Yes I’ve been inactive on here for a while: work has taken over more and more of my time and energy. Things came to a head this Monday however. I took an overdose of lorazepam.
The following day I wrote this, as my attempt to iron out my thoughts. Put simply, I don’t understand why I did it. I don’t understand what’s happening to me.
Earlier my GP asked if I was depressed. Honestly I wasn’t. I most definitely did not want to return to work, so that’s something to stab at. But as my mother pointed out, I’ve been coming home from work for weeks, stating how I’m enjoying bookselling again. And I have been. However none of this changes the fact that there’s the parallel dimension – this alternate universe within my head saturated with white noise and hyper-thought and erratic compulsions.
I’ve been drinking more and more. Self-medication is the prevalent term I believe. The sense of release, the comfort; but also the trangression. Acting normal, functioning while under the influence. What’s fascinating/scary is that I can go off piste stone cold.
I call it the “Cold Flame”. Inside of me there’s this energy; something wondrous and beautiful and beneficial. But its most definitely a dangerous gift – sometimes my mind works every angle, turning things over and over and over and over. Simulating things which have happened, haven’t happened, could happen, can’t.
My eyes glow. Flames emanate from my hands. I’ll look over my shoulder and converse with my thoughts rather than merely think them. We are an army a million as many as your own (though there is sometimes sedition in the ranks). That “crazy” guy rambling to himself on the street? Hello. There’s a little more subtlety in my discourse, but if the lift door opens at the right time I’ll be there running my nails down the walls; clutching my head and waiting out the latest cacophony.
You may hear “We” instead of “I.”
I register people’s eye movements, lip twitches, the way they shuffle their feet or move their arms. The thoughts, concerns, opinions and emotions of others flood torrentially into my mind. I’m not deluded or arrogant enough to claim telepathy but hey, just because you’re not a bat, doesn’t mean you can’t hang upside down.
The other thing about Cold Flame? There’s colours inside of you too.
In June 2012 I was fortunate enough to attend a talk Henry Winkler gave at a school in North London. I was there to sell signed copies of his Hank Zipzer books. ‘The World’s Greatest Underachiever’ – Zipzer is a young dyslexic growing up on the Upper West Side, who’s experiences mirror those of Winkler’s youth.
It was a relief, discovering what a fabulously nice guy he is. The average age of his audience was 9 years old, but he deftly managed to work some self-deprecating Fonzie gags in there for the elders. His warmth and enthusiasm was infectious and he deserves every accolade for the work he is doing.
There was one repeated phrase which lodged in my mind: ‘learning challenges.’ Cynicism calls P.C. bullshit – ‘learning disabilities’ remains the stable phrase for those facing dyslexia or similar conditions. Was Winkler simply smoothing the edges of his rhetoric or, as I personally suspect, attempting to subtly undermine any associated stigma?
First of all, if you are dyslexic or if you have a learning challenge, kids know. They know that it’s hard for them. They know that they’re not up to snuff. They know that they’re not doing as well as 75% of the class. So then to compound it by labeling them, by putting them down, by yelling at them, by grounding them because, you know, they’re not reading fast enough, it warps their ability to grow into a healthy self-image.
It has to be acknowledged that, like epilepsy and unlike bipolar disorder, there is support for a neurobiological theory of dyslexia. Regardless, Winkler’s quote – emphasising stigma, productivity, labels and self-image; puts me in mind of attitudes towards the mentally ill. The levels and quality of support and acceptance are critical in determining the outcome of such a challenge; more so than any point of origin.
Is it naive to hope for a day when a kind, funny guy in a tweed jacket is invited to address a hall of school kids and tell them about his ‘mental challenges?’ Hopefully this gentleman would use a better phrase than that. Maybe he’d be sharing the adventures of a young person finding their feet and making their way whilst hearing voices and constantly shifting moods.
On Monday The Guardian carried an exclusive interview Hadley Freeman conducted with Michael J. Fox. Like Winkler, Fox will ultimately be remembered for the green shoots of his early roles – those enduring, iconic characters whom neither the march of time, nor recurrent internet memes will ever unmake.
Another parallel is their later callings as representatives and campaigners for respective challenges. Winkler only received a diagnosis for his dyslexia later in life, around the time his step-son was in the third grade. Fox received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease back in 1991, arguably at the height of his fame.
I’m conscious of the minefield I could meander into here. I’m tying three separate conditions together; and I must emphasise that I am not calling them equal or necessarily equivalent. If I’m making a point its that adversity too often leads to surrender, and that the opinion and attitudes of others seems to be, more often than not, what holds us back.
