The Trauma of Forcible Hospitalization

The other day, with the help of my spiritual teacher*, I realized that I’m still dealing with the trauma of being forcibly hospitalized. Of course I knew this on some level, but I’ve admittedly been trying to bypass the healing process. Why? Because, to put it simply, healing sucks. It’s necessary and feels great afterwards, but during, it’s no fun at all.

Thinking about the hospital and its surrounding events still triggers shame and grief in my being. Of course, avoidance never works forever. We live in a culture steeped in deep avoidance, which is something I would love to see change soon. Since I can’t make that happen on a wide-scale, I’m starting where I can: With myself. In an effort to face that trauma, I’m going to share some of the feelings I experienced while in the hospital.

I don’t know if posting this will help me to release anything, but I’m going to do it anyway. There’s been a tight/blocked sensation in my throat for over a week now, and as I continue to watch it, I know it is indicative of something I’m not expressing that needs to be expressed.

*My teacher’s name is Jim Tolles and his website is www.spiritualawakeningprocess.com. I have referred back to his website more than any other to help integrate my awakening. He’s amazing and I recommend reading his blogs and/or reaching out to him for a session if you feel you’re ready for a teacher.

First things first: Being hospitalized during a spiritual emergency is really traumatizing, and that should not be dismissed. A spiritual emergency can be something like an ego collapse/death, a psychotic break triggered by the use of drugs, or any other variation of someone’s “reality” breaking down that they simply cannot cope with. What these people need is compassionate care from those who understand that the human being is much more than a collection of chemicals. They need truly nonjudgmental care, not the kind that calls itself “nonjudgmental” and then literally labels us “disordered.” That is, pardon my language, a fucking judgment.

From the outside, it seems “right” to sedate those who are having a psychotic break/spiritual emergency. From the inside—well, you honestly have no idea until you go through it yourself. Not even a little bit.

The following paragraphs flew out of me. I’m aware they may sound hyperbolic, but they are accurate in regards to what it felt like to have my physical body restrained and my consciousness altered against my will:

Basically it felt like I was processing the sins of humankind through my own being. I felt the rape of every human who has ever endured such trauma and the persecution of every prophet. I felt the shunning and isolation that every outcast has ever experienced. I felt extreme, undeserved rejection. I felt the harsh punishment of every child who has done something their parents deemed wrong, even though they had no idea what they were doing. I felt horror and fear on levels I did not even know existed.

I felt like a baby whose leg had been cut off, and like everyone around me was standing by laughing as I tried to crawl around. I felt like this especially afterwards, when my friends (and myself) tried to joke about it out of discomfort, or when my loved ones expressed relief that I’d “finally accepted” I had been “crazy.”

I felt like every prisoner who was about to get their hands chopped off by the state. I felt like every person who had been in a concentration camp, subject to unthinkable injustice. It seemed like everyone around me was unconscionable and cruel and merciless—and stupid. Really, really stupid. To me, the hospital staff were no better than Nazis (I’m pretty sure I called them that, too) in the sense that they were “just taking orders,” “just doing what they’d been trained to do.”

Honestly, I still don’t see much of a difference between a Nazi and those who are still just moseying about life today, refusing to challenge a culture as murderous as ours. I recognize that it’s all fear and unconsciousness and so it is forgiven, but we are still killing each other. It is happening everywhere all the time for no reason other than widespread insanity. I don’t feel as though we have made much progress in this regard.

Being forced to take medication was an extreme violation of what I wanted in my own body. When I was taken to isolation, everyone just looked on like they didn’t hear me screaming to be let out, like my pain wasn’t real, like my extreme suffering didn’t matter because I was “hysterical.” I felt like everything I said fell on deaf ears, even though I know at least some of it was valid. Because no one knew what to do with me, they to took me to a bed and allowed strange men to shackle my body down when I was incredibly vulnerable and angry. To someone who is psychotic, it doesn’t matter if said men are apparently licensed to do this. It reads as terrifying.

