Interview with Brooke West
with Bob Banner, publisher and editor of HopeDance Online (www.hopedance.org)
1. There was the time in my little cabin behind the house. I’m not sure of all the details but I knew I loved your charm, your interest, your freedom and laughter. I’m not sure if we were sitting next to each other or lying together but suddenly you went away. It seemed a bit dark. I’m not sure you are aware of it or not but I knew I was in the presence of someone (or something) pretty dark and I immediately shied away from you. It surprised me since I had spent 3 to 4 years in a psycho-spiritual community where we were allowed to go into various strong emotional states: the very painful, the cathartic, the deep grief and the deep anger but for some reason I was at a loss with your presence (or possession) that day.
It is fascinating to read your memory of that experience. That you felt that I “went away…” My state of consciousness was not fluid at the time, and I was moving into one of the most extreme sates I have ever been in, which eventually caused me to be hospitalized and medicated. That was the second and last time I was hospitalized involuntarily, and that time I ended up not in a hospital but at the San Luis Obispo County Jail Honor Farm, where the good kids go, because a pipe had burst at the psychiatric unit. Except for the hair in my food, the jail was a huge improvement over the “PUF” Unit. That place is notorious for human rights offenses among the people who have been and among the therapists that treat those people for their psychiatric trauma. Did you know that suicides are highest among people soon after they are discharged from the hospital? Harrowing, vile places, cruel staff, inhumane rules. Human rights activists are born in psych hospitals!
On a brighter note, extreme states, psychosis, spiritual awakening, spiritual emergency – it can get pretty dark when fear is detected by one animal and focused upon by the others. I know that being with people in extreme states is confusing and disorienting. There is no common language to share realities, no ground rules, no grandfathers or grandmothers to ritual us through. Anthropologists and progressive psychiatrists recognize the common tradition of people who experience altered states are the healers of their tribe, bridging the worlds and sharing guidance and mysticism. Embodying creativity. Reminding us that we are spiritual, animal.
2. What did you do? Where did you go? The ashram in Northern California?
A. The year I was hospitalized, it must have been 2004, was my second year of a Bikram Yoga daily practice. You might call it a long binge or Yoga bender. It changed my life. I finally felt reprieve from depression, anxiety, social trauma; I was losing weight and getting my body back,; making friends, coming back after years of impotence post-diagnosis, post-medication-til-you’re- invalid, post-adolescence. My childhood was gnarly, my sister committed suicide in 1999, I had chronic illness. Bikram put that shit on the back burner. Sweating in that room turned my life around.
In 2005, three things changed.
1. I started taking lithium
2. I met my favorite therapist, who worked with me until last year
3. I went to the ashram, The Expanding Light at Ananda Village in Nevada City, and became a Yoga teacher
At Ananda, I learned what a daily schedule at a monastery could do for a busy mind. I learned how to live a Yogic lifestyle and I learned how to meditate.
3. What was it that started some kind of clarity that you were on a right path?
Honestly, and this is going to sound crazy, but I heard A Voice. Through the Hearing Voices Network, I have learned that most of us hear voices; it’s only when they become distressing do people talk about it, and then become marginalized, pathologized and medicated. This Voice, and I believe it was the voice of my guru, whatever that means to you, said, in my third Bikram class in 2002, “This is the thing.” I heard a voice that said “Study Sanskrit” and “Study pranayama” on the beach over the course of two weeks in spring of 2005, and I heard that voice during a Restorative Yoga class during Yoga Teacher Training that summer that said, “THIS is the thing.”
I knew that Yoga was a positive pathway because I immediately felt better – more clarity, more calmness, less judgement, greater awareness. I was challenged, I was in the moment and I was encouraged. I was finding my purpose. I am now an internationally recognized Yoga therapist, researcher and activist.
4. When and why yoga?
I grew up in LA during the “That’s Incredible” era – remember that show? Bikram was on that show – I loved the paranormal always as a kid. I started a ghost club in fourth grade at school. Our school was totally haunted. Anyway, Yoga gives me a structure – it is a lifestyle. Ethics, values of kindness, honesty and generosity, cleanliness and other universal principles are fundamental in this tradition. Breathing gives me an anchor in every moment. It is science and art. Yoga is a technology in the true sense of the word: results are replicable, reliable. If you do these practices regularly and especially if you do not give up, you will find peace. My direct experience of the revelation of calmness, peace and inner wisdom from practicing Yoga makes me a Gita-thumper. Everyday, one breath at a time. Did you know that the authors of the Twelve Steps of Recovery looked to Vedanta for inspiration?
