Breggin’s Empathic Conference: Out of Madness


I was attending Dr. Peter Breggin’s Empathic Therapy Conference:  Bring out the Best in Yourself! (which will be available on CD; go to Dr. Breggin’s web site).

My next stop at the conference was A Well-Being & Healing Approach to Mental Illness:  Susan Schellenberg, Rosemary Barnes PhD.  They have written a book called Committed to the Sane Asylum.   Susan and Rosemary are both gray-haired women, and it occurs to me that this conference is heavy with old folks.  It takes a lot of years of experience and maturity to figure out how you really should be treating people, and to reject the Drugs R Us approach to treating mental illness.

Except that one of the woman—the Ph.D. one—tells us that they don’t call it mental illness or use diagnostic labels; they just call it “emotional pain.”  That works for me.  Who among us has not felt emotional pain and cannot identify with the concept?  And if you haven’t felt emotional pain then get out of my way—you are not human.

The Ph.D. person goes on to talk about working as a psychologist in an institution and getting really disillusioned and restive and, finally, leaving the institution and going into “exile.”  In other words, she is also a doctor in recovery.  Then she introduces the other woman, who is an artist, and starts showing slides of the artist’s work.

The artist tells her story of being diagnosed with schizophrenia, put on drugs, and locked up in the asylum.  She did this for ten years then got out of the institution, stopped taking drugs, and developed her life as an artist.  As she speaks, we are looking at her art work.  What you would expect to see at a psychiatric conference is the standard “descent into madness” crap:  wild colors, disorganized figures, no boundaries, no subtle definitions.

But what I am looking at is taking my breath away.  There is a charcoal drawing of Joan of Arc on her horse and I am transfixed by the power of the horse, and thinking “How did she do that?”  Another painting is as if from the back of a long, dark cathedral.  A bowed person sits in a small light in the front, and overhead there is a bright globe—stained glass window or sun or son?

I read somewhere that a good painting is one that is alive every time you walk into the room; it never fades into the background and just hangs there.  Given that definition, this is a great painting.  I kinda-sorta wish the women would stop talking so I can figure out what keeps bringing my attention to the painting, but the artist is relating her studies, career development, and passage to healing.

I have been to many psych conferences where a professional presents a patient.  They have been, without exception, condescending, patronizing and extremely embarrassing.  (See the sick-o?  See how well she’s learned to perform?  See how much progress she’s made?)  What I am witnessing here is two women with unique talents describing a collaborative journey out of institutional madness—one as a care provider, the other as a care recipient.

They are both healing nicely, thank you. 

The care provider puts up a slide that lists some of the necessary qualities of healing and it includes “refuge”—a walk in the park, gardening—and creativity.  I realize that my recent post, “Happiness is . . .” (https://behindthelockeddoors.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/happiness-is-2/ ) could just as correctly have been called “Healing is . . .” but I have missed two things.

First is establishing your foundation in the natural world.  We are animals; we are not vegetables or minerals.  One thing that is essential to healing and/or happiness is returning to our fundamental relationship with nature.  In the same way that a child is reassured and reoriented by cuddling against a parent’s chest and hearing the parent’s heartbeat, so we are reassured and reoriented by hearing the life-throb of Mother Nature.  Go hiking; sit under the stars at night; take up bird watching or learn cloud formations.  For me, I gardened; I called it “worm therapy” as I got down on my knees and worked the soil.  Going to the mall is only going to make you crazier; going home to the land is healing.

Second is creativity.  How could I have missed it?  Creativity was so fundamental to my wellness that I didn’t even notice.  I have been a writer for half a century.  In the first year after I stopped taking drugs, my mantra was “a thousand words before breakfast.”  I would wake in the darkness, pull up my laptop and begin to write.  It is in our creativity that we unite our mind and spirit.  We gather all our perceptions and experiences of the world and integrate them within our selves.  Values and philosophy, hope and passion, relationships and independence—all are called into play when one creates.  Whether it is painting or writing, singing or dancing, or any other thing, creativity is the integrating function that says “I am—and I alone am this, or this, or this.”  Creativity is the force that establishes a singular identity.

I leave the workshop room and go to the bookstore and buy their book, “Committed to the Sane Asylum,” then I wheel into Psychotherapy and Medication for Military Stress:  Maj. Maria Kimble, MSW, LCSW.”  (To be continued)

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About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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