A Blessing for Freedom: John O’Donohue

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I am dedicating this post to my Celtic hero, John O’Donohue, poet, author, and scholar.

I first encountered O’Donohue’s work in the beautiful book he wrote about friendship, Anam Cara. O’Donohue explains that anam car is a Gaelic word that means soul friend.  An anam cara is not a lover, but rather someone with whom you have a rich and nourishing connection. In his clear and musical prose, O’Donohue explores the beauty of friendship and the riches it offers to all of us. He also takes the reader on a journey into the Celtic world of the soul and its relationship to beauty, growth, and aging. Sprinkled through his beautiful book, O’Donohue shares his poems, many of them written as blessings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Cliffs of Moher

Anam Cara introduced me to O’Donohue’s poetry, and because I wanted to read more, I bought his book To Bless the Space Between Us, the last book he published before his death in 2008. Celtic spirituality is rich with prayers of blessing for every occasion, including the start of the day, new beginnings, courage, exhaustion, and illness. I’d like to share one of my favorite poems which I think is especially appropriate for where we are today.  I hope you enjoy John O’Donohue’s inspiring poem, “For Freedom.”

For Freedom

As a bird soars high
In the free holding of the wind,
Clear of the certainty of the ground,
Opening the imagination of wind.
Into the grace of emptiness,
May your life awaken
To the call of its freedom.

As the ocean absolves itself
Of the expectations of land,
Approaching only
In the form of waves
That fill and please and fall
With such gradual elegance
As to make of the limit
A sonorous threshold
Whose music echoes back along
The give and strain of memory,
Thus may your heart know the patience,
That can draw infinity from limitation.

As the embrace of the earth
Welcomes all who call death,
Taking deep into itself
The tight solitude of a seed,
Allowing it time
To shed the grip of former form
And give way to a deeper generosity
That will one day send it forth,
A tree into springtime,
May all that holds you
Fall from its hungry ledge
Into the fecund surge of your heart.

Surprise! You never know when someone will pick up your book!

Every author I know seeks out places to get their book reviewed and hopes for a positive spin on their work. I was pleasantly surprised when I read Megan Wildhood’s review of Crash on the Mad in America blog in September. Here’s a bot of what she had to say:

Book Review of Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery by Ann Bracken

By

 Megan Wildhood

 – 

August 31, 2023

Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery (Charing Cross Press, 2022) by Ann Bracken

It sneaks up on you—depression, overmedication, and just depressed and overmedicated author of Crash Ann Bracken was by the time she realized that depression was the least of her worries. One minute, the reader is immersed in an isolated world of a terrified child whose mother never “comes back” from “mental illness” and the treatment she endured for decades. The next minute, the reader’s heart pounds, his or her head swims, and breath catches in his or her chest right along with Bracken’s. When did Ann’s migraine start? How many medications is she taking? How long has her husband been speaking to her like that? Why does every one of Bracken’s doctors sound the same?

Crash Cover

Why does every one of her doctors sound the same indeed—including the fact that not one of them asked her about her relationships (or anything else about her environment) before they adjusted (usually increased) her medication both in terms of dosage and variety. Bracken weaves together research on the harmful side effects, known since at least the 1970s, of psychotropic medication, especially the interactions of multiple psych meds, with her personal experience of some of these exact harms as well as finally understanding what she as a child witnessed of her mother’s experience of these harms. Her portrayal of herself as a dutiful, compliant patient in order to avoid the harshest treatments but also because she at one point trusted her doctors implicitly (as many do) makes the length of time she was in an abusive marriage all the more heartbreaking.

If you’d like to read the rest of Megan’s review, click here.

Megan recently interviewed me for her podcast, and I’ll provide the link when it’s available.

Getting Out of the Maze

In my recent book, Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery, I offer a detailed exploration of my journey through the maze of ineffective and often harmful psychiatric “care” that both my mother and I received when we experienced depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.  Early on, I picked up the notion that depression was due to something difficult you experienced—for my mother, it was the births of her children in close succession. She took copious amounts of pills and saw her psychiatrist fairly regularly, but she never got well for any extended length of time.  

