The myth of mental illness

I read up a lot about mental illness, mostly because most of my life I was feeling like I was on the verge of going crazy.  Except, I could never quite go completely over the abyss, which I often thought might prove to temporarily relieve me of the social expectations placed upon me.

My family liked to tell me I was insane.  When I was 11 my sister almost had me convinced that my mother was going to have me institutionalized and given 21 shots because I was so crazy.  This was the same sister who chased me around the house with a large kitchen knife, and broke through the screen of my bedroom window, knocking over a figurine of a girl on horseback, one of my most favorite treasures.  And, no, I don’t remember the outcome of that incident.  That’s right where my memory of it ends.

Yeah, who was the crazy one?

It’s taken me until now, mid-way through my 42nd year, to really grok* that people use the labels ‘crazy’ and ‘mentally/emotionally unstable’ as a way to manipulate and control others’ behavior, mainly by projecting a large portion of their issues onto other people.   We certainly buy into the labels every time we run to the pills or alcohol to medicate the ‘crazy’ right out of us.

[* grok is a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land and means to understand profoundly]

But what if we aren’t really crazy?  What if we are responding quite sanely to insane expectations?  What if everything you’ve been told about yourself, and everything you have believed about yourself, has been based on a lie someone told you and you simply accepted it as gospel truth?  Pretty frightening, huh?

Some food for thought:

“Mental illness” is an expression, a metaphor that describes an offending, disturbing, shocking, or vexing conduct, action, or pattern of behavior, such as schizophrenia, as an “illness” or “disease”. Szasz wrote: “If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic.”

~ Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness

Only after we abandon the pretence that mind is brain and that mental disease is brain disease can we begin the honest study of human behaviour and the means people use to help themselves and others cope with the demands of living.

~Thomas Szasz, Coercion as a Cure

A good read:

Madness, myth and medicine; Ron Roberts on the continuing relevance of Thomas Szasz from the Center of Independent Thought.

And an interesting summary of R.D. Laing’s work (a Scottish psychiatrist who himself struggled with schizophrenia as a result of his difficult and strange childhood) .

A sane response to an insane situation. This is Laing’s comment about what “going crazy” entailed. Applying Gregory Bateson’s concept of the double bind, in which anything a person does leads to one or another kind of punishing consequence, he observed that some children are faced with the dilemma of having an identity defined for them that is fundamentally different from who they experience themselves to be. Their alternatives are to either give up the parental approval and caretaking they need to survive, in order to be truly themselves, or to give up their own sense of their identity and comply with parental demands. Faced with this dilemma, most people choose to give up their own identities and adopts those that are handed to them by parental figures. In some people faced with this situation, the response is to “go crazy.”

Believe it or not, I attempted to rebel, though there were parts of me that were indeed “going crazy”.  I’m still feeling the effects of those terrible fights I had with my mother.  I still get down on myself, because I’ve been mothering for 11 years without a map and without a sense of what a “good mother” is.

I gave up parental approval and caretaking.  I ‘ran away’ from home three times before I made it permanent.  I can’t say I’d ever truly became myself, but I fought the double binds and over-control with everything I had.  I think though, that I’d inadvertently married someone who, for a while, created more (and in some ways more serious) double bind situations for me.  No, I don’t believe for a moment he meant to.  He didn’t realize what he was doing any more than I did when I was struggling with PTSD triggers.   He was a product of his dysfunctional conditioning, too.

And my own highly sensitive daughters have had their issues as a result of their own wiring coupled with our marital problems.  It’s hard on me, because while I’m striving for peace and compassion, I’m being challenged every day by my daughters’ lack of emotional self-regulation.  Sensory issues, possible AD(H)D, possible Asperger’s, anxiety, meltdowns, angry outbursts.  I can’t blame them for the conditions they inherited, nor can I blame them for any difficult behaviors they acquired while in our care.  It’s just a combination of factors that added up to a lot of triggers for my PTSD (which left me with my own meltdowns and angry outbursts).

