Validating Psychosis: The Missing Narrative

This essay is written by Audrey Dimola and was originally published on Mad in America on August 13, 2020 and can be accessed here.

“If you bring forth that which is within you, then that which is within you will be your salvation. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, then that which is within you will destroy you.” – The Gnostic Gospels

Rain is beginning to fall softly outside my second-floor window – a sound like the ocean, which I haven’t seen in months. I live alone as a “mentally ill” person during this pandemic, and more than any other time in my life, literally – I am okay. I am so, so, so fucking okay.

I am lucky to be alive. But in fact, luck had absolutely nothing to do with it. I had a choice, and I made that choice – in accordance with the Truth of my Spirit. A choice that, for some, was paradoxically more dangerous than accepting the narrative of my genetically inherited broken brain, and taking the pill.

I am not anti-medication. I am anti-lack of choices. Lack of options, alternatives, education. I am anti-lack of self-trust and self-worth. I am anti- “the experts always know better, and this is why.”

The rain is gathering strength. It sounds beautiful from up here, the chill in the wind slipping through my cracked window. I have this feeling like, There are people who would want to stop the rain. Because it’s inconvenient. Because it interrupts our errands or our commutes or our plans. Because it makes us gloomy, it makes us cold and wet. But what about standing in it? Feeling it? Being with it? Knowing that even as a storm begins to rage there is nourishment that is sinking down into the dark earth. There is purpose. There is a cycle. A Necessity and a Rhythm of Nature.

I learned a beautiful Buddhist phrase when I was in undergrad, Pratityasamutpada, which can be translated as “interdependent co-arising.” Why is this inherent interrelatedness of the earth and its creatures, cycles, processes not applied to the realm of mental health and its narratives? Why, as in myth, or more specifically in The Hero’s Journey, are we not presented the possibility that there is an overworld and an underworld and that BOTH are necessary? Why are we striving only for the sunniest days? What about the rain?

I would actually be dead without the storms of my psyche. Without the wind and the sound of the sea falling heavy from the sky. The protective greenery that has grown up around me, lush and verdant, smelling rich of humus and fecundity, would not exist without acceptance of what was arising within me. Standing in the rain. No umbrella. No cover. Just the feeding of that which needed to be fed.

Thunder rumbles low in the distance. Just like at the beginning of the Story. My Story. The one that Saved My Life. On a day just like this, I found my Self standing on a bridge. There was a light wolf and a dark wolf, and I understood this Legend as if it rolled out from my own blood– because it did.

There was a Law I was circumscribed to. I had walked with the white wolf for a while – in the topside world, the overworld, in the light. But now the black wolf had arrived to escort me into the underworld. Into the darkness. Not because I was mentally ill. But because there was information meant for me to receive.

On the internet right now, “psychosis” is described as follows:

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): “Disruptions to a person’s thoughts and perceptions that make it difficult for them to recognize what is real and what isn’t. These disruptions are often experienced as seeing, hearing, and believing things that aren’t real.”

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): “A person’s thoughts and perceptions are disturbed and the individual may have difficulty understanding what is real and what is not.”

Good ol’ WebMD: “It causes you to lose touch with reality. You might see, hear, or believe things that aren’t real.”

And of course, the Oxford English Dictionary: “A severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality.”

Psychosis is a side-effect of my own 2018 diagnosis, Bipolar II. It was the diagnosis my immigrant Southern Italian paternal grandmother received in the 1970s in America when no one could make sense of her manic swings and erratic behavior. And it was what they eventually settled on for my beloved father – the strongest man I knew and our sole provider – whom I powerlessly watched as he soared and plummeted in the grips of rage, fear, and deep, blank, despairing sorrow. He was unjustly fired from the high-stress job he’d stoically held for over a decade because of this perceived sudden descent of mental illness. Because he was the one sibling out of six who was just like their mother – dealt the tragic card of a “broken brain.”

