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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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Descent into Madness: What Causes This Self-Destructive Transformation?

Paul Kiritsis - Sunday, September 16, 2012

Transformation by Chris Stamboulakis (2011)

We often pride ourselves on how far we’ve progressed since the High Middle Ages. We now have automobiles that run on gas and petrol, aeroplanes that break the sound barrier, antibiotics that kill bacterial infections in the body, atom smashers that recreate the birth of our universe, modern telecommunication systems like radio, cable television, and internet that have rendered distances insignificant, and luxurious amenities that our ancestors could only dream of. Technology has obviously taken a step forward. So too have some of the more mechanistic areas of cosmology like astronomy, biology, and chemistry. In short, the quality and length of our lives has drastically improved.

But what about denominations of inquiry that attempt to understand and classify mind-body interaction and ailments of the mind? What might be inferred about them? Contrary to our apparent successes elsewhere, the branch of traditional medicine that parades under the banner of psychiatry hasn’t done much to shed light upon the rudimentary cause of insanity or mental illness. Rather than trying to develop an epistemological approach whose integrity might be validated by an efficacy to cure sicknesses of psychological and psychobiological origin, it invents labels and technical jargon which stigmatize underprivileged sufferers in such a way as to facilitate their incarceration. While psychiatry’s exhaustive list of categorizations–psychopathic, psychoneurotic, psychotic, schizophrenic, borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder and so forth–might impress minority groups like the literati and a medical establishment far removed from communal reality, they do little to nothing in the way of penetrating through to their origin and curing them.

In actual fact, the propensity to label seems to be quite detrimental to any stigmatized individual for he or she will inevitably end up battling two demons; his or her condition as well as derision and disenfranchisement at the hands of unsympathetic others. You see, part of the problem in our society is its intolerance and fear of eccentricities and anything uncommercial or radically different. If people were far more empathetic and considerate of their fellow brethren, those suffering from lighter shades of mental illness would never have been hospitalized or sent to mental asylums in the first place. I feel that practitioners in the area of mental health account for another piece of the problem; many of them enter the field with the motivation to understand their own psychological issues rather than a philanthropic incentive to participate actively in the recuperation of the mentally disturbed or ill. The nature of one’s motivation isn’t usually consequential in whether or not they’ll be successful in a chosen profession, but for a field in which the possibility of cure is as much dependent on conscious efforts on the part of a dedicated professional as it is on the will of the patient to recover, a certain degree of selflessness becomes a crucial prerequisite. How does any psychotherapist hope to cure or even alleviate one of psychic disturbances and liberate them from a realm in which desolation and delusion reigns if they themselves have not adhered to and mastered the law of balance imperative to mental health?

Before proceeding any further I should define exactly what I mean by “madness”. Nowadays, this term is used the broadest sense to describe mental disorders of variegated pathogenesis as well as perfectly healthy individuals who are a little left-of-the-middle and unconventional in their lifestyle choices. The latter isn’t a deceitful sentiment for we all encompass the ability to go mad. Madness is quite like a mutating cell in an ageing organ or tissue which can become cancerous at any time and overwhelm the individual. We know it exists because we see it every night in dreams and hypnagogic images that speak in a language unintelligible to contracted everyday consciousness. It isn’t hard to see how the spatiotemporal, psychical, and physical anomalies embraced by the inner process as a viable mode of operation might be seen as unreasonable and outrageous by extroverted and practical-orientated types. This is one of the reasons why the latter propagate the myth that too much introspection incurs madness. It doesn’t. What it does do is invite us to peer into our own closely guarded inner space and examine those shadowy contours of ourselves that might easily be taken for “mad”. The potential for expressing these undesirable traits and the possibility of plodding down that path is no doubt inherent within each and every one of us. All it takes is for an agglomeration of perceived failures to strike and we’re there, knocking on madness’s door. Many people fear contact with the mentally ill because they are inevitably forced into a confrontation with an alternate reality that might become their own should circumstance enchant one’s self into a complete withdrawal from the phenomenal world.  

From the aforementioned we could equate the entire scope of mental illnesses to the invisible longer and shorter wavelengths known as infrared and ultraviolet and conventional mentation and behaviours to the visible band of electromagnetic radiation or white light. Catalysts can be neurobiological, social, or psychological is nature. To give an example, schizophrenia and mental retardation caused by cerebral palsy, autism, and Down syndrome have some kind of biological basis that involves the inheritance of abnormal gene sequences from the parents. Others like anxiety disorders (i.e. phobias and separation anxiety), personality disorders, and psychosis are rooted deeply in environmental or social circumstances and can be learned. If we were to limit this derogatory label to a specific group it would have to be for those with congenital cognitive impairments and behavioural oddities that severely inhibit an ability to interact and partake of an intelligible conversation with others. True “madness” isn’t acquired; it’s inherited and begins at birth. Save for the fact that it can encompass a multifaceted spectrum of conditions from incoherent thought processes to atypical emotional responsiveness toward external stimuli, the underlying characteristic of madness is a withdrawal from the environment and outside world into a constricted inner space where mental acuities and reactions become inverted or distorted. The magnitude, trajectory, and range of cognitive functions affected obviously determine the diagnosis.