Listening to him talk, you get the impression Mr Winkler remains amazed that he has achieved anything at all. Aged 30, Fox was told it’d be a miracle if he could continue working by the time he was 40 (his new series premiered in September. Michael J. Fox is 52.)
I take the medication for myself so I can transact, not for anyone else. But I am aware it is empowering for people to see what I do and, for the most part, people in the Parkinson’s community are just really happy that Parkinson’s is getting mentioned, and in a pitying way…
He considers pity to be ‘…just another form of abuse.’ Though I struggle to put it into words, I think I get what he means. Pity is intrusive, a value judgement has been made and you’re devalued by stealth. Written off and with your agency reduced, based upon a snapshot. His comments on medication have a resonance too, in that he has made the judgement on whether to follow a regime; which is quite a bold move for someone with a bona fide medical condition (one which, interestingly, Fox describes as ‘a gift…that keeps on taking.’)
Exemplars and role models are essential in all walks of life. As an epileptic I was pleased to discover the existence of a ‘Parkinson’s community’, though I guess “we” can’t get our shit together in quite the same way. In researching this piece one curious thought cropped up – who amongst the bipolar could be considered the equals to Fox and Winkler? There’s going to be a hell of a lot to choose from it seems, and for a Brit the obvious choice is Stephen Fry.
Fry has done a great deal in terms of advocacy and myth-smashing; and his candour, compassion and talent have long been a boon. However the bipolar appear to have a larger pool of famous faces and affluent names to draw representatives from compared to dyslexia and Parkinson’s. The spectre of ‘manic depression propaganda’ looms large – is this because bipolar disorder walks hand in hand with creativity? Or is it because the diagnostic criteria is so unreliable.
I find it difficult to believe that Stephen Fry or Vivian Leigh wouldn’t have been as talented if they hadn’t been bipolar. A diagnosis has many applications – it excuses Mel Gibson’s potent homophobia and antisemitism, while taking credit for Elgar’s Enigma Variations. But as Ophelia’s Mirror reminds us, a label like bipolar tells us very little about a person. And Darian Leader notes that; ‘Emphasising the manic-depressive’s public creativity is, of course, also insensitive and stigmatizing to those who do not write or sculpt or paint or conquer to world-wide recognition.’
Perhaps what the bipolar need are fewer celebrity representatives. Stories of living day to day with the disposition, however one might choose to define it, will do far more to reduce stigma and challenge attitudes than the endless celeb confessionals; which reinforce stereotypes. Misunderstood genius or impressive train wreck. Everyone clamouring in and claiming ‘I’ve got that too!’, while Marty McFly and Hank Zipzer focus on ‘look what I can do.’
On Thursday I was discharged from the psychiatric service.
After 12 years I no longer have a psychiatrist. I’ll see my GP every so often for bloods and that’s it. Winding down has been touted in the past and we’ve always, mutually, decided that staying in the service was a good idea. Just to see. For my part there was some kind of fear of freedom – 12 years, and I will not deny that Dr Sri has done right by me.
Apparently I’m a ‘success story.’ He said this with the wistful tones of someone who rarely scores any wins. Dr Sri always acknowledged the collaborative effort involved, but I can’t help but feel that he’s missed certain details. I’ve done better because I could no longer operate as a victim. No longer infested; no longer suffering under some invasive disease entity. As trite as it may sound I tried to accentuate the positive and face the dark down rather than acquiesce to some spurious pseudo-scientific definitions. He gave me breathing space, and this is where I credit lithium because it gave me cover.
We fundamentally disagree on the nature of my disposition. I do not see disorder, certainly not pathology, and he wasn’t shy about telling me I was wrong. But he wasn’t militant about it, and we did respect each other. What’s sickening is that the quality of our relationship is something of a rarity. It has to be noted that part of the reason patients are being discharged from his books is because his unit is being wound down. He is moving onto a long term treatment programme – i.e. working with those we are told will never be “successes.” I know that his patients are fortunate to be under the care of such a patient, conscientious, intelligent and caring man. But he is wrong. Or, as he has hinted in the past, he is unable to afford his charges the treatment they might require. In at least one meeting he told me about his frustration with the service’s limited resources. Read into that what you will.
There was a certain degree of system shock when I left the meeting. I entered the service when I was 17. Crashing into it through blood and muddy water. I’m struggling to reconcile the disconnect between the person doing the talking and the fractal composition debating the issue upon our exit.
