Imagine Joseph Campbell knowing nothing of schizophrenia

We all have to start somewhere, and mythologist Joseph Campbell is no exception. Amazingly, according to the author, he was beavering away in his academic ivory tower of mythology, and it had to be brought to his attention late in his career (1968) that what he was doing had a real world application to schizophrenia.

In an unintentionally comical response to an invitation to deliver a series of speeches at the Esalen Institute in California, he suggested that rather than speak on schizophrenia, he’d deliver his talk on James Joyce instead.

James Joyce, the author of Finnegan’s Wake? How did he again miss the obvious? Well, miss it he did.

Below is a fragment from the word salad of Joyce:

As the lion in our teargarten remembers the nenuphars of his Nile (shall Ariuz forget Arioun or Boghas the baregams of the Marmarazalles from Marmeniere?) it may be, tots wearsense full a naggin in twentyg have sigilposted what in our brievingbust, the besieged bedreamt him stil and solely of those lililiths undeveiled which had undone him, gone for age, and knew not the watchful treachers at his wake, and theirs to stay. Fooi, fooi, chamermissies! Zeepyzoepy, larcenlads! Zijnzijn Zijnzijn! It may be, we moest ons hasten selves te declareer it, that he reglimmed? presaw? the fields of heat and yields of wheat where corngold Ysit? shamed and shone. It may be, we habben to upseek

Joyce spent the remaining years of his life worried that his work on Finnegan’s Wake caused his daughter’s schizophrenia. Nature or nuture? You decide.

The link in this blog is from Schizophrenia: The Inward journey, by Joseph Campbell, 1970, published in Myths to Live By

Community myths about schizophrenia recovery

I came across the sad story the other day of Tom Cavanagh, a young, Harvard graduate and professional hockey player who killed himself.

For those closest to Cavanagh, his illness became apparent in November 2009 when he suffered his first psychotic episode. He was briefly institutionalized and, in what would become a pattern, responded well to medication and was released. He even joined the AHL’s team in Manchester, N.H., later that season, playing in 17 games before suffering a shoulder injury.

He was hospitalized again in April after becoming violent and breaking furniture in a doctor’s office. But he was well enough to begin this season with an AHL team in Springfield, Mass.

“It’s amazing how he was able to perform at such a high level, knowing what we do now,” said Riley, Cavanagh’s coach at Springfield. “But God only knows what he was dealing with outside the rink.”

One can marvel at the fortitude of this young man to keep himself together enough to get out and play professional hockey despite the diagnosis of schizophrenia, or one can wonder what was everybody thinking? I’m in the latter camp. Schizophrenia is a major crisis point, and it’s not business as usual. The business as usual approach to schizophrenia seems positive and encouraging, but it is not. I call it false positivism.

When we first consulted a psychologist about Chris’s strange behavior, Chris was two weeks away from going back to university a continent away from where we lived. Everybody’s expectations, including ours and Chris’s, were focused on that goal.  The psychologist seemed  to think that it was just a matter of getting the right meds and then Chris would be back on track at university. He suggested that we arrange an appointment with a psychiatrist connected with Chris’s university before classes resumed for the fall term. When Chris was admitted to hospital a few months later (still not on meds at that time), the doctors and social worker talked of the possibility of Chris resuming his classes, being on meds, and having a social worker drop in to check on him once a week. That dream was short lived as Chris actually got worse while in the hospital. He dropped out of university when he was released three months later.

A rosier outcome than was Chris’s at that time can happen, but how often does it? How realistic is it for someone to pick up their hockey, their studies or their job so quickly after receiving an earthshaking diagnosis? We know that people get short changed in mental health care because of the expense of time in Western cultures. We are told that pills will make us productive. Schizophrenia, diagnosised or otherwise, means that something isn’t working and it’s time for a time-out, a long time out. Perhaps this young man, Tom Cavanagh, was living out the dreams of his father and the rest of his family, and it got to the point where he couldn’t go on as he had been doing because he didn’t know who he was. “He would tell me that he can’t feel any emotion, that he can’t engage with people, that he felt disassociated and that this was the way he felt his whole life,” Joe Cavanagh said. 

