Finding the Gifts Within Madness

Ron Unger, LCSW

When people are seeing the world really different than we do, it’s often reassuring to think that there must be something wrong with them – because if they are completely wrong, or ill, then we don’t have to rethink our own sense of reality, we can instead be confident about that own understandings encompass all that we need to know.

But it can be disorienting and damaging to others to have their experiences defined as “completely wrong” or “ill.”  And we ourselves become more ignorant when we are too sure that there is no value in other ways of looking or experiencing.

In a practical sense, there are often many ways for example to look at a particular object – we can look at it from various angles, and through different lenses for example, and what we see will be different depending on how we look.  In that sense, it’s actually ridiculous to see one way or another of looking or experiencing as “wrong” or “sick”; instead, it makes more sense to understand that different ways of looking may be useful for different purposes.

Looking at things the same way as others around us are looking at them can certainly be helpful if we want to understand what others are seeing and to coordinate with them.  Looking at things in more unique ways may be more helpful though if we have other purposes:  for example looking at part of a tree through a microscope may be very helpful for some purposes, even though it is unhelpful for seeing the tree in a conventional way.

In a fascinating recording titled OF MADNESS AND MAGIC: SHIFTING THE LENS TO UNDERSTAND THE MIND, Mischa Shoni shares both her own journey and also some great insights into how discovering new ways of looking at the world, or new “lenses” to look at it through, can be both disorienting and disabling, and then eventually enriching once one learns how to use those lenses in a good way.

Here’s the written description of her talk:

What differentiates what is labeled as mental dysfunction—mania, psychosis, seizures—from what is magic, spirit, or simply … beyond the scientific method? Mischa Shoni embarks on a journey to understand her own brain. On the path, she meets dragons, gryphons, crystal-eyed snakes … and some extraordinary people who see the mind beyond the limited lens of psychiatry.

Mischa’s story starts with her walking down the street, and suddenly finding her mind operating in a completely different way, a way that dramatically interfered with her normal functioning.  The mental health system then tried to help her by telling her she was ill and working to suppress this way of functioning, but later she wondered, wasn’t it possible this “different” mental state was also something that could have some usefulness?  She then set out to find others who had found value in such experiences, and who could make sense of them.

I sometimes think of stories such as Mischa’s by using a crude cell phone analogy.  Imagine you have a device that you know well how to use as a cell phone, but one day you push a button and it starts doing some strange new things, and while it is doing those things you can’t figure out how to make it just function as a phone.  You take it to technical support, and they declare it dysfunctional, and try to suppress the new things it is doing so it can go back to just being a phone.  They then tell you your phone will continue to be defective, but that if you do all the things they say, you might be able to suppress its dysfunction most of the time and still use it to make phone calls.

But later you wonder, is it possible that the weird things your phone was doing were possibly good for something?  You ask around, and find that there are people who know something about this, maybe they explain that it appears that you had accidentally started up a different “app” on your phone, and they help you experiment with finding out what that app is good for.  You also learn eventually how to turn the “app” on and off at will, and now you like your phone better for having this extra function, even though it had been a big problem for you when you first discovered it.

It would have been better of course if the “technical support” people you went to in the first place had known it was very possible your phone wasn’t broken, and that you may have just discovered something new it could do, even if it was something that neither they nor you knew how to operate yet.  Unfortunately, finding such “technical support” in today’s mental health system, or even elsewhere in our culture in modern times, is a rarity.

It was interesting to me, though, to note that many of the people with “alternative” views that Mischa encountered were on the West Coast of the US (even though her journey started in New York.)

I personally relate to this because I grew up in Michigan, and then migrated west because of the appeal of a stronger subculture that valued weird ways of looking at things.  In the mid 70’s when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, people involved in this subculture were also experimenting with alternative approaches to madness at places like Soteria and Diabasis.  While I was unaware of those activities at the time, I found lots of other ways to explore and create different “lenses” on reality (or different “apps,”) as I wrote about for example in my earlier post “Madness and Play: Exploring the Boundary.

While all the really “alternative” mental health approaches in Northern California were shut down by the 1980’s, I’m happy to see signs that the tide may be turning some.  The Bay Area Mandala Project is an organization working to provide strong alternatives to the conventional mental health approaches oriented around drugs and suppression, and instead bringing back the approach of “being with” people in extreme states and helping people appreciate that there may be something of value to their experiences.

Want to know more? Cardum Harmon, Dina Tyler, Michael Cornwall, PhD are key members of the Mandala Project, and they will be the presenters for an ISPS online meeting on 1/30, 2 PM EST, which will address “Responding to Extreme States with Loving Receptivity: Honoring the Spirit’s Transformative Journey”  All three have lived experience of “psychosis” or “extreme states” as well as extensive experience helping others with those states.  (Michael also has had experience working in I Ward, one of those alternative facilities that helped people with psychotic experiences without using antipsychotics.)

For more information about this meeting, and to register for it, go to  (Note that those who are not members of ISPS will be asked for a small donation, but it is also possible to register without donating.)

PS On the subject of ISPS, a reminder that ISPS will be having an international conference in NYC March 18-22, 2015.  This conference will bring together a lot of perspectives, from those which are refreshingly “radical” to those which are still too conventional, but I believe it will overall be a good forum to dialogue and explore ways to move forward.  Some of you may find it worth checking out…..

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  1. “In a practical sense, there are often many ways for example to look at a particular object – we can look at it from various angles, and through different lenses for example, and what we see will be different depending on how we look. In that sense, it’s actually ridiculous to see one way or another of looking or experiencing as “wrong” or “sick”; instead, it makes more sense to understand that different ways of looking may be useful for different purposes.”

    This largely describes the philosophical concepts I was working on with my artwork, prior to being railroaded by psychiatric practitioners. I will confess, however, I was unaware of the DSM / psychiatric belief system at that time. I found the DSM / psychiatric viewpoint to be an ungodly disrespectful, illogical, and scientifically invalid one, after years of experience and research.

    I believe being open-minded, respectful, and kind to others is a much more logical, and potentially beneficial to humanity world view, than is believing one has a right to stigmatize other people with “mental illnesses,” that have no scientific validity, and “torture” other human beings with tranquilizer cocktails. To this day I can not find the benefit to humanity, as a whole, in the belief system of psychiatry … and I’m usually pretty good at being able to understand others’ viewpoints. All I see in psychiatry is self-service and greed, with no overall benefit to humanity.

    “Responding to Extreme States with Loving Receptivity: Honoring the Spirit’s Transformative Journey” sounds like a wonderful program. Love is the answer instead.

  2. If a caterpillar lived in a fascist state patrolled by psychiatrists and other medical robot like practionors they would be labeled , neurolepticized , and electroshocked as soon as they attempted to construct their cocoons . Also they would get an offer they could not refuse, to be counseled and reported on.

    And this only after being of course vaccinated with putrified concoctions pseudo scientifically at birth and beyond. Having mercury installed in their teeth , their water supply contaminated with who knows what as well as their food and air.

    I marvel at the resilience of the caterpillar.

  3. I love your metaphors, especially the one on mobile phone support ;). When it comes to the fact that it is useful to look at and think about things differently for different purposes it reminds of the shallowness of today’s public discourse. I happen to be an atheist but I am seriously appalled by some of the new atheists who use their appearance of being “scientific” in order to bash religions for being useless artifacts of old ages. As if there were no value in the myths and origin stories to inform us about the nature of ourselves and help us to find our meaning, even if we do not literally believe in existence of gods and spirits. The arrogance of “I know better than you and you’re wrong” is anything but scientific.