Editor’s note: This Around the Web is to a video that was posted three years ago by Daniel Mackler. Ann Silver died in 2021.
From Daniel Mackler/Wild Truth: “A couple of days ago I was having a conversation with a psychiatrist whom I’ve been friends with for a long, long time. She’s actually in my film Take These Broken Wings, her name is Ann Silver. And we were talking about the subject of psychosis, a subject that has been near and dear to both of our hearts . . . so she spontaneously said to me, ‘You know I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject of psychosis,’ and she said, ‘You know what I think it is really? I think it’s just horrible things that little children went through when they were very, very young, terrible things that they went through that they couldn’t deal with and they buried and they split off’ — by the way, this is very much in line with my thinking — and she said, ‘what it is, is it’s just something that they didn’t deal with at the time, they pushed it down because it was too painful, and then later in their life when they’re 18, 19, 20, 21’ — that age when ‘schizophrenia often rears its head,’ according to what psychiatry says — ‘that’s a time when they go through something that’s sort of comparable to it, and all that early stuff just bursts out.’
I thought that was very insightful of her. And then she said, ‘It’s not really even a sickness or a disease at all, as psychiatry says. Really what it is, is they are just trying to reprocess. They’re trying to make sense of what they went through; they’re trying to understand it, work through it. And so it’s actually a very healthy process, to make sense of it.’ And I totally agree with her. Now what I added is, ‘that’s not at all what the mental health field says.’ And what’s also interesting, I said, is this: I’ve heard so many people . . . say, ‘Yeah, but that’s not what my son or daughter is going through’ when they had their psychotic episode at 17, 18, 19, 20, ‘because they never had a traumatic experience like that, they never had profound abandonments or traumas, they never went through severe loneliness or anything like that, that’s not something that my child went through’ . . . And what I said to Ann is, the problem when those parents say that is, to me, it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily right at all. Because in my experience, when they say this it really is suggesting how much they’re actually out of touch with the emotional reality of their children’s early childhood. And I have seen that again and again and again, with parents, they have all sorts of different reasons for not wanting to really acknowledge or empathize with or even know, be aware of what their [young] children went through . . . it’s too painful, they have too much denial around it . . .
And a metaphor for this idea that parents can be so absolutely clueless about what their little babies or children are actually going through emotionally is how people treat their pets. Well in New York City it’s a common phenomenon that people have these tiny little apartments . . . and they have dogs, and what I hear so commonly is people going off to work for the whole day and they leave their dogs in these tiny little apartments. Dogs being kind of like humans in a way, they’re very social animals, pack animals, like humans, and what happens is they leave their dog . . . eight or ten hours later they come home from work and the dog by that time has given up and is in a horrible state of just saying, I give up, no one’s coming back for me . . . the owner comes home and the dog is thrilled to see the owner because it’s been so lonely and miserable and bored all day long and then what happens is the owner says, ‘Yay, see, my dog loves me too, my dog is so, so, so happy [to see me],’ and they don’t really know even remotely the emotional reality of what this dog has gone through all day long. And sometimes what happens is the only way they find out what the dog has gone through all day long is when the neighbors complain [and] the management leaves a sign on the person’s door saying, You have got to stop your dog from crying [or] barking all day long, your dog is going nuts and it’s bothering people. And then the person goes, Oh my god, I don’t want trouble, I don’t want to lose my lease. And then what happens so commonly in New York is, then they medicate the dog. They give the dog anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants. But they don’t deal with the fundamental problem [which is that] the dog is incredibly lonely . . . they just want to push the problem down.
And I think that those people are very comparable to a lot of parents with their young children . . . they don’t actually relate to what the child has gone through, and they don’t explore it, and then twenty years later when the kid is going through a psychotic experience and all this wild stuff is coming up, the parent doesn’t know, they don’t know where it’s coming from because they never related to what had happened in the first place.
Now what’s even more confusing about psychosis . . . is when people are having this eruption of early childhood trauma, what makes it so confusing for everybody in the world, especially for parents — parents who don’t want to see the history, and the mental health system that also doesn’t often want to look at the history at all, doesn’t even find it interesting or curious or just outright denies it — what it is when this eruption of early childhood abandonment, violation, pain, rage, terror, all these different things — loneliness, profound loneliness, all this stuff that’s bursting up — it’s not expressing itself through the lens of an early child. It’s expressing itself through the lens, through the body, through the voice of someone who is now an adult. And that’s what makes it so confusing. So what happens is it’s all the feelings and all the thoughts and everything that was going on in someone who might be six months old, eight months old, a year old, something like that — people who are pre-verbal, even — and yet now all these feelings are being expressed through the lens of an adult or an almost-adult self; through a verbal person, a person who can say things, who can argue, who can use intellectual arguments. But really the stuff that’s driving it and motivating it is not adult, it’s infantile — it’s toddler stuff. And so what happens is it comes out in incredibly confusing ways. And psychiatry says, ‘Oh,’ they give these fancy words, ‘they’re going through this or that or schizophrenic break’ or whatever it is, fancy old Greek words. Because we can’t understand what they’re saying, we call it ‘word salad,’ but really what it is, it’s just very, very early childhood stuff, and this can really throw people off.
