Therapist shares his story of psychological recovery to help save others

The Wounded Healer: Now a trained psychotherapist, Amir Porat says his motto is, “Back to life against all the odds.”

Therapist Amir Porat (photo credit: Courtesy)
Therapist Amir Porat
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A psychiatric survivor, recovering addict and a healer – that’s how Amir Porat describes himself. Despite his small stature, he commands the room with his presence, energy and magnetic vibrancy. I’ve rarely met a person who so perfectly fits the description coined by the late, great Hunter S. Thompson – “one of God’s own prototypes” – and I use it here as a great compliment.
Our conversation flows easily, dealing with subjects that most people save, at best, for their most intimate friends or a therapist, certainly not for readers of a magazine. But being open is part of Porat’s philosophy and what he sees as his mission – telling his story, so others can learn and be saved.
Now a trained psychotherapist, Porat says his motto is, “Back to life against all the odds.”
In 2008, when he was 33, Porat was at the height of his success, the founder and owner of a thriving advertising and web development business in Tel Aviv. He had 10 employees and his list of clients included Coca-Cola, Sony and Toyota. He was also partying quite hard, smoking marijuana on a regular basis and experimenting with other drugs as part of the vibrant night life scene. Life was hectic, but good. But then the 2008 financial crisis hit, clients put their campaigns on hold, and money became hard to come by.
Through a series of financial missteps, Porat found he was unable to pay his employees and keep his business afloat. Refusing to close down his business, he made the dire error of taking out a loan on the black market. A 250,000-shekel ($70,000) debt with vicious interest quickly rose to 600,000 shekels within three months. His debtors threatened to hurt Porat and his family, his employees were leaving and the business he spent nine years building was collapsing before his eyes. To him, it seemed his very life was being destroyed. That was too much for Porat to handle and he suffered what he refers to now as a nervous breakdown. He went to see a psychiatrist and the life he knew was about to take a near fatal turn.
Tell me about the moment you underwent a psychiatric diagnosis.
I kept it a secret, didn’t tell anybody about my financial situation because of the shame I felt in losing my business. And then I lost my mind because I couldn’t sleep. I started talking nonsense. My parents called their friends and sent me to see someone. The doctor asked if there was a family history of mental illness. My grandmother was bipolar. That was more or less it. I left him with a diagnosis of being “bipolar” and a prescription for Lithium, without him explaining to me what bipolar disorder is, without explaining anything about the medication, without giving me any reading materials. Just take the pill. ‘Take a vacation from work. I’ll see you in a month. It will take three weeks for the medication to work.’ In the meantime, he gave me a tranquilizer called Vaben. He told me to take up to five a day. I waited for the Lithium to kick in. When it did, I lost touch with myself.

What does that mean?
It means that gradually I started disassociating from my personality and everything that goes with it – my friends, even my taste in food. I think the biggest side effect was the loss of spontaneity. Everything became a big mission. Sleeping became a task, waking up to a world without a job became a task, choosing what to eat, what to wear, taking the pills, when to shower... All the daily activities of life became planned tasks. My day turned into an Excel sheet.

Because that’s what he guided you to do?
No. That’s what the medication did to me. He never guided me in any way. They talk a lot about the side effects of psychiatric medication. But beyond the tremors, the stomach problems and other physical problems, it disconnects you from your personality.

What was the feeling like?
It was very good for me in the beginning, because at the time I was suffering. I was depressed, couldn’t fall asleep, owed money. It helped me sleep. It helped me distance myself from my emotions. Actually, it turned my emotions off completely. But later on, all of life became a great big task. Nothing was spontaneous. Calling a friend involved an hour-long debate with myself, “Should I call? What do I say? How do I sound?”

It made you doubt your entire personality?
It made me not myself. And I didn’t know who I was. I kept on saying, ‘I don’t know why.’ I don’t know why I said that thing or asked that question or why I feel this way or that. I couldn’t understand. In one moment, I lost all my emotional intelligence. Everything became a sort of out-of-body experience. I would look at myself and say, “Where is Porat?” This started about a month after I began the medication and lasted for a year, until I tried to come off the pills.

And during this period…
I didn’t want anyone to know, because of the shame and stigma. I was kept as a secret, hidden from everyone. I was paranoid that someone might find out. I would constantly follow my parents when they were on the phone, “Who are you talking to? What did you tell him?”

You’re living at home?
At my parents’ home, living in my room, I would sleep 16-18 hours a day, get up when it was dark. TV and bed. Only family would visit. During this year there was no creativity. And I knew I wanted to go back to creating and writing. I missed it. I wanted it back. Most of all, I wanted Amir back. I was always sure that I didn’t suffer from manic depression. I never had a doubt. But I just didn’t know that I was entering a trap that I couldn’t get out of. And then I stopped taking the pills and had my first manic episode.

