Understanding Extreme States: An Interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner


One day on the ISPS listserv, psychologist Paris Williams shared a chapter from a book in which an herbalist and alternative healer named Stephen Harrod Buhner described his approach to working with the extreme states of mind commonly labeled as “schizophrenia” by psychiatrists. The chapter was entitled “On the Healing of Schizophrenia” and the book is Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm.

Buhner described concepts which I knew from my study of psychoanalytic approaches to these problems, such as profound fragmentation of the mind into part-selves to counter overwhelming anxiety, and the great care and lengthy time frames necessary to help severely traumatized people regain trust in the outside world. Buhner described how the dedicated healer could painstakingly be permitted access to the fragmented inner world of a terrified person and help them reintegrate their mind. Of “schizophrenia,” Buhner said, “The cultural paradigm or view of the condition is itself dysfunctional, to the extent that the paradigm is crazy.” (Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, pg. 503)

Finding myself intrigued by this man who’d never trained in psychiatry or psychology but who nevertheless worked effectively with people in severe distress using self-developed theories, I tracked Buhner down. I asked him to speak to me about these issues, and here is what resulted:

Matt: Hi Stephen, welcome and thanks for agreeing to this interview. I found out about you when psychologist Paris Williams referred me to your books on alternative healing. I would like to ask several questions about your approach to serious distress, and Paris has a few further questions.

First, can you tell a little bit about your background and training? Where did you train, what sort of philosophy about the world do you have; what sort of therapist were you, and what sort of work do you do now?

Stephen: I never did fit into the boxes of life very well; I was always neuro-atypical. I actually prefer that term to any of the other labels that are commonly used by members of the psychotherapeutic community. The range of “aberrations” they describe and label are, in nearly every instance, common throughout populations, though there do tend to be alterations in their density in various cultures.

So, being neuro-atypical and severely gifted (a blessing and a curse) as well, I found that I actually fit much better outside the reductive therapeutic world. I have written about parts of my decision to follow a different kind of educational training in various of my books, but in essence, when I realized that the traditional college process did not work well for me, I made a list of all the people whose work had touched me and arranged, in a University Without Walls program, to go and study directly with as many of them as would allow me to. Why settle for warmed leftovers when I could have the meals freshly prepared by the original cooks?

So, I spent time with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Buckminster Fuller and many others. I explored, rather deeply, various forms of body work and movement therapies, several different kinds of psychotherapy, and a number of different kinds of physical healing interventions. I never did get an advanced degree. Everybody in the field knows that psychiatrists are the worst therapists of all. They learn how to medicate, not heal. Psychologists are the next worse; they tend to focus on testing.

It isn’t until you get to MSW social workers that you finally start getting some decent work. I found that for me, however, the theoretical models that I would have to train in to gain those degrees and ultimate licensure were themselves a huge source of the problems I see in the therapeutic field. They aren’t accurate to either people or life.

I also spent several years in group therapy with a couple who used a blend of Transactional Analysis and Regressive Therapy treatment techniques. Their focus was about half on people who were neuro-atypical. Most of those were what would be diagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder in a more reductive context. I then trained with them for several years afterward and also explored neuro-linguistic programming and other leading edge approaches of the day, including regular depth work with heart field entrainment.

As well, I worked in depth with wild ecosystems. I don’t consider any one state of being or mind as normal or abnormal. Things simply work or they don’t. People are highly complex beings and have emerged out of an incredibly complex ecological background of billions of years duration. The descriptives of the reality field that all of us are indoctrinated in as we go through our schooling are incredibly dated; they don’t have much relation to the real world or the complexity of human beings.

Most psychotherapeutic theories, for example, are generated in isolation from both the wider human community and the ecological world. They tend to represent Western cultures almost exclusively, which in and of themselves are psychologically unbalanced. They aren’t representative of the majority of human beings. Further, they tend to view the human as an isolated phenomenon, something that can be removed from both its community context and the ecological field that generated it.

In fact, it is actually crazy to think that it is possible to stand here and look at the world over there. Any psychological theory that comes out of that is starting from the wrong place; it’s never going to work. So, the therapeutic technique we used was rooted as much as we could do at the time in the real world. My wife and I worked as a couple, the sessions were conducted in a group setting, there was a lot of touch, and a huge focus on exploring the meaning of transactions. We tended to work with people who were functional enough to stay out of hospitals. If they were on pharmaceuticals, they had to go off them during therapy.

I am 64 now and pretty much retired from all that work. More than anything, at present I am a full time writer.

Matt: That’s all pretty interesting – and interesting to hear from someone who trained and practiced healing in such an “atypical” way. I generally agree with what you say about reductionistic positivist training methods (e.g. in psychiatry and some areas of psychology) leading to less ability to engage therapeutically with distressed people. In my own struggle with extreme states, I got the most help from professionals who were either social workers or psychoanalytically trained.

Anyway, how much experience do you have working with people experiencing psychosis, i.e. those who might be labeled with “schizophrenia” in more reductive contexts? What setting were you working with these people in and how frequently did you typically see them?

Stephen: Again, I spent a number of years in therapy myself surrounded by neuro-atypical people, going through my own therapy so I could understand myself better, learn to function more effectively. Then several years of training, and then I had my own private therapy practice for a decade or so. I very rarely worked with people who found themselves in the midst of full blown psychotic episodes as a way of life. The most damaged tended to be barely functional, a few on long term psychotic medications from which they were carefully weaned. We generally worked in an aesthetically welcoming and warm group setting, on pillows, with a lot of touching. Normally we met weekly. Most people worked with us from 1-3 years.

Matt: Okay, with the seriously “neuro-atypical” people – to use your word – that you saw, how would you describe the quality of the work you engaged in together with them? Did you see people often to return to work or school, often develop better relationships with family or friends?

Stephen: The worst of them became normal neurotics and went on to the same kinds of lives that most people in this country have. The focus on understanding the meanings in which they were embedded, that came to them in the form of transactions from friends, family, and co-workers, allowed them to learn to craft responses and interactions that worked for them.

In general, the neuro-atypical people we worked with perceived a great deal more of the reality field around them than most people and were highly susceptible to the subtle meanings they encountered. For instance, if someone talking to them had a hidden agenda buried deep inside their words, they would tend to experience that agenda as the primary communication. It was more important than the surface communication because it was coming out of more primary survival drives, ones that would become dominant over time.

Neuro-atypical people tend to think that the person who is making the communication is aware of the hidden communication. That is quite often not the case and of course they deny it. This leads to tremendous confusion and, ultimately, a label for the neuro-atypical. Affirming their perceptions and training them in the use of their enhanced perception while at the same time exploring the nature of human transactions tended to clear up the worst of the trouble. At that point, their relationships began to work much better.

Matt: Okay. I agree about the great sensitivity and perceptiveness in people who have undergone difficult experiences. Now tell us about your approach to understanding extreme states briefly. I’ve read your writing about heart fields, the fragmentation of the psyche in people experiencing psychosis, the great difficulty trusting, etc. Can you briefly explain these concepts for readers so they can get a basic understanding of what I think is your extremely human, insightful way of conceptualizing extreme states?

Stephen: People are people; there isn’t anything that is abnormal. As the great German poet Goethe once put it, “If you want to understand the abnormal, assume it is normal.” Once you do that, things begin to fall into place rather quickly.

To begin with, all humans are multiple personalities. What we call multiple personality disorder is only an extreme example of a common condition. All people have arguments with themselves. All people experience, from time to time, another part of themselves taking over and saying a lot of stuff that later on they certainly wish they had not.

So, we know we are multiple personalities, we just don’t know it. And that is because the theories that describe the human personality structure are inaccurate; we are trained to believe there is a single “I” inside us. There isn’t, and that one foolish belief is the root of a great deal of trouble in the world. It is crucially important to realize that human beings are only a specific example of a general condition. We are an expression of an evolutionary process that has been going on for billions of years. Any theory of who and what we are has to have within it that recognition as foundational.

Further, it has to have within it the understanding that all of us are entangled within a complex ecological framework of long standing. There is no such thing as an isolated person, just people that feel they are isolated. If you begin to explore complexity theory and then combine that with the work of Lynn Margulis you immediately find that human beings are not a single “I” but rather a complex symbiogenetic grouping of consciousness modules, as all living things are.

Many problems people have come from conflicts between these different self-aware parts of ourselves. They each have specific functions which can’t be overridden without severe problems. In other words, any part of ourselves that we repress will become hostile to us, including our bodies. So, one of the earliest most important things is to understand that while something may be wrong with you, you are normal and that “wrongness” can be altered through rather simple interventions. That does not mean they are easy to carry out, only that they are simple.

If you acknowledge the reality of all these different parts of you and then begin to craft a responsive and caring relationship with them, some some sort of integration will ultimately occur. Carried on long enough, individuation is inevitable; becoming “weller than well.” (Which by the way, presents its own problems in a culture of highly-charged neurotics.) The next step is actively learning how to transact between these parts of the self, acting as a mediator, or in a better analogy, a mature, nurturing parent.

