From the Darkness into the Light

by Darcey Jane

Speech for the Like Minds, Like Mine Seminar May 3, 2013

I am excited to be standing up here in front of all of you today. It is a real privilege. Thank you for this opportunity.

I have been with the Like Minds, Like Mine programme for nine years so far. Sometimes I think that is too long and I should move on to something else, something new to challenge me. I worry that I may be too stagnant where I am. Sometimes I look at other jobs out there, I have even gone so far as to apply and been interviewed. But I am still here. Why? Well, I was recently elected as Chair of the Like Minds national reference group for one thing. That brings with it a fresh challenge, what does Chair do? How do we make best use of the reference group for the programme?

Everything comes back to meaning and purpose. It took me a long time to get here, and to realise that here is more than just a job that pays the bills. Here gives me meaning and helps define not only what I do, but who I am. But who am I? Let me tell you a story.

There was once a little girl; an eager and curious little girl who was interested in the world and her place in it. From a young age she was sensitive to people and their feelings. She watched everything and sensed things that weren’t said out loud. Sometimes her environment was harsh; there was a lot of unhappiness and pain from a family culture of hurt and silence. This little girl was regularly moved from place to place, with her family, as they moved from air force base to air force base. She seemed to handle it well enough, she made friends easily. But her sensitivity to things made her quite sad and unhappy. She desperately wanted harmony and conflict made her quite sick. It caused her a lot of internal dis-ease.

As young as seven years old, she realised that it was too painful to be so open to this sensitivity and she brought a wall down around her. Nobody would have known, they didn’t seem to notice any difference, but she did. The wall locked her into a darker place that only narrow shards of light could get through to. She became wary of people and was acutely attuned to the negativity around her. This was life as she knew it. Her family had the illusion of being a happy, functional nuclear family, well connected to the community and the large extended family of four generations. This did provide some security of her place in the world, but it was only a temporary measure. The disconnection that had occurred internally when she was about seven years of age was a rupture of some magnitude that lay in wait for its time.

Her teenage years were a minefield of anxiety bombs waiting to go off. Obsessed with suicide and darkness, no one picked up on her dis-ease growing within. Even her fifth form English research assignment on suicide didn’t awaken anyone to her pain. Or maybe it did. There were offers of help but her fear of being locked away was too great.

Twenty years later, there she was; two young sons and still quite fragile and child-like herself. Not that anyone would know to look at her. Her fragility made her acutely aware of her vulnerability and this was even more securely locked away from the outside world, from all and anyone to see, behind an exterior of put togetherness and pseudo-strength. She learned to apply the mask of confidence to be worn in public at all times. But it affected her deeply and cost her a lot. It hindered her relationships, and stunted her ability to grow. She was intensely aware of her situation, but the darkness was seductive and caused a lot of confusion. But she knew she should do something; that she needed to do something different, and maybe seek some help.

When she thought about her options two things came to mind. Strangely enough, Buddhism was the first thing that occurred to her. She didn’t know anything about it, she even thought you had to be a vegetarian but she let her fingers do the walking and looked up Buddhism in the yellow pages of the phone book. She obviously didn’t have access to the internet. She found it but there was a list of about 10 Buddhist places which only confused her more. What was the difference and how would she choose? She decided that there must be another way and closed the book. She waited a few more days and then, summoning up all her courage, she rang her local GP and made an appointment. She described her current state as being in extreme stress and needing some help. She asked what her options were. The GP told her about private specialists but these were not realistic as she could not afford their rates. He then told her about the public mental health system with its free service and six week waiting list. She told him she would need to do that but what was she to do in the meantime? He gave her a prescription for anti-depressants and she went home, via the pharmacy to fill her script.

Whether it was seeing the doctor that opened the floodgates, the effects of the medication, or it was due to happen anyway, shortly after seeing the doctor her world shattered. In a blur of screaming arguments, intense and extreme emotional pain and the panicked choices made in a moment of total urgency, suddenly she was in the care of respite nurses via the emergency department and police station. After spending a few days in respite care, she returned home and opened the letter waiting for her from the community mental health service. Labelled with a borderline personality and bipolar disorder, she was suddenly in the care of a support worker. The one thing she was pleased about was that there was a name for what had felt so wrong for so long. She felt quite vindicated and validated at the same time. There must be some information she could learn from about what had been wrong with her for so long.

