In 2007 shortly after I began the research for my book The Spiritual Gift of Madness:The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement, I was browsing through the forum of The Icarus Project (TIP), the first mad pride organization in America (formed in 2004 almost 35 years after the first mental patients' liberation group), when I came across the following statement by a woman named Serine, "I am a 31 yr [sic] old single mom, and I have BP ["bipolar disorder"] with psychosis. When I go into mania, I have conversations with God and He has told me how He plans to bring together the plan for the ages. Or how he is going to bring about global awareness. And of course it is something that I have to do. Now every time I go into mania, I am consumed by it, when I come out I am normal' but still believe it. I mean what better thing is there to believe than God has chosen you to do an earthly mission for Him. Anybody else out there in the same boat? What do they call it. Grandious [sic] delusions?"
I was surprised to find such a candid statement. Instead of posting an online response I wrote to her privately. I told her I was an anti-Establishment psychologist and that I thought that she was right, that God did have a mission for her, that He did intend for her to play an important role in the salvation of humanity. I told her not to allow the psychiatrists to talk her out of this feeling, that it was a sign of a prophetic calling. She did not believe I was a psychologist. She asked me if I had bipolar disorder. I understood that from her frame of reference — influenced by the psychiatric narrative — my statements meant I had to be mentally ill. Who but a "schizophrenic" or "bipolar" would agree with her that it was possible to realize the Kingdom of God on earth, and that it was her mission, our mission, to help God do this? In actuality I had never been in a loony-bin, I just had a natural interest in spirituality, and read avidly on the topic — particularly the writing of messianic mystics.
Sri Aurobindo, the great philosopher yogi, was able to most persuasively describe the messianic-redemptive ideal: "The ascent of man into heaven is not the key, but rather his ascent here into the spirit and the descent also of the spirit into his normal humanity and the transformation of this earthly nature." This, and not "some post-mortem salvation,"Aurobindo tells us, is "the new birth" for which humanity waits as "the crowning movement" of its "long, obscure and painful history." Society will be based on a sense of the unity of humanity. "There [will be] a growing inner unity with others. Not only to see the Divine in oneself, but to see and find the Divine in all . . . is the complete law of the spiritual being. . . . Therefore too is a growing inner unity with others. . . . [Man] will seek not only his own freedom, but the freedom of all, not only his own perfection, but the perfection of all" (Farber, p374).
A society in which each person is guided by an intuition of unity would be a harmonious society. In Sri Aurobindo's epic poem Savitri he calls this messianic state the union of heaven and earth, the marriage of the eternal bridegroom with the eternal bride. It is the victory of love, the conquest of death.
There are 3 salient messianic traits: the sense that one has been given a divine mission; the awareness that the world is still under the reign of evil or Ignorance, and most important one is inspired by a vision of the promised land. Serine had them all. She was a prospective messiah. John Weir Perry, the author and Jungian psychiatrist, described the messianic vision. "Almost always within acute psychosis lies a messianic vision of a new world order." This is characterized by a sense of unity, of oneness. "The vision of oneness is expressed in the messianic ideation, along with the recognition that the world is going to be marked by a style of living emphasizing equality and tolerance, harmony and love. This hope is almost universally seen in persons in the acute [psychotic] episode" (Farber, p. 375).
She was a bit mad then but that's precisely the point. Her understanding was impressive. Because unlike me she had not read the mystics. She lived in a tiny town in Northwestern Canada.
Serine's wrote eloquently of her vision, "I was being told to gather earth children, and all that, there was many people around who were in on the conversation, we were speaking telepathically, as they were in different countries, and spread all over North America. I know all this, but I do not know what my role is. Jesus is coming to establish his kingdom, and I think there will be a huge awakening. I think that we will no longer feel pain, and no longer feel any evil thought, or disappointment, we will be able to speak to all things…." The idea of communicating telepathically symbolizes overcoming of barriers (e.g. different languages) to the unity of humanity.
She wrote,"Do you know only 15% of humanity have a roof over their head, food, clothing, and a violence free life? What we should be doing is to free our people from the tragedies of the world. Jesus' victory was partial. He did not defeat Satan on earth." So Satan was not a purely supernatural force. The term "Satan" signified for Serine all those persons and principalities which perpetuated inequality and domination. She did not mention the impending environmental catastrophes though.