As Ram Dass once put it, “When you first begin interior work . . . it’s a madhouse in there.” Over time, as the territory is understood better, it is easier to see that all people, and indeed all living things, possess these same interior consciousness modules. It is then only a matter of application, of educating our transactional capacity and giving it experience, then letting it loose in the world. For the same mediation processes that work in the interior world also work in the exterior. At least to some extent. It is not possible to generate a unification of the intelligences in the exterior world but it is certainly possible to do that in the interior world. That unification is what is called individuation.

Matt: Wow, some fascinating ideas! I find the idea that states of extreme distress are normal responses to abnormal stress to be very helpful and validating. The current process of diagnosing and drugging in psychiatry represents the opposite extreme – artificially creating and then reinforcing the “otherness” of a labeled group of people.

Okay, now let’s move on to a controversial topic. Give me your opinion on the idea commonly believed in our country that people experiencing delusions, hallucinations, and apathy have an incurable brain disease called schizophrenia. Is this valid, and if not, why do people believe it? How did you talk to clients and families who had heard of this idea and who might be scared by its pessimism?

Stephen: I have rather strong feelings about this that 50 years of exposure to it have done little to reduce. Bluntly, the “schizophrenia” disease notion is a rather stupid concept that reveals the limits of understanding of the people who commonly use it.

There is no such thing as normal and the human tendency to try and keep up appearances, to hide what they feel is the abnormal within them, is root to a great deal of sorrow and grief. There is no such thing as normal sex, there is no such thing as normal behavior, there is no such thing as normal brain function. There is no such thing as normal. It is commonly understood that psychiatrists are not only the worst therapists but they are also, psychologically, the sickest.

A quick sojourn through Michael Crichton’s book Travels and his revelations about his medical training (and yes, it is still the same) and the reasons why he never practiced medicine reveal that sickness explicitly. The problem is that when someone experiences trouble, it is that system into which they are funneled. In general, all that the system wants, all that the person’s community and family want is for them to not trouble them – they want them to be like everyone else, to fit in. Unfortunately the entire therapeutic process, in nearly every instance, is to make them fit in, whether through the use of drugs or not.

Ultimately, the label is useless, it doesn’t help. The truth is that the neural network is allowing perceptions into consciousness that many people do not consciously perceive. While there are cases of organic damage, which do need to be handled a bit differently, in most instances the label is more of a problem in the long run than the neural functioning. Some people so afflicted simply want to be like everyone else; others really do know that something unique is going on. A common sense training of the use of the neural network that is in place is the best approach. Nothing to be grandiose about; it is just the work in front of that person.

This is the kind of thing we shared with the people who were struggling, and their families. Unfortunately, many people believe that the medical system has an accurate model of reality; I have to admit their advertising is really good. We grow up hearing about their infallibility. Regrettably it is inaccurate.

Matt: Thanks for sharing your thoughts so candidly. What I have also been impressed by in speaking to people given “severe mental illness” labels is the degree of fear and pessimism the labeling process tends to engender in them and their parents, while simultaneously blocking insights into what experiential factors may be contributing to their distress.

Now as we know, the common illusion in this culture is that severe distress is a “brain disease” and that drugging has to be a first line treatment – even to the point where psychiatrists say that it is “malpractice” to not prescribe drugs for supposed “diseases” for which they do not even have biomarkers.

So, relative to drugs, did you tend to work with people on drugs, off drugs, or encourage them to get help tapering off, etc.? When I say drugs, I am referring to artificial psychiatric drugs like Seroquel or Risperdone. What about natural remedies or indigenous medicines for people in extreme distress; did you ever use those?

Stephen: Some drugs really can be helpful in moments of crisis or as an adjunct during the process of neural re-training. Some herbal medicines can help, such as blue vervain for inconsolable anxiety for example.

But the problem here is systemic in our culture. There is such a thing as the journey to the self. Unfortunately that is not given much currency these days. What we want is producers and consumers. But for those struggling with neuro-atypical function problems, taking that journey is essential. It is not escapable. All of us are shit on by life, what matters is what we do with it, not that it happened. We have no fundamental right to safety, to a life in which nothing painful ever happens. Yes, some of those events are horrible.

We worked with people who as young children were put in ovens to burn the devils out, were raped (by mothers as well as fathers), were beaten senseless. Others experienced subtler forms of abuse but just as damaging. M. Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie is a pretty good guide to that latter category. James Hillman, the former head of the Jung Institute in Switzerland, made a crucial point in his book, The Soul’s Code. It is not so much the trauma that is the problem but our stories about it.

Further, I would add, that it is not so much the trauma but how it was originally responded to that is the problem. The traumas can’t be undone, but they can become grist for the mill of becoming one’s self. Once blame (which is an essential part of the journey as is rage) is transcended, a different kind of life, one much more empowered, opens up.

To the four-year-old inside us, the statement that mommy had something wrong in her head doesn’t help us understand why we were beaten. But as Hillman explores in The Soul’s Code, understanding it in the context of the journey to the self does make sense. All of us are on a journey, an adventure, and just like the stories, bad things happen, but those bad things are often the keys to the powerful person we are meant to become. This kind of thinking alters the dynamic totally; it is crucial to the healing.

A final comment: We found that ultimately, for the most damaged people, bonding with wild landscapes was essential. There is an honesty there, a richness, that the neuro-atypical frequently must have for healing.

Matt: I love that statement about bad things being the keys to the powerful people we can become. This view is so diametrically opposed to the disease model of “schizophrenia.” And I understand that you did not focus on drugs in working through people’s problems, at least not for very long.

Now a question that may be useful to some readers: What are some other sources – books, videos, websites – you would refer people who have been diagnosed schizophrenic or their families to who want to learn a more hopeful approach to psychosis?

Stephen: The books I have mentioned, the works of Eric Berne, Jacqui Schiff’s The Cathexis Reader, the early neuro-linguistic programming books by Bandler and Grinder, any of Hillman’s popular works. I’ve been told that some of my books have helped, especially The Secret Teaching of Plants and Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm. A few seem to think Ensouling Language helpful.

Matt: Okay, cool. Now to go back to something I forgot. What do you think are the most common causal factors leading to severe emotional breakdowns? The NIMH says the cause of “schizophrenia” is unknown. We have already discussed that the arbitrary divisions between normal and abnormal are problematic. But do you agree that we don’t know what causes extreme states occurring at one time or another in a person’s life?

Stephen: Well, the NIMH doesn’t know, that’s obvious. The predicating factors are complex, more than I can go into here in any meaningful way. But just to touch surfaces… There are extreme moments in some childhoods that are life threatening. You might say that death becomes imminent. At that moment another part of the self takes over and begins to provide a protective function. At the same instant, neural perception capacity is highly enhanced… the more you perceive in the meaning field you are embedded within, the more opportunity you have for protective action. So, you get a combination of a highly suspicious part of the self combined with enhanced perception and both embedded within a child that has very little accurate information about the world, who is living inside a crazy family.

As well, we live in difficult times. The ecosystem in which we live, under the kind of pressure ecosystems are experiencing now, tends to put pressure on every life form there is to alter its neural functioning as a means of dealing with the problem. This is a complex discussion that I go into in the Plant Intelligence book. Nevertheless, genomes alter under ecological pressure, so do neural networks. The enhanced capacities that the neuro-atypical have are actually environmental innovations of long duration. In many older cultures they would be trained as specialists in that perception in order that it could be used for the community.

There are other factors in its expression, but some sort of pressure is always present. Psychotic breakdowns are important in many respects despite their painfulness, their scariness. They break apart old systems of belief at the foundation and force a re-evaluation of life, of one’s relation it, to the journey and the work that one is here to do.

Matt: These are good insights into how terrifying experiences can amplify the “protective functions” of defensive parts of the self along with heightening perceptive capacity. I want to highlight your statement that “the more you perceive in the meaning field you are embedded within, the more opportunity you have for protective action.”

When I experienced extreme states, I took this as my personal mission – to develop an alternative field of meanings to the one forced upon me by psychiatrists and the mental health system. That is why I studied the work of writers like Harold Searles, Vamik Volkan, Bryce Boyer, Otto Kernberg, Barry Duncan, and dozens of others who challenged the notion of biologically-caused “mental illnesses” and “medications” to treat them. I eventually came to the conclusion that “schizophrenia” as an inevitably lifelong illness was a bunch of bullshit and I didn’t need long-term drugs.

I would watch inspiring movies about rogue heroes operating on the fringes of society, eluding the clutches of oppressive authorities, triumphing via their adaptiveness, cunning, and risk-taking. And I became one of those rogues – I left my psychiatrist, tapered off all psych drugs, found an outpatient social worker who didn’t believe in the disease model, and went from there. I went on to run my own business, own my own house, become financially secure, be very fulfilled socially and so on.

I just share this example to show that people can use the strategies you suggest to good effect to escape the psychiatric system. Developing your own field of meanings really can work. As you said, it’s about what works versus what doesn’t.

Now, Paris Williams has been following our discussion and would like to add two questions.

Paris Williams: Hi Stephen. Given your own personal background, can you share some thoughts and experiences with regard to indigenous wisdom traditions and their support for people who go through such extreme states? I’ve found John Weir Perry’s work particularly inspiring and insightful (particularly his blending of indigenous and Jungian approaches), and wonder if you have heard of Perry’s work given your experience around the same time that Perry was working with R.D. Laing and running Diabasis House. And if so, can you give your thoughts on that kind of approach , i.e the Diabasis model?

