When Healers Become Jailers.

I found out today that a former client of mine recently passed away.

Ai Wei Wei's sculptural piece "Refraction", meant to be viewed through the broken glass of the gun gallery (as a guard might have gazed) at Alcatraz penitentiary.

Ai Wei Wei's sculptural piece "Refraction", meant to be viewed through the broken glass of the gun gallery (as a guard might have gazed) at Alcatraz penitentiary.

I remember the last time I saw her, and embracing her. I tried to be mindfully present with her, tried to be there with her as she spoke with me: her body was weak and her voice full of hopelessness, I would sometimes interrupt her in attempts to reconstruct what worth or resistance there might be lying beneath the surface of that sea of helplessness and alienation that felt, I would imagine, like it was taking its last stranglehold on her as she was beset with yet another score of challenges.

And in my mind as I remembered her today, I couldn't repudiate the idea that the system had catastrophically failed her, that her needs were too complex and intricate for any one institution to provide her with the assistance that she needed. And now she is gone.

In graduate school one of the first assignments I received was to answer the question "how can healers become jailers?" My supervisor at the time was a very gifted woman, and the question let loose so many ideas. Ideas about power, institutionalization, the meaning of "mental health" and "empowerment", and how the very language that we use as a "healer" can construct or deconstruct possibilities, even when we service providers don't give it a second thought.

This was before I had faced my own series of catastrophic events in the NICU and would have to weed myself out of what felt like endless fields of sorrow over the course of months: struggling against what felt like all the energy in the world that kept pushing me back down. It wasn't until I knew what it was like when you have to surrender yourself to a system of power, to trust that it will know what to do with your surrender, that sometimes it won't do the right thing, it won't SEE you or the people you love; it wasn't until then that I learned the language of defeat and of survival, and how insurmountably difficult it is to remember the things that once made you happy when the stakes are so high.

Sometimes life circumstances take one to the very dark underbelly of consciousness, a place where it's easy to feel lost, forgotten, useless and without hope. It happens. And if you've not experienced it, consider yourself "lucky" or "blessed" or whatever word you use to describe that unfathomable lightness. For those who have found themselves there, they will know you're often forced to contend with institutions that for our lifetimes we've been taught are there to take care of our society, to take care of us when we need help, to provide aid when we can no longer put up the energy to take care of ourselves or, sometimes, our loved ones. These institutions are treated like the catcher in the rye and are assumed to have the "magic wand" of healing.

Unfortunately, these systems often fail.

"Blossom Illumination" by Ai Wei Wei, Alcatraz

"Blossom Illumination" by Ai Wei Wei, Alcatraz

Too often, I read articles about people like my clients, like me, like ANYONE who has faced pain in the face, and we are treated as "other" or alien from the dominant culture, and it isn't right. The language of healing becomes codified by the popular cultural beliefs that characterize the mainstream. "Addiction" is considered a choice. "Mental health" is considered taboo. Even physical health is treated as if it's always the responsibility of the individual, even when the circumstances are dire and unpredictable.

Sometimes, more important than keeping our own worlds unscathed by pain or fear or unpredictability, it's giving people what they need when they need it, as a community. And as someone who claims to be a healer, I cannot say there's a single person I've encountered that used their need for help as a means of "manipulating" the system.

My heart is with K. and her family.