Employing elements of Bernadette Marie Calafell's critique of autoethnographic reflexivity, this essay describes the difficulties of honoring the “Other” by sharing the experience of psychosis through poetry. I question how to create shared meanings within the realities of major mental illness in critical and phenomenological terms, exploring these perceptions by breaking from narrative into the poetic expression of my idiosyncratic worlds. In doing so, I search for the clearings in Martin Heidegger's forest, embracing a vulnerable reflexivity that invites understanding and compassion: those places where we create shared meanings for each “Other” through our shifting contexts.
In some way, every attempt to communicate subjective lived experience is troubled by the necessity of distilling that experience into language. The end result of this phenomenological distillation (its power, its beauty, its truth) is dependent upon a number of things, not least being the skill of the translator and the nature of the experience translated. Even when the greatest cares are taken to capture and share the dimensions of a particular phenomenon, something inevitably will be lost in the translation, because even a sublime distillation of lived experience is only the essence of that lived experience, standing for the thing-in-itself. The distillation is embodied in discourse and made present, but a part of it remains remote, like the various subtle contexts that an artist uses to bring a composition to life, often unseen, though felt. Ellen F. Fries touches on this: “there is much that is symbolized, in the interplay of body and mind that language may fail to capture.”1 This loss, then, is also because lived experience requires more than the touch of the artist in recreating the details; it requires a desire for the “Other,” a different language, what Bernadette Marie Calafell describes as “a privileging of the body as a way of knowing.”2 We recognize this in some way, I think, and so we cultivate certain practices to honor and protect this lived experience, to access and comprehend it. We strive to be conscious of our positions; of the intersubjective forces that enable the understanding of shared realities; and of our need for reflexivity, intentionally engaging relational meaning in shifting contexts. These strivings empower in a willing body a humility, an accountability to vulnerability.3
I know these things. I believe these things. I practice these things. Yet attempting to communicate certain experiences of my own gives me pause, and leaves me with a strange question: How do I share with you the phenomenon of being absent, of a world apart, a world dismissed, diagnosed, and medicinally deconstructed? How can I be true in the telling of psychotic realities?
This is more than an intellectual query; as I continue to know in my body a rare, severe form of bipolar disorder, I have found attempting to communicate the experience of my condition to be unsettling, often painful, and ridiculously complex. After all, I am trying to share with you a madness, the thought of which is itself ludicrous. Alison Torn notes that, in the analysis of first-person madness narratives, it is questioned “whether selfhood and narrative could be present within incoherence and silence.”4 Dominant discourses frame my experience and person through negation and lack, and I am aware enough to know how much more that complicates my translation, even before I share it.
The language of the discourse itself is no small part of the problem, and feels debasing. It sets me apart, which is somehow fascinating given the source material (a discussion we will share presently). Clinical language is isolating. My person is constructed and expressed around a binary, between the two opposing ends of human affective experience. It is used to define my encounter with the world as deviant, and the specific diagnosis is used give my deviance an identifiable and acceptable pattern. Colloquial language appropriates my experience and identity into everything from a meaningless modifier (“crazy”) to the monster on a disturbing number of TV crime drama episodes. There are others, and they all tend to share a few things, most notably the inability to define things: “normal,” “crazy,” “insane,” “mental,” and “illness.” They also empower the strong and virulent bias against those suffering with lifelong major mental illness. More than bias, it is social disenfranchisement, nearing abjection. Discourse after all is social engagement, a communion. When my voice is not acknowledged as legitimate, then discourse imposes reality on me. Isolation prevents me from co-constructing my own reality: solitary confinement in the prison house of language.
There is a great personal, relational cost in sharing these things. I've experienced that also. But these two things, the desperate want to share and the biases of misunderstanding, drive me to continue the attempt again and again, to communicate these things to other people. I want to translate these private languages into a common tongue. Experiences set us apart, some experiences more so than others. I need to take account of the “Other,” of you, in all this. I want to share this experience so that we can make meaning together, understand one another, and create a more brilliant, colorful world. Despite all the limitations, I believe this is possible, hopefully to great effect.
