Psychosis

Authored by: Richard Noll

The Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health

Print publication date:  April  2017
Online publication date:  April  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138781603
eBook ISBN: 9781315202211
Adobe ISBN: 9781351784399

10.4324/9781315202211.ch18

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Abstract

Let’s begin with three melodies of madness:

(1) A man of approximately 30 years in age abruptly leaves his home without explanation. During his baptism in a river by a charismatic preacher, he has a vision and hears a message from God and then disappears into an isolated rural area for six weeks. During that time of complete social withdrawal, he continues to hear the voice of God, communicates with Satan, and has further visions. He is now convinced that he is of an ancient royal blood line, has special powers to heal the sick and raise the dead, and that God has chosen him to communicate an important message of redemption to prepare others for the end of the world. He wanders about and attracts a few illiterate friends who believe his stories about “the Way.” At least three of them also see visions and hear voices, including the voice of God coming out of the sky. They join him in a life of chronic vagabondage. He is observed placing a magical curse on a fig tree, verbally scorning it because it has no fruit and he is hungry. His family is distraught, believing he is “beside himself” and worries about his safety. Since he is living in a Middle Eastern region under military occupation by a repressive Western power, his deviant activities soon come to the attention of the authorities, and he is arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Later, books are written about him in German, French, and English by physicians, who conclude that hereditary taint precipitated a “hebephrenic crisis” in a temple at the age of 12, leading to a course of chronic affliction by various forms of “paranoia.” 1

(2) A wealthy, prominent 38-year-old European physician and scientist withdraws from his family and friends as often as possible to read books on mythology, mysticism, Hellenistic mystery cults, Gnosticism, spiritualism, and parapsychology in his home library. Horrifying, repetitive, spontaneous visions of waves of blood flooding Europe begin to panic him. One night while alone in his study, like Faust, he decides to contact his “soul” and awaits a response. He soon hears the disembodied voice of a woman who encourages him to engage in an auditory dialogue with her. After a few weeks the sensory modality of these solitary sessions changes from auditory to visual mental imagery. He finds himself lost in intense, vivid visions of otherworldly journeys and auditory dialogues with the Dead that he consciously decides to accept as ontologically “real” events. But over a period of time the intensity of these experiences increases, and at least twice he is transformed into a god: once, on Christmas Day 1913, a lion-headed deity who has the power to heal the blindness of a woman named Salome who tells him “You are Christ,” as he sweats blood, arms outstretched as if impaled on a cross; and again when he is hanged upside down from a tree like the Norse god Odin in a wrenching crucifixion-like apotheosis. He eats the raw liver of a murdered child. He is told he is the prophet of a new age. He later tells close associates he received regular revelatory instruction from the same “Master” who taught Buddha, Mani, Christ, and Mahomet. His mission, which he must communicate to others, is the redemption of God, not for our sake, but for the sake of God. Souls of dead Christians, finding no sign of God when they entered the afterlife in the Middle Ages, enter his home demanding redemption. Although he believes he can control the initiation and cessation of these experiments, in part by keeping diaries and illustrating the places he travels and entities he encounters, roiling emotional riptides spill out into his everyday life, and he begins to fear he is on the edge of a profound crisis. He decides to keep a loaded pistol next to his bed, vowing to blow his brains out if he is flooded with insanity. His wife and children see his instability and the gun and are afraid. His relationships with professional colleagues rupture, and one publishes a thinly disguised essay about him that slyly diagnoses him as having a “god-complex” with delusional fantasies of having special powers and insights and a special mission to redeem the world. 2

(3) An unemployed 44-year-old ex-forester and self-styled “Presbygationalist” minister from a well-educated American family begins to have unusual overpowering thoughts while writing a theological essay. Some of these concern the influence on all of our lives of the vitally important “Family of Four,” the Strong and the Weak, the Perfect and the Imperfect. The day after informing his family at dinner that “the study of insanity is the most important problem in the world today” he finds himself involuntarily committed by them to the Boston Psychopathic Hospital. He proudly tells his doctors he has “broken down the wall between religion and medicine.” A week later he is transferred to the Westboro State Hospital, where he resides for the next fifteen months. His diagnosis is catatonic schizophrenia. He will have three other such episodes in his life at ages 54, 59, and again just before his death at 89. During these hospitalizations he passes through all the stages of evolution of life on this planet, he climbs onto the sun and is repulsed by the inhabitants of the moon and their obsession with sex and reproduction, he becomes Mary Magdalene, insists he must “go insane in order to get married,” and has a direct mystical encounter with God that convinces him for the rest of his life he is a prophet with a special mission. Witches are an annoyance in the hospital, and he stuffs a blanket in the ventilator shaft to block black cats. Often he is found naked on the hospital floor, refuses food, and is occasionally violent. After release from his first extended hospitalization, he earns a divinity degree from Harvard, begins a pastoral counseling training program for young divinity students at Worcester State Hospital, creates the first psychotic symptoms rating scale for researchers, and writes a well-received book about his experiences with the help of psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan. Intellectually gifted but socially anxious and affectively flat, he is admired by many with whom he can never emotionally connect. 3

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