Learning to be with ourselves: a response to Understanding Psychosis

By Elisabeth Svanholmer

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I will meet you there.
~ Jalal a-din Rumi

meaningThe report Understanding Psychosis seems to have caused a stir in some circles. I have been standing on the sidelines curiously watching the reactions wondering what it is all about.

When a person puts forward a version of reality that does not resonate with our own it can feel threatening – whether it be so-called psychotic experiences, so-called delusions or more generally accepted religious beliefs or scientific theories.

Human beings are flock animals – we prefer that reality is the same for all of us. We need a sense of safety and somehow explanations can make us feel a bit safer. We find relief in knowing ‘why’ something is the way it is. And we like to have others agree with us on ‘why’.

The Understanding Psychosis report tries to put forward the idea that there is more than one way to understand why some people experience hearing, seeing and sensing things that others don’t as well as having unusual beliefs.

It suggests that in order to understand what people are experiencing we might need to approach them as unique individuals with unique lives and take what they have to say about their experiences into consideration.

The need to understand and explain

We all know that people have these experiences – there doesn’t seem to be any disagreement on that point. Some might find them scary, unpredictable and unwanted, others see them as useful or even as talents or gifts.

How it makes us feel may correlate to our beliefs and theories about it. But from a personal point of view it doesn’t seem to matter how constructive my theory is or how well acquainted with my past traumas I am; some of the experiences I have are terrifying and I do not wish them on anybody.

After years and years of working with myself using a wide range of approaches, from mainstream medical treatment, homeopathic medicine, bodywork, mindfulness and different psychological therapies, my experiences are still with me and at times they still scare and confuse me.

When I get caught up in trying to explain why I have these experiences I often realise that I am coming from a place of fear. I tell myself that I want to understand because knowing why will help me cope, help me know what to do. I may even tell myself that my experiences need me to be understanding and empathic. I want to make myself feel safer, I want to find the right way forwards – the best way.

I don’t want to feel confused and powerless so I go to default mode of observing, analysing the data and coming up with an explanation that seems to best suit the issue at hand. I may return to explanations that have helped me in the past.

Like: “Oh it is just because I am a very sensitive person and I have been quite stressed lately so this is just a reaction to too much stimulation”.

Or: “Because of my unstable and unpredictable childhood, these recent experiences of people not being reliable is triggering anxious parts of me”.

And the understanding can indeed help me to give myself some empathy and kindness which can be very calming and useful. I very much prefer having a framework that makes sense to me than having to welcome the uncertainty of not understanding something.

But if I may make a very crude analogy for a moment then I would like to propose that I cannot see the difference between coming up with explanations and self-harming. Hang in there and I will try to explain.

Since my early teens I have lived with strong urges to cut and self-harm. There are times when the pain inside becomes so unbearable that all I want to do is grab an instrument and inflict injuries on myself – cut my skin, beat out bruises, break bones – because then the pain might become real, tangible, understandable and explainable. I can see where it hurts and I can tell myself why. And I can care for the wounds that are now visible.

So when I hear and feel things that scare me I grab my instrument of reason and analysis and I beat the experience into a shape I can understand. I turn to my arsenal of boxes and shove that voice, this sensation or overwhelming emotion into the box that looks the best fit. And I will get some peace for a while. I am on top of things again. I am in charge of my inner life. The explanations and the coping strategies offer me a sense of power and control. I may even be less afraid; I gain some self-confidence that I will be able to handle my experiences in future. I have got my boxes ready.

But some of my experiences completely refuse to be defined by me. They scream as if I am hurting them by trying to explain them. They will change shape, size and content to elude my cognitive grasp on them. They just want to be as they are, whatever they are without my intellectual interference. They don’t want my kindness or my empathy. They are just life expressing itself through me and me trying to make sense of them is almost like me putting a knife to my mind and then exclaiming ‘ah see it was a cut all along’.

Awareness of what drives us

So I guess I am saying that understanding is not necessarily enough if we want to support ourselves and others when faced with so-called psychosis. We need to become aware of what motivates us when we engage with these experiences. Are we still scared or are we genuinely curious and accepting?

Imagine that there are no explanations. Imagine that there are no reasons why things happen, no cause and effect, no detectable chain of events.

In our daily lives in a physical world this is not very believable of course. We constantly witness cause and effect. It is ingrained in us that when one hits a hard surface there is a loud noise – and quite possible some pain in the hand that hit the surface.

People who argue for a scientific approach to mental health believe that all matters of the mind are physical and bound by laws of physics. I like the physical reality of things, most days its pretty reliable and predictable.

But I believe we human beings only know a tiny minuscule bit about how the physical world works – just having a look at quantum physics or the complexity of the brain we begin to realise how little we can explain or understand.

So when we meet someone who is in distress or who expresses a reality we do not agree with would we be willing to accept that there are no explanations at all? Or at least that we do not know anything for sure? No one true way to understand what is in front of us?

Would we be able to let go of all our frameworks and just be with what we hear and see and feel?

Would we be able to keep ourselves from trying to figure out why this is happening to us or someone we care about?

Would we be able to let go of possible solutions and ways forward?

I would argue that if we are motivated not by fear but by love for and trust in our fellow human beings, it is easier to hold our personal understandings more lightly. When we feel able to trust the world around us it is easier to welcome diversity and difference of opinion. Our understandings, frameworks and explanations are important and useful parts of our identities. But so are they for the person in front of us – and who are we to question their reality?

What ‘being with’ might look like

Living with uncertainty and endless diversity is not particularly pleasant. And how can we embrace uncertainty, embrace not knowing, without living a life in fear? It seems like a contradiction.

We could all die, get ill or lose someone close to us in the next couple of minutes. How can we live with an awareness of this without getting overwhelmed? Without reacting or suppressing?

Imagine if we all learned from an early age that fear, pain, death, illness, age, distress and confusion are natural parts of life, not threats to life. Imagine if we learned to sit in front of someone in deep distress and just be there for them. Without any agenda.

Accepting that we don’t always know why things are as they are. Accepting that there are things we can’t prevent or fix.

I wish I had learned to not fear my experiences, fear myself, when I was younger. I wish I could go back to that girl I was and just sit with her. Not to explore with her what she was experiencing or find out why. Not to reassure her that things get better, that they change or that she will learn to cope with or even appreciate her experiences.

I would just want to sit there and envelop her in all the love I feel for her.

Show her that I am not scared.

Show her by staying.

Show her by listening without judgement or analysis.

Show her by holding her hand or hugging her if she let me.

Show her by walking next to her as she angrily marches through the streets at night.

Show her by sitting there while she bangs her head against the wall and hits her fists against her thighs.

And I might just say to her;

“This is life, all of our experiences are part of life and this is just one little part of yours. You don’t have to fear it or fight it. It comes and it will pass. And there are so much more to your life than this. Other things you will experience. Painful, joyful, scary and beautiful. And it is all okay”

Trusting that whatever I am experiencing it is – or at least that it will be – okay. And most important, that I am okay. That is the thing that has got me through painful times and given me strength. And I am deeply grateful for those relationships that has helped me find my ability to trust and just be with.

For further inspiration and resources see links below:

Elisabeth Svanholmer
Elisabeth Svanholmer

Elisabeth lives in West Yorkshire but is originally from Denmark where she has been involved with the Hearing Voices Network as a speaker and trainer for the past 9 years. Her story features in the book ‘Living with Voices’ by Romme & Escher. She is passionate about emotional wellbeing, mindful communication and sensitivity. She enjoys bodywork, dance, gardening, being creative, listening to the rain and giving hugs.  See more on her blog Journeying with Sensitivity or get in touch on twitter 

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