Mental Illness in the Psychedelic Generation

Being in foster care from the age of 12 through 18 there are no photos that exist of me during that time. I lived in so many different foster homes that we never had the chance to make attachments much less take photos, and of course, back then there were no cell phones to capture every move we made. I do know that if a picture had been taken of me, in contrast to my daughter's photo here, it would show the face of a dark and foreboding young girl filled with angst, sadness and despair. It would be a picture of hopelessness, whereas this picture of my daughter taken on a mission trip to Haiti with our church, is one of hope.

The reason I mention this is that I am always amazed by the fact that, in my opinion, God, chose to spare our daughter the ravages of my disorder. She has always been able to love and be loved unconditionally. Her light and joy for others has always shown brightly. I use this picture as proof.

Growing up in the 60s and 70s with mental illness is such a contrast to how things are today for those who suffer. There is a certain nostalgia for the simplicity of the era I grew up in back then. There is also a very stark contrast to what was available in terms of dealing with the topics of domestic violence, mental illness, rape and incest. During my growing up years, not only were these topics shoved under the carpet; rarely were they ever discussed.

Let's delve back even further, as to how people with mental illness were treated prior to my generation. For much of history, the mentally ill were treated very poorly. It was believed that mental illness was caused by demonic possession, or even witchcraft. The most common treatment therefore was to perform an exorcism, conducted by a religious figure or in the case of witchcraft, burn the person alive.

Another form of treatment for extreme cases of mental illness was trephining (a small hole was made in the skull of the mentally ill person to release spirits from the body). Most people treated in this manner died. In addition to exorcism and trephining, other practices involved execution or imprisonment of people with psychological disorders. Still others were left homeless, living out their lives on the street and begging for food and shelter.

A look back reveals that people who exhibited strange behaviors were greatly misunderstood and treated cruelly. How many of the mentally ill were locked away and or institutionalized for their disorders, never to receive any real help or treatment.

Like my father who suffered from mental illness, I began exhibiting symptoms as far back as five years old. In those days, people with mental illness would hide their symptoms because they weren’t something you discussed in ‘polite’ society. If you couldn’t hide or disguise your symptoms, the solution was to simply lock the person away in an institution. Mental illness was considered rare and those with mental health problems were often given labels that today would be considered inappropriate or constitute bullying.

To call a child with Autism a retard today is unthinkable. Back then, that was common. Anyone with any sort of mental defect was considered undesirable and labeled. It is no wonder people hid their mental health problems under the guises of bad behavior, being mean, being a drunk, or many other actions.  It was simply easier for people to deal with back then. In today's society, my father, an abuser, would have been taken and incarcerated. My brother and I would have probably ended up in the foster care system anyway, however we would have been protected, sheltered and counseling would have been provided for us.

When I was 12 years old, I went to the police to tell of my father’s physical and sexual abuse with his kids. I remember the police officer saying to me “this is a personal family matter and must be taken care of at home”. Their solution was to deliver me back to my parents regardless of the turmoil and upheaval I had just caused by divulging the secrets of our family.  Of course, no charges were ever pressed by my mother against my father, in an effort to save him public embarrassment or needing to admit what was happening in the household, as her way of dealing with the situation was to pretend it didn’t happen and drown her sorrows in alcohol.

The result was that my brother as shipped off to an all-boys boarding school in New England while my parents gave up custody of me to the state of New York. The first place they sent me to was a Juvenile Delinquent Facility as there were no foster homes available at the time. I arrived in handcuffs and ankle shackles, like a criminal, in police transport and was put in a jail cell. My clothes and personal possessions were taken and I was given a uniform, my hair was tied back and I was locked in a prison cell at night to sleep.

