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From: Recovery To Practice E-News Issue No.10, July, 26, 2012
A Personal Story by Jimi Kelley, FSST.

Walking along a dark and empty street, dodging puddles of blood that seemed to lie everywhere like a natural part of the landscape, I wandered in a sort of serpentine manner, avoiding the dead birds that fell from the sky. It was a morbid feeling, yet I knew it was a natural part of life.

I knew in a few hours this feeling would pass and I would likely return to the “fast track,”—hours spent in rapture, where so many new ideas would come to me. My world would be full of vibrant color and laden with secret messages only I perceived.

As surely as the occasional car that passed me on the street was not dodging the birds falling from the sky, I felt alone in my awareness of life and death. I wondered if the anomaly was inside of me. Still, without guidance, I could not quiet the part of myself subject to fits of rage. After this anger caused me to cut myself with a knife, I landed in a quiet office with a gentle man who informed me I was sick.

In that moment, I felt relief as I never had before. A well-educated and compassionate man was assuring me I had a medical dysfunction that could be managed with medicine—a scientific, lab-produced remedy.

Born Native American through my mother, I related more closely to her and my grandfather than anyone else in the world. I was too young to realize dominant culture had convinced them, like so many other Native people, that our traditional ways were flawed and that we needed to embrace science as religion. I accepted the diagnosis of rapid cycling bipolar disorder and spent the next 15 years complying with a routine of antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and prescription amphetamines to treat my deplorable and embarrassing “condition.”

Although the synthetic struggles of man versus nature during those 15 years took me on a more tumultuous roller coaster ride than any mood swing I could ever imagine, I submitted to the belief that this was my lot in life—that feeling like a machine bound to the numb and dreamy state of someone who has taken too much allergy medicine was my good fortune and only path to becoming a worthwhile human being.

I continued with regimens inspired by my providers' experimental curiosities long after I had begun pursuing my own cultural practices and the wisdom of our elder people. I tried to balance the teachings I received over the years with the whims of script-happy doctors who tried to put their signature on my brain by giving me a diagnosis different from doctors I had previously seen, regardless of the outcome.

As I learned to supplant the minimal benefits of therapy with traditional practices of our culture, I experienced a progression of personal development that was more fulfilling than I ever expected.

Programs like the St. Regis Indian Health Service (IHS) in Akwesasne, New York, offer an integral approach to mental health care, providing access to traditional healing as well as clinical recovery. According to IHS regarding Public Law 93-638, Indian Self-Determination Contracting and Compacting, tribes and tribal programs now directly manage more than 50 percent of the mental health budget and programs for Native American communities.

Unfortunately, these services were not available where I was living, and in the midst of a tumultuous divorce, the sudden loss of a long-term job, the pressure of being a single parent to two children, and stress wrought by a contrary work environment, I experienced a collapse of hope, faith, and therapeutic progress that I called “Crashing Through the Medication.” My thoughts, emotions, and sense of self fell into a state of despair that no amount of medication could relieve.

In the absence of chemical support, I decided to surrender to the experience. I cast all prayer and practice aside and entered the dark—naked and raw, angry and anguished.

I would not share the experiences of that time and the issues I encountered in the dark with anyone, but at last I was gifted a glimpse of hope. A caretaker of ceremony whom I had spoken to in an offhand conversation sensed the despair in my voice and traveled several hundred miles to see me.

What emerged from our meeting and the healing prayers that followed can only be described as shaking something loose that had been wrapped too tightly. Within days, my mind became as clear as it was when I was a child, and my body—my limbs—felt relaxed and new. As if this liberation wasn't enough, an elder said to me, “You know in the old days, these things that Western medicine call 'illnesses' were referred to as 'gifts' by our people.”

Like a flash of light, it dawned on me that my struggle for balance was not a struggle between medication and culture—it was a struggle between acceptance and fear. Stepping out on a new path with new understanding, I experienced the one hope I never thought possible: access to my gifts and control over my symptoms.

Eight years after my catalytic depression, I am peacefully free of synthetic stability. I have access to the ingenuity that used to overwhelm me in times of mania, and access to the sadness and anger that held me captive during depression. But now I can identify and choose what’s good for me and what I need to let go.

As Western medicine and science continue to catch up to tradition, I believe the value of cultural practices and teachings will be increasingly integrated, and the wellness movement will truly be an achievable goal.


Jimi Kelley is a consultant on culture, spirituality, and mental health for the First Nations Behavioral Health Association.


Harris, A.H., F.M. Luskin, S.V. Benisovich, S. Standard, J. Bruning, S. Evans, and C. Thoresen. (2006). Effects of a Group Forgiveness Intervention on Forgiveness, Perceived Stress and Trait Anger: A Randomized Trial. Journal of Clinical Psychology 62(6):715–733.

Indian Health Service. American Indian/Alaska Native National Behavioral Health Strategic Plan 2011–2015. (2011). Rockville, Md.: IHS National Tribal Advisory Committee on Behavioral Health, IHS Behavioral Health Work Group, and IHS.

Marano, Hara Estroff. (2005). Laughter: The Best Medicine. Psychology Today.

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