Stephen: Hi Paris. Though I did read Laing I’m not aware of Perry’s work. As I mentioned, I do think that in many older cultures the view was different. I found the material in Eliade’s book Shamanism helpful, Joan Halifax’s Shamanic Voices, and despite the outrage about it, Castenada’s work. Most helpful was Manuel Cordova Rios’s Wizard of the Upper Amazon since his perceptual experiences in that book most closely matched my own.

My own work has been an attempt to blend some of the roots of older systems in the indigenous world with threads in the Western mindset that, while generally unknown, have never been totally abandoned. Schizophrenia, in most instances, is a type of spontaneous visionary experience that occurs in people who have no myth structure to explain it except a very inadequate Christianity and overly simplistic Western medical model.

In consequence there is a great deal of fear and inappropriate treatment. Looking at the ways older cultures worked with such emergences opens up avenues that have been abandoned in our culture… old superstitions that we have outgrown, we are told. But people didn’t suddenly become smart in 1946. These kinds of experiences have always been common in human communities; they did something different. We should, too.

Paris Williams: Thanks. You have written a lot about Gaia theory, and particularly about the way that much of the behaviour of individual species and organisms (which you say can ultimately be seen as mere manifestations of Gaia herself) can be more fully understood when considering that they are in direct service to the wellbeing of the broader collective organism, Gaia. Do you believe that the unusual behaviours, beliefs and perceptions of those typically diagnosed with schizophrenia also make more sense when embracing this perspective? And if so, can you give some examples and explain your thoughts on this further?

Stephen: Yes, I do. However, I just need to preface this by saying that despite the fact that Gaia, at least in some form, is generally accepted in most scientific circles, there is tremendous fighting going on as to what it means. There are deep Gaia proponents, which I am, shallow Gaia, and Earth Systems Science proponents who don’t like the term Gaia but now agree that the Earth acts like a living organism.

In essence, and in order, these proponents think Gaia is highly intelligent; isn’t intelligent by our definition but has what you might call an instinctive behavior that looks like intelligence; or is not intelligent at all. At their root the various types of Gaia proponents are arguing about human exceptionalism from one perspective or another. I don’t think humans are exceptional in any meaningful way. Shallow Gaia proponents, to overgeneralize, think that humans are a unique expression of Gaia as a higher form of intelligence, ESS proponents think humans are the only seriously intelligent life form on the planet. Period.

Deep Gaia proponents are in the minority and they continually run up against proponents of human exceptionalism. People really do want to believe they are special. I pretty firmly believe they are not, we are only a special instance of a general phenomenon and not so different than any other life form we might encounter, from bacteria to plants to elephants.

That being said, if you delve deeply into non-linearity and the self-organization of biological organisms, what you find pretty quickly is that there is no essential difference between form and behavior. That is, at the moment of self-organization, when a new life form spontaneously emerges out of the ecological background of the planet it immediately possesses two things, form and behavior. Neither can be predicted from an examination of its parts.

To Gaia, form and behavior are identical. Einstein postulated the energy/matter equation of E=mc[squared] but it is also true that in a very real sense, form and behavior are equivalents in a Gaian or ecological sense. A great many organisms, from bacteria to plants to salmon, can alter their physical form quite substantially when environmental pressures signal a need for adaptation to a new state of ecological expression. Life forms will also respond with the emergence of, sometimes, radically different behaviors when alterations in ecological functioning are detected.

It is crucial to understand that human beings are only a complex expression of bacteria in a unique form. They, like all life forms, are only expressed out of the ecological matrix of the planet to perform specific ecological functions. This doesn’t mean we are simply mechanistic expressions, as many reductionist scientists assert. We have a great deal of free will about how we carry those ecological functions out. But, make no mistake, we are ecological expressions embedded in an ecological matrix.

Part of the real failure of human psychological theory is that it is human-centric; it looks at people as if they exist in a vacuum. If extended outward at all, it may take in family or culture, but no major psychological theories see human beings through a primarily ecological lens. Oh, evolutionary psychologists may look at us as having interior aspects that came from our hominid ancestors but they still aren’t looking through a Gaian lens, seeing us as ecological expressions embedded within a matrix from which we can’t be removed.

In essence, if a psychological theory is not applicable to every life organism on the planet, it isn’t accurate or is only accurate in very limited circumstances. Gaia has innovated psychological structures over long time lines just as Gaia has innovated physical form over long time lines. Psychological structure, you might say, serves the expression of behaviors along a very complex range. When looking at species’ behavior as a whole, there are obvious patterns that begin to emerge.

Most scientists remain at very low observational levels when they do this; their preconceptions (and the need to get published) interfere with seeing outside their paradigm. But there are tremendous sophistications that occur across a large behavioral range in every species.

Getting back to your question, yes, the neural network functioning of the people commonly termed “schizophrenic” in the western world are unique behaviors that are emerging in response to Gaian/ecological pressures. A couple of other points to make before I can get to examples.

Gaia is tremendously compassionate toward the ecological expressions that are generated, but at the same time Gaia doesn’t have issues with death or suffering the way we currently do. Death is inherent in the system, suffering is inherent in the system. We are meant to biodegrade and that, always, involves suffering of one sort or another. Neither death nor suffering can be removed from the system.

Further, Gaia is marvelously redundant. When pressure is put on the Gaian system from an emerging problem, that pressure wave impacts the entire system and various parts of the system are stimulated to respond out of their own inherent genius. The parts begin to generate solutions. To successfully generate solutions, living organisms can’t remain frozen in past behavior patterns; they have to innovate.

Neural network alterations allow that kind of innovation to occur, for the organism to step outside traditional species and cultural behavior patterns. They can alter their physical form as a response, which many do, or they can alter behavior. Altering neural network functioning is an alteration of both form and behavior, but the real focus here is behavioral alteration.

The shifts in perception that occur among “schizophrenics” are, in nearly every case – though not all – in response to planetary needs and ecological demands. The greater the pressure, the more of them there are. This doesn’t mean that all the behavioral alterations will be successful; the person so afflicted has to find a way to make what is happening to them usable. Older cultures would spend a great deal of time training this group of people as a cultural resource. We don’t. We simply see it as abnormal and either medicate them or lock them up. The successful “schizophrenic” needs to learn how to blend in just as a matter of survival.

If you begin to look at many of the innovations in art, music, literature, technology, you begin to see that nearly all of it comes from people who are outside the norm. Their neural network functions differently and what they perceive from the world around them is quite different than what “normal” people perceive.

I quote these people quite extensively in my books. Some of them were quite well regarded in their time, people like Einstein and Luther Burbank. Burbank now, however, is very poorly thought of; his perspectives on the intelligence of plants is just too far outside the mainstream. Barbara McClintock is quite well regarded now but in her time was considered quite mad because her observations about corn genetics conflicted with too many long cherished assumptions about the world.

To look at this more broadly and to stay away from the famous as examples, there are broad movements of human beings that are difficult to explain, just as it is mathematically difficult to explain the movement of plant seeds and plant species through ecosystems. Paralleling the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria has been a similar rise in people becoming herbalists. Plants are, in the long run, much better interventions for resistant infections because plants are living beings. As the bacteria develop resistance, the plants counter it. Thus the plant antibacterial that I use this year is different than the one last year. Pharmaceuticals are static.

So, as antibiotics begin to fail, you see a parallel rise in people training to use a different form of medicine. It is a behavioral shift that is coming out of an alteration in neural net functioning. I spent years asking people who attended my lectures and workshops why they were spending years of time and thousands of dollars training in a field that is not actually legal to practice in the United States. The answer, in one form or another, was nearly always, “I don’t know, I just felt like I needed to.”

We know less than one percent of what goes on here, and that is about all we will ever know. We count grains of sand at the sea shore and think we know the ocean deeps. Tremendous humility is an essential quality in any scientist, but it in fact extremely rare to encounter. That hubris is going to be our undoing. We will be needing those who possess neural network flexibility in the years to come. Only they can see outside the system in which the Western world is stuck. The innovations we need as a species will come from outside, not within established institutions of old thinking patterns.

Matt: Fascinating insights, Stephen! So much to think about – thank you from both myself and Paris for your time in talking to us. I hope your emphasis on innovating, thinking freely, and following one’s own path will benefit other readers as much as it did us.


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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Matt Stevenson
Matt Stevenson is a American man with lived experience of extreme states. After recovering from challenges associated with multiple "severe" psychiatric diagnoses, he now works a normal job and is no longer involved with the mental health system. Via the psychiatric survivor underground, Matt speaks to suffering people about alternative ways of conceptualizing their distress, as well as about about paths to recovery outside the mainstream system. Any correspondence can be sent to [email protected].
Stephen Buhner
Stephen Harrod Buhner is an award-winning author of twenty books on nature, indigenous cultures, the environment, and herbal medicine. His work been profiled in publications throughout North America and Europe, including The New York Times, CNN, and Good Morning America. Stephen lectures yearly on herbal medicine, the sacredness of plants, the intelligence of Nature, and the states of mind necessary for successful habitation of Earth. He is a tireless advocate for the reincorporation of the exploratory artist, independent scholar, amateur naturalist, and citizen scientist in American society — especially as a counterweight to the influence of corporate science and technology.


