Madness and Meaning

By Dr David Laing Dawson

As a young physician entering the world of the asylum, the mental hospital, the world of insanity, like many others before and since, I was fascinated by the prospect of finding meaning within madness, understanding behaviours that appeared, at first blush, inexplicable, understanding the de-contextualized speech patterns of many patients, understanding their delusions and voices.

This was the era of Timothy Leary, of a wish on the part of some to find a chemical path to enlightenment, the era of R.D. Laing seeking parental and family causes of insanity, of Thomas Szasz telling us that mental illness is a myth, the time of Foucault telling us that our society causes madness, and Alan Watts telling us that, really, madness was just an alternate flight path.

And, I must admit, madness, delusions, hallucinations, voices, fractured speech patterns, catatonia, mania, and even stuporous depression, contain rich and fertile ground for an artistic and literary imagination, and always fodder for philosophical questions about reality, meaning, semiotics, the nature of a human being, the manner in which we define deviance.

In our therapeutic communities of the day we talked and talked, in small groups and large groups. We listened to delusional ranting, to the reporting of voices emanating from the back of the head or from the dead, from an alien spacecraft, from God, and from the devil. I have spoken with several Queens, a few Christs, a man who tried to kill a president, a man harbouring evil beings inside his body, a man with the gift of teleportation, with many who believed the radio and television and popular songs were sending them personal messages, to many who believed they were being controlled by radar, radio waves, microchips, to men who wanted to cut off their genitals, to others who wanted to gouge out their eyes, to a few who wanted to kill someone who was controlling them from afar.

Of course we can find meaning in all of this, in each and every delusion, in each and every ephemeral message. And the meanings can be deep, intellectual, fanciful, alluding to Greek Mythology, Shakespeare, intrusive government programs, Kafka. They can be Freudian, Jungian, Adlerian, Foucaultian. They can even be new age and theosophic.

Or the meaning can be found more simply in those basic parameters of our social world and our sense of self: power, control, influence, intimacy, sexuality, responsibility, worth, love, hate, guilt, fear.

But does this help?

If it helps us empathize, yes. If it helps us form a relationship, develop trust, rapport, acceptance, yes. If it helps us accept these sufferers as fellow human beings, yes.

But might it not be more important to treat that young man who wants to gouge out his eye, before he actually does it, rather than worry about Oedipus Rex?

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2 thoughts on “Madness and Meaning

  1. I identified with all your comments. While working on my doctorate in clinical psychology I worked as a live-in resident counselor for a halfway house for people being discharged from a state mental hospital. We were also inspired by Szaz and did our best to pretend there was no disease process. However we soon discovered not all delusions and hallucinations were products of a normal creative brain.

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  2. Agreed! Thank you Dr David Laing Dawson for discussing such a complex topic in such a clear, down to earth way. Allow me to add to your list Ian Hacking’s book: Mad Travelers
    Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses.

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