You tried to quit on your own? Did you talk with your psychiatrist before deciding to do it?
I went to check-ups, first with him, and then with a different psychiatrist, who gave me the same diagnosis. He looked at the file from the previous doctor and said, “OK, so this is the treatment.” It continued this way with every doctor I went to from 2008 to 2012.

Why did you keep changing doctors?
Because each time I felt like they didn’t understand me. I wanted to talk, but they were only interested in knowing whether I was taking the medication and explaining to me the repercussions if I didn’t take the medication, instilling fear in me. All the conversations were exactly the same.

Did you tell them you want to come off the medication?
Of course.

And what did they tell you?
That it would end in disaster. I couldn’t find any doctor who would support me. I asked one of them, “Why is this a chronic condition? Why do I have to keep taking these drugs for the rest of my life?”
“Because there’s no way of stopping,” he told me. “There’s no way of coming off them.” When I decided to stop taking them, I just quit, all at once. I didn’t know that you have to do it gradually.

And then what happened?
After two or three weeks I started feeling really good. It was what they call mania. I felt like myself again, but I couldn’t fall asleep. I was too happy, regardless of the circumstances, without a job, no relationship. It scared people. And then the non-stop talking started and the other manifestations they refer to as psychosis. I got s*** for stopping to take the pills. They threatened to commit me. So, I went on the medication again, but every six months I stopped taking the pills.
During my first manic episode I picked up surfing again, and went back to smoking pot which made it worse. I kept smoking pot for the next three years. The weed gave me a little refuge from the effects of the medication. It gave me back my creativity and my appetite. It made me spontaneous.
My parents received directions to make sure I took the pills at specific times. That was the mindset in our house – never to be left alone. All the conversations about me related to pills and the disease, often in the third person. “How is he doing? How is he feeling?” “Dad, I don’t feel well.” “You want me to call the doctor? He’ll give you something.” I was on that course of taking pills, more pills, changing the medication. Those were the solutions. But I couldn’t imagine that was how the rest of my life would look like until the day I die. I kept on praying to not wake up in the morning.

So even with the numbness you speak of while taking medication, you still experienced pain.
Even on medications you have gaps when you feel. The drugs don’t work all the time. The body builds tolerance and you’re left only with the side effects – and the shame and guilt.
I constantly searched online and couldn’t find a way to get off medication. I only found warnings, statistics about a 40% suicide rate. So, when I got to the place where I was thinking about suicide, I said to myself, “OK, before you do it, try getting off these pills one last time.” Those were my options in those days. I had a voice in my head telling me that my grandfather survived Auschwitz so there’s nothing in this world that I couldn’t do. Nothing. Get better or die trying.
After four years of similar cycles of feelings of despair, quitting the pills without proper guidance and support, a manic episode, back to the pills, back to a numbed zombie-like existence, Porat decided to give it one more try. This time the results were worse – a severe manic episode, a psychotic breakdown and a six-day forced stay in a mental hospital.
“It was a very serious manic episode,” he recalls. “But I claim that the mania happens because of withdrawal from the medication – that a manic episode is a side effect of quitting the medication. That it wouldn’t have happened if I knew how to gradually get off them.”
Six months after the traumatic hospitalization he checked into a holistic treatment center and for five months received empathic and loving care by therapists and guides who helped him begin his recovery. There, he was introduced to the 12-step program and stopped using cannabis. His medication was changed and he began to communicate more. But still, something was not right. He wanted to experience life without the pills and their side effects but didn’t know how. He was very much afraid that if someone knew he was questioning his psychiatric diagnosis he would be committed again to a mental hospital. His research finally led him to Will Hall, who had a similar story to Porat. Hall was diagnosed as mentally ill but managed to come off psychiatric medication, studied psychology and published a guide called “Harm Reduction Guide to Coming off Psychiatric Drugs.”
Porat read the guide and understood that his dream of living without medication was possible. He immediately contacted Hall, and for the next year and a half, Hall and Porat communicated via email. Hall taught him the system and supported him throughout the process. A stranger, at the other end of the world, became Porat’s savior. Porat has now been successfully living without medication for the past eight years. But he didn’t stop there.

FOLLOWING THE advice of a therapist at the holistic treatment center, he enrolled in a three-year program in a school formed by Dr. Avraham Mizrahi called “Taotherapy” – a fusion of the 12-step program, classical psychology and Buddhism. He finished his studies with distinction and now helps people who are going through severe mental breakdowns, psychotic episodes and post-traumatic stress syndrome. With the support and supervision of psychiatrists, he also guides people how to come off medication responsibly and teaches Hall’s method with Hall’s blessing. Porat believes in a holistic approach, and so he also works with the families involved. In fact, quite often the call for help comes from the parents or spouses who are at a loss for what to do with their loved one. His personal experience gives him a unique ability to connect with and understand the human being behind the veil of “madness.” He has taken the knowledge gained from his own horrific nightmare and turned it into a life mission to help others who are faced with something similar.