A safety net has been folded away. Getting back into the system is easier for alumni, but the principle is that (whilst not being cured), I am convenient enough to be released into the wild. I guess the question becomes what decisions can and should I make, now that its a little more unilateral around here?
Shouldn’t it be the easiest of questions to answer? If they gave you a pill, if transcranial magnetic stimulation works or some new gene therapy could cure your “disorder”; would you accept it?
Yes is the obvious answer, as far as any “sane” or “rational” or “healthy” person would have it. The reasoning behind this is obvious and with some validity – mental illness tears at the fabric of society, it destroys lives. It kills.
Why can’t I just answer yes? A friend of mine once told me how much she hates my scars, how she hates that pain was caused and that they were required. She also noted that I wouldn’t be the person she loved if I hadn’t lived through all that. Maybe that’s what she truly dislikes – that parts contributing to someone she values were born of misery and chaos.
I can’t answer yes. No. No I’m lying. Yes. Yes, yes yes. YES. In my darkest times I wanted it to stop. ‘It’ was so many things. Fear, uncertainty, misery, pain, loss. More besides. Anything I could try to cut out or ethanol-cleanse or suffocate at the bottom of the Roding.
The interesting question isn’t whether I would have such a treatment today, but whether I would have then.
In The Pits and the Pendulum Brian Adams highlights what he considers ‘manic-depression propaganda’: adding names such as Einstein, Coleridge and Alexander the Great to “our” pantheon. The only stories I ever read about paranoid schizophrenia in newspapers detail failures of hospital administration and the inevitable murdering resulting from it. Black and white thinking saturates the question of mental health on every level, in a dizzying array of permutations.
For my part I cannot recall any upside, nor any down. There was only the maelstrom, punctuated with moments of relief and release when I thought it was over or the torment had been tied off. Contemplation of any benefits of my condition were impossible, not because my mind wouldn’t have been open to such heresy, rather it was otherwise engaged.
I wrote a hell of a lot of bad poetry back then. Wrote a lot of awful songs and failed to play them on my guitar. Writing has been a constant throughout my life, but back then it had to happen in bursts. Narratives or long tracts like this one were almost impossible, contributing to my collapsing academic standards. Perhaps my point is that any creativity I had wasn’t birthed or enhanced because of my crises, simply that the flavour of it had changed.
When was I diagnosed with depression? An SNRI was prescribed at some point, which I find curious in retrospect. ‘Suicidal ideation‘ came later: dying was a practical consideration. A demarcation was under construction between myself and a world opposing me on principle. Incompatible.
Things were happening to me and from me. Any revelations or revolutions in me were carried on shockwaves, and if there have been any benefits their emergence relates to these shattering blows. The same way you blast precious minerals from the earth.
No safety protocols. Imagine if you will an accelerating train; brakes failing, wheels red from friction, the whole mechanism groaning with metal fatigue. Disengage any “sensible” prejudices you may have around the fear of pain, the fear of death. When the wheels buckle and the rails yield and you are carried off the mountainside. The contortion of colours and shapes, new sounds and unimagined sensations.
‘Reality is a postage stamp‘ musician Katiejane Garside once told us. J. G. Ballard claimed a debt to the mentally ill and was himself denounced as ‘beyond psychiatric help‘ thanks to the manuscript of Crash. Shanghai Jim took it as a compliment.
If the propaganda folds and we’re not all murderers, perhaps what we find is a neutral shift in perspective. As social animals bound by the laws of natural selection, we have to agree on certain conventions in order for our continued survival. The model falters however, because all thought is infinite and our awareness of this fact is too much to handle. Finding ways to co-operate has helped us thrive as a species, but knowledge of its cost undermines the remarkable gifts nature instils in us.
I recently read a paper published in Molecular Psychiatryback in 2008, accusing a gene called diacylglycerol kinase eta (DGKH) of being complicit in the onset of bipolar disorder. Statistics were never my strong point so a great deal of the article was lost on me, but the focus on ‘risk alleles’ and ‘polygenic disease‘ was interesting, though seemed to somehow miss the point.
An engine is very useful if you maintain it. See to its needs and it’ll take you where you want to go. Ignore it or push it too hard and its breaks down. You might swear at the car when it fails to live up to your expectations, but you don’t fix it by restricting its component parts.
