When sanity is lethal and madness has value

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our cultural ideas of sanity. Being sane is seen to be about living in reality, or what we call ‘the real world’. Children naturally only partly live in the real world. They experience, interpret, and believe many things that would be considered psychotic in an adult, flights of fancy such as imaginary friends. Artists are generally not considered to live in the real world much either, but for most adults it’s mandatory and something we spend a lot of time teaching our kids to do. This is linked to some pretty harmful ideas about growing up.  It’s also generally the goal for people with ‘mental illnesses’.

I don’t think we do live in the real world. We talk about it, we make assumptions about it, we share in a mass set of beliefs we call ‘reality’, and we’ve built a mental health system on the idea that not only is there a shared reality, it’s also easy to define, simple to determine who isn’t connected to it any more, and that sanity and mental health is about people believing in it again. I disagree!

I don’t believe ‘the real world’ is reality. (Of course, that’s hardly definitive. According to most of the doctors I’ve seen, I have some collection of mental illnesses. The actual collection differs from doctor to doctor, and the implied level of insanity with it, but the general consensus has certainly been that I’m no poster child for the well adjusted and sane.)

Of all my family, I have the most significant list of mental illnesses, and on paper am apparently far less in contact with reality than the rest. But it’s not difficult for me to gather evidence that suggests something else entirely! At times, I’ve been the one left standing and keeping people safe through chaos, or the one who was able to see danger coming and put things in place to deal with it, or the one who went and found what we needed to make decisions and stay alive. Crises have both harmed me and taken me out of the role of the ‘sick one’ and thinking that multiplicity was the worst thing in the world.

We don’t overtly use words like madness a lot in mental health these days, but scratch the surface and you can quickly find that the premises underlie a great many of our ideas and assumptions. We now have the rather inadequate terms ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental health’ as part of the medical model re-visioning of psychological states. They are direct stand-ins for the concepts of madness and sanity, especially in the field of psychosis, with a veneer of ideas around non-culpability and potential cure. Let’s think about them for a minute. What are they? If sane is about being in contact with reality, living in the real world, madness is seen as the opposite. Loss of contact with reality. Distress, confusion, delusions, hallucinations, bizarre beliefs and behaviour. Not living in the real world any more.

Madness and sanity are presumed to be opposite states, on a spectrum of intensity. Doctors treat the severely or moderately mentally ill in the hopes of restoring them to at least mild levels of mental health. Psychiatrists and treating registrars make calls of madness and sanity in brief interviews with often heavily medicated and highly distressed people. The results can be almost comic in their fallibility. Eleanor Longden tells the story of a time she was sectioned as psychotic when a doctor thought her mention of her upcoming work on a local radio station was a grandiose delusion. Her understandable distress at being so profoundly misjudged was taken as further evidence of her mental illness. It’s a closed loop; the normal emotional responses to being assessed as crazy are used as proof you are, in fact, crazy.

And yet, most of us share a terror of madness. It’s one of the primary reasons people seek help, and are relieved by a diagnosis – “there’s a name for it! I though I was just going mad!” We are driven mad when people think we are mad. It terrifies and distresses us and we will go to great lengths to convince people we are not. This behaviour is the same for people are psychotic or simply misunderstood, and yet in the former it is assessed as anosognosia (lack of insight) when in fact it is an intact, normal response to being seen as mad that most people will have in those circumstances. Those who embrace that they have become mad are usually, at least for a time, crushed by it. It is a state that is utterly without value, completely terrifying, and puts people into a whole new class of humans who can swiftly lose many basic rights about their lives and medical care. Having been assessed as mad, even calm, normal human behaviour is distorted through a lens that amplifies diversity, individuality, and departure from the obedient patient roles and interprets it all as further madness. (See the Rosenhan experiments) The cost to a person’s credibility is high, and can be extremely difficult to restore.

Think about what this actually means. We have a massive collection of people employed in our police department specifically to try and figure out what reality is when there’s a possibility someone has been injured or laws have been broken. We have entire complex branches of science dedicated to determining different tiny detailed aspects of the nature of the world we live in. They regularly disagree with one another and update new theories as old ones are disproved. We have an entire judiciary system structured on the understanding that knowing the truth of a situation can be extraordinarily difficult and complex. The whole history of philosophical thought examines the nature of reality and finds that even defining the concept is astonishingly challenging. It’s difficult to find any three people on the planet with completely identical beliefs about the world and their place in it.

And yet, we sit a doctor and a patient down in a room, and assume the doctor can determine reality and can pronounce madness and sanity with excellent accuracy. Wow. Who are these marvels of discernment? They are us. Doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists have similar if not higher rates of ‘mental illness’, trauma histories, job burnout, and suicide, than the rest of the human population. They contain the same qualities we find in every other person doing a job – some highly skilled and insightful, some mediocre and clock-watching, some true scum bags. And yet we, as a whole culture, invest in the illusion that not only is reality easy to define, but that these people are experts in doing so. In fact, their testimony is frequently relied upon in situations such as custody battles. The presumption that they are sane, and highly skilled at determining not only what reality is, but also sanity: who is ‘in touch’ with reality, is infrequently challenged. In many situations, merely challenging these assumptions is itself seen as evidence of madness. A considerable number of patients stress tremendously about their ‘trust issues’ when they struggle to connect with their shrinks, when in no other context would we expect people to share with a complete stranger who is not likewise vulnerable and has established no trustworthiness beyond attaining a degree. My assessment is that there’s little sanity in any of these processes.