She sought help from everywhere after that. Frequent conversations with her support worker, psychodrama classes and her own natural support network of friends and family kept her going, despite even her ongoing and frequent attempts to escape the darkness once and for all. Her delusion continued to haunt her, making her believe that she was completely worthless and making not only her own life but her sons’, their father, and everyone else’s life a misery, a burden to them all.

Despite all this somehow she kept going, holding on to whatever she could to keep her going from painful day, minute-by-minute, to day, week after week, month after month. Joy was sought from artificial places, anything she could get her hands on to provide some relief while she searched for some meaning to her depressing life. Despite the hours of isolation, holed up inside her own head, there were people around her, and these same people kept coming back.

She met some new people along the way, women with experiences similar to hers. Women that supported her during her trial in the family court, as the psychiatrists and psychologists stripped more fragile layers off her as they took away her children into the care of their father, an equal player in the confusion and the protagonist in the district court drama of male assaults female.

Yet, even as her history was laundered in the public arena of the family court, yet the children’s father’s was not, as the judge passed sentence that she was to lose primary custody of her children, as she fell into the arms of the woman waiting for her outside the courtroom, something inside whispered that she would be okay. As she sobbed, as broken as a mother can be, in the arms of her friend, something inside her told her she would be okay.

Well I can tell you very confidently that she is okay. In fact these, and some more almost as painful experiences since then, have actually become her treasures as she rose up, time and again from her own, and the societal discrimination and built herself a life worth living, she put everything back together. With each piece back in place, she stepped further into her life and closer to the actualisation of her potential.

Through another woman she met along the way she learned of a programme that was built on experiences like hers; that educated people about experiences like hers to contribute to building a stronger society for all people. She joined the Like Minds speakers’ bureaux as a speaker and soon became the coordinator. From there she became a project manager, still dedicated to Like Minds. At her speaking training she became friends with a woman who spoke of her Buddhist practice as instrumental to her recovery. She found what she had been looking for two years earlier, and began practising Nichiren Buddhism. That will be nine years ago on Monday, May 6th, 2013.

I had found what I was looking for, a meaning for my life, the connection to myself and everything around me, and a tool to live the most fulfilling life possible. I also found the answers to my search for the causes of the suffering I had lived with for so long. I have been able to reframe my experience from one of misery and disempowerment into a source of value and creativity.

I have been able to go back into the dark corners and explore my psyche without fear of not being able to find my way back.

The fact that we are all here together validates the interconnectedness of our lives through our shared commitment to working for the social inclusion of people who are at present still being excluded because of a very real and human experience. That we exclude ourselves from living our own lives as fully as possible is one thing, but continuing to be actively excluded by others, including our families, communities and wider society is not okay.

Discrimination is a denial of the degree to which each individual existence is linked and connected with all others.

We may have made some progress with awareness that these experiences are very real and happening much closer to people than they may like to think, or realise, but allowing people to feel more comfortable about talking about our experiences doesn’t mean the conversations are positive, or that the people having them are more accepting. And talking about something doesn’t mean anything necessarily changes. We still have laws that discriminate; mothers, and fathers, still lose access to their children at the hands of the state due to the misconception that our experience means we’re violent and dangerous. People like us still don’t disclose the resilience and strength they’ve gained from their experience as positive attributes when applying for jobs. Our abilities and desires to live every day with appreciation and gratitude developed from overcoming our despair and attempts to take our own lives aren’t accepted as strengths and positives when we apply for life insurance. Our learning and growth as people with the richness of surviving extreme human experience hasn’t been understood yet by so many people in our communities who still have so much influence and power over our lives. We know that to disclose our experience will likely mean we are not the ideal tenant for the flat, or the ideal candidate for the job, or a positive role model for others struggling with their lives. Yet we have been to places that so many people haven’t been, or can’t acknowledge has made them stronger. There is still so much fear out there that people seek to control themselves and their environments as much as possible in order to reduce the risks that come with fully living.

Buddhism has taught me that all phenomena are interconnected and interdependent. I exist because that exists. That exists because I exist. The Buddhist tradition as with many other oral traditions including Māoritanga, are based on stories shared by person to person, from generation to generation, the manifestation of our dependent origination, whakapapa and whānaungatanga. The Like Minds programme has been founded on these same principles working to make an impact against the discrimination people are experiencing at the grassroots of our communities. With the end of the national plan coming up in June, we are now looking at refreshing the programme. Having been written the best practice guidelines for delivering the Like Minds regional programme, it is my hope that Like Minds now starts to capitalise on the awareness-raising it has been quite successful in achieving, and looks to achieving outcomes of integration through the inclusion of people who have lived through extreme human experience, and build a stronger society that acknowledges the value of recovery from this experience. It is time to really start addressing the systemic discrimination that is embedded deeply in our culture through the dimensions of the individual, the family/community and the wider society at large.

