Pilgrim’s Progress: From Young Madman to Old Therapist

Michael Cornwall, PhD

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."

Support MIA

Enjoyed what you just read? Consider a donation to help us continue to produce content, provide up-to-date research news, offer continuing education courses, and continue building a community for exploring alternatives to the current paradigm of mental health. All donations are tax deductible.

Select Payment Method Loading...
Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00


  1. Thanks for posting the next part of your story Michael – it’s encouraging to hear about your journey through madness and about the projects from your past that persevered with people without medicating them. I know about Soteria and RD Laing, having researched them, but didn’t know of the others as you rightly pointed out. I was at the Bradford (England) Soteria Network conference in November and they are well on the way to setting up a Soteria House.

    I liked the part about you being “too rebellious” for chaplaincy in the Episcopal Church. Maybe that’s the reason I didn’t get accepted for the Church of Scotland Auxiliary Ministry in 2009. Although I was aged 56, not a youngster age-wise but still non-conformist and a rebel. Useful characteristics though in the mental health world – refusing to accept the labels, getting off the drugs, recovering and now challenging the psychiatric system. And helping many family members to do the same.

    Some of us I suppose only seem to age on the outside. I’ve had 3 mad episodes – in 1978, 1984 and 2002. And from each I have emerged a stronger person, a survivor. As the Scottish saying goes “here’s tae us, wha’s like us (D*** few, And they’re a’ deid)”.

    Regards, Chrys

  2. THANK YOU Michael!

    In re-reading through your latest post i am fascinated by your term “liminal” and equate your usage of it as another of my fave authors, Richard Rohr also uses it. Please correct me ..
    I interpret it as “the space within one where something DOES happen”, BUT that liminal space is created OUTSIDE of our seeming “control” specifically for that “transformation” to occur (It is our spiritual “dough” being kneaded, so to speak) so as to allow that transformation or metamorphosis.

    Here is how Rohr has used it in the past in some of his daily emailings:
    Limen is the Latin word for threshold. A “liminal space” is the crucial in-between time when everything actually happens and yet nothing appears to be happening. It is the waiting period when the cake bakes, the actual movement is made, the real transformation takes place. One cannot just jump from Friday to Sunday in this case, there must be a Saturday! It is the liminal waiting time, which is of course not a negative waiting at all, but a making of inner space so there will be room and desire for Much Greater Things. (Satr, Apr 3rd 2010, by Rohr)

    Used in context with Rohr’s interpretation of the divine:
    When we hang on the horns of the dilemma with Christ—between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human realms—it creates liminal space. All transformation takes place when we’re somehow in between, inside of liminal space.
    (Aug 22nd, 2010, by Rohr)

    I cite the following in its entirety as this more than anything clarifies the paradox that can be that “liminal space” within one as i can understand it in my limited sense at this time:
    Rudolph Otto in his book The Idea of the Holy says that when someone has an experience of the Holy, they find themselves caught up in two opposite things at the same time: the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium fascinosum, or the scary mystery and the alluring mystery. We both draw back and are pulled forward into a kind of time warp or liminal space.

    In the mysterium tremendum, you have God as ultimately far, ultimately beyond—too much, too much, too much! Many people never get beyond this first half. If that is the only half of holiness you experience, you experience God as dread, as the one who has all the power, and in whose presence I am utterly powerless. I am nothingness itself. Religion at that stage tends to become overwhelmed by a sense of sinfulness. The defining of sin and sin management becomes the very nature of religion.

    But simultaneously with the experience of the Holy as beyond and too much, is another sense of fascination and allurement and seduction, a being pulled into something very good and inviting. It’s a paradoxical experience. Otto says if you don’t have both, you don’t have the true or full experience of the Holy.
    (Oct 31st, 2010, by Rohr)

    TY again Michael for being brave and vulnerable in posting your journey for us!
    -Peter G.
    Boston, MA

    • Thank you Peter! Otto and Rohr and you have wonderfully zeroed in on that threshold experience that is an elemental fact of every initiation, of which madness certainly is one of nature’s most dramatic.

      But also by definition, an initiation is a step into the archetypal and numinous unknown, however personal and psychologically a develomental milestone it is.

      By it’s nature, an initiation has the possibility of failure. There is no guarantee that any of us will succeed at life’s initiatory rites of passage.

      Almost all madness begins right at the threshold into young adulthood which is the biggest liminal threshold to master of all. If the young person is not prepared to make that leap due to having not been blessed with enough confidence and self love or is held back by the weight of unresolved trauma, then madness happens as a natural renewal and birthing process aimed at bringing the young person to the other side of the young adult threshold.

      You and I have discussed the role of a needed ‘midwife’ to assist at this juncture in the form of a person or persons in a sanctuary setting. In my next blog I’ll describe serving in that role in a medication free sanctuary for over 3 years.

      In future blogs I’ll also describe serving in that role for people after the sanctuary closed- many who had been on meds for years. They too were poised at the threshold, just waiting for someone to help ferry them across.

  3. Hi Michael:)) hope you don’t mind this rather long winded response.

    It is so refreshing to read about actual experience compared to diagnostic descriptions of dispassionate, symptomatic evidence and the insane mechanistic approach to the experience of being human. Refreshing too, to read of people trying to define what madness really is, beyond the “us and them” public debate about its treatment. There surely is no other experience that plumbs the depths of existential reality like madness, making dispassionate intellectual concepts of the nature of being human, a mere shadow of the real thing. Once experienced, it is impossible to forget and presses on the back of the mind with the age old existential question, why?

