At one time, Caroline Mazel-Carlton found herself in a psychiatric group home with no job, no degrees, a psychiatric and criminal history. Volunteering a her local Jewish Community Center (JCC), she was searching for something to give her life meaning and allow her to bring her large, intense personality to play. She found roller derby.
“It made me feel amazing,” she said. Her roller derby name was given to her by a woman with a roller derby alias ScarietTubman 40 + 1 for 40 acres and a mule.
“I loved her name how it combines different aspects of her identity,” she said. “I told her that I was Jewish and a lot of elderly people at the JCC where I volunteered worried about me getting injured in this sport.” This woman came up with “Mazel Tov Cocktail #18.” This became her name and her new identity, what was to come just a part of something she was becoming.
“I was looking for a place where I could bring big emotions and be intense and have that be valued instead of being called borderline,” she said.
“They would announce me when I came out onto the track She’s faster than a spinning dreidel. She’ll smear you across the track like cream cheese on a bagel. It’s the kosher menace Mazel Tov Cocktail #18,” she said.
“Mothers of daughters would come up to me after games and thank me for being a role model, for showing my daughter Jewish women are strong and proud,” she said.
When Caroline was 5, she began hearing voices. When she was 8, her parents took her to her first psychiatrist. This began her start on psychiatric medications, and thus a lengthly journey in the psychiatric system in and out of psychiatric hospitals and group homes. She was diagnosed with everything from, as she phrased it, “Aspergers to Zyprexa, bipolar to borderline.”
Today, she is 36, and studying to be a rabbi, lives in Western Massachussets with her husband, and works as Director of Training for the Western Massachussets Recovery Learning Community (WMRLC) or as they recently changed their name to the Wildflower Alliance an organization that supports the healing and empowerment of people who have been impacted by psychiatric diagnosis, trauma, extreme states, homelessness, addiction and other life-interrupting challenges. She still experiences ups and downs in life but is able to navigate them with the help of peer support, spiritual community and tools like neuro-feedback, meditation and Voice Dialogue. I first heard Caroline on Madness Radio, a podcast based in Western Massachussets, which is syndicated and available online. We met at the Karuna Conference in Rocky HIll where I had the chance to sit down with her and ask her a few questions as well as attend her workshop on hearing voices and dialoging with them and a panel she was on about healing from trauma in the patriarchy.
“This is my story, a story of seeking a journey to understand my pain and my place in the world,” she said. “Its taken a lot of twists and turns. I look at myself now from a bigger lens than I was given by psychiatry, even a bigger lens than just mental health.”
“My goal now is to create more open and accepting communities, create spaces where we can all have dignity, purpose and be honored,” she said. And, she does this by leading Alternatives to Suicide groups and Hearing Voices Network groups for the WMRLC as well as leading in her synagogue in Western Massachussets.
Mazel-Carlton sees herself from a different lens than she was viewed upon by the psychiatric system.
“Identity is such an evolving thing. Right now, I’m exploring my cultural identity, what it means to be a Jewish woman in open dialogue with her ancesters, to be part of that history, that conversation. I allow things to be fluid.”
“I’m interested in how we create sacred space,” she said. “ For me, I see Alternatives to Suicides groups and Hearing Voices groups as sacred places where we bring our whole selves.”
She said the Hebrew word “Shalom” actually translates to wholeness. “It’s about creating places where we can be authentic and honor the cycles of life.” It’s about how we honor all our experiences, even ones viewed through a pathological lens.
Mazel-Carlton talked about the nature of labels. We start off with a name and a gender. Then we get labeled throughout life in various ways. “Those labels can be very limiting. The process of psychiatric diagnosis is quite subjective. We know this from studies consistently showing that one person who visits three different psychiatrists will likely receive three different diagnoses. Yet my entire life trajectory was predicted based on a diagnosis given at one moment in time. There is still a lot of discrimination experienced by people who are labeled as “mentally ill” in society.”
