by John A. Speyrer
"If guided with kindness and understanding, the schizophrenic experience could
become a transcendental journey of death and rebirth toward a new,
more positive meaning in life."
-- Peter R. Breggin M. D. Toxic Psychiatry
"Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through.
It is potential liberation and renewal . . ."
-- --R.D. Laing
In autobiographical literature, by individuals who have experienced
psychotic breakdowns, one occasionally finds recountings which illustrate
the full release of repressed memories. Invariably, these spontaneous
re-livings of infantile and childhood traumas erupted during a personal
crisis in the biographer's life.
One such writer was Lara Jefferson, who in, These Are My Sisters (1952),
poetically describes her dark night of the soul and subsequent liberation
through a spontaneous deep feeling episode while a patient in a mid-western
psychiatric hospital during the 1940s.
Jefferson's experiences were of an intense transcendental nature and
are also an example of mystical experiences during a psychotic episode.
Kenneth Wapnick, in Understanding Mysticism used her writings for
this purpose. His article, "Mysticism and Schizophrenia'' is contained
in this anthology.
Lara Peterson's primal/mystical re-experiencings of repressions on
a psychotic ward of a mental hospital at age 29, resulted in such
improved functioning that she was soon released from the institution.
Hoping to find more material than Wapnick quoted, I went to the source
of his material, Peterson's, These Are My Sisters (1952), and the quotations
(reproduced with permission) are from that source.
* * *
In her desire to reassure those readers who one day would also confront
the origins of their psychosis as she had, Lara Peterson wrote:
Lara Jefferson's ward physician told her that unless she learned to
think differently, she would become incurably insane. Knowing that
forcing herself to think differently was impossible, she realized
that the job of avoiding the descent into complete insanity was totally
her own. She seemed to know intuitively, that to get well, she had
to feel what lay behind her mental suffering. She knew that she could
Remember, when a soul sails out on that unmarked sea called Madness
they have gained release, much greater than your loss --and more important.
Though the need which brought it cannot well be known by those who
have not felt it. For what the sane call `ruin' -- because they do
not know -- those who have experienced what I am speaking of, know
the wild hysteria of Madness means salvation. Release. Escape. Salvation
from a much greater pain than the stark pain of Madness. Escape --
from which could not be endured. And that is why the Madness came.
Deliverance; pure, simple, deliverance. . . . Nothing will stay it
-- there is nothing that can hold it; nothing with the power to deter
it when it sweeps out to pursue its destiny through the dim caverns
of itself. . . .I have felt it sweep me and take me -- where -- I
do not know (all the way through Hell, and far, on the other side;
and give me keener sense of feeling that the full edge of reason has)
- still, I have no way of telling about the things experienced on
that weird journey.
. . . escape from the Madness by the door I came in, that is certain
-- nor do I want to. They are dead -- past, -- the struggles of yesterday.
Let them lay in the past where they have fallen -- forgotten. I cannot
go back -- I shall have to go onward -- even though the path leads
to "Three Building''-- where the hopeless incurables walk and wail
and wait for the death of their bodies.
But go back she did. Perhaps, she reasoned that by facing the problem,
she would "lose insanity in madness and find a sound mind on the
other side.'' Finding a pencil, she began writing down her self-progress
which helped to keep her from slipping further into psychosis.
One day, thoughts of her mother came to her mind, and things her mother
As her symptoms worsened during confinement, she became more convinced
that release from her mental anguish lay in confronting her schizophrenia
head-on and not by defending against it. She thus began a five day
period of attempting, as she put it, to fight madness with madness.
As she continued feeling the sources of her mental illness, she felt
as though something was about to explode inside herself.
But Lara Peterson feared the results of feeling her internal pain
and requested that she be placed in a straitjacket. It required three
pleading requests, each followed by intentionally bizarre behavior,
before her request was granted, but with her shackeling in the straitjacket,
Peterson felt safe enough to let down her defenses completely.
Her doctor chided her for giving up so easily and requesting a straitjacket,
but she did not
. . . had often said lashed again across my memory. . . .I heard
her voice, filled with cruelty sneering, "You poor ungodly thing."
