I have a friend who has been struggling some with mental anomalies recently. She was subjected as a child to electro-shock therapy and because of that and other physical and emotional struggles, she is a much more complex puzzle than a simple diagnostic criteria in a DSRM would cover. She recently discovered a trigger to a negative spiral, but the spiral itself manifested in such technicolor strangeness that she has been searching for more specific answers than the baffling array of "we know not why" that the mental health community can tell her.
The episode that made her ask these questions included what appear to be part post traumatic stress disorder flashback to negative trauma and part electrical and/or biochemical anomalies, maybe bipolar, possibly schizophrenic, possibly dissociative. The pain, fear, loss of concrete time placement, etc caused her to try to place the phenomenon in some concrete description that could tell her how to proceed with this if it should ever accidentally be triggered again.
Because of the electric shock treatments, it is hard to say what is possible disorder, what is possible side effect of the earlier treatment, what is religious experience, what is hallucination or something else entirely for her. It is hard to say what is disorder, what is side effect, if the difference matters, or how that would affect what should be treated necessarily. So only hunches are available, based on larger context, and she had been hoping for something more directed than "Well, it could be a lot of things."
My experience, though, personally and in other people who struggled with PTSD and panic attacks is that the panic becomes the manifestation of the scariest things a person has experienced up to that point. The body can, sometimes without even summoning the mental pictures or memories, relive trauma and pain and torture and abuse even if the head experiences only white noise on a conscious level. The brain can feel pain in long severed limbs, respond to past tortures, etc, all without knowledge or consent of the conscious mind. Some people have a panic attack and it involves their father dying again or them being fired as the trauma they relive because that is really the worst they know. Some of us end up reliving the crying hours of terror and pain and helplessness that are our worst memories, often without even knowing that it is a flash back exactly, because we get only muscle memories and the overwhelming fear or pain without anything concrete of its referent in our past.
There was also an element of broken time and reality data that cannot logically co-exist with the reality in which most of us spend our time, but still the visions or experiences or hallucinations were there. She was struggling to understand if it was psychotic, mystical, dissociative, memory, or some combination of things. Neurological evaluation data in the past had turned up just as confusing and multi-faceted and variable as the overlapping issues that fed the episode were. And doctors scratching their heads do not really help much with understanding of self while your self identity is in a potentially crisis state. If anything their lack of any clear answer can fuel the expansion of the struggle.
All of this is background to understanding how I came to the questions in the subtext of her struggle: How can I know if I am insane and if so, in what way? How can I process that which is impossible and reconcile it with that which appears to be when both seem real to me? How do I know what to work on in myself if no one can even quantify what is wrong?
What began as a medical question evolved into a spiritual and metaphysical one as well. The following reflects my perspective on an answer to such a conundrum.
One possible explanation of some of the alternate reality information would be schizophrenia, but my feel for the person and my previous reading about post electro-shock therapy struggles tells me that doesn't feel accurate or, at least, complete. It fits a clinical definition. But it also fits a description of the fragmentation and inaccurate memory struggles that can be a direct result of the electro-shock treatments. Parts of the experience could also reflect bipolar disorder, but again, it feels more like relived trauma and distress with other causes.
If we go on the assumption that part of the experience was a schizophrenia-like episode, we can look a little bit at schizophrenia and what it can teach. In my reading on the subject, there are two super-classes of schizophrenics: people whose lives are significantly negatively affected to the point of dysfunction in normal activity, and functional schizophrenics, which are people who experience things that appear inconsistent with the experiences of those around them, at least some of the time, but who can tell the difference between that inner world and the outer one they share with others, or who have found some functional channel for directing those phenomena in some way that allows the struggle to stay out of their way in the day to day living of their lives.
The first group of schizophrenics generally require treatment to be at all normally functional, hold down day jobs, feed themselves, not be afraid of everyone around them, not amputate limbs in fits of panic where they aren't in control enough to seek medical care from bleeding wounds, etc. They are the people you hear about who range from those extremes to just people who are unable to swap into "normal space" when they need to and thus don't get out of the street when traffic is coming.
The second group can have any of the manifestations of hallucinations, paranoia, visions, time dissonance, etc, but they have found some way to differentiate, control, or dissociate themselves from those things which don't mesh well with taking care of themselves, so that they can allow for both inside their reality without putting themselves at significant risk.
