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

Noel Hunter, Psy.D.
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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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26 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.

  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/

  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.

  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.

    .

  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.

    • 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.

  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.

  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.

  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.