Psychosis is in the eye of the beholder

psychosis is in the eye of the beholder

What is “psychosis” ? we pretend it’s a fixed thing with clear boundaries, yet it is not.
We pretend it’s a thing that some of us have and some of us don’t have and never never will.
We do a lot of pretending.

“Psychosis” is identified by one person ticking off from a list of observable behaviours and experiences they can observe in another.

Each of these, though, is also commonly experienced or displayed by any of us in varying degree, and if there were profit to be made from it would also  be included in a list of symptoms by which we could diagnose that, by now, most-rare category of humans: “normal.”

And, what gets called “psychosis” is largely judgement, and also different in different cultures – my confusion, frustration, or anger is – when you observe it in me –  “psychosis”;  my spiritual practice may well be your “psychosis”; my powerful, overwhelming emotions might also be your “symptoms” of “psychosis”. My inappropriateness is determined not so much by science as by unwritten social mores, taboos, traditions and, fear.

People who have been socially dislocated from one place or culture into another often find understanding and aligning with the new social mores difficult and confusing – little wonder then that immigrants,  the world over have higher rates of being given a diagnosis of “psychosis”. If you have dark skill living amongst white skinned neighbours, you are many times more likely to be given a diagnosis that includes “psychosis”.

Psychosis sometimes means “not like us”.

Maybe “psychosis” is a state that results from being different- more  different than the surrounding population is ready to bear.

Maybe, just as stress, a concept borrowed from engineering by Hans Selye,  is the internal response to external stimuli,  psychosis is simply the response – the pressure building up – within one person when the pressure to conform to the demands of others’ expectations is just too much for one person to bear.

Every one of that list of “symptoms” of “psychosis” is something you will likely experience, at least fleetingly, at some point. Today.

Research shows that one in three of us is indeed experiencing at least one from that list, right now. When you do, you might experience it as fearful, scary, terrifying. You might also experience it as curious, wonderful, comforting, enlightening, as a sign to pay attention to something going on in your environment.

How you do experience it has much to do with the culture in which you are lucky enough or unlucky enough to be living and at least as much to do with the explanatory stories and beliefs adopted by those around you as it does with anything else.

For example, if you are surrounded by stories of horror, and a belief system that supposes that if you hear voices then you are “the devil”, or that you are irredeemably sick, or that you need to be controlled by drugs, or that you are a latent mass-murderer or all of those; then if [more like when] you do hear a voice that no one else hears you are less likely to experience it as a good thing.

You are more likely to be scared or startled this new experience and you will likely find it hard to find someone to talk with about your new experience without them getting their freak on.

This is the world we create for ourselves and each other – and it sucks more than a sucky thing.

Yet, for example,  research shows that about 4% to 15% of all of human beings hear voices – the low end of that equates to about 300,000,000 people who hear voices on a regular basis. That’s not rare, that’s not even very unusual.
That’s pretty bloody common and ordinary. It’s about the same number of people who live in the USA.

“Psychosis” is an ordinary response to an overwhelming world – it can even be regarded as a creative response – a genius response, that can help us find our way out of an otherwise intractably complex problem in our lives. It can feel chaotic and we are powerfully conditioned to fear, control and eradicate chaos – but chaos is a necessary state for any change to emerge. Entropy is the natural state of the universe.
Even if we pretend it isn’t, and we do like to pretend.

Other research shows that after only 24hours of sleep deprivation,  healthy humans can display “symptoms” sufficient to be diagnosed with psychosis.

Without being tortured:

  • three in four people [that’s all people] will hear voices at some point in their lives
  • one-in-three of us will regularly experience a wider range of what a clinician would interpret as “symptoms” of “psychosis”-  each of which is also a symptom of being both alive and human.

Again, without being tortured your chances of experiencing “symptoms of psychosis” will be greatly increased by twenty-four hours or less of sleep deprivation or isolation.

If you are or have been tortured, your chances of experiencing these things are significantly greater. 

