Promoting Healing After Psychosis

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What does it mean to heal after a psychotic episode? Is it just about trying to “get back to normality” and to suppress any further “psychosis” — or does something deeper need to happen?

I have written previously about how psychosis is often due to something like a revolution happening within a person — a revolution that occurs usually because the existing way the person is organized is in some manner not functioning well, or is oppressive.

It’s commonly known that just putting down a revolt and forcing a return to a prior oppressive “normality” will be unlikely to lead to long-term peace and stability. Instead, there will have to be some kind of a shift or transformation in the governing system so that the conditions that led to the revolution no longer exist. Isn’t it likely that the same sort of thing applies in the case of revolt within the mind?

In 1996, Sean Blackwell had his own experience of psychosis within an apparent bipolar episode, and it seemed obvious to him that the episode was an attempt by his psyche to accomplish something quite profound. Rather than being an illness, Sean has always considered his break-down as a critical break-through in his own personal development. In 2011, he authored the book Am I Bipolar or Waking Up? while also producing numerous YouTube videos which explore the connection between psychotic episodes and psychological transformation. This entire creative process has led Sean to speaking with hundreds of people who have experienced psychosis which they found to be somehow meaningful.

However, modern forms of treatment don’t provide much space for people to explore altered states or “revolutionary” ways of functioning to see what might be positive in them: instead, action is taken to bring people back to some simulation of “normality” as quickly as possible. Once that happens, most people are understandably frightened of going back into an altered state, which is likely to both disrupt their life and bring on more intrusive “treatment.” Unfortunately, this can lead to being stuck in a kind of limbo state, with the person’s psyche still struggling to transform, but with the conscious mind firmly opposed to any further dangerous disruption of stability.

For years, Sean wrestled with the question of how to help people complete their healing journey in a way that would be sufficiently safe. He eventually turned to Holotropic Breathwork, which is a powerful therapeutic process originally developed in the 1970’s by Dr. Stanislav Grof and his late wife, Christina. While breathwork facilitators certified by Grof Transpersonal Training generally avoid using this method with people who have had a history of psychosis, Sean has found that for many people with such histories, holotropic breathwork can be both very effective and reasonably safe, provided that it is performed in a highly secure, private retreat setting.

In a webinar that occurred on 3/2/18, Sean shared the details of his retreat program, with a focus on how modifications to the standard holotropic breathwork format have led to increasingly positive results. Two of Sean’s clients share their experiences of healing — their shift to living a life free of both psychotic symptoms and psychiatric medications.  You can watch a recording of this presentation at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MO3_Odqq-7k&t=2454s.

Another source of information about this approach is this article from Moni Kettler which goes into detail regarding her initial healing process with Sean.

It does make sense to me that we be cautious about any kind of exploratory practice that might send someone who has been “psychotic” into another “psychotic episode,” or another period of being lost and confused. But I think we should also beware the risk of trying to be too stable and “normal” after psychosis — the risk of avoiding the transformative work that might need to happen for that person. In other words, we need to avoid what Sandra Bloom calls “risky risk avoidance,” where avoiding risk at one level creates more risk at another. I applaud people like Sean who are trying to find a balance, attending to safety issues while also finding ways for people to take reasonable risks in their development and healing.

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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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29 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t mean any offense, but the mainstream “mental health professionals” are doing the opposite of trying to prevent “psychotic” episodes, since both the “antidepressants” and “antipsychotics” are drug classes that are already medically know to cause “psychosis,” via anticholinergic toxidrome.

    “The symptoms of an anticholinergic toxidrome include … psychosis … Substances that may cause this toxidrome include the four ‘anti’s of antihistamines, antipsychotics, antidepressants, and antiparkinsonian drugs[3] as well as …”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxidrome

    This is basically medical proof that today’s “mental health” industry’s primary function is to create “psychosis’ with the drugs they regularly prescribe.

    I do agree, Sean’s work is great. I do agree, suffering from a psychiatric drug induced “psychosis” should never be used against a person, and fraudulently claimed to be a “lifelong, incurable, genetic mental illness,” as the psychiatric industry is currently doing. Today’s psychiatric theology consists of nothing more than disgusting medical/scientific/paternalistic religious/satanic fraud, largely to cover up pedophilia for the religious leaders, according to my sources.

