Marie Elton stared at the dust balls revealed by morning light. How did those get there? Hugging a baseboard behind the sectional sofa, dirt in corners always accused her. The gray, little puffs marked her secret scorecard: how was she managing the house and family? Marie turned on her heel to find a mop. She was not my mother yet.
Agnes’ door was wide open; to Marie, it sounded like the old woman was clearing her throat. Was she congested today? Marie thought she’d check, and padded closer. Now the sound was clipped, random, and distraught. Her mother-in-law was choking to death! The mop handle slapped the hardwood floor as Marie bolted.
Inside the elder’s room the bed was in disarray. On top of it Agnes was even more undone. She was not my grandmother yet. But if she’d had her way that morning, we’d have never met.
Agnes Wohler Elton lay across twisted sheets, pillows flung to the corners. Her bathrobe gaped, a nightgown hiking up with the effort she made. Agnes had the robe’s terrycloth belt around her throat, pulling it tighter and tighter. She was choking all right, in fits and starts, but seeing Marie and hearing her cry out, having her rush over—it was enough. Agnes stopped yanking and gasping. Marie tore at the belt anyway, freeing it from the soft, creased neck.
Daughter-in-law didn’t realize that the deed could not be accomplished. No time to think: how even if a person lost consciousness for a second, the tourniquet on the throat would go slack and breath would rush in. Marie was too innocent to realize you couldn’t strangle yourself this way. But Agnes’ intention was clear.
Almost a suicide. Here in this house. My house. Marie stood immobilized, unable to help or to hinder the tears of the woman who had birthed the man she loved. It was a twenty-five-year-old day in her life, two years before I was born. For Agnes it was also a first.
Though far from her last cry for help.
Most of my life, I’ve felt captive to the question: what makes mental illness happen? Its specter was ever present at the edges of my family, erupting time and again into catastrophe. My grandmother came to embody this curse, living with us between hospital stays, heiress to those who purposefully ended their own lives. Later, as my older brother grew into a young man, madness stalked him with a powerful stigma: paranoid schizophrenia. When puberty claimed my own body I had a drastic change of mind, and my family saw it as the descent of our genetic disease. I too gained a diagnosis. Then came the children, garnering in short order the labels of their day: autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Today, I suppose mental health professionals would call me “recovered.” I’ve worked as both a hypnotherapist and as a Holistic Mental Health Coach, grateful for students and clients who’ve taught me volumes. I question Big Pharma’s proclamation that medication is the answer to our travails, for reasons made loud and clear in this book. Yet despite the great failure of antidepressants and antipsychotics, despite the immoral antics of the pharmaceutical industry, its dominion goes largely uncontested. Sadly, the record of over 400 modes of psychotherapy is also spotty.
No one chooses the conditions into which one is born. Though it may be inauspicious to sound a note of confinement at the outset, the absence of freedom (and justice) for sufferers of emotional and behavioral disorders is a theme that won’t go away. Whether the jail is literal, electrical (as in shock treatments), surgical, or pharmaceutical, the emancipation that a cure would bring is not on psychiatry’s wish list.
But here’s what puzzles me most: even the most rabid critics of the mental health system, including holdovers from the days of anti-psychiatry, join the industry in clinging to the notion that mental illness is a bona fide condition or disease. And why not? There is little momentum for real change: effective alternatives, lasting and complete healing.
Yet there is a model. Within the autism community, I found a steady and growing, parent-led march to find answers and reverse the diagnosis. I found a partnership between practitioners and family members that is unequaled. My daughter finally began to make strides to health, and I put the new information to work for me.
What I ultimately discovered is that a full turnaround from abject mental pain is possible—not just for a few, but for many. I would never have been lucky enough to become well if not for the efforts of the cutting-edge world of autism advocacy. At first, I thought it was all for Nina. But the foment of honest seeking for the root causes of autism turned out to be a gift to her parent as well.
In my case, healing was exhilarating and profound. I had not logged years of psychiatric drug use. Decades of pain, hiding, addiction, codependency, labels and more labels, countless therapy sessions, and chronic physical limitations? That pretty much sums up my struggle.
Within a relatively short time of whirlwind study and experimentation, it became clear what had been messing with me. I finally reached an experience of health that, as the saying goes, hit on all cylinders. I had already learned much from autism parents who were savvy about everything from homeopathy to hyperbarics. Thanks to the Internet, I excitedly connected with people around the globe who had discovered that nature’s tools—even in cases where soul-numbing prescriptions had ruled a person for years—could release the body and mind into a freedom where justice comes from just saying “no” to Pharma’s drugs.
