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?

10 thoughts on “How Do We Understand This Experience?

  1. Wow. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Re-framing what I have as gift in the context of the culture I live in is nigh to impossible, but it’s interesting to think about.

    Thanks for stretching my brain.

  2. thanks for the comment. i’m glad you found it interesting. i agree that it doesn’t make it possible to suddenly be free from the context of the culture, but it’s helped me a lot to remind myself the extent to which definitions and perceptions of mental illness are socially constructed, rather than foregone conclusions. it’s a good reminder that the negative conceptions of people with mental disabilities aren’t inherently true.

    thanks for reading and thinking about this!

  3. I have Major Depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (which I believe my doctors only validated by assigning names to them– but I’ll get to that in a minute). I have had panic attacks as part of the OCD, and although that isn’t the same as the kind of ‘hypomania’ the author describes here, I still think it allows me to speak about my personal experiences with anxiety as well as OCD and MD. It does not, however, give me carte blanche to speak about other people’s anxiety, OCD, and MD– let alone ALL mental health issues– from an experiential perspective. Unfortunately (and ironically), this is what the author seems to be doing. It’s a weird paradox she sets up: telling people that their mental health issues can be experienced subjectively without considering that she has not experienced those issues herself. It’s one thing to believe your own experience of anxiety is subjective, and I am respecting the author’s description of her anxiety as such. However, it’s insulting to say that we should be able to apply this philosophy across the board. In fact, it’s damaging to the progress that the psychologically disabled* have made in our society. (*I realize this is not everyone’s choice descriptor; I’m using it as shorthand instead of writing out aneurotypical, people w/ mental health issues, etc.)

    Like many people w/ psychological disabilities, the biggest problem that I have had with society (-at-large as well as individual people) is being told that my disabilities are not REAL. You know, the whole ‘it sounds like you just aren’t trying hard enough to be happy/ why should you receive academic accomodations for laziness?/ etc’ kind of bullshit. And this is AFTER all the progress we’ve made even in the last few decades in terms of having our disorders considered to be medical– considered to be OBJECTIVE. There’s been so much progress made just in the last few decades in getting the world to acknowledge that psych issues are REAL– are OBJECTIVELY existing issues. If the author believes hers to be subjective, or if the woman who told the ghost story believes hers to be subjective– whatever. Fine. Really! But do not tell me that my experiences with anxiety and mental illness in general are subjective when you do. not. know. what. I. have. experienced.

    I’m not so naive as to think that every human psyche can be disentangled to the point where we can accurately identify what behaviors, thoughts, and emotions are pathological and which are simply part of someone’s unique personality. It varies form person to person, and PERSONALLY, I can attest that some of my own behaviors, thoughts, and emotions are pathological, i.e. the obsessive counting, the thoughts that drive it and the emotions it conjures up. Similarly, I can also attest that some of behaviors, thoughts, and emotions are part of my personality, i.e. being fastidious, thinking about how I can improve things, being very upset with failure. Even I don’t know which of those are influenced by the pathological, and it doesn’t matter, because it’s who I am whatever the influence. So I work to accept who I am and root out the pathologies that– though related to who I am– actually stop me from being that person.

    My pathology is real and objective, just like a tumor or a broken bone. It is THERE, and it is not an illusion or a ghost. I don’t know about you, and I won’t speak for you, so please do not speak for me.

  4. You know, after re-reading this, part of me wants to ask why believing your anxiety is possession by ghosts is any more valid than believing your cancer is caused by an angry God or an imbalance of the humors. I mean, it’s one thing if for you, anxiety (or cancer) is an interesting or holy or even positive experience. It’s quite another to claim its origin is in something that has repeatedly been proven to be false. The origin is where you logically have to be objective.

    I think the author agrees with this distinction but didn’t make it particularly clear.

    I’m done writing my novel now, I swear!

  5. thanks for this response. for the record, comments on this site are approved by the authors of each post, so you can speak directly to me instead of conjecturing about the author and things she said. 🙂 i also think we may be having a bit of trouble with definitions of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ – i believe that personal experiences are always subjective, because they’re experienced by an individual person through the lens of their perception. if my hands are always shaky because of a med side effect, i am not going to notice my shakiness during a panic attack because it’s always there for me, so my subjective experience of the attack does not include shakiness. so i’m using subjective to mean ‘from the personal perspective of the person having the experience.’ a psychiatrist or psychologist may objectively verify that you have panic attacks, but can’t objectively verify how you feel during them because you are the only one who feels them. objective measurement would be something like a lab test that showed that i had high white blood cell counts, in my usage.

    i think i must not have been sufficiently clear in the initial post, so thanks for prompting me to clarify. people experience what they experience and the only person who can speak to those experiences and how they felt or feel, how they affected and continue to effect the person is the person themselves. i would never presume to tell anyone that his or her experiences weren’t valid or weren’t what they experienced. i have absolutely no desire to feel you or anyone else that you do not experience what you experience and will always defer to your description of that experience. i also think that the person themself is the most appropriate person to determine what treatment or accommodations they require from society at large and the specific institutions with which they interact.

