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So, as I asked at the end of the previous post, what chance do Christina and Stefan Grof stand in their efforts to prove the mystical component of psychosis?

I need to repeat the caveats I voiced at the start of this sequence about their book, The Stormy Search for the Self: understanding and living with spiritual emergency, so that I do not come across as easily taken in. It is not easy to tread the razor’s edge between the default positions of intransigent incredulity and irremediable gullibility, but here goes.

Their book has echoes for me of Hillman’s The Soul’s Code in that it combines deep insights with what read like wild flights of fancy and carefully substantiated accounts of concrete experience with vague waves at unspecified bodies of invisible evidence. Even so, so much of it is clearly derived from careful observation and direct experience, and goes a long way towards defining what look convincingly like spiritual manifestations which are currently dismissed as mere madness. It seemed important to flag the book up at this point.

I am going to focus on what I feel are their strongest points: concrete experiences that illustrate their perspective and their brave and, in my opinion, largely successful attempts to make a clear distinction between mystic and merely disturbed experiences, not that the latter are to be dismissed as meaningless. It’s just that their meaning is to be found in life events not in the transcendent.

First I’ll deal with their account of one person’s spiritual crisis. In the last post I’ll be looking at their scheme of diagnostic distinction.

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘Glory Be to God’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

A Concrete Example

What follows is a highly condensed summary of one person’s story. A key point to hold in mind is one the Grofs made earlier in the book (page 71):

Often, individuals benefit from their encounter with the divine but have problems with the environment. In some instances, people talk to those close to them about a powerful mystical state. If their family, friends, or therapists do not understand the healing potential of these dimensions, they may not treat them as valid or may automatically become concerned about the sanity of the loved one or client. If the person who has had the experience is at all hesitant about its validity or concerned about his or her state of mind, the concern of others may exaggerate these doubts, compromising, clouding, or obscuring the richness of the original feelings and sensations.

Karen’s Story

They begin by providing some background (pages 191-92):

[S]he had a difficult childhood; her mother committed suicide when she was three, and she grew up with an alcoholic father and his second wife. Leaving home in her late teens, she lived through periods of depression and struggled periodically with compulsive eating.

Assuming that her subsequent experiences were what they seem to be, and I do, then it is clear that just because there is trauma in someone’s background does mean that the unusual experiences they report are entirely reducible to some form of post-traumatic stress response any more than they can be explained satisfactorily simply in terms of brain malfunction. Whatever is going on in the brain is just a correlate but not a cause, and previous trauma may have rendered any filter susceptible to leaks from a transcendent reality. I am restraining myself from leaping too soon to that last and much desired conclusion.

Interestingly, it’s possible that there was an organic trigger to her spiritual crisis (page 192):

. . . [F]ive days before her episode, Karen had begun taking medication for an intestinal parasite, stopping as the daily experience started. . . . . It is difficult to accurately assess its role in the onset of this event. . . . Whatever the source, her crisis contained all the elements of a true spiritual emergency. It lasted three-and-a-half weeks and completely interrupted her ordinary functioning, necessitating twenty-four-hour attention.

Her friends asked the Grofs to become involved in her care so they were able to observe the whole situation as it unfolded.

That Karen was able to avoid being admitted to psychiatric hospital was down to the support of a wide circle of friends. That this meant that she did not have to take any medication is important, according to the Grofs and other sources. Anti-pychotic medication has the effect of blocking the very processes that a successful integration of the challenging experiences requires. They describe the lay nature of her support (pages 192-93):

[B]ecause of Karen’s obvious need and the reluctance of those around her to involve her in traditional psychiatric approaches, her care was largely improvised. Most of the people who became involved were not primarily dedicated to working with spiritual emergencies.

What were her experiences like during this period of what they call ‘spiritual emergency’?

Their description covers several pages (page 194-196). This is a very brief selection of some of the main aspects. To Karen her vision seemed clearer. She also ‘heard women’s voices telling her that she was entering a benign and important experience. . . .’ Observers noted that ‘heat radiated throughout Karen’s body and it was noted that ‘she saw visions of fire and fields of red, at times feeling herself consumed by flames. . . .’

What is also particularly interesting is her re-experience of previous life crises: ‘[S]he struggled through the physical and emotional pain of her own biological birth and repeatedly relived the delivery of her daughter,’ as well as confronting ‘death many times and in many forms, and her preoccupation with dying caused her sitters to become concerned about the possibility of a suicide attempt.’ She was too well protected for that to be a serious risk.

In the last post I will be linking a therapeutic technique the Grofs advocate, Holotropic Breathwork, with some of my own experiences. This makes their description of how this technique can uncover repressed memories of traumatic experiences all the more credible to me. More of that later. That Karen should have been triggered into such regressions is not therefore surprising to me.

By way of supporting her through this, ‘telling her that it was possible to experience death symbolically without actually dying physically, her sitters asked her to keep her eyes closed and encouraged her to fully experience the sequences of dying inwardly and to express the difficult emotions involved.’ It is significant for their model that encouragement and support in facing what we might otherwise be tempted to flee from helps. ‘She complied, and in a short time she moved past the intense confrontation with death to other experiences. . . .’