The concept that the body’s travails strongly affect the mind is given lip service, but never invited to take part in a badly needed overhaul of the mental health system. We can learn from the autism world, where parents took the bull by the horns and the professionals followed. Not that there is any lack of research or success stories regarding alternative medicine for depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. For those who wish to go the natural route, many books and websites have been made available by knowledgeable holistic practitioners who want with all their hearts to help. They are my inspiration. But I’m here to share a story, not a step-by-step treatment plan.
Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, of Lakota and Cherokee heritage and author of Coyote Medicine, pleads for a medicine based on narrative. He says we need stories that work. In indigenous cultures, stories are the mainstay of healing, transferring the balm made of insight and hope. So I turned to the vehicle of memoir that asks: have you been there too? Would you like to envision a better way? Lunacy Lost tells of my quest to fathom the true nature of the beastly epidemic we call “mental illness.” Its genuine roots—and a blueprint for healing—were revealed to me by a child so baffling that at first I wondered if I could parent her. What a mistake that would have been: missing out on the largest lesson of my life.
Is there anyone, deep down, who doesn’t wonder where such widespread health problems will take humanity? We are depressed, stressed, ADDed, and OCDed, addicted to bad food, synthetic chemicals, and computer screens. Can a new drug or reworked form of therapy possibly save us? I propose that instead we set aside the glorification of the disembodied mind. We need a sweeping reset of our assumptions about the body, the spirit, and the planet’s role in the arena of emotion, thought, and behavior—all those intangibles that we’ve been taught to keep private, separate, to shoulder as our unique cross to bear. I call this approach The Nutrient Path (others use the phrase Green Mental Health) and it’s rising and spreading, doing countless minds good. However, “one size fits all” does not apply.
In my opinion, our mental health crisis only seems unfathomable. The problem lies with a weave of long-standing assumptions from without and within.
First of all, there is the professional milieu that manipulates our views, making a specialty of mind without telling us precisely what is mind or mental health. The professionals’ tools for the brain are the endlessly diversified antidepressants and antipsychotics, courtesy of Big Pharma. The side effects of these products often replace or undermine the work of soulful talk that therapy should offer in our healing process. Unfortunately, many therapists tout mere cognitive re-structuring as the fix for a body-mind on the fritz.
Secondly, there are religious traditions that separate the shining key—knowledge of the whole body—from any discussion of mental healing, peddling dogmas that label our bodies (from the neck down) as the site of sin. Although post-modern threads of reform are welcome news, all of the major religions historically promote this divisiveness by exhorting us to save the spirit while downplaying, if not outright despising, the flesh.
Thirdly, there is the weight of our worst stories—real traumas suffered in the span of many relationships. The closing decades of the last century exploded with revelations about how families fall apart: gender wars, predators and perpetrators, patterns of abuse passed down the generations. With such horrors close at hand, many can’t get past the art of blaming to see that forgiveness is more than an act of will. Forgiveness and moving on come naturally when we take a planetary view of what most likely is causing “mental” illness to spread across humanity.
Prozac deficiencies in unbalanced brains, sinners who should transcend the flesh, or heaps of familial hurt—these are the stories that have not worked. What else might contribute to the swelling ranks of the anxious, the bipolar, and the schizoaffective, to the many children who can’t learn, can’t talk, and don’t even know why they feel what they feel?
Out of love, I went looking early for answers to this question. For thirteen years, my sweet-faced, songstress grandmother lived with our family. She was, by all accepted definitions, crazy. From time to time she endured 1950’s-style locked wards and electroshock treatments, dutifully took her meds, and then came back to me, the only person in our household who loved her without ambivalence. This book begins with her, because she was the one who dragged our family lineage of failed brains and unspoken heartache right into the living room.
As a teenager I came to believe that my grandmother’s travails were the result of what she saw: three beloved family members who died on her. Long after she left us, I grieved helplessly for her losses. Then, as a young woman buoyed by the countercultural wave and the rhetoric of women’s liberation, I grasped that the poor thing was powerless, a girl and then a wife without options, and I raged at patriarchy on her behalf.
But follow in her footsteps I did. During one of many breakdowns I turned to the spirit, thinking that the divine might save me from the ranks of family members who had faltered—all church-going agnostics, disdainful of mystic abandon. I thought I had found the answer when I experienced a spiritual awakening to the Divine Feminine that righted my life’s zigzag course in so many ways. Yet the transformation was incomplete. When my first child was diagnosed with a fate more cruel than our family disease, I turned away from the Source whom I imagined had dealt this blow. Throughout the bulk of this narrative, my “crisis of faith” plays its minor key, resolving itself at last through a most unexpected development. I like to think my “crazy” grandmother would approve of the peace I finally made with a Deeper Power, rooted in earth and sky.