Crash Cover

            And when I had experiences of depression, I took a psych drug for a month or so and then discontinued it, so it didn’t seem like I needed a drug forever to be OK. Until the mid-90s when depression and chronic pain hit me at the same time and nothing at all helped.  For many people, my story and my mother’s will be familiar—they try drug after drug and then maybe several ECT shocks and still don’t get well. Maybe your doctor treats you with numerous headache drugs and you still have a migraine. Maybe you’re given opioids as part of a pain management cocktail. What happens then?

            I explore those questions and many more in my memoir. And in case you think that something that happened over 30 or 60 years ago—in the case of my mother—can’t be relevant today, here are a few news articles that relate to the experiences I recount in my book and an endorsement from a pharmacology professor at Georgetown. 

I read your book cover to cover tonight; I hadn’t meant to read the whole thing, but it is so well-written,,clear ,and  compelling. I would love to have a hard copy to share with students.” 

~ Adriane Fugh-Berman, pharmacology professor at Georgetown Medical School

“This Teen Was Prescribed 10 Psychiatric Drugs. She’s Not Alone”

NYT article explores polypharmacy and often ineffective drug treatment in teens and adults

“Antidepressants No Better Than Placebo for 85% of People” 

Researchers can’t predict the 15% who benefit from antidepressants, and the other 85% are unnecessarily exposed to the harms of the drugs.” 

“Opioids May Cause Depression and Worsen Chronic Pain”

“Converging lines of evidence now suggest that depression—a common comorbidity in the setting of chronic pain—may in some patients represent an unrecognized yet potentially reversible harm of opioid therapy.”

Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Bookshop.org.

How Poetry Can Help You Heal from Depression

In honor of National Poetry Month, I’m posting a couple of columns that can help you see often-neglected uses for poetry. Besides its great beauty and ability to capture emotions, poetry can be a useful tool in many aspects of life–like dealing with depression.

How can poetry help depression?  Aren’t medication and therapy the best ways to treat the illness? My story may surprise you.

When I suffered from depression in the early 1990s, Prozac was the new “miracle drug.” Along with this so-called “miracle drug came a physical explanation of causation: that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This thesis is still widely promulgated, though much research is coming to light that disputes and even negates this biomedical explanation for the darkness that is so prevalent in our modern world. More information on the research side can be found at the website Mad in America, curated by science reporter Robert Whitaker. As part of Whitaker’s work to educate the public, he invites doctors, psychologists, counselors, and patients from all over the world to share research, essays, and personal experiences on the issues of depression and its treatment.

Even in the 1990s when I struggled to climb out of depression and tried numerous medications for several years with no results, the idea that the chemicals in my brain were out of whack did not provide a solid answer. Instead, I pursued a more metaphysical explanation for the questions that haunted me:  “Why am I depressed?” and “What longings are unfulfilled?”

And that’s what led me to poetry.

 One of the most valuable resources I found to aid in making sense of the gifts of depression is poet David Whyte’s 1992 CD entitled The Poetry of Self Compassion. Whyte’s recitation of Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” confirmed my feelings of being on a perilous but necessary journey through darkness and confusion. And I was deeply confused by the all-encompassing darkness that I was experiencing. But once I heard Whyte recite “The Journey,” I knew that someone understood a piece of what I was experiencing. And that the way I was feeling had nothing to do with messed up brain chemistry. My depression had everything to do with self-discovery and taking charge of my life.

The Journey

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!” each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop. You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

~Mary OliverI remember listening to the poem over and over–as if rolling around a mysterious new food in my mouth, trying to figure out what it tasted like that was familiar. What was it I was determined to do?  What else besides raise my children, serve my community, and be a good wife? I just knew there was more. And Mary Oliver’s words gave me the courage to make the journey that would save my life.