Given my interest in the relationship between apparently disturbed mental states and creativity, it was noteworthy that ‘[f]or several days, Karen tapped directly into a powerful stream of creativity, expressing many of her experiences in the form of songs. It was amazing to witness: after an inner theme would surface into awareness, she would either make up a song about it or recall one from memory, lustily singing herself through that phase of her process.’

They describe her during this period as ‘extremely psychic, highly sensitive, and acutely attuned to the world around her.’ For example she was ‘able to “see through” everyone around her, often anticipating their comments and actions.’

Georgiana Houghton‘s ‘The Glory of the Lord’ (image scanned from ‘Spirit Drawings’ – the Courtauld Gallery)

 

Things began to take a more positive turn (page 196):

After about two weeks, some of the difficult, painful states started to subside and Karen receive increasingly benevolent, light-filled experiences and felt more and more connected with a divine source.

Perhaps I need to clarify that I am not attempting to adduce this as evidence of the reality of the spiritual world. People like David Fontana and Leslie Kean have collated such evidence far better than I ever could, and sorted out the wheat from the chaff with honesty and discernment.

What I am hoping to do is use this as a demonstration that sometimes at least what could be written off as meaningless and irrational brain noise might not only be significantly related to early experiences in life, as the trauma work suggests, but also to a spiritual dimension whose reality our culture usually denies with the result that the experiences are pathologised. The outcome in this case strongly suggests that pathologising them needlessly prolongs them and blocks life-enhancing changes that would otherwise have resulted.

They go onto describe the end of the episode and its aftermath (ibid.):

. . . . As Karen began to come through her experience, she became less and less absorbed by her in the world and more interested in her daughter and the other people around her. She began to eat and sleep more regularly and was increasingly able to care for some of her daily needs. . . .

Rather as was the case with Fontana and his poltergeist investigation, as the vividness of the experiences receded, doubts beganset in (ibid.:)

As she became increasingly in touch with ordinary reality, Karen’s mind started to analyse her experiences, and she began to feel for the first time that she had been involved in a negative process. The only logical way of explaining these events to herself was that something had gone wrong, that perhaps she had truly lost her mind. Self-doubt is a common stage in spiritual emergencies, appearing when people begin to surface from the dramatic manifestations . . .

She was not blind to the positives in the end (page 197):

Two years later, when we discussed her experience with her, Karen said that she has mixed feelings about the episode. She is able to appreciate many aspects of what happened to her. She says that she has learnt a great deal of value about herself and her capacities, feeling that through her crisis she gained wisdom that she can tap any time. Karen has visited realms within herself that she previously had no idea were there, has felt enormous creativity flow through her, and has survived the previously frightening experiences of birth, death, and madness. Her depressions have disappeared, as well as her tendency toward compulsive overeating.

But her doubts persisted, and may have been to some extent fuelled by her family and friends’ reactions and the lack of informed support (page 198):

On the other hand, Karen also has some criticisms. Even though she could not have resisted the powerful states during her episode, she feels that she was unprepared for the hard, painful work involved. In spite of the fact that she received a great deal of assistance during the three weeks, she feels that she was not yet ready to venture forth into the daily world when she was required to do so by the exhaustion of the resources of those around her. Since that time, she has lacked contact with people with whom to further process her experiences. She considers herself somewhat “different” for having had the episode (an opinion also indirectly expressed by her family and some of her friends) and has tended to downgrade it by concentrating on its negative effects.

The support had to be reduced after the three-week peak period because the support network was burning out. The Grofs felt (ibid.:)

Many of these problems could have been avoided if Karen had had consistent and knowledgeable support immediately following her crisis, perhaps in a halfway house, and follow-up help – in the form of ongoing therapy, support groups, and spiritual practice – for a more extended period of time.

It is dangerous to extrapolate too wildly but I feel that in Karen’s story there are real grounds for hope. She recovered from an apparently devastating episode of mental disturbance without drugs. She demonstrated modest but lasting mental health gains in terms of no subsequent depression or compulsive eating. There is every reason to suppose given this experience and the evidence of Dr Sami Timimi’s study, adduced by James Davies in Cracked and described in the previous post, that an outcome like this could apply far more widely across the so-called psychotic spectrum. Yes, the intervention was time intensive, but it was brief and successful. This compares with long-term interventions involving medication resulting in symptoms that continue to simmer for years or even decades, blighting the whole life of the sufferer and the lives of close family.

The Grofs then explore models of help and aftercare, which I won’t go into now as the main focus I want to take is on their ideas of how to distinguish a spiritual emergency such as Karen’s from other forms of disturbance. This is clearly an important distinction to be able to make as the approaches taken when dealing with trauma-related disturbances and spiritual crises will be somewhat different, though Karen’s case implies there might well be an overlap.

However, all the evidence that has accumulated since they wrote suggests that all such so-called psychotic episodes are better dealt with in a non-diagnostic way, which is an issue that the Grofs do not fully address, probably because at the time of their writing placing spiritual emergency on the agenda seemed a more urgent issue, given that it was and still is doubly disparaged.

Now for the difficult distinction in the next post, along with a brief description of their recommended intervention.

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Suffering is life.

