Mad Pride and Spiritual Community: Thoughts on The Spiritual Gift of Madness

Sascha Altman DuBrul
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My copy of The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of Mad Pride by Seth Farber just showed up in my mailbox a couple days ago and I’ve been really enjoying it. There are interviews with Peter Stastny from INTAR, David Oaks from Mindfreedom International, Chaya Grossberg and Caty Simon from the Freedom Center,  and luminaries Dr. Ed Whitney, and Paul Levy.  It’s quite a cast of amazing characters. The most surreal part of the reading experience is that there’s a whole section of the book that profiles me and my work with the The Icarus Project. In detail, including Seth’s anti-psychiatric disdain for my use of lithium and his psychoanalytic musings on my relationship with my dead father. He quotes writing of mine that was posted on the Icarus site right before I was hospitalized and interviews me while I was living in a yoga ashram putting my life back together. But on the whole I think this book an important piece of work that is sure to inspire a lot of interesting conversations in our greater community. Go out and get yourself a copy and see what you think!

Here is some text from the back cover: “Many of the great prophets of the past experienced madness–a breakdown followed by a breakthrough, spiritual death followed by rebirth. With the advent of modern psychiatry, the budding prophets of today are captured and transformed into chronic mental patients before they can flower into the visionaries and mystics they were intended to become. As we approach the tipping point between extinction and global spiritual awakening, there is a deep need for these prophets to be free to embrace their spiritual gifts. To make this happen, we must learn to respect the sanctity of madness. We need to cultivate Mad Pride.”

It sounds awesome, right? I think it is, and I think it’s brilliant and visionary, even if I don’t actually agree with all his conclusions. Below is my response after Seth let me read our interviews. In the book his incorporates this text and responds to it:

Mad Pride and the Icarus Project Revisited – Some Final Thoughts by Sascha DuBrul
Reading over the transcripts of our conversation I’m struck by a couple things. First of all, it’s amazing to catch a glimpse of my own thought process as my anarchist sensibilities struggled to make sense of life in the ashram. It’s been a really interesting two years of synthesis as my internal pendulum has swung closer to the middle and I’ve gotten creative about integrating spiritual practice and politics into my life. I’ve found a lot of inspiration and lessons in the history of the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s and 70s—the incredibly fruitful intersection of Eastern spiritual practices and Western psychology that merged with the political counterculture of the times. So many of the insights and tools from this period—from gestalt therapy to encounter–were lost and discredited amidst the neoliberal biopsychiatric backlash of the 1980s. More and more I find myself drawn to engaged Buddhist philosophy and the Generative Somatics community we have here in the Bay Area that mixes social justice analysis and grounded group practices. I see a lot of potential in the slow and deliberate foundation that is being laid by our work.
But Seth, the most important missing piece for me in this conversation of ours about Mad Pride has to do with the role that trauma plays for so many of us who struggle with madness. After just about a decade of working on the Icarus Project and crossing paths with, at this point, thousands of people who identify as “mad”, one thing we all seem to have in common is that we have a lot of trauma and hardship woven through the stories we carry around about our lives.
On a very personal level, it’s clear to me that my “manic” and “depressive” episodes clearly have their roots in trauma from my past – they are reactions to early experiences. My inability to grieve my father’s death as a child left me with so much confusion, anger, and despair that as I got older I channeled that intensity into what gets called mania. It’s blocked energy and over the years I’ve learned how to work with it more effectively.
It’s not a universal experience and that’s an important piece of the story. There’s a whole tribe of us that are wired in a way to have these particular kinds of breakdown/breakthroughs. But if you really believe that there is “a distinctive mad sensibility different from the normal person”, I think we need to talk about how that narrative can leave room for the roles played by societal and familial trauma. And I think we need to distinguish between the “madness” of ecstatic vision and the “madness” of psychic anguish.
Us madfolks, we can throw crazy and wingnut and mad around as terms of endearment or insults as we please and I find it refreshing to hang out with the people who speak my language re-appropriated from oppression. It’s a relief when we’re surrounded by a society that’s steeped in the stifling bio-psych DSM lingo of disorders and dysfunctions. In that way, I appreciate your efforts to reclaim and redefine madness in this arena of language and politics.
The LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) movement has made great strides in recent decades by raising awareness around queer issues (“Gay Pride!”) opening all kinds of exciting doors of societal change. We have a lot in common in our struggles against what is considered straight and normal. But it’s one thing to be proud of difference in sexuality (homosexuality/queerness) and another to be proud of something that’s been earned through strife and suffering and/or a mix of (please excuse the clumsy mechanistic metaphor again) different wiring (madness.) This is not a cut and dry issue in my mind at all. It may be that everyone who’s diagnosed with schizophrenia is having a spiritual emergence, but I don’t think that’s an obvious conclusion to draw. I think a trauma analysis can often be more useful than a spiritual one.
Leaving alone these tangled and complex questions of spirit and material, I want to bring up another aspect of strategy: what do we want our “Mad Pride” movement look like on the ground and in real life?
Before my last hospitalization (and around the time I wrote those last blog posts you’re quoting about the “mad ones”) I was sleeping really badly. I was having visions and dreams of the end of the world. I was isolating from the people closest to me. I was spending hours every day walking in the woods and having conversations with dead people. I often thought I was a spirit in the material world. Was I “mad” by society’s definitions? Clearly.
But more important for our conversation, was I “well” by my own standards and the standards of my community? Did our culture of “Mad Pride” help me in this case to stay healthy? In retrospect, I think the answer is no.
In the culture of the Icarus Project some years ago we developed a rough prototype of a document we call a Wellness Map (or affectionately a “Mad Map”.) It’s a very practical document to be written in good health and shared with friends and loved ones and it starts with the simple (yet not always easy to answer) question:
How are you when you’re well? What does wellness look like to you?
This question is followed by: What are the signs that you’re not so well?
and eventually: What are the steps that you and your community need to take to get you back to wellness?
In my case, I used my “Mad Pride” to totally ignore all the warning signs that I was going off the deep end. I wasn’t being clear with myself or the people in my life about my wellness. I strongly believe that if we want to build an effective movement we have to prioritize our individual and collective health and wellness. And it needs to be way more nuanced and complex than the DSM We need to weave this healthiness into our emerging culture. The psychiatric survivors movement doesn’t have such a great track record in this regard. Hopefully we can do better in the future.
I write these words as the Occupy movement has taken the country by storm and set up encampments in public squares all over the United States. Mental health is one of the major issues the new movement is grappling with as people attempt to participate in group process sleeping outside and surrounded by police. It occurs to me that in this instance more health and wellness and less madness might be what is needed. Working in groups takes skill and my experience of creating “mad” community is that it is hard to make decisions if there isn’t a way for people to ground.
I’m not saying that “Mad Pride” can’t be a really useful rallying cry for the tons of people who’ve been affected by the psych system and want a new empowering narrative and a way to connect with other like-minded folks. I’m saying that that I’ve personally rubbed up against it’s limitations in our movement work and I think that we need to be very clear about our intentions in using this powerful language as a way to bring people together.
So I hope this book ends up opening up some useful space for discussion in our greater community and that all the writings and thoughts you’ve put together help evolve the conversation in creative directions.
Let our Mad Pride movement be grounded in humility and kindness for each other in our diversity of life experiences, a recognition that social movements need good communicators and organizers more than charismatic leaders and messianic visions, and that the beautiful language we use to describe ourselves is only as powerful as the grounded actions we take to back up our words.
Mad love, Sascha