The answer was slow in coming, but I gradually began to realize that my struggles with depression and a migraine headache exacerbated my ex-husband’s verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see it. Depression and chronic pain became my crucible for change and my pathway to a new life. Poetry became my way to unlock the profound secrets that illness led me to discover. Poetry helped me to have compassion for my journey and for all the mistakes I had made along the way.

Whyte ends on a note of great compassion in the poem “The Faces at Braga” as he compares surrendering to the fire of depression and embracing your flaws in this way: “If only we could give ourselves to the blows of the carver’s hands, the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers feeding the sea” and we would “gather all our flaws in celebration, to merge with them perfectly…”  What a compelling call–to celebrate one’s flaws. What a gift of healing.

Ned Tillman: Writing Good Endeavour 

I spoke with my friend and fellow author about his latest book, a work of historical fiction. He had lots of interesting insights to share.

Ann Bracken (AB): Congratulations on your new historical novel, Good Endeavour.  Can you talk about what compelled you to write the story as historical fiction rather than nonfiction? 

Ned Tillman (NT): When we lost the farm, it was a very emotional time for each of us. I felt this deep family obligation to preserve as much about the farm as I could – especially the stories that I grew up with. I realized I knew more about the farm than anyone else, so I sat down to write as much as I knew about my ancestors and the challenging times they faced.

Once I collected as much memorabilia and writings as I could, I realized that aside from the last three generations, there was little detail as to the personalities of my ancestors and even less insight into on what they did. To try to reflect the reality of each generation, I felt like I needed to create characters who were composites of many people that lived at the same time, and then breathe life into them. So, I placed these characters into scenes reflecting a past epoch and watched how they responded to the major issues of their time. Many of the episodes reflected events that I discovered from the family tree.

AB: Can you talk about your research process? What kinds of family records did you use and what sources did you use to glean the ins and outs of Maryland history? 

NT: There were extensive records of the 20th century. There were also books about the family published in the 19th and 18th centuries. Maps showing the original plat are available at the Historical Society in Harford County under the name, Good Endeavour. The family had collected a library full of books, plays, weapons, artifacts, and certificates, and a barn full of farming equipment.

AB: The novel opens with a family of settlers in a place called Joppa Towne.  Did you have family artifacts from this far back?  How did you go about constructing family life from 1695? 

NT: The genealogical records that I have allowed me to trace some branches of the family back at least into the 17th century, when parts of the family landed on the Chesapeake. Other books track different limbs of the family to the Mayflower. I read widely and also followed many of the stories presented by Ric Cottom, PhD, formerly Editor of the scholarly Maryland Historical Magazine.

AB: I think people would be very interested in knowing how you discovered so much about the Native Americans who inhabited the northeastern corner of the Maryland Colony. 

NT: I have visited museums in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to learn about the various first people in these areas. The studies reveal how so many of them died from the diseases brought to this country. Many of the remainder had to figure out how to fend for themselves with the continued influx of Europeans. The State of Maryland has published maps showing areas where different groups lived.

AB: You have some interesting facts about the role of oyster shells in the process of making iron.  What drew you to that topic?

NT: I like to explore the woods and have found many signs of old limestone kilns and iron manufacturing sites that was widespread in the Chesapeake region. Lime from rock formations and oysters were needed as flux in these smelting operations

AB: What was the most challenging part of writing this novel? How did you overcome that obstacle?

NT: Trying to be true to the composite characters and how they reacted to the settings where I introduced them was challenging. I also struggled to keep the book to a reasonable length. There is so much of our past that is rarely well understood and I wanted to keep the reader actively engaged as we all learned more about our past.

AB: Your novel spans the time from 1695 when Maryland was a colony right up to 2002.  What were the most significant pieces of history from your family that helped you tell this fascinating story? 

NT: I have the most information from family records starting at the Civil War and progressing through the turn of the 20-th century. Our country boomed during the industrial age and changed dramatically, much like the past 50 years. But so many people don’t know this history well. I believe it is critical to have a historical perspective on today’s challenges and I hope this book will inspire more people to investigate their past to help them navigate the future

Ned Tillman

AB:  Lastly, congratulations again, Ned.  Where can people find your book and find out when you are doing an event?

