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Mother, What Killed You? Transcending Tragedy through a Process-oriented View of “Mental Illness” and Body Symptoms

Andrea Courvoisier

motherWhen my mother died in 1991, at 53 years of age, her body was immediately taken to the department of forensic medicine. My family couldn’t see her body until many days later, at the funeral. Why did my mother’s death become a case for criminal investigation? She wasn’t murdered, and my family had expected and feared her suicide for many years. Yet I was told that the forensic examination was a routine procedure since the exact cause of death was still unknown.

During that forensic examination, the coroner found an overdose of antidepressant drugs in my mother’s digestive tract. We were told what we already knew-her death was a suicide. Over the years between that day and the present, I have come to revise what we thought we knew. My own chronic illness and fate urged me to begin to investigate the ways experience for me. 111 which her life was prematurely ended, to my thinking, partly because of childhood sexual abuse and through the treatment of her ” mental illness” as an adult.

Along with the growing sense that my mother did not merely die of a mysterious hereditary mental illness, I have secretly struggled with the same cultural taboos and disavowed aspects of our society that I feel have contributed to her death. Feeling into this violence of being a suffocated victim under the lid of taboos and mamstream world views has been an overwhelming.

In honor of my mother, Hanna, and many other women and people who couldn’t and cannot tell their stories, I now attempt in this article to tell her story and my own parallel story. With it I honor and discuss Arnold Mindell’s work with extreme states and body symptoms, which has helped me find compassion for my mother and a deeper understanding of her tragedy, as well as compassion for my own struggle with her as my “mentally ill” mother and for my own chronic, debilitating body symptoms.

What happened?

When I was almost four, soon after the birth of my brother, my mother had to go to a mental hospital for the first time. She was diagnosed with an endogenous depression, meaning that her symptoms could not be attributed to an outer event but were corning from within, i.e. , genetically based. She was treated mostly with antidepressant medications. After two difficult periods Oabeled as major depressive episodes) within two years she seemed to stabilize. From then on she had regular sessions with a psychiatrist, and was one of the first patients to receive lithium salt, then a new preventative medication against depression. She took this drug for about fifteen years.

When I was fourteen my mother and father divorced. For a long time my mother struggled emotionally, but she did not fall into a depression which would have required psychiatric treatment. Six years later, when I was about to move away from home, my mother was sick of taking lithium salt. She read books about the drug and its side effects. Lithium may have protected her from going into a depression, but she also told me that it inhibited her from experiencing happiness. My mother quit taking the drug and experienced a wonderful year full of energy and emotional highs.

Unfortunately this high didn’t last and she fell into a deep depression which would never pass. Thus began a seven-year hell. My mother went back and forth between various mental hospitals and her home, where she lived by herself with almost no social contact. She lost her part-time job and began receiving government money for the disabled. Her body, reacting to antidepressant drugs, which did not alleviate the depression, became overweight and stiff. She grew deeply depressed, paranoid, ashamed and humiliated; it also seemed to me that she was angry deep down inside. Those of 70 us around my mother watched her die slowly, including the several times she tried to kill herself. On September 11 , 1991 , she succeeded. We were shocked and relieved. My mother had become a living dead person who couldn’t live or die. I thought at least now she would be able to go in one direction.

Why? Why did my mother have to go through this? Why was life so difficult for her? This simple question seemed too difficult for any of us in the family to ask at the time. It was overwhelming enough to witness her suffering for such a long time without knowing what to do about it. Her hell became our hell as well. After her death I couldn’t keep even one single item from my mother’s house. Everything seemed poisoned by this long dark time in her life. Soon I moved to the United States to find distance.

My mother and the city shadow

Psychiatry, it seems to me, is at times as helpless as we as a family have been about helping and understanding people who suffer from depression, especially depression that cannot be connected with an apparent trigger. Yet psychiatry can hardly admit its helplessness, as it treats the mentally ill on behalf of a society that wants them returned to “normal” if possible, or safely guarded. Thus, psychiatry with its biomedical paradigm has to find scientific explanations and diagnoses for all mental problems, even if they lack proof.