  1. My wife has d.i.d. And as I have helped her thru the healing process and have been her primary guidance thru that journey, her disorder has taught me much about myself. I agree that we are all ‘multiples’ but I like to express the difference between her and me as “non-dissociated multiples” and “dissociated multiples” because the dissociation is so deeply hard-wired that it has complicated the healing process for her.

    So much of what you have expressed here is what I have discovered on our healing journey together. I worked hard to shield her from the therapeutic community and never let her be subjected to their drugs. Mostly I relied upon a thorough application of attachment theory as I helped each girl securely attach to myself and then begin the group integration process with the others.

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    • Hi Sam,
      Thanks for sharing your successful experience helping your wife; it’s great to hear that.
      From experience I agree that dissociated self-states can be worked with and integrated via understanding how they relate to internal mental schemas of people both past and present. In my view powerful negative emotions and fears are often underlying the persistence of dissociation (and the defense of splitting that maintains it).

      I would like to clarify one thing: I think dissociation occurs along a continuum without a precise boundary at which it is a “disorder” or not. What matters is how much does it interfere with or impair a person doing what they want to do, or living in the way they want. Also, the neural underpinnings of dissociation are real in altered brain chemistry – and the ways of relating may appear “hard wired” or fixed – but that does not mean these ways of being are not modifiable via creation of new circuits and alteration of existing ones. And of course, such processes are not a lifelong or incurable disease.

      And as Stephen said, “the more you perceive in the meaning field you are embedded within, the more opportunity you have for protective action.”

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      • Hi Matt,

        thanks for replying and your comments. I do agree that dissociation is along a continuum. In fact, the more I have helped my wife heal, the more I realize how so many of us are indeed dissociated to varying degrees in so much of our personalities.

        I guess, when I use the term ‘hard wired’ I don’t see that as ‘permanent.’ I have used the concept of neural plasticity to help overcome the dissociation between the various girls in my wife’s system and as they do daily tasks/activities that strengthen the neural pathways between them, the dissociation fades. But because the dissociation was present for so long (my wife is now 51) and nearly complete between 2 of the alters and the other 6, it feels like it is ‘hard’ even if technically it isn’t.


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  2. Thanks for this! I enjoyed hearing about suffering ADA part of life and learning tool. So much and so many things covered.
    It is so frustrating not to have a “Nothern Exposure” life where folks are unable to have both medical viewpoints available to them.
    I loved the scenes with the shaman on that show and would have loved to had access to that option early on
    It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware it was and is the walls of inaccessibility.
    So much dialogue possibilities if we all had open ears.
    Reading time!

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    • Hi Cat, thanks for your comment – did you mean “Northern” exposure or “Other” Exposure? I understood though that you are saying that many people only hear the medicalized/psychiatric brain disease model of extreme states, and do not get input about alternative or non-traditional medicinal approaches to these problems. I agree.

      I believe Stephen Buhner has been on some mainstream TV shows about shamanism/herbal healing too; but I will have a look for it on Youtube later.

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      • I like your joke!
        Yes we need many other exposures and my reference was not real but at least they had a shaman character and good writing
        My problem was that I was aware but had so many issues to deal with and my brain being altered that I could not use my knowledge base or even really access and so much of my base was just within me or I was too embattled to reach out to those who could have understood or helped out
        Even those who were somewhat aware really could only focus on medication
        The psychiatrists that I interacted with as a patient I found to be worthless
        So May in the field have either left or become one with the system

        Your article will allow so many new dialogues!

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  3. Interview was a breath of fresh air. MIA needs more mind-expanding material like this. I feel like I haven’t read anyone with interesting, original ideas in MIA for a LONG time. Funny, I was just reading about Hillman yesterday and he pops up here today. Synchronicity? I hadn’t known of Harrod-Buhner and will follow up on him. Thanks!
    Liz Sydney

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    • Hi Liz,
      Thank you for checking in. When Paris shared Buhner’s article about healing “schizophrenia” on the ISPS listserv, I thought it was strange but also interesting. Then after reading it carefully, I saw he had some idea what he was talking about, and I thought it’s important to bring alternative approaches to severe distress like his into the public eye – partly because they are in themselves interesting, and partly as a counter to the tired, monolithic, uncreative focus on biogenetic approaches to severe distress coming from most mainstream institutions and professionals. Buhner’s views are the type that some people would dismiss as “o” or “unscientific”, but a lot of laypeople love his work and find great use in it.

      Regarding the length and depth, this is a bit unrelated, but a while ago I read this 8,000 word article on Aeon: “Omens – When we peer into the fog of the deep future what do we see: Human extinction or a future among the stars?” ( https://aeon.co/essays/will-humans-be-around-in-a-billion-years-or-a-trillion )

      And after reading that and greatly enjoying it (as astronomy and futurist thinking are among my biggest interests), I noted to myself, “Yes, there is still value in long, depth, careful explorations of complicated topics, even in this world we have now of 24 hour news sound-bytes and 40 character twitter messages.” So I decided to focus my reading and writing more on in-depth explorations of complicated topics, and to try to cater to people who want more than a “TL:DR” summary (Too-long, don’t read – the Reddit term for a summary that allows one to avoid really delving into a complicated topic). Hopefully this length of article succeeds in engaging some people and penetrating to a depth that a shorter article or a Twitter note wouldn’t.

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  4. Great stuff here, Matt, thank for bringing it to the forefront. A lot to comment on, but for now, I will keep it brief.

    This really stood out to me:

    “Psychotic breakdowns are important in many respects despite their painfulness, their scariness. They break apart old systems of belief at the foundation and force a re-evaluation of life, of one’s relation it, to the journey and the work that one is here to do.”

    Yep. Perfection. I’d call it dark-night-of-the-soul. It’s how we see the light, by contrast–what many call “awakening.” Takes work, creativity, and trust in going way outside the box to unfamiliar territory and embracing the unknown–well worth it, imo. That was my experience, in any event.

    I believe this is happening on a global scale now. Old systems are breaking apart, having become so corrupt at this point. This is a necessary and unavoidable step in the process of healing, change, and transformation.

    Nice way to end the week, thanks again 🙂

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    • Hi Alex, thank you, and that is an interesting quote.

      Surprisingly, that is one of the few things I subjectively disagree with about what Buhner said. What I differ on is the supposed value of extreme states as generators of insight or “breakthroughs”. I see them primarily as negative experiences which communicate extremes of deprivation, unmet need, trauma, fear, etc (which is probably because that is how it was in my experience). In my opinion the positive version of these experiences would be better called something else to differentiate it, like mysticism, shamanism, enlightenment, spiritual awakening, etc. I know some people report having extreme states of mind that are positive or spiritual, however, and calling it psychosis, which again shows what a vague term psychosis is.

      Although to be balanced, this quote by Buhner is also ambivalent, and not in any way an unwavering endorsement of extreme experience – just a statement of one possible function of that experience.

      I agree that old systems are breaking apart, as shown with Brexit, Trump, etc.

      Alex, you might like this blog on the collapse of the political-economic status quo and how we can become more resilient despite it:


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      • The article itself is interesting, good initiative.


        I see them primarily as negative experiences which communicate extremes of deprivation, unmet need, trauma, fear, etc (which is probably because that is how it was in my experience).

        By using the word “them” you betray your continued implicit acceptance of non-existent categories. Human experience is infinite and each person’s experience is unique; while there may be similarities or shared characteristics in people’s behavior or experience, people’s experiences are not compatible with or subject to such “scientific” categorization. And in this case you are generalizing from your own experience as well.

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        • Hi Oldhead, I basically agree with you. Although, my thinking is coming out of conceptualizing distress and problems as existing along continua of severity at different times. But absolutely, there are not valid discrete scientific categories such as schizophrenia, or bipolar, etc – although distressed people do tend to have some functional problems, and to express their suffering in some similar ways, partly because we face many similar developmental challenges in relating and functioning growing up. Still, maybe I am putting too much focus on the “waves” of these continuums, even though I no longer really see them as particles, to use a physical metaphor.

          When I was saying that negative experiences strongly correlate with trauma and deprivation, I was thinking of John Read’s studies about the importance of trauma/neglect in contributing to distress actually. These are common causal factors in many people’s experience of struggle. But yes there are other causes too.

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    • I have no problem with exploring language as we wade through all of this, but I was going with what I understood to be the spirit of these words, which to me translates into the stages of radical change and transformation, in which a breakdown of the old is necessary, and this is met with all sorts of responses from different individuals. Change is easier for some than for others, depending on flexibility and grounding, I think. I believe it’s an internal process which translates into an external one, because it is universal.

      For me, personally, it fits the bill–having fallen into an “extreme state of being” while withdrawing from the psych drugs, which is what I’m referring to in my experience as the dark night of the soul. And then working through all of that systematically from a variety of angles–mind, body, and spirit–is what led to a new sense of self and personal reality for me, based on entirely different beliefs than what I was raised to believe, and that which mainstream society dictates and projects, via media and academic education. It’s quite a contrast in, both, feeling and perspective, and therefore, in my perception of reality, as well as my experience of life. Much, much better now, major relief, expansion, creativity, and freedom to be, in this realm.