Thank you, Ann. Your questions help me relive the writing experience which was a delightful passion to keep me sane during the pandemic. All my books are available on Amazon.com, Goodreads, and Barnes and Noble.

Visit my website, www.SavingThePlaces.com. Events should be listed. You can also ‘Follow’ me by going to my Homepage and clicking on the gray tab in the upper right corner. By getting on my email list you will receive my newsletters. I have a dozen events coming up in the fall.

Have you ever done everything a doctor told you, only to find yourself sicker than before you began treatment?

I’m thrilled to have my memoir, Crash, reviewed on the Mad in America Blog by the fine reporter, writer, and storyteller Amy Biancolli.

Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery by Ann Bracken (Charing Cross Press)

Cover art for "Crash"; an illustration depicting a spilled bottle of pills

“Have you ever done everything a doctor told you, only to find yourself sicker than before you began treatment?”

So asks Bracken in the first paragraph of her memoir, a devastatingly honest, ultimately hopeful account of personal and family anguish marked by crashes both literal and figurative. She zips back and forth in time, describing both her mother’s decades in the system and her own long arc of anguish and recovery—and touching on her daughter’s story as well.

The multigenerational saga begins in 1959, with her mother’s hospitalization for depression, and cycles through a decades-long ordeal that led to 37 ECT sessions (with minimal anesthesia) and psych drug upon psych drug upon psych drug. As a kid, Bracken had questions (where’s mom? why are the grownups whispering?); as an adult, she found answers in 30 years’ worth of medical documents meticulously preserved by her father.

The revelations were many. A full list of Helen Dempsey’s meds in the appendix includes barbiturates. Amphetamines. Tranquilizers. Antidepressants. The benzodiazepine Dalmane. The anticonvulsant Dilantin. Beyond all those medications and ECT, Dempsey also received some talk therapy—“but I’m not sure how helpful it was for my mother to talk with her male psychiatrists,” Bracken writes, “especially given the medical establishment and cultural attitudes toward women at the time.”

You can read the rest of Amy’s review here, and check out the other books featured this month as well.

You don’t need to be a doctor to understand research!

Last week when I opened up the Sunday edition of The Baltimore Sun, I read an op-ed piece written by three psychiatrists entitled “Haunted asylums are a Halloween staple: Does the fictional gore undermine psychiatry’s good?” The authors emphasized the point that rendering psychiatric treatments as horrific and damaging and “demonizing” patients who need treatment could deter those who need it most. But I had to take issue with their point about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a procedure where a doctor administers a current of electricity strong enough to induce a grand mail seizure, is “brief, still, and quiet.”

Because both my mother and I experienced ineffective treatment and overmedication for depression and chronic pain, I have spent the past twenty years trying to figure out what happened to us. Putting those pieces together involved reading research about psychiatric treatments, including the use of antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and ECT. And contrary to what many psychiatrists will tell you, the treatments are largely ineffective at best and can be very harmful at worst.

You can read the version of my essay that the Sun published here: “Forget Field of Screams: Psychiatry has more than an image problem.” But while they included references to a few of the studies I referenced, they did not include them all. In the interest of using evidence to support my claims, I’m publishing the fully referenced version of my essay here. Hope you find it interesting, and for more on my journey as a former depression sufferer, my own experiences with psychiatry, and my complete recovery, read my new memoir, Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery.

Psychiatry: There’s a Lot More to the Story

In response to the three psychiatrists’ letter regarding the demonizing of psychiatry by using old asylums as places to terrorize visitors looking for a Halloween scare, I offer a more skeptical take on the current treatments one is offered by modern psychiatry.  As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety in the past and watched friends and family members suffer, I am well aware of the serious nature of emotional distress issues, and I am in favor of evidence-based treatment. But for many people, the treatments run counter to the latest research, are ineffective at best, and sometimes even harmful. 

