Bruce Levine – a better way to see psychosis

Here is an excerpt from Bruce Levine’s most recent Mad in America post. This view of psychosis is comforting to me. Psychosis has always struck me as an odd way to rebel because it actually makes people dependent on those they rebel against, and seems to retard their lives. A socially acceptable form of rebellion is to leave home at an early age, tell your parents you are sick of their interference, and get on with your own version of your life, independent of others’ financial support or judgements. And yet, we all must rebel in some way if we are to grow. So, if psychosis is rebellion, wish the person Godspeed.

Many people with severe anxiety and/or depression are also anti-authoritarians. Often a major pain of their lives that fuels their anxiety and/or depression is fear that their contempt for illegitimate authorities will cause them to be financially and socially marginalized; but they fear that compliance with such illegitimate authorities will cause them existential death.

I have also spent a great deal of time with people who had at one time in their lives had thoughts and behavior that were so bizarre that they were extremely frightening for their families and even themselves; they were diagnosed with schizophrenia and other psychoses, but have fully recovered and have been, for many years, leading productive lives. Among this population, I have not met one person whom I would not consider a major anti-authoritarian. Once recovered, they have learned to channel their anti-authoritarianism into more constructive political ends, including reforming mental health treatment.

Many anti-authoritarians who earlier in their lives were diagnosed with mental illness tell me that once they were labeled with a psychiatric diagnosis, they got caught in a dilemma. Authoritarians, by definition, demand unquestioning obedience, and so any resistance to their diagnosis and treatment created enormous anxiety for authoritarian mental health professionals; and professionals, feeling out of control, labeled them “noncompliant with treatment,” increased the severity of their diagnosis, and jacked up their medications. This was enraging for these anti-authoritarians, sometimes so much so that they reacted in ways that made them appear even more frightening to their families.

The child’s world is small

A recent comment from Anonymous sent me scurrying to Bruce E. Levine’s Huffington Post article Thinking Critically About Scientology, Psychiatry and their Feud.

Interesting article, but what really got me thinking was the author’s commonly enough held opinion that mental illness is a rational response to an insane world, which I am now re-examining. (The schizophrenia diagnosis has made me get around eventually to re-examining everything. It’s been a blessing.)

It was R.D. Laing, who made the original insane world observation and people like me have been making this argument ever since. Except that I am more of the opinion now that mental illness is the direct result of not the larger world (society) that most people have in mind, but the smaller world – the child’s world – the familiar environment, the family, not some abstract thing called “society.” People don’t go insane because there is air pollution or poverty in the world. Their suppressed sense of self has made them sensitive to these problems, yes, but people are more likely to go insane because the family environment is polluted with lies or has a poverty of emotional warmth or a tsumani of physical or verbal abuse. People do not go insane because someone else’s family tree is warped (who cares?), but they do inherit the emotional resonance that their own family tree passes down.

It is much less troubling, I suppose, for parents and patient alike to accept the idea of an insane world, rather than to accept the idea of insane family dynamics. The insane world view has much in common then with the diseased brain view of mental illness. Both deflect the situation in ways that don’t point the finger at any one individual, thus making the situation palatable and guilt-free.

I said to a friend one time when my children were very young and they were all at their most challenging/difficult/wimpy (take your pick), “I like my own children but other people’s children I can do without.” She heartily agreed that the same applied to her. The brewing period for mental illness is the period of childhood where the family is being formed, imperfectly. Families understand each other on some level, but do not understand the way other families relate with each other.

Society is insane, but “mental illness” begins and ends at home. The “mental illness” usually manifests when the older child leaves his small world and steps out into the threatening larger one. Rather than the individual  directly confronting past hurts, psychosis feels like a “safe” way to express accusations, that if expressed honestly and directly, would trouble other family members.