. . . And that I had given her such pain because I had not fulfilled
all of the beautiful things she had planned for me. . . . I wondered
if she were having any delight in knowing that at least I had fulfilled
the contempt she held for me when I had failed. I hated her with a
fierceness I could not control -- had I wanted to. It raged through
me with such intensity it seemed I had lived up to a great destiny
in fulfilling that much of her expectations. I shrieked out, before
I realized there was no one to take the message; that I wanted her
to know before she died of old age that at least one seed she had
planted in my very babyhood had taken root and grown; that as she
had never been able to see anything but failure in her other efforts,
I wanted her to take great pleasure in this one -- for she had nurtured
it more carefully than the other things.
All my human fear of pain and death and loss of reason was drowned
in wild exultation. I stood upon the brink of everything I had ever
feared and knew it did not matter how far into any of them I fell.
. . . feel the ridicule, for she was a soul stretched on a rack
in a hell very far removed from all ordinary living. The opinions
of those whom I had left did not reach through to me -- I was too far
away. And I do not know whether I was courteous or rude to him. As
far as I was concerned his significance had ceased. I lay stretched
in the humiliation of the thing which had happened.
After five days, her feeling episode seemingly over, her restraints
were removed, and she was soon discharged feeling better than ever.
She wrote, "Every nerve and fibre in my whole body registered the
effect of what I had been through. My whole chemistry had changed.
Truly I was a different person."
So the monster was out and the ghost of some old beserker ancestor
rose up within me and suggested that I could do something about it,
and the fierce hatred exalted that it had possessed itself of a massive
and powerful body. . . . And once the great Madness in me found a
voice, there was no stopping it. It rolled out in such a tumult I
was amazed at it myself; wondered where it all came from. It seemed
obscene and terrible that I should answer in adult language, things
said to me in my childhood. Things I had forgotten, until they again
began to pour about me in the flood of bitter memories. Even incidents
I remembered clearly came back so warped and twisted they seemed like
evil changelings. . . . I felt so much better that I had at last found
the courage to look and see things as they were (not camouflaging
them in the rosy light of a meaning they did not have) that I wanted
to shout and sing. That voice was reason making a last desperate stand,
but it was just a shadow and had no power to check the things I was
feeling. . . All my human fear of pain and death and loss of reason
was drowned by wild exultation. I stood upon the brink of everything
I had ever feared and knew it did not matter how far into any of them
I fell. . . that wild thing within me stood erect and laughed peals
of laughter not good to hear. . . So the last connected and coherent
thing in my thinking gave way -- and the Madness filling me rejoiced.
Because at last there was nothing to stay it, it shouted and exulted
with a noise that tore my throat out, charging through me till it
nearly dragged the life out of me. Part of my mind stood there and
took in the whole situation, yet could know nothing about it. The
thing that was raging did not seem wrong to me then -- but the rightest
thing in the world -- a magnificent accomplishment.
* * *
"When analytically adjusted psychiatrists have recognized that the content of the
Another early explorer of the region of acute psychosis or rather of spiritual emergency was Anton
Boisen. He was a forester, minister and language teacher and believed
that there is an important relationship between acute psychotic reactions
and resultant transpersonal experiences. This became apparent to him
in 1921 when he was confined in a state mental hospital. He felt ". . . that
certain types of mental disorders and certain types of religious experiences
are alike attempts at reorganization.''
When the experience is "successful,'' Boisen believed that it is
recognized as a religious experience that can transform one's character.
When "unsuccessful,'' it becomes known as insanity. He wrote in, The Exploration of the Inner World:
psychosis is 'cosmologic,' we need not avoid the next step, that of analysis of
cosmology itself, for then we shall find that it is nothing other than
the infantile recollection of one's own birth projected on to Nature."
-- Otto Rank in The Trauma of Birth (1929)
. . . (T)o be plunged as a patient into a hospital for the insane
may be a tragedy or it may be an opportunity, and believed that
his experience led him ''. . . to look with favor upon Jung's idea
of a racial unconscious as the hypothesis best suited to explain the
facts not merely in my own experience but in that of the patients
with whom (he had) been working.
His writings, and the writings of those whom he interviewed, placed
more emphasis on transpersonal consciousness than did the writings of Lara Jefferson.