            One of the main problems plaguing modern psychiatry is its overreliance on the biological model of mental illness, often simply referred to as the chemical imbalance theory. Yet prominent leaders in the field have disavowed this theory, though many in the general public have not gotten the word. For example,  Dr. Ronald Pies, psychiatrist, of SUNY Upstate Medical and Tufts Universities,  denies the chemical imbalance theory that modern treatment is based on: “In short, the ‘chemical imbalance theory’ was never a real theory, nor was it widely propounded by responsible practitioners in the field of psychiatry.”  And lest you think Dr. Pies is exaggerating, you could consult the latest research By Dr. Joanna Moncrieff et al in which shows that there is no serotonin imbalance in the brain.  

            Despite its leaders disavowing the theory of a chemical imbalance causing emotional distress, psychiatrists routinely prescribe “treatment” consisting of drugs that purport to correct a chemical imbalance—which we now know does not exist.  And recent research states that antidepressants only work for 15% of the people who take them.    Few, if any, doctors mention the horrors of sexual dysfunction, sometimes permanent, that afflict many people who take psychiatric drugs. Most people who watch TV have heard the litany of  the more common side effects of psych drugswhich include insomnia, sedation, constipation, headaches, weight gain, blurred vision, tremors, and seizures. 

            And if you try two or three drugs and your doctor deems you to be treatment resistant .…meaning the drugs don’t work for you…then your doctor can administer an electrical current strong enough to induce a grand mal seizure.  Electroconvulsive therapy [ECT] is a serious and harsh procedure by any measure, despite Drs. Phelps, Mutalik, and Appell’s assurance that ECT is “brief, still, and quiet.”  Even so, recent literature reveals that for 50-70% of people who receive ECT relapse within two to four months and some as soon as four weeks. The doctors mentioned above fail to inform readers that harms from ECT can include permanent memory loss, brain trauma, and even brain damage. 

            We may be removed from the horrors of the “Field of Screams”, but research shows us that many of psychiatry’s current treatments, far from being precise and effective,  are often deemed futile at best and potentially very harmful at worst. Given that many recent studies show that exercise is as effective as antidepressants in treating most cases of depression, shouldn’t patients be offered the least harmful method of treatment first? And after reviewing many of the harms that are possible with the use of antidepressants and ECT, let’s consider the results of National Institute of Mental Health study concluded about the course of untreated depression: “If as many as 85% of depressed individuals who go without somatic treatment [drugs, ECT, and other treatments] spontaneously recover within one year, it would be extremely difficult for any intervention to demonstrate a superior result to this.” 

Crash Cover

So, what’s your new book about?

You may have seen my blog post announcing my new book, Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Healing. Now you’d like to know what the book is about before you consider reading it. Here are a few details:

Crash is about a little girl whose mother disappeared, and no one would tell her where she’d gone.

Ann's first day of school
Ann’s first day of school

Crash is about a woman who did everything her doctors told her, and yet she never got well.

Crash is about the woman’s daughter who vowed she’d never be like her mother only to find herself trapped in a similar cycle of overmedication, numerous doctors, and intractable physical and emotional pain.

Crash is a story of one woman’s determination and optimism when it seemed like all of her traditional remedies and supports had failed her.

When all of the other remedies had failed, I looked for another explanation for my pain.

Because I have a deep belief in many forms of healing, I began to embrace a similar path to the one that mythologist and author Michale Meade advocates. Here’s what he as to say about facing your darkness (depression and pain) and healing:

“Wholeness and unity are what all healing seeks, but a genuine transformation requires a descent to the underworld of the soul. There we find that our woundedness is not a static state, but rather a dynamic condition through which we incarnate more fully. In going through the wound the greater self within us is revealed.”

Register here for the book launch on October 13th, 7pm ET on Zoom. Hope to see you there!

