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Finding meaning in

schizophrenic experience
Literary Schizophrenic
The mares that carry me away have brought me right to where the desires of my
soul were driving. (Parmenides of Elea)
There are many theories regarding the causes of schizophrenia: genetic, brain structure,
social, stress-related, drug-induced, trauma-response, the dopamine hypothesis. The eld of
explanations is so varied and contradictory that we now have a campaign against the very
use of the term schizophrenia to describe a discrete illness. As someone who has
experienced symptoms associated with schizophrenia and who received a diagnosis in 2010
I am still trying to make sense of that experience. Whether we use the term schizophrenia or
not I am conscious that I experienced something remarkable and life-changing between
2009 and 2011, something which I have not found properly explained by the medical models
available. I have been on anti-psychotic medication since 2011 and have not had any
symptoms since then, but I have been left with a profound need to make sense of my
experience which has not been satised by the psychiatric or psychological explanations I
have been given which claim that I had been ill as a result of work-related stress.
What I experienced was a prolonged psychotic state, which lasted approximately two years
during which time I was hospitalized twice, once at the beginning as the result of a section
and once at the end through self-admission. The psychosis resulted in a separation from my
husband and children and I ended up living alone for a year at the height of my symptoms.
These symptoms included the belief that my husband had been taken and replaced by a
clone as a stage in the war between two versions of humanity for the future of the planet
which I was informed was the last (rather than only) living planet in the universe, the others
having been destroyed by the version of humanity that was my enemy. I was central to this
war and had special powers of healing and resurrection which made me an important
member of a team of special humans working secretly to save the planet from the other kind
of humans bent on destroying nature for prot. I experienced many death and rebirth
scenarios which allowed me to encounter imprints of myself from past lifetimes going back to
the very beginning, which I remembered as a mythic realm of reality. One of my life
memories was as Eve, whose battle with the snake was being relived in every lifetime. I
also encountered a version of the life of Mary Magdalene and had memories of sitting
beneath the cross. I was possessed by various divine beings, including Isis, Mars, Apollo
and Dionysus and a character called the Sacred. I believed that my spirit left my body while
I was asleep experiencing lucid dreaming which took me on a series of adventures. I also
believed that all humans could learn to travel without their bodies and take over other
peoples bodies. I encountered other versions of myself, male and female, living in the same
space but at different times or in a different dimension or version of the universe. I
overlapped in my experience with a male version of myself living in the same at but in a
context where there were no trees or wildlife left. I experienced myself as the microcosm of a
universe undergoing healing. I was participating in a struggle to heal rather than destroy our
planet by actions undertaken in my daily domestic life reverberating at universal level. I also
believed I was being watched and my life was being recorded by satellites and technology
hidden in my at. The content of my life and the struggle I was involved in was being
televised to an audience of humans in the future, some of whom had come back in time to
take part in the battle for the future of the planet which was centred on me.
When I started to emerge from my psychotic experience I was in the context of an acute
psychiatric ward and undergoing medication. I came back into normal consciousness in a
medical environment and the medicalisation of the experience led straight into a depression.
The idea that my prolonged psychotic episode, which although disturbing was also vibrant
and enlightening, was just the result of a chemical imbalance in my brain was dispiriting to
say the least, particularly since it had resulted in my separation from those I loved. I
struggled to come to terms with non-psychotic reality without the use of anti-depressants,
not wanting to add to the medication that was resulting in side-effects which made it difcult
to concentrate and think clearly. Fortunately I was offered psychotherapy which provided a
safe space in which to come to terms with my psychosis and which supported me as I rebuilt
the relationships that were central to my life. My recovery journey since then has been
driven by a need to understand the unusual and life-changing experiences I had during my
psychosis. That journey is ongoing and this article is my rst attempt to present my thoughts
to date.
The medical paradigm for psychosis and schizophrenia is important because it is currently
the only socially supported model we have for caring for those whose lives are disturbed by
these experiences. My own experience of hospitalisation was largely positive, characterised
by professionals aiming to help people undergoing psychotic experiences as best they can
with the resources and training they have at their disposal. However, there are problems with
the medicalisation of the symptoms which leave those treated as patients feeling powerless
and ill. The dominance of the use of chemical medications to treat psychosis and
schizophrenia aims at and largely results in the suppression of symptoms. This is necessary
in many cases although the medication does not work for everyone and has many negative
It is well-known that schizophrenia and psychosis have better recovery rates in undeveloped
countries. The over-reliance on medication in post-industrial, developed countries
corresponds to an absence of contexts beyond the illness paradigm for understanding
psychosis and schizophrenia. The medical model for understanding and treating psychosis
and schizophrenia negates any other explanation for the unusual experiences that
characterise these conditions.