Endogenous depression, as defined in German psychiatric textbooks, is mainly genetically based, although the organic substratum cannot as yet be objectified, as the textbook admits (Faust, 1996: 123).1 The textbook also reports that the principle of endogenosity is often questioned today, but a satisfactory substitute for psychiatric treatment is not in sight. As a linguistic compromise the “illness” is today often termed with the “so-called” endogenous depression (Faust, 1996:122).

Denise Russell, in Women, Madness and Medicine (1995) , reports that research into the biological bases of depression is inconsistent and doesn’t show convincing results. Though Russell sees reluctance on the part of medical psychiatry to give up the idea that depression is a biologically based illness, she thinks that there is increasing recognition that there are inadequate theoretical and/ or empirical grounds to back this position.

Nevertheless, the diagnosis of endogenous depression became institutionalized and accepted as fact. It became a fact for our family that my mother had inherited genes that made her “mentally ill.” My mother also clung to this fact, as she was probably deeply ashamed of her emotional “problems” and wanted to feel less guilty about them.

What this psychiatric diagnosis took away from my mother was the possibility of asking about the meaning of her depression. What if my mother had a reason to be so depressed? I was told that she used to lock herself up in dark rooms at times as a teenager.

If we turn to the lens of process-oriented psychology, we can look at my mother from a different perspective. From this view, my mother’s symptoms could be seen as potentially meaningful, not only for herself but also for the community in which she lived. Process work sees human beings not only as being connected through genes, but as living in a field where everything is interconnected. Similar to an individual whose shadow consists of her repressed, disavowed parts, the field of a city has its shadow as well, the repressed and unrealized aspects of us all that are carried by the mentally ill. Thus my mother would have been looked at as the identified patient, a member of the city shadow, depressed about something that the collective splits off or separates from its own identity and proj ects elsewhere (see Mindell, 1991). Arnold Mindell talks about a severely depressed woman, Frau R. , in City Shadows:

When faced with an impasse in our world, most of us become optimists and try to find the solution to the impasse, imagining we have found it even when we have not. Such a world needs Frau R. and others [like my mother] who become depressed to sober up false and unbased optimism. (1991: 100)

Andrea Courvoisier What was it that my mother might have been depressed about and that we as a society need to wake up to and sober up about? She might have taken this secret to her grave, unless we believe in a field of interconnectedness where information can show up in unexpected ways, even years later.

Second generation city shadow

As much as I had feared my mother’s despair, paranoia and threatening suicide, I also knew the world of her mental states and feelings as part of my own experience at a deep level; I absorbed it like breast milk as I was growing up with her. My mother’s isolation and her lonely death has lived on in my own isolation and struggle around her issues. The city shadow aspect of my mother lived on in me. Yet I didn’t know how to work on the collective nature of these issues in myself alone.

In 1993, almost two years after my mother’s death, I had the good fortune to participate in one of Arnold Mindell’s worldwork seminars, a conflict resolution seminar with more than 200 participants. At one point a small group formed to work on human rights issues concerning psychiatry. I joined the group in the middle. I remember somebody talking about how psychiatric patients don’t have a lobby or a country that represents their interests and helps them fight for their rights. They live in a land without a name. I thought of my mother and started crying and then sobbing and screaming in a way that I had no control over. It seemed to me that I felt like my mother must have felt, imprisoned in herself, unable to express her deepest feelings and never being understood in her despair. Arnold Mindell supported me to talk to the group about my experience and my mother. It was an incredible relief to share what I had struggled with so privately with this group of people, many of whom had experienced similar tragedies in their lives.

The experience at worldwork helped me to create a new relationship with my mother. I could now begin to take her out of the dark corner of my soul and was even able to hang a picture of her in my room. It was only later that I began to understand the complicated nature of my deep need to be public about my experience with my mother.

