Our Precarious Minds
The ‘normally’ alienated person, by reason of the fact that he acts more or less like everyone else, is taken to be sane. Other forms of alienation that are out of step with the prevailing state of alienation are those that are labeled by the ‘normal’ majority as bad or mad. –R. D. Laing, Politics of Experience
During my recent ayahuasca experience, I learned of my deep connection to my ex-wife, and that this has something to do with her mental problems. During the last ten year of our marriage, she was seriously depressed and prone to crippling anxiety and panic attacks. Sometimes she would awake in the middle of the night, filled with a generalized and pervasive fear. She would rock back and forth compulsively, and the crown of her head was burning to the touch. During the day, fears and worries—now attached to more concrete events in her life—would crowd out all possible thoughts. She could not turn them off. She could not hold a job, and was hospitalized twice.
She also had some symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. She always denied this, and it was never formally diagnosed as such. But I found it hard to avoid such a label when she told me that the police were reading and disrupting her computer files and bugging our phone, that the doormen were breaking into our apartment at the behest Homeland Security, that her psychiatrist was reporting her thoughts to the government, that her past employers had hired private investigators to follow us and told her current employers what a bad person she was, and that random people on the street were following her to collect information to deport her.
The depression and panic were less of a problem for our marriage. I can fully understand why somebody would have this kind of response to the world, and empathize with somebody experiencing it. She also saw it as a problem, and was willing to work to resolve it. The paranoia, however, drove us apart. This was a response to the world that I could not understand, a response that I thought was both self-destructive and an emotionally and intellectually inappropriate response to the world. She insisted—and still insists—that none of her paranoid were illusions, and she was not sick. It was not a problem that she would recognize or attempt to heal. She saw it as a problem imposed upon her by other people. Her only problem was depression which she saw as a natural response to all the shit people were doing to her.
Her obsession with people watching and persecuting her drove me into a fury. The more I argued against her and brought evidence in support of my side, the more she constructed fantastic and innovative explanations of why and how she was persecuted. And the more she insisted, the more furious I became. And, of course, my attacks only contributed to the self-loathing and vicious inner criticism that was an integral part of her problems. The paranoia was a wedge that drove us apart. But the very fact that it prompted such virulent emotions in both of us points to the fact that it was also something that tied us together deeply.
Gradually, however, I came to agree with her that medicalizing and labeling her problems an “illness” was very counter-productive. In part it was because of her insistence that she was not a patient that needed to be cured, but a sensitive person who saw the truth in her environment more acutely. This is a perfectly humane and reasonable way to understand and deal with her suffering. It may possibly even be true. It is certainly better than some of those stone-faced psychiatrists who just prescribed pills or the hell of three days in the New York Presbyterian psychiatric ward (supposedly one of the best psychiatric units in the country). It frames her problems not as things to be surgically removed or tranquilized, or as things to detest, thus encouraging more self-contempt. Instead, it frames them as aspects of herself that need to be understood, that need compassion. By recognizing them as part of herself, and find ways to transform them into something less destructive, and hopefully even productive (although this might entail a serious revision of what we consider to be “productivity” and its goals).
I found it easier to embrace this attitude because sometimes her symptoms would take the form of beautiful religious visions—emotional and meaningful experiences that anybody would be happy to have.These visions also helped soothe her anxiety and depression. She also transformed some of her feelings and experiences into wonderful computer animation pieces. Her openness to these visions seemed to come from the same place as her paranoia. This helped me to believe that her problems should not be cured like a cancer, but that she needs to find the proper channels for their expression.
This perspective was further encouraged by readings—such as R.D. Laing, Jung, Erving Goffman and James Hillman (I’ve posted an example here)—which confirm that schizophrenia has many of the same qualities as religious ecstasy, artistic visions and psychedelic experiences. The problem is that the schizophrenic neither invites nor expects them. She does not have the training or context to deal with them properly, and is overwhelmed by them. She also tends to experience their negative forms very intently (although never exclusively). A secular world-view exacerbates the conditions that shape these mental experiences into schizophrenia. In my ex-wife’s case, this was further exacerbated by a father who was a hardcore materialist communist and left her with an aggressive self-contempt of anything that even gestured towards religion or mysticism.
