I hadn’t slept for five nights. I had studied a book, Why We Sleep, when I was doing a psychology degree four years earlier. Apparently nobody had ever died from lack of sleep, but they had gone a little crazy, paranoid. I wasn’t afraid of that. I was afraid of death. I couldn’t imagine not existing. The thing that imagined it would have to not be there. Head fuck. I was overwhelmed by the metaphysics. Logically, I knew I wasn’t going to die: No bus was about to run me over. It was just my ego’s swansong before it disintegrated.
I knew insomnia would grip me, my brain reclaiming its freedom after seven years of being in a cannabis fog. I had tried to give up cannabis a few times, but it was always the same. The sleeplessness kicked in and I gave in. Not this time. I was determined to see it through, whatever the outcome.
The outcome was hospital. The psychiatrist asked me three questions. I had heard about these questions. My mum’s friend had told her about them when her son went mad from cannabis. Mum never said what the questions were, just that her friend had been really impressed because they enabled the doctors to ascertain whether you’re sane or not.
The first question:
“Do you know who you are?” Of course I didn’t. I had lost my ego. I beamed at the psychiatrist, shrugging my shoulders.
She asked me the second question.
“Do you know how you got here?” I had no idea how any of us got here. Big Bang? Evolution? I shrugged again.
The third and final question:
“Do you know who I am?” Her tone emphasised the gravity of the situation. Her name badge said Ravi Shankar. She wasn’t the Ravi Shankar, the one who played sitar for The Beatles, and father of Norah Jones. Were they playing a trick on me? I shrugged again, smiling, as if to say I was in on the joke.
I was admitted onto the psychiatric ward at 2 a.m. on Saturday 14th December, 1996, after the strangest Friday the 13th ever. The cosmic irony was not lost on me.
I didn’t realise that I was experiencing psychosis. To me, it felt like a spiritual awakening.
“What has happened to me?” I asked when I finally got a meeting with the consultant and her team.
“As far as we can tell, you have had a psychotic episode, probably triggered by cannabis.”
I couldn’t understand why the doctors thought differently. They weren’t the ones on the inside of it. They didn’t even ask me what I was experiencing, so how could they know? The consultant only wished to know if I had heard any voices. She wasn’t asking out of interest, but to simply confirm her diagnosis. When I told her that I had heard a voice, she wrote something in her notes, satisfied, as if she had got the answer to the test right. I never got to tell her that the voice was positive. I never got to tell her that it had helped me rather than disturbed me.
“You are beautiful,” it had said, like an angel.
I never got to tell her that I had only heard it once and the voice seemed to come from behind me rather than from inside my head. None of this was of any interest to her. She was only focused on confirming that she had made the correct diagnosis. She may have made the right call according to her training, but from one human being to another she had utterly failed.
Instead of asking what is wrong with a person, I think we should be asking what has happened to them. Only then can we truly help anyone deal with the distress that they are in. A diagnosis is a dead end; or worse still, a signpost to soul-deadening medication.
It was labeled “cannabis psychosis” because my blood test showed the presence of dope. But had the mental health professionals taken onboard my story, they would have seen that the psychosis resulted from giving up cannabis rather than using it. I had actually been to my doctor for help with the insomnia, but he had prescribed tranquilisers instead of the sleeping tablets that I had asked for. Not only had the medical system failed to help me navigate the psychosis, but also had failed to help me prevent it in the first place.
My psychosis was a doorway into my unconscious, the place where traumatic experiences from my childhood lay buried. During my first psychotic episode, I spoke of having been sexually abused as a child, even though I had no memory of it. My sister, who had also been abused, later confirmed this. She had kept it a secret all these years. My psychosis exposed this important family secret that could now be healed.
Other memories surfaced and spoke to me through strange charades. I would get the urge to act out a little play that was a story from my life. I even had scenarios come to me from before I was born, from the womb time and past lives as well. On the outside, I looked quite mad, but I was working through unresolved psychological material. Since I had lost my ego, I had no need to explain myself or be seen in a positive light. Preservation of my reputation was not on my list of priorities.