12 COMMENTS

  1. In my own experience mental collapse is very much tied to “overdoing it”, not being very wise, not eating properly and not SLEEPING as well as letting emotions run away with you. A person who has not been living wisely and especially not sleeping gets things out of proportion and gets over-emotional etc. I even go as far as thinking that when we break down our chemical balance is totally out of kilter and that is why meds help sometimes. Once our physical health is restaured, we must learn to be wise and not to do the same mistakes again. I see a lot of people doing the same mistakes again and again instead of becoming wise and resilient and collapsing again

  2. Thank you for this. I don’t believe in the biomedical model of psychiatry, but have not found the survivor activist movement very patient with my experience of extreme distress. There is a huge pressure to “perform” and “recover” if you are to be good for the cause.

    • I also find the survivor activist movement (or at least the elements I have been involved with) unhelpful for the same reasons. They seem unwilling to accept or support someone who doesn’t identify as a “survivor” yet. I really don’t feel like a survivor at this point, but don’t appreciate being accused of seeing myself as a perpetual victim, which I absolutely don’t. While I haven’t had anyone specifically say, We don’t want you, it’s been made pretty clear. I also have loved ones who feel they have been greatly helped by the biomedical model, and I don’t feel that telling them they are wrong is any less screwed up than telling someone who rejects the biomedical model they are wrong… Why I really love The Icarus Project, I guess. It focuses on wellness, support, and finding your own path.

  3. I’ve never really been impressed with Seth Farber’s esoteric schtick.

    I think the esoteric ‘spirituality’ / romanticizing ‘madness’ schtick is the weakest link in the whole recovery movement.

    Telling people they are ‘prophets’? = distraction from the task of recovering from believing in the BS that got you locked up in the first place.

    • While it isn’t helpful for people to think that every thought that comes into their head is “prophecy” I think the opposite extreme, of thinking that “madness” is always just pure nonsense or error, is about equally unhelpful. People lose any interest in understanding their own thinking and emotions, and just want to get rid of it as “illness” or defect. This contributes to both inner civil war, when part of the mind remains attached to experimental thinking and another part of the mind is viewing it as complete trash – or it contributes to negative symptoms, because the person loses faith in themselves due to a sense that his/her own thinking has been so worthless.