And those intense feelings in me and feeling helpless in the face of my own inexplicable emotional outbursts set me on a journey to understand emotion and so-called mental illness, both from a medical point of view as well as a spiritual one.

I tend to believe now, from my own experiences, as well as what I know about Kazmirez Dabrowski’s work on personality development and positive disintegration, and what I am learning through communicating with others who are struggling, what is said about Laing in the wikipedia page:

It is notable that Laing never denied the existence of mental illness, but simply viewed it in a radically different light from his contemporaries. For Laing, madness could be a transformative episode whereby the process of undergoing mental distress was compared to a shamanic journey. The traveller could return from the journey with important insights, and may even have become a wiser and more grounded person as a result.

I tend to think about it like that too, although I must admit I, too, get caught up from time to time in the labeling process and I long for a ‘magic bullet’ to make things “all better”.  But I know the “all better” won’t happen without a lot of internal changes.  I didn’t get the mothering I needed, husband didn’t get the fathering he needed.  We need to learn new ways of being so that we can give our daughters the compassion and care we didn’t even know was our birthright.

I recognize there is a serious set of problems in my family which I’m working to find solutions for that don’t include medication.  I know of three families who medicate their strong-willed, slightly oppositional children, and medicate themselves (with anti-depressants or alcohol).  I know of my own coping mechanisms.   And I don’t believe temporary coping strategies will fix the underlying problem we all face – how to cope with the unrealistic demands we are asked to face on a daily basis.

And I wonder, if it’s a journey to higher development that we are on, then trying to medicate it away is exactly the last thing we ought to be doing.  Maybe this ‘going crazy’ is part of the process of ‘enlightenment’…perhaps a burning away of the self-centered ego through suffering so that we may develop the internal resources to bring us to a more compassionate place where we can utilize our gifts for the betterment of all.

Maybe medicating ourselves is interrupting our own evolutionary processes.

Do you think maybe it could be like that?

About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
This entry was posted in Anger, anxiety, Complex-PTSD, depression, existential depression, Madness, Moods, Motherhood, The Myth of Mental Illness and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The myth of mental illness

  1. I’ve often thought that modern life causes more problems than it solves for people of any group. The demands that are put on us basically from birth to conform to a system that isn’t of our choosing, nor can be deviated from to me feels like imprisonment of the mind and body. I would much rather be self-sufficient in many ways, but at this point trying to unplug from the system and shun the monetary system and all of its pitfalls seems rather improbable and impractical from a logical standpoint. Out of respect for her privacy I won’t give any details about my wife’s challenges from her own past, but we both struggle from things that never, ever should have happened. In my case I still don’t have a full grasp of the abuse that’s happened in my own youth. The fragments that are there are pretty severe, but there are literally years missing. I’ve been diagnosed with a number of mental maladies while struggling with adjusting to a “normal” life. A diagnosis is a generalized dehumanizing label. If you mention a particular diagnosis to a mental health professional many assumptions are made. It seems you are no longer an individual on some level, but a bag of symptoms and a preconceived thought patterns. I’ve been told that how these diagnosis’s work and how they manifest with me is highly abnormal – which makes me question how such a diagnosis was come to in the first place, given how odd I seem to be. A diagnosis shouldn’t be any more than a checkbox on an insurance form from the provider to get paid. Otherwise it’s a rather sweeping generalization that takes away from your individual experience. I find it odd that a psychiatrist will listen to you for an hour upon the first visit where you describe a fragment of what you are struggling with, and from that fragment you are diagnosed with something, though you may have been suffering for years with it and there’s so many details left out due to a time constraint. I’ve been told I’m dissociative to some degree. I will admit, the clinical description of that does describe me. That’s one of the few pieces of my alphabet soup of diagnosis’s that have fit. Maybe the real diagnosis should be “struggling, often suffering”. That needs no definition in the DSM, and by far would be the most accurate diagnosis for me and basically everyone else in the same boat. Without the labels and generalizations, you are an individual again. You are then one human interacting with another with all of the depth and complexity of your internal struggle and world. I see a therapist, but I seek and get comfort from my closest friends. I find it odd that I pay for a friend, basically, that I can share my deepest and darkest thoughts and feelings with. I do that already with my friends. The ones that can’t handle that honesty I welcome their leaving, Life is too short to put on the act. I believe everyone struggles with finding their true self. We’re raised in a culture where showing vulnerability is weakness. It’s a shame that there is shame attached to being genuine. I agree – mental illness for the most part is a myth. Some people just get more lost in their journey than others sometimes.Some do have physiological abnormalities that cause another level of undue confusion and suffering though.