Her experiences of the divine constellated complementary experiences of the demonic-these terrified her. The demonic is a reality, otherwise our leaders would not be oblivious to the effects of global warming, of deep oil drilling, of nuclear power. Pulitzer Prize winning former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges writes, "We face a terrible political truth. Those who hold power will not act with the urgency required to protect human life and the ecosystem. Decisions about the fate of the planet . . . are in the hands of moral and intellectual trolls . . . " (Farber, 2012, p.387).
Although there were a few others on TIP forum who told Serine they had similar messianic feelings, most warned her to avoid such feelings — that was what their psychiatrists had warned them to do. I was the only person trying to present her with a messianic perspective that valorized her experiences. But I was on the other side of the continent. She was seeing a psychiatrist to appease her mother. She was still traumatized from her divorce from her husband. She worried that no one would want someone "mentally ill" like her. The mental health system was the only organization offering to help her allay her anxieties. Evidently she succumbed to them. When I talked to her again in 2011, 4 years after our first exchange, she no longer believed in Christ or in God.
I had not fully developed my thesis for the book when I wrote Serine but I had a basic outline: From the ranks of the mad would come those messianic prophets who would be the catalysts for a messianic transformation. The book itself would be half commentary and half interviews. I was encouraged by the birth of the Mad Pride movement with the formation of the Icarus Project in 2004. Mad Pride had a distinctive emphasis that distinguished it from the mental patients' liberation movement formed in 1970 — it changed its name in the 1980s to "psychiatric survivors' movement."
By 2007 I had become discouraged by the direction of the psychiatric survivors' movement — Bush was starting wars, jingoism was at its height and global warming kept getting worse. MindFreedom — the largest psychiatric survivors organization in the US — had become focused on battling the psychiatric system — a battle that it could not win once the American Psychiatric Association had merged with the pharmaceutical industry, a process that was irreversible by the 1990s. I was frustrated because the mad were so spiritual, yet the movement itself was thoroughly secular. Furthermore, although I agreed with Mind Freedom's critique of biopsychiatry and the destructiveness of psychiatric drugs, its website did not encourage creativity let alone the spirituality of its members.
I had just belatedly discovered The Icarus Project ("TIP," as it was called) and was inspired. At this point TIP was new but it was in the bloom of its original inspiration. Although I disagreed with Sascha DuBrul's praise of psychiatric drugs, I thought he would grow beyond that. All in all Mind Freedom and TIP complemented each other. The weaknesses of one were the strengths of the other, and vice versa. TIP's Mission statement written by its two co-founders, Sascha DuBrul and Ashley McNamara, was excellent: "We are a website community, a support network of local and campus groups . . . created by and for people living with dangerous gifts that are commonly diagnosed and labeled as mental illnesses'. We believe we have mad gifts to be cultivated and taken care of, rather than diseases or disorders to be suppressed or eliminated. By joining together as individuals and as a community, the intertwined threads of madness, creativity, and collaboration can inspire hope and transformation in an oppressive and damaged world." Note the beautiful messianic sentiment: Because of their "mad gifts" the mad could inspire transformation in the world.
Ashley (now "Jacks") McNamara wrote brilliant essays blending social criticism and mysticism — most importantly she repeatedly suggested that madness was redemptive. By the time I completed my book it conveyed the genius and limits of both movements — the psychiatric survivors' movement and the Mad Pride movement. And I argued for my own messianic-redemptive perspective. The book included an interview with Sascha Dubrul, and David Oaks who had been active in the mental patients' liberation movement since his breakdowns in Harvard in the late 1970s and was the founder and leader of the largest psychiatric suurvivors' rights movement in the world (MindFreedom International), an organization he built up from scratch.
But after my book was out I became disillusioned again. TIP had changed. Sascha had an unexpected crisis — after that he abandoned the "mad gifts" theme and he repudiated messianic change. TIP had become less poetic. Sascha said Mad Pride should be about "healing." We debated this in my book. I said healing oneself was not a grand enough goal to inspire people.
I stated in the book: "The messianic consciousness typically appears spontaneously in the experience of madness. But so far it has not been fully and consciously affirmed as a foundation for any Mad Pride organization." That's a tragedy. If we were living in other times, it would not matter but we were living in what could be the last decades for humanity on earth. Now is the time to rouse the messianic dreams buried in the depths of the psyche in the service of salvation, of the great leap forward. Paul Levy is an author, philosopher, spiritual educator, public speaker and former mental patient. He was one of the six former patients I interviewed. Like me he wants to change the Zeitgeist. He is a powerful catalyst of messianic transformation.
