Through a fascinating string of events this past month, I became connected with Alex Goldenberg—a healer, musician, film-maker, and activist who lives nearly 2,700 miles across the country in Eureka, California. Our dialogue first began on www.madinamerica.com within the comments section of my blog post. This brief yet sincere connection quickly led to a friendship via email, which evolved into a three-hour phone conversation this past Wednesday that was full of humor, love, light, and truth.
Truth is the key word. One of Alex’s most admirable qualities is his willingness and fearlessness in sharing his story. From as far back as he can remember, Alex has struggled with anxiety, social phobia, and a general sense of instability in the world. He started experiencing anxiety attacks in high school, and by his first semester in college, he dropped into a deep depression that left him feeling terrified and in need of professional help. At age eighteen, he entered the world of therapy. By age twenty-one, he found himself immersed in the prescribed world of pills.
Alex didn’t mind the medication at first. He didn’t even mind the label “mentally ill”. He took pill after pill as the doctors tried to dull the side effects, and he continued to work as a cashier in a supermarket as his mind grew foggier from all the drugs. Occasionally, he asked himself, “Can my brain even handle all these pills?”, but trusting his doctors and the system at large, he went about his life, swallowing his daily dose of medication and openly sharing his diagnosis without fear of stigma.
In 1996, Alex’s openness about his mental health began to change. While attending graduate school to become a therapist in San Francisco, Alex decided to disclose his DSM diagnosis to several classmates. In the context of an experiential psychology class, everyone was asked to relate their own personal experiences to the reading, and so, feeling more than safe to do so, Alex started to talk about living with bipolar. In the middle of sharing, as the vibe in the room grew stiff, a classmate interrupted Alex to say, “You need to stop talking about that. It’s making everyone uncomfortable.” Alex was shocked. If the incident had been isolated, he could have moved on, but as he continued to work towards his degree, he found himself confronted, time and time again, with judgments, fear, and rejection.
Alex didn’t understand. Out of everyone, shouldn’t the people studying to understand and treat DSM diagnoses also be the people to accept and want to learn from those with the diagnoses? The most disturbing reactions, however, were not from his classmates, but from his own professors. After Alex submitted a paper using personal experiences for his psychodynamic class, his professor took him aside to say, “If what you’ve written is true, you shouldn’t be here. You don’t have the ego strength.” Alex was left feeling vulnerable, lost, and confused. He tried to focus on his studies, but the deeper he got into his textbooks, the harder it was for him to unsee the judgment-based mentality of the mental health world.
By the time Alex graduated, he was on nine medications, experiencing brain zaps regularly, and going back and forth to the ER due to a painful side effect that felt like an electrical current running down his face. After his third visit to the ER, one of the attendants said, “You have to get off this medication.” Alex agreed. Despite his upbringing with a physician as a father and his schooling that preached the necessity of pills, he decided to start a medication-free journey. As life went on and judgments, challenges, and power struggles in the world of mental health continued, Alex also decided to expand his horizons and find a different way of understanding the mind. He decided to study energy work and learn how to heal.
Alex believes we are all mirrors of each other. He doesn’t believe in the illusion of separation, nor does he believe in the authority of doctor over patient. After studying energy healing, meditation, Chinese medicine, and psychic healing, he now knows we all have the power within ourselves to heal. He no longer feels ungrounded, unsafe, or controlled by his moods. On top of that, he no longer feels dependent or crippled by medication—he has been psych-drug-free for nearly twenty years and no longer identifies with psychiatric diagnoses. In fact, he believes that the DSM is a culturally biased publication with no scientific foundation, based on arbitrary guidelines. He no longer believes in this model of categorizing humanity, and moreover, Alex knows first-hand that it only leads to stigma and a false and limited sense of self.
When it comes to true healing, Alex doesn’t believe in fancy frills or impressive degrees. Healing can begin with a simple conversation—a conversation that perhaps leads to an uncomfortable truth that in turn opens the doorway to deeper understanding and personal acceptance. We all need to accept our shadows. Alex believes we all need to acknowledge and love ourselves fully, so in turn, we can accept and love others fully as well. The biggest problem Alex kept running into in the mental health institution was shadow denial. When doctors, counselors, psychiatrists, and the like refuse to acknowledge and accept their own shadows, they end up negatively reflecting them onto others. Back in graduate school, Alex didn’t feel shame about his struggles with moods. He only began to feel anxiety and discomfort in this program when his classmates and the professionals around him reflected it.
As an energy healer, Alex’s main goal is to empower people. He wants to remind everyone that we are all energy, and with that energy, we have the power to change, grow, and ultimately reflect our true, inner light. When we are grounded, confident in our healthy boundaries, and empowered, we enter upon a new path of unlimited creativity, personal freedom, and self-sovereignty. Alex knows from personal experience that when people start analyzing too much, the goal of healing gets lost and instead the goal of explaining things away takes over. He describes psychology as a way to answer the question, “Why am I so messed up?”, while energy healing answers the question, “How do I get un-messed up?”
As Alex continues to grow as a healer and a person, he plans to keep sharing his positive energy and breaking down barriers using his creative outlets. Currently, he plays the piano in a band with his husband, Patrick, and their good friend Heather, and together, they put on concerts for a local retirement home. The three are also working on an online course called Healing Academy for the Arts that will integrate healing work, creativity, and the arts, including performance arts. Alex has already made two films—Voices That Heal (see above) as well as Dreamcatchers Follies: Music for the Ages (see below) that celebrates the band’s healing work with the retirement community—but he won’t stop there. Alex’s dreams and creative drive are never ending. He continues to do his own healing work, and in turn, he is gifted with an unlimited sense of purpose, passion, and light.
By the end of our three-hour phone conversation Wednesday night, Alex and I both admittedly felt tired, but we also felt deeply at peace. We relate heavily to each other, and the weight of that connection can be both draining and uplifting—draining in the sense that neither of us have to hold back, and uplifting in the sense that we both feel incredibly empowered. We can each share our shadows shamelessly, knowing the other will fully accept and love the various shades as well. We can also speak effortlessly, communicating directly from the heart rather than filtered and constructed from the mind. Alex’s hope is that one day, we can all speak from this place. He hopes that one day, we can all let go of the beliefs that divide us, stigmatize us, and shame us, and instead remember the truth—we are all energy. We are all powerful and meant to shine in our brilliance. In Marianne Williamson’s words: “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.”