I bit a male staff member for trying to touch me. I do not even feel ashamed of that now, although it was used as “evidence” of my insanity more than once by the psychiatrist and my caseworker. To me, it was very reasonable: I didn’t know him, I didn’t want him touching me, and my teeth were my only weapon. I never consented to him touching my body. More than one staff member actually laughed at me while I was psychotic; I saw it in their faces and heard it in their voices. I still believe that those people do not possess the emotional maturity to work with those who are in acute mental health crises.

Just so we’re clear: I’m not trying to assert that my actual circumstances—being a patient in the mental hospital—were “just as bad” as every human experience I just described. I don’t play the “suffering Olympics,” because it is a simplistic and unhelpful game to play. If anything, this is a testament to how one’s external circumstances are a poor measure for what they’re actually dealing with inside.

I’m just telling you how it felt, and it felt like Hell to an unimaginable degree.

There was no one. I don’t really like saying that, because my family and friends did the best they could. My husband came to visit me even though I’d just stepped out of the marriage. Some of my friends came to see me while I’m sure I was saying shit that made absolutely no sense. Everyone did what they could.

But really it felt like (and still does feel like) there was no one who saw my experience as deep and real and significant. Way too many times, people talked about how hard it was for them to see me in the hospital. I know they meant well, but it just made me feel worse for troubling them. Afterwards, a lot of people said “I wasn’t myself” in the hospital, but I didn’t even feel like I knew who I was. It was very confusing. I also felt like whoever they thought they’d “known” before wasn’t the True me. I felt, overall, horribly ashamed of myself and tossed in a corner to recover from the most intensely awful time in my life.

I felt these feelings for months and months after I was released. Everyone around me was still somewhat scared and worried, and my feelings of loneliness were staggering. I had no idea what had happened, and I felt so looked down on, so pitied, so mislabeled. I laid in bed with just saying “I’m scared; I’m scared,” even though I didn’t know what of.

Whatever explanations anyone had for my breakdown, I knew they were incomplete, and it was maddening.

Before I was hospitalized, I was highly sensitive and unstable and in violation of many many social contracts, but I was not violent. When I got into the hospital, I became violent. I want to say clearly and openly: Being forcibly hospitalized worsened my overall state of being during my spiritual emergency. Every professional failed to understand what was happening at a deeper level. They did not provide me with an alternative to the “disease” story, and the experience overall worsened my prognosis.

For as hurt and resentful as this post may sound, I do not begrudge anyone. People were trying to be there in every way they knew how, and I retreated from a lot of potentially nourishing spaces and people because I was just so shaken up. I had no idea what had happened. I just knew I needed to hide, lick my wounds, and turn my attention inward. I had to look into other explanations outside of “you got dysfunctional genes; your brain chemicals are all screwy.” Fortunately, that is what I did.

With this post, all I mean to do is share some of how it felt. I have no doubt that someday, someone will read this and it will help them feel understood. If you’re one of them, I hope it lets you know you’re actually not alone, and that you can move forward from the experience and even have a life filled with more joy than you ever thought possible.

Still, I mostly wrote this for my own self. No lie: I sobbed as I wrote most of this post as I recalled what it was like to be shuttered away, talked down to, drugged, watched, confined, and perhaps the worst part: judged, judged, judged at every turn.

I also want to get across something very simple: We can do better for one another. We can do so much better.

– lish

location: Georgetown, TX

Anger & Ego Triggers

Today I want to talk about ego triggers and the wily, pernicious nature of the ego. The ego is a psychological entity that controls the vast majority of human beings, myself included. Spiritually speaking, the ego is the unique yet illusory identity we buy into as being our true selves. Living within the illusion of a false identity brings most—if not all—of the suffering we endure throughout our lives.