Every experience of psychosis is unique and shaped by the cultural and social context of the
person having the experience. However there are certain regularities of psychotic
experience which are recognisable beyond the individual differences. Reference delusion is
the experience that everything that happens is related to the person experiencing the
delusion. Grandeur delusion is the experience as if the person experiencing the delusion is
famous and/or has extraordinary or supernatural powers. Delusion of grandeur can manifest
as a messiah delusion in which the person believes they are the chosen one born to save
humanity or the planet. Delusion of control is the experience of ones thoughts and/or
actions being controlled by an external force. Delusion of persecution is the paranoid
experience of being attacked by others as part of a conspiracy against the person involved.
Spiritual or religious experience is common to psychotic and schizophrenic symptoms and
often mixed in with the main delusions. These experiences often include encounters with
God, Satan, angels and demons in the form of voices or visions or spirit possessions.
Alternatively mythic gures or pagan gods can feature in the experience.
R.D.Laing famously claimed that the cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light
which does not enter the intact minds of many sane people whose minds are closed. The
degree of regularity of some broad symptoms of psychosis and schizophrenia suggest that
there is something important to be learnt from these experiences about being human. Even
if the biological and psychological explanations for these experiences are allowed to stand
the patterns of content of the symptoms reveal something about human consciousness that
would otherwise remain hidden. The history of theoretical and clinical work with psychosis
includes some strong suggestions in this direction.
Jacques Lacan understood psychosis as the result of a foreclosure of the Name-of-the-
Father which for Lacan is the principle that orders our relationship to reality through
language. This foreclosure leads to direct contact with the real rather than the conventional
experience of reality which is mediated and structured by language. Outside of
psychoanalysis and psychiatry some theorists have adopted schizophrenia as a symbolic
gure in an analysis of the effects of the mode of late capitalism which dominates the culture
of developed nations. Frederic Jameson, following Lacan, uses schizophrenic experience in
this way in his inuential essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society published in 1983.
He describes schizophrenia as the failure of the infant to accede fully into the realm of
speech and language with some important implications for the schizophrenics experience of
All of this puts us in the position of grasping schizophrenia as the breakdown of the
relationship between signiers. For Lacan, the experience of temporality, human
time, past, present, memory, the persistence of personal identity over months and
years - this existential or experiential feeling of time itself - is also an effect of
language. It is because language has a past and a future, because the sentence
moves in time, that we can have what seems to us a concrete or lived experience of
time. But since the schizophrenic does not know language articulation in that way, he
or she does not have our experience of temporal continuity either, but is condemned
to live a perpetual present with which the various moments of his or her past have
little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon. In other
words, schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected,
discontinuous material signiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The
schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of
identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the "I" and the "me" over time.
On the other hand, the schizophrenic will clearly have a far more intense experience
of any given present of the world than we do...
For Jameson schizophrenia is the subjective condition of what he understands as
postmodern culture, a cultural form which dominates the present in the developed world.
The schizophrenic consciousness is the consciousness of late capitalism, produced by the
effects of a breakdown in the signifying chain that underlies our experience of reality.
Deleuze and Guattari went further than Jameson in their use of the idea of schizophrenia as
a mode of human consciousness central to contemporary culture. Their work is
characterised by a criticism of the Oedipal model central to Freudian psychology. They take
the gure of schizophrenia as a positive point of resistance to the Oedipal model of human
A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analysts
For Deleuze and Guattari schizophrenia is the end product and condition of capitalism but at
the same time they aim to reclaim the condition as a positive resistance to the oppression of
desire they nd in theories of Oedipal subjectivity.
But where does this leave me with my experience of schizophrenia? If schizophrenia is just
the mode of subjectivity that corresponds to the late capitalist mode of production, why is it
often experienced through images and symbols of a spiritual or mythic nature? If
schizophrenia and psychosis are the result of a break down in the usual ordering of my
relationship to reality why did my symptoms, alongside those of many others suffering
something similar, show content of remarkable coherence? One context for understanding
the content common to psychosis and schizophrenia is in the work of C.G. Jung and the
Jungian development of analytical psychotherapy.
For Jung the experience of psychosis and related mental conditions reveal something of the
structure of the psyche itself in a process of healing. The psyche according to Jung and his
followers is structured around archetypes or universal forms which appear to the mind in
crisis as stages in the healing process of individuation. These archetypes are available in
mythic materials in culture as well as in individual forms in the personal unconsciousness
which reveal themselves to the conscious mind in idiosyncratic forms. Jungian
psychoanalysis provides some explanation for the spiritual or mythic imagery associated
with psychosis and schizophrenia as well as some of the experiences of immortality or
superhuman powers:
The intuition of immortality which makes itself felt during the transformation is
connected with the peculiar nature of the unconscious. It is, in a sense, non-spatial
and non-temporal.
