Doris Lessing: thoughts on psychosis

Doris Lessing, Nobel prize winner is excerpted below. How is it a novelist understands more about extreme states of mind than most psychologists?

“I have a rather fanciful interpretation about schizophrenia, which is probably nonsense, but it might interest some people. It is that this self-hater part of ourselves, the conditioned conscience, is usually disassociated and is just sitting there ready to pounce. Then, then some Our collective cultural insanity crisis activates it, it gets plugged into the entire human psyche. It isn’t just personal, it becomes an impersonal accuser, as if the whole of society is behind it. And that’s why people can’t bear it. It’s so powerful. It isn’t just the voice of mummy or daddy, it’s the total collective power of dislike, accusation and pure hatred. In other cultures this is probably a recognised aspect of a god — I wouldn’t be surprised — certainly in India you’d find it in, probably Kali or another of those terrible goddesses. But I’m sure that schizophrenics get plugged into something so enormously powerful they can’t bear it.”…

…”So, okay, I thought, I am going to try this — and I do not recommend this to anybody. I went down to my place in Devon where I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted…. I went without food and sleep, deliberately watching everything that happened. It took about three days for me to begin going crazy. Then what happened was that a ‘figure’ appeared that I christened the ‘self-hater’. It’s a creature schizophrenics often describe. This figure, a person who shouts and screams at us, is obviously the conditioned conscience. It is what society creates in us, what daddy and mummy do to us; “Oh, you’re a naughty girl”, or “Oh, you’re a naughty boy.” It exists inside one but sounds as if it’s coming from outside.

Anyway this voice yammering away in my head was terrifying because it was so strong. And two thoughts were running through my mind as this was happening. The first thought was that, if I wasn’t moderately sophisticated in this area, I’d rush off and tell a doctor what I was experiencing and he would fill me full of drugs and probably have me sectioned. And the other thought was the fact that some of the hallucinations I was experiencing were common in all accounts of breakdowns. For example, ‘the voyage’, which appears in different cultures all over the world and takes different forms. If you’re a Tibetan you have one type of journey or if you’re Egyptian you have another. Christians have the stations of the cross. Ancient Greeks had Jason looking for the golden fleece. There is always a journey. And I had my journey.

So I watched all these things going on inside me which would have landed me in a mental hospital if I didn’t know what I was doing. Well, my time in Devon was coming to an end and, after two weeks, I started to eat and sleep properly again. It took a long time, at least three weeks, to get back to normal. So I think that perhaps a lot of people are having breakdowns, or described as schizophrenics, who are simply not eating or sleeping enough. Students studying for exams, for example, often go over the edge. People crossing the Atlantic in small boats hear God talking to them, especially when food is running low. It also seems to me that it’s people who have been brought up too rigidly in one way or another who have this ‘self-hater’ in them — this bullying, “you are naughty” figure. And it’s not too far below the surface. So craziness is not quite as far away as we like to think.” read the whole interview here

Joseph Campbell has said that the psychotic is drowning in the waters in which mystics love to swim. This is a realm of mind/spirit that is part of our being human. And the psychotic can and does often find his/her way out. One need not stay drowning.

I’ll close with a last thought on psychosis by Jung:

These forces did not originate in our patient out of nowhere. They are most emphatically not the result of poisoned brain cells, but are normal constituents of our unconscious psyche. They appeared in numberless dreams, in the same or a similar form, at a time of life when seemingly nothing was wrong. And they appear in dreams of normal people who never get anywhere near a psychosis. (1939)

h/t ISPS (where there are a whole bunch of other quotes from Jung on extreme states)

 See also: Psychosis recovery: stories, information and resources

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