Psychosis, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Story as a Vehicle of Healing

The below piece is written by the very prolific and wonderful author of some great blogs. Her handle being “spiritual-emergency.” I have several of her blogs listed on this site in the blogroll.  They all stand as wonderful resources and are generally not updated. I highly recommend your perusing them if you’ve not done so already.

This piece I’m publishing today I first read about 4 years ago. I had occasion to read it again when a friend sent it to me yesterday. It spoke to me again as her work does every time I read it.

This will be filed among this blog’s list of recovery stories for future reference.

Psychosis, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Story as a Vehicle of Healing

by Spiritual Emergency

My descent into “madness” began when my mother died. Within days of her death I would experience the first eruption of what I now call unconscious content, manifest as intense, unexplainable fear. I didn’t know what to do with that kind of fear. It felt foreign and overwhelming to me so I pushed it away and pretended it wasn’t there.

Over the course of the next several months I would go on to lose my two closest and dearest friends, my community, my sense of purpose, and my most persistent form of self-identity. I would give myself to a cause that couldn’t be won, and bear witness to a catastrophic tragedy that involved the deaths of others – people I felt a distorted sense of responsibility for, along with an accompanying sense of distorted guilt for the circumstances of their tragic and premature deaths.

I would become estranged from my husband, children, friends and extended family. I would be unable to follow-up on the career path I had confidently charted for myself only a few months previously. I would rarely sleep through the night. I would be plagued by nightmares and visions of destruction. My sense of trust would be utterly destroyed. I would lose all faith in the goodness of people, the balance of justice, or the possibility of divine order. Expectations that were too high, too many losses, too much fear, too fast, with no time between to assimilate each. I became stuck – frozen in a state of grief, fear, loss and failure, unable even to cry over those events. In the shadowed recesses of my mind I secretly believed that I too was dead, just like those others.

What makes the story of my psychotic experience unique from many others (although probably not unusual in the larger scheme) is that I underwent that experience outside of the psychiatric community. I was not hospitalized. I did not seek treatment, therapy, or medication – during or since. I live in an isolated area of the world; psychiatrists and their ilk are a rarity. Our small hospital does have a psychiatrist on staff, accessible through the emergency room that’s also used as a walk-in clinic for all manner of injuries and illness. A wait of several hours before a doctor is seen is not unusual and locals know they’re usually better off to stay home and wait for symptoms to abate on their own – unless they’re bleeding profusely.

I wasn’t bleeding.

I wasn’t, in fact, doing much of anything. My days and nights were spent relentlessly smoking as I surfed the net, looking for answers I couldn’t find, frequently with a drink nearby to apply liberally to the wound I could not voice. I withdrew more and more from the world around me. Lurking beneath my disheveled and shabby pajama’d exterior was an unspeakable sense of dread and terror.

At some point, during my aimless hours on the computer I began to write. Initially, I thought I was just writing a collection of anecdotes related to my childhood, but very quickly an assertive new voice emerged. Because my only purpose seemed to be self-amusement and distraction, I let that voice have its say. That was exactly what I needed to do, for that was the voice that had been silenced.

Two streams of thought had emerged: one lead to my past, the other was creating an entire imaginary setting upon the page – an altered state of consciousness. Without being aware that I was doing so I was creating a place of psychological safety for myself. Within that altered space, characters came into play: gods, devils, a kindly and compassionate mentor, a fierce warrior goddess – the real life people I had lost, been with, or been up against, transformed into larger-than-life characters by Story.

Frequently, a third thread would erupt to dangle a clue and beckon me to follow. More often than not that clue came in the form of music, poetry, or a written passage of work that had resonated within me for months without my knowing why. Soon, I wasn’t writing The Story at all. The Story was writing me.

I didn’t plot the story out in any fashion. I’d sit down at my computer and there it was waiting for me. My task was simply to follow the clues and write down the dialogue and events as they occurred. The clues emerged for me just as they did any other reader. Often, I was delighted and occasionally dumbfounded by what my mind had produced via my fingers, but as I was writing I was pulling contents up from my depths. The pressures were mounting. Within the confines of “the story” I was able to let some of that pressure out in a controlled manner, but the misery of my crisis was building and eventually it burst, uncontrollably, through to the surface.

That was a very difficult day for me, a despairing day. The lid was off and I couldn’t hold it down any longer. That night I had to drive my daughter out of town to a sleepover. She popped a CD into the player on the way there and suddenly the words of Our Lady Peace rose into the darkness. It was the first time I’d ever heard the song . . .

