A heroines journey

Mandala by Carl Jung
Mandala by Carl Jung

Another recovery story submitted by the author. Submissions may be sent to me at any time if you are interested in sharing a recovery story.


By Mary in SC

I was 27 years old when I fell into psychosis. I was a moderately unhappy young housewife with a husband and two children I loved dearly. Unfortunately, my husband had decided a few years after we married that he wanted to leave his sales job in a big east coast city and move to the small southern town where I grew up, so he could go into my family’s furniture business. I went along with what he wanted with severe misgivings, because I hated the pokey little place and couldn’t wait to get away from it and go to college and get married. I had never planned to go back except to visit my family, and here I was stuck in it — for life. I compensated by withdrawing as much as possible from the boring rounds of church, women’s clubs and bridge parties as much as possible and got my kicks visiting nearby cities where I shopped, prowled music and book stores and libraries, and took home their wares to enjoy at my leisure. With my husband in the family business, I even had the luxury of a part time maid and babysitter.

For years, even after college and marriage and two children, I had been trying to deal with the effects of growing up among Scotch-Irish fundamentalists who held rigidly to their impossible childish myths and literal belief in the Bible. How could any educated person continue to think like this? And why? And it wasn’t just Presbyterians and other Christian sects. Every culture in the world, throughout history, had its impossible beliefs and scriptures and mythologies. As my education and experience broadened, this became more and more incredible to me. Why did people hold onto these mistaken ideas and beliefs? What was their power? Where did they come from? Was there anything to them? Were they real? In my spare time I had read hundreds of books, always with this basic problem at the back of my mind. What was religion all about?

One day lying on the floor listening to my favorite Verdi aria on the radio, I suddenly got a hint of what religion was really about. From intense pleasure in the music I escalated to ecstatic oneness with the universe, into a mode of existence I instantly recognized as the kind of thing mystics of all faiths wrote about their union with God, or Buddha, or the All, or whatever they called it. After that, I knew what real religion was about. It all came from people who had the same kind of awesome experience I had had. I had only a tiny taste of it, but I could understand very well now how somebody who experienced more of it than me, and worked out a system for explaining and attaining such experiences, could end up founding a new sect or religion.

After that, I began to study religion in earnest, delving into William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience and progressing through weirdos like Gurdjieff and Ron Hubbard and then anthropologists and philosophers and psychologists to, finally, Carl Jung. And there is where I finally learned that what Jung called the collective unconscious is the source of all mythology. Not only that, but the process of becoming a complete and whole human being, which he called individuation, consists of facing this collective unconscious, experiencing its contents, and then returning to the real world. Only by experiencing both one’s daylight rational side and one’s dark irrational side did one become a whole complete individual. In other words, it dawned on me, Jung was saying you had to go crazy but not stay that way. You had to come back. Jung and all those other famous people, like Goethe and Dante, went crazy, but they were just smart enough to keep their mouths shut and not tell anybody! I was flabbergasted and elated. Not long after that, I found Joseph Campbell’s first book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he followed up on these ideas and applied them to mythological heroes and the founders of religions from all over the world and throughout history. They all began by visiting the dark regions of their own psyches and bringing back to the daylight world what they found there. So the real point of religion was not to believe what the heroes said, but to make your own journey to the underworld and bring your own treasure back to the light of day. That was true spirituality.

In the midst of all these fascinating conclusions, I woke up one morning to find I was experiencing something very strange. My brain seemed to have taken on a life of its own, throwing out ideas and associations like an erupting volcano. I was still in touch with the real world and functioning normally, even fixing breakfast and carrying on a conversation with my husband and managing the children, but the strange world back behind my eyes was becoming increasingly real and demanding. At first I was startled but then excited and even pleased: finally I was experiencing myself some of the things I had been reading about! But as the hours went by the erupting ideas set off increasingly alien trains of thought until I was transfixed with horror, frightened almost out of my wits. My collective unconscious, or whatever you call it, spewed out of the volcano in my brain and unmistakably informed me that the daylight world I lived in was nothing but a sham reality, a flimsy product of human imagination that could be snuffed out in an instant when a mere human glimpsed its source. My fragile consciousness was approaching that source like a doomed moth drawn to a flame.