Within the realm of those who are functional but experience schizophrenic data, it has largely only been our fairly modern culture and in the last couple hundred years or so that schizophrenic phenomena has been treated as a disease. And even then, like the majority of what you find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Reference Manual for Mental Health providers, the diagnostic criteria are a set of symptoms with unknown causes. Most have multiple causes in all likelihood. And if we look at the history of such attempts to treat mental illness, all of the disorders that have really been successfully completely treated could be traced to a biologically consistent cause which, once they understood it, moved the "disorder" out of the realm of mental health professionals and into the realm of traditional medical treatments. So it is extremely likely that there are biological causes for all of the things treated as mental illness, and it's just that we don't understand the patterns or combinations of patterns that lead to those problems and are thus busy trying to treat and minimize the symptoms to control what we do not understand.
But also in history we find that many of the greatest minds of the human species suffered "mental illnesses" of one kind or another ranging from voices to visions to ADD like behaviors. Most of the major religions of the world both living and dead hold accounts of visionaries and seekers and hallucinations that range from giant women of spider webs to dogs of the underworld to jaguars functioning as the hand of god, to benevolent men in the sky.
We have no real scientific reason to differentiate those experiences from what we call schizophrenia. As a culture we treat Paul's writing differently than a multi-armed elephant nosed god or a coyote who brings chaos and truth because we find the former more culturally familiar, but at its core, Paul said that his writings came to him in a waking dream, a message from "God". They, really are only different in the magnitude of the buy in to the mythology within our culture. At their roots they are all schizophrenic experience by any straight forward definition of it. So whether it is taken as a disease or a rare gift or many other things seems to vary a great deal based on a combination of cultural patterns, charisma of the "see-er" and the extent to which there is a place within the culture for those people who make no sense on this plane but by their difference can often illuminate that which we cannot see about ourselves.
As a concrete example, Picasso is considered a genius even in our culture, but his expression of that genius depended on the prolonged exposure to heavy metals that caused neurological deterioration to the point of hallucinations of color. He was literally painting what he saw by the end of his lifetime. His genius was in his own different experience and the capacity for expression thereof. Mozart talked of being haunted by madness.
From my religious studies perspective, I feel that schizophrenic experience is, in a sense, what you make of it, and causally not yet understood. It can be something we believe to be a curse, which will curse us because of our belief in that fate, or it can be an opportunity to think outside the bounds and constraints of known physics and scientific law and time, which you can choose to think of as a gift that allows you to reframe the existence you return to and share with those around you more able to offer insight into the blindness we suffer from having our feet bound in the concrete of this reality.
Having known traditional schizophrenics, I have found that the emotions that shape your normal life will also shape your alternate realities. This is true whether you can sometimes predict the future, or whether you are afraid of rain drenching you in your bed. This is true even in people who induce hallucinogenic states. The more negative the center of your being is, the more negative the hallucinations, the less consistent the predictions of reality, the more likely you will have a very bad and terrifying acid trip. In all those altered states the one thing that remains true in my experience is that it is what you bring to it emotionally.
The more that you can find balance inside yourself, the more reflective and helpful the altered state can be. The more you swing to either extreme, the more pain will eventually result from the altered state. That is true even if you only take intense optimism and joy to that place, in my experience, because the visions will then be a function of only the best in you or those around you, and it will reinforce blindness to other things which usually return to haunt us in the faces of our own children having the abortion we picket aren't necessary every day, our own kids being gay when we believe the best in people could choose not to be.
The thing I return to again and again in my reading about other cultures religions, myths and fairy tales is the idea that what we are questing for is not utopia or heaven in the sense that most people understand those words. It is not streets paved with gold and singing angels. It is true balance, true center, an unflappable seeing of all things, being able to find both the sorrow and the joy in each instance, each new place or object or thing.
If we could truly understand all of the Zen emotions about every moment of every day, we would find in every instant the potential of the universe and the perfection of all things at their point of balance at the center of all human emotional and intellectual creation. Instead we often cloud the potential with only one explanation above all others.
We are different as humans, from most other species, even from other primates who should by scientific analysis, be a subspecies to the same species we share, in the fact that we have evolved a genetic capacity for belief without evidence or proof. And that is part of what has helped us evolve to where we are today.