Author Joseph Campbell sees a schizophrenia breakdown as an inward and backward journey to recover something missed or lost, and to restore a vital balance.  Don’t cut the individual off, work with him, Campbell advised.

People like Tom Cavanagh are given drugs and told the falsehood that the drugs are the best and the quickest way to manage the life you had before you got side-swiped. Your parents will be relieved and optimistic and you will become part of the larger community myth of recovery. There is no mention of spiritual and existential problems that need to be addressed. This scenario works until it doesn’t. Tom Cavanagh couldn’t sustain the myth. What he needed was a lot of therapeutic help and understanding up front. He would need intensive support for a long, long time, but he could recover. This is not part of the medication based myth of recovery.

Exposing the business as usual myth of recovery should put the spotlight back on real recovery as a long, slow process needing periods of rest and reflection and minimal to no use of medication. The basis of being told this should come from a place of optimism, that there is a brighter tomorrow and it will come, with effort, just not now. Sometimes doctors will explain recovery this way, but often what you are told comes from a base of pessismism. Doubt is interjected because the medical community, by and large, doesn’t believe in the drugless optimistic approach.  When the myth of the speedy recovery by drugs is exposed, the mental health community lies to the public again by telling us that there was never any chance anyway. They now tell us that schizophrenia is a life sentence. In Tom Cavanagh’s case, the doctor painted a picture to the parents that death may be the only release for a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The obvious question that I would raise would be then why did you lie to me about speedy recovery?

Cavanagh’s doctor sat with the family later to explain why Tom might have done this. He told them how the schizophrenia can manifest itself in males in their mid to late 20s. It can be, he said, a raging fire that grows out of control.“He painted a rather dismal picture of what the future is for someone with this disease,” Joe Cavanagh said. “That’s why we’re happy that he didn’t hurt someone and he’s not in jail.”

The myth of the medical cure and speedy recovery is once again being use to prop up the community myth of the unhealable schizophrenic.

Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths*

Chris’s notes on his second out-of-body experience induced by sound

“It’s almost impossible not to see as though nothing’s changed since the last sound therapy. I could pretend that I’ve reached Nirvana but I’m seeing everything the way I always have, no psychedelic colors or even levitation or lightness. I believed I could leave my worldly attachments behind, but the difference has been in what I don’t see and especially don’t hear anymore. I can hear myself and see myself, and this has made me wiser. I will try to explain. It will be difficult.

During the color therapy, I saw vivid images of various scenes with various people, and I was in them too, but with a difference. I saw scenes in which I have pictured or even wanted myself to be in; they were anything from choosing what to wear in the morning to having sex with someone I’ve felt attracted to, to participating in a Nazi party rally! As it was explained to me later which I only perceived at the time, my insecurity with these images, often grotesque and violent, was rooted in the fact that I was really an observer. I placed expectations on the outcomes of each of the dramas, and with the sound therapy I was transported to each of these dramas, which were rooted in some subconscious fantasy from God knows what. As I heard the colors and shapes, I could see that my “mind” had been tricking me; or rather my body which was wanting to make my mind believe that my feelings were my body, were somehow inferior to the form of a beast which I had allowed my body to become. Indeed, having sex I could see that it was not sex but rape to my mind, and at the Nazi rally I felt a tingle in my arm as I raised it in a salute! I say only this for myself and no-one else, but what my intellect knows is “true” and horrible only exists because of the corrupt nature of my own body, and my belief in human failings.

Afterwards, the sound shaman sat me down to chat about the experience, which I needed because of wanting to understand my experience and what went on. I don’t remember everything he said to me, but I believe that it was said that in those “fantasies” was my true self, i.e. my physical manifestation that I’ve built up in the mirror is partly false and a deception. I believe that when I’ve chosen to follow an abstract goal, committing intellectually, emotionally and physically but without a true purpose then a split was caused in my being which is why I haven’t been able to find a true calling yet.”
*Joseph Campbell