Crash: A Memoir of Overmedication and Recovery

I’m pleased to announce that my memoir, Crash,is available for purchase on the following platforms: BookshopAmazon, and Barnes & Noble, &  Ebook Versions,  as well as here on my website.  Putting this book together was like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle—fitting experiences together with research helped me to develop a deeper understanding of what happened to me when I sought help for a severe depression and chronic migraine. Contrary to many of the upbeat and happy images you see in the commercials for antidepressants, my journey was one of trying one drug after another, yet never finding relief. The research I did for the book revealed that I was far from alone in that experience–only about 15% of the people who take antidepressants experience improvement greater than what’s accounted for beyond the placebo effect. 

Crash Cover
Book cover

Part of the reason I’m so interested in the topic is because I grew up in a home with a mother who suffered from chronic, unremitting depression for nearly 40 years.  Mom did everything the doctors told her, yet she could never escape the heavy pall of darkness. I kept wondering: Why could I recover and Mom couldn’t? I found the answers buried in an old folder in my sister’s attic. Crash braids my story with my mother’s to explore her journey using Dad’s detailed records from 30 years of her care, interwoven with research and vignettes from my past. 

All through my illnesses, “I’ll never be like my mother,” was my fervent mantra. I vowed to escape her fate despite year after year of unsuccessful treatments with numerous drugs and many rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. Crash is the story of what I learned about treating depression and chronic pain and the steps I took to finally recover. My memoir serves as a missive to women struggling to heal, carve their own path, and demand better care.

Here’s what some noted people in the field of psychiatric reform had to say about Crash

“Ann Bracken’s evocative memoir powerfully tells of how psychiatry’s diagnoses and treatments can lead to loss, illness, and despair, and how escaping from that paradigm of care can be a starting point for a full and robust recovery.”

            ~Robert Whitaker, Author of Anatomy of an Epidemic

“Ann Bracken artfully braids her path out of chronic pain and major depression, while questioning the system designed to help her, and reaching back into her mother’s history to find a way to help her as well. Bracken gives us permission to ask questions about our current mental health treatment; read and educate ourselves on the risks, benefits, and alternatives to psychiatry’s status quo; and above all, not to quit until we find our own path to a healed life.”

~Angela Peacock, MSW, mental health advocate and featured in award-winning documentary, Medicating Normal

“A fascinating memoir of two generations of medical and psychiatric mismanagement and suffering, and how one brave woman figured out what was happening and successfully took control of her health and well being… and prevented a third generation from following the same path.” 

~Stuart Shipko, MD, author of Surviving Panic Disorder and Xanax Withdrawal

Parenting Changed My Perspective on “ADHD”

I wrote this essay after seeing the film Luna, about a brother and sister who were both medicated for ADHD and now struggle with self image, motivation, and the negative effects of stimulant drugs.

When I graduated from college in 1974, I felt well-prepared to work as a speech and language pathologist in the public schools. I knew how to use an articulation test to screen for speech delays and pronunciation problems. Using a variety of standardized and informal assessments, as well as teacher input, I could determine areas where a child was struggling with language comprehension and expression. I easily performed routine hearing screenings to determine whether a child needed a full audiological workup. But what I wasn’t prepared for was making recommendations to parents for children who were labeled as  “hyperactive.”

Grab-bag of prescription drugs

During my second year of working in the schools, one of my duties was working on a screening committee. The screening committee in my school consisted of the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the reading specialist, the classroom teacher making the referral, and the speech pathologist (me). Children were referred to the committee for a variety of concerns—struggles with reading or math; speech, language, or hearing problems; and “hyperactivity,” which was later renamed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Three aspects of the screening committee’s discussions regarding the children, almost always boys, that either teachers or parents considered to be hyperactive stand out for me. When we surveyed the child’s records, we almost always discovered he had what we euphemistically called a “late birthday” because he was born near the end of the year. That meant that he was usually one of the youngest children in the class. Additionally, when we checked into the child’s home life, we often discovered that his parents had recently divorced or there’d been a death in the family. And lastly, there was always someone on the committee, often the assistant principal or the school psychologist, who recommended that the parent seek a medication consultation for the child.

To read the full essay, continue to the Mad in America Blog.