A schizophrenic woman named Eleanor Longden wrote a piece in the latest issue of “Scientific American Mind” that may help trigger a paradigm shift in the way Western society perceives mental illness. In the article she explains why she listens to her auditory hallucinations instead of trying to get rid of them. She doesn’t consider the voices “an aberrant symptom” of insanity but rather “a sane reaction to insane circumstances,“ she wrote. Instead of taking antipsychotic drugs or other traditional treatment routes, she simply paid attention to what the voices had to say.
I read the article when returning from my MFA in creative nonfiction residency at Goucher College, which was a coincidence because many of the current students are writing about issues related to mental illness and society’s perception of it — including myself. My father, an intelligent, articulate man, was given electroconvulsive therapy sometime in 2001 for experiencing auditory hallucinations and other symptoms of what psychiatrists perceived as madness.
But what is this strange, evolving concept of madness and mental illness, exactly? Recall that once upon a time, society believed that sexually dissatisfied women were the insane victims of “hysteria.” Schizophrenia remains, today, one of the least-understood, most complicated “diseases” we know of, with a variety of subtypes. Why do we insist that people who hear voices take often dangerous medications (like antipscyhotics, which can cause tardive dyskinesia, or TD, a disorder causing permanent facial/bodily twitching) and other painful treatments, often against their will? Of course, some drugs designed to treat chemical imbalances have been an immense benefit for society. But most people with a paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis do not believe there is anything wrong with them; on the contrary, many have to be persuaded that they are sick in order to be “treated.” In many societies hallucinations are considered sixth senses, such as in indigenous rural communities throughout Latin America, where those among them who can hear voices are called “shamans,” and are believed to have the power to communicate with other worlds. Some of them eat the peyote cactus in spiritual rituals, inducing a temporary, schizophrenia-like state in which the users see and hear things that a sober individual would not.
In fact, the most unpleasant aspects of schizophrenia seem to be derived from society’s negative perceptions of it. According to Longden, the voices were rather innocuous until she told a friend about them, and that friend expressed serious worry. Then, the voices started to sound menacing.
Here is an excerpt of Longden’s piece:
“The voices appeared powerful and intimidating. In this respect, a vital step was my realizing that the voices had meaning, but the meaning was often metaphorical rather than literal. For example, voices that threatened to attack my home were not to be taken as an objective danger but as an expression of my own feelings of insecurity and fear in the world.”
She also gave a TED talk uploaded earlier this month summarizing her points of view. As soon as Longden started interpreting her voices, they stopped threatening and frightening her. As soon as she accepted them as signs of truths, they began to help her, illuminating the darkest recesses of her mind. Thus, Longden was “cured” without having to take chlorpromazine, thioridazine or fluphenazine. If that doesn’t provoke a paradigm shift in the way we perceive mental illness today, I don’t know what will.
Longden isn’t the first schizophrenic who has benefitted from this approach. An international organization called “Intervoice,” of which Longden is now a member, has been trying to change the way society perceives people who experience auditory hallucinations since 1987. The organization believes that “schizophrenia is an unscientific and unhelpful hypothesis which should be abandoned,” according to its Wikipedia page.
And indeed, the statistics regarding the success rate of current treatment options are also bleak, showing that 15% of schizophrenics do not respond to treatment at all, and another 15% respond only partially. The psychiatrist Richard Friedman wrote a piece in the New York Times this month in which he discusses the “crisis in innovation” in the mental health industry. He writes:
“All of our current antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs share the same molecular targets in the brain as their prototypes from the 1950s. For example, the new antipsychotic drugs block dopamine receptors in critical brain regions, just like the first antipsychotic, Thorazine, synthesized in 1950. And all of our current antidepressants increase the levels of one or more of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine or norepinephrine, just like the early tricyclic antidepressants.”
A rapidly increasing number of mental health professionals are calling for a change in the way we treat people with symptoms of a mental illness.
The psychotherapist Gary Greenberg wrote the recently published book called, “The Book of Woe: the DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry,” which exposes the fact that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), used, essentially, as a Bible for the psychiatric profession, the basis for every mentally illness diagnosis there ever was, “is a work of fiction — that the hundreds of ‘disorders’ described therein are just labels for fuzzy, overlapping clusters of symptoms and that we have never found a definitive biological marker for even one of those disorders,” according to a review of the book in Scientific American. And apparently, everyone in the profession knows it. (Check back in two weeks for my own review of this groundbreaking new book).
I’m not trying to say that society should start worshipping those who hear voices, like the tribal communities of the Amazon. Nor am I trying to say that drugs designed to treat mental illness are bad. (I haven’t even mentioned the theory that the beliefs of many “paranoid schizophrenics” — that the CIA is subjecting them to covert mind-control experiments against their will — may be based on fact. See the 2007 Washington Post piece, where investigative journalist Sharon Weinberger subtly asks, “What’s going on here?”).
I’m just trying to point out that maybe our prevalent view on mental illness needs some work. I’ve recently found the fantasy writer Terry Pratchett’s take on the human condition quite useful: he says we shouldn’t have been called “Homo Sapiens,” because the name implies we are defined by the fact that we think. But thinking isn’t what defines humankind, he says. Storytelling does. Thus, Pratchett believes a better name for us would have been, “Homo Narrativus.”
We humans are unique among living creatures for our ability to find meaning in the most chaotic of circumstances. Our minds can take concrete reality, conceptualize its components abstractly, and lump categories of concepts within categories concepts infinitely, like mirrors held up against the world creating an eternal reflection of meaning. In a world which, at the microscopic level, is governed by unmappable laws and chaos, we are the makers of significance, the bestowers of sense, the creators of meaning.
It’s only natural that people who hear voices try to find their meaning. Scientific-minded people might suspect they’re the result of electromagnetic experiments conducted by the government, religious people might believe they’re hearing the voice of God, eccentric people might think they’re hearing aliens, and those who are force-fed the fictitious DSM’s conclusions might say the voices are the result of a mental illness.
Let’s admit we don’t actually know — that we’re just storytellers, trying to figure out what life is all about. And then, starting from that premise, let’s together, as Homo Narrativus, search for the most useful story to have faith in.