Cortland Pfeffer spent years as a patient in psychiatric hospitals, treatment centers, and jails before becoming a registered nurse and working in the same facilities. This is a story about recovery that goes inside the mental health and addiction field, revealing the problems and providing a spiritual solution.
My Name is Tim: Soul Retrieval
Wait! Why am I waking up? This isn't how it is supposed to go. The room is spinning, my body shaking, my mind foggy, and physically Debilitated. As I stumble through the over-crowded living room my cousin Little Bill asks, "What the hell is wrong with you?"
This is where my journey begins.
As my discomfort grows with each waking second, I attempt to make it into work but the agony is far too overwhelming and I am literally forced into the fetal position in an effort to ease the increasing pain. My mom stops and I told her what had happened.
Immediately rushed to the hospital via ambulance, they begin feeding me activated charcoal to reduce some of the drug absorption. They start pumping my stomach and all I can recall is more charcoal, more charcoal, followed by violent projectile vomiting. I am exhausted. Emotionally and physically drained and beat down.
As I start to regain consciousness, the room is cloudy, hectic, and endless chatter seeming to come from every direction. The mood of the room changes as everyone grows aware that I am waking up. I start to recognize people and see my mother. She is bawling as she watches and talking to her sister, Keena, and Dr. P (a family friend).
"What the fuck? Why did I tell them? I should be dead," I recall thinking this to myself. I had just overdosed on a plethora of pills. I was the human garbage disposal the previous night, taking anything I could get my hands on with the intent to make the pain permanently vanish.
While Keena and my mom sat there, I could only watch in shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. No one was really talking about what had just taken place, but that is how my family had always operated – put on a mask and avoid the elephant in the room.
My mother is severely depressed. My father, although never diagnosed, has many symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome. Still today he will ask me, "Where do you come up with these things?" It's as if he is embarrassed. There is nothing "bad" about Asperger's. In fact, this entire notion on "diagnosing" people is extremely detrimental to providing care. This system has us seeking what is "wrong" with people instead of valuing the positive and unique qualities that make us shine as individuals.
Take Asperger's for example; we give the formal diagnosis and describe the person as having poor social skills, isolative, weird, etc. Instead, what if we were to look at this same person and say that they are smart, focused, speak the truth, and do not play childish games. There are many incredible qualities about this so-called "disorder."
This is how Western cultures "treat" people in the industry known as "health care."
They create diagnoses, which comes with negative connotations and labels. Such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), in which the person is considered overly emotional, manipulative, and play games. Instead, we could refer to emotional as a positive trait because they are passionate and caring, they feel connected to the world and people around them. Neuroscientists around the world continue to prove that our brains our wired to connect with others, help those suffering, and provide love and compassion.
And if emotionally connecting with others, love, and compassion are innate human characteristics, wouldn't it make more sense to cherish the advancement of those who are overly-emotional?
Furthermore, a feeling of connectedness is a sign of being awakened. As you awaken, you are aware of this wondrous interconnection of all living things. But instead of celebrating their deeper understanding and gift in these areas, we attach labels and focus only on that specific label.
Sticking with the example of a person diagnosed with BPD, if they do something loving, caring, or extraordinary it is quickly shrugged off and discarded. But if they attempt to manipulate, we are quick to point out that it is a sign and symptom of BPD. Once this diagnosis is in place, we seek out these symptoms and behaviors. We become narrow-minded as we interact and observe people and become more and more judgmental.
In reality, manipulation is not a symptom or a sign of a disorder. It is a pretty standard human trait. It is simply a method of getting one's needs met. We all do this to some extent from the time we are infants. Although it is unhealthy, it is natural. Rather than scold, shake our heads, label, and judge those for manipulating, it would be more beneficial to understand that they are in need of something and not sure how to ask. This is a teaching opportunity and we can help them grow rather than kick them while they are down.
The problem lies when the person grows addicted to the drama, it becomes their drug, their altered state of consciousness and they begin to seek it out. This does not make them ill, it is human nature to want to change our level of consciousness and we all seek it through different avenues. Instead we should be highlighting their superior qualities and embracing those so that the dramatic behavior is no longer appealing - the same way we would entice a recovering drug addict to find a spiritual connection to replace the drugs and alcohol.
The attitude towards mental illness needs to change, along with the actions of those diagnosing and treating the affected person. If we are to continue to progress, we need to evaluate the way we treat people. In awakening our souls, our perspectives change, and we begin to save lives.
