Me, David Oaks, middle in front in my powerchair with my big brother Tony Oaks, friend Rev. Phil Schulman (center, standing), and my wife Debra Nunez.
One of my very best friends for many years is the creative, loving, wise, funny Phil Schulman. Phil is a minister who has led several Unitarian Universalist congregations. Phil has been such a prominent, positive leader in so many movement gatherings of mental health consumers and psychiatric survivors that I affectionately call him “The Mad Movement Minister”!
In November 2017, while biking from home to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (Phil has been clean and sober for many decades) a truck hit him. Phil suffered a major traumatic brain injury (TBI). He spent a long time in a coma. Since then he has devoted much of his time to recovery in a way that models values of our movement. He has shown faith, humanity, empowerment, community, humor, love, peer support, spirituality, wisdom and so much more.
Recently, I heard a sermon Phil gave about a year after his accident, speaking about commercialism during the Christmas 2018 season. His wisdom and witty love for life shine through his impaired speech. Or perhaps his disabled voice underscores his message, because he is living our values! You can access and listen to this sermon here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5vknvi3gk4018zg/Phil_Christmas_sermon18.wav
You can find Phil Schulman on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/phil.schulman.9
There is a CaringBridge website to connect and update supporters of Phil’s recovery. You can join and participate for free here: https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/philschulman
Last week I had the pleasure and honor of nominating Phil as a speaker in one of the main gatherings of our movement.
Below you can read some of what I wrote:
I have been close friends with Phil for several decades. I myself have been an activist in the mental health consumer / survivor movement for more than four decades, including co-founder of MindFreedom. Since 2012, because of disabilities, I am semi-retired. In all my career, I would consider Phil to be one of the greatest treasures in our movement. I give him my very highest recommendation for your keynoter.
Phil became a minister and has served as a church leader in several congregations in several states. He is also an advocate in the peer “lived experience” consumer / survivor movement. Phil has actively participated in many Alternatives conferences, NARPA conferences, etc. In fact, I and a few others refer to Phil affectionately as “the mad movement minister.” As I noted, Phil has a lived experience with several mental distresses in his past. He has been clean and sober for many decades, regularly attending AA.
Phil, shortly after his 2017 accident, when a truck hit him on a bicycle.
It was riding from home on his bike to an Alcoholics Anonyomous meeting in Florida back in November 2017, that Phil, as I say, “re-established his movement credentials.” A truck struck Phil as he rode his bike that night, throwing him into a coma with extreme and severe head injuries. Phil also had a large number of challenging physical impairments.
Phil has dedicated the last year-and-a-half to showing us all the value of our movement beliefs. Phil has activated a network of supportive community leaders. He has engaged in many hours of extensive rehab regularly. He has applied his extensive wisdom of spiritual growth.
Let me give one example. Last year, he was one of the speakers in the nationally-popular New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (NYAPRS) conference. Even though because of his TBI Phil speaks differently, even though he has several other extreme physical challenges… or perhaps partly because he has all these disabilities, his speech was very popular, powerful, moving and helpful. I have personally listened to a sermon he gave not too long ago, and his wit, humor, wisdom shines through as it did before his injury, with dozens of sermons. Below is the text from his NYAPRS speech, and you will find some of his bio here:
Phil has spent countless hours doing rehab, including physical therapy, for his recovery.
November 6th, my bicycle and I were struck by a ½ ton Dodge Ram
truck. Thanks to a prompt emergency medical response and surgery, I
did not die. The extent of brain damage was unknown. There was
uncertainty if I would walk or talk again. Ten months later, here I am.
I am really happy to be with you. I have worked hard to regain abilities,
including my speech.
A member at the clubhouse I attend, told me that he loves my NJ accent.
I said “What are you talking about? I don’t have a NJ accent! I have a
brain injury accent.” Ok sometimes my Jersey accent comes out a little.
I am hoping that in the future I’ll be able to say “Sometimes my head
injury accent comes out a little.”
Thank you for being here today! There are times in life when we really
appreciate people showing up. Like the first time we do something,
when we become ill or injured, after the death of a loved one, … it can
mean so much to have companionship. True?
Many people reached me out to me after learning of my accident. I was
so moved to hear that communities all over the country were praying for
me. To this day, one line posts on FB lets me know that friends are still
caring and following my progress.
Support has helped me to achieve spectacular results in recovery.
Decades in wellness and recovery communities prepared me. Lessons
and tools from past trauma have helped me too!