Boison writes that "the disturbance came on very suddenly and it was extremely severe. I had never been in better condition physically; the difficulty was rooted wholly in a severe inner struggle arising out of a precocious sexual sensitivity dating from my fourth year. . . With the onset of adolescence the struggle became quite severe. It was cleared up on Easter morning in my twenty-second year through a spontaneous religious conversion experience which followed upon a period of black despair. . . . Then came a love affair which swept me off my feet and sent me forth on the adventure which has resulted in this book."
Apart from the paragraph above he does not detail exactly what caused his mental breakdown, and feels it "wise" to not give more personal details. However, based of the frugal information given above, those of us in regressive-type therapies can easily surmise the source of his breakdown. Boisen mentions that he "failed to make the grade" with the object of his love. After nine years of "wandering," he was hoping that he would become "reinstated with her. . . ."
In 1920 such a "reinstatement" did occur. The disturbance followed shortly after by . . ." feelings of world catastrophe, followed by environmental and natural resources shortages. The presence of forces of evil were made known to him. He felt terror. Time became compressed.
During hospitalization, he came to the conclusion that many of the problems of the mental hospital clients were "because of . . . religious and psychological aspects" which must be recognized before they can be treated.1 Soon thereafter, he was to become the first mental hospital chaplain in the United States. Boison, p. 15.
About his "delusions," he wrote,
After his terrifying but eventual redemptive exploration of his "inner mind,''
psychosis and its relationship to mysticism became a profound interest.
He began devoting much time to a study of others who had also experienced
such a life-changing experience.
Images of re-living the evolution of one's forebears, living prior
lives and episodes of astral projection were common experiences described
in his book. Recounting the story of James G., Boison quotes him as
having written: "I had a vision and it seemed as if I could see way
back to the beginning of all creation. I could see the evolution of
man up to his present being.'' (Boisen, p. 168)
Boison also writes about Albert W., who lived earlier lives during
his "psychotic" break.
. . . (T)he experience at the Psychopathic (hospital) seemed to
me that of passing through all the stages of individual development
from the single cell onward. At the same time I seemed to be passing
through all the stages in the evolution of the race. [See, on this website, A Personal Experience in Primal Therapy by Bernadette Murphy] I was carried
back to the period of the deluge, back to the age of marshes and croaking
frogs, back to the age of insects and also to an age of birds. I also
visited the sun and moon and . . . I even roamed all around the universe.
My conscious self was indeed down in the lower regions at the mercy
of all the strange and terrifying phantasms which were to me reality.
It was a terrific life and death struggle in which all accepted belief
and values were overturned, and I did not know what to believe.
(Boisen pp. 115-116)
Boisen believed that
"At one time he had been Jonah. He had also been St. Augustine. And he had been Christ.'' But he also took trips beyond the earth's confines.
"During his severe disturbance he thought of himself at times as
roaming around the universe. (Boisen, pp. 20-21)
. . . a critical study of the inner world of thought and feeling
and volition, as it is revealed to us in the great crisis experiences,
when the results, for better or for worse, of the individual's experiments
with life are being unfolded, may also contribute something to our
understanding of man's nature and destiny. (Boisen, p. 192)
Most persons in these periods of crisis feel that their eyes have
been opened to unsuspected meanings and possibilities in their life.
The so-called "normal'' range of vision becomes for them inadequate
and superficial. . . . Equally common were ideas of death and nullity.
. . . Their eyes had been opened so that they could see back to the
beginning of all creation. They had been first one and then another
historic character. Some even thought of themselves as passing through
the various stages of animal evolution. Several thought they were
journeying all around the universe, visiting Mars, Saturn and the
moon. . . (Boisen p 193)
* * *
Whether these intense feeling experiences described by Peterson, Boisen,
and others had lasting benefits is not known. Unfortunately, information
is not available as to the quality of life the various subjects enjoyed
after their discharge from psychiatric hospitalization. However, it
is known that Boisen suffered one relapse into psychosis but shortly
thereafter returned to good health.