Imagine that you are coaching a youth baseball team and a kid continues to drop the ball. Each time he drops the ball, you yell at him to "catch the ball." And that is your only coaching that you provide. Then when you analyze the team at night, you continue to keep that kid out of the lineup because he "cannot catch the ball." Like everyone else on the team, he catches the ball far more often than he drops it, but you have created in your mind that this kid cannot catch the ball.
You only point out when he drops it, never instruct him on how to catch the ball, and dismiss anytime he actually does catch it. How is this kid to ever improve? How is this kid ever to learn? Then when he quits the team, or lies about catching the ball, or doesn't listen to other instruction, who is really to blame?
My parents did many wonderful things while I was growing up. They tried their best and made the most of what they had to offer. I was confused during this dark period of my journey and was never sure where to turn. Not having my father there in times like this was normal to me and my mother would never confront me or discuss things with me.
This is not their fault. They each have their own journey and these personality traits have been passed down from generation-to- generation. My father's ancestors are rich in English tradition which historically involves not expressing emotions, incredibly private people, strictly maintain standard protocol in most situations, typically come off as non-friendly, avoid prolonged eye-contact, takes a long time to build friendships but once formed usually last throughout time and distance.
Asperger's "symptoms" include: routines, difficult in social situations, formal and distinct speech, and social isolation. However, these seem like traditional English lifestyles. Routines are simply following protocol; unease in social situations could be mistaken for not making eye-contact; isolation could be about privacy needs; and not expressing emotions has been the norm for this culture for centuries.
My mother's ancestors come from the isle west of England, Ireland. The Irish also have very distinct cultural traditions that date back hundreds of years. Ironically, the Irish traditions are nearly opposite of every English norm. The Irish have turned speaking into an art form with quick wit, using humor in everything (including at themselves), they are great story-tellers and that is their primary way of communicating information, it is common to insult those in which they have close ties, eye-contact is maintained, shaking hands with children is normal, greetings turn into long conversations, in business they use first names and are more casual, the social classes mingle together and they do not use business cards, and always have good manners.
In fact, it is more important in Irish tradition to be polite than to tell the truth. They have a very non-committal response, because they feel that saying "no" is impolite. If there is a disagreement, it is often that this will be indirectly communicated rather than confront the other person. The Irish do not like confrontation and tend to avoid them at all costs, many times by using humor to change the subject. They tend to talk and banter and pride themselves on seeking all sides of a problem.
With the two conflicting cultures, it is no wonder that the communication in the household was often difficult. As my mother's emptiness in her marriage continued, she sought out connection with her sisters. Also, Irish tradition has incredibly deep ties in extended family. Even after members move away, there is always a deep closeness and connection.
Returning Love for Hate
Back in the hospital, this explains why this situation was nothing abnormal to me. My mother was there with her sister with nothing being discussed and my father was absent. Perhaps it had to do with undiagnosed "mental disorders" or maybe it just had to do with their heritage/culture and conflicting views on the world. Either way, this just added to my permanent state of confusion.
Who am I? Why am I different? What is wrong with me? What is normal? How am I supposed to act? What the hell is all this about anyway?
I have always known I was different. But, it was difficult to keep it all inside all the time. The only emotions that I knew were anger and hostility.
This was the moment I tried to literally kill myself. At this time, I did not know there was a way to kill yourself without losing your body; a way to liberate your soul, find inner peace and freedom. But I was on the right track. I knew it was all phoniness and lies, and all I wanted was liberty.
And the paradox is that you have to die before you can get all of this. Figuratively, not literally; kill the false self to redeem the true self.
As the confusion settled, my only emotion – anger – began to intensify. Anger is a real emotion, but it is a secondary one. Anger is actually an emotional response to a perceived injustice. It is a lot of different emotions bundled together and they release to the outside world as anger.
Our brains develop from the back to the front, starting with the most primitive parts. Every animal alive has the limbic system and the subsequent autonomic nervous system - which is most recognizable as the "flight or fight" response system. It is a built-in survival tool that helps us escape danger. Its primary products are fear and stress. It works like this:
If you are in the woods and being chased by a bear, you are going to feel fear. That is a normal emotion. It is put in place to let you know there is a threat. Stress is the physical reactions to fear, your heart races, muscles tense, focus increases, and perspiration occurs. This is done to help your body fight or flight in the scenario – by increasing focus, strength, and stamina. Now, say you run away to safety and hide in a car. Your heart rate slowly comes down, muscles relax, your breathing slows down, and your fear subsides.
This is the beauty of how our body was created. We do not have to do anything and this is in place. Heart pumps blood to the big muscles to "fight" or "flight", our skin vesicles constrict to limit bleeding, our senses heighten, and parts of our body that are not needed for survival shut down. But the problem is, when this system stays turned on.
