Crazy or Wise? Learning From Those Who Have Transcended Psychological Crisis

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The documentary CRAZYWISE, released earlier this year, challenges Western ideas of human suffering by considering the novel concept that other cultures might actually have something to offer us. Filmmakers Phil Borges and Kevin Tomlinson courageously explore how indigenous cultures have traditionally identified extreme psychic experiences as indicators of spiritual potential rather than a brain disease without cure.

The film is both bold in its exploration of alternative narratives while also finding humility in its discoveries.

CRAZYWISE follows two captivating individuals on their journey through extreme psychic pain, confusion, and transformation. Adam, 27, struggles with voices, homelessness, and crippling addiction that become exacerbated after a near-fatal assault, and later his attempt to disclose childhood sexual abuse only to be met with disbelief and dismissiveness.

Similarly, Ekhaya, 32, after surviving childhood molestation, grapples with distrust, fear, and the shock of finding herself still alive after a serious suicide attempt. Both eventually find meaning, purpose, and interconnectedness along a path that brings them to individual spirituality and a defiance of medical authority.

Their stories are not uncommon: Interestingly, indigenous cultures have long demonstrated superior outcomes for “psychosis.” These cultures’ innate sense that finding meaning, purpose, and social connection is a central part of the healing process has, in fact, been demonstrated repeatedly to be the case for many who have recovered from states labelled as “schizophrenic,” “bipolar” or “borderline.”

Crazywise Adam
Adam during a period of homelessness and screaming voices

In addition to the healing potential of spirituality and meaning-making, placing these psychic emergencies within context may be crucial. It really is not a surprise that exposure to sexual abuse and other childhood adversities is, quite literally, crazy-making. Rates of childhood trauma in individuals who are chronically suicidal and/or diagnosed with borderline personality disorder run as high as 90%, and are so common in those diagnosed with psychosis that researcher Richard Bentall has stated that the link “is about as strong statistically as the link between smoking and lung cancer.”

Sadly, despite how common childhood trauma is for those labelled as mentally ill, American society too commonly dismisses these experiences as ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘delusional’; we see this happen to both Adam and Ekhaya with devastating results. Not only is the trauma itself potentially crazy-making, but so, too, is society’s response.

Another way that society tends to further marginalize those who have experienced childhood adversity is by making arbitrary separations between those who deserve help and those who don’t. Are some suffering a trauma-related problem or just a meaningless, genetic brain disease? Or, are they just morally corrupt individuals in need of punishment?

For instance, too frequently we hear the rhetoric that prisons are warehouses for the ‘mentally ill’. That those so diagnosed are in need of “treatment” while the rest deserve the warehousing.

Childhood trauma is common among prisoners, generally, and is strongly associated with substance abuse, aggression, interpersonal violence, and mental health problems — in other words, prisons are warehouses for trauma survivors and all deserve the opportunity for rehabilitation and recovery.

Of course, standard “treatment” is often described as just another form of prison, so clearly that is not the answer either.

And that is why films like CRAZYWISE are so powerful; we need alternatives and this film offers us just that. We see how Ekhaya survives a near-fatal suicide attempt and finds spiritual healing by reframing her experiences with the help of a traditional South African healer. Similarly, we witness how Adam manages to withdraw from all psychiatric and illicit drugs through dedication to Vipassana meditation and finding the meaning in his confusing experiences.

Crazywise Ekhaya
Ekhaya reunited with her sons years after her psychological crisis

These stories are not random anomalies.

Meditation has been demonstrated by several studies to decrease anxiety, depression, and general psychological distress. Further, shamanic and other spiritual traditions have a long history of using psychotic experience and expanding consciousness as pathways to get closer to God. Psychedelics are also increasingly being used in Western psychiatry to heal states of psychic distress, addiction, trauma, and suicidality.

There just might be something to the idea that other cultures have something to teach us and that extreme states can be processes of transformation.

CRAZYWISE actually began several decades ago, when Phil, a human rights photographer, began understanding and documenting the challenges of indigenous cultures around the world. During his years of work, Phil acquired dozens of interviews and countless hours of footage of individuals whose stories became quite familiar: a psychological crisis in young adulthood led the community to identify the individual as a potential healer and spiritual leader.

In 2012, Phil met Adam while doing a film on meditation and began interviewing him. Something clicked, and Phil realized how closely Adam’s story paralleled those of the shamans — but with very different results. While documenting his story, Phil came to realize the travesty that is the mental health system in America. In this, CRAZYWISE was born.

The trajectory leading up to the film may have resulted in some of the criticism of the film. For instance, although there is extensive use of images and footage of individuals from other cultures, only that of Thupten Ngodrup the State Oracle of Tibet is actually heard. Rather, Phil’s voice (that of a white male) tells their story instead. He has explained that he did not have the footage of them telling their own stories because this footage was gathered in the course of other projects. Yet, it runs the risk of appropriating another’s story, no matter how close to the truth it is.