Most of all, I was persuaded not to label my wife’s problems an illness because I started seeing her symptoms in everybody around me. I see them in the defensiveness and territoriality of my colleagues. I see them in the paranoias of my students about the excruciating demands that their professors imposed. I see them in the fantasies of my students and colleagues about how much everybody else was chomping on the bit to criticize them, and how much they organized their work, their speech and every aspect of their lives in attempt to forestall this criticism. I see them in the way people bury themselves in work as a way to avoid life and to assure that their human contact flows through predictable channels (“I’m so busy.” “Have you been productive this summer?” “I’m sorry, I’m in a hurry.”). I see them in the way our conscious concerns are dominated by health care and retirement funds and party politics and incomes and property and investments and home decoration; in other words with security, and the relentless imagining of all possible threats, and the obsessive efforts to deflect those threats. And, of course, the symptoms are blatantly obvious in national and international politics, in the news, in the statements of institutional and fundamental religion, in internet comment and discussion threads, in parents and their obsessions over safety and the future.
Some of the people who seem most consumed by these symptoms are also the most successful—at least in terms of income, prestige and institutional hierarchies. They develop smooth public personas and take advantage of type A personalities as tools to indulge their paranoid fantasies, to protect themselves from the ever-present threats of the world, to create ever more chaos that in the end only justifies their paranoid view of the world. I saw this to some extent in my wife. I learned to mistrust her when her when her smile returned and her social skills were more effective than usual. This usually meant that she had constructed some elaborate understanding of how the plot against her was operating. Once she understood, she knew how to behave, how to manipulate, how to protect herself. When this explanation broke down in the face of events—as inevitably happened—her panic and anxiety returned.
Many people have remarked that paranoid schizophrenics are not irrational. Their elaborate constructions rarely ignore evidence and logic. I frequently tried to show my wife why her suspicious were wrong, using what I thought was irrefutable evidence. She just regrouped, thought more carefully, and incorporated my perspective into an even more insidious scenario of how they were watching us and why. The scenarios were always far-fetched and implausible. But never impossible. They used logic and evidence skillfully. Just like successful people–especially in my line of work where success is closely linked to the construction of elaborate theories.
Later, when she turned to religion (a kind of fundamentalist Buddhism) she added a new dimension of magic and spiritual forces to her scenarios. Secular logic and evidence is less prominent. But she has she has also been much more at ease with herself and able to function in the practical world. I have no idea what is going on in her mind, but on the surface it is working. I see much fewer traces of that unbearable pain.
But I still see those traces in many people around me. All of our minds are equally precarious. The main difference is that some people collapse, while others continue to balance on the edge. I can’t help but see those unquenchable drives for work and success, territoriality and defensiveness, obsessive security and accumulation, as manifestations of the same demons that have ruined my ex-wife’s life. The only difference is that those people have the talents to channel those demons and keep them at bay through the constant pursuit of power and manipulation. I don’t see those traces on everybody who is successful, but certainly on many. But the visibility doesn’t mean much. The difference between my wife and my colleagues is not so much in the intensity of the paranoia. It is in their ability to hide the demons, to channel them into action, and to persuade others that their paranoia is truth.
I can experience some of the self-loathing. But it rarely if ever transforms into paranoia. Nonetheless, I think the challenge is the same for me as for my ex-wife; how to embrace it, to transform it into something that serves rather than undermines us.
When drinking ayahuasca, I felt my deep connection to my wife and the conviction that this connection has something to do with her problems. I still don’t understand what that means. But it may have something to do with the fact that her problems, like ayahuasca, open the body spiritually and energetically. I fought against it when we were married, but it was beyond my power to remain totally closed. Something is entwined that is hard to disentangle.
I still experience my ex-wife primarily as a poison. She has also absorbed a lot of my poison—and unfortunately had much fewer defenses than I do (although she really learned to recognize that poison during our divorce). But rather than disentangle our experiences, how can we embrace our connection without sharing more poison? I feel the poison most strongly when she expresses it as fears of the practical world, as her constant anxieties and frustrations—all of which encourage me to return poison in kind. But I embrace the same impulses when expressed through her art and more mystical religious experiences. That’s a starting point.