Belief, at its core, is an act of creation. It is a construction of that which comforts or explains us. Belief is the manifestation of what happens when a being develops the capacity to occupy the mythology of a god to some being further behind us in the struggle. Belief creates, generates something in the void of nothing. Creation is the extension of that which we physically experience to all other aspects of our existence. It is the application of our capacity to create life to all that lives beyond the physical. Belief allows creation in the world of science and religion. Belief creates emotion and reality where none existed before. It is the taking of concepts like object permanence and applying them to emotion and invention and perception and fact.
We can create our own euphoria wrapped around the unfounded visions of our choice. We can create outside the bounds of any current seemingly probable state. That distinguishes us from any animal we have been able to measure, but in so doing, it sets us adrift on a sea of infinite reality and equally infinite un-reality. We can create emotionally and intellectually, so both live without any grounding. There is no ruler to which we can accurately compare, only things which can weigh in on many sides. We cannot specify only one term in an equation, only attempt to keep the sides of that equation remotely in balance with one another. Our intellect can no longer guide us by itself, because it has been over clocked to the point that it can create that which it desires, justify that which it chooses for other non-intellectual reasons. And that leaves us with emotions as the intellect's counter balance. But emotion, too, is without boundaries in the human species. Emotion can be created and justified and manipulated just as intellect can.
With that gift, that evolution, we gave ourselves a loaded gun which most species seem not to be burdened with at this stage. That loaded gun can be used to progress our intellectual, emotional and physical evolution or to retard it by singular emphasis on only one aspect of our evolution, depending on each of us and how we use it. Like all weapons "creation" can be used to further our own defeat or our own survival.
The question lies in what we choose to do with that loaded gun. The more we allow only one aspect of the balanced creation capable self, the more we point that loaded gun at our own knee caps. The more we try to take in all that is and can be, really understand it to the best of our ability and create space in ourselves for its possibility and impossibility of it, the more educated and balanced our choices can be.
We, each of us, are mathematically impossible, at yet we are here. In that fact, exists the key. Since we exist beyond the bounds of impossibility and statistics; since we occupy some form real or imagined, we exist somehow between that which is possible and that which is impossible. We bridge that gulf as the only known being able to face the conflict of both existing and our existence being impossible. We are the only being capable of finding peace with contradictions which must continue. We are the only species capable of suspension of disbelief as a deliberate act of allowance of balance and reconciliation of conflicting impossibilities. We are the only species so far as we know, who can say "Clearly I do not yet know all things and must live on in the face of impossible contradictions for a day when missing pieces fall together within our greater species puzzle." We are the only species we know of who can live every day with _not_ knowing as a deliberate act of balance and allowance for all things and nothing.
It could be said that each of us are here on a quest to reconcile the possible with the impossible inside ourselves, to learn to live without those structures or extremes. To find peace with both our impossibility and our existence. We are the key that unlocks one to the other and must coexist inside that which cannot coexist, which drives us forward to understand more and more, to reconcile the impossible conflict knowing we may not live to see the payoff, but our capacity toward balance will allow others to further the research long after we are gone. We must balance our existence, our emotions, our intellect, our place here inside and outside of time.
In balance and utter unflinching honesty to all possibility coexisting with all impossibility; to the sorrow and the joy that lives in all things because we can create it in all things, bring it to all things, we stand a chance of really being able to see the crossroads we are at every day and chose based on knowledge and learning about the gun we hold instead of fear or faulty fact or blindness.
The price for the gift is the constant desire for the answer. The cost is the burden of living with the need to know. The cost is in knowing that no matter how strong our need for certainty, knowledge, calm, security, we may well die without an answer or with many impossibly conflicting answers we cannot select between. We as a species must respect that price and remember that we will pay that price somewhere along the line no matter how we delude ourselves. Somewhere, somehow, we will always face another impossibility which tests our balance, tries to comfort us with it's protectiveness or love. Somewhere there will always be individual answers in a world where no answer is truly determinable. Those answers will woo us, whisper to us in our sleep, tell us that they are the one true way and that we can stop searching, stop facing each day knowing we may never know.
We wish that somehow the problem or the solution could be bounded, that someone would give us the terms to solve for so that we can reduce it all to the mathematical, scientific, or spiritual equivalent of solvable algebra. We desire that solution because the desire allows us to continue on our quest, but while we need that drive, it also leaves us with lives unsatisfied by consistently shifting data and constantly changing "solutions". We need that need to know if we are to continue to develop the best within us, but we must remain forever watchful for that which allows for comforting retreat from our needs to seek. We must cultivate our capacity to function inside the maybes rather than retreating to the comfort of any single inconclusive answer to our capacity for "Why?"