The transpersonal and other deep feeling experiences encountered during
the active phase of psychosis are usually one-time occurrences brought
about by extraordinary depths of despair. It seems that the one-time
breaking down of defenses with resultant insights is not sufficient
to allow continued access to the material which was the source of
their mental illness. The author of Mysticism and Schizophrenia, writes that "there is nothing in the reports of recovered schizophrenics to suggest that once having
freed themselves from the pathological patterns of their pre-morbid
living they continue to explore those inner experiences that had previously
overwhelmed them.'' (Wapnick)
Such a one-time lowering of defenses is to be distinguished from primal
therapy with its continual returning to the fount of repressed feelings
over a long period of time accompanied with the methodical lowering
of defenses. This gradual reduction in defense levels over time allows
the primaler to feel his repressed pain in a self-governing measured
amount. Perhaps this explains why continued access to the overwhelming
pain which triggers psychosis, does not occur to those who have made
an initial foray, either real or symbolically, into their childhood
and birth traumas. Often, it is not until the very end of primal therapy,
after many years of feeling lesser hurts, that the more severe and intense infantile and pre and peri-natal traumas become accessible.
In primal therapy, according to Arthur Janov, it takes approximately
six months before the patient's defenses are lowered enough to permit
automatic spontaneous regressions into one's storehouse of primal
pain. Janov calls the time after this period, the "point of no return''
and from that period on, believes that it is merely a question of
allowing the repressed feeling material to connect to consciousness
whenever it is triggered or whenever it arises of its own accord.
This time period is actually quite variable, as some highly defended
individuals may require a much longer period to reduce defenses sufficiently
to allow for natural and automatic access.
In my own case, with my first primal, I had begun a course from which
I could not turn away even if I had so wished.
* * *
Another regression-based psychotherapy is Stanislav Grof's holotropic
breathwork(tm) This therapy combines rapid breathing with feelingful
music to access birth, infantile and childhood repressions, as well
as transpersonal experiences. My belief is that in holotropics the
lowering of defenses is not systematically done in a gradual manner
and for this reason continued voluntary and automatic access of one's
repressions are uncommon. In fact, in this therapy, clients are discouraged
from attempting to access their repressed material on their own.
The transpersonal episodes of evolutionary biological recapitulations,
prior lives, and out-of-body experiences described in Boisen's The
Exploration of the Inner World, are typical of the material which
experiencers often explore in holotropic breathwork, but much, much
rarer among primalers. Occasionally, primalers will access this material.
However, I believe that this access is the result of an inordinate
reduction of defenses with a resultant flood of unconscious material.
This commonly occurs with the ingestion of large doses of psychedelic
drugs or in holotropic breathwork. I believe that the massive reductions
of one's defenses in breathwork therapy do not reduce defenses in
an orderly fashion, and therefore holotropic breathwork, unlike primal
therapy, does not lend itself to be a do-it-yourself project (Speyrer). However,
Stanislav Grof writes that the material which is felt is the material which is
next-in-line to be felt. He writes that this choice of material is an automatic process.
* * *
One mystic about whom much has been written and who was psychologically examined (although superficially) was Madeleine Le Bou.
Pierre Janet, a contemporary of Freud, in his last book, The Anguish and the Ecstasy (1926) wrote an interesting case study of Madeleine, a patient who combined aspects of schizophrenia, transpersonal experiences and mysticism. A short but interesting recounting may be read in The Birth of Neurosis by George F. Drinka, M.D. Much of the material in this article is from that source and from Adolf Holl's The Left Hand of God.
Janet was a psychologist at the Saltpêtière, a charity hospital in Paris where Madeleine became his patient in the 1890's. Although she had many bizarre symptoms, he compared her to prominent church mystics, such as the Curé d'Ars and St. Teresa of Avila. Early in life she devoted herself to God and often was lost in long reveries. Believing her family too rich and an impediment to her spiritual aims, she had moved to the slums of Paris where she could devote her life to helping the poor, the sick and the dying. She had spent nine years caring for a woman dying of cancer and felt that period of her life was the most satisfying. Arrested after spending the night on a park bench, she had been unjustly accused of stealing, begging and prostitution.
At the Saltpêtière she confided to Janet her crucifixion and assumption (as the Virgin Mary) fantasies. Similar to St. Francis of Assisi, she also displayed slight stigmata - as the wounds of Christ were manifested on both her feet and hands. Enduring periods of agonies as well as ecstasies she would often stand transfixed motionless for an entire day, not eating, drinking, sleeping or performing bodily functions.
