Freedom to Question Authority

When I was a little girl, I asked lots of questions. My grandmother, who seemed too busy to bother with explanations, always answered, “Curiosity killed the cat, Ann.”

That response, which I heard over and over, probably kept me from questioning any further when I asked my first grade teacher to explain adultery to me as part of learning the Ten Commandments. Here’s a link so that you can listen to my “Adultery” poem and find out what happened and why I believe it’s vital for all of us to question authority.

One aspect of questioning authority has particular significance for me: questioning the need to take medication for depression and other mental health issues. The doctors I worked with all told me the same thing regarding medication and depression—it seemed to be the answer that science had found to ease the suffering of countless people.

“Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. You need to take medication to correct the imbalance, and you may need to take drugs for the rest of your life.”

When I questioned my doctors and expressed my reluctance to take any drug for the rest of my life, especially one that altered my brain chemistry, they spoke to me in a patronizing tone. “Depression is just like diabetes. You wouldn’t argue about taking insulin for the rest of your life, would you?”

That kind of response from a trusted authority figure will shut down questions every time. It did for me—but only when I was face to face with my doctors, and only because I had struggled for years to find a way out of a very deep depression. But the idea that chemicals could just go off in my brain for no apparent reason never satisfied my curiosity. I found more answers about reasons for my depression by working with a poetry therapist, journaling, reading poetry, and exploring the relationships in my life than I found in all the pat answers from my doctors.

But when I read Prozac Backlash by Dr. Joseph Glenmullen, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, I found hard evidence to substantiate my fears of long-term medication. Dr. Glenmullen spends considerable time exploring the clinical trials of Prozac and other SSRIs that were conducted by the drug companies and he exposes many seriously questionable practices used to justify bringing the drugs to market. In addition, Dr. Glenmullen uses stories from his own research and his patients’ experiences to explore the very harmful side effects that can result from taking antidepressants:

“include[ing] neurological disorders, such as disfiguring facial and whole-body tics that can indicate brain damage; sexual dysfunction in up to 60 percent of users; debilitating withdrawal symptoms, including visual hallucinations, electric shock-like sensations in the brain, dizziness, nausea, and anxiety; and a decrease of antidepressant effectiveness in about 35 percent of long-term users.”

When I read this book in 2002, I had been depression-free for five years, but my psychiatrist insisted that I continue on a lifelong course of numerous psychiatric drugs: Wellbutrin, Elavil, Topomax, and Valium If you take a look at the side-effect profiles of these drugs, you’ll see that I was exposing myself to a lot of potential harm, especially if I were to continue on the drugs for life.

I worked with a social worked for over a year, exploring the reasons for my depression as well as looking at the other reasons for my continued healthy state. After more reading and many months of discussing the ideas with my therapist, I decided to stop all medication.

My psychiatrist warned me that because I had suffered from repeated bouts of depression, my brain was damaged and I could easily slip into depression. He cautioned that my next depression was likely to be much worse than the last. I’m happy to report that he was wrong. With using a combination of journaling, meditation, Heartmath (a combination of cognitive therapy and meditation), and poetry, I have remained medication and depression free for the past 13 years.

More recently, I’ve read two books by Robert Whitaker that take an exhaustive look at the studies behind psychiatric medications—including SSRIs, anti-anxiety drugs, ADHD medications, and antipsychotics—and my decision to discontinue my medications has been confirmed by the wealth of studies and analysis that Whitaker and co-author Lisa Cosgrove provide. Take a look at Anatomy of an Epidemic and Psychiarty Under the Influence for more information. Here are just a two pieces of information that I found especially compelling:

  • “Long-term antidepressant use may be depressogenic[cause depression]. It is possible that antidepressants modify the hardwiring of neuronal synapses [which] not only render antidepressants ineffective but also induce a resident, refractory, or depressive state.” R. El-Mallakh, 1999, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (Anatomy of an Epidemic)
  • “Of the 1,1518 patients who had entered the follow-up study [of the effectiveness of Celexa vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or placebo], only 108 had stayed well throughout the 12 months. All of the others had either dropped out or relapsed back into moderate depression (or worse). Given that 4041 patients had entered the study, this represented a documented stay-well rate of 2.7 percent at the end of one year.” Ed Pigott, psychologist (Psychiatry Under the Influence)

I’m glad I’ve read books that challenged the prevailing wisdom of the day. I’m glad I explored my options and made decisions for myself. Most of all, I’m glad I questioned authority.

For more information on this topic, here is a good resource: CCHR International, The Mental Health Watchdog

Freedom to Curate Your Life

“What makes a fire burn is the space between the logs.” from “Fire” by Judy Brown


When I teach my Writing for the Environment course every semester at the University of Maryland, I tell my students that I don’t require a textbook. And they are all very relieved to hear that—textbooks are so expensive these days. And then I show them my course website where I have lots of readings, links, and resources for them to use in the course. I make the following analogy.