Where to begin? To try and simplify things, I will use some clinical language, though I find it very problematic. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic-depressive psychosis. Even though it is not in vogue, I find the old moniker appropriate. It is psychosis, no matter which pole you happen to be dancing around. Experience of psychosis is the experience of a private world with its own references, its own contexts and colors, and one that “normal” discourse constructs and views in specific, fearful ways. Psychosis is the discourse of a minority of one. I have moments when all the colors change, the timbre shifts, and the world becomes a tulgey wood. And I have moments when the world splits open, and the intersubjective takes on new meanings. Then I am absent, and my vision is strange; the sound of it drowns out the world we otherwise share.
Those moments when we are aware of absence is actually a perception of absence; an Orthodox priest once wrote that what is divine is never really absent, just present in a different way.5 I understand that. It feels real to me, captures something beyond the experience that the clinical discourses just cannot communicate. It is less an experience and more an identity, an embodied real. When the world splits open, you may perceive me as being absent from what is real, but I am quite present, though perhaps in a context difficult to grasp. For my part, I am living twice at once, or so it would seem. This has been, and remains, the dominant perception in the literature, and is the foundation of the entire twisted discourse. I am divided, fractured. Ian Burkitt and Paul Sullivan, for example, share an excellent conflation of Ronald David Laing and Mikhail Bakhtin in the service of narrative and identity:
When a self becomes divided to the point at which there is no definite form to the self to give it a sense of coherence or continuity—a position from which it can speak with its own unified voice, both to others and to itself in micro-dialogues—then it can become consumed by the double-sided nature of ideas.6
This sort of analysis is fairly standard, and for me, problematic, in that the whole paradigm is predicated on the questionable notion that the divisions within my person, because of the nature of their manifestations, are perverse in a way that other, less demonstrative divisions are not. I can only be constructed in the negative, such as “ill” or “abnormal.” I have a colleague in counseling psychology, to whom I have disclosed, who constantly corrects me: “Jason, you have bipolar. You are not bipolar.” He is quite astute, and he is wrong. I freely admit despising the term, and those like it. Psychotic, mentally ill, disordered… these are stigmatizing at best, even when used by well-meaning professionals. I use them out of necessity, though none of them do any justice to my lived, embodied experience of the world. It is not a disorder; I simply know the world this way. This is a powerful, salient facet of my identity, the intersection of all my other intersections. I do not have it. It is not the flu. I cannot force feed myself vitamin C and chicken soup and make it stop. If I could, I do not think sharing this would be so difficult. You would not experience me as absent, just out of sorts, under the weather. I know this because even when my vision is not strange, these other facets remain, always present and tinting the lens through which I see everything, whether in our shared world or in my private one. This presence, then, means that we are always looking for each other through a shifting blur, like a kaleidoscope constantly spinning. The blurs and spins—often sudden, frighteningly quick—color all my worlds, and leave no clear space for us to meet.
Martin Heidegger mentions this:
Whether or not what is present is experienced, comprehended, or presented, presence as lingering in the open, always remains dependent upon the prevalent clearing. What is absent, too, cannot be as such unless it presences in the free space of the clearing.7
Admittedly, in my case, the clearing is not only difficult to find but its location is also in constant flux. There may be several, in fact, and I might be racing among them like wildfire, present and absent in each simultaneously. I exist in perpetual motion, moving in multiple directions in the same moment. It is exhausting. Marie Rusner, Gunilla Carlsson, David Brunt, and Maria Nystrom ethnographically describe the intense frustration of bipolars whose lives are often understood as having occasional “episodes” of mania or depression, whereas our experienced reality is much more complex and highly unstable.8 The mental energy I expend texting another human being would be laughable if it were not such a tangible reminder of my need to live every thought three times, just to make sense of what's really going on in the exchange. You learn to live this way; you have to. It is the only way that I have found to try and keep ahead of those times when the daily instability blossoms into something more profound Of course, no system is perfect. Sometimes what blossoms does so overnight.