    Thank you for sharing this. It shows a lot of insight.

  2. You are welcome.

    I’m glad you replied.

    I don’t have friends anymore. I have my husband, and my daughters, and I stay away from pretty much everyone else, because…I get into trouble with them.

    Currently, husband and I are not making a great deal of money, so it’s been kind of like we are on the fringe of things anyway.

    I had a therapist who was person-centered. Any therapist who is either person centered (following in the footsteps of humanist psychologists Carl Rogers or Virginia Satir or Marshall Rosenberg) or an existentialist (like Rollo May or R.D. Laing or Irvin Yalom) will treat you like a human, not give you alphabet soup diagnoses.

    Have you ever had EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) for your PTSD that you mentioned on Depression Time’s blog? I think you’d really get something out of it. And/or somatic therapies like Somato-Emotional Release, or Myofascial Release (you can see my link above about holistic healing of complex PTSD for information about all of those).

    My husband is a massage therapist now and will be able to do SER (an advanced type of craniosacral therapy) on me and myofasical release. I’ve had some good experiences with the beginner levels of what he knows.

    I’ve had EMDR performed on me only once. I should have had more. 😦

    I’m getting really tired. I’ll try to reply more tomorrow.

  3. It’s my dream to go live off the grid either with just my family, or better yet, in some sort of intentional community.

    There are some who are trying to make it work. I think it is possible with the right kind of planning. But that takes a kind of stamina I don’t have right now.

    So I have to live among the people, including my ‘abusers’ (both FOO and my husband).

    I’m listening right now to an audiobook of Marshall Rosenberg’s NonViolent Communication because no matter where I go, I will always be dealing with people who operate from a fear, obligation and guilt mentality. It’s due to their cultural conditioning. I can’t change them, but I can change me.

    I’d like to encourage you on looking into Rosenberg’s NVC. If you can afford the CDs or MP3s, to go do that. I’m sure, like me, you read plenty enough stuff. Probably could use another input channel.

    I’d like to operate from an intention that supports getting my needs met and the needs of other people met as well.

    “I’m struggling, often suffering.”

    I’m with you there, friend.

    I’d like to that to change, for me, for those I know, for the whole world.

  4. ptero9 says:

    You’re in good company with your writing and sharing with others here. Although I was not abused in the sense that you were, I grew up pretty messed up with very serious identity issues. I have always felt crazy and too intense to develop every day candy-coated relationships. I’m quite sure that if had grown up now, I’d be labeled and drugged. In my 30’s all the unhappiness I had been living with exploded when I started to deeply meditate. Thankfully, I found a therapist who I trusted (this was far from the first time I had been to one). Through art, dream work and writing and almost offing myself, something amazing happened and I experienced what I can only call a kundalini energy surging up my spine that over the next few years changed me.
    Anyway, didn’t mean to ramble…I love Laing’s work and agree with him. More recently I discovered similarities in the writings of Gary Greenberg. He’s a great writer and has been through his own hell and he’s a therapist! His website is here:

  5. Casey says:

    I hear great things about Kundalini experiences.

    Thanks so much for sharing. Rambling is always welcome here.

    I have to pick up my daughter from cross country practice, but I’ll be back to reply more later.

  6. Casey says:

    For sensitive and aware children, we can pick up on a number of inconsistencies and hypocrisies in adult human behavior. Without the proper guidance, we can often become confused as to what is expected of us and what we are allowed to express and what we are not.

    Even if parents don’t have explicit rules, many families’ have unwritten rules that can be complex, contradictory and inconsistently applied. There can be powerful messages being transmitted even when no words are said.

