what the problem is. During our one and only session, I, as best as I can, describe the abuse from my father and how deeply it is affecting me. At the end of our time together, this alleged expert, as if giving me a prophecy, proclaims, “You have the same illness as Freud’s Rat Man, and you will need three years of intensive psychotherapy to be cured.” At the time I didn’t know anything about Freud’s infamous Rat Man, but I immediately sensed that it didn’t sound good, that I wasn’t in the best of company. Even though I had no idea what she was saying, I intuitively knew she had no idea what she was talking about. I was stunned by how not seen I felt. I couldn’t believe the trip she was laying on me after only one hour of knowing me. I was being set in stone, psychiatrically pigeon-holed, concretized for eternity. I felt like I was dealing with a total idiot. Symbolically, this psychiatrist was an embodiment of an ignorant, arrogant, and bewitched part of myself. She might have had the best of intentions, but she was apparently unaware of the self-created, self-fulfilling and potentially destructive spell she was casting. It was as if the inner part of me that entrances and pathologizes myself was incarnating itself, just like a dream, in the person or dream figure of the psychiatrist.
The universe is speaking symbolically, which is the language of dreams (i.e., “dreamspeak”), and the symbols that it is speaking in are tailor-fitted just for us. When I was hospitalized, the suit of clothes I was given to wear, though ultimately “perfect,” felt a bit too “tight,” however. I don’t think I was ever in an actual, physical straitjacket, but my time in the hospitals did feel like I was in an energetic, psychological, and emotional straitjacket. While I was having a peak experience during my initial visit to my very first hospital, for example, I spent the night strapped down to a bed in restraints. The accommodations were a bit on the “might makes right” side. During my stay in the hospitals my creative expression was forcibly shut down, as if the State, Big Brother, or the powers-that-be were exerting control over me and making their dominance known. It felt like I had been captured and become a prisoner. Living on a locked ward, I felt trapped by the system, caged in like a dangerous animal. To say it felt oppressive is a euphemism. It was abuse, pure and simple, disguised as our mental health system. It is the shadow side of psychiatry.
My saving grace was never falling into and “buying” the viewpoint of the doctors that was literally being “sold” to me as it was forced down my throat. It couldn’t have been more obvious from my vantage point inside myself that I was having a spiritual awakening. Fortunately, I never lost sight of this, even during the darkest of times, which allowed me to trust the process which was unfolding within myself. After getting out of the last psychiatric hospital in 1982, I felt ashamed, and mortified at now having the stigma of being labeled, for the rest of my life, an “ex-mental patient.” As I’ve healed over the course of time, however, I now “advertise” that I was locked up in psych-wards so as to get the word out, as “I am not the only one.” There are many other people who have suffered and are presently suffering through similar waking-nightmares with the psychiatric system.
Not only did the psychiatrists offer me no help in dealing with the underlying emotional issues resulting from the abuse with my father, they didn’t even recognize that there was severe abuse being played out in my family system in the first place. The degree to which my reports about the abuse with my father were dismissed is staggering. I simply wasn’t listened to nor believed. In discounting my own experience, the psychiatrists were fundamentally invalidating my perceptions, which was truly maddening. In addition, the psychiatrists didn’t recognize that I was suffering from a form of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a result of the emotional abuse from my father, and as time unfolded, from themselves as well.
Instead of help for my problems with my father, the psychiatric system, on the other hand, unwittingly colluded with, supported, and protected my father in his role of abuser. Like many psycho-sociopaths, my father was brilliant and could be very charismatic, and due to his “charm,” could easily put people under the spell he was casting. He was very skilled at presenting himself to the world as “normal.” Because of his uncanny ability to shape-shift and hide in the shadows of the unconscious, he went his whole life undiagnosed (My father’s virulent, but unrecognized illness inspired me to create an entirely new diagnosis which sheds light on his sickness, what I call “malignant egophrenia,” or ME disease for short). My father bamboozled and hoodwinked all the psychiatrists he interacted with, convincingly presenting himself as a loving, concerned parent, and always casting me in the role of the sick one. The psychiatric community got “into bed” with my parents (my mother was under my father’s spell), aligning with them “against” me, in the sense that, being the one identified as sick, I was seen as the member of the family who both had a problem and was the problem. Though the sickness was fundamentally nonlocal in nature, as it pervaded the whole family system (which now included psychiatry), it was being “localized” as if existing only in me. Being conjured up in the role of the identified patient, I was “carrying,” as if in the role of the archetypal scapegoat, both my family’s, as well as the psychiatric community’s, unacknowledged, split-off, and unconscious shadow of madness.