It’s like you’ve been playing Super Mario Brothers for so long that you literally believe you are Mario. Really, you’re a fully developed human playing a game. No matter how many times Mario gets wiped out by a turtle shell or falls off the edge of the Earth, the real you is going to be fine. “Enlightenment” is the sudden and abiding realization that you’re not actually Mario. The metaphor I described is experienced through your own consciousness, not merely understood conceptually. You step outside of all the limitations you were operating under during the many years you held such a delusive belief. It’s freeing and funny and if you want to keep playing you can, but you’re under no obligation, because jeez, it’s just a video game.

As you can imagine, it would create a lot of problems if you kept falsely believing you were Mario. You would be full of neurotic fear, only able to respond in pre-programmed ways, and constantly trying to stave off the inevitable “end of the game.” Now look around you and notice that almost everyone in the world believes they’re the characters they’re playing, too. This is the level of madness we are dealing with. The sincere belief in the ego as being ultimately real is the chief delusion in our species’ many layers of delusion.

Spiritual freedom comes down to becoming free of this illusion, free from the false you.

Usually, just as I’m feeling like “I’m actually kinda somewhat free,” something happens to prove me wrong. At this point, they’re trivial things since I’m no longer actively blowing up my life, but I still feel a sense of smallness and anger when they occur. Feeling small and angry is one of the most common ways we suffer in our culture, and for good reason: We were born into a giant machine of unconsciousness. Throughout our education we were systematically deceived and forced to be complicit in an order of subjugation we had no part in creating. When we become more conscious, the sheer enormity of all this can create a sense of powerlessness, and this is infuriating. What do we even do when the problem is this huge?

Back to the Mario metaphor: If we’re delusional enough to believe we are Mario, we’re definitely delusional enough to believe Mario’s world is real. Therefore, if Mario’s world (our physical world) is a disaster, we will feel acute anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear can be useful—if such emotions push us into growing up and tending to the world. Most of the time, though, we just feel paralyzed because we have to keep playing the game; thus we fall deeper into anxiety as everything falls apart. This is why truly seeing Reality is the long-term solution to suffering, as denoted by Buddhism and other Eastern religions. From this position we can use our characters to improve the state of affairs, but we also keep a peaceful perspective because we know it’s just a video game. We are most effective in this mode, when anger isn’t draining our energy all the time.

Prior to awakening from our egos but after noticing the rampant insanity of the species, we often want to do something good. It’s hard to know what really helps. Sometimes we get caught up in arguing with other people in the misguided belief that pulling someone around to our viewpoint will help. And yet, this so rarely happens: When people engage in arguments, particularly on incendiary issues, both parties usually just dig their heels into their existing positions. The result? Two delusive egos made more rigid, and zero shared humanity.

Before I began to really investigate my mind, anger was my predominant emotion. Until I was forced to, I didn’t (or perhaps couldn’t) face that this anger was related to many more things than the issue at hand… like, really really old things that had nothing to do with the present situation. I would take on any heated discussion, and became disproportionately incensed about a lot of things. This is partly because there was a mess of deeply negative energy that had been pent up in me for years, and it sought to release itself in any way possible.

This is the main concern with carrying around old, unprocessed pain: It leads us to project a lot of bullshit onto every unrelated person and situation. We can easily sabotage relationships of all kinds in this way.

When I say “deeply negative energy,” I’m talking about something very real.

Another one of the helpful books I’ve read in my healing process Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. The basic premise of this book is as follows: The traumatic events humans endure do not naturally release themselves the way they do in the rest of the animal kingdom. For instance, a gazelle’s life is threatened regularly on the savanna. Yet after every close call with a cheetah, they manage to return to baseline gazelle functioning without becoming hypervigilant and fearful at all times.

In human beings, the culprit of post-traumatic stress is the highly developed frontal lobe. This is the part of the brain that gives us the capacity to reason and think abstractly; we owe our current domination of the world to this structure. Relating to trauma on a personal level, the frontal lobe overrides an instinctual process which discharges traumatic energy in other animals. Until we acknowledge and consciously let go of this energy in the physical body, it remains trapped, subtly pulling the strings in our interactions.