And there’s no reason to think that someone who’s expressing really early profound childhood stuff would express it in an adult manner. And that’s why so many therapists don’t want to work with people who are going through these psychotic breaks in adulthood, or they’re very confused by it, or it makes them incredibly anxious. Because all they know how to do is these intellectual ways of interacting, intellectual ways of reasoning with a person, reasoning with them in an adult way, ‘Ok, let’s take a step back and intellectually study what you’re going through.’ That would never work with trying to be there for a child who’s going through a profound post-traumatic reaction. And it works just as poorly when someone who’s 20 or 25 years old is going through an early childhood post-traumatic reaction through the lens of an adult. Their behavior gets called ‘bizarre,’ ‘confusing,’ ‘makes no sense,’ ‘is out of touch with the reality’; whereas actually it’s incredibly in touch with reality, it’s just in touch with the reality that people aren’t aware of as a reality because it’s a very early childhood reality . . . and on top of that, it really is a desire to heal, a desire to express these buried feelings that got triggered by an adult situation that happened to be somewhat similar to that.
No wonder so many people go through this psychotic, first psychotic break between the ages of, what, 17 to 25? It’s a time where childhood is abandoned, where people have to become independent; all these ancient feelings are kind of parallel to what’s going on now. People are leaving their families; they’re being abandoned by their families; they have to function in the outside world; they have all this incredible pressure on them from the outside world and from their families and from within themselves. It’s a time that really goes right down into the ancient self of who they are, and if their foundation is not that good, that stuff really can burst out, no big surprise.
So now I’m going to share one last idea and that is what would be good ‘treatment,’ what would be a good way to help someone who’s 20 years old and is having an absolute eruption of stuff from 19 or 20 years earlier in their life, emotions, unprocessed emotions from back then. Well before I get into what good ‘treatment’ is, let’s look at what conventional ‘treatment’ is. And then when we look at conventional ‘treatment,’ we can see so often why conventional psychiatry, the conventional mental health system has such a hopeless attitude toward full recovery for people with these problems.
Conventional psychiatry restrains people and medicates them. And when they medicate them and give them antipsychotics, basically what they’re doing is trying to numb the person down. And fundamentally it’s taking all those emotions, all that stuff that’s erupting and putting a cap on it, putting a lid on it and trying to push it down . . . as fast as possible: let’s inject them with Haldol, let’s give them pills which knock them out; if they don’t want to take [the pills], let’s force them to take [them], let’s force them to take injections, we’ll put them in restraints if they act out too much.
It’s like: these are the worst ways to treat someone who’s going through an eruption of babyhood, early childhood stuff. Would we want to ‘treat’ a baby by injecting them with medication and restraining them? No. A baby needs love and caring and respect; they need lack of abandonment, they need more nurturance, more time, more gentleness, more empathy, more caring, more touch . . . I’ve learned that again and again, there’s no better way to make a connection with someone who’s going through these feelings than to honor that ‘You are going through something that actually makes sense, especially if we look at it in the light of your history’ . . . and just to assume that this actually is rational, what you’re going through, it might look irrational but in a greater context and a greater understanding of your history, this is rational. And so therefore I as a clinician [should] honor it . . . and what I found is that is incredibly helpful to people. And what I’ve also seen is the programs around the world . . . that follow this, each in its own specific way — and sometimes not even programs, sometimes just kind people, or therapists working in isolation, therapists like Ann Silver . . . what they do is they don’t medicate people, they don’t force them to be anything other than who they are and instead try to help them, and sometimes try to include even their family system in trying to gain new perspective on what this person went through, and don’t treat them like the dog in the New York City apartment who’s been abandoned, which is just — medicate it, force it, shut it up, put a muzzle on it. I remember once I had a neighbor who had crying dogs and what she did is she got a little contraption that anytime it would cry it would spray vinegar into its eyes. Because she was so terrified that the dogs would be taken away and she’d lose her lease, because she’d go out and abandon these dogs in her apartment all day long. It’s like, wow, spraying vinegar into the dog’s eyes every time it cried as ‘negative behavioral therapy,’ that sounds a lot like how traditional psychiatry works . . .
But in the long run the evidence [shows that] the more humane ways, the more respectful ways, the more ways of honoring what people are going through and considering it, as Ann Silver said, a healthy desire, a healthy motivation from within to work this stuff out, to make sense of what somebody went through, even if they’re not necessarily consciously aware of it — actually, by definition, they’re not consciously aware of it — and I think the therapist can help them become more consciously aware that they actually are going through something fundamentally healthy, even if to the outside world it doesn’t look that way — well, doing that, all these different ways that humans have figured out how to help people, how to honor them, how to bring them back into community, how to love them and nurture them and not abandon them all over again, not repeat that trauma of abandonment — these are the ways to help people move forward in life, grow, and become functional, happy adults again.”
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