From Madness to Mastery: Gaining Competence with Altered States

Ron Unger, LCSW
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Is madness good for something? If so, there’s something wrong with the medical conceptualization of it as simply an “illness.” That’s probably why anyone who tries to identify anything good about “psychosis” or “schizophrenia” quickly finds themselves accused of “romanticizing” madness.

Of course, a lot of what happens in madness, or psychosis, for many people, is indeed quite terrible. Both subjectively and objectively, lives can fall apart, and often do not come back together again.

But psychosis is not always so terrible, and for many, experiences labeled as psychotic by mental health professionals have an appeal — an appeal that may be felt both at the time of the experience and even afterward, once the person has “recovered.” Is this appeal itself just an illusion caused by the “mental illness” or is there something to it?

Because if there is something positive about psychosis, then perhaps what we really need is a balanced view, somewhere between “romanticizing” it as being all good and “awfulizing” it as being all bad.

One metaphor for a more nuanced view might be found by considering the case of people who get lost in the wilderness. 

Some who get lost in this way may have gone out into the wilderness by accident, or perhaps they were driven out into the wilderness as they fled acts of violence, and they want nothing more than to be helped to get out of the wilderness and back to everyday life. In other words, that group sees nothing positive in the wilderness experience.

Others may have set out into the wilderness whilst seeking for something, or maybe like the former group they just randomly went there or were driven by violence, but once in the wilderness they sense there is something of value there, and even though they may have gotten lost at times, they want more than just to be “rescued” — they now want to learn how to travel in the wilderness, and perhaps how to use their travels and what they find there to benefit those in everyday life.

When people are just stuck somewhere in the wilderness, they may find themselves to be quite miserable, with their lives at risk. Yet the same space they are stuck in may be awesome in other respects — there may be qualities of that space that are missing in everyday “civilized” spaces, qualities that are worth taking a long journey to find. So it makes sense that for many, just “recovering” or “being rescued” to the point of being able to get back to civilization feels very inadequate: they may find themselves instead aspiring to become competent in spending time in the wilderness and in traveling freely between the wilderness and civilization.

Can we say the same about the extreme or altered states that get called “psychosis” or even “madness”? Is it possible to achieve mastery of extreme or altered states, rather than simply being a victim of them? Is it possible that a given person’s ability to go into extreme states might be a “feature and not a defect,” even if the process of learning to use the “feature” may be fraught with peril?

With the release of Crazywise this year, there’s likely to be lots of discussion about the hypothesis that young people falling into “psychosis” are exactly those who would have been seen, within indigenous societies, as being those people called to the life of a shaman. Shamans of course were those who learned to voluntarily travel into altered states for the benefit of their tribe (and of course, they also learned how to return, rather than becoming lost and needing rescue!).

I recently had the opportunity to interact with a man, Ingo Lambrecht, who has received both extensive shamanic training and training as a psychologist in working with “psychosis.” He stated that he sees no clear dividing line between states that suggest a spiritual or shamanic calling, and those that are just “trouble,” and he agreed with me that a key difference might be between those who are motivated to find value in and to master their altered states, and those who just want to get back to “normal” states as soon as they can!

Of course, without the right kind of help, or at least a lot of luck and perseverance, people can’t do either of the above, and may just stay lost.

One key point Ingo makes is that in order to enter altered or trance states that are useful, shamans and others have to do something to destabilize their more “normal” states. So it’s important to recognize that while psychiatry and the mental health system usually focus on the goal of “stability,” there may be important places we can only go if we are willing at times to sacrifice a conventional stability in the interests of finding something else. (Just as there are also important places we can only go if we are willing to sacrifice for a while our connection to the comforts of civilization!)

Anyway, some of you might want to view the talk by Ingo, titled “Shamanic Spiritual Emergencies: The Dialectic of Distress and Spirituality” linked below.  It’s a fascinating presentation!

If you do watch the video, you will notice that Ingo himself firmly believes in lots of things psychiatrists believes are delusions. He believes that he himself and others like him have “magical” abilities to do things like see and speak with the spirits of ancestors, or to find hidden objects (and he describes being tested in his ability to do this as part of his shamanic training).

