Once Misdiagnosed, Writer Teaches Psychiatrists About Treatment – Psychol Today
Fri, 27 Jun 2003
An article in Psychology Today is about an incredible story of survival. A teenager misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, then wrongly incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. Mindy Lewis survived for three years of being “drugged and locked away from sunshine…” She wrote a book, she educates psychiatrists about the disorders they diagnose and all too often, misdiagnose. The absence of scientific diagnostic tools in psychiatry, necessarily lead to tragedies. Mindy Lewis’ capacity to forgive is astounding. Her ability to thrive after her deprivation, is inspiring.
As she tells the psychiatric professionals, the other kids didn’t make it, most are dead by their own hands….. How many didn’t survive because of the mistreatment they received? How many weren’t sick, just unhappy due to life circumstances? How many children across America are being wrongly drugged with psychotropic drugs in and out of mental hospitals–without medical justification?
Mistaken for a Schizophrenic
Publication Date: June 24, 2003
Mindy Lewis spent her sixteenth birthday–it wasn’t so sweet–in a world-famous mental hospital in her native New York City. She spent her seventeenth and eighteenth ones in the same airless institution, drugged and locked away from sunshine and movies and pizza. Then she was spat out into a world where her agemates, buoyed by the support of their largely loving families, had gone off to the colleges of their dreams.
It’s one thing–a terrible thing–to grow up in a troubled household and have to struggle to forge healthy patterns of living on your own when you were not intimately exposed to any during childhood. It’s an entirely different thing not only to grow up in a troubled household but, in what should be your most exuberantly experimental years, have the full weight of the medical establishment stamp its worst verdict on you and pronounce you schizophrenic.
“As a teenager I cultivated confusion,” Lewis now says. It was the best way she could find at the time of keeping some distance between her and her overly dependent and intrusive mother.
“My mother was a single mother, a hysterical person. I had to pull away from her. We were locked together in unhappiness. I had tremendous guilt. I felt I was constantly disappointing her. I was a truant. I would go to Central Park to be in nature, and I would paint there. I was trying to find my own way and it was misinterpreted.” Unable to handle the rebelliousness, her mother had her declared a ward of the court–and remanded for care.
Today Lewis is by any account a healthy and creative adult with extraordinary insight. She is an artist by profession, a dancer by avocation and a writer by sheer force of will. She is the author of Life Inside: A Memoir (Atria Books), which chronicles her extraordinary odyssey from troubled teen robbed of that most normalizing of experiences, high school, to wise and compassionate adult.
She has learned “the healing power of awareness, of seeing other points of view. There is so much richness, so much intensity under the grief of those years [of forced hospitalization].”
How did she overcome that brutal experience? “I don’t accept the psychiatric worldview as a way to look at all human problems,” she explains quietly. Imagine the bravery and the belief in self that one must develop in order to reject the opinions of medical experts.
“The medical model is just one way of looking at people,” and an increasingly pathologizing way of looking. “The norm is getting tighter and tighter because we are so productivity-oriented,” says Lewis. “Human behavior is much more varied and individualistic than the psychiatric model allows. There are, of course, extreme cases of chemical disorder in people. But the concept of disorder is being extended to a larger and more generic group of symptoms.”
Psychiatry is passive, she says. “You swallow pills. That doesn’t give you lots of tools for living. Instead, I sought mastery.”
Lewis struggles with depression but refuses to take drugs. “I prefer my own chemistry to artificial chemistry,” she explains quietly, noting that she regards taking drugs as a personal defeat. “Medication means I am estranged from myself.” What’s more, she is highly sensitive to drugs, so she feels she had to develop alternate routes of solving her problems. She also believes that there are times when depression is appropriate. “It often holds a lesson to be learned about something. It’s not just a matter of a chemical process.”
For decades, Lewis carried and internally battled shame from the diagnosis of mental illness and her three years of hospitalization. There is a part of her that always thought she was unjustly incarcerated. And another that thought, “Oh my God, the doctors were right, there really is something wrong with me.”
It kicks in anytime something goes wrong in her life.
But she knows “I am OK, not ill.” She has found “ways of working with my moods and thoughts. I need lots of exercise. I dance; I study belly-dancing and I love it. I also need interaction. I have learned to articulate what I need. I have learned how to deal with anger. I have learned to develop healthy relationships.” She has learned the art of self-governance, the one we all spend a lifetime learning.
Refined and urbane, Lewis nevertheless feels embarrassed that she never got a formal college education–she had to struggle merely to survive the stigma after being released from the hospital. Instead, she has turned her whole life into an education. About herself. About what happened to her. About what happened to the other kids who were hospitalized with her. About psychiatry. About creativity and self-expression.
And, most remarkable of all, even about the doctors who were in charge of the psychiatric wards or who passed through them rendering diagnoses and writing prescriptions in the course of their own clinical training. In what turned into a feat of compassion, Lewis went back through the hospital records, noted all the doctors’ names, tracked them all down and interviewed them for her book. She wanted to know not only how she came to be mislabeled schizophrenic but how they fared as a result.
She holds no anger toward them. She has come to see that, at the time, they were young men (mostly) still very uncertain of their knowledge in a specialty that itself is uncertain of the nature of human nature.
In what is surely the most bittersweet form of vindication, Lewis now educates psychiatrists about the disorders they are called on to diagnose and treat. The day before I interviewed her she had addressed an auditorium full of physicians at a psychiatric Grand Rounds.
She told them about her hospitalization. She talked about the other kids. She is not without humor. She remembered how they were an intellectually curious and hormonal bunch who spent a disproportionate amount of time doing what kids on the outside were doing–feeling each other up when their guardians were looking the other way. She also told the doctors that most of the other kids had died somewhere along the way, by their own hand.
Mindy Lewis was determined to be a survivor. Mostly on her own, she developed enviable resources of body, mind and spirit. She had the courage to look inside and love herself. She is the very personification of resilience. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that she did one more extraordinary thing. She found the strength to forgive her mother for having her locked up during those very vital years.
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