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Mary Clista Dahl: a different approach to psychological suffering

From burnout and the diagnosis of bipolar disorder to finding of more meaningful and wholesome road to recovery beyond the pathologizing narrative, Mary Clista Dahl reveals how it is possible.

On your website and in your articles, you have described your way to healing, from the 1998 diagnosis of bipolar disorder to a place where you are today, helping other people. Can you tell us more about this?

I had what is commonly referred to as a “breakdown” in 1998, and another in 2016, both of which resulted in hospitalizations.  In 1998 I earned my label “Bipolar Disorder,” which my doctors and most of the narrative described as a serious mental illness, so I entered the mental health system as a compliant “patient” because I was afraid and believed what they said, that there was something wrong with me and I didn’t want to lose my two small children.

After my release in 2016, however, I had a different perspective.  I asked myself the question, “How is it that I, someone who is labeled with a “serious mental illness,” flourished for thirty-five years in a career guiding thousands of college students (accumulating 1400 sick leave hours in the process), retired at age 55, raised two children while working full time and earning my college degree, authored four books and had my home certified as a National Wildlife Federation habitat?”

My answer:  I am not the least bit ill or disordered. As a matter of fact, I am perfectly well.  That fresh approach and belief led me to research the history of the mental health system and find many alternatives to the accepted definitions of and relief from emotional and mental suffering.  This also put me in touch with people who practiced and showed me the concept of compassionate care. Now I am passing that on.

What have you found that was of the best aid to you in your personal healing process?

My personal healing process is a formula of writing and journaling, nature immersion, bringing more joy into my life, and intentionally staying connected with my fellow humans.  Those are the factors that keep me in alignment.  If I am feeling stress or distress, I unplug and reflect to break that down into anger, fear, or sadness, acknowledge the emotion and turn to one or more of those tools to bring me back to my regulated self. Traditional treatment plans created in the system were not effective for me. I believe strongly that it is best for each of us to come up with individualized treatment plans because we are all unique.  It was when I really took a close look at the things that brought me back to alignment that I was able to form my own effective customized treatment.

In your mission, you are focused on “guiding the diagnosed and the labeled people to a place where they can see what’s right about them instead of what’s wrong with them”. Can you tell us more about this?

The current mental health system (at least in the U.S.) is set up to focus on symptoms, medication, side effects, and disability.  I was caught up in this downward spiral until I realized all of my accomplishments and attributes.  By recognizing my strong points and positive traits, I found my value, which gave my life meaning, pulling me out of that cycle that identified me as disordered.  That change in direction made all the difference in how I viewed and managed what my culture calls “illness.” It only takes a few minutes of dedicated listening to someone’s story of their accomplishments and dreams for me to identify their worth and point that out to them.  I notice mental strife as normal human emotion as opposed to a biological malfunction.  Instead, the system judges our behavior and assigns us a label.  I see that as counterproductive to healing. We can learn a great deal from a more optimistic approach.

Related to this, do you think that medicalized narratives of psychological suffering today somehow possibly hinder the process of healing? If yes, what would be another way to frame it?  What have you found useful in this process?

I absolutely agree that the narratives of psychological suffering hinder the process of healing. Traditionally, from the moment someone goes to a psychiatrist for “help” they are assigned a label, often including the word “disorder.”  What follows is a constant flow of negative language.  We use words like broken, patient, illness, disability, imbalance, etc.  Mental and emotional strife are natural states of life and the human condition to be felt and worked through with the help of conversation, compassion and comfort from others in our human family.

Until we replace those negative narratives with a more hopeful and helpful language of healing, the stigma will remain.  A better way to frame it would be to become solution-focused, rather than problem-focused.  By that I mean, instead of automatically assuming what is “wrong” with someone who is suffering (symptoms), having a conversation about what they are feeling and experiencing (in emotional terms).  Make it kind and personal.   As part of that dialog, introduce the idea of what they wish to do with their lives, what are their hopes and dreams, and reassure them that they are achievable.  Encouraging words are not a popular part of our narrative, and they should be.  How different it would be if those seeking relief heard from the start, “I am here to help” rather than “You have a disorder.”

Often mental distress involves a great deal of pain. What would be your advice to people on how to deal with this pain?

