Oryx Cohen MPA Born: August 13 1973
Currently Doing: Oryx was the Director of the MindFreedom Oral History project, as well as a participant. He co-founded the Freedom Center in Northampton, the Pioneer Valley’s only support/activist group run by and for people labeled “mentally ill” (see www.freedom-center.org). Currently, he is the Technical Assistance Center Director at the National Empowerment Center. He is also an avid basketball player, golfer, hiker, and writer.
Psychiatric Labels: Bipolar
Mental Health Experience: Inpatient, Outpatient, Psychiatric Drugs, Coercive Treatment
Off Psychiatric Drugs Since: 2002 (against doctor’s advice)
Recovery Methods: Self-Help, Family/Friends, Literature, Social Activism, Spirituality, Diet, Exercise, One good therapist, Peer Support, Art/Music, Regulating sleep, Yoga, Tai Chi, Meditation
Greatest Obstacle: Abuse and lies both within and without the mental health system
Brief History: I was lucky to be alive. When I woke up in the trauma center at UMass Memorial Hospital on September 21, 1999, I immediately realized my mistake. Of course cars can’t fly.
Yet somehow, just the day before, I had convinced myself that my 1993 Acura Legend would accelerate through the slow moving van in front of me and take off into the air, landing me in the waiting arms of a lady friend several continents away.
As I talk about this now, I wonder how this could happen. I had always been a “responsible” person: a 3.96 student at Lewis & Clark College, an administrator for the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, a graduate student on full scholarship at the University of Massachusetts. “Logic,” it seemed, had always exuded from my pores.
It still amazes me how fast you can lose touch with physical reality. The days leading up to the accident were some of the most interesting/manic/crazy/spiritual days of my life. I was meeting new friends, speaking up in class like I never had before, attending lectures, and going to parties. The stress of moving 3000 miles away from home, from Oregon to Massachusetts, and being in a totally new environment, amplified every emotion I felt during those weeks.
It was much more than I was used to, but before long I felt like I could do anything. I could charm any woman, out debate anybody on any topic, conquer any obstacle. Even my perceptions were improved. The sky seemed a more brilliant blue, the trees were more magnificent, everything was so unbelievably, heart-achingly beautiful. I thought I had figured it out. I thought I was enlightened.
Naturally, I wanted to share what I had found with everybody I came across. So I became a preacher. I talked non-stop about philosophy and the secrets of life. I wrote down what I felt were the key universal truths, and was set on sharing what I had found with others. I felt that people were trapped in their own minds, their own fears, and didn’t recognize that they were connected with everybody and everything.
I wanted to create a revolution of the mind. I distributed flyers and tried to organize underground meetings. I was going to change the world and nothing was going to stop me. I decided to quit school and write a book about my enlightening experience.
It was on the car ride home that I went beyond the point of no return.
At a stoplight, it felt so good to throw my road map and spare change– everything that was not a necessity–out the window. In the span of a few seconds, I convinced myself that the rules of physical reality existed because we believe they exist. I convinced myself that my car could fly. And until I woke up in that hospital, I believed I was going to make it to my destination.
When my mother told a psychiatrist that I thought I could fly the car, I was transferred from the trauma center to the psychiatric ward as soon as I could walk. It was with visions of electroshock and lobotomy that I “voluntarily” checked in to the ward on the 8th floor of UMass Memorial Hospital.
I was interviewed by a few “lower level” staff and finally a psychiatrist came in and told me what I “had.” She gave me a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and told me I would probably be on psychotropic drugs for the rest of my life.
She didn’t ask me anything about my life prior to my week of mania; it was as if that didn’t matter. To them, I was just another diagnosis. I could never be “cured,” but medications could help “stabilize” me so I could manage my emotions.
I was in the psychiatric ward for six days, but it felt like a month. They expected me to take psychiatric drugs, even though four years of studying psychology as an undergraduate had ingrained a fear of their damaging side effects deep within me. I was terrified of the medications: I knew all about tardive diskinesia, and the thought of my facial muscles twitching involuntarily haunted me.
But after awhile, I could see that my concerns would not be heard. “Time to get your meds!” Soon I was a part of the twice daily “round-up” to receive my doses of Risperdal, a powerful neuroleptic, and Depakote, a “mood stabilizer.” Nobody was excused from the round-up. One day, I noticed a rather innocent clock behind the nurse on duty. In huge letters it had written across it: “RISPERDAL.” It was then that I truly realized the extent of the drug companies’ domain.
There were other programs: various support groups, art therapy, occupational therapy. These programs were better, but there was always the focus on medication. The best part was the bonding and friendship with the other patients. We were all in the same boat and we supported each other immensely. We had too.