    what i want to urge you to look at is how many of those problems you’ve had with society – which i’ve had also, and i believe a lot of people with mental disabilities have had – are caused by the societal interpretation of those experiences, rather than your personal experiences. society is what’s telling you that your experiences aren’t objectively verifiable or aren’t important enough to require modifications of rules or procedures. if we lived in a society that believed panic attacks were a sign of extreme intelligence and talent, people would be very excited to learn that i’d had a panic attack and would likely give me any accommodations i required because i’d be a person considered worthy of high respect. it’s that societal reaction to the underlying experience that i see as somewhat arbitrary, influenced much more my the societal values in general than the actual experience had by the individual.

    i also think it’s important to respect the tools and frameworks within which people choose to understand and address their experiences. i am an avowed and fervent athiest, but one of my friends who has both anxiety and depression disorders has committed herself to a fundamentalist church as a way to feel better and finds participation in the church to have been immensely helpful for her. i’m certainly not going to tell her that she should stop going and stop getting that support and assistance because there is no god, which i consider to be a fundamental truth. similarly, i’m not going to tell you that you should conceive of your anxiety as ghostly possession if you don’t find that helpful to understanding and managing your symptoms – but i’m surely not going to tell that woman that she should NOT think of her anxiety that way when that allows her to think of it as a difficult experience but an honorable one that connects her to her grandmother, her tribe, and her heritage as a woman of power.

    basically, i think everyone has the right to decide how to understand their own experiences. like you, i’m strongly tied to the western medical model and believe that faulty neurotransmitter connections are likely at the root of all this. but that medical model is far from complete (anyone know the biological mechanism by which lithium helps treat bipolar?). also, i find it enormously helpful to remember that the societal assumption that people with mental health problems can just get over them and don’t need accommodations in institutional structures is an artifact of our culture, not an inherent consequence of the underlying disorder itself.

    to sum up: people should be considered the experts on their own experiences, but societal framings of and reactions to those experiences are not inherently correct and likely say more about the society than the disorder or the person who is disabled.

  6. I’ve been chronically depressed for years now, and back when I was in my late teens – early twenties, I had regular suicidal thoughts. I now describe that period as being under siege by a salesdemon for suicide, and I could understand how people in earlier ages would attribute mental illness to possession by demons. For me, the suicidal thoughts took the form of a little voice in my mind reminding me in answer to any question I thought of (“Will I have jam or Vegemite on my toast?” “What will I do with my life?”) that killing myself was always an option.

    In the end, I wound up personifying my “salesdemon” – he looks a bit like a cross between a very earnest young Mormon missionary and a vaccuum cleaner salesperson (blond curly hair, eager, puppylike disposition, and a suit which was about two sizes too large. His name is Charlie). This made him easier to ignore, strangely enough, and he stopped bothering me after a while. (I like to think I may have cost him a promotion.)

    Part of me knows it’s all neurotransmitters and chemicals in the brain. But then again, so is sight, hearing and everything else which makes up the complexity of life. So I’ll keep thinking of Charlie trying for his commission when I get those little thoughts which say “don’t forget, you could always kill yourself” in the middle of things now and then, since it’s easier to just tell Charlie I’m not interested than it is to try and decode all the complex thought patterns which got me to where I am.

  7. what a great story! thanks for sharing it – i really like that way of thinking of it. i could instantly picture charlie – i think i’ve got someone from his team working in my neighborhood..

  8. This reminded me of an interview I once saw as part of a documentary of sexuality.
    The person interviewed was a you man who had grown up in foster care. He had experienced a lot of pain in the process of realizing that he was homosexual and coming out to his family and the people around him and because of that, had comt to view his sexual orientation as something that was bad for him, as it was causing so much pain.

    And then, in the process of wanting to learn more about his heritage, he met people from the tribe of Natives that his parents had been part of. And one of the things he learned there was that the tribe considered homosexuality as something special that should be honoured, because the people who were homosexual were special in that they had two souls- one male and one female- in one body.

    He described this as a truly mind-blowing experience. Suddenly, there were people who regarded him not as less but as more. And it completely changed the way he viewed himself, because he realized that so much of the misery he ascribed to being homosexual was really caused not by his being gay, but by living in a culture where gay people were treated so badly.

    I think this was a very thought provoking interview, and one of the core messages I took away from it applies to almost all forms of oppression and exclusion. It is very important to always ask ourselves: Is this a problem I have that is inherent to the way I am diffrent from the so-called “norm”, or is it a problem I have because people are treating me badly for not confirming to that norm? And if the second is true, then it is really society that has a problem and needs to change, not me.

  9. I normally have a great fondness for Torchwood, but that episode was really triggering. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who thought the way they were treated was awful.

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