Let us not ask, "What is wrong with you?" but, " What happened to you?"
I recently took a life-changing, empowering, and validating training to be a support group facilitator for the Hearing Voices Network (HVN). HVN is an organization that started in England and is now worldwide that provides nonclinical, nonjudgmental support groups for people that experience voices and visions, so that they can find their own meaning in their unique experiences. I am so excited to be a part of this social justice movement that is trying to change the mental health system by giving the power of meaning back to the people, instead of in the hands of clinicians.
A key value of the Hearing Voices Network is the trauma informed model, which recognizes that people with mental health challenges, including those who experience "symptoms of psychosis" are 500 times more likely to have experienced major traumas in their lives. The symptoms that are usually labeled as psychosis are actually the brain's way of processing traumatic experiences and so are a natural and normal way for a body to process an abnormal event. We should not be asking people what is wrong with them, as if they are a problem to be fixed, but what happened to them, because they are actually people in great pain deserving of empathy and validation. This turns the idea of mental illness on its head: what if we did not have to call ourselves sick in order to gain compassion, but instead received compassion simply because we are all human beings with the capacity to experience great pain in different ways?
In the training, we learned that disturbing voices and images can be looked at as metaphor that is in our best self interest to explore. For instance, a person who hears voices telling herself to kill myself may actually benefit from learning from those voices and asking herself what in her life does she need to kill - certainly not herself, but perhaps a destructive relationship, job, community, belief, etc. needs to go. This is a much more compassionate and holistic way of looking at experiences that the behavioral health industry typically looks at as bad and as something to be feared. In my experience, what gives us the most fear may be the very thing we need to explore.
Also, the word trauma is commonly used in a dangerously narrow way which discounts and minimizes experiences that are really traumatizing. One of the most popular phrases that I hate hearing is the phrase, "first world problems," as if the people in first world countries do not face real problems and traumas. I thought of this the other day after hearing about the U.S. military dropping the "mother of all bombs" in Afghanistan-as a person who believes in nonviolence, I was horrified
about us dropping such a large bomb and felt ashamed to live in the country I do. I began to have very negative thoughts towards myself that started to scare me and I wondered if I should call my doctor to up my dosage and then I thought, "NO! Living in a country where a leader I did not vote for and do not support is doing things that I find immoral and horrifying is traumatic. My disturbing thoughts are a normal and natural way of dealing with an abnormal and unnatural situation!" Once I came to that realization, my negative thoughts ceased to have power over me and I held myself in compassion and acceptance of my sadness.
First world problems may be different than third world problems but they are still full of trauma. It is traumatic that our country has the highest rate of people held in prisons; that healthcare is inaccessible to many; that we have racism, sexism, ableism, classism embedded into the fabric of our police system, the system that is supposed to protect us-indeed, it is embedded into our very society; that mass shootings have become almost commonplace; that our jail systems have essentiallyreplaced
mental institutions; that students leave college mired in debt; that we treat children like machines, always to be kept busy; that we value production over mental well being. We are proud that this country is so rich and frivolous - look at me, with my Starbucks coffee, we say - but this richness erodes our sense of self and overall serenity. We constantly crave more in order to fill the raging hurt inside of us at being lied to all these years, for even if we possess great privilege and power in this society, somewhere deep inside we know that all is not right and good.
I do not wish for third world problems - I wish for a world where people are allowed to be their authentic selves and not be judged, where people can ascribe their own meanings to phenomena without being diagnosed, a world in which total freedom means living in total interdependence with one another and in supportive, accessible community. Next time you are about to minimize your seemingly tiny problem by labeling it a "first world problem," stop and acknowledge your frustration as valid and with compassion - the frustration you are experiencing, even if it is just for being stuck in a long line at Starbucks, is really the tip of the anger iceberg at living in such a seriously flawed and messed up Capitalistic system.
In a society that wants to tell us what our meanings are, I am refreshed to belong to a organization that encourages its members to find their own meaning out of their unique experiences. For them, it is up to the individual to decide what works for them-medication and therapy can be wonderful helpmates if handled skillfully and carefully, but they can also be destructive and debilitating if handled without skill and care. It is up to us to decide how we want to address our distresses.
I think it is worth noting that it has been proven that people are not bothered by their voices and visions when they are allowed to ascribe their own meaning to them and in countries where those people are considered shamans, holy people, or healers, mental illness is far less stigmatized and those with unique experiences are far more happy with themselves. This kind of thinking is what is found in many of the countries considered third world and less than our own. (That is not to say that these countries do not have other horrible flaws and traumas inherent in their system.)
I believe that we should look at people with curiosity, empathy and love and that it is traumatic to live in society that instead looks at people as dollar signs. I want to be part of something that helps to right this demented system and I hope the Hearing Voices Network, and other similar networks, continue to push back against the current paradigm. I believe that pushing back in love may be the greatest thing we can do to heal ourselves and our first world trauma.