What do you think is psychosis?
Psyche is mind. That means our thoughts, our feelings, our dreams, our beliefs. When a neurosurgeon begins operating, he’s worried that he might damage something in the mind because the entire personality is there. So, if the psyche is this entire complex of personality, then psychosis is when you yourself become that feeling or thought. I always explain it this way: I can be afraid of something, let’s say meeting someone. But I’ll still be able to go about my business. It won’t consume me. But if you’re psychotic, you become the fear itself. You’re a living, breathing fear. It doesn’t matter who you’re with, where you go, what you do, you’ll identify with that feeling. If you’re jealous or angry, you’ll become walking jealousy, walking rage. You have no ability to disconnect from that emotion. That’s psychosis as I understand it. When someone comes to see me, my goal is to try and separate them from their story, help them create an emotional distance and see their entire life story, and show them that it’s just one pixel in the picture and not its entirety. I always use that example that it’s like when you zoom in on a photograph and get stuck on one pixel. My job is to help you zoom out a little bit, help you see the larger picture. You do it through compassion, open dialogue, mirroring, and understanding.

What do you think the psychiatrists and therapists should have done with you instead? When you went to see them after I don’t know how long without sleep, a nervous breakdown, anxieties, loan sharks are after you, your parents worried sick, what should they have done? In an ideal world, if you could reconstruct your life, what would you want to have happened?
What I would want to have happened is what happens when someone in that condition comes to see me. The first thing I do is I make sure they have a safe space. I don’t judge them. I don’t define them. I let them speak for as long as they want. Because I know it’s an energy that needs to come out. I listen to them. I hug them with their permission. I make sure to tell them my story so they can identify with it. I make sure to normalize their experience for them. I develop a close bond and relationship by sharing my fears with them.

Do you think someone like that could’ve reached you at the time?
Yes. I remember my first meeting with Avraham [Dr. Avi Mizrahi]. During our first meeting, he told me, “I’m a clinical social worker and I’m telling you this disorder doesn’t exist.” That was the first time that anyone told me anything like that. That’s why I owe him so much. It’s a question of how you interpret the situation and how the person you reach out for in a time of need interprets it. So, it’s possible that a diagnosis of a mental illness is true for the here and now. It could be that the personality right now is bipolar, borderline, or schizoid. But the question is whether it’s chronic. It is on this point that the biggest dispute lies. Let me outline for you my reservations about psychiatry. There is no objective research about getting off psychiatric pills. Robert Whitaker, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his articles questioning the ethics of psychiatric research, claims that we have an epidemic of definitions, not diseases.
The medication saves lives but the long-term use ruins lives. If a bone is broken, a cast is a good thing – but if it stays on all your life, then it’s not a good thing. If you have pneumonia, antibiotics are great, but lifelong use of antibiotics is not going to prevent the recurrence of pneumonia. I had a spiritual problem, in the sense of my set of beliefs. I believed that my financial collapse was the breakdown of my entire life. Why? Because I was ignorant. I identified with my “persona.” I’m my business, my employees, the money I’m making. So it felt like a death experience. In Buddhism, they call it “the small death” - breakup, bankruptcy, death of a loved one. When anything that is a strong part of your identity ends, it puts you in a crisis, and you will experience a death of sorts. That’s what’s called a collapse of the ego. And that’s what I experienced. Today we know that there’s a spiritual treatment for collapse of the ego.

Do you use medication in your treatment?
Yes. After trust has been formed and the person doesn’t suspect me and has come to believe that I understand them, I explain that medication is like a cast for a broken bone – that medical intervention is necessary. I do this, first of all, because I’m not a doctor and I can’t take that responsibility. Second, because during a crisis you need medication to help you distance yourself a little bit from the emotion that is threatening you. I explain what psychosis means and the entire relating terminology, so they won’t experience fear of things they don’t know. That’s the biggest fear, when people talk to you in a language that you don’t understand. I make sure that they understand the situation as much as I can. I don’t use words like chronic, like mental illness or anything that carries a stigma. There’s nothing deterministic in the vocabulary I use. I’ll tell them that I understand their loneliness throughout the experience, that I know no one understands them. I know they’re mad at their parents. I know they don’t like their doctor. I’ll identify with their experience. This is called an open dialogue. I’ll prepare them for their next meeting with the doctor. I’ll go with them to that meeting. We’ll work together on a daily basis. We’ll define a crisis period. We’ll talk about healing and not about treatment. We’ll talk about the way going forward. I’ll try to make them look at it as a life problem and not a mental illness. Simultaneously, I will guide the family.

