Eric Arauz: Bridging the Gap Between Patients and Clinicians

July 1, 2013
Eric Arauz

For 24 hours, Eric Arauz endured the tethers of four-point restraints in the maximum security psychiatric ward of a New Jersey hospital. The isolation and pain of the experience led him to wish for death.

“It was a place I don’t know how I came back from,” he said. “I completely let go of living.”

This was not Arauz’s first experience with mental illness. Arauz’s father had suffered from bipolar I disorder and eventually died homeless after his disease was not treated. More than a decade after his father passed away, Arauz, a veteran of the first Gulf war, was also diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, along with substance abuse disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

His first episode of mania was triggered by the stress of separating from his first wife and losing contact with his stepdaughter, and his illnesses took away everything, leaving him, eventually, alone in the restraints.

It’s an experience he wrote about in his recently published book, An American’s Resurrection, which takes readers through his first manic episode, his time in psychiatric hospitals, and his struggle to reclaim his life. In his present-day work as an author, orator, and advocate, Arauz travels the country to share his story of living with serious mental illness.

He aspires to foster mutual empathy between psychiatrists and patients, despite the fact that mania and psychosis are not typically relatable for most individuals. “The experience of mental illness has such a strangeness to it that people have a hard time being truly empathetic to it. Empathy has nothing to do with sympathy,” he said.

Recovery

After an initial brief hospitalization, Arauz seemed on the road to recovery and had been accepted to NYU, but another manic episode interfered and led to a much longer period of hospitalization. He was strapped down in seclusion rooms more than twenty times during that hospital stay, culminating in the 24-hour seclusion that left him twisted in pain. He was not removed from the restraints even to use the bathroom.

Hours after his release from the seclusion room, Arauz slumped to the floor, feeling hopeless. That’s when a golden retriever, brought to the hospital as a form of animal therapy, approached him without reservation.

While Arauz notes that a medication change to Haldol was part of his recovery, he remembers his initial encounter with that dog as the real turning point in his survival.

“Everything in my life had a story attached to it, and everything was interpreted through the prism of the pain and shame in my life,” he said. “Touching the dog, actually looking at something that didn’t turn away, that to this day is what everything is based on. It’s based on that connection, needing that connection and how far I got away from that connection.”

Arauz went from feeling dehumanized and left to die alone in a psychiatric hospital to feeling alive again and fully present in a moment. He never forgot the transformative power of touching and smelling that dog, of presence and authenticity. “That’s actually what I do when I speak,” he said.

Arauz had always had a talent for speaking but had pursued other career paths, from satellite technician in the Navy to law student. After his experience of illness and recovery, he was drawn to advocacy and took an $800-a-month job educating patients in state psychiatric hospitals.

He spoke to patients who were delusional and, he knew, might feel that their lives were over. To reach them through their psychosis, Arauz learned to develop spiritual, soulful presentations. “What I found in that arena was the more authentic you were, the more you talked about living, the more people listened.”

Being a Bridge

Arauz soon expanded his outreach to patients throughout the country, and to clinicians. His experiences in the psychiatric hospital instilled in him a deep empathy for patients, while a medical school appointment brought him into the world of clinicians. Although Arauz would like to change aspects of the mental health system—particularly the practice of seclusion and restraint—he says that he is not raging against the system.

“I’m doing everything I can to help the system,” he said. “I see myself as a bridge between the medical field and the people in the hospital.”

As a patient, he found that clinical terms and behavioral health language explain the physical symptoms of mental illness but are inadequate descriptors of the personal experience. So he turned to literature to address and define his experiences, to create a narrative for himself.

He found solace and connection in the writing of the existentialists, and he voraciously read Emerson, Whitman, and the poet Rainer Maria Wilke while pursuing an American Studies degree at Rutgers University.

 “My life was saved by a liberal arts degree,” he said.

Through literature, the patient and mental health professional can meet in a shared experience, something that the discipline of medical narrative recognizes, said Arauz. He added that medical narrative spurs physicians to contemplate what it means to be human and to remain in that mode when treating patients. As part of Arauz’s medical school appointment, he developed a training on trauma and its languages that connects the person who experienced the trauma with the person who treats it.

He has found that literature can reach patients, too. At one of Arauz’s early speaking engagements, he referenced existential literature when talking with patients in a state psychiatric hospital, and a staff member chided him that 19th-century existential poetry was wasted in that environment. Arauz responded that “these are people who have more of a history than just the time you’ve seen them.”

Daily Struggles

Arauz recognizes that his past can return at any time. Thirteen years have passed since his last hospital stay and Arauz has remarried, become a father, earned a Masters degree, and built a career as a speaker and author. But he knows bipolar disorder is a part of him that could emerge again.

Recovery from bipolar disorder, he said, is very different from recovery from alcohol dependence. “In addiction, the alcohol is not in you,” he said.

“The key to the whole thing is, I still live with all this,” he added. “Recovery is not about being asymptomatic, it’s about love, and feeling connected to nature. It’s about having dreams again, about caring for people and having people care about you. My idea of recovery is the same idea as the life everyone else has, and I don’t want that to be predetermined by the fact that I have a diagnosable mental illness.”

—Lauren LeBano

 

Eric Arauz will give the keynote address at this year's US Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress. Visit our keynote speaker page for more details on the meeting schedule and Eric's speech.