For example, I was seventeen when a close friend killed himself. I was
thinking about doing the same. I saw so much injustice, and believed
myself to be indelibly flawed and unable to make a difference. I didn’t
see a reason to continue living. I yelled at G*d “What do you want from
me?” I instantly received an answer; 3 words “Just show up,” and a
memory of a friend listening to me compassionately. I was defeated in
my argument with G*d. I knew that if I would follow these instruction,
it would make a difference.
After a few more years of substance abuse, in another conversation with
G*d, I swore off toxins. I started swimming daily hoping that I could
heal the damage I had done. Over the next decade I found various
communities that offered gifts for recovery.
At age 25 I began seminary, and was introduced to a form of peer
counseling that helped me to understand individual trauma in a context
of societal oppression. It taught me to feel pain and allow tears in order
to release the lingering effects of trauma.
At 29 I was given a spot in a very expensive and lengthy outpatient
Codependency Treatment Program. The director said that I was manic
depressive. He told me that if I needed to take lithium or leave the
program. As soon as I completed the 8 week program, I stop taking the
lithium. I had connection with this human rights movement, with others
who were resisting coercive treatment. My peer counseling practice
became critically important to me.
I got a job as a counselor on a hospital addiction unit. My peer
counseling teacher was hired to provide training, and our staff began
practicing peer support. The head nurse began asking me to visit
patients at about the 18 th day of treatment when they were asking for
more pain medication. Patients would share with me their inner pain.
They would usually cry. Although many refer to crying as breaking
down, it consistently aided break throughs. The number of requests for
pain medication declined.
Then a new medical director put all patients on antabuse. I objected and
was “laid off” two weeks later. This is one of many times I paid a price
for how my beliefs put me in conflict with our mental health system.
My most traumatic experience of mental health oppression came at the
hands of my church. The director of the “Ministerial Fellowship
Committee” described its purpose as being gatekeeper for our
denomination, weeding out those not psychologically fit for the
ministry.” At 31, after nearly seven years of education and work, I was
the weed removed.
I have needed a lot of support to heal my alienation from institutions that
I judged as toxic. In particular I felt at odds with the psychiatric
pharmaceutical industrial complex. I believe that the mental health
system diverts attention away from social injustice, oppression and the
deeper causes of harm upon people. I rejected the labeling and
mistreatment of people as mentally ill. I saw it as enforcing social
structures that keep control of resources in the hands of the richest 1%.
In 93 I met David Oaks and began working at the “Clearinghouse for
Human rights in Psychiatry.” For 25 years David has believed in me
and challenged me to reach higher. He has referred to me as Minister to
In 98, I was hired to start and direct the “Crisis Alternatives Program” in
Essex Co NY. It was one of the first respite programs- funded to reduce
the amount of force and violence in the county’s mh crisis response. My
philosophy was very simple: 1- assume that each person asking for our
help was experiencing some degree of overwhelm and conflict regarding
something that had happened to them. 2- listen, provide people with
high quality empathy 3- Remember that people are the best experts on
what they value and want 4- Do not interfere with their choice of
support services. Let them figure out for themselves how they wanted
to address their conflicts. 5- believe in people’s capacity to recover.
These values have helped me in my recovering from the recent trauma to
my brain and body. The experience and tools I’ve gained in this
movement have been instrumental in my success. Now come with me
through that more recent journey.
My brother Michael had invited me to participate in the final kayak
expedition for his book. We planned to leave early Tuesday morning.
On Monday I texted him that I would arrive at his home by about 9pm.
When my housemate came home at 6, he saw my car in the driveway,
and found my cell phone inside charging. He correctly assumed I had
gone out on my bicycle and incorrectly assumed I would be back soon.
A few days later, I regained consciousness in the hospital Intensive care
unit. I woke gently as if from a night’s sleep. Looking down I saw my
badly broken body. I felt achy all over.
I didn’t remember the accident. I remembered setting out on my bike. I
knew I didn’t reach my destination. I put two and two together.
Surprisingly I felt somewhat calm. When the pain medication wore off,
I experienced dread. I was lonely and pleased when staff entered my
Something seemed strange. Was this a movie or a dream? I had the
sense of being both present and in another realm. There was silence
from me? I realized that I couldn’t speak.
I figured it was a result of the accident, and expected that it would soon
wear off. My acceptance wore off more quickly. I needed to let my
brother and others know where I was. I wanted to scream, “I’ve got
something I need to tell you!” Staff understood only that I was
Fortunately, my brother soon appeared in my room. The police have
contacted him. My relief was enormous! There were tears in both of our
eyes. The relief was short-lived. I became frustrated with my inability to
communicate and connect with him. Noise was hurting my head. I was
relieved when he left for the quiet that returned.