I was witness to my father having a nervous breakdown prior to my being taken into custody. After the police left our house, my father sat in his office chair laughing chaotically, maniacally and crying at the same time. It was terrifying to watch. After all his years that he had been free to abuse  his piano students at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, at churches and anywhere he could find a victim. He was finally outed. It was over and he knew it! I remained at the Juvenile facility until by the grace of God, a family at my school applied to become foster parents and showed up at my court hearing to take custody of me. My mother also showed at the court date and had the opportunity to take me back at which point she signed papers to permanently give up custody of me. I remember spitting in her face since my reward for protecting me and my brother from our assaulter was to be thrown away like trash.

During the time that I lived in the foster care system of the state of New York, we did not have any psychiatric counseling available to us. Instead, we were sent to the doctor and put on birth control pills immediately. No choice in the matter. I don't ever remember going to a doctor again between the ages of 12 and 18. Nor did I ever go to a dentist. We each had a truant officer, not a counselor, who would come and check up on us periodically. For approximately 10 minutes, they would ask us how we were doing and if we were happy where we were. I remember having to clean and make everything ready for the visit from the truancy officers. It was very important to have everything ‘looking’ as normal as possible when they arrived.

My father eventually ended up in a nursing home facility with Alzheimer's and died there alone. My mother moved to New England and our paths did not cross again until after I was emancipated, out of custody of the state of New York at the age of 18. I saved up some money and found her when I was 19.To this day, my mother insists she had absolutely no awareness of the situation. Still unable to face her demons, she still claims I was lying and made it all up in my head. The years of drinking and severe alcoholism she used to hide what she knew was going on right under her nose have managed to remove all reality of the situation from her memory, the rest of it she just blacked out or disassociated so she has achieved her goal in not having to face things. It is very sad that Society in general was shrouded in silence back then so that these matters were so often never dealt with.

There was no Dr. Phil, no Oprah, no self-help books, even if we could get our hands on them. Of course, there were no cell phones or other form of communication such as laptops, or computers either. Our only option was going to a library and attempting to read thick technical books where even a medical professional would have a difficult time understanding. It would be like reading the through pages of scientific text or reading about it in an encyclopedia. Not that there was much known back then. This meant we were left figuring it out to our own devices and imagination as to what the heck was going on in our heads from any trauma we had experienced prior to being placed in foster care.

We may not have had therapy available, but what we did have was Motown, Disco, psychedelic music, a lot of weed, acid, cigarettes, alcohol and tons of sex. Those were our go to methodologies for coping with the situations we endured. We didn't even really talk about what we were going through or try to figure it out, self-medicating with these options and just trying to exist day to day was the very best we had.

Today, I volunteer at NAMI and I see the younger generation come to the meetings. They’ve usually had their first experience with a mental breakdown, and received their diagnosis such as Bipolar or BPD. They have just come out of a healthcare facility where they have been fed and cared for, given numerous medications, counseling around the clock and facing concerned parents. Today they can Google their symptoms and find books and articles with regard to what they are going through. At NAMI, a free and helpful source is provided to them to learn how to cope with their new diagnosis. They are given paid time off from work to get help and they are welcomed back to their job. If incest or abuse was involved, the perpetrator is typically charged. There is no tolerance in our society today for those who molest and abuse little children. Let alone their own child. If an abuser is thrown in jail, the other inmates will gang up on them and torture them in like kind. Pedophiles are scorned and shamed. Even in a workplace environment where a woman is winked at for having nice legs and wearing a short skirt, there is recourse to be had. The news is plastered 24/7 of perpetrators against women. Currently a whole movement now exists primarily to take these men down. It's called “Me too” and women often display it on their Facebook pages and other social media as to the fact that they have been abused or molested by someone who took advantage.

I find it almost comical to think of how on God's green earth we ever survived living through these things in the sixties and seventies. I understood and was extremely cognizant of the horrendous treatment of people of color back then. I was a child of Martin Luther King and JFK. I remember the rioting and the movements that sprung up every other day it seemed. I recall the assassinations. Those who were victimized banded together to fight the injustice that was forced on them. They had a voice and they used it.