(Thomas Szasz quoted by James Davies in Cracked – page 276)

I was walking back from town one day when my phone pinged. It was a message telling me my book was ready for collection from Waterstones. I was puzzled to begin with then the penny dropped. Just before my birthday someone spotted that I had scribbled, in my list of books to buy, the title of Cracked by James Davies.

I turned round and headed back to town again. When I picked up the book, for some reason I wasn’t impressed by its cover. Maybe the words ‘Mail on Sunday’ put me off, though Wilf Self’s comment helped to redress the balance.

Anyhow, for whatever reason, I didn’t get round to reading it until after I’d finished Rovelli’s Reality is not What it Seems. I’ll be doing a short review of that later, possibly.

Once I started Davies’s book I was hooked.

I’ve already shared on this blog a review of Bentall’s book Doctoring the Mind, which brilliantly, for me at least, brings the more grandiose pretentions of psychiatry back to the earth with a bump. I quoted Salley Vickers’ verdict:

Bentall’s thesis is that, for all the apparent advances in understanding psychiatric disorders, psychiatric treatment has done little to improve human welfare, because the scientific research which has led to the favouring of mind-altering drugs is, as he puts it, “fatally flawed”. He cites some startling evidence from the World Health Organisation that suggests patients suffering psychotic episodes in developing countries recover “better” than those from the industrialised world and the aim of the book is broadly to suggest why this might be so. . . .

I summarised my own view by praising ‘its rigorous analysis of the misleading inadequacy of psychiatry’s diagnostic system, its powerful and carefully argued exposure of the myths surrounding psychotropic medications and their supposed efficacy, and its moving description of the critical importance of positive relationships to recovery.’

The Davies book also covers much of this same ground and is equally compelling. What needs to be acknowledged is that he also takes the argument to another level towards the end of his book. He is concerned that we are exporting our Western model with all its flaws to country after country and goes on to explore other implications as well.

In the chapter dealing with the export issue he first summarises his case up to that point (page 258 – square brackets pull in additional points he has made elsewhere):

Western psychiatry has just too many fissures in the system to warrant its wholesale exportation, not just because psychiatric diagnostic manuals are more products of culture than science (chapter 2) [and have labelled as disorders many normal responses to experience], or because the efficacy of our drugs is far from encouraging (Chapter 4), or because behind Western psychiatry lie a variety of cultural assumptions about human nature and the role of suffering of often questionable validity and utility (Chapter 9), or because pharmaceutical marketing can’t be relied on to report the facts unadulterated and unadorned [and its influence has helped consolidate the stranglehold of diagnosis and a simplistic psychiatric approach] (Chapter 10), or finally because our exported practices may undermine successful local ways of managing distress. If there is any conclusion to which the chapters of this book should point, it is that we must think twice before confidently imparting to unsuspecting people around the globe our particular brand of biological psychiatry, our wholly negative views of suffering, our medicalisation of everyday life, and our fearfulness of any emotion that may bring us down.

I can’t emphasise too strongly the value of reading through the details of his treatment of all these other aspects. I am of course aware that physical medicine, even though there are biological markers for diseases in this sphere unlike in mental health, has not been exempt from the disingenuous manipulation of data and unscrupulous marketing methods practiced by the pharmaceutical industry, as Malcolm Kendrick’s book Doctoring Data eloquently testifies, but the scale of that abuse is dwarfed in the arena of mental health – and I mean arena in the fullest sense of that word: the battle here is damaging more ‘patients’ and costing even more lives.

Davies’s examination of exactly how this exportation of the psychiatric perspective is coming about is also disturbing and compelling reading. He adduces for example how skilfully drug companies have learned to read the reality of cultures into which they want to make inroads with their products, how effectively they target key figures in the prescribing hierarchy of professionals, and how astutely they now reach out to the public themselves so they will go to their doctors and request what the drug company is selling – all this to detriment of the many ways the social cohesion of the receiving culture has often (though not always, of course) been supporting those who are suffering from some form of emotional distress.

Where he takes his case next, in Chapter 10, I found both compelling and resonant. He is in tune with Bentall in seeing the importance of supportive relationships but, I think, explores that aspect somewhat more deeply.

He repeats basic points, to begin with (page 266):

What the evidence shows… is that what matters most in mental health care is not diagnosing problems and prescribing medication, but developing meaningful relationships with sufferers with the aim of cultivating insight into their problems, so the right interventions can be individually tailored to their needs. Sometimes this means giving meds, but more often it does not.

He then quotes research done by a psychiatrist he interviewed (page 267). Using two existing MH teams, Dr Sami Timimi set up a study comparing the results from two groups, one diagnostic, the usual approach, and the other non-diagnostic, where medication was given only sparingly, diagnosis was hardly used at all, and individual treatment plans were tailored to the person’s unique needs.’

In the non-diagnostic group the psychiatrist spent far more time exploring with his clients the context of their problems.

The results were clear (page 269):

Only 9 per cent of patients treated by the non-diagnostic approach continued needing treatment after two years, compared with 34 per cent of patients who were being treated via the medical model. Furthermore, only one person from the non-diagnostic group ended up having to be hospitalised, whereas over 15 people in the medical-model team were referred for inpatient hospital treatment. Finally, the non-diagnostic approach led to more people being discharged more quickly, and to the lowest patient ‘no-show’ rate out of all the mental health teams in the county.

