I am convinced that amazing growth can occur when mad people come together and share their mad experiences in a safe and inclusive arena. Over the past eight years, I have led group therapy and trainings that go towards mad experience to explore it further. I have found that in listening to very unique mad stories that cultural themes start to emerge from vastly different kinds of experience. If each kind of mad experience is like a letter in the alphabet, put them together in vastly different lives and the likeliness of unique experience becomes immense. But helping people identify mad experiences and cultural themes in themselves and in others has led me to conclude that in reality we belong to an oppressed culture.
Once participants in groups that I have led learn that they belong to what I suggest is a culture, they start to look at their own stories in a new light. The level of trauma decreases and the flexibility and social functioning increases. In effect, I am convinced that learning more about other peoples’ mad experience and cultural themes in general has many positive effects.
Creating Safety and Inclusion in a Group:
For years I operated groups without delving into the details of madness. I concealed my own mad experiences, reasoning that I was not in a safe climate. I had a paycheck to earn. However, once I became licensed, I was introduced to WRAP. I started to take the necessary risks and found not only that there was a whole world of good that I had been missing out on. I was wrong about the safety issues in the group. I found the experience of defining madness with the mad to be inherently safe, but have developed and documented my own style of keeping things safe.
In general, when one person takes a risk, especially the leader, others follow suit. Often the rhythm and disclosure in the group increases the level of safety. Newcomers may need time to listen, but often once they have heard enough, the floodgates open and the story emerges.
Even when upsetting things happen and the stakes of re-traumatization are high, I find that people are so committed to the opportunity to share their story, that safety can be restored easily. To keep the group safe I have developed a few ethics that are indicative of my leadership style that help reinforce and move the group through its stuck points.
Firstly, I set the expectation bar high in terms of what the group can handle. I remind group members that I cannot protect them from life and death circumstances that messages bring. I remind them that they may have faced immense trauma just to make it into group.
Secondly, I let group know that risk takers need to be honored. I teach a little about the pain associated with trauma and emphasize that if a group member is traumatized the group need to maintain a positive perspective on the suffering endured, that it can lead to healing. Encouraging others to talk about it if they feel re-traumatized also helps.
Thirdly, I try to teach the importance of inclusivity through words and deeds. I think that many times mad people will put forth a high level of testing that requires a high level of patience. While I encourage a group to talk about oversharing and am known to try to prompt others occasionally, I honor testing and use the subjects I initiate and my personal experiences to past trust tests. I find that once people trust better, they can bring a lot to the group.
I do believe other types of leaders can manage safety in other kinds of ways. Some of these simple techniques to restore safety, may certainly be handled in different ways by different characters. But I think group members need to be aided in understanding the leaders’ character and the ways she or he will address issues of trauma and inclusion.
Replacing the Double Bind with No-Way-Out-But-Win Circumstances:
When people openly share experiences with madness they learn both ways they are similar and ways they are different than others. I’d argue that in a well-tended group that both realizations can lead to growth with winning results. In contrast, I would suggest that the frequent interaction with others who judge, abuse and have an agenda of changing mad culture tends to result in no-way-out-but-lose situations. The double bind occurs when people are asked to change things that they cannot possibly change. It happens when they are told that things that they must accept and learn from are unacceptable.
I start out with a reconstructed model of what “psychosis” is. I have collected eight universal experiential elements that message receivers can relate to as a means of defining our culture. The first universal experience I suggest that we all have is the special message: roughly twenty six ways of getting information that trigger our alternate realities. Once special messages are received, there are seven other types of cultural experiences that mad people can relate to. Participants can’t help but see that they do in fact belong to something larger than them. They gain a sense of validation. At the same time, when individuals realize that they don’t experience every element of mad culture that others struggle in ways they don’t, it doesn’t tend to make them start to suffer more. I have not observed madness catch in this way. In contrast it helps them realize some of their strengths and get perspective on their own experiences.
Speaking for myself, as I have heard the experiences of other mad people I don’t necessarily think they are right about all the conclusions they are jumping to, yet I can relate. For example, when I learn about voices, visions, and tactile experiences—things I didn’t realize I was potentially experiencing—and the conclusion that people jump to about their meaning, I relate to central themes of what is being experienced. I think back to what happened to me and I think that some of those traumatic hard to believe coincidences suddenly might be explained in new ways. Maybe some of those distressing message I was receiving that told me the mafia was following me were visuals or voice illusions, not reality. Maybe I wasn’t really being poisoned by laxative powder, maybe I was being struck by a tactile hallucination that caused me to have diarrhea. Moreover when I realize others have gone through what I went through and worse, it removes layers of trauma, not enhances it.
Thus, differences make people rethink their own experiences just like similarities make them realize that they are not alone. I believe that learning more instead of less about who we are as a culture is a win-win in this manner. When I become aware that someone that I think is delusional, is judging my experience as being delusional it is vastly different than when I am confronted by someone who thinks I am ill. When I find from that same person that we share other things in common it validates and bonds us together and has a natural tendency to make me check myself a little more.
What follows is a made up version of a phenomena that I have repeatedly witnessed. A mad subject is unwilling to share in group and eventually becomes trusting enough to admit that they believe others in the group may be working as a spy against them for a government agency. I ask the group if we have any spies amongst us and sure enough a peer identifies themselves as a high level but unpaid operative. The situation is discussed and information about the persons experience as a spy is laid out. Their view of the organization of law enforcement is laid out. This ends up helping the mad subject realize that they are not the only person who is dealing with these spy issues. Suddenly they realize they are not alone and they feel validated and reflective. Instead of feeling less safe because there is in fact a spy in the room, they feel an amazing sense of relief and are willing to talk about themselves.
What it would be like if Mad People were Truly Working Together:
I’d argue that sharing mad experiences adds dimensions of wellness even to those of us who are functioning and even to those who are leaders of the movement. Healing in community and becoming more aware of mad diversity can help people work together and share. It can help those of us who are doing better reach out and help those who are still struggling. Much as often happens in twelve step communities, there can be a sense of paths toward social rehab that can be reinforced through less formal networks.
In addition, redefining or reconstructing eight common elements of “psychosis” across diagnostic categories, I have created eight different coping skills that mad people tend to utilize to enhance their functioning, that can guide them towards social rehabilitation. Most mad people can relate to these solutions and better realize when they are engaging in unrecognized solutions. Learning that others are unrecognized and may have (to a certain extent) given up as a result of being unrecognized is a great way to get m receivers recognize each other better and make new commitments to each other. I find most mad are craving a sense of culture and a sense of belonging. At the same time they may not want to admit they belong to a mad culture. This is where a creative and (perhaps) a humorous facilitator is needed.
Learning that one belongs to mad culture ultimately enhances insight so that people can distinguish mad from “normal” culture. It gives people an ability to drop in and adapt to mad culture for a little while to help out and leave with a stronger sense of self and more of a willingness to function in differing communities (like work) that can financially sustain them. Increasingly it is diversity and adaptability skills that are most important in many work settings and what better place to learn them than through really getting in there and studying the diversity that rests within the mad community.