How Distress Language Cured Corinna West’s “Psychosis”

By Ken Braiterman

(NOTE: Corinna West gave me permission to write and post this story using her name.  She read, reviewed, and made suggestions prior to publication.)    

A Truly Equal, Mutual Peer Support Connection

Corinna West and Ken Braiterman: We Taught Each Other to Use Distress Language

One night in 2008, Corinna West called and said she was “psychotic.”  She was afraid she’d be fired, go to the hospital, and lose all the ground she’d gained.  She had lost sleep and was hallucinating, she said.  When the “symptoms” started, she got scared, and called me for support.

Disease vs. Distress Language

In those days, Corinna still called herself “schizophrenic,” and thought the words “psychotic” and “hallucinating” were interchangeable.  She has visual hallucinations, which are more frightening than the voices I hear sometimes.  People naturally believe what they see more than what they hear.

We’ve learned that hallucinations can come from bipolar disorder, depression, spiritual awakenings, and previous traumas, not just schizophrenia.  But many docs still jump to a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and prescribe anti-psychotic medication, the minute they hear a patient has hallucinations.

So Corinna’s “schizophrenia” was not necessarily coming back, I told her.  Something completely different might be going on.

At the Copeland Center for Wellness and Recovery, where I was a consultant and advanced WRAP facilitator, we call words like “psychotic, schizophrenic, symptomatic, coping skills,” and all diagnostic labels and medical jargon, SICKNESS LANGUAGE.  Just saying the words implies that someone is sick. Using them about yourself is like telling yourself that you have a disease.

Distress Language

At Wellness Wordworks, we say “Disease vs. Distress Language instead of “sickness and recovery,” partly for the catchy way the first syllables repeat, mainly because the word “recovery” implies recovering from a sickness or disorder, as in “recovering alcoholic.”  Everyone experiences distress, not just people with “a condition.”

I used to cringe whenever Corinna, who was so well when I met her, described herself in sickness language.

Trauma and Distress Language 

Corinna West Writing About Disease vs. Distress Language 

With a little probing, we discovered that Corinna was feeling abnormal pressure at work from her supervisors.  Because of her previous traumas, pressure from bosses is her biggest trigger.   She feels unsafe, unable to control what happens to her, and fears being a failure in life.

By identifying and naming the trigger, using Distress Language, we made the problem clear, concrete, and finite, not vague, hopeless, medical, or menacing.  The next day, she would do a reality check.  (Her supervisors assured that she and her job were safe.  No one had ever thought of firing her.)

I told her I thought she had the vision, creativity, practicality, and self-discipline to work for herself someday, like my friends Mary Ellen Copeland and Shery Mead, whose non-medical ideas and programs have changed mental health practice and policy all over the world.  You’d be better off, and can figure out how to make a living at it eventually, I said.

Identifying alternatives to the “same old” is a form of Distress Language.

Later, while starting Wellness Wordworks, she read and went to seminars about social entrepreneurship.   She found she has all 10 characteristics of a social entrepreneur, described in How to Change the World:   Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, by David Bornstein (2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 2007).

Changing “Psychosis” to Distress Language

In her 20’s, when she could not get traction in a career, Corinna went through 12 diagnoses, seven shock treatments, six suicide attempts, and 29 medications, up to six at a time.  Pressure from her bosses, and fear that she might get fired, brought back all the feelings connected with all that previous trauma as if it were happening now.

In distress language, she was experiencing a common, normal reaction when a trauma survivor is re-traumatized.

In her mind, getting fired would mean she really was a permanent, useless mental patient, an idea she had been fighting for years, with all her mind, body, and spirit, ever since she first learned from Dr. Dan Fisher’s website that half the people who have what she does get well.

With the determination and discipline of the Olympic athlete she is, she fought to be in that 50 percent, and being triggered at work made her feel like she had lost the fight.  (Her conventional docs had told her only 10 percent like her get well.)

No wonder she was scared.

Wellness Language and Distress Language

[In distress language, though we did not have that expression yet], I said, “You’re not sick, you’re having difficulty.  You’re not symptomatic, you’re having terribly uncomfortable feelings.  It is not a brain disease; it is your normal human reaction to abnormally stressful and disturbing events.  You’re a world-class athlete. Go ride your bike.  Go outside and play.” 

Some people use the term wellness language.  Wellness began appe aaring in dictionaries in the early 1990’s.  It was formed by adding the suffix –ness to the opposite of sick.  

The Effect of Distress Language

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I was pretty smart that night, repeating to Corinna stuff that had been true for me, that I had learned from other peers, which we now call “Distress Language,” and the “Distress Model.”

Corinna was even smarter.  She internalized the Distress Language idea, long before she called it the Disease vs. Distress Model.

From that day on, she knew her hallucinations are her normal reaction to abnormal distress, not an incurable, recurring brain disease.  She still gets triggered and hallucinates occasionally, still calls peers for support.  But, as far as I know, she no longer gets scared of her own mind.  She thinks in Distress Language, not Disease Language.

Until the mood passes, which it always does, she gets by with Distress Language, healthy activities, and a little help from her friends.

Ken Braiterman is Wellness Worldworks board chair. He can be reached through his Facebook page.

Wordworks Blog Author: Ken Braiterman

Ken Braiterman, Wellness Wordworks board chair, has been an activist, news reporter, opinion writer, and columnist since 1968. From 1997 to 2009, he was New Hampshire's leading advocate for recovery-based mental health services. He is an advanced Wellness and Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) facilitator.

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