Are There Gifts In and From Our Madness That Our Culture Needs to Not Waste?

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Do we bring gifts to our family and community that are born of suffering but infused with spirit? Has our madness been in vain, or has it brought us through fiery trials that have meaning we otherwise would have missed for ourselves and our most treasured relationships? Can we be bold now even though our hearts and spirits seemed to have been broken beyond repair? My answer is yes to these questions. I have met dozens of people whose answer is also yes.

The chorus of voices echoing from around the world by the readers and commenters and writers on Mad In America affirm this too.

In other places and times madness was seen this way.  It always is the right time to claim this perspective as our daily bread. Many of you have for decades.

When we are in madness we most likely loose sight of it’s potential value. If we are loved and protected during our madness some deep healing can happen. Personal healing, but more. Our family gets healed somehow too by us freeing trapped emotions that now we can claim, share with them- perhaps for the first time.

There certainly is something humbling about going through madness, and it can be especially traumatic when we get caught in a system and seen as weird and sick in a hopeless way.

Almost all the mad people I have known have been gentle souls. Behind the anger that is so often justified lies a softly beating heart. If only we will give sanctuary and mercy as our gifts of caring, the wounded hearts will repair themselves from the inside out.

I don’t want to romanticize or despise my madness. Let me find my own voice if I become mad again, to be able to ask for what we all really want and need when we are suffering – love, mercy, protection, sanctuary, understanding, respect, a gentle touch, hope.

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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.

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30 COMMENTS

  1. The first time I learned that madness could be seen in this positive perspective was when I read that some cultures in Africa consider the mad person as the messenger of “good news from above.” The good news heals the family and community, too. Thanks for reminding us.

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  2. Although I understand that the word “mad” has been embraced for political purposes, and to reverse meaning and establish pride, I question whether it is actually useful. To me it the term itself is discrediting of the perspective of those who are called “mad.” To associate madness with creativity seems to me to discredit the truth value of creativity as well. I would love to hear some political analysis on the use of this terminology.

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  3. The use of mad in the name of the book and as the website name seems to me to have different connotations (for instance, it refers to the labeling process itself, to culture at large) than for those who have been diagnosed as mentally ill (like myself)to label their own thought processes as mad.

    I appreciate the article.

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  4. Thank you for your comments Lydia. I agree with what you say about the different uses of the word mad. I probably use it to describe my own experience because of my early reading of Laing’s -Sanity, Madness and the Family, and my mentor John Perry’s – The Far Side of Madness.- and because the Greeks talked about the numinous quality of madness. I wish I knew a better way to describe the all consuming experience I went through that I describe in my first blog post here. Calling it an altered state or emotional distress doesnt seem to do it justice. What do you call your experience? I appreciate your sharing.

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  5. I don’t have an alternative term, but I feel that states that are called mental illness are on a continuous spectrum with states called normal, not qualitatively different, and have truth value (often metaphorical or symbolic), and are responses to experiences and situations.

    For negative states I’ve been in I’ve used words like terror, anguish, suffering, disintegration. It’s tough to think about terminology for describing subjective states! Mysticism might have offerings for visionary states, ordeals or crises.

    I do think we are talking about spirituality, a Materialist taboo! It’s so essential, and so socially repressed.

    I will have to reread your first post and think more about it. Thanks again for the article!

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    • I have long-thought that people who are very sensitive are prone to having both breakdowns and accompanying breakthroughs.

      There are many people it seems who think this sensitivity is always due to trauma, but I’m not so sure… I think it may just be the way someone is wired up to perceive their own human experience, and/or oftentimes, the trauma is subtle, unknown before the “break”… but the more I study, and do my best to understand all of this, the more I realize that it is in many ways a mystery.

      I have heard the term “spiritual crisis”, but I like to think of it as a “spiritual opportunity”… nothing short of a gift. A very real and true gift.

      Also, it seems to me that people who are highly sensitive are more apt to have these opportunities – to go deeply inside, to have greater insight than before the “break” and come out stronger, more empathetic and grateful than before the “opportunity” arose.

      I’m not a big fan of labels…. never have been.
      And I’m not sure that in this case “more research is needed”…. It seems to me that more empathy is needed… more basic human decency, and faith in each individual who goes “through” such a situation… keyword “through”.

      Duane

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      • I also know that some people have been severely traumatized, leading to the “break”… I was only trying to make the point that I don’t think it is always due to severe trauma. I’ve come to believe that the trauma can be subtle and hard to fully understand until the break, which may be the reason for the break.

        Also, some people may find the word “break” or “breakdown” to be offensive. I believe that it is much like the breaking of steel or cast iron, when a weld is needed… the weld winds up being stronger than the original metal.