I believe that I am, like most people, both mad and sane. I don’t find the terms mutually exclusive. As for ‘the real world’? I would go a step further and argue that this idea is partly what drives my pain and dysfunction, and that my sanity often resides in refusing to believe in it. Lets look at trauma for a moment. We as a community believe a collection of things that are not true, but that are convenient to believe. For example, here in a first world country, we often believe that if we are decent people, we will be mostly safe from harm. Many of our child raising techniques are overtly designed to create and preserve this belief in children. Our sense of security rests on an illusionary contract with the world at large. This is what a horrific trauma incident can shatter. Having upheld our end of the bargain, our sense of safety is utterly destroyed when a violent, terrifying incident reveals that the world isn’t playing by our rules. We are devastated by our loss, overwhelmed by intense grief for a world we no longer feel a part of, and given the arduous task of rebuilding a sense of security in our new reality where we can’t always stop truly horrible things from happening. It’s a deeply personal experience of the scientific process of testing a hypothesis, finding it is terribly flawed, and having to devise a new one, preferably one we can live with, and even better, in some way explain to others.

The tension for people in this situation is that it’s not uncommon for the people around them to still believe in the very illusion they’ve just had shattered. Their idea of the ‘real world’ has not been destroyed by a personal confrontation with mortality, horror, and vulnerability. Their idea of sanity is to maintain a belief system that the traumatised person can simply no longer subscribe to. The traumatised person is newly exposed to the experience of helplessness and profound injustice. Their perceptions of risk are disproportionately high as they lack the buffering of any sense of emotional security. Aware that they are partly irrational, it is easy for them to subscribe to the idea that sanity is about restoring their old beliefs, so that they can once more grasp the emotional security their friends still enjoy. The bone-deep emotional reality of their experience will fight every attempt to re-instate the old beliefs through depression, distress, and other involuntary trauma reactions. Hence the war inside someone who has been traumatised, has been sold the idea that ‘going back to the way they used to be’ is how they will become healthier, and who is now fighting their own experiences and emotions in the hopes of restoring themselves to sanity.

What we call ‘the real world’ is not only more challenging to define than we have treated it, but it’s sometime actually the problem. I had a lovely friend called Amanda who killed herself. At her funeral, a theme that came up over and over again was one of failure. Diagnosed with bipolar, Amanda crashed and burned at just the time her peers were finding their wings. Struggling with university, struggling to work, to live independently, to attain any of the goals that had been set for her, Amanda drowned in a sense of failure. As someone who’s highest educational achievement to date has been a cert 4, who lives on welfare, in public housing, a mere disability statistic, I can empathise. Of course, this view of her and I isn’t reality. The reality is, we are each important members of complex social networks, highly skilled, compassionate, and primarily ‘disabled’ not through our challenges but because we live in a post-industrial society where we must be able to work reliably at certain days and hours each week, and where our public identity and sense of personal success relies on being able to secure and maintain such work. The ‘failure’ is not ours, yet we and people like us bear a terribly burden, often mistakenly equating our skills and intelligence with our mental health and doubting that we are genuinely disabled. We are haunted by fear that really, we are just weak, lazy, or useless. ‘The real world’ is that Amanda had failed and was continuing to fail. The reality is that she was amazing and deeply important and her life was beautiful and meaningful and lived with kindness, humour, and depth, and that she is profoundly missed.

I’m not naive. I’m very familiar with the world of psychosis. I’ve tried to calm people who are distraught because of hallucinations that are terrifying them. I’m well aware that many of us have a basic, blunt instrument kind of discernment of when someone is wildly delusional or hallucinating. The poor young man terrified that his neighbours are trying to poison him, the woman convinced she can fly from the top of the 9 story car park, the new Mum terrified of her growing conviction that her infant is evil. Buddhist philosophers may debate the nature of reality but they still look both ways before crossing the road. At times this may be very simple – I know the woman cannot fly and will be hurt or killed if she tries. At other times it only seems simple – the quiet young man, well dressed, with a job, and a calm gaze, is sane. The young woman huddled under the rug, weeping and tearing out her hair is mad. What the police and the paramedics cannot know, and the woman cannot articulate, is that the young man has been emotionally torturing her for months, and that night raped her when she refused to have sex, then used her distress and prior diagnoses to have her committed and discredit any possible allegations she might bring against him later on. This sort of thing happens. It happens more than we think. And when it happens often enough, the traumatised person loses the ability to tell their story, the credibility to be believed, and sometimes even the memory of what lies beneath their ‘madness’ and pain.

There is really no greater power in the world than to be the person who determines what is real and who is sane. And yet we wield this power so thoughtlessly, so convinced that good intentions will protect the vulnerable from exploitation and the powerful from corruption. This is naivete.