Davies also interviewed Dr Peter Breggin, a US psychiatrist who is critical of the medical model. Breggin explained his viewpoint (page 279):

Most problems are created by the contexts in which people live and therefore require contextual not chemical solutions. ‘People who are breaking down are often like canaries in a mineshafts,’ explained Breggin. ‘They are a signal of a severe family issue.’ .  . . . For Breggin, because the medical model fails to take context seriously – whether the family or the wider social context – it overlooks the importance of understanding and managing context to help the person in distress.

Davies quotes Dr Pat Bracken as singing from the same hymn sheet (page 273):

We should start turning the paradigm round, start seeing the non-medical approach as the real work of psychiatry, rather than as incidental to the main thrust of the job, which is about diagnosing people and then getting them on the right drugs.

It’s where he goes next that I found most unexpected but most welcome to my heart. He leads into it with an interview with Thomas Sasz just before his death at the age of 92 (page 276). He asks Szasz, ‘why do we believe as a culture that suffering must be removed chemically rather than understood in many cases as a natural human phenomenon, and possibly something from which we can learn and grow if worked through productively?’

Szasz’s response is fascinating:

Our age has replaced a religious point of view with a pseudo-scientific point of view. . .   Now everything is explained in terms of molecules and atoms and brain scans. It is a reduction of the human being to a biological machine. We don’t have existential or religious or mental suffering any more. Instead we have brain disorders.

Davies summarises Szasz’s position on psychiatry (page 277): ‘It had become deluded in its belief that its physical technologies, its ECT machines and laboratory-manufactured molecules, could solve the deeper dilemmas of the soul, society and self.

Bracken’s view on this brings in capitalism (page 278):

What complicates things more is that we also live in a capitalist society, where there is always going to be someone trying to sell you something… In fact, some people would argue that capitalism can only continue by constantly making us dissatisfied with our lives.… You know, if everybody said I am very happy with my television, my car and everything else I’ve got, and I’m perfectly content with my lifestyle, the whole economy would come shattering down around our ears.

He continues (page 279):

What we customarily call mental illness is not always illness in the medical sense. It’s often a natural outcome of struggling to make our way in a world where the traditional guides, props and understandings are rapidly disappearing… Not all mental strife is therefore due to an internal malfunction but often to the outcome of living in a malfunctioning world. The solution is not yet more medicalisation, but an overhaul of our cultural beliefs, a reinfusing of life with spiritual, religious or humanistic meaning with emphasis on the essential involvement of community, and with whatever helps bring us greater direction, understanding, courage and purpose.

Unfortunately psychiatry, as with economics according to the writers of Econocracy, is failing to train psychiatrists in the adoption of a critical perspective on their own practice. So, he concludes, the pressure to change perspective has to come from outside the psychiatric system. He quotes Timimi again (page 285):

The things that get powerful institutions to change don’t usually come from inside those institutions. They usually come from outside. So anything that can put pressure on psychiatry as an institution to critique its concepts and reform its ways must surely be a good thing.

So, it’s down to us then. For me, promoting this book is a start. We all need to think, though, what else could be done, whether as a patient, a volunteer, a friend, a family member, an MP, a clinician or simply a citizen.

Currently, help is often tied to diagnosis. One psychiatrist quoted in this book is concerned that if categories of mental disorder are not confirmed as diseases, services will never be funded at the required level, the level, say, at which cancer services are funded. Surely, though, if opinion shifts to a tipping point not only the greater humanity of non-diagnostic treatments but also their relative cost effectiveness must carry the day in the end. But opinion will only shift sufficiently if we all play our part.

I know! I’ve got it.

You all could start by reading these two books. How about that?

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It seems a good idea to republish this sequence from almost four years ago to complement the current new sequence on collaborative conversation. This is the third of six.

The Importance of Motivation

What perhaps is also worth mentioning is that if Ian had not been desperate to get rid of the voices he probably would not have bothered doing anything I suggested.

P.: What I’m picking up is that, initially, you didn’t have much trust in me and you wondered what on earth I was up to. You didn’t really believe in what I was suggesting you should do.

I.: No.

P.: So, in a sense, why do you think you tried it? And why do you think you stuck with it?

I.: Desperate. I wanted to get better, you see? I didn’t want to go on the way I was going. So, I was desperate. So, I tried what you were telling me to do. It was worth a try. It was something I hadn’t tried before. And it was something new, you know? And it worked.

P.: Were you surprised it worked?

I.: I was very surprised it worked.

P.: Right.

I.: It seemed so simple. All that eight years, you know? All the trouble, all the Sections [i.e. compulsory detentions under the Mental Health Act 1983], and all the rest of it, and all the time in hospital and all the talking didn’t count for nothing. Then all of a sudden it just seemed to click! And it come together.

P.: Made sense and gave you relief?

I.: It did give me relief, yeh.

It made very little sense to him beforehand. This is true for a great many people. The more engulfed they are by their experiences the less sense a mind-work approach makes to them. Only desperation or an equivalent motivation will drive them to try what we suggest to them. In Ian’s case we were lucky that he got some results before he gave up trying.

The Balance of Pain and Gain

There was also the issue of the pain involved.