    My personal journey to make sense of madness has swung back and forth between rational and objective science research and the myths, legends and Biblical stories of metaphor & unspeakable meaning. Its a search that led me into a need to know what goes on inside me to produce such a very different subjective experience to an everyday sense of normality. A search that has forced me to contemplate the electro-chemical nature of the body/brain and how the mind evolved. Such contemplation has shifted my view of metaphor and meaning, and the minds subjective interpretations of its unconscious stimulation.

    Perhaps it this electro-chemical nature of our being that is actually immersed in the reality of all, in deeper layers of the self that are unknowable via the objective mind? I do believe that science and spirituality are converging in our time, as we enter the much prophesied golden age. Perhaps in the long run our failing experiment with a psychotropic meddling with our own inner nature, will bring greater impetuous for further convergence?

    Your citing of Jung’s subjective experience, as paralleling your own and thousands of others like me, prompts me to explain my notion of science & spirituality converging. Research led me to people like Allan Schore, Stephen Porges and Peter Livine in this need to understand how I do me, so to speak. I needed to sift through my subjective experience and sense what elements soothed and supported my needs and what connects me to something much deeper. The question arose, “where does this imagery of primal scene with its conflictual energies of creation and destruction come from, how is my body/brain doing this.”

    “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..”

    “Then I let myself drop.” Is the “death feigning” explanation below a clue to how we actually do the well known collapse feeling, and does Porges brilliant work shed conscious light on the reality of the unconscious, and its evolved electro-chemical mechanisms. In a very practical way (objectively speaking) is it our evolved autonomic nervous system (ANS) that connects us through time, to these primal scenes and ultimately the wider nature of the cosmos?

    “Humans have three principal defense strategies—fight, flight, and freeze. We are familiar with fight and flight behaviors, but know less about the defense strategy of immobilization, or freezing. This strategy, shared with early vertebrates, is often expressed in mammals as “death feigning.” _Porges.

    In terms of mental illness, is it the unconscious and denied affects of the ANS that stimulate the much publicized “chemical imbalance,” of conceptual theory? Perhaps like a scene from the comedy show Faulty Towers, “for God’s sake don’t mention the war,” we are reluctant to discuss these energies of raw experience, least they immediately overwhelm our conscious self control? I can understand the religious revulsion to ideas of an animal nature within. Even the need of academics who’s life is invested in theory and concepts, while denying the felt sense of Darwin’s famous theory . As the wonderful Gene Gendlin points out in his Focusing Therapy, the mind has a habit of rushing over the actual experience of a lived moment, with a kind of “Yeah, yeah I know.” Perhaps its time for us to stop paying lip service to what we think we know about evolution and feel it? Are we really the manifestation of cosmic consciousness, and is the route to destiny a more mature acceptance of the past?

    In spiritual terms this new appreciation for the electro-chemical stimulation of my mind, has given me a new take on metaphor & unspeakable meaning. The immaculate conception stories of old, have become interpretations of the minds birth, and Moses journey through the desert, towards the promised land, a metaphor for the minds journey towards mature perception. Apple I-Pads and the Biblical tree of knowledge, have no connection, as we hustle for the daily nickel and dime. Yet when the old story is viewed as existential metaphor alongside the increasingly rapid evolution of knowledge about ourselves and the deeper elements of nature, it takes on a rather prophetic tone?

    Perhaps the subjective and objective aspects of being human are indeed maturing, although its difficult to notice when we get sucked into the daily drama of headline’s, seeking attention. I look forward to reading more of your genuine experience and I do hope the new drop in centre finds sustained support and success.

  4. Thank you so much David for your profound interest in your own and others experience of being animal, human, mad and spiritual beings.

    Those levels of being, from the electro-chemical and cellular to the so-called mundane to the transcendant all are our birthright, however mysterious.

    I am very interested in the emotional matrix of our mammalian core existence and how all our mentations and ever happening symbol making abiliies express our lived emotion second by second, whether we are aware of what is present in us emotionally or aware of what is being consciously expressed or not.

    For me madness is the soul’s attempt to live with and give shape to unknowable or unendurable existential and cthonic emotions that swamp the fragile reality persona or so-called ego.

    Jungians starting with Jung place too much focus on the arising archetypal images in my opinion and don’t dwell on the emotional core source that makes the images, words, hallucinations, voices, delusions, facial expressions, and bodily movements be born in the first place.

    I’d welcome your take on the role of emotion in madness and how as you say, the mind rushes over underlying experience of the lived moment.
    Thank you, Michael

  5. Michael:
    I enjoyed reading your blog. I too am a person diagnose with a serious psychiatric condition (schizophrenia – hospitalized x 10). Currently I am on a quest to try to have recovered persons “get to the table” with mental health researchers so that they might have the benefit of hearing from those of us who have actually experienced that which they are researching. In 2009 Ed Knight, Elyn Saks and I published an article in Schizophrenia Bulletin identifying ourselves and seven other psychiatrists, psychologists, etc., who have been hospitalized for schizophrenia. In the article we reflected our various views on our recoveries and wrote a bit about the “recovery movement”. Since the article was published I have been in contact with numerous other doctoral level folks who are “in recovery” and willing to be open about their experiences. If you might have further interest in what we are trying to accomplish please sned me your e-mail address and I will try to fill you in. Thanks again for your openess about your experiences, All the BeST, Fred Frese