At times Madeleine felt that she had accomplished a unitive fusion with God. Her descriptions of such experiences were similar to those of Theresa of Avila:
"She swung rapidly back and forth between imagining herself consumed in a pure union with God and seeing herself entwined in a sexual liaison with the God-man Christ. She confided to Janet: 'My being is drunk with divine kisses. Ah, if I could communicate to you what I have experienced. . . . I have just passed a night of love and madness. Yes, it is true, God has made me mad with love . . . cascades of tenderness which drown me. Do not let me think that I only dream. I feel that I truly love God in all manners . . . I could say to God: Lord, you wish to make me die of love. My heart is too weak for the torrents which you spell in the spiritual goodness of the Church, the principal virtue of the holy person is in the purity of his body parts just as the strength of Samson resided in his hair.'" (Drinka, pp. 352-353)
During her ecstasies she was transported to important times in Christian history as she became the great historical personages themselves. "She took on the role of Christ in the womb of Mary, and then she was the Virgin Mary herself, pregnant with God. Then, she was Jesus born in the manger, Mary holding the child. Back and forth - God, woman, lover, sufferer - the ecstasies flowed from moment to moment." (Drinka, p. 353) The power of the body/mind relationships reveals itself as when Madeleine's breasts grew heavy with milk around Christmas-tide so as to feed baby Jesus. (Holl, p. 199)
Apart from religious manifestations, she experienced many out-of-body experiences and as some mystics who proceeded her, enjoyed astral projections to the netherworlds of the universe. She saw new planets and new suns opening before her eyes. She witnessed the apocalypse, was aghast at the world being annihilated, and felt the earth being unredeemable.She describes her ability: "What an indescrible pleasure it is to keep moving with your feet off the ground, the imagination cannot impart the sweetness you feel when you can fly all over in this way." [Holl, p. 188]
"I seem to be careening through the air, traversing space with the swiftness of the wind . . . I climb to the top of precipices in a moment, I descend into valleys, then upward again." She confided to Janet that she was so happy that she never wanted to be cured. She was able to taste sweetness, to smell "satiny perfumes" as every sensory organ of "her body was enraptured with volumptous pleasure . . . ." So intense were her feelings that they could not be described. (Drinka, p. 353)
Some of these pleasures were described by her to Janet, but their recountings were later expurged by him and never published! [See my review of Transcendent Sex: When Lovemaking Opens the Veil, by Jenny Wade, Ph.D)
One day she was ecstatic the next, wretched with misery. Her "dark night of the soul," which all mystics seemingly are called on to endure, ". . . were the periods of torture, of melancholy, of soul-searching and self-doubt." (Drinka, p. 354) During those times she suffered unbearable pain. She began to believe that she was dammed, that she was hated by God and like other mystics sometimes felt that her pleasures were merely tricks of the devil.
In an attempt to cure her, Janet often pointed out how her catastrophic predictions made in letters to French officials had all come to naught - that they were merely her delusions. In vain, Janet tried to teach her his agnosticism, his sense of reality and his belief that a good God would not permit the evil which exists in the world.
With time, her manias and depressions came into a subdued equilibrium. Although she remained a devout Catholic for the rest of her life, she experienced far fewer ecstasies and depressions. Discharged at age 47 from the Saltpêtière in 1904, after a six and one-half years stay, she began living with her sister.
While hospitalized she had written Janet daily letters and after discharge she continued the correspondence on a weekly schedule continuing this practice up to, and during the First World War. Janet was surprised that Madeleine never reminded him that she had prophesized "blood in the streets" of France, as that war had become known as "the greatest catastrophe in recorded history."
Pierre Janet believed Madeleine's weird delusions were amazing symbols, but in spite of the enormous amount of time he spent in listening and talking with her, his efforts were no more than talk therapy in an attempt to convince her that his view of reality was more rational and reasonable. It is doubtful if he had ever helped her mental condition other than having the role of an attentive friend.