Not only did the psychiatrists fail to recognize the deeper process of spiritual awakening that had become activated within me as a result of the abuse, their ignorance insured that they didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with me other than to pathologize me, which is their default setting. People who are in extreme states, and are having non-ordinary experiences, or who see things differently than the agreed-upon, consensus reality are (arche)typically pathologized by those in positions of power. Psychiatry’s un-reflected upon propensity to see only illness is an expression of psychiatry’s own pathology. To put my experiences in context, they happened years before “religious or spiritual problem” was accepted as a new diagnostic category in the DSM-IV. When I was going through these experiences, although it was only thirty years ago, it was like I had time travelled and was living in the Dark Ages. In the early eighties, the very concept or possibility of a spiritual awakening was precluded and excluded from the worldview of psychiatry.
In a spiritual awakening, the boundary between the inner process that is happening within the psyche, and outer events that are happening out in the world, become synchronistically intermingled and co-related such that our experience reveals itself to be of the same fundamental structure as a dream (where the inner process of the dreamer is expressing itself in, as, and through the forms of the dream). Oftentimes, when the archetypal process of spiritual awakening is first activated within us, our constructs about the nature of reality de-construct such that we can appear, from the mainstream reality point of view, a little “crazy.” As we awaken, we are, in fact, stepping “out of our (conceptual) minds.” Cultures based on wisdom have the capacity to discern and recognize an individual who is potentially going through a process of spiritual awakening. Such wisdom-based cultures especially value such individuals and recognize that these people are being called by spirit to potentially become a shaman or healer who in the future might greatly benefit the community. Usually, all these would-be shamans or healers need is some time and a safe container for their process to naturally integrate into the emerging wholeness of their psyche.
When someone is first beginning to have a spiritual awakening, however, they are in an extremely open, vulnerable, and delicate state. During this initial stage of my awakening, I wasn’t integrated nor grounded enough to realize that it wasn’t wise for me to honestly reveal to the psychiatrists the magical inner and outer synchronistic experiences that I was having in my awakening, which were truly off their radar. In Biblical terms, in innocently sharing my sacred experiences with the psychiatrists, I was “casting my pearls before swine.” Many years later, my friend, the late Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Mack once shared with me his definition of being crazy – “It’s not knowing who to tell, or not to tell, what you’re experiencing.” From his perspective, I was out of my mind to share my mystical experiences with his colleagues, and in retrospect, I fully agree. In essence, the more I authentically expressed my experience, the more I was convincing the doctors I was crazy. This reminds me of a line from an email that I received a few years back where the person literally writes, “When I told my psychiatrist that I thought my mission in this world was to spread the message of love, she prescribed me an anti-psychotic.” Contrary to supporting the healthy part of me that was awakening, the psychiatrists pathologized, mis-diagnosed and medicated me (with “anti-creative” medication), temporarily aborting my mind-expanding spiritual emergence, traumatizing me even further. I am truly outraged at the outrage of it all. It feels crazy not to be. I am outraged both for myself and for the innumerable fellow sufferers of this profound betrayal of the Hippocratic Oath, whose deeper meaning is to do no harm.
In a similar dynamic that played out with my father, psychiatry, instead of protecting me, was what I needed protection from. Instead of helping me to heal, my psychiatric experience was something from which I’ve been in recovery from and needed to heal. My intimate relationship with psychiatry created quite an overwhelming cocktail of abuse for me to digest (please see my article “We are all Shamans-in-Training”). I felt totally violated, branded, humiliated, and dehumanized as a result of my treatment with the psychiatric system, a pill-pushing club “med.” During this time in my life, my mid-twenties, most of my friends were in graduate school getting degrees for their future professions. I became “certified” in a different way; little did I realize, however, that I was being trained in my future profession, too. Many of my childhood and college friends dropped out of my life as this process unfolded, as I imagine what I was going through (not exactly the “American Dream”) was uncomfortable for many of them. It was only years later that I had built up a strong enough sense of self to re-frame my encounter with the primitive, stone-age, and draconian field of psychiatry as an aspect of my spiritual awakening, as if it was a shamanic descent into the underworld, into the depths of a modern-day Hades.