We want someone to tell us which is true and which is false. But in the end, in the final end of all things and all people, all is true and all is false. True and false are human applications of value which exist outside of what is, when and why. True and False are our attempts to limit the equation or at least the solution, to understand terms beyond our capacity to truly comprehend in this here and now. The problem is not bounded for those who can create with every tool given them, every aspect of themselves. The answer is not bounded for those who can destroy with every tool given them, every aspect of themselves. There is only the ever-expanding equation of understanding and the need to understand as much as possible in all directions about any tool in our arsenal so that we might not blind ourselves into traps that will destroy us and make room for something else to step up to the plate to try.
So the answer to the questions; "Am I crazy or sane? Am I having schizophrenic hallucinations or religious epiphanies? Am I suffering flashbacks or receiving glimpses of alternate worlds?" And on and on, is "Yes." In my understanding of our purpose here, our quest in this space, what matters is that you learn to balance in the chaos, seek without finding, live without certainty and be comforted by that capacity rather than false prophets and magical answers. Inside yourself you contain all that is negative and positive in our potential, all the paths forward as well as all the traps, all the reasons we have earned our position and continued evolution as well as all the reasons we must fall away and die to allow those more fit their turn.
What is important is that you learn to listen for the truth in all answers and their arguments and learn to withdraw from any particular extreme by being able to contain the contradiction of all the possible extremes so that you control that understanding instead of one particular extreme controlling you. There are medical professionals who would say that visions are clearly a mental disorder. There are people who would tell you that it is a sign of your shortcomings, failures, problems and other justifications for their abuses of you. But there are also those who believe they are your gift from a higher being, those who believe they are the indication of your evolutionary advances, those who would call you prophet. And there are contexts where it would simply be considered chaotic necessity to show truth to those around you like the legends of Coyote.
The best illumination I can offer is to find all those things in it and more, to seek the partial truths, the maybes and the I don't knows. My advice is to learn to control it while letting it be inside you by forcing greater knowledge and perspective into the space with it so that no one direction can consume you, lull you, answer you too completely. Fighting it directly brings the negativity of the fight to it. Fighting the experiences gives the experience the weapon of fighting to use on you. Expanding it and offering it perspective steals its individual power and leaves it balanced and neutral, allowing your continued questioning and continued innovation of yourself and the world around you. Think of it as "me" instead of broken or not, religious or not. Think of it with kindness, joy, love and also respect for its deadly capacity to destroy.
We tell ourselves it must be one or the other, but that is us fighting ourselves, wrangling with our need to know and our incapacity to ever really know. contradictions and maybes can be allowed to be, and just understood as part of what and who we are, a gift that allows us to bridge between impossibility and observation and desire. It can remain a quest for information and evidence and growth instead of a fixation on singular incomplete answers.
When those around you hold up a ruler by which to judge disorder or genius, you can keep your perspective on the fact that that ruler is made up of nothing more sturdy than belief, pattern matching and group buy-in. Because we know the earth is flat, does not make it so. But knowing it is flat does mean we can measure the heavens by that ruler only to discover that our measurements are based on that which shifts and drifts in the fabric of existence and changes with our explorations and growth.
We can exist in peace inside the knowledge that all that we are and all we observe are the best we've come up with so far in the realms of intellect, emotion, and observation of physical reality to explain what we see, but what we see is just as much a work in progress as we are, and as our intellect, emotions and physicality are as well. There can be peace in accepting that our need to know is our crowning achievement and that which will propel us forward through many inaccuracies, but also many new worlds and experiences and understandings. It is possible to live in peace and balance by accepting that humanity is the conflict between the necessity of knowing all and the limitless changing nature of the knowable. It is possible to find peace in understanding that you are fulfilling your nitch, creating your self and your world to the best of your ability in the space created by having no way to fulfill our need to understand the answer to "why".
And in the end, even then, we can remember "This may still not be true, may still not be right, but it is within the realm of infinite possibility and impossibility and it will do as a balance point for now on my quest for greater growth, to help me stay away from comfortable inaction and solvable terms that might make it easier to stop questing for better."