Posted by: MC | June 15, 2012

Listening to “Madness”

I could be referring to life in the U.S.A. this week what with the celebrated obstruction of voting rights in Florida, a spate of sensationalized cannibalism and, from our president and senior legislators astonishing bipartisan horror about  leaks with not even a mention of concern for human life (aka, collateral damage) or the existence of a “kill list” in the first place.  This, my friends, is surely madness whether we are privy to the fine points or not.

These circumstances are expressions of the society in which we live.   They are the context in which we fail to listen to one another, to ourselves and in particular to those among (and within) us who move through the world in ways known commonly as insane.   In contemporary psychology there have been more than 50 years of  murmurings questioning the categorical dismissal of extreme states of consciousness as pathology.  Thomas Szasz is often credited with beginning the challenge.   In his 1974 book, The Second Sin, he wrote, “If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic.”  As with any line of argumentation, there are strong and weak spots, more and less appealing positions.  Here this many years later, however, the questions persist, but with more public participation in the dialogue by the people who themselves live with experiences of extreme consciousness and thus with designations as mentally ill.

This morning a friend of mine who is a voice hearer said, “I’ve lived with a lot of trouble in my life — a lot of ick that no one would wish on anyone — but what I’ve found out is that in the middle of that horror I come closest to knowing the power that is greater than all of us — the power that is everything and has me all the time.”  She went on, “Maybe it’s because when things are at their worst, I’m most aware that I don’t have any control anyway, and that’s when I see and know what I can always count on.”  My friend is in her early 70’s.  She has struggled with extreme states diagnosed as psychotic for six of her seven decades.  I learn from listening to her.  “Like I say, I wouldn’t wish my experience on anybody and I could well do without any more trouble, but I am grateful for the peace I’ve come to know because of the fire storms I’ve lived through.”

Peace from fire storms.  Peace in fire storms.

Wednesday night in the graduate class I’m teaching on working with adults in group therapy, we took on the topic of  “madness.”  At the close of nearly four hours of investigation, we came to this —

  • Even with formal training, clinical experience and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM — one of two diagnostic taxonomies immediately linked to insurance reimbursement — i.e., a bit contaminated when it comes to benevolent medicinal interest) we do therapy and counseling knowing too little about the experience of extreme states.
  • Because of that we make a lot of stuff up.
  • Our sources for constructing our ideas of people who live with extreme states include movies (from Disney to Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, …), the bandying about of language associated with these states (e.g., nuts, crazy, wacko, … starting in the school yard and never stopping), and the warnings of family and community about what behaviors ensure being held at the margins.  These warnings are sometimes verbal, but more often enacted and observed in the way people with uncommon ways of speaking or laughing or describing the world are either politely ignored or whisked away to be warehoused out of view.

Why does this matter?  Why listen to “madness.

If we have no concern for one another, there is no matter — there is no reason.  But if, as I heard again and again on the road this winter with 100 Voices — Americans Talk about Change, we do care about individual and community well being — if we see the one (individual) as having no chance without the other (community), then listening to people held at the margins is more than overdue.

Check out Madness Radio, for example.  This regular hour-long talk show gives voice to people who experience extreme states and their advocates.  Many of the voices on this radio program speak of the profound relief in the exceptional experience of being heard as having authority when they speak of the reality they experience.  Think of it — of how it feels to you to have someone really listen and come to understand how the world looks to you.  Think, too of how it feels to have your experience of reality denied, belittled or even judged impossible.

None of this is to say that people don’t deserve support when their experiences of life cause them suffering, but it is to say that we are wise to listen to one another regarding the realities linked to our ease and to our struggle.  And, as with any grouping of people according to characteristic or experience, there is a small (but in the case of extreme states of consciousness, very well publicized) number of people who are acutely harmful to others.  This week’s continued hype of the horrifying incidence of cannibalism in Miami stands as an example.  But most people who experience extreme states are not dangerous.  They are in lives with circumstances that are less familiar to most of us, and that’s it.

That fact indicates there is less to fear when it comes to “madness” than we think.  Our distraction into fearing ourselves and one another takes a great deal of energy.  Yes, we have differences in the ways we know our lives and our time in the world, but for the most part these are not points of danger but rather points of resource toward sustaining human community.

Listening across difference demands a great deal of courage, not because there is anything to fear but because we have come to believe difference is dangerous.  The only way to find out if this belief is valid is to give listening a try.  Listen to your family member, to your neighbor, to the mail carrier or the next person on the street who asks you for change.  Listen to someone in your life you’ve written off as ‘crazy.’ At first they may babble a bit — the may seem to make little sense.  This could happen because they are rarely asked who they are and what they care about — they have forgotten what it feels like to be listened to and so don’t know if they can trust that listening is really happening.  But stay with them.  Keep listening just for a while longer.  See what happens, what you hear, what you learn.

I could be wrong, but I could be right.  And even if I’m onto something with this risk of listening, it doesn’t matter a bit if it is not true in your experience.  So, give it a try.  Listen to someone.  And when you’re ready, listen to someone you think of  as ‘mad’ and see if fearing them continues to make sense.

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