What I don't remember is the mentally ill. We fell through the cracks. No system existed for our benefit back then. I don't even want to think or imagine the horrors of those with mental illness who were locked away in institutions or who suffered electric shock therapy to get them to think differently by killing their brain cells or medicated them beyond recognition, sometimes never to be seen again by family. They were considered misfits and freaks back then, abandoned by their families and Society.

There was much shame and embarrassment of having a “different” child. I remember the classes for the mentally challenged; we called them retards back then. They had to stay in a separate part of the school and use different bathrooms and water fountains than we did. We used to believe they had cooties and we could catch what they had if we drank from the same fountain. This behavior I've described that existed back then would never be tolerated today.

If I had available in my teens, 20s and 30s what is available now to those with mental illness I might have been able to surpass so much pain and turmoil in my life. Even if I had the desire to conquer and develop beyond my symptoms back in those days, it never could have happened, due to the fact that there were no tools or programs available. My true healing and progression to wellness did not start until my 40s. In the meantime, I was forced to look back at the years of struggle and Hell I endured and then brought to my husband and family in to share with me.

It wouldn't be until my forties that I diagnosed myself online at 2 a.m. in the morning after tons of research trying to figure out what it was that my symptoms displayed. That is how I found out I had Borderline Personality Disorder. Before that time, I had only been treated for “depression”. I went on and off Prozac a few times and there was no Dialectical Behavioral Therapy or Cognitive Therapy back then. I went to talk therapy, but it barely scraped the edge of what I was dealing with. I didn't realize the extent of my disorder. The fact of the matter is that, had I realized, I would have known my limitations.

When I look back, at each thing I tried to lay my hand to accomplish, without the proper foundation of therapy and psychiatric care for what I was dealing with mentally and not realizing the severity of the symptoms I was up against, I was destined for failure. I wish now that somebody had got in my face and yelled at me that I had BPD and this was not going to happen until I was able to get help and make some major changes. However, I didn't even know I had Borderline Personality Disorder.

I want to speak to those of you that are starting your journey with a diagnosis of BPD, Bipolar, Panic Anxiety Disorder and such in the year 2018. I am prompted to share with you that you are in some ways very lucky. Lucky, that you are diagnosed in a time and season where you have medical treatments and options at your fingertips that never existed when I was your age. You have the ability to read on the internet, interact, and reach out to others who are suffering from the same disorder. There are thousands of avenues available to you to avail yourself of in your path to wellness. If you are reading this and you do not get the point of all that is out there for the taking in your journey, then there is nothing to be said. Please understand that today there exists every opportunity for you to get better. Yes, there is still stigmatism and yes, we are still fighting to have our voices heard. Nevertheless, at least we have a voice.

Please consider stopping the FML postings and choose to get out of bed and make use by taking advantage of all there is for you today to get better. Consider Dialectical Behavioral Training classes, consider reading and learning about your diagnosis, consider joining in on websites and postings from people like me that have walked this walk and have much to share with you about what you're going through. Get in touch with NAMI; it is such a wonderful resource that we have available for free.

In the time since I have come out with my story of mental illness, I have met so many of you in your twenties who are jobless, living out of your vehicle, who have cut yourself off from your families and are self-medicating with recreational drugs and alcohol. I just want to scream and jump up and down shouting, “stop the pity party” and understand that you are living in an age of opportunity that includes so many treatment options for you. It includes throwing the law at the perpetrator of your domestic violence or sexual abuser if you had one. It includes protection for you and resources my generation never had. If you don't take advantage of all there is today, then you have nothing to say when you are 50 yrs old, your journey to wellness is not full or complete, and your symptoms are a slight memory in the blip of your life.

I'm sorry if I sound angry or frustrated. I'm sorry if I I'm not speaking with sympathy and empathy in this blog. What I am expressing is that I want to encourage you to take just 24 hours, research, and educate yourself as to what is available to you to better yourself in your mental health journey to wellness.

I pray we'll take hold of it.

 With you on the journey, Alice

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