Below is the essay I wrote for my application to the Process Work Institute in Portland. This was written in July 2015.
I know that if I could really understand mental illness, then it would be appropriate to make a big career shift. I would become a therapist and a leader in terms of mental illness.
But I’m not in the position.
John Nash (1928-2015)
In August of 2012 my wife Beth and I were faced with a horrific decision when we learned that our beloved younger dog Charlotte had terminal cancer. After putting her to sleep I nosedived into a state of shocked sadness. Beth and I were already under a great deal of stress and Charlotte’s death was more than either of us was prepared for. Having taken Zoloft for seasonal depression since 1999 I decided – on my own – to prematurely increase my dose to winter levels even though there was still plenty of natural sunlight. At that time Zoloft and artificial sunlight were the main tools I used to combat my life’s lows (usually during winter) and after Charlotte’s death I knew I was headed lower than ever before.
I was also doing my body no favors. For years I exercised little and disregarded my circadian rhythms. My nights consisted of staying up late, drinking coffee, smoking strong marijuana, turning on my fluorescent sunlight and then studying concealed subjects most Americans find disturbing. I must have been doing something right though, because by late November I began to notice that the winter blues weren’t happening like in years past. My optimism, creativity and energy kept growing. I started to speak faster and came up with a wild and expensive business idea I just knew was going to make me rich. By December the energy became far too much to contain. No longer acting like the John Herold my friends and clients knew, I became highly overconfident, uninteractive and eventually aggressive. I spent all our money and acted like an arrogant asshole but it was more than that; I was really starting to frighten people.
In retrospect I can better understand their concern. Not only had I skipped Zoloft for three days, I also believed I was the next Dalai Lama, that Beth and I were billionaire philanthropists, and that my Nobel prize in physics was imminent. I knew all our conversations were being recorded and began cutting wires in the house to prevent the eavesdropping. I spoke as fast as an auctioneer, sent cryptic text messages to many friends and stopped sleeping entirely. Why waste time sleeping when I was the world’s greatest (and richest) genius who could speed-read calculus, discovered the meaning behind the Yin Yang symbol and suddenly understood the cause of most cancer? Clearly I was living in a different universe than those around me.
As I ramped up into this extremely high energy state, Beth grew genuinely desperate. I was very sick, it seemed. She was urged by friends to take me to the local emergency room. This ended badly. In my heightened state I could easily see I was being underestimated and mistreated, and so I refused to cooperate or sign anything. I had also grown fond of saying scary things. Tired of being harassed by medical staff and unimpressed by amateur hospital security, I took off all my clothes and warned a nurse about the possibility of a nuclear weapon in my unsearched bag. She didn’t react kindly to my suggestion. I was promptly labeled “gravely disabled” and lost a number of freedoms I never imagined I could lose. An ambulance came to take me away but no one said where we were going. Externally my world was starting to look like Hell.
Up to that point though, my internal experience was much more like Heaven. I gained insights and suddenly had new abilities and heightened sensitivities. I could see into the future, noticed a pattern I could see in everything, and started hearing high pitch, five second long, bell-like tones that guide my decisions to this day. In this state I could bend candle flames with my intent, received information without having to learn it beforehand and felt connected to the deceased. God spoke to me through the auto-correct feature on my phone, the song lyrics of randomly chosen music and a number of other circumstances. Everything took on symbolic significance. I began to feel like I was living in a cartoon and that my strings were being pulled. I’ve never been into numerology, so you can imagine my bewilderment that this sense of magic reached its zenith at 12:12pm on 12/12/12. My mind was a hall of crystalline mirrors. It was, and still is the most sacred and emotional experience I’ve ever had. In many ways the experience felt more real than reality does today.
The astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote that in the cosmos, the gates of Heaven and Hell are adjacent and unmarked. By the time I was allowed to come home from my community’s badly-named “Recovery Response Center,” I had been locked up for five days against my will, drugged without my informed consent, and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was also in acute 8-day Zoloft withdrawal courtesy of what outsiders and family ignorantly viewed as “helpful” treatment that would somehow re-balance my brain’s chemistry. My body and mind felt leaded and lifeless from the newly-prescribed antipsychotic drugs I had been coerced into taking. Just the name of this class of drugs alone was demoralizing — and the childish, humiliating way I was treated only reinforced this sensation. Am I psychotic? Mentally ill? Crazy? These are terrible questions to confront while incarcerated. I was in no state to think clearly with the massive chemical change my brain was involuntarily going through, and was in shock from having to lie for my own survival. But good thing I did — if I had told the whole truth about what I was experiencing I would have come home later, with more medications and likely a different diagnosis. There were many aspects of my experience I chose not to discuss while hospitalized. Getting locked up is the finest acting training one could ask for.
