Off Their Meds 

Modern psychiatrists prescribe pills for hundreds of "biological" disorders. The radical mental health movement isn't so sure

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Like the Icarus Project and MindFreedom, the Bay Area Radical Mental Health Collective is largely made up of people who have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. Unlike the other two, though, the collective is new -- three months old or so. Its membership includes about a dozen people; diagnoses represented include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some are studying or have studied psychology; others are from the antipsychiatry movement. Some are on meds; some are not.

For her part, Haviland brings to the new collective not just her experience as a patient, but her experience as the creator of the radical mental health zine Distress and as a harm-reduction worker with the Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution program in Berkeley. She is studying psychology at Vista College, and she shares a desire with other members of the collective to build a support network and peer-counseling center, hopefully with money from Proposition 63, the 2004 mental health services act that levied a new tax on high-income individuals and funneled it into California's county mental health systems. Thus far, their main activity is cosponsoring a weekly class in "radical mental health."

"I've been involved in tons and tons of activist stuff, and I've always come to a point where I feel overwhelmed, and have activist burnout, feeling really down on myself when I couldn't function at the level that other people are functioning," she explains. "And the group has really been an amazing experience as far as being supportive for each other and open to each other needing to do what we need to do."

In short, just the survival of a radical mental health collective is a fairly big accomplishment in Haviland's eyes.


WHY DON'T YOU SMILE MORE?

Dealing with mental illness is one thing; becoming an activist is quite another, and it's not for everyone. With limited support networks, most people keep their psychiatric struggles to themselves. "And once people get through such a crisis, or at least learn to cope, they usually don't want to do anything that opens up the old wounds," says a member of the collective who calls herself Dr. Ruthless. "Very few people I met in 'recovery' are activists today."

Sharnée Nichols is not a member of any activist group, but she is unconsciously part of the broader movement. She came to it almost by accident. In 2001, despite having a decent job in a law office and a life history in the Denver area, the then-22-year-old decided to move to Alameda, moving in with her recently relocated father and stepmother on a whim that quickly set her on the high road to recovery.

After eleven years of sadness, a man she dated pointed out that maybe, just maybe, she could be happier. "His big thing was, 'I wish I could get you to smile more. I wish you smiled more,'" she recalls. "I was like, 'I don't really know why I don't smile more. But I don't. And that's just kind of how it is.' And he was like, 'Well, no, it doesn't have to be that way.' And I thought, 'It doesn't? What's that all about?'" And though she wondered if it was just her new boyfriend not appreciating her for who she was, she did start to think back to a time when she did smile more -- and the time she arrived at was before her parents split up.

Through Kaiser, Nichols had five sessions with a counselor. When it was clear that this wasn't enough, she got referrals to therapists, one of which led her to the Psychotherapy Institute of Berkeley, which offers sessions with graduate students still logging student hours and fees on a sliding scale. Nichols found her therapist helpful, coupled especially with the help of a trusted family doctor. With her therapist, Nichols explored her adolescence, including her eating disorder -- "all bingeing, no purging" -- and a compulsion to please everyone but herself that inspired this captain of the spirit squad to hang with the stoners and skaters, and squander the opportunities her performing-arts high school offered her. They talked about why her parents' marriage failed, and how to set the bar higher for herself. And they arrived finally at the exact moment when the wall went up, shielding her from feeling highs and lows for the next decade:

She and her little brother were watching Hey, Dude! on Nickelodeon, she says. They would find out later that their mother had locked herself in the bathroom shortly before, threatening suicide. "Dad comes down the stairs behind us and says, 'Hey, you guys, we need to talk,'" Nichols recalls. "We turn around without turning the TV off and, in roughly sixty seconds, he explains what our worst fears would confirm. And we kind of listen and nod, and he's done, and we turn back around and look at the TV. My brother starts crying, and I put my arm around him and scoot him close to me. And that was it -- just, 'Something's not right and there's nobody else here, and now I've got to take care of things.' And that was it. Rock wall. And it stayed there." Three years later, Nichols' mother offered her the chance to talk to a therapist, but the teenager shrugged it off for fear of what her friends would think.

Nichols' clinical depression isn't as severe as being bipolar or schizophrenic. But talk therapy worked for her -- and medication did not. After two years of psychotherapy, she felt that she'd hit a plateau. Both her therapist and her physician suggested medication, which Nichols had been expecting for a while. But after a year of experimenting with various levels of the antidepressant Effexor, she said no thanks.

"I think I walked into it expecting it to make a difference," she recalls. "And when it just numbed everything instead of helping me see things in a different light, that's when we tried different doses. But it was already set in my mind that this is what this drug does. It's not going to do what I need." Nichols went back on an all-therapy regimen, and, after another year, walked out of her therapist's office for perhaps the last time. She said she'd go back in a heartbeat if she experienced fresh trauma -- but wouldn't consider taking medication again, even for a serious slip.

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