        And, IMO, this is precisely what takes place on the emotional/spiritual level, when a “crisis” is seen and dealt with as an opporunity!

        Duane

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        • There is allot of distilled wisdom in what you are saying Duane. I sure love the metaphor of a needed weld being stronger than the original steel!

          Seems like we need such metaphors much more than labels and contaminated words like madness, when we point to the nature of this ancient human/soul/spirit mystery that consumes and can transform us if allowed to do so.
          Thank you again comrade brother

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          • I love this back and forth Michael and Duane and, of course, the original poetic, loving blog entry that elicited this dialogue.

            I am reminded of the definition of alchemy as it applies to taking raw metals and refining their essence through crucible or catalyst events, Duane’s more-precious-than-new metalworking and the spiritual connotations of transmutation through the hero’s journey. Spiritual opportunity or crisis? It is both, I think. And a caring, loving, safe, empowering, hopeful community can make all the difference in terms of how this opportunity/crisis plays out in an individual life. Even a few of these qualities held by another for another can be enough.

            Much more simply and elegantly put by Leonard Cohen,

            Ring the bells you still can ring
            Forget your perfect offering
            There is a crack in everything
            That’s how the light gets in.

            Perhaps “madness” is an unbearable lightness of being?

            Thank you Papa Bear, for your ongoing inspiration!

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  6. I certainly went “mad” at the age of nineteen and my breakdown was physical as much as mental but I was never “mentally ill” as psychiatrists would have it in this day and age. It wasn’t an “illness” at all or at least that is how I see things from my personal perspective. It was all due to my need to understand what the world is all about and the shock of discovering that there is a lot wrong with the society we live in. I am glad I went “mad”, although it was horrible at the time, it made me a better, kinder and more understanding person. It also helped me to understand my son when he went through a similar crisis.

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  7. I have mad a video comment at
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbRz5PUn8xA&feature=plcp

    Summary:
    Is it possible to think positively about our psychological problems?
    Cognitive therapy: your reactions are a result of how you think of your problems.
    If you can think positively about e.g. psychotic experiences, it is a good for your psychological health.
    Normalizing: works very well for all psychological problems
    See that the process is a part of normality, just maybe a bit extreme.
    E.g. Paranoia: If not too extreme, protects us and our children.
    The nocebo effect: as powerful as placebo
    Believe that you have a degenerative brain disorder, and it will make you sicker.
    Conclusion: you have all reason to think positively about you psychological problems

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  8. Thank you very much ‘researcher’ from Norway- for the very valuable comment and excellent video comment above. I hope everyone watchs it because you so clearly give strong evidence about the effect of how what we believe an experience of madness means, can create such powerful positive or negative results.

    We certainly saw that effect of how madness is viewed effectimg outcomes very powerfully in action, on the med and restraint and diagnosis free open door madness sanctuary I worked at for 3 years, which I describe in one of my blogs here- “Remembering a Medication Free Madness Sanctuary”.

    My Jungian mentor John Weir Perry, was also emphatic that the efficacy results of his Diabasis sanctuary-(which I did my doc research on), should not be understood soley because they didn’t use meds, but more importantly because they also viewed madness as a naturally occuring developmental, purposive, transformative human experience that was not pathological.

    But holding that belief is more than just positive thinking or a CBT or RET cognitive reframing. Ihat belief is rationally/objectively justified, because when people at all phases of a madness experience are allowed to go through it in a safe and heart centered setting, they almost always come out the other side- “weller than well” as Dr. Karl Menniger famously said. There is ample evidence that madness isn’t what bio-psychiatry says it is.

    How tragic then that madness is predominately viewed and subsequently “treated’ in a way that does not fit the facts- and that such a disease based belief system ends up trapping countless people in a life of lowered self realization and limited fulfillment..

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    • Thanks again, Michael for another nuance. I recently attended a workshop in which we were all challenged to sit with the most difficult of experiences and stay present and awake and available instead of numbing out, retreating in fear or creating and “other” dynamic. Talk about courage. It was humbling and scary to witness others touching into “madness” experiences and to participate in holding a space, as communal midwives of sorts, to provide safe passage back, all the while working with the whispers of our own inner demons.

      It seems necessary to touch into our own heart of darkness to find and hold the light for others. After that, I’m all about positive thinking! 😉

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  9. I think it depends on what happened to the victim, what the victim’s Achilles’ Tendon Factor was/is and the gender as well as age of the individual victim…. I do not think all of us can rise from the ashes of the abuse. There are distinct differences between a male victim and a female victim and distinct differences in the details of the abuse and what the victim has left/has to come home to afterward. Etc.

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