A further dreamlike image: An extremely arrogant psychiatrist is telling me that if I don’t start making inroads into getting a job in the burgeoning computer field by the next time I see him, he wouldn’t see me anymore. I’m horrified and disgusted at the manipulation he’s using, all supposedly for my own good. Like a dream, my inner father process was materializing itself in my waking life in the psychiatrist’s office, as if the underlying, mythic figure of the negative father was using this psychiatrist as a local emanation of a nonlocal archetype. Just like my father, this psychiatrist was not relating to me as an autonomous agent with my own intuitive wisdom, but was trying to shape and form-fit me into his version of who he thought I was. He was literally playing out my unresolved father process (and his, too) with me, as he was picking up the role of the archetypal abusive, unconscious, and power-tripping father figure. Keep in mind that computers were the last thing I was interested in; I was an artist who was having a spiritual awakening. And it just so happened that my father, who this psychiatrist was all too intimately in touch with, wanted me to go into the field of computers, or whatever field would bring in the most money. I think to myself, “Who do you say you’re working for?” Needless to say, I never came back to this not-so-undercover agent of my father’s.
Don’t get me wrong – There are plenty of well-intentioned psychiatrists, including the ones with whom I worked. I am not talking about individual psychiatrists, I am talking about the underlying psychiatric system as a whole. There is a certain consensual agreement with reference to behaviors that are considered “normal,” the nature of health and sickness, as well as fundamental ideas of who we are, that all representatives of the “academy” have to accept in order for them to be considered a card-carrying member. There is an axiomatic set, a way of looking, that has been drilled into psychiatrists heads during their “training” in medical school, for them to take on in order to be a true initiate. Built into the very institution of psychiatry, into the very organ-ization of the field, to the extent that self-reflection is not part of its practice, is the hidden abuse of power. It takes more than good intentions for a psychiatrist to not unwittingly become an instrument for “the system” to play out its unconscious, destructive aspect. The traditional psychiatric community is set up to be a set-up, in that built into the system is the unconscious set of assumptions of materialistic science, not the least of which is that we exist as encapsulated, separate selves apart from the underlying field. In fact, for most psychiatrists, there is no concept of an underlying field of consciousness at all. Consciousness is understood purely as something that arises from matter and thus can be manipulated by material, i.e., electro-chemical means (via psychiatric drugs, for example). It takes an exceptional practitioner of the art of psychiatry, a true doctor of the soul, to see through the implicit materialist in-doctrine-ation they have received as part and parcel of their very conditioning and upbringing into the field of psychiatry. A true healer knows that they are meeting themselves time and time again in their patients.
A final dreamlike image, where the madness in the hospital nonlocally spills outside of its walls: In one mental hospital there is a meeting that I am having in front of all the doctors who have been studying my case. In presenting me with their findings, they are all in complete agreement that I have a mental illness, manic-depression, and that I am going to have this illness for the rest of my life, and need to be medicated till I take my last breath (It should be noted that I haven’t taken any psychiatric medication for over a quarter of a century, with no “episodes,” which, from the psychiatric point of view, is impossible if I truly had what is now called bi-polar illness). I stood up to what felt like a board of (mis)directors and told them that they didn’t know what they were talking about, which only confirmed to them how crazy I was. In consulting their hallowed diagnostic manual (the DSM), it was like they were reading from a “grimoire” (a manual for invoking and casting magic spells), and were trying to match what little they understood of my experience to something somebody wrote in a book. Feeling both objectified and marginalized in my own treatment, the doctors weren’t interested in consulting with me. They didn’t have much of an idea of where or who I was in this whole process, and, frighteningly, they were in the position of making decisions which might greatly affect the rest of my life. I felt like a guinea pig who had become drafted into a sinister science experiment, and it felt get-me-out-out-here crazy. We were en-acting in that conference room a deep, archetypal process of abuse of power that gets acted out in the non-level playing field of psychiatry (as well as within traumatized psychiatric patient’s heads) innumerable times every day.