My relationship with this development in my life is still evolving. I led my high school’s conflict resolution program twenty some years ago and thought my skills were decent, even good. Today my relationship with conflict isn’t as fluid. I still feel easily activated and have a fire burning inside I don’t believe I had back then. Memories of being coercively drugged and diagnosed with mental illness hurt deeply and I still experience pain from feeling so incredibly misunderstood. The greatest tragedy of that time is that I misunderstood myself too — I spent a year taking bipolar drugs, gained fifty pounds, and lost touch with my gifts and talents. During that time all I could see was a failed life, an injured brain, and a new way of viewing myself that reduced all my feelings into symptoms that needed management and medication. At first blush I knew the diagnosis was nonsense, but as the months dragged on and my depression worsened I started to take on the bipolar identity. Will Hall’s Madness Radio was the single best resource I had to help understand my experience. His work in Portland inspired me to start Puget Sound Hearing Voices. What I learned from the interviews on his show often made me more angry, but that anger served to propel me to a place I don’t believe I could reach otherwise. Today I live a healthier life and don’t take any psychiatric drugs, not even Zoloft. I don’t identify myself as depressed, manic, bipolar or mentally ill; I identify myself as John Herold. I’ve concluded that my anger isn’t a symptom of any disease or disorder. It is a genuine reaction to the unfair way I was treated. I imagine there are psychiatrists who mean well, but how well can they do their job if the medical model and even the idea of “mental illness” are factually worthless concepts?
I am also much more spiritual and sensitive than I was before this experience, and I’ve been sensitive all my life. I still hear tones and when I do, I recognize them for the guidance that they are. The sounds I hear are not a sign of a disease, they are the greatest gift — one that came at tremendous cost. My life today is safer and more interesting because of what they tell me. I wouldn’t take back the “madness” experience if I could because I also came face-to-face with the most beautiful, pervasive pattern imaginable. I know what I saw, I remember saying to one psychiatrist. This pattern is something I still see today, and I see it in lots and lots of things! It is fundamental to comedy, music, voting, sports, quantum mechanics and most of all: the Yin Yang symbol.
Anyone who’s been accused of being crazy has probably asked themselves whether they are in touch with reality. This question has a way of attracting more questions. What is reality? If I’m feeling, seeing or hearing things that others aren’t, does that mean those things aren’t there? Is there any chance they’re actually there and others just aren’t tuning in? Most notions of mental wellness imply that there’s an objective thing called reality in the first place. Those of us who don’t always experience that fixed, hard, unchanging phenomenon must be sick. We call them mentally ill.
There are plenty of things I believed during my experience that turned out to not be true. I never received my Nobel prize and my wife and I are not the new Rockefellers. My life as a rich genius who could cure cancer – well it never materialized, and I haven’t gotten the call to be a new religious leader yet, either. Those fantasies were just that, fantasies – and it’s tough to confront the fact that I believed them faithfully and confidently enough to tell the whole world. Waking up from madness is embarrassing.
But waking up is a good thing. What if life itself is a dream? What would it look like to wake up from that? I am deeply influenced by the work of retired NASA scientist and consciousness researcher Tom Campbell. His work is called My Big TOE (My Big Picture Theory of Everything). In it, he explores the question, What is the nature of reality? This is something mystics have been asking themselves for thousands of years, and they often say things like life is a dream. Campbell says the same thing, but what makes his work unique is that he used science to get there. Along the way he made a number of huge theoretical discoveries, breaking wide open a conceptual chokehold called “the observer problem” that has been confusing scientists for nearly a century. He integrated quantum mechanics (the physics of the very small) with relativity (the physics of the very fast) into a new, seamless science that has the potential to explain all physical/objective and nonphysical/subjective experiences.
Sounds good, right? Here’s the rub: Campbell requires us to give up our deeply-held belief in an objective, material reality. Instead, we find ourselves in an evolved, digital, probabilistic simulation — in many ways like a video game. We live in a virtual reality. This idea sounds bizarre at first, but nature has never been required to adhere to human expectation. This model of our world happens to be consistent with experiment, can predict future outcomes and helps our lives reveal their purpose too. It even explains how the elusive placebo effect works, but this idea might drive you a little nuts at first because it is so counter to what our senses tell us.
Assuming Campbell is correct, what effect might this idea have on the mental health system? If it were widely accepted that we are living in a dream and that reality is actually quite wiggly and personal, would we still have vocabulary like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder? When I combine Campbell’s insights with modern psychiatry, I see a mushroom cloud of progress. As I consider this model of reality when looking back on my own experience, it helps explain how the following things could be possible: I really could bend candle flames by just thinking about them. I really did see a pattern I had never noticed before. And yes! I really do hear tones that appear to guide my decisions.
So much suffering is caused by misapprehending the nature of reality. I envision my future working with people caught in the mental health system, whose lives are muted because of a psychiatric diagnosis. My work would obviously be colored by my personal experience and training, while also emphasizing the idea that we are living in a simulation, a dream, a video game — because that’s what life actually is. If this model of reality represents where the facts are taking us, our mental health system should come along for the ride. When finished, there might be little of that system left. The recently departed John Nash is telling us the truth. He isn’t in a position to become a leader in this field. But I am and I’m ready.