This is an emotive analogy, courtesy of someone fearing an extinction event. ‘In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom.’ Ballard again. Potential methylation of this proposed epigenetic, polygenic complex will sterilise people like us. Return us to a statistical norm that the Holy APA cannot actually quantify.
I can’t say I consider myself special, and maybe I hinge too much of my sense of self on identification with the Mad community. But conversely aren’t researchers similarly hinging too much on the existence of a disease and the possibility of a cure? Approaches on either side will inevitably suffer from ideological taint – participants in the aforementioned study were drawn from the US Department of Health and and Human Services, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Brookings Institution’s Center on Social and Economic Dynamics; arguably institutions with a vested interest in the biopsychiatric model and its social implications. The test samples came from subjects and controls who’s suitability was judged according to DSM-IV criteria, which is always reassuring. The paper also notes that similar, albeit larger genome-wide association studies are only possible thanks to organisations like the Wellcome Trust; which was founded by a pharmaceutical entrepreneur.
I have to acknowledge my own biases, and it’ll be an interesting day if irrefutable scientific proof of the biopsychiatric model emerges. Yet I still cannot shake the idea that just because bipolar disorder may have a genetic basis, it wouldn’t be proof of a disease. I’m not a anthropologist and I’m certainly not a evolutionary biologist, but I can imagine certain evolutionary benefits to mental “disorders” which arguably retain their value.
My experiences of depression: an intense focus on ills to myself and a sensitivity to those of the world. A warning sign, a pain response. Bipolar disorder: creative leaps and unique problem solving, married to an intense motivation to leave the cave and cross the valley. Here we share the depressive sensibility; both as a consideration of our situation, but also a crash dynamic – our bodies and minds slowing down in an equal and opposite reaction to the manic impulse. Schizophrenia: hyper-real processing of the world around us, drawing out the inward significance of who and what we are. An attempt to emphasise the individual so we do not stagnate.
I talk to the voices in my head, sometimes telling them to shut up, but more often than not as part of a dialectic. This post owes much of its content to a late night of augmented energy levels and accelerated thinking. Patty Duke, echoing an apparent trend amongst manic people, emphasised her ‘incredible command of the language,’ while a patient of Darian Leader’s remarked: ‘the right words were just there, I didn’t have to think anymore.’ Right now, as I feel myself ascending yet again, I know exactly what they mean.
My answer is no. I can’t say I’d want to be “cured.” I won’t speak for everyone. My rights are restricted to what I feel and what I believe. Science is not the enemy. The spiritual isn’t irrelevant. All we can work with are the qualities we have and the ways we work with them in kind.
One of my worst memories, one of many, was the look on my brother’s face when he came home and found me bleeding on the bedroom floor. I’d had what you would call a manic episode – possibly a mixed state – and pursued a resolution with a razor blade. I was in shock and my arms were entirely red, and I don’t think I’ll ever recover from his expression.
During my frenzy I’d done what any respectable maniac would. I daubed “We are 1” on the desk in our room. “We” is a critical word in my universe: you’ll hear it slipping in while talking to me, especially during moments of pressure or acceleration. I have used it consciously in the past, as a way of aggravating or unsettling people; but for the most part it is an involuntary response.
Its increasingly common as I get older. Paradoxically this may run in line with my increasing confidence and sense of self. I often mention how I am the happiest I have ever been – the best even. Part of this maybe down to perspective. My capacity for objective thought has greatly increased over the last decade or so, and while this sometimes leaves me cold with diminished empathy, it means I’m no longer so in thrall to my emotions.
“We” these days has a stability to it bleeding little me couldn’t have imagined. It’s difficult to put into words. Its almost a quantum state: imagine turning your face away in reaction to something upsetting or disturbing (for me this is often a memory). You close your eyes and feel the pull for your skin as your head moves, but at the same time you’re conscious of still looking ahead, staring wide at the offending image. Sometimes I’ll cast a beady eye at something and feel like there’s another two faces mirroring my actions. I have back-up, reflections at a remove.
I described similar sensations in one of my earliest posts. More evocatively perhaps, though with some degree of failure. Many people from my offline life, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) acknowledge that I was being literal. These are physical sensations, psychosomatic manifestations running the length and breadth of the extreme states people “like us” experience.
I will acknowledge the possibility that is an experience familiar to everyone. If so, what’s telling is that I consider it a possibility, rather than knowing for sure, and that I’m writing about it so plainly.