The next day, you walk down the same path and you start experiencing these symptoms of stress again – racing heart, rapid breathing, etc. This is called anxiety. It is a stress response to a threat that may, or may not, be real. It is the anticipation of danger. Then anger comes out as a secondary emotion. We get upset with the park ranger for not taking care of the bear population, we get upset we can't walk down this path anymore, or maybe we get frustrated and take it out on the people at home for not getting a job so we can get a second car. Either way, none of these are the real problems. The real problem is that a bear was chasing us the other day and we experienced fear.
And that is how anger works in all cases. It is a secondary emotion that typically comes after fear, hurt, or betrayal. Anger also works on the stress response system and actually puts us into an altered state of mind. When we are in a rage, we cannot think clearly, cannot possibly make good decisions, and this state-of-mind can be attractive – it is mood-altering.
There have been studies done that have shown police officers make poor decisions when they get too stressed, due to increased heart rates. In turn, they have worked with them to manage their heart rate so their stress-response system does not get overacted too easily to prevent fatal mistakes.
Just as I previously explained with the addiction to drama for those with BPD; the same can be true for men or women with an addiction to anger. This becomes the altered state of consciousness that they desire, crave, and makes them (or me) come alive.
One of the problems with American society is that we raise our men to only show one emotion — anger. It is not OK for men to show fear, sadness, or even love. The only emotion men are accepted to show is one that is secondary, one that only arises when we perceiving an injustice somewhere.
So, I lash out at my mother in the hospital because anger is the only thing I know. Plus, I know she will not fight back, so there is no risk involved. I tear her apart emotionally and scream at her to get out of my room immediately.
I remember Dr. P telling me, "Don't do that to your mother, she cares about you."
"You stupid motherfucker! Don't talk to me!" I had to shout back in defending myself.
The doctors told me that I had a third degree heart block in the night and would have to stay in the ICU for a few days. My mom kept coming back and let me rip into her moment-after-moment. She just sat there and took the abuse. And that is what she has done her whole life – just took abuse and return it with love. That is a gift.
Spiritual guru, Dr. Wayne Dyer, describes this as one of the most difficult tasks in the human experience – to return love for hate. My mother showed me this daily, she gave me unconditional love. It is one of the amazing wonders of my universe. This woman never received love, all she ever received was abuse, but somehow she always returned the hate with unconditional love. Her only goal was to love her children, and she did that better than anyone could imagine. She knew nothing about boundaries, nor did she care to know.
And this is what made her an easy target for me. I could release my anger without any threat of anything being reciprocated.
As the days passed in the hospital, I wanted to leave, I needed to leave.
This is when I first learned of a term called "psychiatry hold." What is this? They can just keep me in here? This was unfamiliar territory for me. I have been in complete power and control since I was seven years old. I ran the family, they gave into my demands, and I got what I wanted.
I called their bluff. They cannot keep me here against my will. All I need to do is throw a tantrum, create some problems, and they will let me go.
But, it didn't work this time. For the first time in my life, I was experiencing loss of control and loss of power.
A few hours later, in walks some bearded man to introduce himself to me.
"Hi Cortland. I'm Tim."
"Hi Tim, go fuck yourself!" I respond.
"How are you feeling? What is going on?" Tim responded kindly as if he did not hear what I just said.
"Go fuck yourself!" I shouted louder.
He just kept coming into my room, smiling, and trying to see how I was doing. He was talking to me about an array of topics that had nothing to do with why I was there, mental disorders, behavior, or anything related to the hospital.
Finally, I caved. Cussing him out received no reaction, he continued to just try to talk to me, so there was no use fighting it anymore since I had not control or power.
"I like baseball," I said quietly.
Then Tim starts talking about baseball non-stop. It doesn't take long before Tim brings in Tony Oliva, Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer, to come visit me and give me an autographed bat.
"Maybe this 'Tim' guy ain't so bad," I remember thinking to myself. Maybe I like Tim, he is actually pretty cool. He never lectured me, never said I was bad, never talked down to me. He just talked to me and suddenly his stupid smile stopped bothering me.
As I look back on everything, I was ready to bolt somehow. I was planning on finding a way out, which would have resulted in being placed on a hold. But Tim, who I now view as my friend, tells me that if I am OK that they will let me out. He tells me to not force anything on them and I trusted Tim. He seemed to really care about me and would always come and visit during the day. I don't really remember anything we talked about, but I just remember how I felt when he was working – I felt content and safe. I started to anticipate his visits and I always knew that I was going to miss him.
Excerpted from Taking The Mask Off by Cortland Pfeffer, Irwin Ozborne. Copyright © 2016 Cortland Pfeffer; Irwin Ozborne. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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