I nearly panicked. Was this a wonderful spiritual adventure or was I going crazy? How in the world could I endure this without any help? But what was I to do? Who could I go to who could listen to me talk about such things and just be with me and stay calm until it was over? Who besides Jung or one of his students? What hope did I have of finding somebody like that? Suddenly I thought of Ben Jameison, an old high school friend of one of my older brothers who was now a psychiatrist in a town twenty miles away. I could go to Ben. Surely he would know about Jung and his theories, and I could ask him to use Jung’s methods to help me. Or if he couldn’t, maybe he could recommend somebody.

In spite of my best efforts at self control my husband and family soon knew something rather strange was going on with me. I reassured them and said I knew I needed to talk to someone, and that I already had an appointment with Ben Jamieson. I must have been putting up a fairly good front, because no one insisted on going with me when I drove to the appointment. It was, predictably, not very successful. All the psychiatrist knew about Jung was his theory of personality types, like introvert and extravert. My impression was that he learned this from a textbook, not from actually reading Jung. I kept trying. He had never heard of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I tried to use to describe what I was going through, nor even of Joseph Campbell. He interrupted me each time I tried to bring up some example or concept I thought he might be familiar with. Kindness and concern radiated from his ruddy complacent face as he continually told me how mistaken I was, and how much he wished I could have come to him sooner, so he could have spared me so much anxiety and worry. Finally, in desperation, I asked him pointblank if he thought I was crazy. He reassured me. No, I don’t think that, he said. You haven’t come in here trying to get me to believe in Jung’s theories or anything like that. I don’t think you’re crazy. You haven’t acted that way. (I visited Ben once more, about a year later, and he flatly contradicted this. “You were way over the edge, you know,” he said.)

I stared at him in dawning comprehension. You mean I’m not crazy as long as I don’t act crazy?

Well, yes, he said. I guess so. Something like that.

Before I left Ben gave me a prescription for some medicine and told me to be sure to come back to him if it didn’t make me feel better. I thanked him profusely and left.

I left Ben’s office feeling almost hopeful. I had his prescription for medication to help me, and authoritative advice from him: don’t act crazy. For the present, I could quit worrying about whether I was having a spiritual experience or a psychosis and just concentrate on keeping my mouth shut and not acting crazy. Maybe in a few days things would get better.

Looking back on it, I think that was the most important decision I made in dealing with psychosis on a practical level: just to keep my mouth shut. Maybe not the most ideal decision, but the best possible one for me under the circumstances. I knew precisely what would happen if I went back to Ben and tried to tell him or anybody else I knew, even my poor worried husband, about what was really going on in my head. I would fall apart with frustration at not being understood, and that would just prove I really was crazy. Bottom line: hospitalization. No way was I going to deliberately do something that would get me put in a mental institution, not as long as I had a choice.

By the time I got back home, I had a plan for temporarily strengthening my hold on the real world, to keep my daylight consciousness from being overwhelmed by the disaster taking place behind my eyes. To survive I had to have something to keep me rooted in the real world, work to do, occupational therapy. Staying at home with two sweet tempered children and filling my idle hours with reading and classical music would have to go. I would start working in the family furniture business. My husband and family would all think this was a very sensible idea, and I could start immediately. My part time maid would be glad to have a full time job. The children would be happy with her.

Within a day or two I had a corner in a busy store office where my father set me to work at an adding machine with long columns of figures in a ledger and thick packets of canceled checks to be added and balanced. To me, it was like bed to a person with two broken legs. It kept me from thinking and got me through the day.

