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The Power of 'Healing Voices'

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Mad Pride is a mass movement of the users of mental health services, former users and their allies. Mad Pride activists seek to reclaim terms such as ‘mad,’ ‘nutter and ‘psycho from misuse, such as in tabloid newspapers. Mad Pride activists seek to re-educate the general public on such subjects as the causes of mental disabilities, the experiences of those using the mental health system and the global suicide pandemic.” 

One of our hopes in producing the award-winning social action documentary “Healing Voices” was that the film would lessen fear around altered or extreme states of consciousness, such as hearing voices and seeing visions, what is often called “psychosis” or “mental illness,” to an extent that people would feel freer to talk about these experiences openly with family, friends and neighbors — that they would come out of the closet, so to speak — and even feel a sense of mad pride.

I have to admit I was terrified to talk about the details of my experience with my neighbors. I was brought up by two wonderful hippies who named me after an African antelope. We lived in the low-income section of town. Despite working hard at menial jobs, for the most part they did not have two pennies to rub together. As a child, I remember sometimes there was nothing to eat except tortillas and mustard. 

Here I am now, lucky and privileged to have a good job and own a house in a nice neighborhood. It is also a neighborhood that is fairly close-knit. We all know each other. We have neighborhood yard sales together. We’ve played on the same city league basketball and softball teams together. We have a weekly poker night. But I still had visions of my neighbors finding out about my history and ostracizing me, and my family, and possibly running us right out of town.

Early in 2014, things came to a head. I had just been through an intense altered state in late 2013, what I prefer to call a vision quest, that had ultimately landed me in a hospital for a week and on high doses of heavy-duty psychiatric drugs. I knew I was sluggish and not myself, but I had no idea what I looked like from the outside. I was about to have a rude awakening.

I walked across the street to my neighbor’s house, finally feeling ready to face the world and to participate in the weekly poker night. It would be good to feel connected to people again, to try and move on from the feeling of being different, of being outside, to move on from being hospitalized for a third time. However, this time, I did not feel like one of the guys joking around. I felt like the joke. They asked in a teasing way, “Are you on drugs?” “You look doped up!” Well, I was on drugs, but I didn’t feel like it would be well received to talk about why and what I had just been through. I made up some excuse and left that night feeling like an outcast.

Needless to say, I was quite nervous about what my neighbors would think when we released “Healing Voices” in 2016 by holding several grassroots screenings, including several not far from where I live. My story, including my experience in 2013, is featured as part of the film. I was not out with them about a big part of my life, and yet here it was, on the big screen for everyone to see. I felt naked. And I almost didn’t invite them. 

Then I thought, if I can’t do this, what’s the point? It’s one of the main reasons we made the film. The time had come for me to own my experience and have a sense of pride about it, with everyone, not just the people in my work and personal life who already know about these issues. So I invited my friends and neighbors. The ones who I had never shared deeply with, still with the very real fear that they may not want to have anything to do with me after seeing it.

To my surprise, without exception, they loved the film. The movie has brought us closer together — not the opposite. I think this is a testament to the movie. It humanizes people. Here, I could see it in my own life, in real-time: the power that film has proven to have.

A by-product of lessening the fear that can separate people, is an increased curiosity and openness to one another’s experiences. That night at poker early in 2014, I had wished that my neighbors had been genuinely curious and empathetic about where I had been, and what I was currently going through. I had wished they had showed that they cared. But it seems that we are now taught in our society not be curious. That if someone is behaving differently, they need to be referred to a professional. We have lost a sense of community power around these issues. So often this leads to children being separated from parents, marriages being torn apart and yes, neighbors being ostracized from their communities.

Our vision for “Healing Voices” has always been to create a social action film. We initially released the film in April 2016 via a global, grassroots screening event. All of the initial screenings (130 in total) were produced by local, community partners. The primary goal was to mobilize the mental health community, our base, so to speak, by demonstrating how the film could be used on a community level to spark dialogue around mental health issues. We asked the question, What are we talking about when we talk about “mental illness?” Our goal is to change our conversation from one of despair and fear, to one of hope and healing.

The screening in Oakland was an example of the next step for our social action film. The first of what we are calling “Recovering Community” events. Now that we have mobilized our base, it is time to burst out of our mental health bubble, to fully emerge from the closet, because these issues touch us all. We want to change the conversation, but we also want to broaden the conversation. Because mental health issues are not a singular issue.

One of the major themes of the movie is this idea of “canaries in the coal mine.” Canaries sense danger and then sound the alarm. In my experience, this is an excellent metaphor for what happens when people experience altered or extreme states, what the doctors call “psychosis” or “mental illness.” What if instead of labeling these experiences we took a more curious approach? We might find some people are experiencing significant danger in their personal lives. This could be in the form of abuse, trauma, neglect, lack of love, poverty, the threat of poverty, the list goes on and on. The canary is sounds the alarm:  something is not right in my life!

Our intention in that this next global event — our “Recovering Community” screenings — is to bring as many different movements together as possible. LGBTQIA, Civil Rights, Disability Rights, Environmental Rights, Addiction Recovery, Criminal Justice, Spiritual Movements, etc., these movements are all connected. And it’s heartbreaking to me that progressive movements still have so many misconceptions about people who are labeled “mentally ill.” Even within these movements, it sometimes feels like we are the one group where it is OK to label us, to forcibly “treat” us, to lock us up. Well, while it’s time for us in the Mad Pride movement to come out of the closet, it’s also time for the so-called “normals” to not only welcome us into these great progressive movements, but back into the human family.

Before I conclude, I wanted to return to the local, to my neighborhood, because I omitted something important. There was actually one neighbor in 2014 who reached out, who made me feel more human. He noticed that I wasn’t doing well that night. He texted me and offered to take me out to lunch. At lunch, he shared about his own struggles with depression and how running had basically saved his life. He is the reason I now jog. I am now a regular runner, thanks to him. I find it grounds me like few other things can. He was a big part of giving me the courage to share more of myself with the rest of my neighbors, and a big reason why I feel, more than ever before, connected to them and to other people.

You see, a simple act of curiosity, a simple act of kindness, can go a long way towards helping us recover a sense of community. 

So I challenge the reader to truly listen to someone else’s experience. In doing so you may learn many profound things, not the least of which is that madness can be difficult and painful for sure, but also quite a beautiful and spiritual part of the human condition. You may get in touch with your own madness and realize that there is no us and them. Only us. And who knows, you may even start to feel some Mad Pride!

Watch the “Healing Voices” trailer below:

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Screenshot via “Healing Voices

Originally published: March 9, 2017
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