‘A Tuesday With Bob’ by Deron Drumm

ddrummI cannot emphasise enough how important grassroots activism is for creating change in the mental health and addiction fields. A clear example of a successful movement is Mad In America, started by Robert Whitaker after publishing his book of the same name.

Here’s a thoughtful and passionate blog which illustrates just how much this movement means to people on the ground.

‘Robert Whitaker’s books and website have changed my life in profound ways. Nearly two years ago, thanks to the generosity of Dorothy Dundas, I was able to have dinner with Bob and several activists.

I sat next to Bob for two hours and was only able to summon the courage to say the deeply philosophical words, “I liked your book.” It was a long ride home to Connecticut that night with that phrase repeating in my head and the knowledge that I had lost an opportunity to tell someone how they had changed my life.

This past Tuesday, nearly two years after my awkward interaction with Bob, I had my second chance to convey my feelings to Bob. The organization I work for, Advocacy Unlimited (“AU”), was hosting a talk by Bob, and I was scheduled to speak prior to him. I tend to be someone who writes and speaks from an emotional place. I say this because my inability to convey gratitude to Bob two yeas ago was out of character for me. I usually lead with my heart.

I woke up this past Tuesday with my mind fully channeling creativity as I prepared some words for Whitaker’s talk.  I had two events occurring that night that were emotionally charged for me. Greg Benson of AU helped organize the Whitaker talk and was scheduled to speak after me and formally introduce Bob. Greg would be delivering his last speech for AU as he recently announced that he would be leaving us for new and exciting opportunities.

If I were to write down the people that have had the biggest impact on my life there would not be many names before Bob Whitaker and Greg Benson. I left work midday to go home and work on my speech. I had tears in my eyes as I practiced.  I was going to seize this opportunity to let Bob and Greg know all that they have done for me, my family and for Advocacy Unlimited.

Two hours before the talk, I received word that there was a crisis at work. I spent time hearing the details and began feeling overwhelmed with stress. There simply wasn’t time for me to quiet my mind through meditation. I ended up showing up just in time to go on stage.

My body was there but my mind was not. I robotically went through what Advocacy Unlimited does and then called up Greg – who did a beautiful job introducing Bob. I now had officially squandered two opportunities to tell Bob what his work has meant to me.

I was flat Tuesday night – Bob was not. Bob naturally tempers his strong message with his warmth, humor and honesty. After my blundered intro, I sat in the front row so I was unable to see how Bob’s words were being received in the theater behind me.

I had noticed, while I spoke, the fact that we had a great turnout in what is a cool retro auditorium located at Central Connecticut State University.  The diverse audience included therapy grad students. Many of the students were there because Dr. Karen Kangas required her students to attend the talk. Karen also requires her classes to read Anatomy of an Epidemic.

Her contribution goes well beyond helping the advocacy cause by distributing information in her classes. After she was psychiatrically hospitalized numerous times, Dr. Kangas began advocating for better and giving hope to people that were struggling. She has now been fighting for those deemed “other” – for over three decades (she also fought hard to give me, her son, a second chance at life).

As Bob concluded his incredible speech, Greg and I scrambled to get microphones in order to field questions from the audience. It is telling that I did not see anyone leave before the question-and-answer portion of the night. I asked that people raise their hands and Greg and I would make our way to them. The number of hands that shot up was overwhelming.

As I made my way to the folks with questions, I took note of the out-of-state activists in the audience, the young faces of the students, the mental health professionals and the advocacy community in CT. As I saw the diverse audience and I heard question after question start with “thank you for everything you do,” my mind and my body were now fully present in that room and I felt my emotions return in full force.

Some folks asked riveting questions about how change can happen. Others shared tear-jerking stories. Bob generously stayed well over the allotted time. After the final question, Bob was immediately surrounded by people that wanted their books signed and by people wanting to simply meet him.

As I watched this happen, a particular person, whom I knew believed in the broken brain philosophy, approached me. I steeled myself for the tongue-lashing I was about to receive. Instead, the person hugged me and thanked me for bringing Bob.  Then said to me, “I am sad that I could not have heard him twenty years ago but I am grateful that people new to treatment can hear this message.”

The next day I received over 20 e-mails from people saying what the talk meant to them – they were all positive. I heard that a couple members of the Advocacy Unlimited staff started the ovations that occurred during the talk. They did not do it because I asked them to, or because it was an AU event, they did it because Bob got to them. As I walked around with the microphone that night, I had the sense that Bob got to a lot of people.

I first saw Bob speak in 2010 and I immediately started viewing him as the quintessential heretic. That day he was telling the audience about a failed paradigm and the absolute necessity for a new one. I think a paradigm shift that is analogous to the one we need in “mental health” is the paradigm shift that occurred when people went from thinking the world was flat to thinking that the world was round.

People saying that the world was round were vilified for their beliefs. The people who saw the evidence of the world being round could not understand why there were still flat-world thinkers.

I equate the people who view emotional distress as the result of a chemical imbalance or a broken/diseased brain with those who thought the world was flat. Bob has spent years telling flat-world thinkers that the world is round. I believe (albeit slowly), that the paradigm is shifting. The questions that followed Bob ‘s talk Tuesday basically all followed the same order: “Thank you;” “We agree with you;” What do we do now?”

Bob answered the “What do we do now?” questions with descriptions of Open Dialogue, Soteria and other concepts. He talked about how humans learn and grow from connections to fellow humans. He talked about the need to see us all as brethren and not as separate groups (“normal” vs. “mentally ill”).

I wanted to tell Bob in my speech how much his work has meant to me.  His books were paramount in my becoming a round-world thinker. What madinamerica.com has done for me is incredible (I am writing about the impact on me because I tend to be uncomfortable with people who write assuming they represent others).

Through this medium I am able to learn from the folks that have been doing the hard work of activism for many years. I get to read thoughts from longtime leader activists like Ted Chabasinski, Michael Cornwall and Jim Gottstein. I also get to learn from the upcoming freedom fighters like Laura Delano, Sera Davidow, Leah Harris and so many more.

Recently, Bob and the MIA team shifted MIA from a place where those who have experienced the treatment by flat-world thinkers voiced themselves to a forum where many, including psych docs, can share their thoughts on how to shift the paradigm. I was among the people who were not thrilled with this transition.

As I watched the impact from this shift, I began to see the wisdom. Welcoming writings from people like revered Yale psychologist Dr. Larry Davidson – has legitimized and expanded the influence of this webzine in Connecticut.

Early this year, I was given the opportunity to be the Executive Director of Advocacy Unlimited. There was a time when I thought that if this opportunity presented itself, I would staff the AU team with radicals that thought one way.

Learning from the MIA community, I saw the value of having a team with multiple ideas about how the system can change.  As evidenced on this site, multiple truths lead to a larger community. Which leads to a louder voice.

I have learned and grown a great deal from reading the blogs on this site. But MIA is much more than a place to receive information. Bob and the MIA team have created a community that continues to grow in size and influence every day.

As I write these words, the MIA film festival is about to commence in Arlington, MA. People from all over the world are coming together to connect, to learn and to build solidarity. I would strongly recommend people attend this event. I would also strongly recommend you bring Bob Whitaker to speak in your neck of the woods.’

And Bob – yeah, I was truthful that night at dinner – I did enjoy your book! What I failed to mention was that your work has changed my life in every conceivable way. I offer deep gratitude to you and to all the people who work hard to show that the world is round.