P.: So you think that the pain you experienced as a result of sorting this out was a price worth paying for now having sorted it out?

I.: Yes. It was well worth paying. I didn’t think so at the time. I wanted to stop it, you know? Because it hurt too much.

This was not true later. When he was dying some years later of emphysema and heart failure, I visited him in the hospice and asked him the same question. We had worked on other deeper pain by then. He had changed his mind. The pain was not worth the gain he said then. He had learned to manage the voices by dealing with the pain when they got too bad and he had learned to manage the pain of difficult anniversaries by allowing the voices to surface again more strongly. The torment of the voices at those times was preferable to the pain, anguish and guilt he would otherwise experience. This makes it imperative to consider carefully whether we have the person’s informed consent before we use the depth approach.

The Limitations of Diagnostic Labels

Also interesting is the point he made that the problems he discovered were different from what he thought they would be.

I.:. . . . the questions you asked were painful. And I didn’t want to answer them.

P.: And you didn’t see the point of answering them either, did you?

I.: No, I didn’t see the point in answering them because I didn’t recognise myself that the problem lay there. But once I could see where the problem was I could bargain with the voices.

P.: Yeh. And you had to know where the problem lay, roughly before you could bargain with them?

I.: And talking to you showed me where the problem was. So, I was able to deal with the voices in a positive way.

P.: But before you had gone through this whole process there was no way you would have realised that the problems were what they turned out to be.

I.: No. I thought it was just schizophrenia.

A Welcome Corrective

A Welcome Corrective

P.: And that was the end of it.

I.: And that was the end of it. I was schizophrenic and that was it. And I had nothing to look forward to except hospital and more medication. And I couldn’t stand the thought of that, you know? So that jumping under a train was looking very attractive. But it doesn’t look attractive now.

P.: Because life seems to have more to offer?

I.: Yeh.

Nonetheless in our subsequent conversations he oscillated between talking about his thoughts/feelings/voices and his illness.

What perhaps matters most is not whether these ways of describing a problem are true or false but whether they are useful or useless to the person at the time. Psychosis is too complex a phenomenon to be successfully explained in our present state of knowledge. My problem with the medical model is not that it is always completely wrong but that it is all too often offered as the only explanation when other explanations would be more useful to the person concerned.

Sleep and Food

Naturally, there are other factors that have a part to play in psychotic experiences and a person’s capacity to cope effectively with them. For example, Ian talked of his need for sleep and food.

He said, ‘Now I come back off the holiday. I was quite well for about a couple of weeks . . ..: . . . and then I went downhill very quickly because [the voices] wouldn’t let me sleep and I stopped eating. And I got very weak, you know. And the voices become louder and more persistent. And I started to believe them.’

We probably all know how important sufficient sleep and good food is for mental health, especially for people suffering from this type of problem. The physical and social environment is also extremely important. However, I am not attempting here a comprehensive list of such factors. That would be too ambitious. I’m trying to give a sense of what constitutes an optimal approach for someone seeking to use conversations to help those who are struggling with these potentially disabling phenomena we call psychosis. The recovery model as a whole package depends upon many other things also being in place such as, where needed, social support, training, education, a spiritual perspective and work.

Perhaps next time we should look more closely at the ingredients of collaborative conversation.

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The Changeling

In 1995 I apparently gave a long talk to some meeting or other, after which the content of my talk was published by the BPS Psychotherapy Section. I have no memory whatsoever of giving any talk but I do remember writing the article. It seems worth publishing on this blog, with some updates in terms of one of the practical examples, a much shorter version of the original article as it complements with useful background the Approach to Psychosis sequence I republished some time back: I’ve also tried to reduce the psychobabble, though maybe not enough for everyone’s taste! I’ve included in addition references to later research that sheds further light on, for example, neuroplasticity and the relationship between trauma and psychotic experiences. This is the second of five instalments.

At the end of the last post I explained that those who came to me had taken their psychotic experiences very personally indeed. They did not distance themselves from them at all. These phenomena called into question the fabric of their selfhood. It is this threat that must be addressed if the person is to grow. Many people hear voices and experience apparently supernatural events without becoming engulfed by them. Those who cannot so distance themselves fail because too much of their inner being resonates to the vibrations of the voices. It is that part of their inscape that has to be explored.

Thinkung thro CulturesThinking Through Others

Louise, whose experiences I described last time, responded to the curiosity I sought to evoke with a slightly bewildered kind of interest. She became more questioning of her family and her childhood. She did not relinquish one jot of her conviction that the hallucinatory child she was experiencing, and the man who threatened her, had or would have some real existence outside her own mind. And why should she?

Shweder, in his excellent exploration, Thinking Through Cultures, argues strongly against the assumption of superiority that can underlie positivist approaches to the reality of others and advocates `transcendence without superiority, scorn, or cynicism’. Transcendence does not necessarily destroy what it replaces, anymore than Einstein can be said to have abolished Newton!

Shweder builds on his premises (page 97):

Cultural psychology assumes that intentional persons change and are changed by the concrete particulars of their own mentally constituted forms of life.

He claims a new aim has been defined for psychologists (page 100):

That aim for cultural psychology is to conceive imaginatively of . . . . intentional worlds and . . . . intentional persons interpenetrating each other’s identities or setting the conditions for each other’s existence and development, while jointly undergoing change through social interaction.