I don’t have the abilities that Ingo reports, and I never watched him pass his shamanic tests, so I can’t vouch for all his claims. But I have had my own experience of finding benefit from altered or extreme states, and I’ve met many others who have done so as well.

The benefit people find is not always framed as “spiritual” — Don’t Pity Me: Psychosis Gave Me Mad Skills by Rai Waddingham is a nice summary of some more down-to-earth benefits that might come out of experiencing and working through such states! So there is really quite a wide spectrum of possible benefit.

The “mad” in our society typically suffer from discrimination and social exclusion, much of which is based on the sense that they have nothing (but trouble) to offer the rest of us. Conversely, the “sane” typically suffer from smugness, a mistaken sense that conventional “normality” is an adequate response to the world, and an inability to understand or imagine what might go beyond that. Seeing possible value as well as risk in altered states, and the possibility of people mastering these states even after periods of at first being a victim of them, provides a possible way to transcend both forms of suffering. Let’s hope that as we move forward, more people will become informed about, and move forward with, this alternative.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Mad = bad, not. Good one, Ron.

    “Romanticizing”, “glamorizing”, etc. I’ve heard the complaints before. Perhaps the blind (“normal”) could use an extra set of eyes.

    It is a certain type of person often that gets labeled for their ‘superior’, but under appreciated, talents. I will leave it at that.

    I think the introduction to Star Trek says it well. “Space, the final frontier”…etc.

    There is no crying need to, the opposite of what you describe, ‘demonize’ madness. Not where it has not been coupled with violence and criminality anyway.

    Decriminalize, legalize, and deinstitutionalize madness. Stop trying to pound the strange and different peg into the standardized dull and “normal” hole, and there you go.

    When we recognize people’s right to go crazy, to indulge in extreme error, for the sake of any eventual but natural correction that comes along, or whatever, I would say that progress is being made.

    • “Perhaps the blind (‘normal’) could use an extra set of eyes.” When I was being made “crazy,” via anticholinergic toxidrome poisoning by a psychiatrist, I painted one of the “voices in my head,” who was also a pastor I had just met in real life, with an extra set of eyes. Also incorporated into that piece were the words, “the man who could see through time.”

      At that time the Evanescence song that begins, “How can you see into my eyes like open doors? Leading you down into my core where I’ve become so numb Without a soul my spirit’s sleeping somewhere cold Until you find it there and lead it back home …” was popular. There was something very strange about that pastor, as if he knew me, prior to meeting me, and he did share a first and middle name with my first true love.

      Once my family’s medical records were finally handed over, I eventually learned that I was drugged up based upon that pastor’s “thought she was the second coming of Jesus” claims to a therapist, likely because he was a child molester, according to my child’s medical records. My next pastor confessed that “the dirty little secret of the two original educated professions” is that claiming someone is Jesus is doctor/pastor code for crucify this person. And the medical evidence does show that the psychologists and psychiatrists have been profiteering off of “crucifying” child abuse victims en mass for the religions and wealthy for decades.

      Nonetheless, I did experience an awakening to my dreams after I was weaned off the drugs, what would be diagnosed by intelligent and honest doctors to be a “drug withdrawal induced super sensitivity manic psychosis.” And I learned that my dreams were supposedly set up like the internet, with lots of websites named after people I’ve known throughout my life. And this “internet” within my dreams functioned as the theorized “collective unconscious,” where all the souls had supposedly become connected. My subconscious self was a “dreamweaver” of souls, seemingly.

      This type of “psychosis”/awakening was an amazingly serendipitous journey where it was like my life was a movie being sung out on the radio. I would drive around and people’s vanity license plates would coordinate with my thoughts and the music, as if indeed we all were connected, and I had perfect timing. And all these strangers in these cars supposedly wanted to help me heal from the psychiatric defamation, torture, and poisonings.

      The drug withdrawal induced “psychosis” was one filled with love, as opposed to a “psychosis” which is filled with hate, like the anticholinergic toxidrome induced “psychosis” was. So definitely, Ron, there are both bad and good “psychoses.” The “psychoses” created with the psychiatric drugs was bad, the ones resulting from drug withdrawal were good, at least in my case.

