Recovery through Learning Creatura, a Language of Life

Daniel Fisher, MD, PhD
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There is a language underneath our familiar verbal language. Ordinarily it is called nonverbal communication. It is also called body language. I came to intimately know this language during each of my excursions into altered states, which resulted in my diagnosis of schizophrenia. During each of those experiences I became mute. Prior to and during my second hospitalization, I spent about a month not speaking a single word. I remember thinking that words had lost their meaning. I said to myself, “What is the point of speaking? No one listens anyway. I will only speak when someone truly listens to the real me.”

Somehow several corpsmen at Bethesda Naval Hospital reached me and gained my trust. They might have been helped by a book on body language I was carrying around during that period. Their emotional connections and the trust they built with me enabled me to return to the word of spoken words.

I have for the 40 years since that hospitalization, however, been puzzled over that mute period (and the three other periods of not speaking that I went through in a 6 year interval from 1969 to 1975.) Why did the deepest core of me feel so compelled to go mute?

Then several weeks ago I glimpsed a clue that helped me better understand that dumbfounding experience. I learned that in his last book, Angels Fear, Gregory Bateson and his daughter Catherine had suggested that in addition to our familiar language of words, there is a more basic language, which they called creatura. They said that creatura is the language of all living creatures, of artists, and of madmen.

At least that was the way I heard my teacher Mary Olson explain the Batesons’ concept of creatura. The Batesons contrasted that animated world of creatura with the inanimate world of pleroma. “Pleroma is the world of nonliving matter, described by the laws of physics and chemistry. (Steps to an Ecology of Mind.)” Suddenly many pieces fell in place. I recalled a moment earlier this week with K, a member of my recovery dialogue group. K had not spoken for the first hour of the group. During the hour I had checked on K and saw little expression of emotion on his face. Near the end of the group, I looked over at him and he looked at me. I raised my eyebrows and smiled and he smiled back. I then asked if there was anything he would like to share about the group. “Well doctor, relating is an art form, which I am still trying to master.”

So it seemed that to initiate verbal conversation he and I first needed to initiate a dialogue of gestures. Ah, but what profoundly true words he spoke, when he spoke. Relating is indeed an art form. Another member of the group, a Nigerian woman also had been quiet. She, however, had been showing emotional expression, albeit a sad one. When I asked her if she wanted to share with the group, she said she had been having a difficult time in this country. She said that she didn’t want to offend us but in the three years she had been in this country she found that people rarely have the time to talk or share with each other. She said, Here everyone is always in a hurry and working. In my country, people always stop to talk and ask about you and your family.”

Perhaps this one of the reasons that the recovery rate from even the most severe mental distress, called psychosis, is much higher in Nigeria than in more industrialized countries (as shown in two WHO studies, www.power2u.org).

Then I asked a friend who is Mexican American what the word creatura might mean in Spanish. “Ah, you mean criatura (creeeatura)? Well that word is often used to describe behavior that is child-like, yet it means much more,” and then she recalled a Mexican Folk song, Criatura Hermosa, or Beautiful Creature. The chorus of that song is:
“Beautiful Creature
there is nothing this romantic
wants to see more
than the light in your eyes
shining upon awakening”
We may think of creatura as the language of criaturas hermosas, the language of love, a heart-to-heart dialogue of emotions and gestures.

What if our spoken language of words depends upon a foundation of dialogue between our inner criaturas hermosas? What if the dialogue of chemistry and movements between mother and baby in the months before and after birth establishes the roots from which our verbal language is nourished and flowers? Perhaps that dialogue forms the roots of our very being. What if this wellspring of vitality needs to be replenished by face-to-face contact, touch, hugs, kisses etc. on a regular basis? Then this criatura hermosa language may be lost in our modern world of electronic communication and monologic thought.

Our premium on efficiency, competition, isolation, and individuality may be robbing us of what is the essence of our life’s force, the gestures that underlie and embrace the verbal dimension of our language. Perhaps the language of criaturas hermosas appears in madmen and artists as a rebellion against the life stifling forces of conformity and regimentation. Perhaps we are all striving to be more fully who we authentically are and yet are rarely able to be so.

In my own life, this explanation rings true. I have pictured my periods of madness as having resulted from my extreme suppression of emotions. Since my emotions seem closer to who I truly am, suppressing my emotions is actually a suppression of my vital self. I tried to suppress my emotions and true self growing up, because the rest of my family seemed emotionally out of control.

