As I contemplate my journey back from the throws of schizophrenia, and from the perception of a monumental disconnect from others, I am reminded of the very palpable existence of interdependence.  Without my particular assemblance of genetic inheritance, my own reactions to early loss and less than optimal parenting, without my junior high school social marginalization, the lonely environment of the small town where I grew up, without all of these sensitizing factors which led me to break from reality six years ago, and then begin to look at my own mind, I would not be here.

Without the scientists and therapists and friends, and even the pharmaceutical industry; without those I have been able to help or inspire in some way, and others whose brains do extraordinary things like constructing unique outer realities who have come before, I would not be here.

All of these factors, as I have mentioned, have brought me to examine closely the nature of mind, and the nature of the ego as it relates to mental health.

I sometimes wonder, with all sincerity, if my brain, on the odd occasion when it perceives in extraordinary ways, is simply being triggered by some unknown factor to instigate a complex domino effect of synaptic misfires, flooding my brain with too much dopamine, causing me to perceive things others seemingly can’t; or, is something more also happening – something inclusive of, but beyond this material scope?

When I was meditating one day last spring, I had the fleeting experience of what can happen when we let go of the scaffolding of concepts – the currency of the thinking mind.  I suddenly perceived the room I was sitting in without the defining reference points of language or symbol.  It was quite direct and powerful – not grounded in anything that I had learned about the world up to this point.  It was vast, spacious, open, and limitless.  I had experienced this feeling for a brief moment before my psychosis began six years ago, but at that time, I quickly responded to this sense of boundless possibility with intense fear and forboding.

Why was this recent experience different? At this point, I was actively practicing meditation to tame and to dance with my ego, to try to dissuade it from fixating and therefore perpetuating suffering. During this time, while I was meditating, I did experience delusional thoughts.  Only this time, I watched them float about like rogue balloons, and then disappear off into the ether.  While I was sitting there, for the fifth hour that day, watching my mind, it seemed that the process of how the mind works was slowed down enough that I could gain a more accurate view that in the busy, lightning speed of our normal intellectual processing, usually is impossible to comprehend.

So, I was led to a question that holds a certain degree of importance for me: Is psychosis, as we call it, actually an opening – to mind beyond concept, and, in the ego’s habitual panic mode when it experiences this type of groundlessness, does it project onto this open space reams of story-lines, concretizing and narrowing tightly around the plight of “me”?  Such as: I am Jesus, I am being chased by the mafia, I will save the world.  And because it is projected onto an extraordinary degree of opening and groundlessness, we can lose our reference points, and the resulting storylines we tell ourselves (and others) become fantastical, or at least, extraordinary. Thus, in order to stabilize ourselves and counter the immense degree of opening, our beliefs and perceptions become equally concrete and out of touch with the fluid nature of reality.

But on this day, when I was resting with the openness of the space, not grasping with my often perceived need to solidify “me”, or what was happening, I simply sat, observed this thought, and let it dissolve into space.

But this thought has remained with me.  I never deny that I experienced what is referred to in modern western medical literature as psychosis.  But what did happen on this particular day, was that I gained a shift in view.  I was not necessarily sick.  I simply resisted an opening, and quite honestly was not trained or prepared for it, as most people aren’t, so I lost control.  But strangely, my first hallucinatory voices were kind and reassuring, and the music I heard was enchanting.  It was only when I noticed that this “shouldn’t” be happening and resisted it, and began to cling to definitions of the occurrence, that it became a source of profound suffering. It is perhaps also notably the intense focus on the ego, and not on the wellbeing of others, that perpetuates this unfortunate cycle, and keeps one from taking those longed for emancipatory steps into recovery.

Not everyone experiences psychosis this way, to be sure.  Perhaps sometimes, the ego-clinging and projecting is so habitual that a person won’t even notice the nanosecond of open space before they subtley build a more and more elaborate story line, and then what for most of us is a supposedly healthy roller coaster of entertainment, becomes a launch pad that takes them into the heights of suffering, and perhaps pleasure, and usually, into the furthest recesses of psychiatric wards.

With this insight, I am able to look at my own clients with compassion, with courage, and with a fascination about their curious predicament of dealing with perceptions and experiences that set them apart.  I am presently working in my practicum at a first episode psychosis clinic in Montreal, attempting to soften the hold of the current medical model on my clients’ fragile self-concepts, and to loosen the fear, doubt and self-hatred that are sometimes accidentally exacerbated by it.

I have myself been a recipient of mental health services for many years now, and I have spent three years in a peer support role before returning to university full time to complete my Masters in Drama Therapy at Concordia.  So, I am familiar with the mental health system, at least in parts of Canada, and I have found that the fundamental principles by which the system operates are not founded on this interdependence I have been pondering of late.

We as a culture have created a division between sick, and normal.  And we often ignore the fact that billions is spent on commodifying happiness, rendering the genuine human response to suffer somehow weak, or problematic.  And although many do suffer greatly and are in need of help, there is an unspoken shame about this phenomenon, making for a more alienated, less resilient population of “consumers.” As many in the health care world know, this is actually the word we use to define a person in need who interfaces with the mental health system. I have a hard time with this term because the suffering people experience is not acknowledged within this classification – if it must be classified, which it seems for practical and insurance purposes it must – because if we acknowledged this suffering, we would have to examine the causes more openly, and very few people are inclined to identify the sources of such massive disconnect.  Unless of course it lies in faulty genetics – in my opinion, a not unfounded but lopsided belief that feeds the common tactics of disempowering the client – a view that compounds this suffering, if it becomes internalized by the client, which it so often does.

No, “consumer” is an insidious word, at its heart.  It speaks only to the taker role in the person who is suffering, which is misguided in and of itself.  And, of course, every consumer needs a product.  Many millions profit from providing this product of mental health services or pharmaceuticals, including many well-meaning therapists and clinicians, usually with the best of intentions, but as long as the relationship is set up in a consumer-provider dichotomy, the person who is suffering is stuck.

Unless one steps out of the taker-consumer-helpless position, and comes to focus on others, real healing usually becomes tenuous and superficial.  How can “consumers” then, give back?

Perhaps the answer lies in the concept of interdependence I was contemplating earlier.  If we begin to see ourselves as both producers and products of our complicated world, not for the purpose of externalizing blame, but by recognizing the ways that we are subtley impacted by myriad societal and biological factors, and resisting the impulse to blame or categorize altogether.  It’s true that I do think that the current mental health service structure is quite ideologically flawed, but what I am saying hopefully eludes to a bigger view than that.  We are human.  It is natural that we suffer and we can learn to create complementary- not contradictory identities for ourselves in the roles of clients and of healers.  This doesn’t mean the answer is that everyone who suffers from mental illness should become doctors and nurses and therapists.  I’m certainly the only drama therapy intern I know with a psychiatric history as long and colorful as mine. But it does mean that there could be a shift, so that the vast majority of what mental health service recipients do, no matter what that may be, they do with the desire to help others in their communities. This allows us to step outside our self-referential, “me”-centered consumer profile, turning the very image of mental illness on its head – removing shame and stigma in the process: a nice bonus.  And now we have it – the role of Wounded Healer, one of the oldest and most empowering of archetypes.