The dreamlike scene continues: The next day, one of the doctors, an intern who was at the meeting the day before, is giving me a physical exam. During the checkup, he praises me for what I did the day before – standing for my own experience and speaking truth to power. He expresses that he thought I did great under trying circumstances, and that he really appreciated the courage it took for me to challenge his colleagues (of course, it would have been nice if he would’ve said this during the previous day’s meeting, but I don’t push my luck). It felt wonderful connecting with someone who “understood,” particularly someone who was in the role of an authority figure. We so connected during our meeting that we decided to get together when I got out of the hospital. The next week or so we did get together, and we went out with some friends of his to a bar to hear a rock band. Over the course of the evening I discovered that the rock band was a group of musicians who love Jesus, and this doctor was a born-again Christian who, seeing me as a potential catch, wanted to help me save my soul. I remember him talking about how my teachers, some of the genuinely enlightened practitioners in Buddhism, were possessed by the Devil because they weren’t Christian. I couldn’t believe it. Just when I thought I had found an ally, I realized I was once again in another crazy-making, mind-warping situation, as if there was no getting away from the craziness. It felt so sci-fi, like I was living in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As if iterations of a fractal, both during my time in the mental hospital and at the bar I found myself in situations where a crazy, cult-like organization was trying to enlist me to become one of its members. For me, this process is symbolic of the undercurrent in our waking dream that is constantly entrancing us into falling asleep, becoming brainwashed and hypnotized by those in power to take on the agreed upon collective viewpoint of the herd. Upon reflection, what played out in my life is an externalized reflection of an archetypal process that is happening both in the greater body politic as well as deep inside of all of us.
Through numerous dreamlike experiences like these, I was being introduced to the nonlocal field of consciousness that synchronistically in-forms our world, a burgeoning insight which years later would form the foundation for my work. This underlying, all-pervasive field drafts people into being its instruments and unwitting operatives, choreographing events in the world so as to materialize itself. This seamlessly interconnected field ceaselessly animates innumerable nonlocal “hands” to set the “stage,” arranging the scene in the play of our waking dream so as to simultaneously veil and reveal itself, entrancing or potentially liberating us at each and every moment. A deeper process shaping the manifestation of so-called reality was being shown to me through all that was playing out in my crazy life, as if the events in my life were parts of an initiation. A more fundamental aspect of my being was making itself known to me, and was using my experiences in the world – in my family, the psychiatric system, and the world of rock and roll, as its canvas. The psychiatric system turned out to be one of the crucibles for my awakening. My harrowing ordeal with psychiatry was a “close encounter” that almost killed me, a “near death experience,” of the psychiatric kind. If it doesn’t kill you, however, it makes you stronger. I have survived.
The very insight that I was beginning to realize in my awakening – the non-objective, dreamlike, and symbolic nature of reality – which was ironically one of the things for which I was pathologized by psychiatry for attempting to articulate, was the very insight that redeemed my experiences with both the psychiatric system as well as my father and literally saved my life. Whereas psychiatry wanted to make me a productive member of consensus reality, I was more interested in deepening my contemplation of how what we call “reality” is an arbitrary product of our consensus. Instead of being “out of touch” with reality, I was awakening to that, just like a dream, there is no objective reality with which to get in touch. Years later I was greatly encouraged to discover that this same fundamental, transformative insight for which I was being pathologized by the psychiatric system is in fact the very same insight which is the pith essence of the great esoteric spiritual wisdom traditions from around the world. Needless to say, I was happy to find myself in such good company, though I wasn’t overly thrilled at being left on my own to deal with the psychological clean-up operation resulting from the traumatic aftershocks and aftermath of a most unnatural, and unnecessary, psychiatric disaster. Realizing that my own personal process of awakening was yet another unique instance of an insight into the dreamlike nature of the universe that has been discovered by countless human beings throughout history has been enormously validating and healing for me (for a deeper articulation of this essential truth, please see my article “As Viewed, So Appears”). Seeing my own personal experience of awakening framed in the context of the perennial, spiritual wisdom traditions has only amplified my awareness of the tragic and egregious lack of this kind of insight into the nature of the mind that pervades our modern, medical psychiatric profession.
The symbolic events that were literally transpiring in my life, as is true for all of us, were a synchronistic reflection and revelation of a living process deep within myself. It was as if everything that was playing out with my father, in the field of psychiatry, and for that matter, every aspect of my life, was communicating to me through the symbolic dimension of my awareness, which is the same part of me that dreams my dreams at night. I was beginning to realize that the same deeper, dreaming Self that dreams our dreams at night is dreaming our lives. Though my close call with psychiatry almost drove me crazy and nearly killed me, I have learned something through my ordeal, an insight so profound that it can’t be repeated often enough. How things turn out depends upon how we dream it. I am my own living proof.