Myself, body symptoms and city shadow secrets

Within a year after my mother’s death my health began to decline slowly. I developed severe chronic symptoms in my digestive tract, which I am still struggling with today. In one of the worst phases of the illness, about five years ago, I experienced strange sensations, such as the feeling of being killed through my stomach. I didn’t know how to relate these sensations to anything in my life and went to see two psychics to ask questions about them. Both psychics reported to me, after connecting with the “other” world, that my mother was sexually abused in her childhood and that I didn’t know how to differentiate my experiences from hers, which I had unconsciously absorbed in my childhood.

Nobody will ever know for sure what happened to my mother, but the psychic’s report made sense to me. In these years I was (along with the rest of the world, it seems) waking up about the widespread existence of childhood sexual abuse as more and more of my female friends turned out to be survivors of such abuse. Also, during my studies for my B.A. in psychology, I read various books about the subject, which supported the veracity of the psychics’ view of my mother’s experience. For example, Judith Herman reports in Trauma and Recovery that “50-60 percent of psychiatric inpatients and 40-60 percent of outpatients report childhood histories of physical and sexual abuse or both” (1 992: 1 22) . Denise Russell reports various studies from the late 1 980s and early 1 990s showing that depression was the most common psychiatric disorder reported by adults who were sexually abused as children (1995: 61) .

Such research i s not yet greatly considered in the mainstream treatment of so-called mental illnesses; it was certainly not a factor when my mother needed psychiatric care. People with severe depression were and still are treated largely outside the context of the world we live in. This is not only due to psychiatry’s biologi- 72 cal approach, but also to the hidden nature of sexual abuse. Often such childhood trauma can be split off by the victim, and may be remembered only later in life or not at all, as may have been the case for my mother. Thus the context of the patient is hard to get to know.

By the end of the last century one man began to make startling findings about the context of mentally “ill” women, some of whom were then labeled hysterical. Freud discovered that the maj or origin of hysteria could be found in an experience of childhood sexual abuse by a family member, whereupon he came up with his seduction theory. However, this research paper was strongly rej ected by Vienna’s medical society. As a result, Freud became very isolated and lonely. A few years later Freud publicly retracted the seduction theory. His revised theory declared that the patient’s childhood memories of seduction and rape were in fact fantasies. This revised theory became and remains the basis for psychoanalysis (Masson, 1992; Herman, 1992).

Society in Freud’s time was not ready to face the fact of frequent childhood sexual abuse in families. It took more than half a century for it to surface again and become a publicly discussed issue, which happened mainly as a result of the women’s movement (Heizer, 1995-1 996) . The approximately thirty years since the beginning of the women’s movement, during which the issue received growing recognition, is a very brief amount of time compared to the long-term “underworld existence” of childhood sexual abuse. We as a world, to my thinking, are still in the beginning of waking up about the widespread existence of sexual abuse. For example, according to American statistics, 33% of girls and 1 6% of male children are believed to be victims of sexual abuse (Heizer, 1 995-1 996).2

The privilege of not having to think about history

That the world is in some ways j ust beginning to wake up about sexual abuse has become more and more clear to me. During my psychology studies, I couldn’t find the history of Freud’s suppression of the seduction theory in regular psychology textbooks. I was even more surprised that many people who have studied psychology or work as therapists don’t know about this history. My startled feelings about such ignorance and lack of education culminated in my experience as a student at a counseling psychology Master’s program in San Francisco in 1 996. A teacher of this progressive and spiritually-oriented university taught a class about Freud without mentioning any of the historical background I have just discussed.

My classmates didn’t notice this; when it was brought to their attention, it did not upset anyone else nearly as much as it upset me. The teacher and most of my classmates had the privilege of not having to think about history. I felt like screaming during the class, telling the teacher that I feel it is not right to teach Freudian psychological theories without reporting about the history of how Freud came to postulate these theories. Like a member of the city shadow that society doesn’t want and can’t relate to, I felt imprisoned, suffocated under the lid of collective ignorance and repression of issues that still seem too difficult for our society to face. This emotional crisis and increasingly severe intestinal symptoms made me decide to drop out of the program after only two months.

To understand my own personal history with my mother I had to think about the history of psychology and psychiatry. The university program’s unconscious privilege of not having to think about it made it too hard for me to study psychology. The collective nature of the issues and the strong feelings that I had about them were too overwhelming for me to contain. At that point, quite ill again, I had to move back to Switzerland.