The voices in my head follow a similar pattern. Invasive is the term I suppose – a detached comment or suggestion obviously born of my own subconscious, but also at a remove. When I get overrun it’s usually in bed as I’m crossing the Styx between waking and sleeping. I’ll thrash around, grimacing and contorting my body into all kinds of strange configurations. Just trying to get some fucking peace.
Often I’ll take on the voice itself. Again the experience is difficult to spell out. Sometimes I close my eyes and, opening them with a fiery intensity, I’ll hiss out a response to my thoughts or whatever is happening around me. I often hiss at people, especially if they’re irritating or offending me in some way. Confusion has been caused by my vocalising responses to something raised in my mind – I recently replied ‘Yes’ in answer to a suggestion which popped into my mind, during a conversation with one of my colleagues. ‘Yes’ wasn’t an answer to anything said in the “real” world conversation.
To my shame, what I’m hearing isn’t always pleasant. Refracted thoughts have been of a violent nature, usually directed towards people I feel have crossed me, for reasons dramatic or quite banal. These are contextual as opposed to state-specific: they’ve emerged under manic, depressed, mixed or neutral conditions.
Everyone has violent thoughts, especially centred upon retribution, but I can’t speak for others in terms of the psychological reinforcement they receive. ‘Do it’ pops up, ‘kill him’ is another; nothing too original. Sometimes its a whisper, sometimes a chorus crams every syllable into my cranium. Some in opposition to the others, which I take as a very encouraging sign.
Voices have helped reinforce altruistic behaviour. Countless times I’ve walked past a homeless person before ‘go back’ encourages just that. Sometimes I’ve been talking to someone and something will note a curious tick in the other person’s expression or voice. From here I’ll turn my attention to the other person’s well-being, many times unlocking and assisting them with some personal concern.
This is proving to be a very difficult post to write. Despite knowing that majority of people likely to read will be sympathetic to such experiences, we’re talking personal and pretty darn fucked up stuff. I’m compelled to note that I am not a slave to the voices I hear. They are not constants, rather they are amongst the most blatant manifestations of my complicated psyche.
Of course Darian Leader has something to say about all this. Describing a psychotic patient of French psychoanalyst Charles Melman, Leader writes:
But who, Melman asked, was speaking? The young man’s response was categorical: ‘It’s my neurones,’ he said. ‘It’s my brain, I know that it’s me,’ and then he asked, ‘Can the brain be divided?’ Even though he was admitting his self as the locus of the phenomena which had invaded his life, they were still designated as external, as coming from the outside, in the form of the split brain.
At a push I tend to see myself as fractal, reflective, prismatic. That I ended up with a diagnosis of bipolar feels coincidental almost to the point of orchestration. Since I was very young I’ve been fascinated by divisions, by altered states and either side of the coin. When I was 11 I loved the fairly dreadful Batman Forever, especially Tommy Lee Jones rendition of Two-Face.
I was fascinated by split personalities – the idea of multiples within a single skull. To this day I have dysmorphic sensations – I often picture and feel deep scars running across my right eye. Scars I haven’t crafted snake across my right arm (always the right; I’m a working southpaw). I wonder, as I felt very isolated as a child, whether or not my aspects were gestated to alleviate my loneliness.
One figure I recall was Dark Ryan, or simply Dark. Back in 2001 he returned from my childhood; not as an adversary to my derivative superhero alter ego (Super Ryan – ha!), but as a fairly accusatory presence within my disintegrating mind. His was a label; if its one thing I do not have it is multiple personalities. Naming and distinguishing my complexes seems to be a psychotic function of healing for me. Engaging them as entities, even pale ones, makes them easier for me to comprehend.
Now that I’m older, I’m tempted to say that these distinctions have taken on a far more satisfactory bouquet. The positives are accentuated and the negatives seen as necessary shades. Is this not reflective of the Icarus principle of “dangerous gifts?”
There’s one thing you need to know about me:
I am obsessed with the X-Men.
Superheroes make use of their talents and typically possess abilities beyond the scope of normal people. The best superhero stories reveal the conflicts inherent in these conditions, and few comics do it better than X-Men. The other fact is that X-Men is about finding your place in a world which doesn’t get you at best; and hates you for your differences at worst.
My brother and I created our own superhero pantheon when we were young, though I guess it percolated a lot deeper into me. That I am also Cause Catyljan is no accident – it is my identity but not; myself by design but not independent of my “true” self. ‘Catyljan’ has a very specific meaning for me (and nothing to do with Catalonia), which I rather relish keeping to myself. ‘Cause’ leans on its dictionary definitions – as a noun I focus on it as a basis, a foundation, a starting point, a root; as well as a principle, an ideal and a conviction.