In addition, Adam is prominently featured throughout the film due to the fact that Phil was documenting Adam’s journey for many years before the idea for CRAZYWISE was born. Yet, Ekhaya, a female person of color, sometimes feels like a secondary story, and is rarely detected at all in promotional materials. And both of their stories are sometimes buried under the numerous interviews of mental health professionals, authors, and leaders of the psychiatric survivor movement, almost all of whom are white.

At the same time, CRAZYWISE has received vastly positive responses. Early problems and criticisms with the original final cut were seriously considered by the filmmakers and they took the feedback to heart. They now have a film that, I, personally, would rate a 10/10.

The film has also been described in testimonials as a “remarkable journey” offering a “crucial and mind-expanding perspective” that is the “perfect tool to create change.”

CRAZYWISE does not romanticize indigenous cultures, nor does it shy away from the horror and destructiveness that can come during a psychological crisis. Both Adam and Ekhaya found themselves on the edge of death, surviving, perhaps in part, so that we might all be privileged enough to benefit from their lessons.

As stated by Phil, “I believe it’s time to Rethink Madness. Is it just a breakdown or can it be a breakthrough? So many have told us it can!” CRAZYWISE offers us an opportunity to consider and realize these very real possibilities.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Great review, Noel.

    I remember a biography of St. Francis of Assisi. He went “nuts” for a while. His dad, a wealthy merchant, gave him goods to care for. Francis sold them to give the money to the poor since he decided they needed it more.

    His dad got angry and dragged him before the magistrate. Francis gave the money back at their request. The irate father disowned him publicly, cutting him out of his will.

    Francis smiled and said God would be his Father from thenceforth. He stripped to his birthday suit and told his ex-father to take his clothes back as well since they rightfully belonged to him, not Francis. After that, Francis streaked off into the forest singing hymns joyfully.

    Despite his stabilizing and building up a social network, St. Francis of Assisi was never “normal.” Alas! If he had been put on a “medical cocktail” St. Francis might have led a happy, productive life drooling in a corner somewhere.

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      • Something really ironic, Noel. Nowadays if you have an SMI label no religious order in the Roman Catholic Church will accept you. Many of their most famous saints would be drugged and side-lined nowadays.

        One of my best friends is Catholic and wanted to be a nun till that dream was trashed by a “bipolar diagnosis.” A lot of people think wanting to be a nun is weird.

        I always wanted to get married and have 4 or 5 kids till my life was wrecked at age 20. Everyone told me to accept the fact I would die a virgin since my “bipolar” made me disgusting/unlovable.

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        • Don’t feel discouraged, FeelinDiscouraged. You will more likely have a good chance of dying a virgin if you become a nun or priest, lol. Church leaders, in my experience, are really weird people, just one visit away from a DSM label. And they know this, and close ranks on the topic of mental illness. I could never “get” why people who preach about God, prophets, and visions, also think there are mentally ill people. Maybe that’s why the Book of Revelations doesn’t get much play in my church. Too close to home.

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          • In order to become a nun I would have to be Catholic anyhow. I’m Church of Christ which is “family oriented.” In other words they worship the institution of marriage and sometimes make singles feel uncomfy. Two friends who encouraged me to go drug free are Assembly of God. Naturally they think extreme states aren’t all “brain diseases.” One of them is upset at how his sister is getting worse in psychiatric “treatment.”

            Right now–at 44–I don’t care if I die a virgin. But at age 20 that was a bitter pill to take!

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          • Rossa,

            As to, “I could never ‘get’ why people who preach about God, prophets, and visions, also think there are mentally ill people.” It is because the mainstream religions were bought out by the psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ ability to cover up their “zipper troubles,” while they all profit from turning child abuse and rape victims into the “mentally ill” with the psychiatric drugs en mass. It’s a multibillion dollar industry today. An ethical pastor called this “the dirty little secret of the two original educated professions.”

            Thanks for the review, Noel. Where is the movie available for viewing? I also appreciate your mentioning the spiritual nature of what Western medicine believes is “mental illness.” Since my “mental illness” was about a spiritual journey, not about a “life long, incurable, genetic mental illness.” All my doctors were Holy Spirit blasphemers, they even eventually handed over the proof, written right in their medical records.
            But drugs don’t ‘cure’ one from believing in the Holy Spirit, thankfully.

            We’ve disproven the validity of the DSM “bible,” but my “mental health practicers” didn’t come close to debunking the wisdom within the Holy Bible, nor did they come close to proving the Holy Spirit doesn’t exist. All they succeeded in doing is keeping some child molesters on the streets, so they could rape more and more children, thus bring in more business to the pedophile protecting and profiteering psychologists and psychiatrists.