That is the hardest part to share: the noise. Each shift, every turn and flux, is a present reality. It keeps me set apart no matter where I might be, and in some ways exists outside of time. Often, I can only recall flashes of my private worlds, but I feel them. The sensory overload—the viscera—remains palpable in the body long after the moment has passed. These are the things that color my vision in our shared world, and they are so foundational to my person and experience that sharing their reality is like the proverbial fish describing water. It earns me the most incredulous looks (even from my wife). Bert Kaplan writes:
what the patient experiences is tied to illness and irreality, to perverseness and distortion. The process of psychotherapy consists in large part of the patient's abandoning his false subjective perspectives for the therapist's objective ones. But the essence of this conception is that the psychiatrist understands what is going on, and the patient does not.9
I have always found this insightful. If I am present, and if I am conscious, then why should I not know “what is going on”?
I know what I am experiencing; each moment is painfully clear. The great difficulty is precisely that, in fact: its existential comprehensiveness. Each incarnation is a complete, lived experience, a reality in and of itself. My disorder is egodystonic, meaning that when symptoms manifest, I do not know that I am symptomatic. Egodystonia adds another variable; I often only know something about a given experience after the fact, and only with help. I need to know your experience of me to make sense of my own. This keeps me present, but in an unusual way; my context is different, and so we cannot find a clearing, a place to build shared meanings. And there are moments when, no matter how desperately I want to be in the clearing with you, my presence there is pointless, because my experience steals my voice away.
I often dream of myself trapped in a glass box that I cannot break, with the whole world moving past, unable to reach me; in time, they stop trying, and then they lose the ability to see me, or hear me screaming. It can feel hellish, separation. But it is curious also, especially when I think about the language of my experience. “Mania,” “madness,” “melancholy”: people like me were written about by the Greeks and the Egyptians. Mania itself comes from the Manes, divine madness, the exact spirits that nursed the pre-Homeric Eros (the constitutive force of the universe). These things speak to an understanding of my life that is not purely psychiatric, but rather, sublime. The word “holy” is often thought of as meaning “sacred,” though I do not find that definition particularly illuminating. Its most literal meaning is “set apart.” I understand that. My life, like all our lives, sets me apart, and so I must strive to find you in Heidegger's forest, to search for a clearing, to join you and share meanings. This is why Calafell's reflection is so beautiful; it demands our reflexivities take account of “We,” that we love the “Otherness that is not our own.”10 My experience comes with pain of many sorts; I wrestle with shame, with despair, and with the inescapable fear that I am somehow damned, set apart in suffering. But as hard as it is to share the experience of these things, I am somehow saved by the presence of a few people able to join me in the absent clearings, who are understood and who seek to understand. We are set apart together, and I am thankful.
There are so many threads here, among the imposition of discourse, presence and absence, Otherness, and lived experience; to say nothing of my particulars. In my mind it is a single tapestry, though I could not tell you which surface should face the room. I am not sure that matters, honestly. What does matter, given our discussion, is the intentionality behind our translations, the purposes for our distillations. As excruciating as this can be, I believe my mind works as it does so that what I translate—what I share—may provide a voice for those who would remain in glass boxes otherwise. I take no pleasure in recounting some, or most, of these realities; I do not enjoy telling people about the private worlds I see. There is no catharsis here, no release to be had. You cannot purge yourself. As I said, this is who I am, whether present or absent. But it is not all I am; perhaps other parts of my mind have been set apart for other purposes. I think so, and so I have to ask: Have I answered my question? Have I come closer to a pure translation? Most importantly: Has this taken an account of the “Other,” enabling others to take account of “We”? When I speak about clearings, about strange vision, about noise, I do so because I am aware of you, even when I cannot see you. “I” and “Other” cannot exist apart from each other. We make each other human. Perhaps my experience deepens yours; I know I have learned to share through the compassion I have been shown in my life. It is this discursiveness that benefits from intentionality; the shared meanings we forge shift the discourse, allow a new presence, new contexts, new positions, new intersubjectivites, new reflexivities. With all this in mind, I cannot say that my translation has accomplished anything so romantic, or even that it is as accurate as it should be. It has not, and it is not. It is only a beginning, though set apart for a common purpose.