I’ll begin this chapter of my personal odyssey through madness and the vocation it created of my life as a therapist specializing in madness, with the same question I posed at the beginning of my first blog post that is entitled- ‘Initiatory Madness.’
That question is- ‘If madness isn’t what psychiatry says it is, then what is it?’
It is a question that does live in me everyday since I became mad over forty five years ago.
It seems reasonable that I would still have that question, given that I didn’t then, and haven’t ever since believed that what psychiatry says madness ‘is’, was ever able to explain my own madness, or the madness of the hundreds of other people who were mad that I have now known.
I started to ask myself this question about the nature and subjective experience of madness in earnest as my season of madness lifted. It lifted due to my opportunity to go through madness without psychiatric intervention in the loving sanctuary of my aged grandmother’s house.
Blessed by her gentle and receptive love, and an infusion of unbidden spiritual light and love that broke though the darkness and raving madness that had been enveloping me for almost a year, I began to try and understand what had just happened to me.
These days I’m also wondering- if madness isn’t what psychiatry says it is- isn’t a form of sickness, a brain damaging disease process, then is recovery from madness itself something that has happened to me, and has recovery happened to some of the other mad people I have known?
What if madness is instead a potentially purposive, developmental and archetypal initiation process that can cause one to come out the other side- ‘Weller than well,’ as Karl Menninger famously said? If that is true, then is such a necessary initiation something that one needs to ‘recover’ from or can instead, actually benefit from?
Is madness in fact a potentially growth and renewal process that one becomes stronger from having undergone, even possibly gifted from the ordeal with hard won natural abilities for intimately knowing about the nature of sanity and madness, and with a capacity for additional compassion for fellow mad people with which one so easily identifies?
Doesn’t the ancient ritual of madness allow a person to be changed for the better- to be better off than one was before the initiation? Isn’t that the same process and purpose of all the initiations and rites of passage we go through in life- for one to pass through a liminal threshold into a new zone of personhood?
If every beginning experience or subsequent ‘episode’ of madness is, as I believe, an auspicious crisis of potential initiation and re-birth into a fuller life of enhanced possibility, then psychiatry thwarts the initiatory process by not realizing that that is what is really happening, is really possible, if the mad person is only received with loving acceptance as I fortunately was.
So, as I began my search for any shred of meaning about my own and other’s madness over 45 years ago, I was greatly relieved when by chance, I ran across books by Carl Jung.
Reading them, I knew at once that I was not alone in having been through such an initiation.
What an enormous relief it was to see that I was not the only alien being who had un-wittingly dropped into an alternative universe. That was what my madness had made me imagine in my painful isolation from others like myself.
I love Sasacha Dubrul and the Icarus Project folks who carry the perfect message- ‘You Are Not Alone’- as their motto to all who are mad in isolation. That sense of being so alone and alien is so painful that many kill themselves under it’s weight.
I can only describe it by saying that it feels like being in one of those apocalyptic films where a lone wanderer searches for other humans in a bleak and devastated landscape of deserted city streets and desolate highways.
How comforting then it was to read about Jung’s own- ‘Confrontation with the unconscious,’ itself triggered in 1913 by his traumatic break with Sigmund Freud who had prepared Jung as his heir-apparent.
Jung describes his visionary crisis-
“It was December 12, to be exact. I was sitting at my desk thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged down into the dark depths. I could not fend off a feeling of panic. I landed on my feet in a soft sticky mass.. I was apparently in complete darkness.. before me was the entrance to a dark cave, in which stood a dwarf with leathery skin, as if he were mummified.. a corpse floated by..and then a red newborn sun rising up out of the depths of the water..a fluid welled out. It was blood… a thick jet of it leaped out and I felt nauseated..the blood seemed to squirt for an unendurabley long time. At last it ceased and the vision came to an end.”
Jung also wrote about his experience in ways that seemed to describe the same subjective terrain I had recently been in-
“I stood helpless before an alien world, everything in it seemed difficult and incomprehensible. I felt as if gigantic blocks of stone were tumbling down upon me…In my darkness I could have wished for nothing better than a real, live guru, someone possessing superior knowledge and ability, who could have disentangled for me, the involuntary creations of my imagination.”
Even though I had no one to talk to about my madness, or an Icarus or Mad In America website to cling to for support, I felt armed with this strong sense of comradeship that came from reading Jung and then R.D. Laing.
I started to plan and imagine myself as a psychotherapist like Jung. A soul doctor who had been down below the earth in hellish realms and now could see the light of day and had compassion, even an aching wound that itself needed healing by giving to others in similar pain as I had been through.
So I decided to be a pastoral counselor and Chaplain as an Episcopal Priest who specialized in serving mad people in hospital settings. I re-entered college and became an official Aspirant to the Priesthood in my diocese.
But my wise friend and spiritual director told me after a year or so that I was too rebellious even for the very liberal Episcopal Church! He told me about a school in the SF bay area that had just started a dual masters’s degree program in clinical and transpersonal psychology.
My supportive wife agreed to move with our young daughter. I began classes and got a job as an intern in a high end traditional psychiatric hospital. Being consistent with my rebellious truth telling, I told the director in my job interview that I wouldn’t assist in any way in people getting shock treatments which they gave there. She begrudgingly gave me the job.
It was so depressing working there. Every chart had adamant instructions- ‘Avoid conflictual material.’ The whole purpose was to stabilize mad people on medication. I remember one group I was co-leading where the theme proposed by my co-therapist was- ‘What is your favorite Italian food?’
However, in the year working there I connected strongly with many people who were mad and I believe contributed to their lives.
Then another fateful turning point happened. I learned of a place called I-Ward in nearby Martinez California. It was 1980.
I-Ward was founded by a wild man named Dr. Stanley Meyerson. It was an experimental 20 bed, free standing, open door sanctuary that refused to diagnose or test the mad people who went there. It had been open for about 5 years. It used no medications. No restraints were used.
Like the Soteria House operating in San Jose and the Jungian, Diabasis House operating in San Francisco, I-Ward was made possible by Meyerson, like Loren Mosher of Soteria and John Perry of Diabasis all pointing to the amazing, mental health system, cost saving efficacy results of the still largest ever, NIMH gold standard double blind study on first episode madness, the Agnews Project.
That federally funded and state operated research project showed that the almost 100 young mad men who got placebo had a 75% lower re-hospitalization rate at follow-up than the group of almost 100 young mad men who got Thorazine..
Mosher, Perry and Meyerson made the case to San Francisco bay area county government policy makers that hundreds of young people could be diverted from spending the rest of their lives in the system on medication if they were allowed to go through madness without medication. It was the most humane thing to do and it would save the local and state governments huge sums by not providing long term care indefinitely.
But how many of you reading this right now have ever heard of the NIMH Agnews Project research- or of I-Ward or Diabasis House?
Soteria is somewhat well known because of it’s research component which I-ward and Diabasis avoided, but the reason the others such as the huge Agnews Project are not, will be part of the story of my next blog post. But mainly I will share about what it was like to daily witness and serve those who were mad on I-ward without medication or the trappings of the medical model for over three years.
I’ll close now with another quote by Jung which speaks to me now in my 66th year- myself a young madman who became an old therapist, a pilgrim whose progress has often been in question.
“The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important of my life- in them everything else essential was decided. It all began then; the later details are only supplements and clarifications of the material that burst forth from the un-conscious, and at first swamped me. It was the prima matetria for a lifetime’s work.”
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.
Mad in America has made some changes to the commenting process. You no longer need to login or create an account on our site to comment. The only information needed is your name, email and comment text. Comments made with an account prior to this change will remain visible on the site.