    I know about empathic (limbic) resonance. I only knew of the name just recently, but I know that a lot of our emotional stuff may not even be ours but that we take on from others. In families who fail to teach boundaries, or who constantly run roughshod over children’s boundaries, this leads to a great deal of distress for a young child.

    “In The Wise Heart, Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield echoes the musical metaphor of the original definition of “limbic resonance” offered by authors Lewis, Amini and Lannon of A General Theory of Love, and correlates these findings of Western psychology with the tenets of Buddhism: “Each time we meet another human being and honor their dignity, we help those around us. Their hearts resonate with ours in exactly the same way the strings of an unplucked violin vibrate with the sounds of a violin played nearby. Western psychology has documented this phenomenon of ‘mood contagion’ or limbic resonance. If a person filled with panic or hatred walks into a room, we feel it immediately, and unless we are very mindful, that person’s negative state will begin to overtake our own. When a joyfully expressive person walks into a room, we can feel that state as well.”

    I’m still to this day trying to manage this phenomenon. As a mother, it’s very important that I try not to take on too much of my children’s stuff, nor my husband’s stuff.

    Sometimes it’s hard. I had a bit of a meltdown yesterday. My self-care has been not very good lately. Spending too much time in my head, not enough nourishing the rest of me. I also had to cry because I was reading some more about David Foster Wallace’s life and work and suicide. He graduated summa cum laude in college. So did Slyvia Plath.

    An internet friend of mind wrote me something yesterday after I asked him “why do some of the brilliant ones succumb to the crippling depression”?

    Who’s to say that it’s crippling depression…with certainty? What if it’s despair? Or what if there are/were significant “missing links” (aka “foundation”) in their educational process? I’m writing a little paper on Traditional vs. Authentic Assessment of Learning, and I’m including this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald (I think I’ve shared it with you before?):

    The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

    It’s from The Crack-Up (2009, E. Wilson, Ed., p. 69). Fitzgerald goes on to talk about the ability to simultaneously see the hopelessness of a situation AND be determined to make it otherwise. I believe that the either-or thinking that is fostered in our educational system tends to stifle (sometimes eradicate) the ability to do this. Thus, we get honors graduates who hang themselves because of the perceived unbearable-ness of their situations. This is, in Fitzgerald’s (and my) view, NOT the sign of a first-rate intelligence. The ways that we have been taught (reared, etc.) in the last hundred years or so do not tend to result in moderated, integrated experiences. Instead polarization reigns.

    A few things came up in me:

    1. I must not have a first rate intelligence, because I can barely function sometimes (I can still write, just can’t attend to my daily tasks).
    2. I see hopelessness and sometimes just can’t make it otherwise. Sometimes, I don’t want to.
    3. I’ve been suicidal most of my life. The only reason I haven’t actually finished the task is that I’m afraid to (and I have kids and all that).
    4. My life experiences have been such where I am unable to feel love most of the time. The love I used to feel was intense surges of warmth radiating from the center of my chest. In part from my experiences in real life with my husband and friends, and in talking with him about moderation for four years, something died in me. Love as I knew it died in me. Now, I just don’t believe there is much joy for me to have because everything is like a rainy day to me.

    I’ve started taking St. John’s Wort again…because of the despair I feel. Love used to matter to me. Now, without that, everything is just gray.

    God, I hope I haven’t depressed you as much as I have depressed myself just thinking about that.

    • ptero9 says:

      Nah, although at one time in my life I would have been tempted to take on your feelings and mirror them right back at cha, that urge has mostly left me! I do though, try to remain faithful to a sense of living in the dark, and when people, mostly well-meaning co-workers, come in all happy and smiling in the morning I have a very hard time reciprocating. I can’t think of the day as “nice” or the morning as “good.” It seems too imposing, especially first thing in the morning!
      My mom’s step-dad commited suicide and my mom attempted twice once when I was 12 and again when I was 14. I had a fairly good childhood until teen years when my parents marriage fell apart and the whole family went kind of wacko together. That period of my life, coupled with a total lack of a stable sense of identity that plagued me since the age of two, really took me down fast. I more or less lived an insane life until my mid-thirties when it felt like it was time to make some changes or throw in the towel.
      I like to take niacin now and again when I feel a little off-kilter, never tried St. John’s Wort.
      You never know, joy just might find you again some day! I’m glad you have your children to care for, serving in some way tends to be helpful.