In this moment my mind is clear and calm, focused on the words you’re reading now. One reason I refused to take the olanzapine Dr Sri prescribed (other than it melting my internal organs), was my fear of being without my delusions. These idiosyncratic characteristics without which I would not be me. A 29 year old lionising superheroes may be sketchy; a person philosophical about their madness may “abhorrent,” but this is curve I am on and We are not afraid.
Psycho – indicating the mind or psychological or mental processes. [from Greek psukhe spirit, breath]
-otic suffix framing adjective
1. relating to or affected by.
from Collins English Dictionary, 8th Edition.
Amongst the well walked minefields of the mental health debate, we find lost limbs and accelerated viscera lubricating the language framing our experiences. Anyone can name a psychiatric condition, regardless of personal experience, as the tyranny of ‘mind viruses’ infect conventional wisdom. The psychiatric firmament enjoys a social charter which grants them authority of language and instils a perverted sense of duty to enforce socially palatable norms.
This dire responsibility also excuses a compulsive need to generate disorders at a geometric rate. When the DSM-5 was published back in May it wasn’t the 15 new disorders which proved surprising; rather the APA’s restraint in keeping the expansion to double digits.
A white coat excuses a lot. I feel its important to draw a distinction between psychiatry and science; which hinges on many factors, not least of all skepticism. That you can be wrong in what you believe or understand to be true. From a recent discussion with Dr Sri:
Me: I think one reason I’m doing better is I don’t treat it as an illness. I don’t feel like I’m under attack anymore.
Dr: But there is an illness.
If I’d broken a leg or blood pouring from my eyes, I would have been more inclined to agree.
My faith in psychiatry has waned. Aged 17, when the walls were tumbling down, what I needed (and didn’t get until I jumped off a bridge) was someone objective to talk to. That’s right kids, I’m talking therapy.
I needed space to re-orientate myself in the context of what was happening in my internal and external worlds. Experienced therapists of several stripes helped me, far more than the SSRI prescribed (and shortly removed). Perversely it is only now, 12 years later, that I am coming to terms with who and what I am; and this is only because I am looking beyond both the bio-psychiatric and formalised therapeutic infrastructures.
So what am I doing? Besides my involvement with the London Icarus Project, my personal journey is characterised by an affirmation of myself and my disposition. I’ve found the appropriation and mutation of certain concepts and terms to be vital to my cause.
An example? Psychotic. Why psychotic? Because, as previously defined, it denotes someone affected by the mind, which is certainly me. Of course this means that everyone is psychotic, which is true, but I seek to embrace it as an active paradigm, a synthesised ability.
‘Recognising that there is a such a thing as psychosis, however, does not mean that we need to buy into the discourse of mental health and mental illness’ Darian Leader writes in the introduction to his exceptional What isMadness? My reading of this is that we need to be judicious with our use of language. Relentlessly tossing off new disorders smacks down unique strategies for coping with our difficulties and realising our potential.
One thing I find encouraging is that Leader is a jobbing Lacanian psychotherapist who’s therapeutic work is rooted in a discipline based upon linguistics and symbolism. From within a complex which is guilty-by-association with ‘Big Pharma’ psychiatry he describes how:
The psychotic subject has become less a person to be listened to than an object to be treated. The patient’s specificity and life story are often just airbrushed away. Where old psychiatry books were once filled with reported speech of patients, today all one sees are statistics and pseudo-mathematical diagrams.
Later, the money shot:
Each of us faces problems that we tackle in our own unique ways, and what is labelled mental illness may in fact, as we shall see, be an effort to respond to and elaborate these difficulties. Using such labels not only entrenches the false dichotomy of health and illness, but also eclipses the creative, positive aspect of psychotic phenomena.
A book I’m currently enjoying is Seth Farber’s The Spiritual Gift of Madness. Harking back to Leader’s emphasis on creativity and positivity; Farber sees the ‘Mad’ as constituting a ‘vangurd’ for spiritual change and scouts for a utopian ideal yet to come.
I’m with him up until “spiritual.” Simply because the spiritual has little significance on my own experience, not because I deny that spirituality can be important. I am a secularist, and I don’t see this placing me in opposition to the principles of movements like Icarus.