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  2. This also sounds a lot like Dr. Clare Graves’ work (Emergent Cyclic Levels of Existence Theory). The video when speaking of Maslow seems to describe a description of jumping from the Graves’ development stage 5 or 6 to an 8, by-passing stage 7 (not particularly healthy–but still navigatable). Stage 8 is a unique stage of development where the person sees all of humanity as one–as family.

    Note Maslow was influenced by Graves–and in fact, due to Graves’ influence, changed his hierarchy pyramid to an open-ended view and instead of “self-actualization” at the peak of the pyramid, “transformation” is a step higher and opens up (perhaps as the beginning of an inverted pyramid).

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    • Hi Darryl,
      Just to clarify, my work focuses on helping people heal while in a non-ordinary, or “holotropic” STATES of consciousness. These states can be accessed by anyone using holotropic breathwork, or other means, like psychedelics or intensive meditation. Dr. Clare Graves work focused on STAGES of development, with the more developed stages having an increasingly spiritual component. Both are important aspects of human development, as deep work in the holotropic states helps people evolved through the stages that Graves talks about. I have different playlists on my YouTube channel. The stuff related to bipolar disorder is usually focused on the states, and the work of Dr. Stan Grof. The developmental, or stage part, focuses a lot on Spiral Dynamics, which was started by Graves and expanded upon by Don Beck, and Ken Wilber in different ways. Just thought you`d like to know.

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    • “Maslow was influenced by Graves–and in fact, due to Graves’ influence, changed his hierarchy pyramid to an open-ended view and instead of “self-actualization” at the peak of the pyramid, “transformation” is a step higher and opens up (perhaps as the beginning of an inverted pyramid).”

      I love the “inverted pyramid” image, and it resonates with my healing experience. From knowing ourselves aside from the influence of outside opinions, negative projections, and social programming, we begin to discover more of our ever-expansive awareness. We are always unfolding into new ways of being and perceiving, if we allow ourselves that flexibility, it is a never-ending process. The creative possibilities are endless, to be discovered as we go along.

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  3. The question that needs to be asked is more simple. What is psychosis? We owe such vague and misleading terminology to people like Freud, and it is by no means clear that there is really any such thing as “psychosis.” Freud was a fraud like his teacher, the charlatan Charcot. But their fraudulence and charlatanry continue to influence the way that most people look at the world.

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    • What most people mean by “psychosis” is being out of touch with important aspects of reality and/or being severely disorganized. Of course everyone is at least somewhat out of touch with reality, and somewhat disorganized, but it’s when it gets to seem extreme that people use the word “psychotic.”

      It’s kind of hard to argue that states of being extremely disorganized and out of touch with reality do not exist. I understand that some might like to use a different term for those states – some like the term “extreme states” – but it seems clear to most that these states of being do exist, and are worth talking about as something different than everyday states of mind.

      Some see “psychosis” as a medical problem that always implies a particular underlying medical condition. This theorized medical condition of course may not and probably does not exist – that is, some kinds of medical conditions can make people psychotic, but the fact that someone is psychotic is not good evidence that they have any particular underlying medical condition.

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      • Thus Freud continues his reign. The problem is that what most people believe and what is true are not always the same thing. Who coined the term “psychosis”? Why? How did the concept of “psychosis” evolve? Does the word “psychosis” describe an underlying reality, or is it an invention of psychiatry?

        Karl Friedrich Constatt is credited with coining the term “psychosis” as an abbreviation of “psychic neurosis,” when neurosis referred to brain disease. The word “psychosis” is derived from the Greek “psyche,” meaning “soul,” and “osis,” meaning “abnormal condition.” Thus psychiatrists did not discover “psychosis,” they invented it. It is a creative term that psychiatrists used to stigmatize others whose souls, so they claimed, were in an abnormal condition. What makes anyone think that he or she has the authority to judge that someone else’s soul is in an abnormal condition? Then, what gives the same people the right to assume that the supposed abnormal condition of the soul can be cured by psychiatry?

        The term “psychosis” was also used to distinguish so called “mental illness” from “neurosis,” or supposed disorders of the nervous system. Then Emil Kraepelin and Sigmund Freud added their own spin to “psychosis.” Was any of this enterprise in the least bit true or scientific? Of course not. This is psychiatry we’re talking about. Thus “psychosis” became a catch all term that was used to denote “madness” or “mental illness,” or as Mr. Unger puts it, “being out of touch with important aspects of reality and/or being severely disorganized,” or “states of being.” All of these misnomers could be subsumed under that which Thomas Szasz called “the myth of mental illness.”

