I met Mike Cornwall through my work as a former co-coordinator of The Icarus Project. As a sprawling creative tapestry of people called ‘mad’ by society, Icarus embraces the wild and visionary spirit so often lost when we focus only on the pain and devastation of extreme states of consciousness. Icarus, the airborne rebel who chose death instead of prison, is a mythic symbol of the perils of such an approach. Is it irresponsible to encourage people to believe in the poetic, mystical, and passionate sides of their ‘mental illness?’ Are we romanticizing suffering? Are we ignoring pain? What if people take this as a license to break the rules — and end up only adding to the pain of themselves and others?
Mike is a dose of sanity in these discussions. A longtime therapist with people struggling through psychosis, and today an active collaborator with the Icarus menagerie, Mike connects us with a rich history that says Yes to seeing madness as more complicated than just breakdown – while struggling with the risks, conflict and harm that also come with these states. The insights, visions, enthusiasm, depths, and raw energy of extreme states have always throughout history been met with frameworks of meaning that give them a place within culture, not just outside of it. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung emphasized the importance of seeing meaning in madness, and viewing a person deemed ‘psychotic’ as moved by the same primal forces that animate religious ritual all over the world. Scottish psychiatrist Ronnie Laing hailed madness as a creative act, an escape from the impossible micro-violence of so-called normal reality. Mike trained with Jungian John Perry and with Laing, crafting his skill as a guide and mentor for those on a journey through madness, not just away from it.
Mike brings these philosophical visions down to earth in his practical work with people diagnosed schizophrenic and bipolar. He was a therapist at innovative sanctuaries in the 1970s that used low or no medications, places of refuge that didn’t numb the flights of the tormented mind with drugs but instead welcomed ‘psychosis’ as a timeless hero’s journey: departure, conflict, discovery, return, and renewal. This approach has guided many people — including Mike himself, who made it through a visionary extreme state without medications or psychiatric intervention.
Today the rise of biomedical and pharmaceutical dogma has swelled and crested, and new approaches are on the rise. We need to hear the wisdom of therapists like Mike Cornwall, and bring the traditions of archetypal psychology and existential humanism into the future of a new mental health system.
What if people struggling with madness could explore their emotions in a supportive sanctuary? Do frightening ‘psychotic’ experiences have the power to transform and heal? Is breakdown also breakthrough? Michael Cornwall became a therapist after surviving his own crisis — without medication or psychiatric treatment. For more than 30 years he has worked in the tradition of Carl Jung and R.D. Laing to support people to go through psychotic states in medication-free community settings, including John Weir Perry’s Diabasis House in the 1970s. http://www.madinamerica.com/author/mcornwall/ http://altmentalities.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/michael-cornwall-diss.pdf
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.