Body symptoms and rage toward the city

In 1997 my health problems still had not improved much. I decided to participate in a Lava Rock Dreambody Clinic seminar in order to get help for healing and more insight into my symptoms.3 At the beginning of the seminar, along with my usual digestive problems, my belly felt incredibly tense and I was shivering inside. Deep down I sensed that I was extremely angry but I didn’t know why. I Andrea Courvoisier hoped to be able to work in the middle of the seminar group on my symptoms. Over the following days, the pen chose other people to work in the middle. Then on the fourth day, September 1 1 th, 1 997, the sixth anniversary of the death of my mother, I had the chance to work with Max Schupbach in front of a group of about 1 00 people.

Max helped me to focus on the shivering and tension in my belly. I started to feel an intense, murderous rage and had visions of knives that were slicing up bodies. Because I felt terrified and could not act out what I felt and saw, Max acted it out for me as I watched him. He played me with a knife killing somebody. “What do you see?” he asked. “Well, somebody is really angry,” I said. “What is the story here?” Max asked. “I think this person wants to kill the murderer of somebody. “Of whom?” he asked. “My mother,” I said. “Who killed her?” Max asked. “She killed herself today six years ago. I think she was in some ways killed by many people or groups, possibly her abuser, the psychiatric system, the mainstream thinking about mental illness. ”

After my illness led m e to discover the city shadow secret that my mother might have been sexually abused as a child, I now discovered in my symptoms my rage toward the “city” about my mother’s death.4 Similar to my experience at the worldwork seminar, working on my body symptoms in front of a group and being public about this history has been very relieving and healing. I believe that not only so-called mentally ill people, but also people with body symptoms, carry collective dreams, screams, conflicts and global issues inside them. I remember Arnold Mindell saying that behind every body symptom tends to be a social revolution.5

Disidentifying with being the “identified” patient

At the end of last year I was suffering from so many symptoms and extreme exhaustion that I was hospitalized. It was then that I realized I had become the “identified patient” like my mother. But who is really sick here? Maybe my mother did not just experience her own private mysterious “mental illness. ” Maybe I am not just having my own private mysterious psychosomatic “physical illness.” In my eyes, and in my belly’s experience, our “illnesses” are connected to the huge social issues I described above.

After my hospitalization I decided to write about my mother and myself. With this article I have attempted to give an alternative view about the identification of the “sick one,” whether “mentally ill” or “physically ill. ” The writing itself has become for me a healing act of disidentifying with being the “sick one. ”

Last year I had a dream about participating in a worldwork conflict resolution seminar in which I desperately wanted to leave the seminar. I felt threatened and attacked. The dream helped me realize once more that my illness has meant for me the constant experience of an inner conflict resolution seminar. And yes, I really need to leave it in order to find healing. Through writing this article I am taking this inner conflict resolution seminar outside of myself into the public to be known and discussed. May it be of help to others as well.


  1. American therapists occasionally use the word ” endogenous,” though it is not used in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM I V), which simply uses the term major depressive episode (see Hamstra, 1994: 158).
  2. For more detailed information about sexual abuse and process-oriented ways of working with the trauma, see Leslie Heizer’s article “Sexual Abuse as a Cultural Concern, ” The Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, 1 995-1 996, Volume 7 , Number 2 . 74
  3. The Lava Rock Dreambody Clinics take place twice a year on the Oregon Coast. The weeklong seminars are led by Dr. Arnold Mindell and Dr. Max Schupbach. The seminars focus on exploring body symptoms and illness in order to discover their mysterious meaning and creative process.
  4. Of course my illness did not only channel information connected with my mother. My body symptoms have been and are, besides devastating at times, a tremendous teacher through which I have been able to change and grow.


Andrea Courvoisier, B.A., has studied process work for several years in Zurich and Portland. She is currently living in her hometown of Basel, Switzerland, teaching process-oriented expressive painting classes and working as a coach with people who want to change their lives creatively. Her passion as an artist is to explore unknown worlds with painting, drawing and movement.