      I do hope some day the psychologists and psychiatrists wake up, gain an “extra set of eyes,” and realize people have a conscious and a subconscious self, and what one knows in one’s waking hours is not the same as what one knows in their subconscious. And it is possible that what goes on in the spiritual/subconscious/ dream realm may not actually be “irrelevant to reality,” my awakening helped me heal, and look at movies like The Secret, which theorize such as well.

      And my continuing dreams are that all of humanity will be healed some day as well, and we will some day be able to coexist peacefully, and with mutual respect, on this planet. But today the psych professionals scream, “Force medicate all the violent psychotics!” despite not all “psychoses” being equal. Some of us who’ve experienced “psychosis” are peace loving, beautiful dreamers instead.

  2. Hi Ron,

    thanks for the thoughtful article. I do appreciate it, and I do agree there is some middle ground, somewhere. I can’t speak for your experience, but my wife’s d.i.d. is still based on dysfunction though I have done my best to help all of us (her, our son, and me) find the beauty that we could/can in it. I feel like I have had the privilege of helping and watching my wife heal and come to life in a very real way as I helped the 7 other girls heal and begin to connect with each other. As they have healed, each girl has become delightful, beautiful, and adds special facets to my wife that the ‘host’ never had on her own. And to help them heal, I had to open myself up to major change as well.

    But I’m struggling with the concept of something based on trauma, her d.i.d. or someone’s psychosis being inherently beneficial. I guess I’m struggling with your concept of ‘gaining mastery’ over something that is inherently dysfunctional. That doesn’t mean our journey together hasn’t radically changed the both of us for the better.

    From my Christian upbringing I would liken it to being in ‘the crucible’ and the fires of her/our healing journey has burned out a lot of the ugliness and immaturity that was in me as well as making her more beautiful and healthy in the process, too. At this point, I pity my family of origin and how ugly they are to my wife because they think they are ‘normal’ and she isn’t. They missed seeing her rebirth and transformation and missed the transformation in me, too, that helped me learn to see things from her perspective even when things were darkest on the journey.

    Sam

  3. Hi Ron, this is a very worthwhile subject.

    I think if a person is able to bring themselves out of nightmarish interpretation states of reality – then they are definitely of use to the community.

    Also, maybe a lot of traditional wisdom was lost to the western world when the “witches” were eradicated.

    • Witches, by the way, have not been eradicated. You’re speaking with one. Wiccan training involves accessing and using altered states of consciousness, and is very pertinent to this topic of discussion. Thanks for bringing it up, Fiachra!
      Many of the experiences that psych would label, are indeed essential on that spiritual path. How an individual experiences themselves in the midst of it is very much influenced by the paradigm they look to for clarity. Look to the toxic paradigm of psychiatry and you will be told that these experiences are something to be feared, shunned, fixed. Witches and Shamans will tell you that these same experiences are meaningful, useful, a step towards greater awareness. Hearing a voice others can’t? Depending on the message and the context, you might have just become aware of a spirit guide- perhaps an ancestor, or “guardian angel” (in quotes because Judeo-Christian concepts are not my paradigm, though to many, this explanation would make sense) or totem animal. Witches train to master abilities like scrying: gazing into a focal object to see into the past, to see into the future, or to see into the present moment somewhere far away. What some would call dancing on the edge of madness, we call walking between the worlds. But it starts with self-awareness, and self-discipline: recognizing and owning your energy; containing it; directing it; learning to erect a shield, an energy barrier that keeps unwanted energies out. One of the most important aspects of Wiccan training is discernment: not every spirit that wants access has beneficial intentions, for instance. Many people seeking training are just learning how to open themselves to altered states, but for those who arrive already adept at that skill, the first thing I address is psychic self-defense so that they can be empowered to safely travel those realms.

  4. Ron, This makes so much sense to me, but it is impossible to explain to anyone who has not experienced it, and doubly impossible to explain it to doctors. In 2013, I had a glimmer of hope when I spotted this paragraph in a leaflet about ‘Schizophrenia’ published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists…

    “How does it start?
    It may suddenly dawn on you that at last you really understand what is going on. This may follow weeks or months when you have felt that there has been something wrong, but that you couldn’t work out what it was.”