        Szasz pointed out that “Those who suffer from and complain of their own behavior are usually classified as ‘neurotic’; those whose behavior makes others suffer, and about whom others complain, are usually classified as ‘psychotic.’”

        The problem with stigmatizing labels like “psychosis” is that they are often uttered as if they describe an underlying biological or etiological fact, when in reality they are words that psychiatrists coined in order to describe what they perceived as misbehaviors. It is more likely the case that those who coined and popularized the term “psychosis” were out of touch with reality, but it would hardly be just to label even them as “psychotic.”

        If, as is claimed, states of being extremely disorganized and out of touch with reality exist, then what is the standard by which these states are measured and who is the authority on these standards? As readers may have guessed, psychiatry sets itself up as the authority on these matters, and the standard by which supposed states of being are measured has nothing to do with science or medicine and everything to do with politics and coercion.

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        • Out of touch with reality?

          You mean believing poisons are medicines? That dying 25 years prematurely is healthy? That “no” means “yes”? That although you earn a six digit income and enjoy prestige you can readily identify with those you malign and force to live in crushing poverty? That deceiving all your patients and the general public is noble?

          Nothing psychotic about that. Especially if you can diagnose yourself. 😛

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          • Groups within society, or sometimes pretty much a whole society, can also be “out of touch with reality” and this is actually more dangerous than just an individual being out of touch, that’s something important to think about. Psychiatry is out of touch with reality when it ignores the down side of its treatment approaches. And critics of psychiatry are out of touch with reality when they exaggerate the down side of those treatments to make the issue seem more black and white than it is – for example by claiming that it’s a fact that the drugs are making people die 25 years earlier than average, when the science actually indicates the drugs as being one of a number of factors that are leading to early deaths – even if a very important factor.

            In my seminars on CBT for psychosis, I talk about how psychosis involves being disorganized and/or out of touch with reality, then I ask the students if any of them are perfectly organized or completely in touch with reality. If any answer “yes” I suggest they may be suffering from a grandiose delusion! I then introduce the dilemma, how can any of us decide for sure who is truly out of touch with reality if we are only partly in touch with reality ourselves? Then I suggest that what we really need to do is to dialogue about and investigate together different views about what reality might be, and that better approaches to “psychosis” work on that basis.

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          • Ron, poor nutrition, smoking, and vegging in front of the TV lead to an early death. But these bad habits are exacerbated by drugs, isolation, and poverty created by the stigma imposed by mental illness labels.

            My Aunt Norma Jean was diagnosed as schizophrenic at 17. She lived to be 87. Oh, and she never took psych drugs. And she got better–though never fully. Probably brain damage from shocks.

            Granted, that’s an anecdote. It would be interesting to see some real statistics on life span among the”mentally ill” before the drugs became too available. I don’t trust Google enough to use its search engine for that though.

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          • “And critics of psychiatry are out of touch with reality when they exaggerate the down side of those treatments to make the issue seem more black and white than it is…”

            Nonsense. It is psychiatry that exaggerates. It claims to promote beneficial “treatments” and cures. The reality, as Whitaker, Breggin, and many others have shown, is exactly the opposite. Psychiatrists and mental health workers are so far out of touch with reality that they seek any way possible to justify the abusive, coercive, pseudo-scientific practices of psychiatry. Here is the reality: psychiatry is a pseudo-scientific system of abuse, torture, drugging, labeling, involuntary incarceration and slavery that masquerades as medicine. Perhaps it is also a reality that most people are completely deceived by psychiatry. But just because most people have been deceived by psychiatry doesn’t mean that this is a good thing. Here is something to consider about a person who is completely in touch with reality. Those who are completely in touch with reality are most often ostracized, rejected, and ridiculed. Szasz and Kraus before him, like Semmelweis, have also been ignored and rejected. Why? Because they told the truth. They saw certain things as they really are. Chesterton put it this way:

            “It is indeed, an absurd exaggeration to say that we are all mad, just as it is true that we are none of us perfectly healthy. If there were to appear in the world a perfectly sane man, he would certainly be locked up. The terrible simplicity with which he would walk over our minor morbidities, or sulky vanities and malicious self-righteousness; the elephantine innocence with which he would ignore our fictions or civilization—these would make him a thing more desolating and inscrutable than a thunderbolt or a beast of prey. It may be that the great prophets who appeared to mankind as mad were in reality raving with an impotent sanity.” – G.K. Chesterton, Lunacy and Letters

            Those who oppose psychiatry rave with this kind of impotent sanity. The question is whether or not others will begin to listen to reason. The closer one is to sanity, the more clearly he sees psychiatry for what it really is.

