The Healing Voices documentary is a bold collaborative effort to recreate the public perception of people who hear voices or experience altered states. At a private viewing, amid a room of like-minded individuals there is cause for all of us to rejoice. We all sit engaged, excited, and proud as concepts and materials that we all work to share with others on a daily basis surround us booming through the theater. There is laughter, an occasion whoop or coyote cay-cay-cay. The past fifteen years of my recovery and efforts to share my developing health to others flash before my eyes.
The movie tracks three individuals: 1) a well-known leader in the movement and co-producer, Oryx; 2) a peer support leader from a small town setting who is a Mom, Jen; and 3) a youthful and creative outsider from a setting that never becomes clear to me, Dan. As this develops, I start to see three levels of exploration honored.
First, Oryx represents the movement leadership and has connection to all the expert philosophers who are interviewed to back up an alternate way to manage and treat these wide collection of experiences. Robert Whitaker, Bruce Levine, Will Hall, Marcus Romme are interviewed. A clear vision of the indubitable damage that the illness medical model has done, the senseless demand that society imposes that all signs of illness are suppressed and manner in which the western world has over emphasized psychiatric medications. Oryx details his journey with altered states at a safe distance and how it motivated him to found the Freedom Center with Will Hall. There are European cameos of people from the hearing voices movement who I recognize like Rufus May, Jacki Dillion and Rachael Waddington.
Jen’s experience with voices and her daily struggles are reviewed first with her family and then through the eyes of Oryx who comes out to support her after a crisis she experienced at a national conference. The value of peer support is established for Jen before we learn that she herself is an effective and trendsetting peer counselor. Later on we learn that she used to be a world class runner as she dignifies through endearing cigarette smoke the way peer support is clearly a step up from standard clinical therapeutics. I am moved as this is something that I believe in strongly and that has caused me to alter my own career path and personal efforts significantly. Jen wins a national award during the movie and makes so many powerful original comments about peer support
The bravest and closest account of the inner workings of “psychosis” is given by youthful Dan who has clearly been engaged in his alternative world long enough to have significant coping skills: he has healed to the point where he is able to share his world with the camera. He is at times brilliant with his humor and clearly a trend setter. Dan is less established in the adult world and his struggles from an early age are documented with the help of his mother at some point who is self-reflective enough to acknowledge ways she been helpful and ways she hasn’t. There is a clear subtext about how brave Dan has to be as a bi-racial, gay, and voice hearing outsider to reach out and make important peer connections. Dan is the only of the three who defines the characters behind the voices he hears and it is a clear cinematic achievement to have this documented.
The movie tracks Oryx, Jen and Dan for five years. During this time, surprisingly the leader, Oryx, goes through a traumatic crisis period and the film documents the failed efforts of all his supporters to help him avoid hospitalization and forced medication treatment. While the details of his experience are somewhat concealed, his supports don’t work and after a cross-the-states caper and after a few weeks he is admitted into the worst of the worst in terms of hospitals. The movie catches up with him as he is safely moved to a peer respite and reflects on his experience in the filthy mental institution. He makes beautiful meaning of the crisis and grows exponentially in spite of the social violence he experienced.
Once the film is over I find that sense of yip yip joy and connection that I started out with starts to wane. I notice that I am extremely tired as it is already past my bedtime. I have had a stressful work day. These days the splits in our staff that are based on a differing takes on the medical model, prestige, class and racial divides. They, once again, seem to be amplifying. Not only do I need to survive them, I need to help an intern who is not taking well to them gain a rich learning experience. It had been nice to put those escalating daily wars away for a while and to focus on something more positive.
There is a community discussion that is to ensue. I sit in the far corner feeling forever on the outside. Though there were small points during the movie when I felt pain pangs, now as the discussion ensues, these feelings hit me like a sledge.
Writing a memoir about all the details of my two and a half year experiences with Madness helped me learn and heal astronomically as I am sure the work on this documentary has done for all of those involved. Reviewing the intricate details helped me grow, and also helped me with the work I do in the secreted dingy recesses of the hospital where I have regularly engaged people to tell their story through sharing details of my own. When I started doing this eight years ago, it was twice a week through group therapy that I lead; now, it is five days a week both in and outside the community that I work for.