In fairness, most of the staff was incredibly well meaning, but I felt that they were victims of an oppressive system as well. I always felt distanced from my supposed caretakers, like an impenetrable wall divided the patients from the staff, the “weirdos” from the “humans.”
By the end of my stay, the psychiatrists had upped my dose to 2000 MG of Depakote per day. I was told that this was a low to moderate dosage. Basically, I was duped.
After I returned home, I got severely nauseous a few times a week, vomiting up everything I ate. At first I thought it was bad pizza, only to soon realize that it was the Depakote. I was actually on an extremely high dosage. Not only did it make me physically ill, the Depakote made me extremely tired and lethargic, and affected my concentration as well. Soon I was sleeping over 10 hours a night and still feeling tired during the day. At times, my hands would physically shake because my body was simply overwhelmed by this noxious chemical. Because Depakote increases your appetite, I also gained 20 pounds in the span of two months.
Finally, after talking with five psychiatrists, at the University of Massachusetts I finally found one who treated me like a person. He immediately recognized that I was severely over-medicated. Even though it was his job to discuss “medication management,” he seemed more interested in getting to know who I was.
When I woke up in that hospital bed, I knew I was going to recover. But it didn’t happen over night. I had a lot to process and many battles to face. I was lucky that I had a supportive family, a brother, mother, father, stepmother, and grandfather who each had open minds when I challenged the medical model. In fact, I would have gone off of the “medications” sooner, but I realized how important it was for me to do this with my family’s support. And at first my family trusted the doctors 100%.
I was also lucky to have friends with whom I could discuss anything and who accepted me for who I am.
Perhaps most importantly, I left the hospital with a sense of urgency and purpose. I wanted to dedicate my life to creating a more progressive mental health system so that people wouldn’t have to go through what I went through and what countless others have experienced.
Although it was difficult for me to deal with at times, I dove straight into the literature and started talking to other psychiatric survivors so I could learn more about what happened to me. In the process, I ran into like-minded individuals representing organizations such as the National Empowerment Center and Support Coalition International. Now all these “radical” ideas I had floating in my head were supported and reaffirmed. I can’t overemphasize how important this was.
Perhaps the most difficult part of my recovery was returning to graduate school. I felt embarrassed to face people again after what had happened. Honestly, for awhile, every day was a struggle. However, I stuck it out, and those years were some of the most rewarding years of my life. I now have an MPA and, more importantly, met an incredible woman and my future wife.
Working with the Oral History Project has been incredible. Meeting so many people who have fought through an oppressive mental health system, who have been forcibly electroshocked and drugged, who have been treated as less than human–and who are now leading accomplished and fulfilling lives as authors, directors of organizations, social activists, etc., has been inspiring and empowering. It inspired me to co-found the Freedom Center in Northampton, which is another story all in itself. I just hope that eventually the general public will hear our stories and take them as their own.
I’ve spent most of the past few years off of medication. I weaned myself of slowly after both of my manic experiences. For me, there was a lot of meaning in those experiences. Sometimes I think people just want to forget about them and never think about them again. They are just ashamed that they ever felt that way.
For me, I grew a lot from my “mania.” I learned that I have some control over the way I feel, even if it is subconscious. I won’t allow myself to feel depressed, and now, I won’t allow myself to be manic either. There is a middle ground. There are great feelings that came out of being manic, but for me, these were kind of superficial. I had some great experiences while I was manic. Some great visions that I will take with me forever. Some spiritual experience of being one with nature, of being the clouds and the wind and knowing when the sun would peek again from cloud. Some very spiritual experiences that I’m not ashamed about, they are now a part of who I am.
In fact many Native American tribes purposely starve themselves and go without sleep for days to go on “vision quests.” Those visions are the single most important experiences of their lives that they think about and learn from every day. That’s just a different way of viewing this very real human experience. Our society views it as this sort of scary thing, so it becomes scary. If you have a society that understands extreme states of consciousness, then it becomes a normal thing. This is what happens when humans experience enough stress, we have different emotional states, that’s what we’re about. If we can more supportive of that, and not being so afraid that it’s PERMANENT. Because we’re so afraid that this person we love will never be the same. It doesn’t have to be permanent. I learned from these experiences.
Now to take care of myself, because I don’t plan on going on any visions any more. Now, I make sure I get plenty of sleep. This is essential for most of us, to make sure we get enough sleep, as well as eat well, drink lots of water, get plenty of exercise. These types of things work well for me.
This article used by Permission of the Freedom Center: www.freedom-center.org/people/oryx.html