A psychotic shouldn’t rush to deny the existence of fairies, but I’d argue that anyone within ‘Mad’ movements allow for other narratives, as well as linguistic forms. Farber appears to disagree:
in order for Mad Pride to fulfil its potential, it must make a choice; it must abjure the secular postmodern pluralist zeitgeist and affirm instead a fully spiritual messianic vision of madness and social change.
Anyone subscribing to this or any variation on the theme has my support in choosing to. However my particular symphony moves (in its current incarnation – skepticism remember) according to two basic ideas:
1. The realisation and continual growth of every facet of myself. Who I am and what I can do.
2. Helping others. People like me are being hurt and I’d quite like that to stop please.
Those familiar with my post on LaVeyan Satanism may be surprised by my apparent rejection of the spiritual. But as Church of Satan High Priest Peter Gilmore explains:
Satan to us is an exemplar. When we look at how is portrayed by Mark Twain in Letters from the Earth, or Byron, or Milton’s Paradise Lost, he ends up being an inspirational symbol to us. We say we would like to be more like that. We will not bow our heads; we will be independent. We will constantly question.
I am not a Satanist but we are shoulder to shoulder on this one. If pluralism is antithetical to any mental health movement, then I’m not sure I can be a part of that movement. I’m proud to ride beneath a Liberal standard, but if a neo-conservative, christian, pro-life daughter of a Shell executive shares Icarus goals (and is herself respectful of other’s diversions), then I want to stand side by side with that person. Perhaps this is impossible, but it is a worthy aspiration.
In her foreword to The Spiritual Gift, Kate Millett provoked my first shaking head with a somewhat facile declaration: ‘…American greedy bastards, just like Japanese CEOs, are planning to build more nuclear power plants!’ She rightly notes the less than encouraging waste management record of the US Department of Energy, but little else. It struck me as a stock – almost stereotypical – phrase that everyone of a more liberal bent must share.
(Incidentally I want to see obscene amounts of money and resources poured into renewables, but we have to keep the lights on in the mean time. And some heed needs to be given to studies like one done by NASA’s Goddard Institute, which calculated that 1.8 million lives may have been saved by replacing fossil fuels with nuclear, with an estimated 7 million saved in the next 40 years.)
My argument is that by insisting that any revolutionary mental health movement subscribe to a unifying narrative, don’t we risk swapping the bloated and unreliable pseudoscientific model for a survivor generated reflection?
Farber did win me back with his second chapter – “The Mind Freedom Hunger Strike.” It is an incisive account of the landmark 2003 protest against the abuses of modern psychiatry. Contrasting the reasonable and intelligent demands of the protesters with the bewildering, kamikaze response from the APA; Farber beautifully argues for both the scientific method and the scrutiny of others:
…it is revealing that the APA is obviously extremely annoyed by its critics. One would expect that legitimate scientists would welcome critics; this after all is how scientific progress is made.
Then he nails it:
One would expect that they would be curious about how former mental patients with severe mental illnesses were able to recover from their illnesses and function effectively without taking psychiatric drugs. Genuine scientists would be interested in investigating these unusual people and trying to determine how they were able to recover.
The dialectic is of heroic importance. The spiritual doesn’t resonate with me as it once did (and it really did), but I will stand by my brothers and sisters for whom it does. I am open to the evolution of my theories and beliefs based upon exposure to those of others.
I am a transhumanist, a socialist, a Liberal. I am an antitheist, reassured about living in a universe without regard of my existence. I am responsible for my actions and free to add meaning to this life on whatever terms I see fit. The beauty resides within me, as it does within us all, and where else my unique self uncovers it. I am Psychotic.
At the risk of blowing my own horn too rigorously, I like to think that my intellect is robust enough to coil itself around all manner of tricksy abstracts and ideas. However, bouts of eye strain and brain freeze have resulted from researching various psychiatric treatments and psychological theories for this blog.
Besides my own mental health experiences I do have a formal background in psychology. I scraped through a class in it during secondary school, which makes me a psychologist in the same way the guy behind the fish counter is Robert Shaw.
I’m not presumptive enough to diagnose myself with dyscalculia (obviously one thing we need around here are more diagnoses), so I’ll just say that numbers often defeat me. As one friend put it “you love them, they just don’t love you.” Ours was the first year in school to be offered psychology as part of the curriculum and, very astutely, the teachers neglected to mention how large a part Microsoft Excel plays in the discipline.
This was when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders first clattered into my life, incidentally.
So the numbers shut me down. I didn’t do too bad with the stuff we were actually interested in though – cognitive psychology, the ‘black box’, child development (I still love the term the ‘object permanence’) and of course dear old Doctor Freud. They made us wait before introducing psychoanalysis…suppressing our urges in a way that was well, almost Freudian.