      Thanks for the link, very interesting! This is actually precisely my area of focus in my life’s work. I have a group now in which we are specifically working with this shift in reality. We call it The Healing Academy for the Performing Arts, where we work with principles of energy and creativity in order to manifest that which brings light to the planet. I’m working presently with a social service agency that wants to learn these new ideas and how to apply them to their services; and we’re also a band, bringing music to senior communities.

      And in the process, we’re expanding our awareness and raising our energy. It’s all based on what I learned and applied in order to come out of that dense state of being, brought on by my experiences in the mental health system.

      So much to explore, learn, and discover here. Personally, I think this is the game-changer. At least for me, it has been.

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  5. Thanks a lot for the brilliant Article.

    I’ll have to read it again and again to make full sense of it. When I learnt in Buddhism that no one person was (very) ‘special’ I was very disappointed but I’ve experienced great peace from this since.

    The article also mentions ‘lengthy time frames necessary’ – I don’t completely agree with this, because I’ve seen people recover very quickly with a little decent help.

    (Thanks again – its great to see solutions being discussed and analysed on Mad in America).

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    • Fiachra,
      Always good to hear from you and thanks for the comment.

      I agree, long timeframes are not always necessary for “recovery” (recovery being a vague term depending on one’s perspective and what a person wants). But I think that just as extreme states of mind occur along a continuum or spectrum of severity, so we can see that both the intensity (frequency) and duration of help needed to move a person to a desired better way of being is likely to vary – the time necessary being longer when the initial problems are more severe or when the help is not so high quality or is infrequent, and less long when the problems are not so bad to start with or the help is highly skilled/attuned and intensive. This is very general but you will probably see my point.

      The “no one person’s very special” comment entertained me, because I follow UFC (mixed martial arts) and saw Conor McGregor’s recent comment: “It’s hard to be humble when you’re the best.” – http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2676314-conor-mcgregor-rules-10-outrageous-quotes-and-moments-from-2016/page/9

      That made me laugh, because apparently Conor has not come to a Buddhist enlightenment yet. I admit that his quote also sounds like something I would have said when I was younger 🙂

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    • “When I learnt in Buddhism that no one person was (very) ‘special’ I was very disappointed…”

      Fiachra, this made me think of a quote I love by Marianne Williamson. I guess in one respect, no one is “special,” above and beyond anyone else; and the flip side is that we’re all special, in that we are all uniquely gifted, one way or another, so why not own it and enjoy it, as we share it, for the benefit of the greater good? And, encourage it in others…

      “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

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  6. Loved the interview, Matt, and I assume I have your permission to post it on my blog with a link back to it at MIA? What I think parents need to hear more of, is what is said in the interview which I’ll paraphase thus: that recovery is to be expected if you keep your attention focused on it long enough. This interview was filled with these kind of gems. One of my favourites is when Buhner talks about even the worst cases becoming your average neurotic in time, and of course, many will go on to becoming weller than well. I say this to my son every so often, that he should feel terrific about the fact that he’s now merely “neurotic.” – But don’t stop there, I also say. You’re on your way to becoming a full-blown interesting, contributing member of this planet.
    Happy New Year to all,
    Rossa (www.rossaforbes.com)

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    • Rossa,
      For sure you can always repost stuff like this if you want.
      I agree with and like this sentiment: “Recovery is to be expected if you keep your attention focused on it long enough.”
      When I was getting better I repeatedly promised myself and predicted that I would do certain things, like getting jobs, buying a house, finding a good therapist, stopping being afraid of certain diagnoses, etc. And over time I did all these things – I think it was partly because I believed I could do it and thus was more likely to take certain actions and adopt certain attitudes that led to those outcomes. The power of positive thinking.

      Am glad to hear your son has been and continues to make progress from where he started.

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  7. Hi there
    Perhaps a bit dull compared to the other comments, but: Does anybody have a reference for the Goethe-quote:

    “Stephen: People are people; there isn’t anything that is abnormal. As the great German poet Goethe once put it, “If you want to understand the abnormal, assume it is normal.” Once you do that, things begin to fall into place rather quickly.”

    I’ve tried different permutations on Google, but no luck. Links to other thinking with the same take on normal-abnormal would also be very welcome! It’s interesting – I think – because the opposite mechanism often is in place: If something is strange, assume it is abnormal and look for a mechanism to explain it.

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    • Jonathan,
      I did a quick search too and I don’t find it. It could be a misquote or misattribution. Or Goethe could have some something similar but slightly different, and Buhner misremembered the wording. Anyway it looks like Goethe didn’t say exactly that quote. But I think it’s the idea that important, and Buhner was probably something to that effect that he read in Goethe. It’s the idea that seemingly strange things make sense or are normal when viewed in terms of what the person is responding too that we are initially unaware of.

      If you want, you could contact Stephen Buhner via email to ask him (his email is listed in on the site gaianstudies.org, I think, or I have it backchannel).

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  8. 1. Thank you for this excellent post and the links.

    2. Thank you for blue vervain.

    3. I refer to psychiatrists as ‘People of the Lie’ – they almost killed me.

    4. I’m an empath with extreme subtle energy sensitivity.

    5. I have precognitive dreams (very accurate, often involving death for others) and am very stressed by them.

    6. I occasionally hear voices – bilingual, informative, warning – never destructive.

    7. I can go into trance states and see what someone needs to heal – IT IS NEVER A PSYCHIATRIC DRUG. During my first trance state (drumming) I saw a figure in white coming toward me with an armful of flowers – a voice said they were for a friend. Up close the flowers were red clover. I have no experience with herbs but I did buy my friend a tincture. It took care of her menopausal symptoms.

    8. I once took a benzodiazepine under conditions of extreme exhaustion, caregiver stress and sleeplessness. I had ‘seen’ my mother’s death. She died three weeks later. I stopped the benzo – cold-turkey – and got the shakes. Those shakes were considered to be agitated depression and I was convinced to take an antidepressant. Things went downhill from there. In less than eight months I was given 30 different drugs, labeled with almost every condition in the DSM, forcibly hospitalized for 2 1/2 months, and forced to have 25 rounds of bilateral electroconvulsive therapy. I was told I was demented and psychotic, would be on pharmaceuticals for the rest of my life, and would be receiving weekly ECT for the rest of my life. And, I would not be going home, I would be going to an institution. I attended a support group. Each person had a different diagnosis but all were shuffling or tapping their feet. A pharmacist came to speak to the group. I asked about the foot movements. She said it was a drug side-effect – AKATHISIA. I left the room immediately, never returned for maintenance ECT, and tapered myself off the multitude of drugs I was on. The taper was horrific. I had been medicated to insanity because no one recognized akathisia. I never had agitated depression.

    9. I have 600 pages of medical notes and will be publishing some of them. I was ridiculed and mocked by at least a dozen psychiatrists and several social workers for ‘thinking’ I ‘saw’ things. When I tried to get help for withdrawing from drugs, seven psychiatrists refused to see me. Cowards.

    10. I met an elderly clairvoyant. He bellowed in rage: “What the hell happened to you? You were a totally healthy person and doctors have turned you into a piece of shit. There are nine holes in your energy field – all caused by pharmaceuticals. Your doctors should be jailed.” “You are much disintegrated.” He told me I could help people by telling my story.

    11. A very well-known healer and clairvoyant told me I had a beautiful energy field (thank God) but I look as if I ‘have been shocked’. So the result of ECT is visible to those who can ‘see’.

    12. I lost 25 years of memory. My boundaries were destroyed by ECT. It’s much more difficult to be around people and in a constant ‘pick-up’ state. I am not alone in this – many many shock survivors/experiencers are in the same situation but don’t realize why they feel horrible.

    13. And the women incarcerated with me and receiving ECT? What was wrong with them? A clairvoyant/intuitive look: thyroid problems, an inner ear problem, a kidney not filtering properly, a toxic chemical exposure (handling chemo agents), gluten intolerance – all good reasons for psychiatrists to ply them with antidepressants and then to shock them. Three are now dead. I will tell their stories.

    14. I’m still struggling – its been 13 years. I am caregiver to my husband whose heart reacted (similar to Carrie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds) when told I was demented and never coming home.

    15. I have attended groups for voice-hearers – many are psychically open and don’t know it. Many are brilliant. Most are being drugged.

    16. I study. I write about nutrition and genetics. I promote orthomolecular medicine and energy psychology. I write about the work of Canadian orthomolecular psychiatrist Abram Hoffer who treated more than 5000 ‘schizophrenics’ with micronutrients and not pharmaceuticals. His new patients often cried when he asked them what they were going to do when they were well. No one had ever told them they could get well. They got the idea. I need to stay anonymous until I get my book finished. It’s a spiritual book with one very ugly chapter – ‘Iatrogenic Insanity’ .

    17. Drugs don’t heal people. People heal people. I hope soon to be able to support people having exceptional experiences and extreme states.

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    • Not familiar enough with the Seth material to comment. Seems solid. Seems to be the same conclusions people come to generally after many years of study. I understand that Jane Roberts gave many free Seth sessions to people who asked for help.

