by Mariellen Gilpin
The story of my thirty-year journey to joy has to begin in a sordid, sad place. I met my first psychiatrist upon admission to the local hospital. Without any preliminary question and answer session, he abruptly ordered me onto the examination table and somewhat roughly gave me a pelvic exam. There was something about the way he stared intently at my private parts. I came to the hospital confused and disoriented. Desperate for help, ready to trust the doctor. Now I was politely, silently angry: The problem is in my mind, not my crotch! The trauma happened only once in the four years I worked with him. But that once was enough to leave me frozen in shame, humiliation, and powerlessness. I only began to recover when I learned from other women, including one who sued him, that I was not alone in having been subjected to what amounted to medical molestation. I was not alone.
Whenever I met with him, I reported whatever I was doing to help myself. He chuckled like an evil uncle and indicated many of his patients had tried that very same thing, and failed. He seemed to find their failures funny. I did not enjoy my mistakes. The consequences were always awful. They were not funny.
It seemed whatever I said, he always prescribed still-higher doses or still more pills. Each pill had its own side effects, and so there were more pills to deal with the side effects of the other pills. And, of course, multiple pills made it hard to track which side effect was caused by which combination of pills.I was so medicated I could hardly put one foot in front of the other, let alone think through what caused my mind to derail and how I might learn to stay on track. Or draw the conclusion that this doctor did not want me to get well. Or that I could choose to go shopping for a doctor on less of a power trip. My sessions with this doctor came to a stop because I wanted a better insurance plan, rather than a better plan for getting well.
The new doctor, more than likely caught between genuinely wanting to help me get better and protecting his medical-fraternity brother, suggested trying a different medication plan, which he described to me and sent me home with a book to read. I had been in the first doctor’s care for four years, and was so indoctrinated by his No hope! No hope for you! that I told the new doctor I needed to think about it. What I really needed to do was decide to risk hope. I had hoped, and failed, so consistently. Each failure seared my wounded soul. To choose to hope was to choose to risk still another failure. What I spoke of to friends and family was the potential side effects of the new medication regime. What I really was doing was summoning the courage to choose hope.
The new doctor gave me a range within which I could self-medicate, and introduced a brand new concept: I could learn to manage the illness. In the nearly 40 years since, I’ve worked with six other head doctors, seven internists, and one oncologist. I interviewed each one before I agreed to work with them, thanks to that first head-doctor. I am prepared for the probability that any doctor is likely to be a bit of a nutcase. My real question is, Is this doctor ethical? Can I trust my body and my mind to this person who by nature of his profession will have a power relationship with me?
*** Fast forward now about three years. My medication regime had stabilized, but I continued to hallucinate at about the same rate as before. I was not really getting better. I joined a 12 Step group for mental sufferers called GROW. GROW encouraged members to work with their doctors to reduce their medications, even get off all psych meds. My husband encouraged me to try. I was taking enough pills that I was a dingaling. It would be so wonderful to be able to think again. But the hallucinations—I wanted no more of them than I could help, and every reduction I’d tried in the past increased their number and intensity. First, I needed to reduce the hallucinations, and then try reducing the medication a trifle.
I had been advised by my GROW friends not to converse with my voices, because engaging with them encouraged the pattern to persist. The problem was that my hallucinations woke me up from a sound sleep with an audible whoosh at about two a.m. Why out of a sound sleep? Why at two a.m? Why that whoosh? I had no idea. The workings of my once-good mind no longer made any sense to me. But the pattern was totally reliable: the whoosh, a pause, then the voices, and pretty soon I was conversing with them. What I had to do, I decided, was find a way to distract myself immediately upon hearing the whoosh.
The idea was daunting: choosing a different response when I was both half-asleep and also too drugged to think—I couldn’t have been much more vulnerable. How was I to change a thought-habit when I was in that condition? Something that caused me great grief and shame was that one of the voices I heard was “God.” When I called out in my anxiety and bewilderment to God for guidance, and Fake God provided advice that invariably turned out badly, it wasn’t hard to decide the voice was not the real God—in retrospect. Hindsight might not be 20/20, but it was better than what came to me in that split second after calling out to God for guidance. Somehow, I decided, my concept of God was faulty, that I could be hoodwinked by Fake God so easily. I wanted a better relationship with God.
In GROW we learned to hope for one another until we could hope for ourselves. We were encouraged to memorize bits of the program, so they’d be available in our moments of need. At the close of every meeting, we recited together a prayer called the Act of Surrender. I decided the prayer was a pretty good model of what a right relationship with God could be. I undertook to memorize it. It was fairly long and complicated, especially when I was trying to memorize it with half a brain. As I memorized it, a plan began to develop. The moment I heard the whoosh, I would throw all my attention to reciting the Act of Surrender. I would distract myself from Fake God and at the same time, work on building a better relationship with Real God.
When I talked about my plan in GROW, a leader suggested I also memorize and think about another GROW saying: Resume quickly without fuss. The next time I heard the whoosh, I didn’t start the prayer or switch my attention in time. I reported at the next meeting and was encouraged to believe I’d get it started more quickly next time. And I did. The old thought-habit was decisively derailed. It was as if the whoosh turned a somersault in its eagerness to leave my mind.
I was overcome with joy. There was reason to hope. I knew I had many mistakes ahead of me—about 20 years worth, as a matter of fact, before I learned how not to hallucinate. There were lots of opportunities to practice resuming quickly without fuss. But my strategy had worked that once, and would again. I’d try to learn from my mistakes and refine my strategy. When I’d piled up enough successful derailments of the sick old thought-pattern, I could be completely free of hallucinations.
Over the years, I’ve thought and prayed a lot about addiction. I’ve come to view those sick thought-patterns as a form of behavioral addiction, because addiction can be anything we do over and over because we want to feel better, even though we know it’s bad for us. That’s why we must choose not to fuss at ourselves when we make still another mistake: fussing makes us feel worse, which makes it harder to avoid the faulty thought pattern next time. The old short-term feel-better reward is always followed by mid- to long-term awfulness. What seems to work for me is replacing the short-term feel-good with a longer-term choice for happiness. It’s very hard to do at first, because we know what the short-term reward will be. We won’t like the downside, but since we’ve never tried the choice with the longer-term reward, we don’t know how it will make us feel. If we’re used to eating chocolate when we’re depressed and decide to go for a long walk instead, what we’re most aware of at first is the chocolate-deprivation. The short-term joys of the long walk are subtler: the smell of the fresh air, the bunnies and birds along the way, the enjoyment of feeling our blood moving. Because the immediate rewards are subtler, we may not notice we’re rather happier several hours later. I had the benefit, however, that my voices always had a truly awful and fairly immediate downside. When reciting the Act of Surrender stopped the whoosh in its tracks, the sense of joy and relief and hope was much more immediate.
Recently a gym-friend, a long-distance runner, talked about the runner’s high. She’d run and run until she was exhausted, and then her runner’s high would kick in, and she’d run almost effortlessly the remaining distance. She explained that hormones called endorphins were released to create the runner’s high. She ran to achieve the distance, always, but the runner’s high helped her get there.
When I remember my first success at un-choosing listening to voices and that moment of joy, I know I was transformed. I may have experienced a transformation high. Whatever hormones may someday be discovered that cause the transformation high, I can assure you the transformation high is instantly addictive. Any and all obstacles to happiness and wholeness I now view through the lens of the transformation high. How can I change myself? How can I get that high again?
I run my life now as much for the transformation highs along the way as for the actual overcoming of the obstacles. I think it may be fair to say that my happiness today is basically a continuous state of being high on transforming myself.