But there were still nights and weekends, when I had to deal with inner experiences that threatened to tear me away from the daylight world. They began that first day, when I was excited and even pleased to find I was having the same kind of experiences described by mystics of all faiths through the ages. I soon found, though, that even if the experiences were similar, there was a vast difference between me and the mystics in our ability to handle them. I remember standing at the kitchen sink and seeing a squirrel in a tree outside the window. A simple experience in the daylight world, just looking at a squirrel sitting on a branch twitching its tail. But at the same time I was looking at Me, at My childhood, before I was conscious. Thou art that. I was God looking at himself. That was the purpose of my existence: so God could be conscious and look at himself. Terrified, I recognized the classic symptom of mental illness: delusions of grandeur. I thought I was God. Utter insanity.

My thoughts raced uncontrollably, with each concept bringing with it thunderbolts of fresh meaning that exploded before my horrified comprehension. My insights were devastating. I had read Jung’s book Answer to Job. His commentary on the Book of Revelation almost threw me. I was the woman who had to give birth in the wilderness. No Christianity for a midwife, no one to whom I could turn, nothing. Just the pain. “And the earth helped the woman.” I took what comfort I could from that. “And the child went up to God.” I waited, trembling, to find the meaning of that. I was afraid mental institutions were full of those whose child went up to God. Perhaps though it was time for the child to find its place on earth. Maybe that was why my mother named me Mary.

In spite of my resolve not to worry about it just yet, the problem of whether I was going through a spiritual experience or a psychosis tormented me. How was I to know the difference? My brain seized on this problem, raced off in all directions with it, and presented me with another horrifying conclusion. Ben Jamieson was right. You’re not crazy if you don’t act crazy. If I kept my balance, it was a spiritual experience. If I lost control, it was a psychosis. Only a Zen master could bear such a paradox. My poor Presbyterian childhood self expired in lonely anguish. Its god was a joke.

After a very few days of this kind of thing, I reached the limits of my endurance. I was lying in bed one night, my husband holding my hand and bending over me, worried and helpless. I surfaced enough to tell him that my problems were all in my mind, and I knew it, but I just couldn’t get away from them. Finally I gave up and did the one last thing I could do, even if it meant waking up in a psychiatric ward the next day. Our family doctor was a kind young man. He was used to dealing with suffering people, and he was good at it. Call the doctor, I gasped. Please call him. Tell him I need a shot to knock me out. I can’t take this anymore. Please call him.

My husband did as I asked, this being back in the days when you could call a doctor in a small town after office hours and he would come to your house. He was a good family doctor. There was not much he hadn’t seen. He gave me the blessed shot that knocked me out, telling me to come to his office the next day if it didn’t help. It did help. To my surprise, I was able to get up the next morning as usual and go on pretending to be sane. It was a little easier than it had been; terror at searing new insights subsided to terror that they might return. I continued to work in the family business, my safe daylight world, and my husband and family gradually relaxed their worried vigilance.

But I was far from healed. The whole experience still sat in my brain like an undigested lump of force-fed food. I built a kind of wall around it and made a silent truce with it, that it could torment me in private as long as it didn’t make me say or do anything to make people think I was crazy. Common sense told me to leave that writhing undigested lump alone, deny its reality, forget about it, and get on with my life. But my soul laughed at me. I could no more disown the reality of what had happened to me and its still-undigested meaning than I could cut off my right hand. It was there to stay. I had to deal with it.

In another week or two I began to read Jung again, sifting though his abstruse pronouncements looking for practical advice on what to do next, after one had a heavy-duty confrontation with the collective unconscious. The problem was to assimilate it into one’s daylight consciousness and absorb its life-changing lessons, instead of keeping it walled off where its destructive power could break through again. Jung’s term for this process of assimilation was Individuation. Plainly it was going to be a challenge for somebody like me, because he warned that it was a task for the second half of life, something to be undertaken by stable individuals who had made a place for themselves in the world and achieved the necessary emotional maturity. Nobody under forty, he said, should even consider trying to deal with the collective unconscious. Those too young should be led back to the daylight world via Freud.