Another myth about insanity revolves around the proposition that onset is instantaneous. This is an untruth! The available evidence actually supports the notion that it transpires gradually and only after a certain set of conditions have been satisfied. Madness starts with the inability of the unconscious inner process to express through words, actions, and deeds its own natural trends. Everyone has an innate natural potential to manifest what they essentially are and become all they were meant to be. We all have overarching archetypes inside ourselves that yearn for expression within the established conventions of our time. Aristotle’s law of final causes is a lot more than a classification of philosophy known as epistemology. It’s a reality: Lust wishes to become a capable lover; Beauty wants to be famous artist; Bravery wishes to become a knight, soldier, hero or warrior; Love hopes to be competent husband, wife, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter or grandparent; Wisdom wants to be astute sage or mystic; Confidence and Integrity wish to become a president or leader; and Compassion wants to be some kind of caregiver like a doctor or nurse.

When the internal mechanisms that mediate the transformation of inner potentialities into tangible outer realities are constricted and blocked up, our psyches react by flashing up warning signals. These will interject into areas of our lives where the unconscious processes are most readily felt. Personal fantasies protrude from the individual’s imaginative world and entwine themselves into conscious thought patterns and practical concerns, genuine memories are gradually replaced by paramnesies (memory mixed with fantasy content), hypnagogic images and dreams grow in intensity and strangeness, and the frontiers determining shared reality begin to converge. When these episodic irruptions are not addressed through self-examination or psychotherapy they worsen. Inevitably they encroach upon the conscious life voluntarily and without permission. In more extreme cases of the latter, elementary subselves not normally conscious in a balanced individual will manifest and overrun the personal ego with visual and auditory phenomena that appear to come from without.

Fragmented projections emanating from the inner are called hallucinations. They can be auditory and/or visual in nature and involve harrowing impressions from disembodied entities and “voices” imperceptible to balanced individuals. Sooner or later sufferers realize that the vast majority of people do not partake of the same or similar experiences. In an effort to evade stigmatization and incarceration, many hallucinating individuals will become unresponsive to psychic intrusions even though the latter remain omnipresent. Sadly, we live in a community whereby withdrawal into a private hell of silent suffering is favoured over reaching out for help and becoming disenfranchised. For somebody that hears voices, estrangement from others and the community at large is preferable to judgement. Also, it’s much easier to proceed along the destructive path of least resistance and continue to subsist in an illusory world rather than confront the ballooning problem head on. I suppose their affliction is an exaggerated representation of the entire human condition, ailing or not. Why bother trying to understand the incongruence between what I think others want and what they actually want when I can just hide in my shell until the hermeneutical winds decide blow a my way? Why bother trying to comprehend the difference between wanting to help someone out and knowing when one actually needs help when I can just contemplate the gracelessness of life and wallow in multiple folds of self-pity? In a state where morale has slipped to non-discernible levels, it becomes easy to lose traction in an interminable sea of emotions and feelings and become caught in a deadly rip forged by one’s own symptoms.

As the balance of power shifts from personal ego-consciousness to the transpersonal forces outside it, the sufferer begins to feel a deep sense of loneliness, desolation, and agony. These kinds of feelings make life pretty unbearable. Genuine dejection that comes from disillusionment has to be the most soul-shattering experience in the cosmos. To make matters worse their inability to read environmental cues that account for proper functioning in a shared reality makes them hazardous to themselves and everyone else. Many are acutely aware of their precarious condition and will put every ounce of effort into surmounting it. The only problem with this approach is that even the slightest hardship in interacting with others in the phenomenal world is perceived as an automatic failure and the sufferer ends up aborting the provisional trial prematurely. A succession of these can be equated with a feeling that an invisible boa constrictor has wrapped itself around one’s neck and is progressively squeezing the life force out of them. Once the remaining vestiges of personal freedom have been obliterated, the elementary rip created by overwhelming symptoms forms into a pressurized funnel that sucks the individual into the torturous infernos of acute psychosis. The intense fires dwelling there aren’t the creative or heart-warming ones that unite adherents of the same species in acts of love; these are evil elementals that admonish, judge, and incinerate all hope of reconnecting with communal reality. The individual has now hit rock bottom and the self has completely turned away from communal reality in the manner that the moon hides its dark side from the marvelling eyes of a mystical somebody attempting to commune with the nocturnal skies from planet Earth. In an acute psychotic state, the charred self is only capable of perception when it can peer through the distorted lens of nihilism. On occasions where vision is permissible, it will see an external world that has conspired and laboured diligently to bring about its demise. Everyone and everything is to blame for its misfortunes save for the indecisions that got it there in the first place. Self-pity and excruciating pain now reign in a psyche dismantled by the powers of perpetual indecision. In hindsight, the individual has absconded the responsibilities of conscious life and in the process forfeited their psychospiritual body to the chaos of transpersonal forces. In doing so he or she has inadvertently made helplessness, uselessness, and sterility the primary conditions of life. The individual merely subsists now.  

