Promoting Healing After Psychosis

Ron Unger, LCSW
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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.

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.

  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).

    • 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.

    • “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.

  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.

  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.

  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.”

  6. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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

  7. 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?

    • 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

  8. 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