by Donald Kern, MFCC

Coming to Terms With Mental Illness

      They were going to get me. I had made one mistake and they were going to be sure I made no more. The girl had lost her sight, at least in one eye. I had blinded someone by a simple mistake of misjudging the depth of the beam. The religious energy I was utilizing was available to me only through the consent of the ethnic group I had organized. If something went wrong, I was the one who was accountable. I had set up the network through ordination from a higher power, Honorary MD, a psychologist licensed to utilize soul energy. Communicating telepathically, I was using the energy for medicine and positive evolution. Only this time I had made an error which could cost me my life. I somehow had to convince these people I had made an honest mistake. I had to make amends. At this moment, an angry crowd was making its way down the boulevard. If only I could think of a way to convince them of my honorable intentions. A thought flashed into my mind. I needed to humble myself before them, a public display of humiliation. A message came to me that I should walk naked down the street to meet the angry crowd. Such an act would show my abject sorrow. Stopping on he sidewalk, I pulled off my boots. Walking a bit further, I unbuttoned my shirt and discarded it. I pulled off my jeans, then my underpants. The air felt cool against my skin. Though fearful of the mob, I felt as if I were displaying leadership. Turning down the busy avenue, I passed pedestrians looking at me oddly. Here I was experiencing the humiliation I sought. I walked on, until I came to a dark stretch of road. A car pulled up beside me, flashing a spotlight. It was the police. I began to feel drained of the energy I had been infused with only a little bit earlier. It was as if a fever had broken. So much for the telepathic psychiatrist who was going to save the world and introduce humanity to a new age. And so ended one episode of psychotic mania.

      An officer stepped out of the car and told me to lie down on the ground. There ended my dream of being a counselor. Here I was flat on my face, lying naked in the dirt by the side of the road, a policeman handcuffing my hands behind my back. All my learning had come to this. College study in psychology, counseling experience in the Army, volunteer work on helplines. The police took me home to my mother’s apartment, advising her that I needed to be confined to a mental institution. Shortly after I was taken home, my mother drove me to Olive View, a county mental health facility. Though frightened to succumb to this harsh reality, I finally surrendered to the inevitable. Signing myself into the mental hospital, I had finally hit bottom. I had to admit I needed help. I was diagnosed as having manic- depressive illness.

      Fortunately for me, I got help. The next several years were filled with psychotherapy appointments and taking medication. As well, there was the day to day grind of going to a job, showing up on time, and doing my work. Life never felt as easy as in my delusional times, but I was surviving and living a more sane, if somewhat tame existence. Slowly, I began to heal. I had always wanted to be a counselor. I was a listener for others from an early age. After paraprofessional work, I got my degree in Psychology and planned on graduate school. Only instead, I became Bipolar in my mid twenties. Finally, stabilized on medication, I struggled to regain my life, married, and eventually returned to the field of counseling.


      It’s been 25 years since my first manic episode, 14 since the last one. Today I am a licensed psychotherapist. A lot has changed in the intervening years, a journey from delusion to reality. The last 20 years have been a struggle to make the unconscious conscious, Freud’s definition of mental health. Bit by bit, I have chipped away at the rocks of the psyche until what had begun as psychosis emerged as a blueprint for a life. Lately, I am struck by the similarities between my fantasy when ill and my growing reality as a mental health professional. My delusion and reality centered around counseling. I am intrigued by the means I used to heal when I was sick and when I was well. The contrast between my sick self and my well self is evident in several areas of my life. The differences are apparent though I could not see that at the time. It is only recently I am aware of how I have changed, how my fantasy world as a healer has become real.

      One area of contrast is in how I cope with stress. When I was ill, I went out of control, out of reality to deal with it. No idea was too outlandish to try. I would get caught in ritual behavior. Voices in my mind would be dealt with by dragging one foot along the crack in the sidewalk as I walked down the street. My belief at the time was that I was exorcising the spirits in a ritualized behavior I had been inspired to initiate. In this way I attempted to deal with the tumble of thoughts emanating from my mind, anxiety built up by a feeling of being controlled by forces outside of myself. Today, I deal with stress by use of meditation and positive self talk. I no longer feel the need to act it out, but rather to focus on my inner awareness to minimize feelings of being controlled. Meditation is a powerful tool to calm the mental turmoil which is a result of stressful events. Consequently, I deal with the pressures of everyday living, those same events, not by physical gesture, but by inner quieting, the difference between health and insanity.

      Another area which is a contrast is the use of music in my life. When I was ill, using music was my way of “programming” the environment. I believed I was sending my thoughts telepathically by singing and playing the harmonica. In my belief system at the time I believed this was a tool of my medical practice as a doctor of telepathy. It was the “serum” I used to “vaccinate” the population with “thought” medicine. While metaphorically this may be a useful concept, in my delusion this was a literal belief, concrete reality. In contrast, today I use music as therapy with the demented elderly and mentally ill to promote a feeling of renewal and well being. I play my harmonica to lead sing alongs, helping to alter depressive moods into more hopeful attitudes. I teach clients the use of music to alter moods and as a relaxation technique. My love of music remains the same. My belief in its use has changed from the fantastic to the believable, a truer medicine for the mind.

      Another manner in which my consciousness is different is in the application of psychotherapy. When I was ill, I believed I could conduct counseling and psychotherapy mind to mind, through thought transference. I believed I could communicate with people across a crowded restaurant by thought projection. I received confirmation of my thoughts hitting home by mannerisms, facial expressions, and eye movements of people a distance away. Everything seemed to jell, as if I was under the spell of some powerful energy. Today, though perhaps less dramatic, I let the therapy unfold in an office, using my voice to communicate my thoughts and expecting my clients to respond in like manner. It is through the interplay of two individuals sitting face to face, grappling with personal issues, that therapy takes place. No longer do I assume instant rapport mind to mind, but am aware of the complexity, tenuousness, and fragility of one human being opening up to another. Nor am I protected from my own issues I bring to the treatment. I, too, must struggle with my demons as I attempt to help others extricate themselves from the mire of personal turmoil.


It seems we all work on our personal issues at our own pace and learn the lessons we need to learn along the way. At this time for me, there is no flight of fancy but rather the day to day struggle to have a life. One thing I wanted in my delusion, I continue wanting in my present life; to seek truth, to help others find their truth, to endure living it daily. Part of that truth is that there is no substitute for struggling in the real world, no shortcut to wisdom. It takes a certain thickness of skin to protect oneself from the daily onslaught of doubt. And that only comes with time. It takes time, effort, and energy to make that journey. And so I’ve learned, time is never wasted. If my life is testimony to anything, it’s that.

   "I Have Been There"      "Awake"      "Stigma"      "When Moods Change Dramatically"     

   "No Exit"           "Seeking Goodwill"           "Thoughts on Anxiety"           ARTICLES