The crazy thing about psychosis is how misunderstood it is in the popular imagination. What does it mean to have and how do the symptoms manifest?
For those who have been following my blog for years, you’ll have noticed I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus—emerging every so often to post a vulnerable little missive on heartbreak. It shouldn’t be too difficult to piece together the story of what happened, but since then, I’ve kept a promise to that teenager I tutored and subsequently lost when their mother and I were forced to part ways. Back then, I decided to go back to school to earn my degree and eventually become licensed to practice therapy to help others—a goal I had shared with both mother and child. What inspired the change of career path for me was that teenager and the struggles they dealt with while navigating an unsupportive family life as an openly trans kid. Eventually, the pressure and stress of constantly fighting with family led to mental health issues for that teenager which resulted in hospitalization at a psychiatric clinic. There, they shared their experience with symptoms of psychosis with doctors.
Psychosis is defined as an experience that denotes a break from reality–this can range from delusions, hallucinations, and/or bizarre behavior such as disorganized speech. It is a symptom, not a disorder, and can be featured in diagnoses such as Schizophrenia or Major Depressive Disorder. Causes can range from extreme stress, and substance use, to genetic predisposition.
I felt helpless at the time and a little bit scared. What does it mean if someone I love and care about like my own child, hears voices that tell terrible, self-degrading things? What could we do to help? Would they be okay? Part of that promise was doing everything I could to involve myself in uncovering those answers. And though, per their mother, I am not allowed contact with that teenager any longer—I can do everything in my power instead to help those like them. The reason that I have been unable to update this blog is that I have been busy working at a psychiatry clinic since last year and becoming part of the team at our university that specifically treats patients dealing with first-episode psychosis and the research meant to provide hope for the future.
Basically, I’m doing the damn thing. Sempre ❤️
This is, however, my history blog playground for my research dumps where I can humorously recount the things I’ve either taught myself or felt like sharing with the public. Now feels like the perfect time to merge both passions, exploring the presence of psychosis in well-known historical things, events, or people. From the Oracle of Delphi to insanity contextualized historically, to any excuse to write about how much I love Joan of Arc. Famous individuals and artists in history have experienced psychosis and come out making some of the most beloved works in the world…one of them cut his own ear off for good measure too. Many Kings, Queens, and rulers have also suffered and so have others when the consequence of mental illness often leads to wars of succession. Mostly, I hope to also provide a picture of psychosis that is less terrifying–to shed light on its frequency and treat it with the comfort we have in more common mental health struggles like depression. Let’s de-stigmatize. People with psychosis are unwell but they are not inherently dangerous nor should they be treated as such. Let me show you all the brilliant people in history who had it and went on to do extrodinary things, like inventing calculus. Though, I suppose you could say someone would have to be a little mad to make sense of it in the first place.
‘Madness’ in history hadn’t always included the modern concept of psychosis. The term itself was introduced to psychology in the 19th century, and it’s important to remind the audience that some experiences in history will fit the definition of psychosis but may also fall under the umbrella of a cultural or religious phenomenon for some. Think of the prophets and saints, those who prayed and spoke to gods or heard prophecies, or perhaps figures who developed a grandiose view of themselves and thus the confidence to back it (Did Alexander the Great experience psychosis then? Let’s discuss.) Part of this series will be meant to think about the causal relationship between psychosis and ‘normal’ experiences like superstitions and ghost stories. And some of it will be debunking the usual tomfoolery of myths like the Schizophrenogenic Mother or taking a look at the Four Humors theory of the ancient world. Naturally, we’ll need to dismantle ‘hysteria’ and talk about how Nellie Bly should be everyone’s hero. I’ll pick and choose the order, no rhyme or reason most likely, but know that psychosis and mental illness will heavily feature–and we’ll find a way to have some fun with it.