Arguably Old Siggy remains the paradigm of psychotherapy: ask someone to imagine a therapy session and its beards and couches all the way. Then there’s the other reason Freudian psychoanalysis holds such fascination for stupid teens as we were then: sex. Sex and the almost bat-shit intensity with which the libido dictates everything. Oedipus and Electra, sublimation, Little Hans – we were thrust into this kaleidoscopic world of bizarre ideas, which themselves were validated by the formal miasma the classroom maintained.
These ideas fell away. I finished the course and my own misadventures in psychiatry began several years later, when couches and huge horse penises were replaced by office chairs and carpet-bomb pharmacology. Now I’ve found myself wading back into similar streams.
In the interest of my own development, and my desire to help others like me, I’ve found myself reviewing Freud and Jacques Lacan in particular. This is because I’ve become an admirer of British psychoanalyst Darian Leader; who’s work is informed by his research into late nineteenth and early twentieth century psychiatry and the ‘…contrast to the general absence of any reference to the lived experience of patients in today’s psychiatric literature.’
This is obviously a very deep well, but reading Leader’s excellent What is Madness? I am encountering notions which resonate with my own experiences and where I would like to be heading. However I am having to rediscover my limits as a layperson; especially with regards to the notorious density of Lacanian matter. I am, at heart, a pragmatist; impatiently seeking signs and portents in the texts Leader examines and so somewhat cold towards the the hardcore of the theories themselves. In this way, am I actually closer in solidarity to the modern, bean-counting and script-happy psychiatrists I am so increasingly wary of? Missing the point even as I try to make it?
Having acknowledged my ignorance and impatience, I can at least report that Leader/Lacan/Freud/Animal/Vegetable/Mineral have clarified certain things for me. Neurosis v. psychosis has often escaped me, in that these terms seem so nebulous and have, at various times, been used interchangeably during previous treatment regimes. The Reader of Leader suggests that these states exist to defend the self against any internal stresses born from the friction of self against world.
Freud believed that there is a much stronger defence mechanism in psychosis, as if the unpalatable thought is split off from consciousness so powerfully that it returns from the outside.
Describing the paranoid delusions of one of Freud’s patients, based upon her own sexual conduct, Leader writes:
For Freud she had spared herself the initial reproach of being ‘a bad woman’ by imputing it to what was external to her: what had been an internal criticism was now heard coming from the outside. Whereas she would have had to accept the judgement coming from within, now she could reject it as it was coming from without.
I found enormous value in these passages. For my own conception of my disposition, its useful that I can derive some kind of binary: neurosis=within, psychosis=without. This may be missing both Freud and Leader’s points, but split within the prism of my own understanding, I feel better equipped in having to manage my own paranoias.
Another term I’m fond of is ‘Hall of Mirrors.’ I actually got this one from a song on the Distillers’ third album Coral Fang. Everyone is familiar with the hall of mirrors effect, but the power and intensity of this song has been carried over into my own sense of relentless self-reflection. Here again is within/without; the self from all sides, presenting many angles, divided yet one and the same.
I mention it because another concept Leader seems to put enormous stock in is Lacan’s theory of the ‘Mirror Stage.’ Old Reliable lays it out for us:
The mirror stage is based on the belief that infants recognize themselves in a mirror (literal) or other symbolic contraption which induces apperception (the turning of oneself into an object that can be viewed by the child from outside of himself) from the age of about six months. Later research showed that, although children are fascinated with images of themselves and others in mirrors from about that age, they do not begin to recognize that the images in the mirror are reflections of their own bodies until the age of about 15 to 18 months. Of course, the experience is particular to each person.
Lacan saw this as a developmental process of great significance. What’s troubling for me, however, is how I’ve struggled to get my head around this seemingly simple idea as a phenomenon involved in the formation of the self. Reading Leader’s description of the process, I was searching for some relatable handle to my own experience, and was striking out.
I may come back to the mirror stage at a later time. Maybe dedicating a whole article to it will help me work through my own limited grasp of the idea. At the limits of my understanding I can take some comfort from the principle involved – the clash of ideas. The ferment that comes from the messy territory of human beings. If there’s one thing I’m increasingly convinced we need in pursuit of better formulations of mental health, its a willingness to get things wrong, to accept we can’t always understand or explain; and to be fearless in trying new things and exploring new ideas.