I believe all participants in any form of therapeutic conversation, good or bad, can testify that their identities interpenetrate, at least to a modest degree. This is not achieved by language alone or even mainly. Partners in this kind of dialogue come to occupy a common or shared space which is constructed as much by what is done as by what is said.

The degree to which they can set the condition’s for each other’s existence is limited by many factors, including the shortness of time, the environmental conditions prevailing and the degree to which the exercise of power is restrained. To put someone on a Section marks a momentous escalation in the use of power. Milieu treatment also is well above the snowline on the Everest of power.

By comparison with these collaborative conversation seems to pale almost into insignificance. It gains though by its capacity to prolong its influence over far greater expanses of time, albeit less intensively, and it can enlist the far more willing participation of those engaged in it. This willingness is in itself a potent catalyst for change within the context of this pattern of social interaction.

Our Less Conscious Selves

Shweder outlines four interpretations, in the anthropological context, of the phrase `thinking through others’, all of which can enrich our clinical practice. He describes thinking through others (pages 108-110) in the sense of:

(a) `using the . . . self-consciousness of another . . . person — his or her . . . articulated conception of things — as a means to heighten awareness of our less conscious selves’;

heartsurgeryWe can ignore this dimension at our peril: whether we intend it or not our ‘less conscious selves’ can be triggered big time.

One fairly simple example from my own experience should serve to illustrate this convincingly.

Mary, whom I describe in more detail below, is tormented constantly by voices. She is a young girl who is visually handicapped and has a long history of hospitalisation for surgery, starting in early childhood. According to her own account, her first admission was for surgery at the age of three or four. Her parents claimed that neither of them could stay with her, she says. She remained in hospital for several weeks, consoled only by visits of a fairly brief duration.

As a result of my conversations with her, I had to have early recourse to my supervision group. Within the first few weeks of seeing her, I was already experiencing reactivations of my own early hospitalisations (for more background see links). They were much less traumatic than hers appear to have been. One took place at the age of three for a tonsillectomy and the second at the age of four for the removal of an abscess in my ear. They were of relatively short duration. In both cases my parents could not stay there with me for reasons of contemporary hospital policy, which were unintelligible to me at the time.

While I was familiar with that history and had worked on it in my own therapy I was not aware of the hook her story had lodged in me. At least not until I brought up the situation in my supervision. The undertow of feeling that was threatening to carry me away concerned my feelings of abandonment and my passionate desire not to abandon this young girl whose story seemed genuinely tragic in comparison with my own more mundane circumstances. I was all too familiar with my own pain and imagined it horrendously magnified in her.

My awareness of my less conscious self was heightened to an almost paralyzing and definitely aversive degree. I wanted to be relieved of any responsibility for her at the same time and for the same reasons as rendered me incapable of contemplating withdrawing my commitment! In my experience, people whose selves have been overwhelmed by voices frequently rattle the cage of my own demons.

I can well understand why medication seems, to those people who have the power to prescribe, such a reasonable response to such extremes of suffering, especially if it triggers their own subliminal stuff. Incidentally, I believe that some drugs can sometimes be helpful but that they are used too often, too soon and in too large a quantity. They are also far too frequently used in a way that implies they are all we need.

Discovering the Real

The next interpretation of thinking through others described by Shweder is (b) `getting the other straight, of proving a systematic account of the internal logic of the intentional world constructed by the other’ for `strong and persistent’ feelings `must after all be based on something real, which it may perhaps be possible to discover.’ In simpler terms, there must be some intelligible reason for even the strangest experiences.

Incidentally, this perspective was crucial to my starting this blog: everybody means something is an affirmation of what I believe to be a fact: if we try hard enough everyone’s subjective reality, no matter how bizarre, can make sense to us as their attempt to make sense of their very different experience. This is not the same as agreeing with it, of course.

Talking to Ian

Talking to Ian

It needs a longer illustration here to convey the relevance of this. I could have produced a snappy vignette which seemed to prove that I do exactly what I am describing here. I prefer to give you enough background to enable you to decide for yourselves, bearing in mind that what I now think I was doing evolved as an idea in stages over time through the experiences I shall be describing.

Ian was a 50 year old man with an eight year history of being tormented by voices telling him to kill himself and fly with them to far-off places. Describing his experience of the voices he said:

I was living in a dream world. I’d got the voices nearly all the time. They were so loud that I couldn’t hold a conversation. And I couldn’t listen to the radio. They just blocked everything out. The voices were plaguing me so much that if I tried to think about something they’d side-track me. And I’d start thinking about what they were saying to me, and start thinking about doing something about it. I couldn’t think in a straight line. It was just going round and round in circles. They used to wake me up at night. They got loud when I was ill. I thought they were spirits, come from the spirit world for me. I didn’t think that I was going to hurt myself by jumping under a train. I thought it would just be a few seconds of confusion and then it would be all over. I didn’t mind if being dead was just black and nothingness. And if it was flying with the voices all round the world, I didn’t mind that neither. It was better’n what I had.

He was on medication when I first saw him:

It wasn’t having any effect at all. I was on quite a high dosage. I was on 100 mgms of Haldol a week, and 600 mgms a day of Chlorpromazine.