      People who recover often are able to find something of value in the mad experiences and perspectives. It’s being open to finding something of value in them that leads to healing in many cases – healing means reconnecting, and how can one reconnect with a part of one’s mind that is completely wrong and lacking value?

      By the way, I don’t think it makes sense to see the spiritual and the trauma perspectives on madness as being completely separate. Trauma often undermines people’s sense of connection and this sends people on a spiritual journey to rediscover it. Of course, more trauma can happen on the way, but spirituality has a lot to do with how all humans respond to trauma, as they attempt to heal, not always successfully. I’ve written more about that at http://recoveryfromschizophrenia.org/2011/01/trauma-psychosis-and-spirituality-whats-the-connection/

  4. Sascha,
    Thanks for the personal story of your experiences and what you’ve gained from them.

    You are a clear writer. You are an example of one who can provide both leadership and communication. What a wonderful combination.

    Your essay is an excellent reminder of the power of language and the need to exercise care in its use in order the achieve the goals of any movement.

    Thanks for writing here.
    Alice

  5. I have found the Icarus Project very informative, thanks for all your work there. And I like how you bring here important defining questions about mental illness or madness, in particular whether it is something to be preserved or eradicated.

    A possibly different perspective from Seth Farber is brought by Elizabeth Gilbert (basically saying: there is no reason creativity should be associated with a high premature death toll, let’s be creative about how to stay well while being creative):

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

    In modern society, there are more safe and protected places for wild creativity than there has ever been in the past. The difference between madness and creative arts, is that at the end of a play, no matter how many characters were killed during the story, all the actors are up, alive and well once the curtain fall. The arts are allowing as much spiritual awakening than any mad prophet while having specific rituals to get back to reality, safety, wellness and togetherness when the play is over. Art should allow to explore all gifts of madness, while also adding a long life expectancy.

  6. One of the worst traumas of my entire life was post-recovery. It was painfully short lived, and took a while for me to even realize that I had achieved that great state!

    After some very intensive work (which I did mostly on my own), I wasn’t “lost” anymore ~ I “found” me (recovered!). Then BAM! And I’ve been a wreck ever since.

    The “BAM” was a powerful and significant spiritual event. It wasn’t psychological or psychotic and there was no psychosis. Oh yes, I was greatly distressed and that was evident. I desperately needed support and in all the world, there was none.

    “It may be that everyone who’s diagnosed with schizophrenia is having a spiritual emergence, but I don’t think that’s an obvious conclusion to draw. I think a trauma analysis can often be more useful than a spiritual one.”

    I arrived at the emergency department in critical condition. I sat along side the nurse’s desk, in triage. As she collected and entered information into the computer, I glanced at the screen: EmergenSoftED was the name of the program she was using. Instantly, I read out loud: “emergence of the dead”. Of course, she was freaked by it and then I became fearful of her (and the hospital). What was really interesting were the flies that surrounded my head, before I walked into that emergency department. I have been “diagnosed” as “morbid” in the past, but doesn’t anyone actually understand what that really means? Important for ME to understand!

    Innumerable times, I had reached what I call a “sacred state”. In this “sacred state”, I do not breath and my heart does not beat. I am animated by THE SPIRIT, to the point that I am dependent on it for my “survival”.

    I’ve long outgrown any “need to be believed”. Sometimes, the spiritual itself can be traumatizing. Good healing starts with properly identifying the facts of a matter, and that process is dependent on accurate wording. Psychiatry says, “diagnose”. Psychiatry says, “anima”.

    Thankfully, I am blessed with a passionate love of words. When “madness” and “spirit” are active (active, not psychotic!), I pound on my keyboard as if it were a baby grand piano. I like that part. 😀

  7. When I seemed mad to others it was the harm I received that caused me to act in a strange ways. It was the harm I received that caused severe trauma for me, my family and friends. As a human being living in an imperfect world I have had other trauma also. However this pales into insignificance in comparison psychiatric trauma!

    I believe this is the case for many other people, even people who might not know it! While I was consuming drugs daily I was not aware of myself and my life. I was almost spiritually, mentally and physically dead. That was 12 years ago at the age of 52! I would still not know this if I continued to ingest psychotropic drugs.

    ” I see you don’t like doctors” I said, noticing a peculiarly malevolent tone in his voice whenever he alluded to them.
    ” It is not the case of liking or disliking. The have ruined my life and they have ruined and are ruining the lives of thousands and hundreds of thousands of human beings, and I cannot help connecting the effect with the cause… Today one can no longer say: You are not living rightly, live better. One can’t say that to oneself or anyone else. If you live a bad life it is caused by the abnormal functioning of your nerves, etc. So you must got to them, and they will prescribe eight penn’orth of medicine from a chemist, which you must take! You get still worse: then more medicine, and the doctor again. An excellent trick.” Tolstoy ( The Manufacture of Madness by Thomas Szasz)