And about this word “trauma:” It’s so heavy, and many people believe it only refers to acts of war or long-term abuse. While these definitely fall under the category, trauma can also be the result of something like surgery, an accident, or emotional neglect. The body certainly perceives surgery as traumatic, and we know by now (or at least I hope we do) that separating body from mind is impossible. I also believe we’re pretty much all subconsciously dealing with trauma because the foundation of our culture is trauma, and our energy is not actually separate.

If you’re coping with latent trauma, I highly recommend the book.

An ego trigger is anything that makes you aware of the fact that you are still clinging to a special, false identity. In this case, I’m mostly talking about anger, which is always felt due to a perceived threat. Truly, the only thing that can be threatened is the ego. Who you really are is invulnerable and immortal. You know these triggers as soon as you feel the need to defend something you did/said, the desire to make someone else wrong, or if you lash out even when nominally challenged. Even enlightened beings have egos—they are just totally conscious of their egos, and these egos are not as fixed as Mario.

On the path, rather than desire the world not to trigger our egos, we understand that having our egos triggered is an opportunity for practice. It lets us know that our delusional self still lurks in the mind, probably driving most of what we do in life. Ego triggers are like a blaring sign that say Keep doing your work. From here we can look at what triggered us and what false self-beliefs are wrapped up in it.

The solution, as always, is to be aware. I can reliably notice that my ego has been triggered when I become physically hot, flushed, and on edge. I start making up all kinds of reasons why it was wrong for someone to do or say whatever they said/did. It’s a dark kind of self-boost that I know makes me less pleasant to be around. I become preoccupied with the (ridiculously small) incident and agonize over it. I believe it is a literal form of temporary insanity to be caught up in this way of thinking and feeling. It creates a blindness to what is really in front of me. Luckily, the more I watch it, the less power it has to get me to continue a fruitless argument or run my mouth.

If someone’s unconsciousness creates an intensely charged trigger within you, it is because you have unconsciousness to dispel within your own being. It’s not “their fault” for “making you” feel mad. In order to be free, we have to look at ourselves instead of placing the blame elsewhere. For as much as we try, we can never change others. The spiritual path is one of great individual responsibility: You hold no one else accountable for your behaviors and feelings, but also learn not to self-blame. It’s a delicate balance, but very rewarding when you finally start to get your house in order.

It is a mistake to try and make the world psychologically comfortable for us. It simply cannot be done. Even if we succeed in doing this once in a while, we miss an opportunity to face our most difficult emotions and tend to them accordingly, thereby becoming more emotionally resilient. Though I would love to live in a vastly more compassionate world, we cannot control what hurtful words people may say. Trying to forcibly control people’s speech results in a sense of suppression and greater anger. I do not want to live in the culture where people use the “right words” yet feel coerced and pissed off inside. To some degree, I already am living in that culture, and it doesn’t seem to be fostering much more peace or dampening our collective anger at all… in fact, it seems to be doing the opposite.

Also, when you’re extremely sensitive (and I am), the entire world becomes an emotional trigger. For me, seeing a 2-year-old stare at an iPad during his lunch can trigger deep anger and sadness. Seeing construction for retail space on the lot I thought would make a nice community garden also triggers anger and sadness. Reading the same tired political arguments on Facebook triggers… you guessed it, anger and sadness.

My ego-identity is furious at seeing humanity in this state, and furious at how rarely people seem to regard their own minds as being just as problematic as anything else. What this highlights is that I still have some delusions to burn down. Fortunately, I do try to be wary of placing the problem elsewhere: These are my emotions to own and navigate; they are part of this life experience and no one else’s responsibility to deal with. They can be a blessing if I use them to fuel my growth and creative endeavors, or a curse if I stew in them, believing they are the fault of someone else.

One thing is for sure: If we wait for the whole world to transform before we can be at peace, we will be imprisoned forever.

– lish