Initiatory Madness

Michael Cornwall, PhD

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 then 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 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.

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  1. Michael, the tears are flowing from my face, you have touched my soul… so raw, and powerful to let us in at such deep level… your open heart and healing… is a surrounding comfort … we are all blessed to have you in our lifes, we need your story and your great heart to help people to heal!!! Thank You, for your work… penelope

    • Thank you Adinah, I look forward to meeting you too! Plans for a holistic, all volunteer, no fee drop-in center in Berkeley are taking shape. Friends who will provide massage, dreamwork, tai chi and movement classes, peer counseling, meditation classes, bodywork and more are eager to be part of a healing center where alternative ways of caring are provided for folks who are mad and in other kinds of emotional pain.

  2. Michael, I was so moved by the poetic depth of your story-telling and the clarity with which you expressed your experiences. I feel that even someone who had never experienced something vaguely similar and who believed in biological brain disease would have to question their beliefs about “mental illness” after reading your story. And how fortunate for you that you had your grandmother as a refuge and John Weir Perry as your therapist!

    • Thank you Darby for your very perceptive comment. In addition to my stated hope that revealing my experience of madness might directly help someone going through madness who reads it, or may prompt their cargivers to be more compassionate, I had a strong intention of what I wrote being an ecouragement to those who would limit their understanding of the mystery of madness to a neuro-biological brain disease to hopefully question their current understanding of madness. Because at no time during or since my madness have I imagined it could be explained by the medical model of mental illness. All the people I have known who were mad never met the criteria for the limiting diagnoses that were applied to them. I never have viewed anyone as having so-called schizophrenia or any other medical model version of madness. In future blog posts I plan to share what I believe are elements of the incredibly complex and understandable dimensions of madness and point to those dimensions that ultimately always have been a mystery. Madness can be a transformative experience if it is recieved with love in a sanctuary setting. Laing’s Kingsley Hall. Perry’s Diabasis, Mosher’s Soteria and the Open Diaolog sanctuary are evidence.

  3. Michael, Thank you for giving voice to all those who aren’t strong enough to find it right now. You have most certainly led so many out of hell. And, ironically, by sitting patiently with them in their hell. Not many are fearless or compassionate enough to go back once they’ve made it out. Bless you. Jen

    • Thank you my friend and comrade Jen for your deep understanding about the necessity for our waiting on madness to continue it’s often pain filled birthing process in the sanctuary of our heartfelt compassion. Our first impulse when a loved one is in intense emotional distress and pain is to give them anything to relieve their hellish pain. It appears grossly irresponsible if not cruel to withold medicine that would quickly numb the emotional suffering of a person in the throes of madness. But what the paradoxical evidence shows, is that if I had been, or any young person in their initial experiences of madness is not allowed to go through their purposive madness in the requisite healing crucible of a heart center sanctuary, then a huge majority of us would be stuck, trapped in a laboring process that can go on our whole lives. Birthing is painful but it accomplishes it’s task of bringing new life forward. But being suspended in the birth canal indefinitely, emotionally numbed out of fear of the raw emotions of transformative, life renewing madness, is a tragic waste of our birthright.

      • Michael– What you’ve just said in this response to a comment is the most succint and *beautiful* statement of a positive, healthy response to madness I have ever seen. Bless you for putting it so very well!

        (I’m going to have to copy this down and quote it at my earliest opportunity!)

        • Thank you Alt! I’m very glad what I wrote is seen that way by you. I loved what you wrote on your great site- about Bob Whitaker’s expanded site and the wonderful way you expanded on my comment to make a very powerful and eloquent statement about the awesome, transformative power of child birth and how it mirrors the potential birth process of equally natural madness.

  4. Michael, The world is a better place because of people like you. THanks so much for writing. You have much to teach. Interestingly enough, I spent a semester with Laing and the Philadelphia Association in the 1970s and a few days at Diabasis with Perry in 1978. Both had an enormous impact on the way I see the world. Best wishes.

    • Thank you very much Roger. I’d love to hear more about your time with Laing and Perry! You could contact me via email through this site’s contact info. I only spent a day with Laing at a workshop, but his books-‘The Divided Self’ and ‘Sanity Madness and the Family’ had a enormous impact on how I understood and integrated my madness- and then informed how I did therapy with other people who were mad. Laing was influenced by Perry’s 1953- ‘The Self in Psychotic Process’ that Jung wrote the forward for. For all of Laing’s emphasis on the existential, familial and cultural dimensions of madness, one of my favorite quotes by him sounds distinctly Jungian- ‘True sanity entails in one way or another the disolution of the normal ego, that false self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality: the emergence of the ‘inner’ archetypal mediators of divine power, and through this death a rebirth, and the eventual re-establishment of a new kind of ego functioning, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer it’s betrayer.’

    • Thank you my friend. Your own initiatory crisis that you draw on in your spiritual_emergency link above has created such a uniquely valuable waiting resource, that I hope that everyone who reads my blog will also explore it as I have.

