How Do We Understand This Experience?
This the story of the first time I really understood the degree to which intersectionality was key to understanding and addressing mental health issues.
When I was first diagnosed and the subsequent years when we all tried to figure out what was really wrong with me and what medications would allow me to function without too many problems, I had a lot of problems with anxiety. Or hypomania, or mixed state, or whatever people want to call it. But back then I had absolute faith in the power of the DSM-IV, and the medical professionals for which my parents were paying big bucks, to analyze my illness, assign it to a category, and know exactly the protocol to treat me. So back then, I thought of the episodes I was experiencing as panic attacks.
They felt like sheer terror, like my heart was pounding so hard I could feel it through my whole body, like my hands were a blur of shaking, like my muscles were pulled tight beyond their limit. I couldn’t make myself breathe right, taking a short gasp each time my heart thudded. But it was even worse inside my head, where a giant storm raged and kept me from thinking even a full thought because I was so overwhelmed with the thunder of certain and unavoidable bad! harm! doom! destruction! And after ten or fifteen minutes, the storm seemed to pass, and I could take deeper breaths, but felt battered and sore. They were awful and I hated them and resented them for appearing out of nowhere. I was ashamed that I could be so affected by whatever it was that set one off, if that could even be identified. I felt like I had no power to affect them.
Years later, when I no longer carried a bottle of tranquilizers with me just in case I had an attack, I went to a week long training up in the mountains with people from all across California. We were all young professionals with lots of degrees and post-grad degrees from US institutions. One night, I sat with some of the other women at the edge of the forest, in the kind of pitch dark you don’t get very often in California, with all our lights. It was super quiet, with no cars around for miles, and you could hear rustling of animals in the trees. Frankly, it was a little scary, so we of course decided to tell ghost stories.
One of the women told us a story about a road near her house in rural California. She said there was a section of the road where a bad car accident had taken place in the past that when you drove through, you could feel it was haunted. She told us how people from the surrounding area would drive by it to try to see the ghosts. I’m a complete skeptic about anything remotely paranormal or extraterrestrial or psychic, so I wasn’t making much of the story, and neither were some of the other women. But the woman explained that while the people who came to the spot were silly and would never get anything out of it and were wasting their time, she said she was certain that there were ghosts there.
She told us that her grandmother was from one of the indigenous tribes of Mexico and had been considered a holy woman because she could be possessed by ghosts. Her grandmother would be possessed for short episodes, around ten to fifteen minutes, and during the possession she would breathe quickly and her muscles would shake and she felt overcome by fear and evil. And the woman had inherited some of this ability through her grandmother’s bloodline and had similar episodes sometimes. She described the possession in detail and it was if she was reading my psychiatrist’s notes on my experience of a panic attack. Exactly the same – it felt like we had experienced the same thing.
I still remember the feeling I got then, when I realized that what I called a panic attack and thought of as a mental health problem to be treated with medication, she experienced as a ghostly possession and thought of as a valuable ability and a tie to her grandmother. And that neither of those definitions or perspectives or frameworks was any more valid. It was like one of the optical illusions where suddenly what I’d been seeing as a vase was also two faces in profile. That there were two realities that had been co-existing this whole time and I’d just now noticed one of them was there.
I was, and am, still overwhelmed with the implications of that realization. How would a person with her framework interact with a mental health system with the DSM categories and staggering range of medications? What would happen if she described an episode of possession to a physician or psychiatrist? And what would the difference be if I could think of it as a valuable ability instead of a debilitating problem with my brain? Would I even want or get any treatment if that were my perspective? What if my culture valued me for this? How does she handle the prevalent skepticism to ghosts and such? So many things to consider.
And then there’s the remaining question: how many other realities are there? How many other perspectives are on this experience we’ve had? How else can I think about what I experience?