    This sounded to me like the faintest hint of understanding from psychiatry about the ‘journey into the wilderness’ you so vividly describe. Unfortunately it was listed under the clinical symptom of ‘Delusions’.

    I e-mailed the College to suggest they move this paragraph from the “Delusions” section, and add something along the lines of…

    “This experience has been described by some as the beginnings of a spiritual awakening or epiphany. Once recovered from the acute psychosis, it is sometimes viewed as a positive aspect of the turmoil, leading to greater insight and personal growth.”

    Did they take any notice? Of course not!

    BTW, please check out my cartoon “Which Way?” It captures my own experience of the pull towards the wilderness described in your post. Here’s the link:
    http://www.auntiepsychiatry.com/Auntie%20Psychiatry.html#whichway

  5. Hi Ron

    Good blog. I have come to understand “madness” as a very useful and important “coping mechanism” that can, not only help with a person’s survival for a period of time in their life, but also provide very useful lessons and personal growth in a very troubled world. Obviously, it can become a problem for many people if this coping mechanism somehow gets stuck in the “on position” for extended periods of time.

    You said:
    “Conversely, the “sane” typically suffer from smugness, a mistaken sense that conventional “normality” is an adequate response to the world, and an inability to understand or imagine what might go beyond that.”

    I would add that it is not just that people don’t “…understand or imagine what might go beyond that,” but they fail to see what is SO WRONG with a world that forces (through all forms of high levels of stress and/or trauma experiences) so many people to venture into the uncharted waters of madness.

    There may come a time in human history (after major revolutionary transformations in the world) when “madness,” as we currently understand it, will no longer be a necessary or useful response to one’s environment.

    Where I depart from some of the concepts of madness is when people promote a view that people are “… called to the life of a shaman” and/or start to believe that their delusions (that remain beyond a period of usefulness) are in fact real, and/or provide them with magical powers. I believe these are examples of the “romanticizing” of madness.

    Richard

  6. Eight of my family, all of us in 3 generations, have experienced psychoses and coercive psychiatric treatment because of it, in 5 different health board areas of Scotland, since the 1950’s until 2013 (so far). We don’t “hear voices” yet were given the same labels/Dx as those who do eg schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder. For us psychosis is an escape, a transition, a journey, a release from life trauma eg painful, induced childbirth; physical health issues – collapsed lungs, life-threatening appendectomy; losing a baby; spiritual, existential challenges; loss etc.

    I’ve survived psychoses and coercive psychiatry 3 times: in 1978, 1984 and 2002, by first resisting drugging then capitulating then tapering the drugs and making a full recovery. I experienced another psychosis in August 2015 following a physical and mental health breakdown due to human rights campaigning after my son was abused in a locked seclusion room of our local psychiatric hospital. Although we got an apology I felt there was No Justice. I was fortunate to avoid psychiatry in 2015, came through the psychosis and acute mental states with the support of family and virtually supported by clinical friends. Who listened to my ramblings, shared stories and sounded mad themselves. This was very helpful.

    I’m stronger for having experienced another psychosis. It has brought me closer to the environment, to plants, birds, wildlife, and I took up again various creative and sporting activities eg knitting, sewing, gardening, cycling, swimming, incorporating these into my blog:
    http://chrysmuirheadwrites.blogspot.co.uk/

    I believe that psychoses and altered minds states are positive and useful experiences, necessary for spiritual growth. The problem for us has always been the “treatment”. Coercive drugging and shocking. Disabling and shortening lives. Which is why I’m planning to research Safe haven crisis Houses in the UK and abroad, evidencing good practice, so as to develop more of the same in Scotland so that my family and others can avoid coercive psychiatric treatment.

  7. People may indeed experience altered states, even psychosis. And sometimes people even seek this and take steps to encourage it.

    But the last thing they need is any therapist in the loop. If one is experiencing altered states or psychosis, or if they are even seeking such, the first step has to be definite actions to protect against the intrusion of therapists.