      Best wishes

  5. I had a similar experience in 1976 when I was 20 years old. I did not have anyone to comfort me, but fortunately no one forced me to “get help”. Instead I languished in my small bedroom in my parents home till I recovered.
    I was nodding my head in agreement at your succinct description of losing your innocence. I still long for that time in my life when I was a child and free of the madness that still regularly stalks the perimeter of my being.
    Thanks for making yourself so vulnerable to provide comfort to others who have suffered similar experiences. Just reading your story once again reminds me, that I am innocent and have done nothing wrong. I was just born with an unfortunate propensity toward madness.

  6. You’re welcome Sharon. I’m glad what I wrote is meaningful for you.

    Re-claiming my innocence is a daily practice for me, claiming my right to see and love the beauty in ordinary life- in nature, frienship and my own soul.

    Our culture is largely based on a belief that we are born fallen, in a state of original sin.

    One benefit of my madness was to cause me to identify and then refuse to swallow that poison pill. But it is so pervasively in the air we breathe in our culture, that I find it necessary to refuse it daily, as a practice for the health of my soul.

    I have seen it’s unconscious, corrosive effect on countless people, both mad and not mad that I have tried to help shake the indoctrinated sense of their inherant nature being flawed, less than valubale.

    That story of being damaged goods from conception contributed to them being incapable of feeling a liberatory innocence that is free of shame and guilt and the threat of punishment.

  7. Wow, amazing. I’ve had some brief experiences of that limitless darkness, the place where there is no love. I prayed my way out of it. So amazing to read your story. People can get stuck there if they don’t happen to find the way out, and they wind up in hospitals on drugs.

    The mind is more powerful than the brain. Yes, madness can start with something going wrong with the brain, but it is ultimately a disease of the mind, a spiritual problem.

    I think most shamans, holy men, and prophets were probably schizophrenics. A so-called schizophrenic is just someone whose brain gets disrupted, for whatever reason, and they see through the veils of the culture.

    As you did, and as I have several times. The culture, sick as it may be, is the ground beneath our feet. But when we see it for the illusion it is, then we are cut loose and without a home.

    The prophets of the Old Testament were madmen. They were not at home in the culture, they could see the sinfulness of their culture. And some of us now can see the the unhealthiness and the unholiness of this culture.

  8. Oh yes, just read some of the comments. Yes definitely. The first time I faced the darkness, over 15 years ago, I despised it and would do anything to never face it again. That time was the worst. But each time after that was a little less awful. Now I try to face it deliberately, during my prayers at night. I can’t take too much, but I do seek it out.

    Sometimes profound mystical experiences begun with desolation and loss of the self. I have never gone that far, but maybe some day I will have the courage.

    I am always somehow near the ledge, have always been a natural mystic out of place in this society. Reading your story made me realize this is “normal,” better than normal.

  9. Michael,

    Thank you for sharing your story. As humble human beings on a planet going around the sun…there is so much we do not know…fear, humility, terror and joy are all a part of this existence, yet we act as if people who deeply feel and question are the problem…Your existential and heartfelt questions at the time of your experience ring true for me…so glad that you got through this in 1970 and shared it with us today.

  10. Hi Michael,

    Somehow I had missed this entry of yours when I was reading your other blogs. You know how appreciative and impacted I am by your potent, skillful, poetic, penetrating, vulnerably real, and vitally important sharing through the power of words, which can in there own way be initiatory. Of course the whole gestalt of the story is incredibly rich, and I was also struck by your comment: “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.”

    What a powerful example of being taken to the edge of the abyss and ‘trusting your surrender.’ In Christian language ‘a leap of faith’. And something about that edge if so filled with mystery and terror. Was the availability of staying with your loving grandmother, that when things got really bad you would request her aging hand upon your head [as if being anointed] just a lucky accident? Was being drawn to that book on the shelf just coincidence? I don’t think so. I think there is some kind of guidance system, call it what you will, that provides seeds or clues for navigating the labyrinth. The heartbreak is that some may not recognize them, or not follow through in allowing themselves to trust the next step [trusting your instinct to not call emergency, or picking up the book and opening its pages].

    Something about your sharing of this personal story reminded me of the most potent moment [for me at least] in the movie ‘What Dreams May Come’ when Robin Williams decides out of love to stay with his wife in the domain of her hell, to keep loving company with her there rather than to abandon her and return to his own ‘clarity’ and ‘safety’ of ‘sanity’ and ‘wholeness’. And how that act of ‘sacrifice’ was so complete, so powerful, that it shook the very foundations of her reality, and I think that domain of existence, that allowed freedom to occur.

    Your story reminds us that there IS a way out of hell. Even if we don’t see the path clearly, believing and hoping for, and perhaps even loudly invoking the seeds and clues to assist our navigation does much to support the journey of our healing, whatever that may be, expressed in all its various emotional tones, all its mental agitations and insights, all its soulful longing, all its ultimate mystery as us.

    With love, respect and blessings