Psychosis is state of being.

What we call psychosis is a state of being and like any other, it passes- sometimes quickly sometimes it takes a while – and sometimes people get stuck.  Sometimes the “treatment” that a person receives ensures they stay stuck and that they are never allowed to learn and to move on to live their life.

Psychosis is not a thing, it’s an interpretation of, a name or a label for a fuzzy constellation of otherwise ordinary human experiences that can bring extreme confusion; difficulty using and understanding language; heightened senses; overwhelming, powerful emotions like fear and terror and a corresponding drive to survive.

Psychosis, fundamentally, is a state in which we feel unsafe, powerless and scared.

We don’t disconnect from reality – what does that nonsense even mean? We are very much connected and in very powerful ways – we retreat to our vestigial, mammalian state, that raw animal state that is all about survival.

Clinicians say of us that we “disconnect from reality” as if they know what “reality” is, presuming that their preferred reality is the only one, the one they decide we all “should” be in so that they can be ok and be right.
It’s not even as if so many clinicians are such true beacons of wellness that their own reality is even a good one, let alone gives them the power to decide which the rest of us “should” be in.

Do we disconnect from “Reality” or is it that your reality, the one you claim the power to say is “The One True Reality” sucks so much and is too painful for many of us to live in?  Is it that your cold, supra-rational reality brings us too much pain, and we need a time-out?

Maybe we just need a break from your reality so we can heal and find a way of living with less pain,  or to heal just enough to try again later to live in your world of ultra-neo-bullshitism.

Do we disconnect from Reality or do we simply disconnect from relating with [some] humans – because they have disconnected from relating with us?

Do we disconnect from your reality when you resort to violence and control and repeatedly reminding us of your ever-growing laundry-list of what’s wrong with us?  

Do we disconnect – or do we retreat because the pain of staying with your reality is just too great, too much to bear right now?

Do we disconnect- or do you disconnect us- cut us out, cut us off?

Do we disconnect from Reality – or do you?

Human minds do not work in isolation from the world and do not work in isolation from other minds.  “Psychosis” exists not as some faulty operation of one brain but in the spaces, in the relations between one mind and the world,  between one mind and other minds in the world. 

If one person’s mind is in “psychosis” then what does that say about the world that surrounds that mind and that person?

What does that say of the state of the other minds that create such a  world?

If you see “psychosis” in another then what does that say about you, and how you see your relationship with them?

Just like beauty, psychosis is not something fixed, concrete, material. It is an interpretation, it only exists, and can only exist, in the eye of the beholder.


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3 Responses to Psychosis is in the eye of the beholder

  1. Loreen Lee says:

    Yes. Let’s go full circle. They are crazy just as we are crazy!! As you said they should start ‘listening’. And by that I suggest, is meant the capacity to have ‘real’ understanding of another. Is this possible? Physician – heal thyself? Perhaps more importantly we need to be physicians, within this context. Without adjudicating any possible need for a personal metaphysical savior, we do need, as you say, to learn to listen, which means more importantly the need develop the capacity to ‘understand’ one another. Yes? In other words, may we all have the opportunity to express ourselves within our own ‘personal-individual’ language of meaning. Thanks for getting back Kevin. I hope I have conveyed to you some understanding of your comments.


  2. Loreen Lee says:

    The difficulty perhaps is the inability of any individual to ‘perceive his/her own ‘psychosis’.. People need to pay more attention, perhaps to their own inner ‘voices’ however that term might be interpreted, as well as a greater understanding of all voices, inner and outer?


    • but our ability to do just that is impeded by the words imposed upon us… language shapes reality that does not fit imposing a way of perceiving upon us.
      when that prescribed understanding doesn’t fit our experience yet more imposed words tell us that we are wrong when all we’re doing is experiencing what we’re experiencing…
      “hospitals are like universites – they teach us how to be good patients…”
      being a good patient means adopting their language, their understanding…
      intended or not, it is oppressive.
      Its time they started listening.


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