Feeling that odd egotistical pain that isolation and lack of acknowledgment can bring, I notice that I am criticizing these vulnerable feelings. I take some minutes to reflect. I come to a realization that I don’t have anybody who has supported me through all my efforts in the theater to share the good cheer with. It is eight pm and most of my supporters are confined in their board and cares, unable to move freely in the community for fear of stray bullets, harassment, or breaking curfew. I think about how one or two people in the crowd may have cut me down on occasions as I have tried to gain acceptance locally. I still rely on medication and work with people who are institutionalized and perhaps these are reasons for my sense of exclusion from the movement’s local leaders. I reflect on how some of the faces I saw on the screen had not been able to review my book or accept blogs about my work on their website. I think of the good reviews I have received, the award short-list I made, the many reviews and awards that are still pending, and the fact that I still haven’t sold any books on Amazon.
As the party is forced to disperse due to time allotment, I hear my name called as I stand. A face that I barely recognize greets me. She looks different to me because she is not wearing her Fidel Castro hat. She is an intern who befriended me after I did a presentation on my group for the students at the Grand Rounds of the company I work for. The presentation was about my work with the groups that explore details of “psychosis.” She identified herself as a comrade and some email contact ensued.
So I now have someone to talk with as we exit the theater. The two of us catch up regarding our activities. She, who is studying for her psychology license, is close to making it through and appears to have scraped her way through without any fanfare, much as I did. I give her details about my memoir and she is excited to read it and insists on paying for it. She departs to get back to her dog who is in her apartment and I stand and face a crowd that I am admittedly intimidated by.
Up in the theater, I had spoken a little while I was seeped in pain. I tried to be authentic and had spoken very poorly. I had referenced the people I work with and how I long to make them part of this experience. I had alluded to the power of the work they do sharing stories about their experiences and how intimidating it can be for them to cross that bridge and enter the movement. I had also noted my own struggles to do this.
I think of Oryx’s courage as he publically made meaning of his crisis in a humble way as I unsuccessfully make efforts to mingle with members of the movement who appear to be in the place I was at the start of the show.
I don’t know if it is my pain which may be received as bad energy that prevents me from such social efforts or real overt reactions to my upstairs comments. I think I had essentially highlighted class issues that exist in the movement. That is not a pretty issue to bring up. I struggle to get included in many conversations. This has been common for me. In work groups others have acknowledged that I have not always been included. One person who doesn’t know me comes over and gives me a chance, which I appreciate. I also get a hug from an elder man one I have imagined has hurt me in the past. He now says he will make a point of getting to my book. The hug is mutually gentle and redemptive. I make a point of saying to a colleague that I want to support a local viewing so many more can experience this film.
After a five minute period when I am unable to talk to anyone, I slip away from the crowd. I am reminded of my college experiences. I never attended a single party. As an acculturated ghetto talking anorexic boy from a suburb I had a lot of nicknames: Where’s Waldo, from the traffic at the crack house across the street; Clyde Dog, from my co-workers at the Korean mobster deli where I worked for three years; Vanilla Ice, from the local YMCA campers and co-workers, and Slim Pickings, from the red-blooded Viet Nam vets I worked with at a carpenters local. The only other student who really saw me was an older “bipolar” gangster in recovery from drugs and alcohol, who I amused. I made more social efforts in grad school, but there had been all that left over social awkwardness.
Oryx, Jen and Dan’s tale has helped me see a largely neglected part of my own recovery. I still have not overcome that sense of otherness. I am divided from the people who I see as my brothers because of clinical boundaries and because of their poverty. I am divided by people in the movement because I have not been able to overcome my social awkwardness and have largely neglected the conference circuit due to financial limitations and family and work obligations. At the same time as the movie emphasizes the importance of peer support, I am re-energized to try.
A part of me still wants to show the movement that dirty environments are not all bad. Sometimes magic can happen there. It was the barely heated State Hospital Chronic ward that both appalled and taught me contain my experiences to the extent where I was able to keep a job. It was the journey I went through that helped me be better off than I was before I had a psychotic break.
At the same time, I recall how I was so scared of homelessness and shelters, I demonized them in my mind and they ended up in my nightmares. I am reminded that people I have helped, who have survived them balance trying to dignify the experience as they depict their horrors. In a sense, I recognize that I am merely feeling called upon to do the same. So many of us who have been mired in institutions or isolated by a history of ghetto circumstances have a hard time crossing that bridge into the movement. Indeed, I have advantages that enable me to cross that bridge, I need to do that.
I am grateful to Oryx, Jen, Dan, director PJ Moynihan, and many others for their work. Viewing their world class and groundbreaking work is helping motivate me to cross yet another bridge and I believe it can help others do the same. Their work is a true achievement that can help us unify if we all work together.