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          • Much Madness is divinest Sense–
            To a discerning Eye–
            Much Sense–the starkest Madness–
            ‘Tis the Majority
            In this, as all, prevail–
            Assent–and you are sane–
            Demur–you’re straightway dangerous–
            And handled with a Chain–

            Emily Dickinson

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  4. Thanks, Ron, for providing this article of a valid alternative to the standard treatment for “extreme states.”

    You tell how Sean says: ” . . . holotropic breathwork can be both very effective and reasonably safe, provided that it is performed in a highly secure, private retreat setting.”

    For me the most important common denominator for safety is the experience of the shaman or leader of this adventure into altered states, and my compatibility with him or her. The setting is likewise important, but let’s not leave out the importance of the facilitator’s skill set, please.

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  5. This is very similar to shamanic work – of dealing with extreme states in safe, prescribed spaces (set and setting – no need for drugs). Giving the format and space for exploration of meaning within the altered state, releasing the pressure of the cognitive dissonance – or revolution, as you call it – and gain a “prescription” from the inner self, as represented by Guardians, Guides, Ancestors, Angels – it doesn’t really matter what you call these deeper, higher influences – just that – there is meaning to the state. Even though it may be “disorganized,” with guidance, it can be brought to light, just as the Shadows can be illuminated and integrated. It really is the highest calling to work these things through, and those who have done it are empowered, interesting, curious, passionate, and engaged with living, because they’ve experienced directly the meaning behind their “events.”

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    • Hi JanCarol, I agree that this kind of work goes by different names and descriptions, including what we now call shamanic practice. I also agree with you that it offers a chance of true healing and entrance into the states of wellbeing you describe! So much different than spending the rest of one’s life trying to run away from certain experiences…..

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  6. The recording of the webinar on this topic is now available, for free, at https://youtu.be/MO3_Odqq-7k I think Sean and his team are really on to something – for lots of people at least, I think turning toward the intense inner experiences they need to have and process, in a setting and at the time they choose, will be really effective in getting them to a place where they are no longer haunted by “disorders” that need suppression, by drugs or otherwise!

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  7. Ron, I’m coming to this debate very late. I’m a Brit, who’s had psychotic episodes – and what I’ve experienced is how they’ve healed and transformed me. The me I thought I was, and instead, these events pushed me to be someone much more compassionate, leading a fulfilling and meaningful life.

    The psychosis also cured me of my addiction: alcohol.

    One thing I absolutely avoided, even when I was most terrified and ill (but still functioning enough to work part-time) was medication, as I knew (in a gnostic sense) that the pain was trying to teach me something, if only I would sit still and listen. Sitting with it all led to the transformation on many levels.

    Here in the UK, I discovered “Open Dialogue”, the therapy I’d been searching for, for 5 years. Dr. Russell Razzaque, who brought this wonderful therapy to the UK, authored a great book: “Breaking down is waking up.” That helped me see that what I’d experienced was natural and – over time – incredibly healing. I took part in their first tranche of the roll-out across the UK. One of the preconditions was that patients could not be using medication. Yes!

    I can’t express in words, how utterly restorative and healing it is to be listened to and heard by a team unbound by time (my first session took 3 hours) to unpick the early childhood trauma which had led to deep depression, anxiety, and addiction. They valued my prophetic dreams (which two other therapists were dismissive of) and insights into the sacred nature of our soul. I told them that what they’re doing is sacred work: helping people rebirth their real selves. The whole, spiritual, emotional and physical person they were meant to be.