He wrote, "Catastrophe can only be avoided if enough people wake up to what is being revealed to us as we act out the unconscious destructively, and then connect and cooperate with each other in new ways so as to creatively de-activate, assimilate, and transform the potentially deleterious effects of the activated daemon" (Levy, Dispelling Wetiko, Ch.11, "Archetypal Psycho-History").
The future rushing towards us requires that we face the catastrophic and the messianic. But the advent of the catastrophic means we can no longer delay making a choice. The future is like Schrodinger's cat — we don't know yet if the future will manifest the reality of paradise or the reality of the destruction of the species. "The present-day manifestation of the daemonic is an archetypal expression of the potentially catastrophic upheavals that accompany the great transitions from one age to the next. As thinking, reflective, conscious human beings, we can no longer deny the dark stirrings of the unconscious as it plays itself out ever more conspicuously on the world stage" (Ibid).
Levy knows that the solution must be spiritual and political, "This is an historic time, a time when the gods of the unconscious are transforming. We are living in a time that the Greeks called the Kairos-the right moment-for a metamorphosis of the gods,' that is, a transformation in and of the collective unconscious itself. The peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is that the timeless unconscious within us is transforming itself in unprecedented, dramatic ways. Coming generations, if there are to be any, will undoubtedly appreciate this monumental transformation" (Ibid).
Judged by ordinary standards TIP had made extraordinary progress — not only did they have web forums but they had chapters springing up all over. But these are not ordinary times. We don't know if there will be any "coming generations." TIP was creating an alternative support network for mad people, alternative communities — it offered alternative healing modalities.
But what about its broader goals? What about "mad gifts" enabling mad people to transform the world.? If we cannot save the planet from being destroyed does anything else matter?
In my book I wrote: "I want to see the Mad Pride movement become a catalyst for an epochal spiritual transformation of humanity. I believe the mad need a vast vision and an imposing sense of their own power in order to motivate them to overcome the obstacles that have been placed in their path by Psychiatry, to give them the courage to believe there can be a resolution to the problems of the world that impinge so acutely upon their psyches. …"
In her 1991 book The Loony Bin Trip, Kate Millett astutely asks, "But what if there were something on the other side of crazy, what if across that line there was a certain understanding, a special knowledge? Don't you remember so many times during it, telling yourself, swearing, that you would never forget what you saw and learned, precious enough to justify what you suffered? And didn't I then repudiate every vision — didn't I even disparage the knowledge I had last time, trample it underfoot in my haste to rejoin the sane and the sane-makers, the shrinks and the family" (Farber, p 25)? (Kate wrote the Foreword to my new book.) Kate had put her finger on the problem: Messianism is itself so close to madness, it lies so far beyond the boundaries of consensus reality that even some of the mad prefer to avoid it.
I want Mad Pride to validate the messianic feelings of the mad — I want Mad Pride to affirm its messianic function, its sociobiological contribution to the species. I want it
to empower people like Serine. How can we help people like Serine to hold on to her sense of messianic mission? What else is Mad Pride for? We need an organization that can train people to be messiahs.
I expected to debate my thesis with Mad Pride leaders. But the leaders of the mad movement were not interested, except for Sascha. They did not even review my book. But there are hundreds maybe thousands of mad people out there with messianic aspirations — they contact me when I go on the radio.
Vaclav Havel said in 1991, "Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better and the catastrophe towards which this world is headed will be unavoidable."
I see Mad Pride as a force that will empower and inspire many of the mad (even just a few hundred persons could make a difference) to be catalysts for a new Great Awakening which could be the first major step towards ushering in the Kingdom of heaven on earth, thus saving humanity and our sacred mother earth from destruction.
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Peter Breggin, Toxic Psychiatry (St Martin's Press, 1991).
Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Harper and Row, 1976).
Seth Farber, The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement (Inner Traditions, 2012).
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R D Laing, The Politics of Experience (Pantheon, 1967).
Erwin Laszlo and Jude Currivan, 2008 Cosmos: A CoCreators Guide (Hay House, 2008).
Paul Levy, The Madness of George W. Bush (AuthorHouse, 2006).
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Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic (Crown Pubishers, 2010).
Image by peter2012, courtesy of Creative Commons license.