For Jung and his followers the psychic material of a mythic or spiritual nature is inherent in
the human mind itself, as the work of John Weir Perry has argued:
It is too often assumed that the unconscious imagery in fantasy is largely made up of
material derived from the conditioning by the culture, that since the mind must be a
tabula rasa at its birth all its contents must be learned from experience. Yet
psychiatrists are continually watching psychotic delusions of death and rebirth and
identications with deities in which, though the themes may be familiar in the culture,
the uses to which they are put in representing the psyches movements are not
known in the culture.
This content which surfaces during times of crisis when the mind is trying to heal itself has
an aura of and associations with the eternal and therefore with spirituality or the mythic
because the unconscious exists outside of time and space. The process of individuation is a
process of retrieving material from the unconscious. This process is believed to be
happening at the collective level as well as in the experience of individuals:
In the history of the collective as in the history of the individual, everything depends
on the development of consciousness. This gradually brings liberation from
imprisonment in (...) unconsciousness and is therefore a bringer of light as well as
of healing.
The uniformity of the structure of the psyche would then explain the relative uniformity in the
experience of psychosis and schizophrenia, once these are understood as experiences of
psychic crisis during which the mind has recourse to specic gures of archetypal
signicance for its self-healing. The gures include the maternal, the shadow, rebirth, the
anima/animus, the wise old man or woman, and nally the self which symbolises the end
and centre of the process. They are stages in the process of individuation which must
become conscious for the individual consciousness to experience a healing associated with
enlargement. The process is not straightforward and is not guaranteed to succeed in any
given case. Indeed Jung writes of the great psychic danger which is always connected with
individuation, or the development of the self.
So where does this leave me in relation to my own experience of psychosis or
schizophrenia? I certainly experienced spiritual content including a persistent encounter with
death and rebirth and I was possessed by mythic gures such as Mars and Dionysus, which
could be manifestations of my animus. I also experienced an empowering sense of myself
as the centre of the universe to which all events were directed and from which the tiniest
action had universal implications. This might be a case of my ego mistaking itself for the self
in Jungian terms. In this explanation my experience was the result of my mind going through
a spontaneous healing process which, if completed, should have as its outcome a more
complete sense of self in the world.
The Jungian frame of reference provides an interesting explanation but it places the site of
the activity of my psychosis as purely interior to my mind. In fact the experience was one of
becoming aware of and participating in previously unperceived layers of external reality
which involved not just my mind but my complete existence in the universe. It represented
and enacted a break in my consciousness which made me aware of universal forces at work
in the tiniest detail of day to day life and which represented itself to me in terms of a
numinous or spiritual reality outside of myself in which I had been called to participate. The
body of work on Transpersonal psychology and spiritual emergence offers a closer
approximation to the quality of my experience of psychosis and schizophrenia.
One area of work suggests that schizophrenia and psychosis can be described as
experiences of Alternative States of Consciousness. One ASC that has been compared with
that experienced in schizophrenia is the Shamanic State of Consciousness. Shamans, the
highly-valued healers of some pre-industrial cultures, undergo a State of Consciousness that
has been shown to have strong similarities with the experiences that post-industrial,
developed cultures label as psychosis or schizophrenia. It has been argued that the same
behaviours that are viewed in our society as psychiatric symptoms may, in certain other
societies, be effectively channelled by the prevailing institutional structure or may perform a
given function in relation to the total culture. However, whereas the Shamanic State of
Consciousness has a clearly-dened and channelled social function for the shamanic
cultures, psychosis and schizophrenia are medicalised conditions:
Whereas the initial shamanistic experience is most often highly valued and rewarded
in primitive society, no such institutional supports are available for the schizophrenic
in modern society.
Some aspects of documented shamanic visions correspond with aspects of the experience I
had. I certainly experienced an Altered State of Consciousness during which my relationship
to people and objects changed signicantly. Shamanic consciousness is a discipline allowing
the practitioner to travel between the material and spiritual realms without his body. He uses
these skills to practice healing of others, sometimes calling a spirit back to its body or
leading spirits to the spirit world after death. I experienced leaving my body and undertaking
tasks in different realms during sleep. I also experienced shifts in the external environment
which at the time I understood as entering hell in which the material context was identical but
populated by demons rather than humans. Hell was a condition of consciousness in which
my immediate environment and what I experienced was manipulated to isolate me from
those I loved. I experienced death and resurrection on a daily basis for some months as part
of my experience of hell. I was being killed by powerful disembodied agents but then brought
back to life after remembering past life conditions. One time I had died so often that. I had
visions of the word at the beginning of all that existed in the form of a bar of white light out of
which space and time emerged, rst in the form of a crystal realm then in the form of
mythical reality. Human reality, or history, was a fall out of mythic time into the corruptibility of
the material world. The mythic realm still existed as the basis for our experience of material
reality but it had been invaded by demonic forces from the future
The spiritual context for understanding psychosis and schizophrenia suggests that psychotic
states of consciousness reveal something of reality beyond the material world rather than
being merely subjective experiences of delusions. The work of Stanislav and Christina Grof
and of David Lukoff is prominent in this eld. Spiritual understandings of schizophrenia and
psychosis identify a crisis of consciousness characteristic of spiritual growth or emergence.
