“If the human race survives, future men will, I suspect, look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable Age of Darkness… They will see that what was considered ‘schizophrenic’ was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break into our all-too-closed minds.” _Dr. R.D. Laing.
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.
The New York Times ran an article this week How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect. The study cited shows that new research is beginning to corroborate what I have long believed – that I have become more intelligent from my son’s schizophrenia. The research also reassures me that Chris began looking for meaning when his familiar habits of thought came under pressure. Schizophrenia is a creative response to crisis, if you allow it to be. This is what writers like Hermann Hesse have been saying for years. As R.D. Laing says: “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through.”
The Times article is not about schizophrenia, but it could be. The article talks about experiences that violate all logic and expectation. Kierkegaard called it “a sensation of the absurd.” The article goes on to say that “at best, the feeling is disorienting. At worst, it’s creepy….. Now a study suggests that, paradoxically, this same sensation may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss — in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large.”
According to the article, “the brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns. When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.”
The previous sentence should give anyone hope that schizophrenia (or autism or OCD), properly understood and handled, is a quest for growth and that recovery is indeed likely. A caring individual can help the person with the diagnosis to find that pattern by understanding and appreciating that what is taking place is something quite extraordinary.
The study involved twenty college students who read a short story by Franz Kafka, wherein many strange and unexplainable things happened. Afterwards, they and a group of students who had read a different more coherent short story took a test of what researchers call “implicit learning” or knowledge gained without awareness. The test involved studying a series of “45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” The students later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others.
The Kafka readers outperformed the control group by 30% to 50%.
My own Kafkaesque experience went like this: After we got the “diagnosis” and as I struggled to stop panicking and remain calm, I started to do a lot of research about schizophrenia. The experience of schizophrenia in my son was so bizarre for me, so out of the ordinary, that in itself sharpened my intellect. I had to resort to more creative thinking after being confronted by nonsense talk and spooky behavior. I read up on and questioned everything I saw and heard. I began downing megadoses of the recommended niacin cure for schizophrenia. As a result, I found myself becoming even more focused and energetic, which allowed me to read and observe even more, putting me on a vicious cycle of intellect improvement. By observing my son and looking outward and inward, I began to see connections where previously I would not have seen any. I began to understand synchronicity as I began to understand schizophrenia better. I began to dimly perceive how the universe is connected. I took up writing. I am studying German.
The Kafkaesque journey of schizophrenia provides many side benefits.
Dr. ‘L’ had, on more than a few occasions, hinted that Chris was making a fool of him and everybody else. Was Dr ‘L’ going further by suggesting that Chris was acting? I had wondered the same thing. Yet it is difficult to reconcile that someone is acting with what seems to be a genuine inability to snap out of it. Could Chris “play” at being normal if he wanted to?
In his brilliant work The Divided Self, R. D. Laing recounts the thoughts of Joan, a recovered schizophrenic. Here, Joan addresses the word salad of supposedly meaningless things that schizophrenics say: “We schizophrenics say and do a lot of stuff that is unimportant, and then we mix important things in with all this to see if the doctor cares enough to see them and feel them.”
Laing observes, “A good deal of schizophrenia is simply nonsense, red-herring speech, prolonged filibustering to throw dangerous people off the scent, to create boredom and futility in others. The schizophrenic is often making a fool of himself and the doctor. He is playing at being mad to avoid at all costs the possibility of being held responsible for a single coherent idea or intention.”
R. D. Laing, The Divided Self (New York: Penguin, 1990), 164.
Modern science, according to German writer Hermann Hesse, is in the Stone Age compared to the teachings of ancient Indian mythology. I’m sure he’s right.
Dr. Vandemaele, Chris’s psychiatrist at the time, felt that Chris was on the upturn and would be ready to be released from the hospital in early March, 2004. Based on Chris’s reported symptoms and the doctor’s clinical observations, Dr. Vandemaele was of the opinion that Chris had schizophrenia, with a secondary depression, the two together not uncommon in the first presentation of the illness. Dr. Vandemaele assured us that there are effective treatments for both conditions and we could expect Chris to continue to improve with the initiation of the antidepressant. I did not disagree with Dr. Vandemaele’s assessment that Chris had schizophrenia and was also depressed, but to me it was situational depression, prompted by being forced to drop out of university while residing in a mental hospital. To Dr. Vandemaele, depression was a medical thing that could be treated with drugs.