This was a piece of fatherly advice – it reminded me of Ben Jamieson – which I had little choice but to ignore. I read on, looking for the specific techniques Jung used to help his suitably aged patients deal with the unconscious and its frightening contents. He said he had them express their experience somehow, by painting or drawing or writing or even dancing. When they did this, they would begin to have helpful dreams that gave valuable hints on how they should proceed. And of course, they had Jung himself to interpret their dreams and to give them advice and reassurance.

How much of this could I apply to my own case? Well, I had a college degree in English, and I could write fairly well. I could try writing about my experience, and just see what happened.

First, I wanted to see if I could do without the medication the psychiatrist gave me. If I couldn’t do without it, I probably wasn’t ready to do what I planned to do. Carefully, slowly, I took a little less every few days to wean myself from it properly. There seemed to be no ill effects, in fact not much difference at all, so I finally stopped it completely. (I wish I could say what it was, but the names of psychoactive meds meant very little to me at the time. I simply don’t know.)

So my second important decision, about three months after the day I saw the transcendent squirrel, was to get out my old college typewriter. I was going to try to do what Jung said and write about my experience with the unconscious. I sat down, rolled in a sheet of paper, and stared at the blank page. The enormity of what I was about to do nearly overcame me. I was going to breach that wall I had erected in my brain to protect me from the memory of the experience that had so nearly destroyed my sanity, and I proposed to do this without help or sanction from any professionals, all of whom, even Jung himself, would undoubtedly tell me I was too young and unstable to do such a thing. But even if I failed, somebody, somewhere, would one day read what I wrote and know what I was trying to do, and what it cost me. I forced my trembling fingers to type a few sentences.

I woke up the next morning feeling strangely peaceful, remembering with a deep sense of accomplishment that I had started writing the night before. Then, with a sinking feeling of disaster, I remembered the dream I had before waking up. It proved I was sick, insane, diseased in some awful way I hadn’t even suspected. I had dreamed my father and I were standing on the back steps at home. He stood quietly and looked at me, open and vulnerable in a way I had never known. I put my arms around him and kissed him tenderly, my body longing for his. I was aware there were people in the kitchen behind us, maybe even my mother, and they might see us, but I didn’t care. I loved and wanted him too much.

The dream lay in my mind all morning like a dead weight. How could I go on? What was I to do now, if I couldn’t write any more? Could the dream possibly mean anything but more madness and psychosis?

Then I remembered something Jung wrote about the sacred marriage that was part of the symbolism of individuation. Yes. A sacred marriage, one that was ordinarily impossible or forbidden. Between a god and a human, like the Greek and Roman and Christian mythologies. Between a brother and sister, like the Egyptians. Or between father and daughter, between me and my primary symbol of godlike authority and tradition. A sacred marriage that would produce the sacred child, the infant Redeemer. Here, in this dream, was the beginning of the reconciliation between the conscious and unconscious mind, between the rational and the irrational, the opposites that had to join as one. My plan was working after all. I was on the way to becoming a whole and individuated human being!

I never had another psychotic episode, though it took three more years of writing and thinking and conscientiously reforming my sullen spoiled-brat self to become a bona fide contributing member of the human race. In the years that followed I had a third child, lost my beloved husband to cancer, and at the ripe old age of 40 went to graduate school and took a doctorate in psychology – partly to be able to make a living for myself and my children, and partly to find out if the psychological field was in as bad shape as I thought it was. The short answer is yes. But I see hopeful signs now. Jung and Campbell are the honored pioneers of a realm of the spirit being settled nowadays by young men and women who are not so easily intimidated by psychiatrists armed with power words and mind-deadening drugs. The coming years should be exciting. I want to stay around as long as possible to see what happens, and to help if I can.

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