Making Sense of My Psychosis
When I came out of hospital after my first psychotic episode in 1996, aged 27, I felt compelled to write about my experiences.
“I used to have romantic notions of madness,” was the first sentence of what I didn’t realize at the time, would become “My Beautiful Psychosis.” Reading it now, it doesn’t sound like me: I never use the word “notions” for a start. And the narrative voice was a little self-pitying, but it was part of the process of recovery.
When I was in hospital, I didn’t realize I was experiencing psychosis. To me it felt like a spiritual awakening. I couldn’t understand why the doctors thought differently. They weren’t the ones on the inside of it and didn’t even ask me what I was experiencing so how could they know.
I wrote because I needed to communicate. I felt so unseen, so pathologized and labeled. I was no longer a “normal” person; I was a mental health service user. I wanted to right the wrongs that had been done to me in the name of psychiatry and tell my story as a form of complaint. The motivation to write was to share what a terrible time I’d had. But injustice and feeling misunderstood was just the top layer. There were deeper elements at play.
Apart from a poem about my pony printed in Pony Magazine when I was about 12, I had made zero attempts at writing. Teachers sometimes read allowed my work to the rest of the class, so I knew I had some natural talent. I didn’t admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer until I married one. I was privileged enough to witness up close someone going through the publishing process. It seemed doable.
Psychosis gave me something important to write about. I’m not a novelist: I find it difficult to make things up, so memoir became my medium. It was a while before I figured out whether “My Beautiful Psychosis” was a novelized memoir or just a memoir. I would have loved to have been a novelist, but I realized I needed to make it clear that my story was a true one. This was essential for the message to have the impact I wanted it to have.
That brings me to the next layer. I have written “My Beautiful Psychosis” because the mental health services have got it so badly wrong. I not only need to put the record straight and tell my version of the story, I need to change how people see psychosis so we can better treat it. The psychiatric service is not working. It is failing people, leaving them to live compromised lives instead of helping them to heal. We have accepted this situation for too long. It is time for a change.
In order to do that, we have to find new ways of looking at psychosis and new ways of treating it.
So what is the current definition of psychosis? An official definition might go something like this: psychosis is a mental disorder, which causes you to lose touch with reality. You might see, hear or believe things that aren’t real.
The perception of psychosis as being out of touch with reality is at best arrogant and at worst, false. For a start, there is no way of knowing what “reality” actually is. It is something the brain constructs. Cats see everything blue, but that does not make them deluded. It makes them better hunters. There is no reason why consensus reality of humans is any more real than cats. It is simply the one that humans have evolved to perceive in order to best function in our world. Perhaps there is another animal that sees reality more clearly than us.
An experiment shows that people with schizophrenia, the condition involving repeated psychoses, are actually able to perceive more accurately than so called “normal” people. It uses the Hollow Mask Illusion and involves identifying whether an image of a mask is concave or convex. All the participants with schizophrenia could distinguish between the two types of photos, whereas control volunteers without the condition were fooled 99 percent of the time. “Normal” perception is not something we can even trust as accurate.
During my own personal experiences of psychosis, I was able to see auras around objects and people, in real life and onscreen. I heard a voice, I can only describe as angelic, tell me that I was beautiful. I knew about certain traumatic events from childhood I had repressed and forgotten. I saw a sparkler of light appear and form a figure of eight shape, the infinity sign, before disappearing again. I had memories from past lives play out with certain people around me. I could hear incongruent thoughts that people were thinking but denied, which I thought was their unconscious mind. They were being nice on the surface, but it was simply a fake cover up for their socially unacceptable negative thoughts beneath.
Even in times when I was not experiencing psychosis, I have had some unusual experiences that would be interpreted by our modern material, reductionist view as not being real. I saw a golden ribbon of light come from my belly button and attach itself to the duster I was holding. I have also felt the energy of spirits inside my body communicating to me how they had died, by taking the shape of the weapon that had killed them. Each time I acknowledged their death, they sent love into my heart as thanks before moving on. I have also communicated with dolphins, psychically. There is no way we can prove that any of this in not real. Unfortunately the onus is on me to prove that it is, and that is not possible either.
To say a person is out of touch with reality is to ignore the validity of the reality that they are in touch with. This is not only disempowering, it fails to celebrate the journey the person is on, albeit in their alternate reality. It is also, more tragically, a missed opportunity.
I have been able to study psychosis, firsthand, as someone with a degree in psychology. I have also been a professional shiatsu therapist for 10 years, which has given me an eastern perspective through which to view my experiences. I now believe that psychosis is actually an attempt by the psyche to heal.
Psychosis comes from the Greek word for “psyche” meaning soul and “osis” meaning process. So it can be seen as a soul process. On the highest level, it is the soul attempting to return to wholeness. It does this by first moving the ego out of the way. The ego is an identity constructed by the mind in order to survive as a social species. It doesn’t exist per se, as a physical organ, like the brain. It is simply the mind’s created idea of who it thinks it is.
Observe a child at the age of 3, as yet without a fully formed ego. They express themselves freely and in the moment. They don’t care what anybody else thinks about them. The ego provides a useful function: making sure we behave in a socially acceptable way so we’re not banished from the tribe and made vulnerable to predators.
Watch the same child at age 5, with an ego, and you will see how they are watching to see how they should behave. They are working out the rules and deciding which ones they want to break and which ones they need to work with. The ego helps us survive by taking care of ourselves as a separate body. If we were to remain like a baby, feeling oneness and bliss gazing into faces and eyes, we’re likely to walk across a busy road and get splattered. But when it comes to the health of the soul and the spirit, the ego is not only unnecessary, it can be an obstruction.
So once the ego is offline, the soul can take over. It can re-connect with Oneness, Bliss, Peace and Love. This is the point at which some people mistake their own Christ Consciousness for being the actual Jesus. Without the ego to remember who it thinks it is, mistakes like this are easy to make.
Next all of the repressed psychological material that the ego banished to the basement of the subconscious comes up to join the party. The love actually attracts it out of hiding. This psychological material needs to be fully digested in order to reintegrate rejected parts of the self that were treated by the ego as socially unacceptable. To fully digest it would be to accept and welcome it. When that happens, it no longer causes problems. To label these as symptoms is to miss a unique opportunity. Psychosis is a moment in time in which we have privileged access to our repressed nature. It therefore holds the potential for transformation, if we know what to do with it.
We can see it like a broken clock that doesn’t work because there is too much dirt in the mechanism. The mental health service puts the clock on the shelf labeled “damaged” and gives it a little oil so it feels less bothered about the fact that it doesn’t work properly. But there is nothing wrong with the mechanism: it just needs a good clean. Psychiatry could and should be doing just that. I believe psychosis makes the ego disintegrate for a very important reason: in order to access the dirt that is clogging up the mechanism. This dirt is the trauma from childhood and even further back. What if psychiatry were to help clean this out?
It’s time to tell a new story about psychosis. One that shows how it is process that holds within it the potential for transformation. “My Beautiful Psychosis” describes the process of seven episodes of psychosis as I try to make sense of them. It is available on Amazon.
Image via contributor