What do you do in situations where if the parents don’t make sure their kid takes the medication, he’ll go outside and be arrested by the police and be committed in two seconds?
I’ll tell them that after such a crisis they need to rest, but their body can’t rest without medication because it perceives their state as the end of the world. I’ll tell them that the medication is only for three weeks, for the acute period. Even with full-blown psychotics, if they trust me, we can have a conversation that reveals everything to me, what hundreds of therapy sessions won’t do.

What do you mean “reveal everything?”
The person has no defense mechanisms. I’ll get an answer to whatever question I ask.

So, you understand the person’s entire life story? What motivates them, where it comes from?
Right, they come to me with a problem, and I pose the question that maybe it’s not something that’s damaged in your brain? Maybe you don’t understand what the psyche is. And I teach them what the term psyche means, what loneliness of the soul means. They identify with it and are bettered. You know why? Because there’s a solution to their situation. Some people cry out during our session. I had someone like that this week. He said, “You see, mom? It’s not a mental illness – it’s loneliness!” At that moment he was saved. At that moment he understood the importance of a support group. He understands that there is an option to live without medication, without shame, without guilt, without hiding, without running away. Maybe he can live with this interpretation.

You’re saying that a way to live without it is by getting some sort of spiritual treatment?
It’s by changing the way you perceive life. Today, I know that getting off psychiatric pills is exactly the same as quitting any other type of drug like heroin or any other hard drug. The manic episode has the same characteristics of drug withdrawal. And it passes if you treat it right. But after being on such high doses like I was and quitting them immediately, the mind can’t handle the endorphin flood that happens, so it destroys the entire melatonin system.

I’m sure that a lot of the people who come to you also have a problem with addiction. Does the healing process need to be part of the 12-step program or is there another way?
I’ve never seen a system like the 12 steps that gives you so many options. The 12 steps is the only program not dependent on any kind of outside authority. People like us have been hurt by institutions. We’re looking for a place that is not connected to the system. And currently, it’s the only one that exists. You can speak about your fears in a meeting. There is absolutely no demand it imposes but one: honesty.

If a person doesn’t have an issue with drugs, do you still send him to NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings?
An addict doesn’t have a problem with drugs either. He has a problem with life. And I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t have a problem in some part of their life. I don’t know a person who doesn’t have weaknesses. I don’t know a person who couldn’t be misjudged at his time of sorrow, who’s completely resilient.

What would you like to see in the mental health world in the next 20 years?
Compassion.

How would that manifest itself?
I’d like to see understanding, openness, processes that work. There are examples all over the world of these processes. I [currently] have six patients who are living without medication, studying at Taotherapy and on their way to become Wounded Healers. I’d like to see a world that is open, that makes room for different experiences. A less deterministic world.

Do you see the current problem in psychology and conventional psychiatric treatment stemming from over definition? That people fall into a certain category and can never escape it?
It limits the human being to their definition. I want psychology to advance in the direction of intersubjective treatment. Intersubjective treatment has shown great results in healing all over the world. It should not stay tied to a conception from the last millennium. And I’d like to see a new generation of pills.

Are you ashamed of your past?
A part of me is, yes. A part of me wishes that none of this would have happened. But a part of me understands that if it wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. In some way, I believe that all the things that happened to me had to happen, so I’ll be able to do what I do today.

What’s your biggest fear?
That I’ll be treated against my will – that they will take my freedom away from me again.

What do you want to say to people out there in the world who are on psychiatric drugs and feel some sort of distress? Let’s say people who are not in the extreme condition like those who come to see you but who do take pills, feel a certain kind of numbness, a lack of connection with themselves, and who miss who they used to be?
That they need to investigate, that there is a simple way. That maybe if they can identify with a life problem the way the disease of addiction [a term from the NA program] defines it, then maybe they can stop believing in the notion that there is something wrong with their brain and believing there is a spiritual problem, and start developing new tools for life. It can be done.
I would say that if they really miss who they once were and don’t identify with the definition they’ve been given and are looking for a way, they need to seek out people who have succeeded to find a way. People have gone through very difficult things in life and have gotten through them. There are many people in the world who have managed to recover. Look for support groups. See what it took for people to recover. Because I started believing that recovery is possible after I saw someone else who succeeded. I was saved because I stumbled on to Will Hall’s website
There are other ways (than that of the psychiatrists) of treating what’s called mental illness, and a person should know that. I believe in what the Buddha believed – that the source of suffering is ignorance. We simply don’t know.

What don’t we know?
That life is a gift. We forget that.