In November, I had the privilege of caring for my daughter while she went through a psychotic episode.
It’s taken me a long time to be able to imagine using such a word as “privilege” to describe my relationship to my daughter’s struggles, and to my own struggles and pain as her mother through this.
For the last six years, her mental health journey has been a source of sadness, confusion, guilt, powerlessness, overwhelm and deep, deep grief.
Then, about six weeks ago, her illness reached a new level, signified by a “new diagnosis.”
This new diagnosis was unconscionable to me. I decided to reject this diagnosis completely, both as a moral stand, and as a mechanism of pure survival for myself—and well, possibly for my daughter. Instead, I saw this as a powerful opportunity to step in to my belief system:
"Injuries, illnesses and struggles are always manifestations from the Essential Self, the part of us that is timeless and infinite. They arise as signposts, seeking our attention to bring us back to our Essence and the path of our Destiny.”
In other words, I believed that this “illness” was actually an expression of her Health. I wrote in my journal:
“I believe, I know, under this, my daughter is HEALTHY."
I, together with the support of an incredible group of highly-skilled therapists*, decided to take care of my daughter at home, and to relate to the psychosis Biodynamically: that is, as an expression of health. Roan’s health was trying to contend with something, and psychosis was the safest and most efficient way to do it. For me, as the primary care giver, I was given the gift of a graduate degree in healing: holding space for discomfort, pain, confusion, and deep dIsregulation—for my own child, without trying to fix it, stop it, change it, but while continually relating to the the through-line of her health, and stepping in to support that health wherever and however it appeared. In order to hold space for this, I had to just try to track what is, moment-to-moment.
To be sure, this was excruciating at times. And exquisite. When you track moment-to-moment, you begin to see many many moments of pure, unadulterated health. I got to be present for all the clear-health moments: the return of her personality, islands of calm and peace, her gratitude, her relationally, her sanity. I was witness to these “islands of clarity”, and because I —and our support circle—were witness to these subtleties, and could hold the discomfort and uncertainty of her state without rushing to medicate or label, those islands became bigger and more expansive, until they began to connect, forming a firmament to which my daughter returned, as her Self.
Having this experience has brought me to a whole new understanding of health and healing. To be with psychosis, is to be on a terrifying, and yet profound precipice of being human. This journey of saying “enough!” to medications, diagnoses, and the medical-model of psychiatric care, has opened up the world of sane, heart-centered, humane approaches (there are many!) of caring for those in psychotic pain. And the wisdom of these approaches relies on principals that are—not surprisingly--universal to healing and health.
There is one principal, that for me, that “rules them all”—and is the guiding principal of all the work that I do, wish to do and offer in this life.
In the incredible book, Recovering Sanity, author Edward M. Povall quotes journalist E. Thelmar, who experienced her own deep psychosis, and who formed a powerful theory about what “she labeled as the ‘moment of recovery’”:
From her point of view, losing one’s mind is a terrible mind-body desynchronization. The consciousness of self becomes separated from the physical body. and the physical body is separated from the “etheric” body. . . She says that this can happen by degrees: “The trouble in madness is that a separation has taken place between two ‘sheaths’ (the physical and the etheric) which should never be separated during the lifetime of the physical body; and which cannot be separated partially, without causing serious physical injury, or completely, without causing the death of the physical body.” [my emphasis]
From all such accounts, a general rule of recovery could safely be stated: Anything that promotes body and mind synchronization will further the appearance of islands of clarity and anything that induces or accentuates body and mind separation can become a fatal obstacle to recovery.” (236-7)
There is a word that expresses this concept of mind-body synchronization: embodiment.
When I teach qigong, yoga or Sacred Daoist Sexuality, I am teaching this synchronization. When I work Biodynamically, I am tracking this synchronization. I teach and track this by tuning in to the state of the nervous system, listening to the words a client speaks, observing the breath and flow of movement, and tracking the energetic tide-like movement that permeates all levels of the body (energetic, etheric, emotional, spiritual, etc). A simple, yet incredibly powerful therapeutic tool is to ask the client to be aware of sensations in the body, particularly those that arise in relationship to feelings, stories, or phenomena that are hard to even articulate. I am helping them to stitch themselves and their bodies back together into a cohesive, embodied, healthy whole.
When I work with infants, one of my tasks is to observe how embodied a baby is. They have just arrived here from the Other World and they often still occupy a liminal space between, or move back and forth. Sometimes they are quite reluctant to come in all the way (who can blame them?). And yet, it is their task, and our tasks, to become fully embodied.
Lack of full embodiment is almost always a response to a trauma. It doesn’t feel safe to be fully present, and so—we aren’t. This is an actual physiological phenomenon: the autonomic nervous system is in a reaction state called the parasympathetic. While in a moment of trauma, this can be the most intelligent and life-saving option for one’s being to choose. But as an ongoing state, or a state that we move in and out of unconsciously, it has very dangerous consequences.
Let me say this, with absolute conviction:
To whatever degree we are disembodied, we are IN DANGER:
In my work, I have many ways in which I articulate the notion of embodiment, many synonyms:
the essential self
All of this languaging expresses the same principal:
Health is in the coherent wholeness of your body-self-soul for this physical lifetime.
Each step we take towards fuller embodiment brings more relief, aliveness, ecstasy and health to this lifetime. And yes, experiencing the pain of embodiment is necessary as well. This is where having support of another embodied being is essential. I've seen the beauty and power of this work in action: in my daughter, my clients, myself.
I’m not sure if total embodiment is attainable, but I’d like to find out how far I can get, and I’m committed to helping others find out what’s possible too.
*This circle of practitioners and healers, as well as family members and friends, was gathered in keeping with the Open Dialog model of care from Finland. I cannot recommend this approach enough. Please research and read all about it.
Other resources on alternative/health-based approaches to mental illness:
Documentary on Open Dialog in Finland
Working to Recovery, UK
Inner Compass Initiative
The Withdrawal Project
Mad in America Podcast
Ted Talk, Eleanor Longden, “The Voices in My Head”
”The Shamanic View of Mental Illness”
The Windhorse Project
Mad in America
Anatomy of an Epidemic
Scizophrenia illustration from the Osho Zen Tarot.