In this powerful op-ed, Dr Jan Golembiewski ponders the pitfalls and positives of one's journey with mental ill-health.
Is there such a thing as “mental health”? Not just a state of wellbeing, but a state of mind on the far opposite side of the same spectrum as mental illness, yet just as far from normalcy. Off the rails, but happy and content, rather than anguished, depressed and paranoid?
Exhibit A is my own story. When I was 18, I took a gap year - a very standard rite of passage for an Aussie teen. But that year took a few left turns. And after meeting a Rastafarian mystic in the Caribbean and an LSD-toking hippie “wizard” in the USA, I started to play with magic myself. I quickly learned that breaking the rules of physics wasn’t just empowering, but it also had a difficult correlation.
Magic meant I could no longer be sure that time and space would behave predictably. Such things stopped depending on equal and opposite forces but rather on my own unruly, egocentric and sometimes capricious teenage mind. So in an attempt to reign in my own newfound and uncontrollable power, I took a leaf from the Rastafarian’s book. He kept the universe stable and reliable by being unswervingly honest and moral, and so did I.
But this path wasn’t easy either. Only there was no going back. Reality, once shattered won’t reassemble itself easily, and so my decisions led me eventually to burn my passport, give away all my possessions, clothes and money and head, (barefoot) into the Sahara with nothing more than an unwavering beatific smile and unquenchable happiness and goodwill to all (despite the police who were aiming to shoot me, should I veer from my course of radical peril).
The consequences of my actions were far less predictable than those determined by Newtonian physics, but the place for the yarn is not here. Thirty years on, I’m a mental health researcher, and I now realise I may have been a bit touched. Was I delusional? Was I hallucinating? Don’t ask me. If you know you’re hallucinating or delusional - that’s called insight, and it means you’re not. But was I suffering from mental... health? My bizarre thoughts, behaviours and perceptions lasted for months, and the overall picture neatly fits the current, official (DSM V) criteria for schizophrenia.
Whether or not I should have been diagnosed aside, it’s not unusual for people with schizophrenia to reject assertions that they’re symptomatic or even suffering. As the Romance poet John Dryden wrote, “There is a pleasure sure, In being mad, which none but madmen know.” For psychiatrists, a patient's contentment with symptoms is usually problematic, because it drives refusal of treatment. But could happy and purposeful madness be useful?
Medical anthropology has explored the idea and suggests that some presentations of schizophrenia may in fact be shamanic. Could it be that the psychotic spectrum isn’t a one-way road to despair but stretches the other way also? So that we can be released (if temporarily) from the shackles of the dull, ordinary and predictable? Such a break may be dangerous (I never had illusions about the danger I was in), but it could be appropriate for a rite of passage... if not for an African initiation, then perhaps for that iconic Aussie gap year - a break to tackle the transition from hedonistic teen to responsible adult.
I was sent home from Africa by the person who bought me (did I tell you that? By then I had been sold into slavery). And so my path, however unexpected and perilous, led me home. And even now, I still feel like the journey inoculated me against anxiety, irrational fears and depression, and so I’ve lived a successful and fulfilling life since.
The point is, as similar as my symptomatology may have been to the most severe of all psychotic illnesses, I never actually suffered, and the experience left me with real insight and fortitude which has helped me ever since.
If the gap year is indeed to be a rite of passage, then what is it a rite for? Is it to be an extended hedonistic binge, conducted from the known risks of the beer halls of Oktoberfest, or is it to provide a foundation with which to enter adulthood?
Dr. Jan Golembiewski is a fellow of the Schizophrenia Research Institute and author of a memoir called Magic.