Oryx Cohen Speakout

Submitted by admin on Fri, 02/23/2007 - 04:09

Oryx Cohen speakout 2003

from the 2003 Speak Out event

My name is Oryx and I've been a part of Freedom Center for about two years now and I'm proof here being so tall and so good looking, that us crazy folk come in all shapes and sizes. Actually, as I'm going to talk about some more, is that what we're talking about is just human experience, and as Dave said, madness can be a very valuable experience.

That's the theme of what I'm talking about today. These experiences can have meaning and they can be purposeful, and I think they are.

When I grew up, as a small child, I had plenty of confidence, wasn't afraid of much, like a lot of kids I guess. Then, when I was in high school, I ran into some abusive basketball coaches who ridiculed me at practice, took away my competitive enjoyment, and made me dread participating in something I used to enjoy. I experienced this type of abuse for two years, and ended up becoming very depressed. I didn't view myself as a worthy human being anymore. I thought I was ugly, I was shy, I was afraid to speak out, and eventually, I became very, very depressed, sad, whatever you want to call it. It was anguish and agony.

I didn't want to get up in the morning, I no longer had an appetite for things I used to enjoy. I was afraid to do relatively simple things. I can remember I didn't have the confidence at one point to even put a tray of food together. I was freaking out! I mean, feeling this way is just NOT OK in our society at all. People don't understand it. I would tell my family and friends about it, and they would tell me to "snap out of it."

Eventually I worked through it, it wasn't easy, but I did. I can remember feeling so bad, that I wanted to sleep but couldn't, not having the desire to eat, just a constant and agonizing misery. I would look around to see what was wrong with me. I did internet searches to see what was wrong with me. Maybe I was depressed? Or possibly Chronic Fatigue? Everywhere I went online the only option seemed to be to take drugs and these mainstream sites were telling me that I would have this condition forever. Well, I refused to believe this.

I decided to try to try and get through this myself. I forced myself to go on long runs, I forced myself to be social with other people. I did things like quit caffeine and start drinking tea and herbal supplements, things I had never done before. It took like three months, which seemed like an eternity, to slowly bring myself out of this black hole. And the summer time came, which may have helped a little as well. Somehow I kept my job and some semblance of a "normal" life, but for a lot of people, they end up in the hospital at that point.

When I did end up in the hospital, I kind of flipped to the other side. I had been doing great for a few months, feeling a lot better. I came across another crisis situation. I had moved 3000 miles away to Massachusetts and was beginning a new life as a graduate student. What happened is I made some comments in a class at UMass that were not very popular with the rest of the class and got yelled at by everyone in the room. I was kind of naïve at that point, didn't really know what was going on, but here is the way I now interpret it: What happened is subconsciously I was not going to feel depressed, feel unworthy, ever again. I told myself I was a good person, I was not racist, sexist in any way, anything bad, and I'm going to prove to everybody that I'm not, and that what I think is right. So, I ended up feeling very very good for a few days. I slept less and less, I had these amazing revelations. For awhile it was very a joyful experience because I freed myself from all those negative thoughts in the past. I had plenty of confidence and I was free to do whatever I wanted.

I look back now and I now realize I wasn't perceiving things as well as I could have. Progressively it got worse. The more I would stay up, the more trouble I would get into. I would preach to whoever came my way, I was a nonstop chatterbox. I would tell them what I thought about the world and all my solutions to our problems. If we could only free our minds, I told them. People were intrigued and even touched by some of the things I was saying about interconnectedness and meaning, but eventually they were scared that I was going "crazy." I was going to create this underground world where we would have a revolution of the mind. I started sending out memos to people in my department, and eventually they did think I was crazy.

Well, this kind of freaked me out even more, and eventually I got worse and worse until I got into a bad car accident. I'm very lucky to be alive today. After the car accident (I had broken my collar bone and had a huge cut on my forehead). I was life-flighted to the hospital's trauma center. Amazingly, after only one day in the trauma center, after hearing about the way I was behaving, I was sent limping to the psychiatric ward of the hospital. Here I was looking like Frankenstein, and they sent me up to the psych ward, even though my grandfather was willing to have me recover at his house.

I was told that I was mentally ill, bipolar, and would have to be on medications for the rest of my life. That was it. They didn't ask me anything about who I was before that, didn't matter. Didn't ask anything about what led up to this. I was just symptoms. The meaning from all these experiences just went out the window.

I look back at it now. I've had a similar experience since then, but was able to handle it a lot better. I look back and since that time I've basically been fine. 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.

Oryx Cohen at SCI

from the SCI Oral History project

Oryx Cohen MPA Born: August 13 1973

Currently Doing: In addition to being a participant, Oryx is Director of the MindFreedom Oral History project. 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). At his "day job," he works to support consumer-run businesses, connecting people with meaningful work opportunities. 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.

Interviewer's Comments: Oryx has an incredible amount of enthusiasm and optimism for the success of this project and the ability to change the mental health system in general. His determination inspires a hope in me that with every story gathered the psychiatric survivor movement will move closer to our goal of being heard. With Oryx's story alone, we can see that the system must change. Let's all be the momentum for that change.

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