            I believe today’s “mental health professionals” are both crazy and unwise. At least their pedophile protecting behavior is not beneficial for the majority within society. And many are now disgusted by the pedophilia run amok problems which are occurring within Western civilization today, including Putin. “I’m not the only one” disgusted by pedophiles. Thank God.

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          • My own two cents to Rossa’s comment. In addition to what SE says about churches profiting monetarily from the psychiatric racket (indirectly usually) there’s what I call the social phenomenon of “Shut up and take your Prozac!”

            People going through a crisis are stressful to be around. Those who get trapped in the MI System are even worse off. My drugs numbed me to social cues and actually made me more outspoken in saying things that bothered folks. They made me too tired to properly attend to hygiene.

            Anyhow the drugs and MI systems make it easier to dispose of annoying bothersome members. If they are discouraged lock them up for clinical depression.

            What Miss Brown? You’re miserable and feel no one would care if you died? Obviously you aren’t on your life saving meds. Quit bothering us. Go home, take your prescription and call your therapist. We’re not professionals and can’t deal with YOUR KIND here.

            The rest of humanity have souls, but YOU have a mental illness. In fact you ARE nothing but a mental illness. Shut up and take your “meds.”

            There. Thank God Miss Brown went home! We’ve done our Christian duty and can forget about rejects like her.

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  2. You write about how non-Western experiences all relate to spiritual experiences and shamanism. I appreciate that immensely.

    You might want to also consider how this is happening in the Western world. This is something that I wrote about for MIA about a month ago. There is not only a non-Western, shamanistic world; there is also a Western world, with its own spiritual and artistic tradition. Perhaps instead of privileging non-Western approaches, you might consider those closer to home, and realize that they are just as valid as any others.

    https://www.madinamerica.com/2017/10/channeling-dead-german-poets-alternate-realities/

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  3. Noel, others have looked at how other cultures allow greater latitude for suffering.

    But also consider, as long as you are calling it, “Psychological Crisis”, you are taking the position that such sufferers have a malady which needs to be cured. You are taking the position that their suffering is not really well founded, you are trivilizing it, problematizing them.

    This is only one of the indicators that survivors have not been doing a very good job of standing up for themselves, and also of why the whole project of Psychotherapy, Recovery, and Motivationalism is just plain wrong.

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    • Tireless –
      Would you deny that people experience crises? Would you deny that people are in pain and in need of help – not necessarily from a professional, but in connection with another human being? Perhaps such crises might be defined as emotional, spiritual, psychological, traumatic, existential…whatever words you use, they will never do justice to every single individual. The point is that the folks in this film were, indeed, in crisis and needed connection in some way. Nobody is promoting the mental health system here or curing anything, in fact that’s the entire premise of the film. Certainly, I am not dismissing individuals’ suffering – quite the opposite. So apologies if in any way it is perceived otherwise.

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      • Yes people who have been used and abused and who live in an unjust world do experience crises and are often living with intense pain. But you speak of help? Well this is a treacherous area. Most of the time that help is being offered by people who want to turn the problems back on the survivor. What they are offering is pity. They do this because they need to defend their own denial systems, and they have found that they can gain an adult identity, as well as an income, by assuming a parental role. The language they use will usually be different. Our pedagogy manuals are re-written every decade, until now when they amount to a kind of ki**ie p*rn.

        And this is what these helpers offer, “Oh, I feel your pain, but your parents were just doing the best that they can. They did not know what is known now.” And then they start instructing from the current edition of the pedagogy manual. But all of these pedagogy manuals serve the adults, they give the adults a way to make themselves right. It is all bullshit. People that have more open relationships with their children do not read pedagogy manuals, and they are not interested in such. Pedagogy manuals are the work of the middle-class.

        So these helpers, like therapists, clergy, recoveryists, and motivationalists, they turn the problem back onto the survivor and try to re-parent them, according to today’s ideologies of course. And what else would one expect, when it is just therapy sessions in the ‘helper’s’ office.

        Survivors need human connection, as does anybody who is fighting to survive in a war zone. But that connection has to be with those who are fighting shoulder to shoulder with us, not those who are claiming to have some special new info, some good news of salvation, or some new denial system. It has to be with those who are fighting against the abusers, and who have the battle scars to prove it.

        Always ask, have your previous conflicts been in the Criminal Court, the Civil Court, the Family Court, or the Probate Court? And what did you attempt, and what did you accomplish?

        Have you engaged in any forms of direct action or direct intervention? What did you do, and what happened?