      I will not only be writing about the nonsense psychiatrists spoke, but also the nonsense that came out of the mouths of many mediums/channels. And the $$$$$$s charged. I was desperate at times.

      Here’s a segment from a July 2006 Time magazine article by Stephan Faris: “Take, for example, Yahaya Sekagya. Like Okello, his history was shaped by medical trauma. As a teenager he was consigned to a mental hospital for visions he says were calling him to traditional medicine. “It was misdiagnosed and misunderstood by Western medicine,” says Sekagya, 43. Although he ended up going to medical school–more out of contrariness than conviction–he also spent six years studying at a medicine man’s shrine. Now he’s the director of the Ugandan chapter of Prometra, a Senegal-based advocacy group promoting traditional medicine. Sekagya runs an outdoor school in a forest south of Kampala. About 100 students gather weekly under a leafy canopy. Instructors line up herbs on a thin wooden table cut from a single log. Along with the basics of hygiene and anatomy, students learn the identification and uses of local plants. Meanwhile, spiritualists chant, dance and drum to call down spirits and consult them for cures.

      While Sekagya concedes that modern medicine is better at blood transfusions, rehydration and aligning compound fractures, he insists that traditional ways should not be dismissed simply because they are not understood. “A Western yardstick is the wrong yardstick to regulate traditional medicine,” he says.

      He is also worried that expensive modern medicines may be smothering local knowledge, leaving the country dependent on foreign drugs and funding. “ARVs are not curing AIDS. They are improving the quality of life,” Sekagya says. “Some traditional practices are doing the same. What attention are we giving to that? And if we come with ARVS and flood the whole system, will we lose those traditions?” ”

      I met Sekagya at an AIDS conference some years ago when I was promoting the work of Canadian medical geographer Harold Foster who was reversing the symptoms of AIDS with micronutrients and not pharmaceuticals. People could be freed from their medical cocktails. Foster could not get a clinical trial in Canada and died before we could set up a trial with Sekagya and his colleagues.

      There is much I would like to do but my time is limited by care giving to my husband who is also a victim of psychiatry – broken-hearted from watching me being ‘treated.’

      Thank you oldhead for reading my comment – at least one person did.

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      • Hi amnesia,
        I also read your comments – and thank you for coming in. I just didn’t get back right away because your comments came after the article was first posted.

        Anyway, I wish you the best with your husband and particularly liked this part of what you said:

        “Drugs don’t heal people. People heal people. I hope soon to be able to support people having exceptional experiences and extreme states.”

        I agree with this idea and hope you will be able to help other people heal soon.

        Thank you for coming in.

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  9. You are still talking as though mental illness is real. Maybe not schizophrenia, but these extreme states, you are still looking at them as something to be Healed or Recovered from. So I cannot go along with you or your article.

    The way through ordeals is forwards, not backwards. Healing and Recovery are attempts to avoid and deny, by moving backwards.



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  10. I found some of the points helpful in this article particularly around challenging the biomedical paradigm when it comes to ‘schizophrenia’, ‘psychotic’ experiences and how we define and draw meaning from altered states of consciousness. I believe that exploring what these experiences mean through open enquiry and ‘I don’t know but am willing to explore’ mentality is a useful way to discover their significance. I’m not sure about promoting the idea that some people who have experienced altered states may be more in tune or sensitive to stimuli in their environment. Their experiences may be different but I don’t believe that there is enough evidence (both scientifically and at an experiential level) to assert that people who experience altered states are different from the rest of humanity or somehow special. There is lack of support for any genetic link for ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘psychosis’ and most evidence suggests that environmental circumstances are the most likely factor that contribute to experiencing altered states (check out Dr John Read on YouTube for an insight into the trauma/altered states link). This suggests that increased emotional or sensory sensitivity, particularly in relation to human interaction, develops mainly as a result of experience. I would suggest that this is an adaptive strategy as it makes sense that sensory awareness becomes more heighten due to the potential for negative consequences, e.g. a repeat of trauma. If you do not become alert to the threats, particularly from people, in your environment after experiencing trauma this seems like a maladaptive coping mechanism. Although it could also be argued that becoming desensitised to your environment or experiences, (maybe ‘disassociating’ or escaping your sensations) particularly if you are experiencing ongoing abuse is a useful (particularly short term) strategy as well. My point here is that becoming more sensitive to stimuli could be a reaction to circumstances and a useful one as well.

    Stephen suggests that heightened sensitivity, e.g. being ‘highly susceptible to the subtle meanings they encountered’, is a characteristic of ‘neuro-atypical’ people. The idea that there are ‘neuro-atypical’ and ‘neuro-typical’ people refocuses our attention on brain differences rather than paying more attention to the adaptiveness and usefulness of heightened sensitivity particularly when there has been periods of trauma in your life. It verges on reinforcing the idea that there is an ‘us’ (people who identify as people who have experienced altered states of consciousness) and ‘them’ (people who haven’t experienced this, aren’t aware of experiencing altered states of consciousness or don’t identify with that experience) are just born with different sensitivities to/ways of processing information in the world. Also I don’t agree with the statement that ‘It is not so much the trauma that is the problem but our stories about it’. It bloody matters that it happened. This is as good as saying it’s all ‘mind over matter’. Our stories about experiences AND our actual experiences matter and personally, I think the actual events (the truth as far as we can tell) are more important than our narratives about them.

    So that’s first, but also I feel that Stephen’s approach also risks throwing the baby out with the bath water when he is very critical of ‘Western’ culture (however that is defined, I presume this would be in relation the societies/cultures of North America, Oz, NZ and Western Europe) and science and scientists. Right, Western society is far from perfect but it also has loads going for it, e.g. the promotion and upholding of universal human rights, the promotion and upholding of liberal values, strong secular democracies, strong safety nets and welfare systems (more so in Western Europe I think) freedom of speech and expression laws, the freedom to be a bloody individual and express yourself in whatever manner you choose with the ultimate restrictions being that you abide by universal human rights. I know life can be and can feel hard in Western societies (I’m born in Ireland, have lived in England and currently live in New Zealand) and life does shit on you at times and we are still working on those safety nets but tell that to someone who has grown up in a society where they don’t promote or protect human rights, restrict freedom of speech and your ability to be an individual and which don’t have any government safety nets so the only ‘safety’ you have is to return to the group who may be causing you the problems in your life in the first place. It seems like Stephen is calling for an embracing and return to ‘older cultures’ and that we should return to older styles of how we used to do things, e.g. ‘Older cultures would spend a great deal of time training this group of people as a cultural resource’. There may be some truth in this when it comes to demedicalising emotional/psychological distress and I realise the outcomes for people diagnosed with ‘schizophrenia’ in places like Nigeria are so much better than in the U.S. In the West we really have it wrong when it comes to our treatment and medicalisation of emotional/psychological distress and how we have allowed Big Pharma and psychiatry dictate and sell us this mdoel but we’ve got so many other things right and look at us now communicating across the oceans right now because we have the opportunity, time, space and resources to do so. The cynicism towards new cultures, e.g. Western societies, and the romanticising of older cultures can be dangerous and damaging especially when it comes to progress. (Check out ‘The Culture Cult’ by Robert Sandall for a description of this). I think that in Western societies we are beginning to wake up to the realities of the dysfunctioning way we have medicalised psychological and emotional distress and I think the tide will turn to better ways and approaches especially with the efforts by people who are beginning to wake up across the Western world. Don’t give up on ‘Western’ culture yet (which I think ideally stands for truly secular and liberal democracies, a commitment to human rights, a celebration of the individual and a strong safety net to protect people from the misfortunes and trauma that life can bring – Check out Professor of Clinical Psychology, Dr Jordan Peterson on YouTube for a enlightened and passionate defence of what the West stands for). Also I do not agree that in Western societies that ‘the entire therapeutic process, in nearly every instance, is to make them fit in whether through use of drugs or not’ or that ‘All that the person’s community and family want is for them to not trouble them – they want them to be like everyone else, to fit in.’ For me, this is a very cynical view of society and people’s (therapists, people who take on helping roles) and family’s intentions. This is far from everyone’s experience and families and therapists (from my experience) can and do encourage people to truly embrace their individuality despite other forces telling you to fit in.

    Also I don’t agree with Stephen’s heavy criticism of science and scientists. Yes, scientists can’t give us all the answers and humility is important in this regard but the scientific method and scientists who follow that method can produce and enlighten us with reliable knowledge. What we do with that knowledge is then up to us and will require the study of other areas of life, e.g. philosophy/religion, art, poetry, music, numerous other disciplines along with our experiential learning. To propose that ‘Earth System Science proponents think humans are the only seriously intelligent life form on the planet. Period’ is an unfair and very speculative view on these people as I know ecologists and other environmental scientists who while they don’t fully endorse the Gaia hypothesis are very open to the idea that other species are very intelligent life forms. Also I am saddened by the statement, ‘Tremendous humility is an essential quality in any scientist, but in fact extremely rare to encounter’ and the fact that no one has followed up or criticised this comment. What about Dr John Read, Dr Peter Gotzsche, Prof David Healy, Dr Joanna Moncrieff, Dr Sandra Steingaard, Dr Bruce Levine, Dr Phil Hickey, Robert Whitaker, Dr Carina Hakansson, Dr Olga Runciman, Dr Jaakko Seikulla, (who I’d say are happy to say they are scientists or at least proud advocates of the scientific method) to name but a few. These guys strike me as pretty humble and anyway what’s the obsession with appearing humble. If you are confident in your beliefs/knowledge you have available why not express yourself confidently. If people see you as arrogant but your information/knowledge is helpful, beneficial or reliable let people think what they will of you as it is the information that is most important.

