“I know why you do it,” she said.
Sitting outside a Greek restaurant on a late spring day, I was chatting, with a friend of over 25 years, about my work as an orthomolecular psychiatrist, catching her up on the highlights over the past six months.
“Why?” I asked, wondering if she knew me well enough not to say that I did it for the intellectual challenge.
“It’s about freedom,” she said firmly, as sure of herself as I was astonished. She did understand.
“My life is dedicated to creative freedom through healing the mind,” a phrase from my website, popped into my mind. Over the years, my dedication to freedom of the mind grew like a flower, blossoming on a cactus, in the middle of the desert. Because, it grew despite years of being raised Chinese, living in Utah, training in medicine, and practicing as a modern-day psychiatrist. Conformity filled the air I breathed. The repeated droning of countless expectations, memorizations, manipulations, and regulations was like the background droning of a beehive, with its rigid rituals and dances.
Through it all, I developed a singular appreciation for creative freedom and a deep understanding of its value in my life.
What is freedom of the mind? For me, growing up, it was what I held on to. It was a beautiful oasis, an escape from convention and conformity, that nourished me through years of mind-boggling, brain-washing prolixity. Like a fortress next to the eroding effects of ocean waves, I protected my freedom to think freely against the millions of little ways that people can scrape it away, one thought at a time.
This ability to quietly reflect on any matter, think about it from multiple angles, explore its possibilities, and differentiate between truth and convention, served me well in time. With this ability intact, I was able to reflect on the field of medicine and come to certain conclusions about its strengths and weaknesses. As a free-thinking individual, I was able to choose that which served my patients the best. Because I understood the importance of freedom, I knew that for my patients, what I chose would matter very much to them. My friend was right. What led me to orthomolecular psychiatry was the hope that my patients could be free, not just from dependency on medications, but from me. I wanted them to be truly free.
For those with mental illness, freedom is like an ephemeral dream. The field of psychiatry is practically defined by the words “incurable” and “unknown.” Attacked by illness from within, affected by medications from without, and surrounded by ineffectual interventions, a person with mental illness struggles with shackles as binding as the chains of slavery. As a traditional psychiatrist, I found that I was able to ease the pain from the chains of mental illness; but as a holistic psychiatrist, I was able to set people free. In time, I proved to myself that chronic mental illness was a side effect of ineffective, traditional psychiatric treatment, and not the defining characteristic of the illness at all.
George Orwell wrote in 1984, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Likewise, in today’s medical milieu, the choice to practice holistically is a revolutionary act. Although I initially chose orthomolecular psychiatry for its medical advantages, I learned that it had great social implications. By choosing a holistic approach, I stood for something that, for some, was unimaginable and could not exist. From some perspectives, what they could not imagine as possible, could not and should not exist for anyone else either. These people did, in time, hear about my practice, and my practice became a battlefield where the forces for convention tried to stamp out the forces for freedom.
And that is where I stand right now: in the midst of a struggle between traditional psychiatry and orthomolecular psychiatry. This struggle represents many things to me. But, as I think of my choices as a psychiatrist, I can’t help but step back and reflect, as I have done throughout my life, and observe people and events with the detachment of someone who has always been free and yet, not free. I understand both sides of the struggle and know that I have no enemies, just people who are more or less able or willing to be free.