His view of his future was bleak:

Just the voices, and hospital, really, and medication. That’s all there was in life. I couldn’t see any point in any thing. And I couldn’t see any point in doing anything else. I thought it was just schizophrenia. And that was the end of it. I was schizophrenic and that was it. And I had nothing to look forward to except hospital and more medication. And I couldn’t stand the thought of that. So that jumping under a train was looking very attractive.

Thursday’s post will go into more detail of what then took place.

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Some years ago I posted a series of attempts to describe my work in the NHS as I experienced it. Since then I have been also attempting to use poems to approach the same experiences from a different angle. Because my poems tend to come from a darker place than my prose it seemed only right to publish the poems alongside the more positive feel of the republished mind-work posts. It felt as though that would be more balanced, more true to the experience as a whole. So, what I am doing is following up a prose post with a poem after a day or two, but they need to be read together to get a more complete picture of what was involved in the work I did. Above all else I would hope to convey the reality of this area of experience more completely by tackling it this way, and do more justice to the courage of those who suffered. They are stronger than we realise for bearing the unbearable so bravely.

The Importance of Motivation

What perhaps is also worth mentioning is that if Ian had not been desperate to get rid of the voices he probably would not have bothered doing anything I suggested.

P.: What I’m picking up is that, initially, you didn’t have much trust in me and you wondered what on earth I was up to. You didn’t really believe in what I was suggesting you should do.

I.: No.

P.: So, in a sense, why do you think you tried it? And why do you think you stuck with it?

I.: Desperate. I wanted to get better, you see? I didn’t want to go on the way I was going. So, I was desperate. So, I tried what you were telling me to do. It was worth a try. It was something I hadn’t tried before. And it was something new, you know? And it worked.

P.: Were you surprised it worked?

I.: I was very surprised it worked.

P.: Right.

I.: It seemed so simple. All that eight years, you know? All the trouble, all the Sections [i.e. compulsory detentions under the Mental Health Act 1983], and all the rest of it, and all the time in hospital and all the talking didn’t count for nothing. Then all of a sudden it just seemed to click! And it come together.

P.: Made sense and gave you relief?

I.: It did give me relief, yeh.

It made very little sense to him beforehand. This is true for a great many people. The more engulfed they are by their experiences the less sense a mind-work approach makes to them. Only desperation or an equivalent motivation will drive them to try what we suggest to them. In Ian’s case we were lucky that he got some results before he gave up trying.

The Balance of Pain and Gain

There was also the issue of the pain involved.

P.: So you think that the pain you experienced as a result of sorting this out was a price worth paying for now having sorted it out?

I.: Yes. It was well worth paying. I didn’t think so at the time. I wanted to stop it, you know? Because it hurt too much.

This was not true later. When he was dying some years later of emphysema and heart failure, I visited him in the hospice and asked him the same question. We had worked on other deeper pain by then. He had changed his mind. The pain was not worth the gain he said then. He had learned to manage the voices by dealing with the pain when they got too bad and he had learned to manage the pain of difficult anniversaries by allowing the voices to surface again more strongly. The torment of the voices at those times was preferable to the pain, anguish and guilt he would otherwise experience. This makes it imperative to consider carefully whether we have the person’s informed consent before we use the depth approach.

The Limitations of Diagnostic Labels

Also interesting is the point he made that the problems he discovered were different from what he thought they would be.

I.:. . . . the questions you asked were painful. And I didn’t want to answer them.

P.: And you didn’t see the point of answering them either, did you?

I.: No, I didn’t see the point in answering them because I didn’t recognise myself that the problem lay there. But once I could see where the problem was I could bargain with the voices.

P.: Yeh. And you had to know where the problem lay, roughly before you could bargain with them?

I.: And talking to you showed me where the problem was. So, I was able to deal with the voices in a positive way.

P.: But before you had gone through this whole process there was no way you would have realised that the problems were what they turned out to be.

I.: No. I thought it was just schizophrenia.

A Welcome Corrective

A Welcome Corrective

P.: And that was the end of it.

I.: And that was the end of it. I was schizophrenic and that was it. And I had nothing to look forward to except hospital and more medication. And I couldn’t stand the thought of that, you know? So that jumping under a train was looking very attractive. But it doesn’t look attractive now.

P.: Because life seems to have more to offer?

I.: Yeh.

Nonetheless in our subsequent conversations he oscillated between talking about his thoughts/feelings/voices and his illness.

What perhaps matters most is not whether these ways of describing a problem are true or false but whether they are useful or useless to the person at the time. Psychosis is too complex a phenomenon to be successfully explained in our present state of knowledge. My problem with the medical model is not that it is always completely wrong but that it is all too often offered as the only explanation when other explanations would be more useful to the person concerned.

Sleep and Food

Naturally, there are other factors that have a part to play in psychotic experiences and a person’s capacity to cope effectively with them. For example, Ian talked of his need for sleep and food.

He said, ‘Now I come back off the holiday. I was quite well for about a couple of weeks . . ..: . . . and then I went downhill very quickly because [the voices] wouldn’t let me sleep and I stopped eating. And I got very weak, you know. And the voices become louder and more persistent. And I started to believe them.’

