Ten years ago I experienced psychosis, which some people believed was a drug-induced psychosis. It was actually a quote, often incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein, that pushed me over the edge:
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Looking back, I can see how the psychosis emerged. I was being indoctrinated into a system that my spirit could not accept.
It was 2011. The year of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Experts from all different fields were increasingly calling for social and political change. People were talking about the Maya calendar. Some said there would be a spiritual revolution. Others, the end of the world. I was 27 years old, in the third year of my PhD in Psychology at a university in Cairns, Australia. My work was focused on the hemispheric asymmetry of emotion, asking the question: “Where is emotion in the brain?”
For every quote I read, I could see that half of it belonged to the left hemisphere (i.e. the rational mind is a faithful servant) and the other half belonged to the right (i.e. the intuitive mind is a sacred gift). Even Aboriginal proverbs: “Those who lose dreaming are lost.”
Some people say to be careful what you wish for. I had made a New Year’s resolution for 2011 to be “the year of potentiality.” Because I was not very bright at school and later ended up getting a scholarship to do a PhD, I was genuinely curious about what humans are capable of.
Towards the end of that year, my friend Rachel who I was living with at the time wanted to go to the Woodford Folk Festival for New Year’s. I had never been to a huge festival like Woodford so I agreed and we both signed up to volunteer. On the bus on the way to the festival, one guy was reading a book. We started chatting and exchanged some quotes. One of the quotes that he loved and shared was: “Truth disappears with the telling of it.”
I had always been taught that festivals are “bad.” I was taught that they are just a big drug fest, a waste of space and full of people with no direction or purpose in life. People of no value or the classic: people who don’t have a “real job.”
I was blown away by what I found. This festival was like a mini Utopia. The sheer amount of hard work, devotion and love that went into Woodford was seriously impressive. There was delicious vegan food, artists way cooler than me, meditation areas with sacred music. The festival also had a conference with leading scientists on cutting edge issues like climate justice. I did not take drugs at Woodford. If I drank, it was barely anything. I did not experience people irresponsibly drunk or crazy high. I saw a community of extreme talent.
At the festival there was a wishing well. I have only ever had one fascination in life and therefore one wish. My whole life I saw science and religions fighting. I saw beliefs destroy relationships and people even kill each other. I would often defend my Persian Bahai friend when Australians teased her about her faith. For every criticism towards her faith I would throw the same back at science even though I was not religious myself. I was not for religion but I was also not proud of much of the arrogance I personally experienced within science.
So I made one wish and I put it into the wishing well: “I wish for the marriage of science and mysticism.”
That night there was a New Year’s Eve festival and it was truly spectacular. There was a sign made in the shape of the letters “ME” that was set on fire. At the end of the performance, the sign was turned upside down and the word flipped to “WE.” Something happened to me at this festival. Everything just clicked and connected from the moment I arrived. Things that made no sense, or only made sense intellectually, became an embodied reality.
My perception was enhanced. There were bricks on the ground with sentences carved in them like “Love is the answer.” Normally I would see something like this and not think too much of it. However, I read these words and felt the statement penetrate every fibre of my being. I felt the bricks on the ground. Love really was the answer.
The next day, New Year’s Day 2012, there was a Tibetan dawn service. It was the most surreal experience. Nearly everyone was crying, it seemed for the world. My 2011 New Year’s resolution — that I had completely forgotten! — returned to my mind: “The year of potentiality.”
That’s when my PhD, the state of the planet and injustice and trauma all around the world made complete sense to me:
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift. The rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
I had no idea that my wish for the marriage of science and mysticism would become my living reality. I wanted my PhD to explain the brain hemispheres’ involvement in this marriage. I could see it played out from the beginning of history to where psychology and psychiatry are now, and the destruction of other cultures and their systems as a consequence of the intellect. Why the intellect? As the Dalai Lama says: “Love is the absence of judgment.”
I had listened to a climate scientist at the festival, Dr Graeme Taylor, share his book Evolution’s Edge: The Coming Collapse and Transformation Of Our World. I remember thinking: no one will connect with climate change until they feel deeply connected to the natural world, and you cannot deeply connect to the natural world unless you are deeply connected to yourself.
I remember thinking my PhD could be the necessary link. I thought we needed to deconstruct psychology and help people drop the Psychological Mind to reconnect to themselves. I had already directly experienced this so I knew it was possible.
I went back to the university and unsurprisingly these ideas were not embraced. I was kindly advised to write a book.
I did not want to write a book outside of my PhD because that was my whole point. The exclusion of reality was the very reason so much of life and therefore ourselves has been rejected, destroyed, lost. That was the entire point: Where is the love in institutions and business?
Love is freedom. It does not require qualifications, complex theories, diagnostic categories, standardised testing, training, endorsements. And actually these things often get in the way of our innate capacity to be deeply human, genuinely kind, caring and compassionate.
Despite this realization, my options were to soldier on with my original PhD topic or to leave. But something within me had fundamentally changed. I no longer saw the relevance of my topic. We all knew that nearly no one would ever read it.
I had found a genius locked away inside every single one of us and that was all I could now see and all I cared to talk about. How much Western education has discriminated against the majority of its willing participants because they did not colour inside the lines, or fit in a box.
There are some sections of this time of my life that I cannot remember, or I do recall but I cannot place events into the correct order. Trauma will do that.
I remember that one day towards the end of my PhD I was in the university lab, reading the work of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist who had just published a book on the divided brain and the making of the Western world. McGilchrist’s work was also on hemispheric asymmetry. He argued that there once was a balance between the two hemispheres of the brain. The fractured and decontextualized world we see today is a consequence of the left hemisphere outrunning the right.