To guard against these distressing emotions, I went to the furthest extreme of rational thought and emotional control, by becoming a neurochemical researcher. I was convinced that if we could discover the biochemical basis of unhappiness we could then fix it with carefully constructed drugs. I did not allow myself to open up to people because I was afraid that I would be hurt. I found out later that this fear was largely due to the sexual trauma that I endured at the hands of a teacher. This experience left me fearful and “fear builds walls (Pink Floyd, ‘The Wall’).”

At NIMH, I found the right boss to work for. He literally believed that the only reality that existed was the one that could be described by chemical equations. I was only living in the nonliving world of pleroma. I believed that I was just a mixture of chemicals (“We are all just bricks in the wall, (The Wall)) until my unhappiness became so excruciating I had to escape to another reality. That other reality was one of all embracing thoughts and feelings.

Whereas before, in the laboratory we were constantly separating and purifying our chemicals, in that other reality, everything was interconnected. Whereas before I had felt that my actions had little impact on the world, in the other reality every gesture, even those of strangers was rich with meaning. Suddenly when I saw the Pope on TV, he was my best friend. I remember living in that silent limbo and thinking that the only way I could come back to the world, was if I radically changed my life and got a life. I instinctively knew that my survival depended on my turning towards people and away from machinery. I needed to “learn earth talk,” as a client later confided in me.

So I left the lab to work with people as a psychiatrist and an advocate. Through engaging in a dialogue of therapy, love, hugs, friendship, and children I have found ways to nourish my criatura hermosa inside and out. So my criatura hermosa, I believe, is the most basic expression of my humanity. It is my spring that feeds my vital center.

So I did not recover from an illness. I recovered from the extreme mental distress of a constricted life by recovering my humanity. To recover my humanity I had to relearn to interrelate with people and all of life through the language of criaturas hermosas, the language of love, the language of life. It is a language of dialogue, and as Bakhtin said, “To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire life in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium.” (Bakhtin, 1984, p293)

But I ask myself today, “Why is this creatura language, this language of life so important to mental health?” I got a clue this morning. As I was running along Lady Bird Lake, in Austin, Texas, I saw a snake cross my path. I was captivated by the beauty of its rhythmic undulations. I was particularly struck by its unity of movement, the interrelation of all the parts of the snake. It seemed all the parts of the snake acted together as a whole.

It then struck me that my recovery has progressed by my achieving such a rhythmic, integrated whole in my life. I have been striving to unify my mind, body and spirit. I also realize relationships play a crucial role in helping me to unfold into such unity of purpose. It was only by sharing this observation with a friend tonight that I could express these thoughts here.

She and I had recently trained people in emotionalCPR. In this practice one person can help another through an emotional crisis by, Connecting, emPowering and Revitalizing with them. In doing so, the person assisting also revitalizes them self. We noticed that in the evaluations several students said they did not understand the idea of our having a vital center. I said that in our eCPR course, I picture revitalization in terms of nourishing greater awareness and expression of our vital center.

But the idea of vitality merely being a center didn’t ring true to me. I conjectured, “I think I could more accurately describe the experience of revitalization as an expansion of my vital whole. ” My co-trainer resonated with that idea and said it made more sense to her than a vital center. A vital whole implied that we gain our greatest vitality from experiencing our wholeness not from some hidden center. Any experience, which diminishes my wholeness, is traumatic. It leaves me feeling wobbly and insecure.

Then the presence of another person, in their wholeness, being with me in the present moment, allows me to experience the fullness of my vital whole. That experience of my vital whole may be my being my criatura hermosa. I want to appreciate the beautiful creature, which is the core of my being and of everyone.

I want to help K in my group to master the “art form of relating.” Indeed, relating through our creatura language is closer to an art form than a linear, rational form. Ultimately we who have the lived experience of mastering the art form of relating, need to find the words, the music, the painting, the sculpted forms, to describe that art form to share with the rest of the isolated ones in society as they are still struggling to relate.

I see a future when the distinctions between biological and psychosocial descriptions melt in the face of a much greater unity based on the process of interactions in the present moment of existence. The dance of molecules expressing the art of relating may resonate with the dance between two people in love. Through love their minds, bodies, and spirits are closer to their vital whole, and both beings become a whole together.