    Stephen may be doing some great work and his approach may be of huge benefit to some people but I’m not convinced as I don’t think a lot of it will be helpful and as a fan of evidence to help show effectiveness I’d like to see this before drawing any firm conclusions. Also I agree with Stephen that essentially there is no such thing as ‘normal’ in that it is a social construction for judging or measuring behaviour or aspects of our world. I can see where it can cause problems if we are overly rigid in what we perceive as ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ but I also think that it is a very useful and helpful concept to have as well as it helps to decipher problems in our world, e.g. blood tests, what healthy functioning of the heart/lungs/brain/kidneys looks like, that it is normal that the sun rises in the morning and the day has 24 hours in it. It helps us to keep some track on what is ‘normal’ and what we can expect to happen and gives our world some sense of order which I feel is necessary for some sort of peaceful existence as to live in absolute chaos/disorder does not seem, to me, to be a peaceful or beneficial way to exist either. Maybe it’s the balance between chaos and order that we need to live a fulfilling and meaningful live and I think having some sense of normality that is not too rigid can be a helpful part of this. (Prof Jordan Peterson speaks about this as well and has done more thinking about and research into this area than I have)

    So hey, this is my first post on MIA. I have been reading articles on here for a while. It has been truly enlightening and has helped me understand psychological/emotional distress on a much better and broader. This is particularly helpful in my current role as a peer support worker. I have posted this detailed comment for two reasons mainly. One to combat what I see as the cynicism towards Western culture and the other to defend the scientific method and scientists. I’m proud and lucky to have been born into and grown up in a Western society (with all the shit that life throws at you in the process) and have been given the opportunities and chances I have been given. There is always work to do and it’s far from perfect (it’s pretty tricky developing a society that promotes individual freedom and liberty while also promoting individual and social responsibility and from my experiences we aren’t doing too bad in Western societies) and it’s our job to take on that challenge to see if we can make it better for ourselves, our families, communities, societies and our world. I feel that the scientific method is a really useful tool for establishing and gaining reliable knowledge. It can help tell us what ourselves and the world is made of and what relationship (if any) certain forces have with each other. It won’t tell us all we need to know and it is very difficult for science to tell us how to act in the world and that’s why we need other regions of knowledge, e.g. philosophy/religion, to guide us. Maybe psychiatry has helped to corrupt people’s views on science because of its claims about being a ‘science’ and using ‘evidence’ to justify its systematic abuse. However I don’t think psychiatry is even a science and it does not adhere to the scientific method. Thomas Szasz wrote the book, ‘Psychiatry: the science of lies’. I would go further and call it ‘Psychiatry: the pseudoscience of lies’. Great work is being done by scientists through adherence to the scientific method and I think that we should continue to work together with noble scientists and use the scientific method to help understand what is going on in our world rather than lambast science and scientists because psychiatry used an association with science to its advantage.

    Thanks for putting this piece together, Matt, Stephen and Paris. While I may not agree with a lot of what was posted in the article it was great to read it to see what other perspectives are out there and it prompted me to post for my first comment.

    Good luck to all on their journey and their attempts to find ways to operate in this complex thing we call ‘life’,

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    • Martin,

      This is an excellent comment and some of the most deeply thoughtful musings I have seen in an MIA comment; well done.

      Let me respond to a few things you said that I found interesting.

      I think you are correct that, “This suggests that increased emotional or sensory sensitivity, particularly in relation to human interaction, develops mainly as a result of experience.

      I would suggest this increased sensitivity to negative stimuli is paired with a decreased sensitivity or receptiveness to positive / “good” stimuli, or toward trustworthy relationships. You might like my article here that explains the Fairbairnian approach as to why traumatized people tend to not notice or internalize good stimuli, but to have a heightened attunement to anything “bad”:


      You are probably correct that this strategy is evolutionarily adaptive, at least at first. However, it then becomes a problem in later life as we know.

      I agree that that invented categories of neuro-atypical and neurotypical do not represent divisions in reality, being more like symbolic ideas. I also saw a conflict between that idea and Stephen’s insistence on the other hand that there is no such thing as “normal”. It shows how sometimes we can think in different compartments in our minds in conflicting ways that wouldn’t make sense if we compared them directly.

      The trauma does matter, of course. The trauma is important on its own and its severity and nature directly affects how we think about it. I agree, the actual events – and whatever resilience we have beforehand to help us process the actual events – are more important than whatever we may tell ourselves later.

      Also agree that Western culture is not all bad. I have been reading some contrarian books recently which are relevant to this issue, by Matt Ridley (the Rational Optimist) and Peter Diamandis (Abundance) which talk about the benefits of technological development in capitalistic democracies. I read these as a counterbalance to the constant pessimism about development and technology which seems to permeate our society. I think these optimistic books have good points. Life now is much easier and less filled with suffering in many ways than for people who lived to an average 35 years old at most and had no medical care or leisure time centuries ago.

      The US is a particularly bad example of mismanagement of healthcare dollars and faulty narratives about the nature of emotional suffering. It has a bizarre inversion where many of the most distressed people are subject to the worst treatments (far too many drugs, no therapy), whereas in poorer cultures such people are given more social-emotional support, are less stigmatized, and are not overdrugged. The harms of unrestrained capitalism and economic inequality show up clearly in how American corporations and wealthy people exploit and mistreat “the mentally ill”.

      I like Jordan Peterson’s work and how honest and forthright he is. I watched his Youtube videos. I hope Canada doesn’t start legislating what people have to say about other’s first names. I would never do that.

      I think this statement, “the entire therapeutic process, in nearly every instance, is to make them fit in whether through use of drugs or not’ by Buhner is pretty accurate. At least in America. There is really no interest in listening to people labeled bipolar or schizophrenic here, and every interest in shutting them up as quickly as possible with drugs. Your point about the family though is correct – many families want something different and better. And they are starting to become aware that the “brain disease having to be drugged” narrative is unscientific and limited.

      Regarding a critique of the scientific method you might like this:


      The problem with Western science as applied to psychology it that it has run into the ground in its failure to establish valid diagnoses and its failure to realize that its categories are subjective, not objective. As Holzman discusses.

      The scientific method when it comes to psychiatry and psychology is a sham. They are not real sciences. I’m going to repeat here a quote you may have seen me make elsewhere, from Jan Smedslund, about why “Psychology Cannot Be An Empirical Science”:

      ““The main conclusion to be drawn from irreversibility is that empirical research in psychology… can only be seen as mapping temporarily stable statistical tendencies at the aggregate level. These mappings must be evaluated on pragmatic grounds, i.e. as yielding possibly useful knowledge in limited domains for a limited time…The regularity that is nevertheless observed cannot be taken to reflect permanent laws, but only temporarily stable feedback-loops. These are like whirls in a stream which are stable only as long as the total flow of water does not vary and the stones on the bottom maintain their positions… The findings in psychological journals may superficially appear to be of the same order as those reported in physics or chemistry and, hence, psychology may superficially look like an empirical and accumulative science. The conditional and transient nature of psychological findings is rarely acknowledged, perhaps because the publication and preservation of empirical findings will then appear unjustified since they cannot be taken to be useful in the future. The scarcity of attempted replications also allows psychologists to avoid thinking about this problem.” (from “Why Psychology Cannot be an Empirical Science”)

      I think this is so important to appreciate; the difference between real experiments and a lot of the quasi-experimental trash based on invented diagnoses that research psychiatrists put out. As John Read said, any real field of medicine would dismiss such disjunctive diagnoses in a heartbeat. As the NIMH already has. Only problem is, no real diagnoses are coming to psychiatry anytime soon – or probably ever.

      Ok, I see now you think the same as me – psychiatry is not a real science but a perversion of science. Indeed.

      And I agree, appearing humble is not everything. If one is good at what one does, why be inhibited about that, say it with a touch of confidence or even playful swagger. That’s how I am with what I do and say. As Conor McGregor said, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re the best.”

      Thanks again for your careful thoughts.

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  11. Thanks Matt, your feedback is appreciated,

    I’d like to reply to a few of your comments:

    I see that we agree on most areas. I can see how people could be more attuned to anything ‘bad’ and how this links to attachment theory and our understanding of relationships and our expectations of how people will relate to us. I also noted your point on the current mental health system in the US. I’m not so sure New Zealand is a million miles away from there as it is another country that allows direct to consumer pharmaceutical advertising and where Big Pharma and psychiatry are partners selling ‘mental illness’ for their mutual benefit. There is a huge amount of overdrugging here as well and it has become the first and only line of treatment in many cases. I know that there are a few progressive psychiatrists about, it’s just finding them which can be difficult.