        If the answer is to be null, as it always will be for these would be helpers, then reject them with prejudice and put them on notice. Anyone who is not engaging in the fight is simply turning the problems back onto the survivors. They are trying to turn survivors into collaborators of the abusers. They are trying to finish the job of destruction that the abusers started.

        Survivors need to band together and take action. Otherwise we are just seeking pity. And we must have no tolerance for therapy, recovery, or motivationalism. Rather, we must make sure that these secondary predators are rejected. The more of them we can put out of business the better.

        Once you realize that you are a survivor, the first thing you do is stop discussing your personal affairs, saving that only for those rare cases where it helps to prove a point, or to help people understand why you acted against a current foe.

        Take for example a Sharey Karney, sexually molested as a baby. She was never able to take legal action against her own parents, but she started the move to lift SOL’s, and it is for this reason that such suits are common now, and especially against institutions like the Roman Catholic Church. No one would ever disbelieve Karney or try to lecture to her about the new editions of the pedagogy manual, or otherwise try to instruct her in the self-reliance ethic. Karney is a fighter. People know that they should not try to mess with her. I want all survivors to be held in this kind of respect.

        And of course we survivors should be setting up our own Foster Care Group Homes, taking those in, not so we can show them pity, but so we can strengthen them in becoming the new vanguard who stand strong against the abusers of middle-class family.

        Most of use were not able to defend ourselves against our parents. So we were harmed. But today, if we stand together and look for ways to act, we can shut down licensed psychiatry and psychotherapy, and largely discredit life-coaching, recovery, motivationalism, and religion. And we can start making sure that parents are held responsible and cannot blame it on their child, not in any situation.

        We survivors have been weakened, but if we are able to face the actual pain in our experience and do not succumb to these helper – predators, then we have greater strength, far greater strength, than the vast majority of the population.

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  4. Thank you for the Article, Noel.

    “..Adam, 27, struggles with voices, homelessness, and crippling addiction ..”

    I am very happy that addiction is included in the list. Because I know lots and lots of people that have recovered (from “..voices, homelessness and crippling addiction..”), with the help of self supporting peer groups.

    .

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  5. “..Crazy or Wise? Learning From Those Who Have Transcended Psychological Crisis..”

    I think “they” would need to take advice from people that have recovered. The system itself is acknowledged to be very bad and getting worse.

    As regards security (my experience is that) psychiatric drugs themselves can make people dangerous.

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    • They did not make me a better woman. I was so numb on them I did stuff that makes me feel guilty now. My trespasses were mild.

      10 mg of Haldol or Stelazine caused me to have hideous fantasies of assaulting people, beating them, and other random acts of pointless violence. This terrified me in the extreme! I thought I must be a female Ted Bundy. I wondered why my “meds” weren’t working. Thank goodness I never acted on these horrible thoughts; the only one they hurt was me.

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  6. Feeling Discouraged,

    I’d say that the majority of the “Mental Health Violence” is to do with the Neuroleptics, and it is unavoidable while people take the drugs.

    Most of the violence involves self harm:- 40% of Neuroleptic consumers attempt suicide.

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  7. FDiscouraged wrote, “TF, the real problem with asking for pity or compassion is “normals” are usually too selfish and cold to give any. ”

    Well, it is ‘normals’ who run the world. It is not necessarily that they think differently. Rather, they have legitimated biographies, so their legitimacy is not challenged.

    Once one no longer accepts the lies and denial, then their legitimacy is always challenged.

    Pity is one of the most toxic things around. Maybe normal do not dispense that much of it. But therapists and the recovery movement do little but dispense pity.

    They do not stand with their clients. They look at their clients as poor unfortunates who still suffer from the malady of ‘anger’. So they want to cure us. They do not fight with us or for us. But they want to cure us.

    The only way to get beyond pity is to start standing up for ourselves, reject therapy, recovery, and motivationalism, and instead score some concrete gains. Score gains for ourselves, and for the children of today who are being subjected to the same kinds of exploitation.

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  8. The idea of transcending a psychological crisis is patent nonsense, because there is no such thing as a psychological crisis.

    Rather, there are simply situations when a persons legitimacy is being denied, and in the present, which leads them to have to withdraw in order to protect themselves. The remedy is to restore their social legitimacy, and psychotherapy and Recovery always work against this because the depend upon the idea that the subject has some sort of a problem.

    No such thing as a psychological crisis, no such thing as psychological anything. Everything is always caused by the society.

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  9. People will have crises, because the world we live in is patently unfair, and many people have their basic humanity taken from them before they even reach adolescence.

    So living as a doormat, yes that is very hard. But to call that a ‘psychological crisis’ is just another form of abuse being perpetrated against survivors. People should not stand for this and should organize and take legal action when ever they are being subjected to it, “Psychological Crisis”.

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