I don’t want to understand this horror
There’s a weight in your eyes that I can’t admit
Everybody ends up here in bottles
But a name tag’s the last thing you wanna hear

As the World explodes
We fall out of it
And we can’t let go because this . . .
Will Not Go Away

~ There’s a house built up in space ~

It was the kind mentor from my story. He was talking . . . to me.

And I can’t see that thief that lives inside of your head
But I can be some courage at the side of your bed
And I don’t know what’s happening and I can’t pretend
But I can be your, be your . . .

In that precise moment the imaginary world of my story crossed over and penetrated my reality. That was when I allowed myself to admit that I really was in some terrible kind of trouble. That was when I allowed myself to admit that something deep within me was, utterly and irretrievably, broken.

I trusted the unfolding story.

I trusted my mentoring companion.

I trusted the music.

I committed myself entirely to whatever came next. Whatever the experience of Story required of me, wherever it took me, I would go. I drove back home, closeted myself in my home office, and locked the door behind me. I had no intention of coming back out until I’d done whatever it was I needed to do. I told my husband I was having a breakdown and my children that I was writing a story.

“What kind of story is it?” my youngest child asked.

“It’s a love story,” I said.

Up until then, my life, like the Story itself, had moved in two veins. I “lived” in reality some of the time and I “lived” in the imaginary setting of my Story some of the time. But once I surrendered to the process, I let go of reality. I entered the Story. It became my only reality.

From that point forward the process moved very quickly. I immersed myself completely in the experience. I stopped eating or sleeping. Every moment of every hour was spent writing, reading over my words, listening to the music, and experiencing what was rising to the surface. It was akin to a highly concentrated form of non-stop therapy. My writing output at that time was about 5,500 words a day. I know because I later went back and counted.

Every frozen piece of grief and trauma within me came forward. Every loss. Every fear. Every failure. Every bit of heartbreak. As I opened myself more and more to the process, as I dropped every possible defense or barrier, it became quite painful, not only emotionally but also physically. My chest felt as if it were being crushed. My throat felt like it was in a vice. My limbs and joints ached and felt disconnected. I hyperventilated. I shook and trembled. I vomited terror and grief. I could feel strange sensations within my body, as if places within me were opening. I smelled perfume. I slipped the bonds of time and into the black womb of the Universe.

. . . I am dancing with God . . .

The earliest parts of the story had already set the stage, dictating the tasks that had to be completed. When the experience was done, I went to bed and slept for about three weeks. I was entirely spent, entirely exhausted: emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. The entire process had taken approximately six weeks. For roughly ten of those days, I hardly ate or slept. For three of them, I shook with pain and terror. There were times it felt all the more heartbreaking that I was doing so much of that on my own, but I recognize that now as a blessing in disguise.

Within a shamanistic framework, a schizophrenic break is understood as evidence of a trauma that has fragmented the core self – the seat of the soul. This is not to be mistaken with multi-personality disorders in which there never has been a core self. Something I can see now that I couldn’t see then was each of those characters were fragments of something within me. One character held my goodness; another, my fiercely loving and protective aspects; yet another contained my darkest terrors; while another element represented the shattering of self that had occurred. By responding to each character or event as if they were separate from me I entered into a relationship with them. It was via that relationship I began to weave the fragmented parts of my self back together. In the process of that weaving, I also began to withdraw those projections from the real life people and events that had held them and re-integrate them into myself.

I can also now see where I walked into a set of circumstances that recreated a pattern of a far earlier trauma; a set of circumstances I had unconsciously, yet actively played a role in re-creating. Our perception of the outer world has a quirky and uncanny ability to reflect back our own inner turmoil: As above, so below.

In the immediate aftermath I wanted the experience to have been a form of catharsis that had wiped my slate clean, leaving me pain-free and remarkably healed. That wasn’t quite the way it went. There was a honeymoon period when I tried to reassure those around me that I was “okay now”, but it didn’t last. For those on the sidelines the situation almost appeared to go from very bad to very worse. The story had unstuck my frozen emotions, but it hadn’t processed them. I was no longer in an altered state of consciousness, but I was still wounded. I had to do my grieving. I had to do my healing. I had to bring my fears down to manageable size. I had to take responsibility for those I had unintentionally hurt. I had to give up responsibility for those things I wasn’t responsible for. I had to re-attach to Life.

More than a year passed before I stumbled across the Jungian inspired work of John Weir Perry and finally had a name, a framework I could comprehend that explained to me, what had happened with me. Perry calls it “the psychotic – visionary episode”. Since then, I’ve discovered other names too: spiritual emergencypost-traumatic-stress-disorder with psychotic featuresthe night sea journeydark night of the soulthe alchemical processshamanismgnosismysticism,individuationself-actualizationego deathkundalini awakeningthe hero’s journey. Some people of course, call it schizophrenia – a label I’ve outright rejected if only because insanity is the only sane response to an utterly insane situation.