In scouring the different labels associated with mental “disorders” it becomes apparent that the common denominator is an absence of constructive thinking and acting as well as relative usefulness. Without meaning to sound biased and condescending, it’s those personalities that mooch through life by passing responsibilities off to others, freeloading, and hoping to get by on as little effort as possible that usually fall prey to an entire gamut of conditions that most upstanding and productive members of society will speak about with contemptuous mirth. It’s not by chance that those who lose touch with reality and go mad happen to have relatively uneventful, uninspiring, and unflattering social histories. A mass of potential and talent lies within each and every one of us, but unless we make a deliberate, conscious effort to transpose these inner gifts into capabilities that can be cultivated and used constructively on the physical plane, we risk running aground on an inside-out world far removed from shared reality and losing touch with them forever.

This theme is ubiquitous across all cultures where mental illness has made a stand and sticks out like a sore thumb when animated mottos are applied to psychiatric taxonomies of odd behaviour for the sake of understanding their impetus. “I’m quite contented with the direction and quality of my life because it conforms to social standards. But for some strange reason my intuition, my thoughts, my feelings, and my senses tell me something’s not quite right.” This is neurosis talking. “There’s no point in trying because whatever I do or say just turns to shit.” This is depression speaking. “The world is in urgent need of my magical powers at this moment in time. A large meteor is going to strike at ten past twelve midnight and I’m the only one who knows how to deflect it.” This is the voice of delusion. “Everyone keeps telling me to stop drinking because it’s destroying my relationship with my partner. What’s drinking got to do with anything?” These are the words of alcoholism. “You need to keep your eyes and ears open for signs of danger and take every precaution possible because people are just out to get you these days. Be suspicious of everything!” This is the language of paranoia. “Trust me there’s nothing worse than being forgotten, sidestepped, rejected, or consigned to the dustbin of oblivion. The best possible way to prevent all of that from happening is to be in peoples’ faces all the time. Make yourself seen and heard my friend. It’s your right to!” This is a personality disorder called Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) conversing. “I couldn’t’ care less about getting picked up by the cops for stealing that state-of-the-art equipment from the library. It helped pay for my coke.” This is the voice of drug dependency. “Last night I overheard some of the evil Others that live in the attic talking about how they’re going to strangle me if I keep talking to the psychologist. I’ll need to padlock the door so that they can’t come out.” This is psychosis talking. In personifying the labels, the unifying aspects of mental “disorders” become blatantly obvious and the self’s non-existent relationship with shared reality and lack of introspection is laid bare for all to see.

Once people go down any of the paths I’ve just mentioned they may genuinely feel as though there’s no way out. But the illusions that have slowly evolved out of mind space to constrict the scope of their vision and the meaningfulness of their existence are pathological liars. Indeed, they should never be trusted for it was they that shoved the individual into a rabbit hole leading to the infernal chamber to begin with. The way of salvation for anyone slipping down that rabbit hole is contemplation and activity. One might satisfy the first criterion by keeping a diary or journal to record day-to-day perceptions and interactions as well as thoughts and feelings associated with them. By fastidiously keeping tabs on oneself and recording corresponding experiences, an iota of understanding is inevitably gained into the reasons why certain people react positively or negatively towards them. In an introspective endeavour such as this, we should always ask ourselves “Is my understanding of expressions, gestures, and context idealistically tainted by what I want them to be or have I correctly adhered to the communal standard in decoding what they mean?” The individual probably has to resort to this a million times or so, but sooner or later he or she will be able to pinpoint which internal hermeneutical tools are interpreting correctly, which are interpreting incorrectly, and which might need to be modified or jettisoned altogether. Progress with this therapeutic process is rather slow but it can be accelerated by surrounding oneself with sympathetic family members, friends, and acquaintances along with a steady environment in which variables are unlikely to change.

Re-establishing rapport with the outside world might also be facilitated by doing community work or any practical task that takes the individual away from problems posed by the inner self. Some outdoor activities that contribute to our reconnection with the external environment and influence our capacity to relate responsibly to others and to ourselves are planting trees and flowers in areas that require reforestation, picking up rubbish from streets and parks and disposing of it in the right places, raking up leaves from pavements and gutters and placing them in the compost, and growing a vegetable garden. (The last is not a viable option for the severely handicapped or impaired.) The type of activity isn’t as important as the underlying purpose of the whole endeavour which is to nurture feelings of self-worth. As these begin to gain traction the inner turmoil of the psyche will progressively subside. In healing the individual’s relationship to the phenomenal world the psyche spontaneously realigns with the fundamental harmony of the cosmos. The outer always reflects the inner and vice versa. As strange as it sounds it’s true.

“As inner, so outer,” declares the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. I’m inclined to believe him and so should you!        

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