To a doctor working in a psychiatric institution effective treatments mean medication. The institutional doctor does not convincingly project to the patient or the relatives a belief that the patient will eventually be capable of functioning in normal society, probably because the doctor does not work with normal society. His belief system comes from a conservative medical training and what he sees on the psychiatric wards. He only sees the breakdown within the walls of the institution.
For decades, psychotherapy has been downgraded as an effective treatment for schizophrenia in favor of drug treatment. Many people did not benefit from this treatment because it was considered of little therapeutic value when it came to schizophrenia. Dr. Vandemaele spoke of effective medications and did not speak of psychotherapy except to turn that job over to Chris’s priest.
R.D. Laing was one psychiatrist who understood. “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.” This sentiment may have been echoed by Dr. Vandemaele, but if it was, he never shared it with me. I could have used the encouragement and the hope in this very dark period. Instead, the language of the institution and the staff was psychosis, comorbid symptoms, prodromal symptoms, effexor, respiradone, etc. These words are terrifying.
Another proponent of the bad parenting school of thought was social worker Jacqui Schiff, who took a number of schizophrenic young people into her household in the early 1970s to “reparent” them, using Transactional Analysis techniques that she had learned from Dr Eric Berne. All My Children, published in 1970, provides a graphic account of the struggles she and her husband went through in the process of reparenting. She is scathing about the failure of parents to send the right messages to their children, which, she claims, results in their subsequent development of schizophrenia. Despite the fact she is acquainted with the parents of her charges in only the most superficial ways, she feels qualified to pass judgment on them, while making the same questionable judgments in her reparenting that parents make in parenting. She is particularly harsh on the mothers.
This harsh view of the parents, and in particular the mother, was shared by many psychiatrists at the time, notably Dr. Loren Mosher, Dr. Leo Kanner and Dr. R.D. Laing. Unfortunately, blaming the parents played right into the hands of drug companies. Why do I say this? I say this because drug companies don’t blame the parents. Drug companies claim that schizophrenia is a matter of biochemistry, by implication not by bad parenting.
By labeling schizophrenia a brain disease, not a result of bad parenting, psychiatrists and drug companies have made it easier for parents to say, “Look, it’s not my fault my child has schizophrenia; my child actually has a brain disease.” They have also ensured fat profits for pharmaceutical companies for years to come by this particular logic. What parents, feeling bad enough about the situation, would want to believe that it was their fault, especially if they had raised other well-adjusted children?
At the same time, and this is important, why would parents prefer to believe that their son or daughter has a damaged brain? Why would anyone want to believe that they were somehow “damaged”? That idea is horrible. It is a hopeless view. It is locking the young person into a lifetime of misery and dependency on drugs. There are many websites devoted to showing computer images of the damaged schizophrenic brain. One such website shows pictures of early and late gray matter deficits in schizophrenia. “But”, proclaims the website, “while there is a significant loss of brain gray matter, this is not a reason to lose all hope.” (see link below) Yes, according to the website, these deficits may be reversible and scientists are hard at work on inventing a miracle drug that could potentially reverse these cognitive declines.
I began to appreciate these out-of-favor psychiatrists (and one social worker) after I decided that there was no way I was going to believe that Chris had a damaged brain. The more I read, the more I agreed with them. They were downright interesting. They weren’t trying to toe the politically correct line. They criticized the pharmaceutical industry and psychiatrists for entering into unholy alliances. For all of the emphasis on the pharmaceutical approach, patients weren’t getting much better and of course, there were the side effects. All of this struck a chord with me.
They seemed to be in favor of schizophrenia as giving added value to the world. R. D. Laing believed that schizophrenia was a creative process leading to spiritual and emotional healing and noted that other cultures view schizophrenia as a state of trance, which could even be valued as mystical or shamanic. Isn’t finding “value” in schizophrenia more likely to lead to healing?
I looked into Dr. Leo Kanner’s work again and realized that, as with much of our sound-bite-obsessed culture, even in 1960 his remark about refrigerator mothers was probably blown out of proportion. Dr. Kanner had gone on to say something that shows an understanding that the origins (he was referring to autism) might go further back than the parents have control over. “The children’s aloneness from the beginning of life makes it difficult to attribute the whole picture exclusively to the type of early parental relations with our patients…We must, then assume that these children have come into the world with innate inability to form the usual biologically provided affective contact with people.” He then challenges the mothers to turn against the psychobabble of the contemporary psychiatrists in favor of their (the mothers’) innate common sense: “[R]egain that common sense which is yours, which has been yours before you allowed yourselves to be intimidated by would-be omniscient totalitarians.” Well said, Dr. Kanner!