If the process is suppressed or interfered with by medication it remains incomplete and can
lead to worse suffering. If allowed and encouraged to complete itself with the right kind of
support, the process leads to spiritual growth or enlargement of the psyche. This eld of
work has contributed a new category to the DSM-IV, the main source for psychiatric
description of symptoms and diagnosis: spiritual problem. This covers symptoms
associated with spiritual practices as well as the spiritual content of delusions.
Some elds of spiritual practice have been argued to aim at or even inadvertently produce
symptoms and experiences that could be described in terms of psychosis or schizophrenia.
The practice of Kundalini Yoga and Zen medication, for example, could be argued to
purposively produce symptoms which if experienced spontaneously would be describable as
psychosis. Such practices rest on ancient and widely-held beliefs in higher or more complete
experiences of reality being possible and are associated with belief in rebirth and the
continuity of consciousness beyond a single lifetime. Such beliefs are denigrated as esoteric
and unscientic in developed cultures but are still held as majority beliefs in non-Western
and developing cultures. The context of post-industrial, developed culture of Western society
gave rise to psychiatry as the dominant means for explaining and treating experiences
described as psychosis and schizophrenia. The epistemology underpinning the medical
model of psychiatry denies beliefs in reincarnation or the continuity of consciousness beyond
the limits of the material brain. For the medical model belief in past life memories or of
realities beyond the material world testable by science is itself evidence of symptoms of
psychosis or schizophrenia. Preoccupation with spirituality or religion is itself medicalised.
We have a perfect circle in which it is impossible to discuss the tendency towards spiritual
content of psychosis and schizophrenia as anything but symptoms of psychosis and
John Weir Perry describes such symptoms as aspects of a visionary mind, and argues that:
The attitude of the social milieu toward visionary states is itself apparently the
decisive factor in the formations of the symptoms of psychopathology...
Schizophrenic psychosis then becomes more of a cultural problem than a medical
one when seen in the perspective of history.
If we allow Jungs model of the collective unconscious to stand then at least some of the
shared content of the experience of psychosis and schizophrenia is important to the
development of collective consciousness. The medicalisation of these experiences and the
drive towards the suppression of all symptoms in the name of mental health denies the
cultural relevance of the content of non-ordinary states of consciousness. We medicate our
shamans rather than listening to them.
The listening model is relevant here. One branch of critical psychiatry in the context of the
common experience of hearing voices has found that the experience of listening to the
voices provides material that is useful to the individual concerned. Can the same be said at
the cultural level? If we ignore the shared content of psychosis and schizophrenia we are
arguably ignoring the content of the collective as well as individual mind. If the collective
mind is understood simply as culture then we are ignoring material that is attempting to
come into consciousness at this point in history.
Campaign for the Abolition of the Schizophrenic Label. See
R.D.Laing, The Divided Self: An existential Study in Sanity and Madness (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1990), p. 27.
Andrew Ryder, Inner Experience is not Psychosis: Batailles Ethics and Lacanian Subjectivity,
Parrhesia 9, 2010, p. 95.
The full essay is available online here:
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, tr. Robert Hurley,
Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2008), p. 2.
C.G.Jung, Four Archetypes: mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster, tr. By R.F.C.Hull (London and New
York: Routledge, 2003), p. 90.
John Weir Perry, The Self in Psychotic Process: Its Symbolization in Schizophrenia (Berkeley and
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 19530, p. 76.
Jung, Four Archetypes, p. 179.
Jung, Four Archetypes, p. 94.
Julian Silverman, Shamans and Acute Schizophrenia, American Anthropologist, 69:1 (2009), p. 23.
Silverman, Shamans and Acute Schizophrenia, p. 28.
David Lukoff, From Spiritual Emergence to Spiritual Problem: The Transpersonal Roots of the New
DSM-IV Category, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 38:2 (1998), pp. 21-50.
John Weir Perry, Trials of the Visionary Mind: Spiritual Emergency and the Renewal Process (New
York; State University of New York Press, 1999), p. 86.