Still, I kept asking where our family disease came from. What accounted for subsequent generations’ withdrawal from life, their pernicious restraint, a billowing silence and depression, an escape to fatigue and fantasy and the fear of what lay beyond familiar four walls? Were those of us who succumbed simply born weak, sensitive, defective?
Counter to the story of our brokenness is the tale of our famous ancestor, a research scientist who in the 1800’s made an accidental discovery that toppled the way his world looked at living and non-living organisms. How could he be so brilliant and productive, while we are so afflicted? What happened to us? Just exactly when did the Wohler Madness begin?
I never considered whether something more concrete might lie behind our troubles. My family believes that our nutcases are simply not wired correctly—the bad brain. But could there be roots that reach beyond the brain? There was, and still is, a disinclination to believe that powerful, everyday forces within our bodies—endocrine, digestive, or immune systems—could spark the tongue of eloquent madness. Hold on, we say, that’s the domain of other specialists.
I kept uneasy company with the notion that our family disease was “genetic”: an inborn, invisible weakness of neural conduits making for emotional strain and muddled thought, a bad luck of the draw. Everyone in the family accepted this as our inconsistent fate, and each wished fervently to be spared. For too long my personal quest was to dodge the bullet any way I could.
It wasn’t until I experienced my own daughter’s tragedy and her road to healing that I dared to entertain this renegade thought about the family disease: what if something man-made and dangerous, not some defect of character, got into our DNA, and maybe it needn’t have been so? I learned about epigenetics: how environmental insults like toxins can change genetics quickly from one generation to the next. I learned that what we inherit isn’t a personal, indelible blueprint, but that toxins actually interfere with the way genes are expressed. The whacked genes lose their ability to detoxify a body and its neural net under attack. The result is any number of physiological and mental chronic disorders.
This was the science I never saw coming.
Sparked to go beyond illness of mind and beyond my peculiar clan, I awoke to the fact that my family is not alone in facing basic health questions daily. How do we cope? Will we ever be well? Today, we might say that many a family story of mental illness is not merely about the brain, bad luck, or bad behavior. It is about what our world is becoming.
I dare to speculate thus because of a gorgeous, quirky, loving infant adopted by my husband and I, and diagnosed with autism in her second year of life. Sure, I was primed not to give up on my kid: after what happened to me, I never trusted psychiatry’s “biochemical imbalance” theory. But I know what I saw when nutrients, diet changes, and detox were deployed against a disorder considered hopeless and incurable. My experience in parenting such a child is far from singular. I owe deep gratitude to the mother-warriors, to the researchers with the guts to keep after the truth, and to the dedicated clinicians who refused to believe that autistic persons were simply another flavor of crazy. They went through the body to reach the mind, and there struck the gold of knowledge for all to share.
The pieces fit: my bloodline’s inability to relate effectively, our toxic world at large, and the rising number of children saddled with violent behavior and learning disabilities. The latter grow into distracted, depressed, and antisocial adults. What this correlation taught me was that my family disease turned out to be more than a dreaded inheritance of a failure to buck up and be productive. The proof I had every day before me was the similarities between my afflictions and those of my adopted child. No genetic material shared—yet we both fought our way out of scary places together, using the same nourishments as tools.
Nina (as I call her here), a child with autism, led me to this treasure trove of truth. This is not another story about a recovered kid, though miracles abound in these pages. This is about my recovery, and how Nina made it happen for me.
I’ve spent decades either stalking the cause or trying to outrun my family curse, which meant that for a long time I ran from family, from psychiatry, and from the status quo. Come meet the members of my afflicted clan and bear with me until I finally understand them. Take a look at the early days of anti-psychiatry, when “the mentally ill” exalted madness as a political act; witness the hunt for the crazy-makers among suspects galore. Join me during the first flush of the New Age, when permission was granted to explore consciousness without drugs, prescribed or not, and see how sensitive minds widened—until, in my case, the body demanded its say.
Then meet Nina, who saved my life.
Our children, the fastest growing “consumers” of mental health services and medication, are the signposts of a dangerous future. I know because, you see, there was this baby. She was beautiful, and she was mine. Then she became very sick, very silent, and very sad. Our double healing—like those of many mothers and children who forbear on the nutrient path—contains the seeds to reform “mental illness” and “behavior disorders” right off the face of this Earth.
We can give up madness.