When you visit a museum, you don’t see everything the museum has in its collection. Museums have curators who select the items for each exhibit and then arrange them so that the visitors have a rich experience. People can linger in rooms where they find an appealing work and then skip the rooms that don’t interest them as much. The collections are limited. You are urged to go deeper into an exhibit, so maybe you see less, but you can appreciate the items you do see. I explain to the students that there is a wealth of information related to resumes, for example, and I have selected resources that I consider the most useful for them to use.

I think our modern lives—so full of social media, online information, email, podcasts, and streaming music call out for us to act as personal curators. Maybe because I am getting older I feel this more keenly than the college students I teach, but I think most of us can benefit from carefully selecting our media choices, our goals, and our activities.

by Judy Brown

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.

So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
A fire
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

Creating a Container: Part Two

Ann’s July mandala

July’s blogs and my social media posts are all centered around the theme of freedom. Personal freedom. Freedom to think and say what you want. Freedom to explore. Freedom to succeed. Freedom to begin again.

But there’s always a downside when we have lots of things to choose from. For example, I don’t like shopping at Wegman’s because it’s a huge store filled with many varieties of the same item. When I’m faced with long aisles and many iterations of a product—like yogurt—I start feeling a little anxious and want to leave the store. My body is telling me that there’s too much to process.

After I returned from the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference in Salerno, I started feeling overwhelmed by the many obligations and opportunities that waited for me—answering email, booking readings, blogging, writing new poems. I had trouble getting started every morning and more trouble staying focused. So much to do and so little motivation. I was as scattered as the flowers popping up in my garden.

My daughter came to visit last week and I told her I felt unfocused and frustrated. She’s taking an art therapy course and shared what she’s been learning about mandalas. She explained that coloring or drawing mandalas can help you to feel calmer and more centered. “Like having a container,” I thought. And I love to color, especially with colored pencils. She even gave me a mandala coloring book to help me get started.

Ann’s mandala completed in June

In a previous blog post, I talked about using container poems, or form poems as a way to help the reader and the writer access difficult material. The form of the poem forces the writer to limit word choices and line lengths. Using a formal structure also seems to help contain the difficult feelings or experiences one is writing about. And for the reader, knowing that every third line will rhyme or seeing a phrase repeated throughout a poem reassures the reader that the poet is capable of serving as a trusted guide through difficult territory.

So how does a mandala help me to feel centered? I’ve incorporated the coloring as a part of my daily prayer and meditation routine. As I work on completing a segment of the mandala every morning, I get lost in the back and forth movement of my hands as I shade in the designs. I linger over my color choices. I choose one section of the circle to work on and focus on completing it.

Maybe the activity of coloring taps into that old part of me that used to love to lie on the floor with a coloring book for hours at a time. Now when I color a mandala, I feel calmer. By completing a couple of sections a day, I see my mandala take on a new form. I think that feeling of calm is transferring over to my writing and enabling me to write or revise a poem every day. One poem at a time, I am moving towards my goal of finishing another book.

Here’s a place where you can download mandalas for free. I encourage my readers to color one, take a picture, and post it here so we can all enjoy their beauty.

Freedom to Care

My son and me at a Finger Lakes winery

Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us of our duty to one another when she says, “We’re not going to be able to live in this world if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing with one another.”

I love this poem because of the simple human love and care that it explores. A father carrying a sleeping child across the street in the rain. We immediately feel the tender cargo—the child’s soft cheek nuzzled next to ours, the tiny hand that rests on your shoulder. It’s easy to carry a child.

Yet Nye charges us to go further with the idea of caring. How do we bring that same generosity into the wider world? We often have numerous chances in a day to be kind to another person—letting an elderly person go ahead of you in line, holding the elevator for a colleague who’s carrying a stack of papers, giving water to a homeless person on the street.

When I think about the freedom to care for someone, I think of that unbridled giving the Nye reminds us of in her poem. I know of a meditation group that makes “blessing bags” to give to homeless people. The bags contain water, juice, snacks, and personal care items. But even more important than the actual items in the bag is the spirit in which they are given.


~Naomi Shihab Nye

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

How might you expand your circle of caring?  Who or what calls to you for more attention?


Considering Freedom

It’s July and in the United States of America, this is the month when we celebrate our national freedom. We look back at our founding, at the Revolutionary War, and celebrate our freedom as a nation. And in many ways we are free.

We especially celebrate freedom of speech in the United States, though we are constantly debating how far one can go before abridging that right. Many people struggle with personal freedom as well—the right to work in a decent job, live in a sound home, send your children to safe and clean schools. The basics of life are out of the reach of so many in our country, and we are constantly seeking answers to those basic human issues.

And some people struggle with being able to speak the truth and be respected. Kids in schools. People accosted by police. Psychiatric patients. Prisoners.

I think Rilke’s poem, copied below, offers us much to think about. He is longing for the freedom to speak the things that are meaningful and release the current inside.
I hope his words spark some ideas for you.

Fountain in Ireland
Fountain in Ireland

I Believe in All That Has Never Been Spoken
~ Rainer Marie Rilke

I want to free what waits within me
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,

streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.

What waits within your heart? What do you want to free? Please share your thoughts in the comment area.