I’d like to share this poem by Daisaku Ikeda:

For several brilliant centuries,
Western civilisation has encouraged
the independence of the individual,
but now appears to be facing
a turbulent twilight.

The waves of egoism
eat away at the shores of contemporary society.

The tragedy of division
wraps the world in thick fog.

Individuals are becoming mere fragments,
competing reed bundles of lesser self
threatened with mutual collapse.

Buddhism describes the connective threads of
‘dependent origination’.

Nothing in this world exists alone;
everything comes into being and continues in response to cause and conditions.

Parent and child.
Husband and wife.
Friends. Races.
Humanity and nature.

This profound understanding
of coexistence, of symbiosis –
here is the source of resolution for
the most pressing and fundamental issues that confront humankind.

Our battle for social inclusion is not a battle to establish something new; it is the restoration of a harmonious society where the innate negative functions of life, such as discrimination and exclusion are overpowered by the compassion and wisdom also innate in life. Ours is a battle for good over evil, lightness over darkness, from the sometimes painful but also enriching experience of having been in the dark, and refreshed anew by stepping into the light.

I te tīmatanga, ko te kore
Ko te pō
Nā te pō
Ka puta ko te Kukune
Ko te Pupuke
Ko te Hihiri
Ko te Mahara
Ko te Manako
Ka puta i te whei ao
Ki te ao mārama e
Tihēi Mauri ora.

In the beginning there was a void
Within the void there was night
From within the night, seeds were cultivated
It was here that movement began – the stretching
There the shoots enlarged and swelled
Then there was pure energy
Then there was subconsciousness
Then the desire to know
Movement from darkness to light, from conception to birth
From learning to knowing
I sneeze and there is life.*

This tauparapara resonates with me as my experience was like a rebirth rather than a recovery. Looking at my life before my mental health crisis, it is hard to define exactly when the ‘breakdown’ began. I didn’t feel as if I’d ever been fully living. I was confounded by confusion, all the time. After the experience it was like a breakthrough, an emergence of hope and new life. As I put myself back together, piece by piece, the glue holding it all together came from something much larger than my individual self. Because of the extreme experience I had had, I could see what I had been disconnected from. It was as if, in the darkness, I had gone back to the source of life, which gave me light.

We live in uncertain times, there is nothing constant except change, and everything is impermanent, except the source from where we came, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The inclusion we strive for is possible; and worth fighting for. We continue on the journey, picking up from those before us and entrusting the future to our successors. What we do now matters, what we do makes the difference. We are bound together by interdependence and we have chosen the good fight. I am grateful to have had such an experience to learn from, that led me to the place where I now stand.

As the Chair, I would like the Like Minds Reference Group to lead the charge by coordinating and supporting the efforts of the regional providers to work with people in the target groups identified in the best practice guidelines who have a substantial impact on people’s lives. I’d also like the reference group to be the conduit to the national component of the programme, the shoulders, if you like, connecting the two arms of the programme, as we reach towards better outcomes for people with experiences like ours.

I’d like to close with a quote from the man who has taught me how, and what it means to live, my mentor Daisaku Ikeda:

‘Life contains the capacity, like flames that reach toward the heavens, to transform suffering and pain into the energy of creation, into light that illuminates darkness. Like the wind traversing vast spaces unhindered, life has the power to uproot and overturn all obstacles and difficulties. Like clear flowing water, it can wash away all stains and impurities.

‘Life is an ongoing succession of births and deaths. From this perspective, we must seek our goal and mission in something that transcends birth and death, something that we can give our whole life to. Only then can we tap the inexhaustible potential of life. In other words, we must advance beyond the mere struggle to stay alive and be prepared to ask ourselves for what purpose we live our lives.’

* http://www.educate.ece.govt.nz/learning/curriculumAndLearning/Assessmentforlearning/TeWhatuPokekaEnglishLanguageVersion/KaupapaMaori/InterpretationOfTauparapara.aspx

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