At that time however, to those around me, to those who couldn’t see my pain or its source, I certainly appeared crazy. Out of touch with reality. Bonkers! Whacked-out! But was I really crazy to have experienced the things I did? To have seen the things I saw? To have been overwhelmed by too many curve balls life had tossed my way? To have responded with grief and horror when confronted with the brutality of repeated senseless tragedy? Or was the real craziness to be found in the world around me that insisted I bear up, remain silent, not love, not care, forego kindness, forego empathy, risk shame, threat, pain, ridicule, exile, or the withdrawal of love and support if I spoke out or took action in my own defense and that of others? I couldn’t be a human being in that world. I couldn’t be real.

I c-r-a-c-k-e-d.

I am cautious when discussing my experience with others to make careful note of the identifying characteristics: trauma, personal crisis, elements of mythical and archetypal figures, a preoccupation with symbols of the center, a sense of having died or descended into an “underworld” and/or ascension to an “otherworld in the sky.”. In the two years since, I’ve not become an expert on madness, only my encounter with it. I understand that my experience of psychosis was largely induced by overwhelming grief, trauma, despair, the burden of that sense of responsibility, and the guilt that rode sidecar to it.

What I’ve relayed in this account is simply the way my experience unfolded outside the boundaries of a professional therapeutic relationship. I would not recommend that anyone attempt to do what I did without the support of a caring and competent professional. But I would also hope that professional is astute enough to recognize that suppressing a voice that seeks expression is not always the wisest course of action — even if it makes them or others feel more comfortable, more competent, more in control, more at peace with the idea that they are helping, that they are healing… that they themselves couldn’t possibly be broken in the places they don’t dare look.

I suspect that just as there are many forms of “cancer” so too there are many forms of “psychotic experience”. Just as with any other illness, we don’t get to choose what kind we get. It is however, up to us to determine how we are going to interpret our experience and find purpose and meaning in it. I would not have made it through that experience of mine were it not for a few criticical factors. The first was my ability to accept that my experience was uniquely individual and mine alone. That meant that my “treatment” had to be tailored to the unique characteristics of who I was and what I had on my plate. The second was my willingness to accept whatever came up and deal with it, not necessarily in graceful fashion. The third was the very vital support of people who cared about me: my husband, some exceptionally good friends, and some very kind strangers. Love alone was my saving grace.

I continue to learn from that experience on a daily basis. I am still digesting and assimilating that experience. The person I was before died and that story has become the new ground from which I forge a new life. These days, I have a goal called wellness. I haven’t yet decided exactly what it looks like but I can easily compile a list of successes that are taking me there. It’s quite likely that my list of successes would not look the same as anyone else’s list, but everything on it has been hard-won for me so I’m counting it…

  • I sleep through most nights now.
  • I seem to be done most of my grieving.
  • I’m no longer haunted by visions of tragic devastation.
  • I wear more than just pajamas these days.
  • I’ve learned to identify potential triggers and no longer experience flashbacks.
  • I’ve brought my fear down from something called “immense and overwhelming” to something called “prudent caution”.
  • I have a job now. It’s just part-time and nothing glamorous, but I do it well and it provides me with a sense of competence and confidence.
  • My boss likes my work and keeps bumping my hours and responsibilities up.
  • My husband still loves me and I still love him.
  • My children aren’t worried about their mom anymore.
  • I can still laugh.
  • Once upon a time. . . I went insane with grief, terror, loss, and failure and put myself back together again – with a little help from my friends. I am fortunate.

There is always the possibility that those who have undergone this kind of experience will compensate for their loss, their shame, their humiliation, or their sense of utter failure with grandiosity. But I know I am no supernal being. I can’t walk on water, talk to dead people, or heal the wounded with a single touch. I checked – just in case – because that would be too cool a trick to not show my friends. I am fallible. I can get my heart broken, wide open. I can hurt people I never intended to hurt. I can give my very best and still fail… still . . . lose. I can make mistakes. I can love. I can bleed. I know the cost of being fully, achingly human. I am real.

February/2004

More info:

*it is potentially dangerous to come off medications without careful planning. Please be sure to be well educated before undertaking any sort of discontinuation of medications. If your MD agrees to help you do so, do not assume they know how to do it well even if they claim to have experience. They are generally not trained in discontinuation and may not know how to recognize withdrawal issues. A lot of withdrawal issues are misdiagnosed to be psychiatric problems. This is why it’s good to educate oneself and find a doctor who is willing to learn with you as your partner in care. See: Psychiatric drug withdrawal and protracted withdrawal syndrome round-up

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