indy Lewis spent her sixteenth
birthday--it wasn't so sweet--in a world-famous
mental hospital in her native New York City. She
spent her seventeenth and eighteenth ones in the
same airless institution, drugged and locked away
from sunshine and movies and pizza. Then she was
spat out into a world where her agemates, buoyed
by the support of their largely loving families,
had gone off to the colleges of their dreams.
It's one thing--a terrible thing--to grow up in
a troubled household and have to struggle to forge
healthy patterns of living on your own when you
were not intimately exposed to any during
childhood. It's an entirely different thing not
only to grow up in a troubled household but, in
what should be your most exuberantly experimental
years, have the full weight of the medical
establishment stamp its worst verdict on you and
pronounce you schizophrenic.
"As a teenager I cultivated confusion," Lewis
now says. It was the best way she could find at
the time of keeping some distance between her and
her overly dependent and intrusive mother.
"My mother was a single mother, a hysterical
person. I had to pull away from her. We were
locked together in unhappiness. I had tremendous
guilt. I felt I was constantly disappointing her.
I was a truant. I would go to Central Park to be
in nature, and I would paint there. I was trying
to find my own way and it was misinterpreted."
Unable to handle the rebelliousness, her mother
had her declared a ward of the court--and remanded
Today Lewis is by any account a healthy and
creative adult with extraordinary insight. She is
an artist by profession, a dancer by avocation and
a writer by sheer force of will. She is the author
of Life Inside: A Memoir (Atria Books), which
chronicles her extraordinary odyssey from troubled
teen robbed of that most normalizing of
experiences, high school, to wise and
She has learned "the healing power of
awareness, of seeing other points of view. There
is so much richness, so much intensity under the
grief of those years [of forced hospitalization]."
How did she overcome that brutal experience? "I
don't accept the psychiatric worldview as a way to
look at all human problems," she explains quietly.
Imagine the bravery and the belief in self that
one must develop in order to reject the opinions
of medical experts.
"The medical model is just one way of looking
at people," and an increasingly pathologizing way
of looking. "The norm is getting tighter and
tighter because we are so productivity-oriented,"
says Lewis. "Human behavior is much more varied
and individualistic than the psychiatric model
allows. There are, of course, extreme cases of
chemical disorder in people. But the concept of
disorder is being extended to a larger and more
generic group of symptoms."
Psychiatry is passive, she says. "You swallow
pills. That doesn't give you lots of tools for
living. Instead, I sought mastery."
Lewis struggles with depression but refuses to
take drugs. "I prefer my own chemistry to
artificial chemistry," she explains quietly,
noting that she regards taking drugs as a personal
defeat. "Medication means I am estranged from
myself." What's more, she is highly sensitive to
drugs, so she feels she had to develop alternate
routes of solving her problems. She also believes
that there are times when depression is
appropriate. "It often holds a lesson to be
learned about something. It's not just a matter of
a chemical process."
For decades, Lewis carried and internally
battled shame from the diagnosis of mental illness
and her three years of hospitalization. There is a
part of her that always thought she was unjustly
incarcerated. And another that thought, "Oh my
God, the doctors were right, there really is
something wrong with me." It kicks in anytime
something goes wrong in her life.
But she knows "I am OK, not ill." She has found
"ways of working with my moods and thoughts. I
need lots of exercise. I dance; I study
belly-dancing and I love it. I also need
interaction. I have learned to articulate what I
need. I have learned how to deal with anger. I
have learned to develop healthy relationships."
She has learned the art of self-governance, the
one we all spend a lifetime learning.
Refined and urbane, Lewis nevertheless feels
embarrassed that she never got a formal college
education--she had to struggle merely to survive
the stigma after being released from the hospital.
Instead, she has turned her whole life into an
education. About herself. About what happened to
her. About what happened to the other kids who
were hospitalized with her. About psychiatry.
About creativity and self-expression.
And, most remarkable of all, even about the
doctors who were in charge of the psychiatric
wards or who passed through them rendering
diagnoses and writing prescriptions in the course
of their own clinical training. In what turned
into a feat of compassion, Lewis went back through
the hospital records, noted all the doctors'
names, tracked them all down and interviewed them
for her book. She wanted to know not only how she
came to be mislabeled schizophrenic but how they
fared as a result.
She holds no anger toward them. She has come to
see that, at the time, they were young men
(mostly) still very uncertain of their knowledge
in a specialty that itself is uncertain of the
nature of human nature.
In what is surely the most bittersweet form of
vindication, Lewis now educates psychiatrists
about the disorders they are called on to diagnose
and treat. The day before I interviewed her she
had addressed an auditorium full of physicians at
a psychiatric Grand Rounds.
She told them about her hospitalization. She
talked about the other kids. She is not without
humor. She remembered how they were an
intellectually curious and hormonal bunch who
spent a disproportionate amount of time doing what
kids on the outside were doing--feeling each other
up when their guardians were looking the other
way. She also told the doctors that most of the
other kids had died somewhere along the way, by
their own hand.
Mindy Lewis was determined to be a survivor.
Mostly on her own, she developed enviable
resources of body, mind and spirit. She had the
courage to look inside and love herself. She is
the very personification of resilience. It should
come as no surprise, then, to learn that she did
one more extraordinary thing. She found the
strength to forgive her mother for having her
locked up during those very vital