If madness isn’t what Psychiatry says it is, then what is it?
I have been asking myself that question almost every day since I became mad as a young man over 45 years ago. Over the course of this and future blogs I will share the answers that have come to be true to me, that have helped me understand my own madness and that of the mad people I have served as a therapist for over 30 years.
I was privileged to be present with them in their madness for several years in heart-centered residential sanctuaries where medication, diagnosis, and restraints were not used- and then was with them for 25 years in community settings where medication was not used.
Bob Whitaker urged me to start my blog at the beginning of my long journey by telling about my own madness that began in 1970.
Because madness still lives in me as more than memories, but as a living part of my being, because it still whispers deep in my soul- to share my personal experience with others is always daunting and intense.
I do it in hopes that it may help some one going through what I did.
I know that every person’s experience of madness is unique. Attempts at categorization and diagnosis fall short when faced with the subjective experience of madness.
In 1970 I was an innocent, an idealistic pre-med student in my very conservative northwestern hometown who believed in the overall goodness of human nature. I felt a calling to help people as a doctor that I believe grew out of being in the hospital several times as a child for skin grafts after suffering third degree burns.
I also remember coming home from school as a young boy to see both of my grandmothers weeping over the dead body of my uncle who had died suddenly. I wanted to prevent that awful suffering and save lives.
I was an anti- Viet Nam war activist who had joined the Army Reserve and was a medic. All my close friends supported the war and had joined the Marines and at times shunned me. I was very isolated because of my anti-war beliefs and because of my family living far across the country, except for my grandmother.
My sudden madness was experienced as a massive loss of innocence. A randomly occurring and life threatening trauma dropped me out of my normal world into a subterranean world of darkness that turned my waking life into a waking nightmare. It plunged me into an existential perception of the random experience of being born, being alive and the terrible certainty of death. Like a veil had been lifted, I could see with a kind of visceral revulsion, the desperately soulless nature of our loveless culture, and the inner pain and emptiness and incredible isolation of myself and everyone I knew.
Suddenly my family, the war, naked greed, and especially the shame, guilt and fear basis for our collectively professed superior spirituality was seen by me in the starkest shades of a new and terrifying revelation. What an awful experience it was to lose my sense of being safe and at home in the world- to suddenly be burdened with a dark reality that I had no idea existed until then.
But as William Blake said- ‘The eye altering, alters all.’
So for a very long season darkness was my portion. I came no where near the caregivers who would have told me I had a disease of my brain. I had a soul wound and terror was my daily bread. I wandered the streets at night silently raving inside, hearing voices, seeing signs and portents everywhere of a culture in death throes.
As I walked for hours at night through the city, I felt like an alien being in a world transformed into a dreamscape of shadow and menacing indifference if not outright danger.
I had a shred of waking consciousness left and so I knew I was mad, was hopelessly lost and that my life was to forever be damned to a living hell that had no chance of returning to where my life had been before.
Night after sleepless night as time distorted and hours seemed like days, I would hold my finger on the phone number in the yellow pages of the hospital emergency room, vowing that if one more wave of terror and disembodied dark voices and energy would descend on me I would call them for help.
But I never called them. I feared what they would do to me more than the torture I was going through. I had known people swept up in the net of the system who were sentenced to a lifetime of shame and outcast status.
I survived not being finally picked up by the police who had stopped and questioned me at night, and then ending up in the state hospital, because I was able to be mad in a sanctuary.
I was mad in the small house with my very aged grandmother who had raised me as a boy. She was senile and didn’t know what day it was. But her loving heart was as open and full of free and unconditional love as it ever had been.
So, I would go to her when the torment seemed unbearable and ask her to place her gnarled, arthritic, but warm and loving hand on my head. She had no idea what was wrong with me. She would just say- ‘There, there dear, you will feel better soon, you must have the flu Michael.’
But I didn’t feel better soon. Weeks turned into months. Suicide seemed the only way out. But I was so terrified of death that I knew my living death was my fate.
And then, one fateful morning on my grandmother’s bookshelf I saw a slim book and opened it. I read one sentence only of sacred words of compassion. Unbidden, in an instant, a spiritual light that was as strong as the darkness came into my most inner being.
A felt sense of divine love that was as strong at first and then stronger than the felt sense of ever-present menace and fear began to fill the void inside me.
That night, a sense of hope told me to let go and fall back into the sleep that I had shunned with every fiber of my being, because sleep was where the dark energy had waited to claim me up until then.
So I let go and fell backwards like off a tall building. I cried out in surrender and exploded in whirling lights and sounds and vibrations and shuddering spasms of death that was not death but a return to life.
I was 20 years old. It would be 13 years before I ever was to meet with a therapist and tell them what I had been through. It turned out to be John Weir Perry.
But something stirred in me that day in 1970 when I let go and trusted human and sacred nature and love and light to catch me. A silent vow began to form that later became an unshakable credo- that if I ever could help another through hell I would.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.