I would first reassure them that pain is real and have them try to break that pain down into emotional terms…anger, sadness, fear, grief, etc. I would encourage them to identify specifically what the pain means to them, then I would validate it and guide them to find a way to move through it rather than mask it.  It’s like digging through a pile of manure to find buried treasure.  It really stinks, but the rewards await.  “Depression” is less of a condition than a form of suppressed happiness.   They may not believe it at first, but the pain is a path to joy and love if they make the choice to walk it.

You have written two books. Your first book “GIDDY AS CHARGED: THE HAPPY MANUAL: How to recapture your sense of humor and use it to enhance your life” is more focused on general self- discovery. How can this book help readers in their individual journeys of psychological discovery?

After I left the hospital in 2016, I met with a counselor whose strategy was to bring me back to joy.  Frustrated with the treatment I had received previously in the clinical setting, I asked her, “Do you ever think the system is crazier than your clients?”  She smiled and responded, “All the time.”  I appreciated her transparency as it was the first time I had an ally in the system.  Returning to that joy was not easy at first, but ended up being essential to bringing me back to my authentic happy self.

With her help, I felt “normal” again. By seeing the human in me, she supported my belief that I was indeed well.  I think we all need to find that childlike, basic, grounded place to maintain mental and emotional stability.  That’s a great starting point to be in terms of psychological discovery, back to the days before life experiences distanced us from our intuitive happy selves.

Your second book, Reconciliation of the Heart: Memoir of Mary Clista Dahl. If I understood correctly, this book deals with your journey in healing in the process of having mental distress. Can you tell us more?

Reconciliation of the Heart is actually my second book which describes my life experience around love from birth until now.  There is a chapter in there called “Loving my Label Liberation,” which describes my journey through “mental illness” after my Bipolar diagnosis and how I faced that, removed the label, and left the traditional mental health system. I eventually came to the point of appreciating that experience as part of my evolution as a whole person.  That chapter expanded into an entire book that I am currently writing as a means to send out my message of hope to others who are labeled entitled, I Beg Your Pardon, but I am Not the Least Bit Disordered.  As I like to say, I wrote the book to heal myself, published it to help others heal.

You are a supporter of holistic healing and indigenous wisdom. I am interested in that. Can you tell us a bit about this? How did this aid you in your journey and what gifts have you received from these areas, if any?

Especially after my second breakdown (I prefer the term breakthrough), I noticed an elevation in my spiritual self, and after reading about spiritual emergences as an explanation for mental distress, I realized that my so-called “mental illness” had much more to do with a combination of mind, body, and spirit than to just a damaged mind as defined by the system.  That was very enlightening, and I began researching other cultural and historical definitions of “mental illness” and discovered that shamanism, visions, hearing voices, and more are often categorized as normal occurrences, depending on the context.

That was a big relief and played a major part of my change in perspective from seeing myself as disordered to seeing myself as well and wholly human.  By widening my lens, I received the gift of being able to see the good in the world all around me.  It took me from a very dark place (of contemplating suicide) into a world of infinite light and shifted me to a position where I am able to be a beacon to others who may feel hopeless and helpless to a place of promise. This has set me on an open course where I have interacted with others from around the world who carry the wisdom of our ancestors and pass that on to others.  That wisdom, established long before the modern medical model, has transcended time, and I truly believe that if this spiritual element were included in today’s structured mental health systems, all would benefit greatly.

In the end, what would you say that the greatest wisdom that emerged from the things that have happened to you in life would be, as a sort of advice to our readers?

I would say, never lose touch with hope, and offer reassurance that, even if you are not feeling it right now, you have all the tools, love, and joy within you to overcome any diagnosis.  After all, whatever label you have received is just a word, not a true representation of who you are.  Find and reach out to those who support and believe in your wellness.  There are so many of us who want to help you by offering compassion and love.

I like to share the story about my last visit to a psychiatrist in September 2017.  I had just received a new job offer and finished my book.  When I enthusiastically tried to deliver this good news, he interrupted me to say, “You seem a bit too happy.  At our next visit, we will talk about increasing your medication.”  I walked out into the sunlight knowing I would never return.  I had reached a high point of my life and the system’s answer was to stifle that with drugs.  On the twenty-minute drive home, I laughed out loud as new words to describe me popped into my head…devoted mother, author, creative soul, fabulous friend, kind and loving human being. My own narrative, so much healthier than the system’s, had at last returned.  Those are just some of the words I use to describe myself now.  I no longer feel the least bit disordered, and neither should you.  Ever.


Mary Clista Dahl