We probably all know how important sufficient sleep and good food is for mental health, especially for people suffering from this type of problem. The physical and social environment is also extremely important. However, I am not attempting here a comprehensive list of such factors. That would be too ambitious. I’m trying to give a sense of what constitutes an optimal approach for someone seeking to use conversations to help those who are struggling with these potentially disabling phenomena we call psychosis. The recovery model as a whole package depends upon many other things also being in place such as, where needed, social support, training, education, a spiritual perspective and work.

Perhaps next time we should look more closely at the ingredients of collaborative conversation.

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The Importance of Motivation

What perhaps is also worth mentioning is that if Ian had not been desperate to get rid of the voices he probably would not have bothered doing anything I suggested.

P.: What I’m picking up is that, initially, you didn’t have much trust in me and you wondered what on earth I was up to. You didn’t really believe in what I was suggesting you should do.

I.: No.

P.: So, in a sense, why do you think you tried it? And why do you think you stuck with it?

I.: Desperate. I wanted to get better, you see? I didn’t want to go on the way I was going. So, I was desperate. So, I tried what you were telling me to do. It was worth a try. It was something I hadn’t tried before. And it was something new, you know? And it worked.

P.: Were you surprised it worked?

I.: I was very surprised it worked.

P.: Right.

I.: It seemed so simple. All that eight years, you know? All the trouble, all the Sections [i.e. compulsory detentions under the Mental Health Act 1983], and all the rest of it, and all the time in hospital and all the talking didn’t count for nothing. Then all of a sudden it just seemed to click! And it come together.

P.: Made sense and gave you relief?

I.: It did give me relief, yeh.

It made very little sense to him beforehand. This is true for a great many people. The more engulfed they are by their experiences the less sense a mind-work approach makes to them. Only desperation or an equivalent motivation will drive them to try what we suggest to them. In Ian’s case we were lucky that he got some results before he gave up trying.

The Balance of Pain and Gain

There was also the issue of the pain involved.

P.: So you think that the pain you experienced as a result of sorting this out was a price worth paying for now having sorted it out?

I.: Yes. It was well worth paying. I didn’t think so at the time. I wanted to stop it, you know? Because it hurt too much.

This was not true later. When he was dying some years later of emphysema and heart failure, I visited him in the hospice and asked him the same question. We had worked on other deeper pain by then. He had changed his mind. The pain was not worth the gain he said then. He had learned to manage the voices by dealing with the pain when they got too bad and he had learned to manage the pain of difficult anniversaries by allowing the voices to surface again more strongly. The torment of the voices at those times was preferable to the pain, anguish and guilt he would otherwise experience. This makes it imperative to consider carefully whether we have the person’s informed consent before we use the depth approach.

The Limitations of Diagnostic Labels

Also interesting is the point he made that the problems he discovered were different from what he thought they would be.

I.:. . . . the questions you asked were painful. And I didn’t want to answer them.

P.: And you didn’t see the point of answering them either, did you?

I.: No, I didn’t see the point in answering them because I didn’t recognise myself that the problem lay there. But once I could see where the problem was I could bargain with the voices.

P.: Yeh. And you had to know where the problem lay, roughly before you could bargain with them?

I.: And talking to you showed me where the problem was. So, I was able to deal with the voices in a positive way.

P.: But before you had gone through this whole process there was no way you would have realised that the problems were what they turned out to be.

I.: No. I thought it was just schizophrenia.

A Welcome Corrective

A Welcome Corrective

P.: And that was the end of it.

I.: And that was the end of it. I was schizophrenic and that was it. And I had nothing to look forward to except hospital and more medication. And I couldn’t stand the thought of that, you know? So that jumping under a train was looking very attractive. But it doesn’t look attractive now.

P.: Because life seems to have more to offer?

I.: Yeh.

Nonetheless in our subsequent conversations he oscillated between talking about his thoughts/feelings/voices and his illness.

What perhaps matters most is not whether these ways of describing a problem are true or false but whether they are useful or useless to the person at the time. Psychosis is too complex a phenomenon to be successfully explained in our present state of knowledge. My problem with the medical model is not that it is always completely wrong but that it is all too often offered as the only explanation when other explanations would be more useful to the person concerned.

Sleep and Food

Naturally, there are other factors that have a part to play in psychotic experiences and a person’s capacity to cope effectively with them. For example, Ian talked of his need for sleep and food.

He said, ‘Now I come back off the holiday. I was quite well for about a couple of weeks . . ..: . . . and then I went downhill very quickly because [the voices] wouldn’t let me sleep and I stopped eating. And I got very weak, you know. And the voices become louder and more persistent. And I started to believe them.’

We probably all know how important sufficient sleep and good food is for mental health, especially for people suffering from this type of problem. The physical and social environment is also extremely important. However, I am not attempting here a comprehensive list of such factors. That would be too ambitious.  I’m trying to give a sense of what constitutes an optimal approach for someone seeking to use conversations to help those who are struggling with these potentially disabling phenomena we call psychosis. The recovery model as a whole package depends upon many other things also being in place such as, where needed, social support, training, education and work.

Perhaps next time we should look more closely at the ingredients of collaborative conversation.

Read Full Post »