On Listening to Schizophrenia
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
From: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798
I have written elsewhere on the subject of listening to those afflicted with mental illness, especially to those diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizo-affective disorder without the assumption that they do not or cannot make sense. In his own account of his psychosis, treatment, and recovery, John Perceval, an English gentleman who became psychotic in 1830 puts the case more clearly than I can:
“When my brother [Spencer] first appeared at my bedside, “I have hopes how,” said I, “I shall be understood and respected;” for he had written to me that he believed in the reported miracles at Row. When, however, I first told him, “I am desired to say so and so,” “I am desired to do this, or that” — he replied to me, in an ill-judged tone of levity, and as if speaking to a child; ridiculing the idea. My hopes of being comprehended were blighted, and my heart turned from him.”
“Had my brother but said to himself, “there is something strange here; I will try to understand it” — had he but pretended to give credit to what I said, and reasoned with me on the matter revealed to me, acknowledging the possibility, but denying or questioning the divine nature of my inspirations; I should, perhaps, have been soon rescued from my dreadful situation, and saved from ruin; but it was no so.”
From: Perceval’s Narrative: A patient’s account of his psychosis, 1830-1832 Paperback – 1974 by John Perceval (Author), Gregory Bateson (Editor)
That need to be understood, or at least for someone to be willing to listen and to try to understand is universal. Someone in the throes of psychosis, or depression, or anxiety, or flashback of PTSD, or mania is no different. Another thing which Mr. Perceval makes clear in his account in his very detailed telling of his hallucinations and delusions, and how he was dealt with by others, is that he remembered all of it. I think that too often when someone is seen as not making sense, it is assumed they will not remember when they are in some less disturbed frame of mind. He shows us that it ain’t necessarily so.
He has little good to say about the “lunatic doctors” who tried to treat him. From his pen that term seems to carry more than one meaning.
I have found among the various blogs and posts very few writers from the lands of schizophrenia and schizo-affective. From knowing those I worked with who had these labels, I can see how that would be very difficult for many. But, I hope that more of those who can, even with help, even poorly will try. We, who have been fortunate enough not to have experienced such states of mind can only do no more than guess (often badly) what it is if the stories are not told. If a first draft comes out like what is popularly called a “psychotogram,” that’s ok. You can edit and rework it if need be. If it comes as poetry, or with drawings (like a graphic novel, perhaps), or a vlog, that’s great. There are eyes ready to read and ears ready to hear.
And to those who know such folk as family, friends, peers, and care givers, listen. If you don’t understand, still do not dismiss. However strange the story, see the person before the “disease.” They really are there.
Since first posting this I’ve realized that the end of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is also significant in this context:
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
So, he who has heard the Mariner’s tale is also changed. We are not told what he has learned or what he makes of it, but changed he is. We are told only that he is wiser. In the end, this is why such tales as Percival’s need to be told and heard, that both the teller and the hearer may find wisdom and, in the Mariner’s words, “loveth well.”
Bob is a retired mental health professional, having worked in SMI Case Management, Crisis Services, and Substance Abuse/Addiction Treatment. He retired in 2006 to become the primary care giver for his father who then was then beginning to suffer from dementia until his father died in late 2013. Prior to getting into mental health work he held many different jobs including cab driver, toy maker, welfare case worker, and others. He is an Army veteran of the Vietnam conflict. Looking back on his 70 years he quotes a line from a song,”What a long, strange trip its been.” Looking forward, from another poet, “Where to? What next?”
Robert can be found on Facebook.
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