      • Casey says:


        Oh, my friend, that must have been so difficult to bear. I’m so glad you haven’t been tempted to take on my feelings and mirror them back.

        My mother’s first marriage was over when I was 2, and though we had visitation for a while, my dad was out of my life at 11. And then I had a period of 19 years of no contact, at which point I called him on Father’s Day and then was able to re-kindle a relationship. 10 years later, for my 40th birthday, I took my daughters and husband on a train ride to see him. It was a wonderful experience.

        My own husband has, on two or three occasions in our 16 year run, had run to the gun cabinet and ‘threatened’ suicide. The last time was in December. If you were to peruse my blog, I have two stories you might want to avoid reading. I know one of them has a warning, but I don’t think the other one does and I should go and make sure it’s got a warning on it.

        When we got through that night, the very next day, I went to his church and asked for help. It was too much. And in the week following, I experienced psychic numbing and mild depersonalization. Then, in the weeks following, I experienced some moderate PTSD symptoms. Not just of that period, but of MANY other experiences. It’s as if the filing cabinet of my mind just broke and all the contents were dumped out. Some of these weren’t even scary, just had a lot of psychological impact – guilt and fear inducing.

        It’s because of these experiences in my real life that I am pretty sure hell doesn’t exist after we die. We create hell on earth for each other all the time.

        My career was the thing that gave me a stable sense of self…and then, when I became a mother, all of that just went away. Over the past 10 years, my identity had been kind of unstable (okay a LOT unstable at times) But in a way, I might not have been able to deal with the stuff I had, if I had not been a mother. It has given me an opportunity to learn about and re-parent myself.

        I’d been slowly making my way back to a stronger sense of self. And yet, I’m also leaning towards Buddhism, which encourages one to let go of identification with self. So…for me, it’s an interesting paradox. But in this case, it’s by personal choice, not something someone else is making me do, you see?

        I have had a dear internet friend help me out with a lot of it, plus therapy which was somewhat helpful. Right now we are just in marriage/family therapy.

        I find the SJW helping with the negative self-talk. I think when the serotonin goes low, the negative and self-destructive, self-sabotaging messages reign.

  7. ptero9 says:

    You’re right about the hell on earth! Lol…
    Sorry to hear about your husband’s troubles. No need to shelter me from raw, scary stuff. These days I find myself to be very resilient. Like I say, after a few years of working with a very good therapist and whatever happened from the energy surge up my spine, something changed in me, something very big that connected psyche/soma, and my life has been very different since that time. I can’t fully explain it, but it is very powerful, yet not something I think much about, but live through, feeling fully alive in a way that I had never felt before. Mostly, I am grateful to have lost the horrible emotional pain and suffering that I had from living in a constant state of confusion, sadness and anger. Even when I have intense feelings now, they make sense, so I just feel them and they come and go in a reasonable manner.
    Anyway, I know you’re leaving for a trip, so happy travels to you and your family Casey!

    • Casey says:

      That’s so good to hear about your energetic experiences. I’ll be making at least one post or two about my husband’s cranio-sacral/somato-emotional release therapy that he’s learned. He’s actually been instrumental in helping me heal. So, it’s been good that way and i really believe psyche and soma are really intimately involved with each other.

      But it’s late right now, so I’ll have to get some sleep.
      Take care.

      • ptero9 says:

        Hey, your reply actually came through on my notifications! Not sure why the others didn’t..
        Would love to hear more about this: cranio-sacral/somato-emotional release therapy, as time allows, of course!
        Catch you later!

      • Casey says:

        For sure, I will let you know. My husband has a really interesting story he’s writing up for me and I’ll use some of it for a blog post. I might even have him guest post a few times.

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