Among other things, the left hemisphere is the bureaucrat trapped in a hall of mirrors who cannot see outside of himself. He cannot see the whole picture, which is too big. So the brain formulates a map, which works for the most part. However, this map has become so far removed from reality, illustrated by our explosion of mental illness and the climate crisis.
McGilchrist described the right hemisphere as relational and connected to all that is. However, its all-knowing voice is silent. Dr Jill Bolte Taylor released a TED Talk A Stroke of Insight that mirrored this. She had a stroke in her left hemisphere. As her left hemisphere shut down, so did her constant brain chatter, “to do” lists and years of baggage. Imagine that. Dr Taylor’s right hemisphere was still online, which she described affectionately as “la la land.” She also realised that this is traditionally known as Nirvana: Freedom.
According to Dr Taylor, our left hemisphere is the “I am” — our sense of separateness. I am Louise. I am female. I am 37. I am Australian. I am an academic. I am a psychologist. I am a human rights activist. The right hemisphere is not interested in “I am.” So here, I am “that which is not,” inseparably connected to everything, beyond words.
So you can imagine me at 25 years old asking a simple question, “Where is emotion in the brain?” and by 27 stumbling upon all of this. My PhD had taken me from my left hemisphere to my right. I became nothing, connected to the entire universe, beyond words.
I remember thinking to myself that I had just found this secret treasure, the solution to life’s greatest dilemma: a divided brain in the Western world. Around the same time that I had this realization, a woman walked into the lab wearing nothing but swimmers with bleeding cuts and scratches on her legs. Her eyes were wide awake. She had just come out of a night spent in the rainforest. She said to me, “I’ve been connected to the Universe.” I was speechless.
This woman was in a mixed state of blissfulness, distress and terror. As I began to comfort her, my PhD supervisors returned from somewhere. They asked if she was okay. The woman started sharing her story. Next minute a clown on a scooter came into the lab.
The clown interrupted us and started making an animal with a balloon. The first thing that came to my mind was the left hemisphere bureaucrat! Distraction from this moment of truth at hand. In reality it was just Orientation Week. A friendly clown the university had hired.
Before I knew it, an ambulance arrived and the woman was taken away. I asked my supervisor what would happen to her. I was advised that the ambulance had taken her to the mental hospital. This destroyed me.
While I remember both stories vividly, Woodford festival and the woman in the lab, I cannot recall which one was before or after. All I remember is that my PhD connected me to the Universe and that I witnessed the one other person who had a similar experience being locked away in a mental hospital.
The only way I can describe the six months of my life that followed these events is that it was like taking an acid trip that went horrifically wrong. My reality melted, and not just as some poetic description. My entire reality became a living and waking nightmare. I will not go into my symptoms of psychosis other than to say that they were truly debilitating and terrifying. I can relate to Russell Crow, the movie A Beautiful Mind. I was in and out of hospital for 6 months. Even once I was finally stabilised, a part of me was gone.
My spirit died.
I barely held a conversation for the year after I left hospital. I seemed to be a lost cause. Some called me crazy behind my back. Some assumed it was a drug-induced psychosis. I took no drugs at Woodford. I simply made a New Year’s resolution and I got exactly what I asked for.
My wish for the marriage of science and mysticism was also realised, although I could not materialise it in my PhD. Ten years later I now understand why. Even if my beautiful PhD supervisors had said yes, you can do that, it would never have worked anyway. Ten years ago I had not found martial arts, yoga, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and India’s cultures, my partner from the Philippines, or the trauma informed tools for well-being that collectively were fundamental to my recovery from psychosis. It is almost as if I had to fall and completely break down to find these treasures over the next ten years. I had the vision but I had zero life experience to make it a reality.
I actually cried several times this year because even though I was unable to explore this for my PhD, my dream did eventually flower. I have shared my truth with the world. I have created a website, Trauma Informed World, which is everything I wanted my PhD to be. So my tears are gratitude. My tears are also loss and grief for those who were punished or even killed for sharing their truth. Tears of admiration that many people have woken up enough that stories like this can be shared and are less shunned.
Tears of a lotus flower. The greater the mud the more beautiful the flower. I lost three years of my life to my first psychosis. I lost eight months to my second psychosis. I am living proof that your entire world can be smashed into a trillion pieces and you can recover and turn the broken pieces of glass into a kaleidoscope. I am living proof that you can be absolutely terrified of something and find yourself in the heart of your once greatest fear.
I would like to state here that in no way is my path necessarily advised or the right path. All I know is that I followed my heart. If you do tell your truth and it is denied, rejected, misrepresented or twisted and turned against you, please know that I understand as do the many others that this has also happened to. There are plenty of them out there.
I can see my errors looking back. I thought my truth was everyone’s. I saw a world where world peace is possible and free and I wanted all of us to be there. But that was never going to happen immediately. Just because I see it, does not mean others do, no matter how clearly I see it.
What I do know is I am unbelievably curious about what lies inside each one of us. Imagine if we lived in safe environments where we were all given the opportunity to explore how to flower?
This is why my vision is for a trauma informed world. There are as many paths to truth as there are people. We know the ingredients required and they are within reach. I want that sense of freedom to be a living reality for every person before we die.
“The language of psychosis is an intelligible one, though steeped in metaphor. It is a human language, but a language of despair. And it is only spoken when all other attempts of communication have failed.” – Dr Dan Edmunds
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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