“Another thing people don’t acknowledge are issues of race and class, and how they play into who gets a psychiatric label, what that label is, and how they are treated as a result. I facilitated Hearing Voices groups at a long-term state psychiatric hospital. Often people I met there heard less extreme voices, not as loud or violent as mine, but they had a more extreme diagnosis. Consistently, the difference was they were of a different race and/or socio-economic class than me.”
The research supports this that if someone is poor or a person of color they are more likely to get a more extreme diagnosis. “We do ourselves a disservice to turn a blind eye as if psychiatry is this super objective, scientific thing.”
Yet, she admits some people find psychiatric diagnosis valuable. “When I talk to them about why, they usually indicate that receiving a diagnosis was the first time anyone acknowledged their pain was valid and real.”
The problem lies when psychiatric diagnosis places the blame for valid pain solely on the person’s internal biology. It becomes not I’m suffering because I was raped but I’m suffering because I have borderline personality disorder. Or not that I’m suffering because I was neglected as a child but I’m suffering because I have this disease called schizophrenia. It’s not that the world is an over-whelming place, but that I am genetically defective for struggling in a society that de-values rest and compassion.
“The process of healing and moving past psychiatric labels is a process of expansion,” said Mazel-Carlton. “It is becoming aware of our context in the world, our place in history, our interdependence on one another, and our need for community.”
Moving beyond psychiatric labels and pain is about building relationships. “For me, these relationships happened outside the medical system,” she said.
On one of the psych wards she was on, it was around Chanukah time and someone asked her to light the menorah. There were no Jewish staff. So the people huddled around an electric menorah while a woman who had been committed for suicidal thoughts led them in the prayers. “So many of us there had tried to kill ourselves. In that moment, we felt this sense of connection to something wider in that ritual. Community was developing even though we were locked on a psych ward together.”
Mazel-Carlton also talked about her work with Alternatives of Suicide groups. “There is a lot wrong with how we talk to people who are suicidal. People who are suicidal are people who are in a very important place in their life. They know their current way of living is not working and they are looking for a solution. They are people in a transitional space and should be given the utmost dignity.”
The biggest mistake the system makes is the risk assessment tools are overly concerened with predicting someone’s sucide and never ask the person why they want to die.
“A lot of people in the groups I lead, spent weeks on a psych ward and no one took the time to ask why they wanted to die,” she said.
“Ultimately, suicide in itself is not the problem. Suicide is the solution and its a solution to a whole host of problems war, rape culture, financial insecurity, abuse, transphobia, colonization,” she said.
“People want to leave this world for a reason. We need to talk about their why and honor it,” she said. “We need to allow people to stay in their communities as much as possible because community is where we heal.”
Mazel-Carlton will bring the sum of her experiences to her work as a rabbi, including roller derby. “It’s important to me to be out about my psychiatric history as a rabbi. I’ve searched and searched and there are no other rabbis open about their lived experience in the psychiatric system.
Inspired by rabbis in the Jewish Renewal movement, she grounds herself in “roots and traditions but also constantly making things new, relevant, and accessbile to people.”
She plans to create Jewish spaces accesible to voice hearers and people who have little Jewish knowledge and focussing on building accepting Jewish communities.
I asked her about the Hebrew month of Elul which falls around September. “I do a lot of work in the month of Elul, looking within me, with my voices, with my inner world. I look for points of healing or things I might want to rebirth or change. One of the things I like about the Jewish calendar is it gives us the opportunity to feel. It offers us all these cycles, times to go within and times to go without, times to be joyful and times to weep. It honors the whole gamut of human experience as sacred.
To contact Caroline email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://westernmassrlc.org. The Hearing Voices – USA link is: www.hearingvoicesusa.org. For people who want to learn more about Alternatives to Suicide this is a good article: https://www.communitypsychology.com/new-approach-to-suicide/. Madness Radio can be found at http://www.madnessradio.net. To find out more about the Karuna Conference click http://www.karunact.org.