Friday, April 30, 2010

Madness and Heroism

I just read Marya Hornbacher's NYT bestseller Madness: A Bipolar Life. It strikes me that thinking about madness as "mental illness" enables us--madmen, madwomen, and the medical establishment--to construct heroic narratives about battles with madness. The idea of mental illness--the idea of a lifelong biochemical bogeyman that, like cancer, strikes down innocent people who have to "fight" it--lets us think of ourselves as heroes in a struggle against natural forces that are ruthless and violent. In one way or another, memoirs of madness tend to be constructed as narrative in the same way: here is the monster I had to fight, here's how I fought it, see how I almost died in the battle, see how I won (or am winning) the battle, look at my battle scars, now listen to what I learned from the fighting. Often, these narratives cast medical science in a supporting heroic role: the faithful companion who hands the hero her sword. The idea of mental illness positions the medical and pharmaceutical industries themselves as heroic actors in a mighty struggle. It's very appealing from a narrative standpoint.

The heroic profits from mental illness must be appealing as well, at least to those who pocket them. From the NYT Business section, April 27, 2010: "The newer generation of anti-psychotics has surpassed cholesterol-lowering drugs to become the nation's top-selling category of medications, accounting for $14.6 billion of the nation's $300 billion in drug spending last year. . . . Seroquel, a pill usually taken once or twice a day that sells for more than $4 each, was the fifth-best-selling drug in the United States last year . . . " Now that's big business!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Madness and Trauma

I've been reading Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery, and have been thinking that there may be very little real mental illness in the world and a whole lotta normal aftereffects of trauma. Given how riddled with trauma the world is (1 in 3 women sexually abused in their lifetime, 1 in 4 women raped, war, racism, homophobia, child abuse), I cannot imagine how we could ever effectively distinguish between abnormal thinking and normal response to trauma, when NORMAL responses to trauma include dissociation, insomnia, depression, denial, repression, amnesia, relationship problems. Herman claims that complex post-traumatic stress responses mimic the symptoms of any number of so-called mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorder, multiple personality disorder. The problem with misdiagnosis is that the root causes of the symptoms never get addressed. It strikes me as strange that in my own experience with the psychiatry industry, I was never once asked whether I had ever been raped, sexually abused, or otherwise traumatized. Why isn't a patient's trauma history an automatic part of the diagnostic process? It should be.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Judith Shakespeare

I recently re-read Room of One's Own and find there the same claims about women and madness as Olive Schreiner and Phyllis Chesler make decades later--the idea that giftedness that goes against the tide of cultural expectation places a person at risk for madness. Woolf says that "any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half-witch, half-wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty." Woolf herself certainly would have known.

Woolf says something similar about the effects of women enjoying lively sexuality: "Chastity had then, it has even now, a religious importance in a woman's life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest. To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her."

We still in the twenty-first century have to consider the connection between giftedness and psychospiritual breakdown--for women and for men. And we have to consider the crazymaking capacity of every social imperative that causes us to live restricted lives. I am not in favor of complete personal anarchy: it didn't seem to help the writer Djuna Barnes or or the artist Elsa Von Freitag-Loringhoven avoid breakdown. But their breakdown was, at least, accompanied by significant creative power. It may be that a certain degree of antisocial behavior is the price of creative potency.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Volcanic Madness

Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano features one of the best madmen in all of literature. The Consul, whose stream-of-consciousness occupies a large part of the novel, says, "The act of a madman or a drunkard . . . or of a man laboring under violent excitement seems less free and more inevitable to the one who knows the mental condition of the man who performed the action, and more free and less inevitable to the one who does not know it."

I like this idea of "laboring under a violent excitement." Madness--at least the ecstatic or drunken kind--is a violent excitement of the mind. It reminds me of Avital Ronnel's assertion that intoxication is a form of mental labor. When I read that, it occurred to me that madness is also a form of mental labor, which explains why artists and other kinds of creators are so prone to madness. It takes a violent excitement of the mind to create--but there are occupational hazards. And these hazards are compounded by drunkenness. But the altered perception of intoxication also opens up realms of the extraordinary, and it is perception of the extraordinary that produces epiphany.

The Consul and his companions in the novel court epiphany by getting drunk on mescal, a strong hallucinogen made from cactus: "There were, in fact, rainbows. Though without them the mescal . . . would have already invested the place with magic. The magic was of Niagara Falls itself, not its elemental majesty, the honeymoon town; in a sweet, tawdry, even hoydenish sense of love that haunted this spray-blown spot. But now the mescal struck a discord, then a succession of plaintive discords to which the drifting mists all seemed to be dancing, through the elusive subtleties of ribboned light, among the detached shreds of rainbows floating. It was a phantom dance of souls, baffled by these deceptive blends, yet still seeking permanence in the midst of what was only perpetually evanescent, or eternally lost. Or it was the dance of the seeker and his goal, here pursuing the gay colors he did not know he had assumed, there striving to identify the finer scene of which he might never realize he was already a part . . ."

Drunken revery. Violent excitement. Mad, and beautiful. In vino veritas est, but along with the veritas, for Lowry's characters, as for Lowry himself, comes dissolution and a kind of spiritual suicide. My book manuscript Women, Creativity, and Madness attempts to discover how the violently excited among us can get the veritas of madness without the suicide.