    I would say that I trust the field of psychology far more than I trust the field of psychiatry. This may be due to my own education in psychology and perhaps I am biased but I do feel that it hasn’t been taken over by the biomedical model to the extent that psychiatry has. That said some psychological associations and psychologists have gone for the ride on the coattails of psychiatry over the last 40 to 50 years and in my eyes that has tarnished its reputation as a reputable scientific and ethical discipline. It does seem that some organisations such as the British Psychological Society (BPS) are getting behind new and progressive approaches, e.g. the BPS president supporting and promoting the Open Dialogue approach, and then you see the likes of the British psychologists, Prof John Read (who you mentioned), Dr Philip Hickey and Dr Gary Sidley, speaking out against psychiatry and its unscientific practices but I’m not sure if they represent a small minority or a larger size in the British psychological services. Maybe psychology has tarnished its reputation so much in the US that it deserves its criticisms and to be treated with extreme caution as outlined by Holzman. However I feel some of her criticisms are unjustified.

    Holzman seems to criticise psychology for labelling, testing, categorising our mental activity and behaviors and having ‘profound disinterest in its own history’. While I’m skeptical about labelling, testing and categorising I don’t have any real problem with them as long as these are fair, accurate and beneficial for my wellbeing and my ability to operate in the world and make sense of my experiences. I agree with Holzman that psychology can be used as a system of control, can narrow the realms of what is seen as acceptable or appropriate and that a desperation to know can lead to wrong assumptions. However psychology can be and is used for helping to identify cause and effect when it comes to distress/suffering and helping to understand and predict patterns of behaviour. Holzman also criticises the use of ‘normal’ development. Again as I stated in my previous reply expanding the range of what we deem as ‘normal’ would be useful but I don’t think the concept of ‘normal’ will ever disappear or become redundant as it’s central to having some level of predictability and stability in a world that is consistently changing from moment to moment. I also studied Psychology in the UK and one of the mandatory modules was ‘Historical and Conceptual Issues in Psychology’ so I don’t really think that the discipline has a ‘profound disinterest in its own history’. Holzman seems to indicate that psychology has had a profound negative impact on US society. I feel that it is not the discipline itself that is flawed or that trying to use scientific methods to contribute to our understanding the human mind and behaviour is flawed but rather that as humans we have the capacity to use some of the greatest tools and knowledge we have for unethical ends. I agree that psychology will probably never have the same scientific standing as physics and chemistry in terms of hard sciences but I don’t think that it means that it should follow a different path than adhering to the scientific method. This lack of similarity to physics and chemistry does not stop us using the reliable knowledge gathered by those working in the field of psychology to help us make sense of distress, identify what may or may not be causing it and highlight some potentially beneficial ways of lessening the distress we experience. If the profession decides to continuously go along with and profit from the biomedical approach to distress and doesn’t stand up to and challenge the profession of psychiatry well then it’s probably worth abandoning it and calling it out as a sham scientific discipline and an unethical and unhelpful profession. I still have some confidence in the discipline of psychology and its usefulness but I can see that it does have a bit of work to redeem itself and its reputation.

    Yeah I think that is important to stay humble but not appearing so. There are enough people virtue signalling in today’s world that it would be hard to compete with anyway 🙂

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    • Hi Martin,

      You obviously think deeply about these things – that must help you in figuring out ways to understand and help your clients. It might also make you a good MIA author – consider that!

      Regarding New Zealand, perhaps you saw Paris Williams’ critique of the psychiatric system there (he lives there too as you may know):



      I agree there are a lot of good insights and ways to understand and help people that have come out of, and still come out of the field of psychology. I differ from some other MIA commenters in having that position in agreements with yours.

      My favorite field-area of psychology is the developmental object-relations psychoanalytic area. You may know the authors like Freud, Jung, Klein, Fairbairn, Sullivan, Kernberg, Rinsley, Masterson, Adler, Searles, Volkan, Boyer, Grotstein, etc. There’s a rich tradition there of doing really good work to help people with all kinds of trauma. And the conceptual models they have of early developmental states (a psychological alternative to the disease model of “schizophrenia” etc) is really good in my opinion.

      The British Psychological Society is doing good stuff. If you like the critiques of these authors, you might also like the critiques of the system of American psychiatrists Jonathan Shedler and Barry Duncan. You can find a lot of their papers on Google. Duncan wrote a good book called “The Heroic Client”. And Shedler has some great criticism of CBT and the flaws in “evidence based” therapy on his website – http://jonathanshedler.com/writings/

      Also see re: Duncan – https://heartandsoulofchange.com/content/resources/viewer.php?resource=article&id=94

      I agree with you – if a treatment works to help someone in their experience, it doesn’t matter that much what method arrived at it.

      I would say that psychological research is not as reliable as people think. I encourage you to check out the whole of Smedslund’s essay “Why Psychology Cannot Be An Empirical Science.” If you cannot find it email me and I have a copy (bpdtransformation (at) gmail (dot) com). I also think Brian Nosek’s work about how psychology has not replicated a high proportion of experiements is instructive.

      Martin one more thing you really might like – Paris Williams has a 25 page paper he hasn’t published yet about the positivistic (mechanistic/Newtonian) approach to psychology versus the relational / subjective-qualitative approach to psychology. He would probably share it with you if you emailed him. He is at pariswilliamsphd (at) gmail (dot) com.

      Martin if you like discussing these things also consider joining http://www.isps.org – a lot of these discussions are going on there on the listserv – http://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/isps-int. Maybe you are already a member.

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  12. Hi Matt,

    I won’t get into another long discussion here. I’ll check out the discussion groups to explore more. It seems we are talking more about reliability of knowledge/information here. I agree that the profession of psychology and the information coming from here needs to be treated with scepticism and caution as it has its flaws, has engaged in systematic unethical practices and is still too cosy with psychiatry and the biomedical model. In saying that I don’t think it has tarnished its scientific or ethical standing as much as psychiatry has. I would recommend people visiting a psychologist (given no other information about the ‘professional’) before I would recommend a visit to a psychiatrist (which in the current environment I wouldn’t recommend unless I had reliable information that the psychiatrist was progressive, holistic and took a drug-oriented rather than a disease-oriented approach to suffering and distress). There is the potential for damage and misinformation from visiting a psychologist and this needs to be acknowledged compared to not visiting any ‘professional’. If the profession of psychology does distance itself from psychiatry (like I think the British Psychological Society is doing) it might be able to redeem itself and its standing. Psychology and psychiatry are often linked and people don’t make a distinction so much between the two. Previously I thought that was because people were confused about what these professionals did. I now see that it’s because they work together so much, talk similar languages, e.g. obsession with diagnosis/assessments, and can be involved in coercive and unethical practices. For me, the profession of psychology and psychologists need to keep make consistent efforts to make a stand against the nonsense and non-science of psychiatry and its unethical practices and not just tag along for the ride. Otherwise I can’t see the point of encouraging people to check out or chat with these ‘professionals’ (without any knowledge about the actual ‘professional’).

    I think psychology and psychologists can still offer a lot and may be a great source of support for establishing insights into cause and effect and promoting alternative approaches (e.g. John Read and his research on ECT and the trauma/’psychosis’ link and the Open Dialogue approach developed and researched by Jaakko Seikkulla) but I can see how psychology and psychologists can overplay, overcharge and oversell its importance and its reliability and how people don’t want anything to do with it or them when they see through this. I’ll keep reflecting on this as I am potentially looking to go down the path of a clinical psychology career and these sort of conversations are useful on that journey to keep groupthink in check.

    Thanks for the links and the information, Matt. I’ll check out Paris’s writings and it might be good for me to get in touch with him to see if we could potentially meet at some stage. I’ll also check out the forums as I find the exchange of ideas from different perspectives a great way of letting go of some of my own, taking on new ones or making my own ideas/concepts stand up and flourish when they are scrutinised and challenged.

    Turned into a bit of a longer post than I initially set out to write 🙂 better crack on with applying some of this new knowledge now…

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  13. Thanks for the interesting article, Matt. One has to hope our society moves away from the current simplistic and scientifically invalid DSM paradigm asap. I, too, agree we all have multiple personalities, at a minimum we all have a conscious and a subconscious self.

    I will mention that I found what would be called by today’s medical community a ‘drug withdrawal induced super sensitivity manic psychosis,’ which of course was misdiagnosed as a “return of the illness,” to be an amazingly serendipitous awakening and melding of my subconscious self with my conscious self. And I personally have no problem with who my subconscious self is, actually my spiritual awakening explains what 40 hours of unbiased psychological career testing recommended I was put on this earth to do, so such spiritual awakenings/”psychosis” are not necessarily negative experiences for all people.

    I will look into the writings of some of the recommended authors, thank you, and it’s a shame the current failed paradigm has such a stranglehold on our society still. Brainwashing the masses with psychiatric/psychological scientific fraud is not actually clever and classy, it’s disingenuous and an abuse of power.

    And how embarrassing for the psychological and psychiatric industries that the medical evidence has come in showing that their primary actual function within our current society is silencing child abuse victims. But since D.C. and the self proclaimed “elite” of the world are apparently filled with pedophiles, this explains why today’s psychiatrists have been afforded undue credibility and the right to force treat and murder so many.

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