I was also able to see auras around objects and people. I once saw a sparkler of light appear and form a figure-eight shape, the infinity sign, before disappearing again. Memories from past lives with healthcare workers came to my mind and played out like a movie scene in my head. Sometimes I heard incongruent thoughts that people were thinking but denied having: the socially unacceptable ones that we never say out loud. I didn’t think that all of this was not real. I believed that psychosis had opened the doors of perception. But to speak of these experiences was to be labeled, so I didn’t tell anyone. I knew they would have been denied and, worse still, pathologised.
Even in times when I am not experiencing psychosis, I have had some unusual experiences that would be interpreted by our modern reductionist view as not being real. I once saw a golden ribbon of light come from my belly button. I have also felt the energy of spirits inside my body communicating to me how they have died by taking the shape of the weapon that had killed them. Each time I acknowledged their death, they sent love into my heart, thanking me, before moving on to the light. I have also communicated with dolphins psychically. There is no way we can prove that any of this is not real. Unfortunately, the onus is on me to prove that it is and that is not possible, either. So it all comes down to belief.
An official definition of psychosis might go something like this: Psychosis is a mental disorder that causes you to lose touch with reality. You might see, hear, or believe things that aren’t real. But to say a person is out of touch with reality is to ignore the validity of the reality that they are in touch with. This is not only disempowering, but also fails to celebrate the journey that the person is on.
I have been able to study psychosis, firsthand, as someone with a degree in psychology. I have also been a professional shiatsu therapist for 10 years, which has given me an Eastern perspective through which to view my experiences. I now believe that psychosis is actually an attempt by the psyche to heal.
Psychosis comes from the Greek word psyche, meaning soul, and osis, meaning process. So it can be seen as a soul process. On the highest level, it is the soul attempting to return to wholeness. It does this by first moving the ego out of the way. The ego is an identity that is constructed by the mind in order to survive as a social species. It doesn’t exist per se, as a physical organ like the brain. It is simply the mind’s created idea of who it thinks it is. Observe a child at the age of three, as yet without a fully formed ego. It expresses itself freely and in the moment. It doesn’t care what anybody else thinks about it. The ego provides a useful function: making sure we behave in a socially acceptable way so that we’re not banished from the tribe and made vulnerable to predators. Watch the same child at age five, with an ego, and you will see how it is looking to see how it should behave. It is working out the rules and deciding which ones it wants to break and which ones it needs to follow. The ego also helps us survive by taking care of ourselves as a separate body. If we were to remain like a baby, feeling Oneness and Bliss gazing into others’ faces and eyes, we’d be likely to walk across a busy road and get splattered. But when it comes to the health of the soul and the spirit, the ego is not only unnecessary, it may actually be a hindrance.
Once the ego is offline, the soul can take over. It can re-connect with Oneness, Bliss, Peace, and Love. This is the point at which some people mistake their own Christ Consciousness for being the actual Jesus. Without the ego to remember who it thinks it is, mistakes like this are easy to make.
Next, all of the repressed psychological material that the ego banished to the basement of the subconscious comes up to join the party. The Love actually attracts it out of hiding. This psychological material needs to be fully digested in order to re-integrate rejected parts of the self that were banished by the ego. To fully digest it would be to accept and welcome it. When that happens, it no longer causes problems. To label these as symptoms is to miss a unique opportunity. Psychosis is a moment in time in which we have privileged access to our repressed nature. It therefore holds the potential for transformation if we know what to do with it.
We can see it like a broken clock that doesn’t work because there is too much dirt in the mechanism. The mental health service puts the clock on the “damaged” shelf and gives it a little oil so it feels less bothered about the fact that it doesn’t work properly. But there is nothing wrong with the mechanism: It just needs a good cleaning. Psychiatry could and should be doing just that. I believe that psychosis makes the ego disintegrate for a very important reason: in order to access the dirt that is clogging up the mechanism. This dirt is the trauma from childhood and even further back. What if psychiatry were to help clean this out?
It’s time to tell a new story about psychosis: one that shows how it is a process that holds within it the potential for transformation. My new book, My Beautiful Psychosis (available on Amazon on 10 October, 2020) describes the process of experiencing seven episodes of psychosis and attempts to make sense of them.
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.