I started communicating with staff by using expressions, sounds and
soon some garbled words. I slept much of the time, and could tell that
my condition was improving.
My brother’s next visit went better too. He says that my first word was
Although relatively peaceful, I felt a strange disorientation. From my
room, I couldn’t see the street or the sky. I saw only another building
with a bright neon sign. I watched it become dark and light and dark
again. It was like time lapse photography. I couldn’t tell how many days
went by. I left my room only one time in ten days, a trip down
windowless hallways to an operating room. I was lost in space.
Disconnected from nature, blurry headed from my trauma and the meds,
I started seeing fantastic images. Have you started dreaming before you
fell asleep? It was something like that. I kept trying to look at these
things I was seeing. Each time I opened my eyes, the images would
disappear. I saw strange things with my eyes open too; floating
electrons, and orbs of light. Fortunately weird doesn’t faze me! I was
curious and amused by these altered states.
The noises were more troubling. Beeps, alarms and even voices hurt my
head. I was hearing doctors and nurses talking in the hall outside my
room. They seemed to be talking about me repeatedly. There were also
public service announcements and advertisement for hospital programs
being broadcast over a public address system. I wasn’t quite sure what
was real. It reminded me of a scene from Alice in Wonderland.
Again, I correctly assumed that it was a result of my accident, and would
soon be over.
A speech specialist visited me. She said that I was going to get better,
and that it would take a long time. She said that singing would help me
recover my speech. She asked if I could sing “twinkle twinkle little
star.” and “Happy Birthday.” I couldn’t believe that I could barely
remember the tune. For the next month I sung all day long.
Someone brought me a “letter board” so that I could point and spell. I
didn’t have much success. Writing on paper didn’t work much better.
The problem was that I was still thinking big words and long complex
sentences. Before I could get my thoughts out, I would forget what I
wanted to communicate.
Staff seemed to want to get in and out of the room quickly. Some times
they caused me physical pain. I couldn’t quickly find words to
The voice of childhood trauma was crying inside me: “No more! I can’t
take any more!” My actual emotional expression was cranky and
complaining. Hurting and fatigued, I feared alienating my helpers. I
knew that if I didn’t make a change, things would not go well for me.
Fortunately help was on the way. My former partner Huyen had reached
out from Texas to contact my local people in Florida. She asked the
Vegan meetup community to bring me healthy food. Joyce had attended
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) classes in my home brought me miso and other vegan meals. Her
food was manna from heaven. Her visit was an island of joy in a sea of
That night I was writhing in pain again. I was tired emotionally and
physically. “This is horrible!”, I thought. “What have I done?! I can’t
handle this!” Alone and in despair, I longed for support and imagined
there was none to be had. I felt hopelessness overtaking me.
Then one thought caused a shift in me. I remembered Joyce telling me
how Huyen had reached her through the internet to advocate and care for
me. Recalling this, I remembered that I was loved. I felt warmth, relief
and ease in my body. Although still in pain, I could be still. Sleep came
Huyen and I had been a couple for 7 years. I recent years I have seen
her Facebook posts; pictures of good times with her boyfriend Mark.
That she still cared and acted boldly was powerful.
Huyen is a physician. She was able to inform, guide and advocate for me
effectively. She has been a star player on the incredible support team
Phil flips trauma and tragedy into recovery and growth. We love you, Phil!
In the beginning I perceived myself as alone in facing terrible pain and
loss. My perception yielded to a sweeter reality. Love began pouring
in, cards, prayers and emails from far and wide. Eventually there were
calls, meals, rides, generous gifts to support my medical costs.
Love lifted my spirit. I began thinking, acting and responding more
positively and effectively. I became determined to recover. Staff
responded and treated me with warmth. Resources fell in my lap.
The support and the love I received helped me to keep on keeping on
through months of pain. With spirits lifted, I found the stamina to do
about 4 hours of therapeutic activity most days; physical therapy, weight lifting,
swimming, gentle stretching. I’ve received cranial sacral and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapies. I’ve participated in a fitness program for people with mental
and physical disabilities.
Although I have worked hard, I didn’t make my bones heal. Something
larger than me did that. We understand and call it differently; the
Universe, life, spirit, energy, nature, G*d. I thank G*d for the doctors,
nurses, physical therapists, agencies, advocates, friends and family that
have helped create miracles for me. I stand in humility and awe before
the web or life of which we are part, the Great Mystery of unfolding
existence. I send out love to all my relations, my ancestors and
generations to come. I step into this moment, alive, awake and grateful
for new opportunities.