5. What did you learn when you visited Findhorn? Did you find what you were looking for?
Hmm, Findhorn. Ahhh. Well, what I came away with from my trip to this meditation-based, spiritual, non-denominational, intentional community and world-class eco-village was that we can embody the Spirit of Findhorn (and all vortices on the planet – Maui, Sedona, Morro Bay) in the way we live; in how we treat the earth, one another and ourselves; in our curiosity; in our brotherhood; and in our celebrations. The preparatory conference for the World Conference on Sustainability in Rio in 2002 was the impetus – I attended this prep con but it was a ruse to get me in touch with others on the planet who are doing brave things without a map and without permission, aligned with universal principles that keep cultures successful – so different from This American Life.
Facebook Invite page for the above film event is in the ad itself by clicking it or click here:
Trailer of the film Healing Voices
An American and a British woman were so convinced that I needed Findhorn’s medicine that they paid for me to stay on a week and complete the program required to become a resident there. During the program, I was kidnapped by a local conference attendee who drove me all around The Black Isle in Northern Scotland and showed me prophetic stones, crumbled Celtic churches and magical wells under oak trees adorned with ribbons of prayers fluttering with the breezes. It was a special trip that galvanized my belief in devas – anime, the Spirit in nature and in everything.
6. Can you describe the type of healing path you were on and how have you been able to help others?
I work with individuals and small groups, specializing in Yoga therapy for mental and emotional well being. I help people relax and find their center, to find inner peace. There is so much anxiety, stress and depression – epidemic waves of trauma and distortion. These complexes are linked with disease, addiction and family dysfunction.
Relaxation-based Yoga and meditation sooth the nervous system and bring us back to homeostasis. I have developed programs for SLO County Drug ands Alcohol Services, for Grizzly Youth Academy (staff and students), I lead training retreats, workshops and present at conferences as a researcher, advocate and Yoga teacher. I find that people who are seeking help come to me tattered by trauma and leave renewed. People who truly seek peace, find it. It does not take very much time or effort with a devoted teacher.
7. So tell us about film “Healing Voices” and why your interest?
What do you wish to accomplish by showing the film?
This film documents three consumers of mental health services over five years and interviews doctors and scholars on the issues of mental health and recovery. There is a Peer Movement in the United States and worldwide showing marked recovery where psychiatric medicine and forced medication and institutionalization have failed or caused harm and trauma, exacerbating the trauma of the original diagnosis.
Forced treatment is a hot topic among consumers of mental health services and is being investigated by The United Nations as a violation of human rights. Peers in recovery have been mandated to work within the behavioral health system by The US Dept of Health and Human Services because of the failure of medication and treatment. Substance abuse and mental health diagnosis co-occur in almost 100% of instances. Conditions inside locked psychiatric facilities can be deplorable, abusive and without oversight or accountability. Medication can do much harm – studies show patients on medication die twenty-five years earlier than the average life expectancy. One quarter of all foster children are on psychiatric medication, and I believe that statistic is similar or higher for women over the age of forty – on anti-depressants – in the United States. Many mental health consumers (with diagnoses) are LGBTQ.These stats are outlined in the film.
Pharmaceutical companies profit from diagnoses.
Alternative and complementary treatments are needed.
8. What is your background and expertise on the issue?
I am a consumer and an advocate. I offer complementary and alternative treatment for recovery of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder – I specialize in working with trauma survivors with great success; mood regulation without medication. I am a psychiatric survivor and activist.
I have presented at conferences, including The International Association of Yoga Therapists and The US Dept of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency Alternatives Conference on Yoga Therapy and Mental Health. I am a survivor of the local “PUF” Unit, notorious among survivors and mental health care providers for abuse and its traumatizing atmosphere. I have also developed Yoga Therapy programming for their Drug and Alcohol Services Intensive Outpatient Program, though funds could not be “found” to sustain the program (evidence-based – we achieved all of our therapeutic objectives, including mood modification, anger management and medication compliance).
There are no mid-level services in our community for “higher functioning” consumers, contributing to stigma and isolation.
As a Cal Poly instructor in the Rec Center, I teach staff, faculty and students meditation and Restorative Yoga for anxiety and depression release. I hear many personal stories of staff and students who have not found relief from medication after meditation.
I understand that suicide rates are so high at Cal Poly, numbers are not released to the public. My sister committed suicide at the age of 30, misdiagnosed and mistreated, addicted to opiates. She had a genius IQ.
I had a breakdown at age 23 while at Cal Poly, gained fifty pounds and lost my hair due to overmedication in 1995. I was left at the time with only Transitions Mental Health Association for resources, which did not serve my needs as a bright, young, thoughtful citizen. I felt that I had been treated unfairly and now I know that there are many others like me since the advent of the internet. I offer Peer Support Groups online and am interested in exploring the spiritual meaning, the purpose behind these emergencies, which may be social crises due to industrialization, family dysfunction, biological dysregulation, and a sign of the times.
Another documentary in the works (to be released in 2017) that is relevant is CRAZYWISE:
A “testimonial” from Bob Banner who had an impomptu session with Brooke: