Collaborating With Madness

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the October 2006 newsletter of the International Society for the Psychological Treatments of the Schizophrenias and other Psychoses, a progressive professional association. It reflects my growing interest in writing and speaking about my extreme states or “psychotic” experiences in themselves, in addition to the treatments I’ve received.

Behind the idea of “collaborating” with madness is a basic trust in all things natural, including all things in the mind. Mind is part of nature, and nature is essentially purposeful and whole; madness has meaning and usefulness, it has a place within us and in the world. What we need to change is our relationship to madness. Something mysterious and powerful happens to us and our relationships. Maybe it isn’t just merely wrong and needs to end, maybe there is something more to “pathologies” than broken pieces of a machine that need fixing or replacement.

This parallels ecology. We’ve learned to view what we call “trash” not as something we can just throw away but part of a natural cycle of energy and resources whose purpose is renewal and replenishment. Today we’re learning to see “waste” as serving a purpose when it becomes compost and recycling: in nature things move through a series of transformations, nothing is ever just wasted.

Can we bring this same ecological perception to the parts of the human experience we tend to throw away as disorders, diseases, and problems?

I think the most important change needed in the mental health system is a change in perception: to see madness as meaningful and purposeful, an invitation to a new relationship to ourselves and each other.

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Collaborating With Madness — Will Hall

Like most Greek myths, the story of Cassandra is about hubris. Cassandra possessed such great beauty that the god Apollo wanted to sleep with her, and so he offered her the power of prophecy as a trade. Cassandra accepted Apollo’s proposal, and so he granted her the ability to see the future. But when it came turn for her side of the bargain, Cassandra refused Apollo’s advances. Apollo was so enraged by this betrayal that in revenge he cursed Cassandra: Cassandra would have the power to see the future, but no one would ever believe her predictions. This was a terrible fate, and Cassandra went mad.

The Greeks were fond of warning us that we should always understand our place in relationship to the gods. The Cassandra myth speaks to my own experience of being labeled with schizophrenia, and how it has taught me to find the proper stance towards madness.

When I wound up in the system I was certainly going through then, as I do sometimes now, terrifying and overwhelming extreme states of consciousness: voices and visions, fear of others, and collapse and withdrawal from the world. In the name of helping me, I was delivered for a year into the hands of San Francisco’s public mental health system, with its locked wards, psych drugging, and abuse.

The system taught me to see these painful and mysterious experiences I was having as negative: failed, problem parts of myself that I should try to get rid of or at least control. Even the promise of ‘recovery,’ which is a more hopeful alternative than the prognosis of chronic lifelong illness, presumably means returning to a lost normalcy I once had and overcoming being broken and ill. The question I want to ask instead is, Who are we humans to claim such knowledge of something as mysterious and powerful as madness? Who are we to impose our own standards of functioning and health, to define someone like me as disabled and in recovery, to divide my experience between normal and ‘symptoms’?

For me, the painful symptoms of what gets called my “schizophrenia’ aren’t simply negative faults: I see them as complex gifts that make up who I am. My creativity, sensitivity, inspiration and spirituality arise along with the very things that the mental health system would have me get rid of: paranoia, isolation, voices, “loose associations” and “ideas of reference.” I am told that the horrors of medication and the humiliations of psychotherapy are far better than my ‘symptoms,’ but it is my symptoms that make me who I am.

The Cassandra myth offers an important clue as to what can make these cursed experiences gifts instead: not turning your back on the gods that gave them to you. Don’t presume to take something as yours, don’t deny the part of it that is beyond yourself. Cassandra’s madness and curse come not from the gift of prophecy itself, but from her selfish attitude towards it. And isn’t that what the mental health system and the clients it produces try to do with the unknown powers of madness? To selfishly define them according to prevailing norms and standards, to possess them on our own terms? Can we instead learn to collaborate with madness as equals, rather than control or define it for ourselves, so that what seem to be curses can become the gifts that they truly are?

Someone, perhaps the science fiction author Philip K. Dick, wrote, “Reality is what refuses to go away when I stop believing in it.” For years I tried to stop believing in the mad reality that I experienced that no one else seemed to experience.I saw it all as something wrong with me, and believed I needed to ‘recover’ from it. Reality refused to go away, however, and I’m glad of this. I like not being normal. I like feeling people’s thoughts and having precognitive dreams and listening to phantom music drift in on the wind at 4am and seeing the diabolic machinations of power coded into the conspiracies of strangers. I like being swept up by grand creative visions and driven by fiery inspiration. I like being so sensitive I can sometimes barely relate to human society. Yet the most dangerous thing I could do would be to presume to possess these gifts as if they were my own.

For me living my life today means striking a deal with my madness, honoring a relationship with it as something beyond myself. Of course I focus on wellness and do what I can to take care of myself and prevent crisis. But like Cassandra who would have to keep her promise to Apollo so that her prophecies will be listened to, I have a relationship of collaboration and reciprocity with my madness and the deeper, mysterious force within myself that refuses to go away.

I do not say, This is my healthy part and this is the part I need to make stop. I do not say, How do I recover from my symptoms? I say instead, This is a part of me that is wiser and stronger than I am. This is a part of me that offers a great gift. This is a part of me that I do not understand how to relate to yet, but I’m going to learn. I need to make changes to respond to this part of me, sometimes big and difficult changes. But this is not a part I want to repudiate. Nor is it a part I want to control. This is a part of me I want to collaborate with.

It is hubris to try to cure madness or make people return to ordinary reality, though ordinary reality might be a useful place to learn to visit from time to time. And hubris, by offending the gods, always risks catastrophe, even if it is just the catastrophe of turning your back on gifts and potential in the name of safety and familiarity. Instead, can we collaborate with madness, ask why its possibilities have tumed to curses, and learn what promises need to be kept?

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