Ideas of mental illness carry a lot of presumption. Namely, that someone acting a particular way is sick—their mind has the flu. Plenty of thoughtful people have pointed out that what we call the mind is at best a metaphorical concept, and that metaphors cannot have health. I wholeheartedly agree.
Yet, clearly something unusual is happening somewhere if I start believing I am being poisoned despite evidence to the contrary, or—as in my own experience—I think people might be behind mirrors nefariously watching me. For a time, I believed that theorizing about “what’s happening” during these experiences was in itself a problem because theory often shuts down intuitive, heartfelt responses by others, and narrows meaning-making by oneself. If I see you as delusional, I’m not likely to connect; if I see myself as delusional, I’m not likely to investigate further.
So, I’m weary from the outset of the question: What is psychosis? Or: What is (insert preferred term for the aforementioned experiences)? It’s a minefield, and I’m convinced there is no unifying theory that applies to everyone—just as there’s no unifying theory of love, joy, fear… other mindsets. And in any case, I wouldn’t be in the best position to create such theory if it were possible.
But I am certain that what we call psychosis is not a disease. I am certain of this because there are plants on the planet—hundreds, everywhere, for a very long time—that produce states of psychosis in their neighboring fungi, plants, bacteria, and animals (all of whom have serotonin receptors); states that are beneficial for the health of that eco-range. As such, the physiological process of psychosis—that of amplified senses—is ecologically purposeful. Not good nor bad (which are always context-dependent), but part of what Nature does trying to grow.
Last year, I wrote an essay called “To See an Atom” arguing these points, and earlier this year I gave the following talk in Boulder, Colorado exploring these themes.
In this talk, I explore how existing in an environment of dead things—as opposed to a living world who communicates—influences our current thinking about mind and mental health. Our houses are converted forests; our computers are converted mountains; our toilet water is a converted river. Much of the wild world is now a garden, and so a garden becomes the template in which modern people rap philosophic about the bounds of sanity. Because a garden is a rational, controlled space, any irrational, uncontrolled experience—including psychosis—will be cast from it. Yet if we step out of the garden and back into the old growth, I believe the process of psychosis belongs as part of Earth’s “will,” of her wild, and as such deserves a re-appraisal.