Holl (see references) writes of many incidents of mystical origins beginning with Judaism and extending to the time of Frederick Nietzche. Whether the happenings are those having to do with religiously spiritual material, or psychiatrically induced occurrences, the author has no conclusions to make, and describes them as the work of the Holy Spirit expecting the reader to distinguish between the two based on their own personal interpretation.
As mentioned, one subject of Holl's panoramic study was also Pierre Janet's patient, Madeleine Le Bou. Like many of the women mystics of the Middle Ages, Madeleine, was also anorexic. And like some of them she was also a stigmatic, that is, she bore the wounds of the passion of Christ. Janet believed that the sources of "nervous loss of appetite" had its origin in very deep psychologically repressed material. [See A. Janov's, Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience p. 265 and Ecstatic Stigmatics and Holy Anorexics: Medieval and Contemporary by S.K.Farber.]
On occasion the Church did not know how to respond to these mystics, especially the female ones. Some had been frauds; some were persecuted. The sacraments of the Church could not compete with the mystical experiences of God. Holl also writes that, during the Middle Ages, "(m)any of these female virtuosos of divine intimacy voluntarily became beggers and wandered over half of Europe; others lived under the roofs of women's refuges." ( p. 189.)
The origins of the material used in the hallucinatory visions of the mystics are explained by Adolf Holl as ". . . the images that the painters and sculptures of the time included in their repetoire." p. 199 [Also see Farber's comments about this matter.]
Some psychotics resent the episodes of clarity which sometimes intrude into their lives. Nobel mathetician prize-winner, John Nash, Jr. was quoted in his biography, A Beautiful Mind: "Rational thought imposes a limit on a person's concept of his relation to the cosmos." Probably more than one founder of a religion have echoed that sentiment.
1Dr. Frank Lake, in his monumental work, (1282 pages) Clinical Theology, A Theological and Psychiatric Basis to Clinical Pastoral Care, (1966), wrote of the potential of the short-lived psychotic paranoid attacks, of the type that Boisen experienced, on one's spirituality. "I have myself been in close contact with several patients during psychotic episodes which became, for them, times of transformation of personality in an entirely beneficial sense. What seemed to be a disintegrating and shattering loss of sanity proved to be part of a more massive integration of hitherto repressed and unacceptable memories of infantile terrors of psychotic intensity. In the inscrutable economy of the spiritual order, those whose courage and power of being has been enhanced so as to make the endurance of even psychotic experience possible, become thereby 'stablished, strengthened and settled' as they never were before....The psychotic episode may leave behind it a more constricted personality and a more peculiar and dissociated and pseudo-mystical pattern of religious life. (pps. 999-1000)
"In the course of his own therapy sessions, one of Jung's colleagues, the Prague psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, came across those same collective, prototypical images that Jung called archetypes. At first Grof worked with LSD, then with hyperventilation or accelerated breathing. By these means, participants are able to reach an altered state of consciousness and to experience once again the trauma of their birth, with all the anxiety and trepidation that accompany the unborn child as it makes its way into the light of the world.
Grof expressly mentions apocalyptic visions in his account of the various images that are sighted on such a journey. Dragons, for example, may appear, or angels and devils in deadly combat, right up to the final release from all anxiety, with a great deal of light and radiant colors, as in the last two chapters of John's Apocalypse, where the bride of the Lamb comes down from heaven in the form of a golden city with twelve pearly, glittering gates.
Grof makes no sharp distinction between psychotic disturbance and
mystical ecstasy. He simply accepts the ability to integrate one's experiences into everyday life as the boundary line between a clinical and a religious episode. According to Grof, the "transpersonal" sphere includes both saints and madmen. This conclusion is theologically acceptable too."
-- Adolf Holl, The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit (1998)
- Boisen, Anton T. The Exploration of the Inner World, Harper & Brothers,
New York, 1936.
- Drinka, G. F., M.D. The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians, 1984.
- Holl, Rudolf, The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit, 1998.
- Peterson, Lara These Are My Sisters, Double-Day Book Company, New
- Speyrer, John A. Primal Feelings Newsletter, "From Primal to Holotropics
and Back'', Summer, 1995.
- Wapnick, Kenneth "Mysticism and Schizophrenia" from Understanding
Mysticism edited by Richard Woods O.P., Doubleday and Company, New