Sanity is relative.

It depends on who has who locked in what cage.

-CS Lewis

Reality is determined by the powerful. The powerful are not necessarily sane, they are merely powerful. Their ideas have popular traction and become what we think of as ‘normal’ or as ‘the real world’. The ‘real world’ once told me that I was poor, white trash living in a caravan park, fallen so far from my sterling academic success and the expectations of my school and family. To dig my way out of the pit, out of the catastrophic effect this had on my identity, self esteem, and hope, I had to reject this version of reality and construct my own. I had to connect with a different idea of success and find a new way to evaluate my life. Stumbling onto this power – to define my own life, my own reality, and make my own choices, saved me. It is still saving me. While sometimes our beliefs can threaten or destroy our lives – I know people who have tried to kill themselves, kill someone else, who became homeless, refused food, and many seriously destructive behaviours because of their beliefs – our basic need to be the architect of those beliefs remains. We are harmed when we are instructed or forced to substitute someone else’s ideas about reality for our own. When we’ve had our trust in our own beliefs taken from us, we lose something critical. The loss of it can drive us further into madness, or it can flatland our life as we remain fearful of our thoughts and mind and totally dependant on outside sources of information. Collaboration with outside sources is often useful, it’s the substitution of another’s ideas for any of our own that so disempowers.

Here’s the thing; I also know of people who are considered to be entirely sane who have tried to kill themselves, or others, who work jobs they hate, see family who make them miserable, enact policies that destroy people’s lives. Many of them are people who consider themselves to live ‘in the real world’ and think that because they do not hallucinate and at times I do, that they are saner than I am.

We are all philosophers and scientists, making sense of our own lives, coming up with theories, trading them in, building new ideas. When we build the myth that reality is fixed and easy to define, and that sanity is about consensus and submission to a group belief, we take away from people their most fundamental power to make sense of their own world. It is a violence, even when done with kindness. Collaboration and relationship are where we best seem to make sense of the world. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that every person on earth believes some ideas that someone else considers to be madness. Simply imagine your most difficult family member being invested with the power to decide what is reality and who is sane, put them in the judge box, and justify your life choices and beliefs to them. There’s no way you’re going to come through stamped ‘sane’. The same is probably true of every family member or friend you have, to some degree. This is diversity.

I’m often asked to define reality. Even in my low position as a peer worker in mental health, people invest me with the power to tell them what is real. They come to me after talks and ask me if their behaviour is ‘normal’, which considering I’ve often just been describing my own so-called wildly abnormal behaviour (living as a multiple), is a curious expression of trust in my capacity to delineate between reality and madness, and an even curiouser idea that I am here to police their reality. I’ve spoken with people who have a spiritual understanding of the origin of their multiplicity (such as having a part that is the spirit of a dead family member) who’ve asked me if it’s real or not. I’ve been reported as abusive by a woman suffering with paranoia who was convinced I was hacking into her personal life to stalk her. I’ve instigated the forced hospitalisation of a person who had recently become homeless due to their unusual beliefs, and who I assessed to be at very high risk of assault or exploitation. I still consider that act of reporting to be an assault, and the person in question has never forgiven me. It was an incredibly difficult decision. I’m still uncertain about it, distressed and regretful and also far more aware of the horrific decisions like this so many people have to make on a regular basis.

It’s incredibly important to define what is real in some contexts, and almost impossible to in others. People are all both sane and mad. We all share some aspects of reality and have other experiences, quirks, passions and desires that are entirely our own unique way of being in the world. Something terrifying happens when we make social constructs ‘the real world’ and think they are reality. Reality is did you hit him or not? It is physical and measurable. It is not about the constructs that make up our ideas about ‘the real world’. It is not a flatland of emotional deprivation. It can exist alongside psychosis and dreams and surreal experiences. It is not freedom from pain. If you are human and alive, then you will sometimes suffer. You will have your heart broken, you will lose people you love, you will have dreams crushed. You will need to weep and scream and hurt. That’s a side of sanity we don’t talk much about.

So here’s a side of madness we don’t hear much about either: madness; our unique perspective and experience of life, is like fire, a great gift with destructive potential. Madness is part of reality, part of our sanity. It can protect us. Madness is disagreeing with ‘the real world’ and the way things are always done. Madness can be breaking out of roles and expectations and doing what’s actually meaningful to you. Madness can be joyful exuberance and childlike magic. Madness can be dancing in the rain, or communing with God, or sitting on the roof and watching the stars fall. It’s the sublime. It’s the things we don’t have words for. In some situations, sanity is a threat to our hope, our emotional stability, and our lives. Sometimes it’s sane to give up, to hate, to shut down, to want to die. Sometimes madness saves us.

little spark of madness

7 thoughts on “When sanity is lethal and madness has value

  1. outstanding. I laughed out loud, in my litle old caravan where I live 😉 at this:

    Buddhist philosophers may debate the nature of reality but they still look both ways before crossing the road. I could quote more but then – I would paste the whole article. 😉
    Having met your writing was worth 20 years struggling with the behaviouristic ‘reality’ in Britain!


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