References:

Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and translated by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University of Chicago Press.

Bateson, G., and Bateson, MC. (1988). Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. University of Chicago Press.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. I met you one time in Arkansas where you addressed a consumer conferrence, I think it was in the fall of 2010. When you were getting ready to leave on the last day of the conference you were hugging people that you knew. I was present and even though you didn’t know me you gave me a hug also. You give great hugs and I was struck by the fact that there is something special about you. It’s hard to put into words, but it is like you allow people to “feel” your inner spirit when you touch them physically. I read your posts all of the time and upon thinking about my being touched by your spirit, and the tone of your posts, I have the feeling that you’re a mystic. This is a good thing as far as I’m concerned and I believe that it’s this quality in you that allows you to walk with people on their journeys. Today’s post bolsters my belief that people dealing with psychosis have their own language and that you can “talk” with them if you’re willing to take the time and make the effort of learning their language. Often their language includes physical postures and or mudras of the hands. One young man I dealt with briefly made absolutely no sense at all if you took what few words he spoke at face value. But, if you watched how he posed his body and what he did with his hands you could make out some of the things he was attempting to communicate. At one point he made the Vulcan handsign, the one with the four fingers split apart in groups of two. Without thinking I said, “Live long and prosper!” and all of a sudden his face lit up with a big smile and he nodded his head yes! Then he said 1-26 and I responded with “the alphabet” and was again rewarded with a smile and a nod. The psychiatrist who was evaluating him stated that he made no sense at all and that he couldn’t be communicated with. I just shook my head in sadness because of the way the young man was so quickly and effeciently “dismissed” by the great and all-knowing psychiatrist. I agree with your post today. There are many ways to communicate when words are not adequate to express the anguish and isolation that a person can experience. I think the great expert on mythos, Joseph Campbell would agree with you if he was still alive. Mythos may be the sister to Bateson’s creatura. Campbell stated time and again that the difficulties that this country is experiencing stem from the fact that we no longer have a working mythos to guide our civilization, and in fact we don’t even understand myth anymore. Myth gives inner meaning to individual and communal lives and this may be why people slip into psychosis, the myths we live by no longer give us the meaning we need, if we even have any myths. Anyway, I think you’re right about all this; we need to pay attention to the language of creatura. People suffering from psychosis do make sense, they are just using a different language from the one we’re used to. This may not be exactly what you’re saying with your post but this is what it’s caused me to think and feel. Thanks for your posts.

  2. Lately when I recount one of own personal stories, I do so addressing my Norwegian Princess, who also happens to be my Muse. At the moment my Muse is temporarily closed for business. Before she closed shop, she gave me the address of your blog. Therefore I would like to recount one or two stories to you. These are stories that came to mind from readying

    “Recovery through Learning Creatura, a Language of Life”

    I hope they will be helpful.

    Perhaps about forty years ago, I am on an altered state excursion with my female companion. In our wanderings we have gotten both closer and further away from the Supreme Identity of the Universe [DoG]. When we were further away it was a time of despair. At least once it took my floppy, playful German Sheppard dog to remind us of the presence of DoG. Through these little episodes we learned one very useful tool. The tool is called “ACCEPT”. Six magic letters that opened us like conduits, allowing the clogged forces of the universe to flow through us. Relieving the blockage brought us closer to DoG again.

    This was all outside, in the midst of Nature that grew all around of its own accord. The adventure I now describe, briefly, took place indoors.

    Sarah Ellen was my companion. As I gazed into her face, the surface of her skin became covered with a blue phosphorescent flame. Not the kind of fire that comes from a match. More like a consuming acid the color of nuclear piles glowing in a pool of a heavy water reactor.

    The blue flame was burning away the flesh of her face. Truly horrific. I had to continually instruct myself “accept!”.

    I watched as her skin charred and blackened. A voodoo like experience. In a short time all the skin had burned off, leaving the white skull underneath. I continued to gaze. All of this as real as the cursor that now forms these words out of letters.

    Then I noticed her arms, extending out of her gingam shirt rolled up her arm to T shirt length. Her arms became thick and muscular, and coated in dark chocolate brown – not skin, but bark. The bark of an old, burly grapevine. From her burly, bulging biceps her arm tapered gracefully into thinner and thinner twigs, so that her hands above the wrists did form a graceful ballerina gesture of an old, head pruned grape vine, the ends of the tendril perhaps half an inch in diameter.