    Interestingly, I spoke at their annual conference in 2017, shortly after I’d read Stanislav and Christina Grof’s book “Spiritual Emergency”. I talked about the sacred nature of our soul, and how paying attention to it, along with dreams and what appears to be synchronicity (the real way of the world, in my lived experience) heals us. Afterwards, two professionals approached me: one to tell me that I probably was mentally ill and had I read Stanislav’s book? I informed him that while he may view me as mentally ill, I’m in fact spiritually well. The other said: “well that was brave, middle class and owning up to mental illness.” I was totally stunned by these responses. There is HUGE work to be done in the profession, to put it mildly.

    I’m absolutely clear: my ‘psychosis’ healed me. No medication, just sitting with it all, because I knew that most practitioners wouldn’t get it, because many aren’t open to the reality within themselves waiting to be birthed. Does the profession prefer to medicate others, because they are frightened of who THEY could become? In the coming months, I hope to help Open Dialogue roll out across the UK, because to have such quiet, non-judgmental “sitting with” sessions is astounding in its ability to birth something and someone far richer and deeper.

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    • Annette – I am very interested in all you’ve said here. Your experience of “psychosis” echoes my own. I wrote about it on MiA – here is the link…

      https://www.madinamerica.com/2017/08/anti-psychiatry-thoughts-of-a-cartoon-anteater/

      I have read about Open Dialogue and listened to the MiA podcast with Russell Razzaque about it. Pretty sure it’s not available in my locality yet, but I hold onto a scrap of hope that this will spread across the UK. Bet if I mentioned it to my GP, I’d be met with a blank look.

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      • Hi Auntie, I found your story fascinating and very helpful. i’ll take a look at your book too, btw!

        Open Dialogue was rolled out to all NHS Trusts in April 2016. That means your GP CAN refer you to the team. The drawback is you must be able to travel to London (Barking, Essex, to be precise) to have the treatment. They are training many people in the therapy, throughout the year. As I had a 90 mile journey, each way, I’ve been able to Skype my appointments in the past year. I spoke to my main therapist who told me they’re full right now, but that may change later this year, as more are trained up.

        Might be worth calling their central number and see when/if new appointments are available, via your GP: 0300 555 1200
        https://www.nelft.nhs.uk/dialoguefirst

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    • Thanks Annette for sharing your experience, and I hope you do write more as a blog post! I had something similar happen – experiences and time spent exploring perspectives that psychiatry sees as psychotic, but making sense of it as a process of healing and transformation. I think there can be real dangers in going through this kind of process, and it isn’t the same for everyone – some people go to deeper and more intense places than I did and need much more support to navigate it safely – but many more would get through it successfully if we aimed more at exploration and working through, not suppression.

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      • Hi Ron, I will definitely submit my story, and follow the guidelines (checking it out with my therapist first.)

        I was very lucky to have lived in Ethiopia in the 1960s, when my dad worked for Ethiopian Airlines. I observed ancient ways of community and sitting with. That has stayed with me through thick and thin all my life. (I wasn’t taught this by my modern, European parents, btw.) Any problems I have, I sit and allow ‘it’ to speak to me.

        I agree, for some (many?), it’s unwise, if we’re not rooted in ancient customs (which is also where my faith lies, not in religion!) No need for ayahuasca, just sitting with, as Setoria and Open Dialogue so eloquently demonstrate….

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  8. Annette,

    I’ve read about Open Dialogue. If it Works then it Works.

    The UK Mental Health System is in Crisis so they shouldn’t be too particular.

    With the success of Open Dialogue they could always charge people – with the persons “Future Self” at a later date paying the bill.

    I’d love to hear more from you on the subject. Are you gojng to write an Article for Mad in America?

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    • Hi Fiachra, are you a mental health professional? Just interested in your perspective.

      The whole of our NHS is in crisis, owing to successive governments the past 20 years NOT raising income tax to pay for a service which is still regarded by many as the best in the world. Incredible staff. There are private psychiatrists using the Open Dialogue methodology in the UK already, fyi.

      I will definitely draft an article for Mad in America. Not sure if it will be accepted, as I have a British perspective, but it’s worth a shot! Thanks for the suggestion. xx

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  9. Thanks Annette,

    I would say Mad in America
    readers would be very interested in Articles on UK Open Dialogue Success Stories.

    The NHS spends a lot of money unsuccessfully. But even the taxes paid by the Recovered themselves over a period of time would pay for their Open Dialogue Treatment.

    (I’m not a Mental Health Professional, myself ).

    Thanks x

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