At 31 years old, my own behavior presented perfectly as “Bipolar,” and furthermore it fit snugly into the familial narrative. Right? So instead of charging up my new credit card with bottles of wine and then jumping off the Triboro Bridge, I went to a psychiatrist. I went because the swings were becoming increasingly rapid. Because I would sit at my desk at work and try so desperately “TO APPEAR NORMAL,” while the lightning crackled merciless on the inside and I couldn’t string sentences together. Because I didn’t have weeks or months of respite – I had hours. Moments.

Yet even as I was analyzed and categorized – precious attention was not pointed to the path that led me there. No one looked at the trauma. Just like I’m sure no one looked at the trauma inside my similarly diagnosed family members. Perhaps my grandmother knew. She’s long dead now, but they told me she used to throw her meds behind the couch. They found the pills only after she was gone. Maybe she knew, in her own way. What was being forced upon her.

Bipolar II is an adaptive and completely logical result, for me, of nearly two decades of nearly non-stop interpersonal trauma – beginning with betrayal and an abortion at 18 and extending into years of multiplicitous co-dependency, marred by compulsive lying to partners, calling off an engagement, having no permanent housing since I left my childhood home, keeping complicated ex-boyfriends as my closest friends and saviors, and an obsessive relationship with a hard-drug addict I was determined to save. This is not even considering childhood family dynamics, a learned absence of healthy boundaries, the hypervigilant states that were internalized as my norm, and the natural coping mechanisms that developed as a result. I hadn’t been guided to embrace the realities of my own experience without rigorously blaming MYSELF for everything that had happened. In my own eyes, it was simple. I was a pathetic, stone-cold love junkie; a horrible daughter, girlfriend, and employee; a hurricane of a person: insane, destructive, maladjusted, destined for… exactly the constant chaos that was transpiring.

Despite traversing this mental health landscape since 2015 and being diagnosed with  Bipolar II in 2018, I wasn’t introduced to the idea of Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) until literally earlier this year– thanks to a comment thread in an Icarus Project-affiliated Facebook group. I was still asking about “rapid cycling bipolar” but was instead directed to take a loving and honest look at my own trauma history. When I read those words, I had instant affirmation. PTSD is not something reserved exclusively for war vets or sexual assault survivors. Trauma is trauma, and years of uninterrupted trauma will– quite naturally, yes– pitch you into the internal saving graces found in altered states.

Alarm bells rang out in my head and my body and I began to recontextualize my mental storms. I can’t blame myself for the rain, for the downpour – it’s just happening – but I DO need to decide how I interact with it. And that is my choice. The trauma is not my fault, but healing it is MY responsibility.

We have an aversion in our society to taking responsibility for what is ours. We have been trained by big pharma and big biz and mass media to look outside of ourselves for help. To drastically self-doubt our own contexts and narratives. To need the experts. To “other” and be “othered.” To be devastatingly and paralyzingly afraid – often, of our own Selves.

I am here today because I didn’t take the psychotropic medication I was prescribed. Because I didn’t accept someone else’s narrative about MY story. Because I listened to my voices. Because I let them guide me – into the underworld, and back. Into the underworld, and back. I now have a family that extends beyond blood to a powerful and spiritual inheritance, a family of plants and animals: stones and trees and deer and birds, but also many beings I cannot see with my naked eye.

The clear droplets of rain are clinging to my window-screen, slowly slinking down the pane. In faded green marker there is written on the glass: WHATEVER IT IS, YOU CAN DO IT. We can’t see the underground roots that the rain is nourishing. Who are we to say that they aren’t there? And who are we to assume what can or can’t grow up from the vital darkness of that fertile place?

NYC native Audrey Dimola is a Bearer of Legend exploring myth, mental health, and the ecologies of spirit through earth-based healing modalities, multidisciplinary art, and deep (re)connection to land, community, and more-than-human kin. Her latest books are Wildlight and The Book of Legend.

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