    I looked back at her face, and she was smiling. The skull had regenerated fresh new, young, freckled skin, smooth as a baby’s ass. I could picture her as the young raisin maiden you might find sitting on a split rail fence on the label of a Smucker’s jar of grape or blackberry jam.

    At this point we seemed to have telecommunication, knowing what each other was about to say before either of us said it. Which caused a stuttering like effect.

    There were several other unnerving experiences we had before the altered state tapered off. Only much later did I reflect on the inherent motif of death and rebirth.

    From there we dressed in graceful flowing clothes, and tip toed into a thorny hedge of blackberry vines. As we collected the deep purple blackberries into our kitchen bowls we discussed the mystery of transformation that had created the wonderful blackberry. The alchemy of forces drew essence from the dark brown friable soil, drew the essences up the mysterious stem of the vine, to ultimately bloom out as a sweet fruit of deep purple color in a manner as unfathomable as a caterpillar transforming into a lovely butterfly.

    I’m afraid I have already ejected too many words for one succinct comment. Let me just end by referring to the story that resides in my memory about Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall”.

    As I recall the song words they included:

    “dark sarcasm in the classroom,
    Teacher leave those kids alone.
    All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.”

    For me the memory engram relates to standardized public education, that procrustean bed reducing all imagination to a standardized training drill that will fit smoothly into a huge bureaucratic industrial machine.

    Ignorant Teacher’s Unions leaving no child behind as the monstrous harvester plows through the field of wild grasses, spitting them out in nice neat tidy socialized bales of hay.

    Jonathan Ariel

  3. Dan A tremedously insightful and moving post. I remember your educational presentation in New Bedford two years ago and the conversations we had planning it and the lunch we had in its aftermath. I was amazed at your willingness and ability to process deeply personal information about trauma in front of a crowd of strangers. It was almost as if you were drawing personal connections and self insight to the subject matter as you were speaking in the present moment. This was not planned but kind of spilled out and provoked others in the audience to respond to the issue of “if or when” it is necessary to confront your abuser. I remember in our preparation just before the event I had shared with you a story about one of my clients who had also experienced sexual abuse and had backed out of participating in the event. I often wondered if that conversation had triggered your memories and in some way was a contibuting factor to that particulr moment of self revealing process. What ever the case may be it turned out to be a very unique and valuable educational experience.

    Your contributions are always different and unique. They seem to be driven by and dominated by a great deal of right brain creativity. In other words, you seem to be painting a picture of how we can all better understand the nature of psychosis and the way out. In my work as a therapist I will definitely pay more attention to body language and gestures, including my own, after reading your wonderful post.

  4. Are you talking about “something” doctors and psychiatrists should have but often don’t and that is why they sometimes are doing more harm than good in this modern day and age? The capacity to connect, to be on the same wave-length? I think, it goes for teachers too and, come to think of it, for good parents. That something that makes all sorts of human relationships worthwhile?

  5. I too stopped speaking, when my big brother (my hero) killed himself 18 months after my mother did. I understand to this day (that was nearly 40 years ago), the necessity (for me) of periods of not speaking. It is not hostile, nor is it benign. Rather, it constitutes a time where I needn’t engage with others (I’m normally quite friendly) in a proscribed version of normalcy. I have gone on retreats where speech is not allowed. Where one is free to not make the responses expected of us so often. I find it both healing, and spiritually supportive.
    Your story was very interesting. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. What a wonderfully inspiring post. And, I guess, it’s also a little sad for me.

    I love somebody, very, very much, who has nearly gone mute. Not all the time, but he says it is so hard to talk, to find words and also said he didn’t see the purpose in the task. This has been hard for me. I have prayed and begged for more tolerance and compassion, literally, but mostly, the experience has been overwhelmingly frustrating and sad.

    It feels like the person has gone if he or she doesn’t talk, but I know in my heart this isn’t true. He may be having a much fuller experience than I am.

    I find your story quite illuminating and helpful. I’ll surely print your essay and share it. Thank you for sharing this story.

  7. Richard, Kevin, Alix, and Carolyn, Sorry for the delay in my response. I am touched by each of your reactions. Thank you for sharing. These blogs come straight from my heart which may make them seem mystical. Since I recovered from what the system labeled schizophrenia, I have only wanted to tell the truth. the rest only side tracks my recovery.