How Culture Shapes Madness, my latest at Pacific Standard

“The Touch of Madness,” published online today in Pacific Standard magazine, is probably the most important article I’ve ever written.

In the fall of 2007, an incandescently brilliant young scholar named Nev Jones — a force and intellect such as few of us ever encounter — arrived at DePaul University to begin her PhD program in philosophy. Two years later she was out of the program, deeply psychotic, thoroughly terrified, and almost utterly abandoned. Four years later she emerged, a different PhD in hand, with a story to tell:

Culture, from the reigning medical views of madness to the subtle and sometimes violent responses of those around the afflicted, profoundly shapes the experience and expression of madness. And the way we in the West react to madness makes it far, far worse.

By this view, when people in mental distress are shunned and relegated to a class of others needing care away from the rest of us, they are pushed outside of culture precisely when they need it most. They may seem utterly detached from reality. But they will keenly comprehend their exile.

This idea is not original to Jones. It’s a demonstrable fact supported by decades of research and solid, multidisciplinary work. But Jones articulates this with particular power because she knows intimately both the related literature and the experience.

This is her story: A story of what it’s like to have reality refashion itself, as one wrinkle in fabric’s reality after another gather the world into folds; to watch as those around you run or drift away; to find yourself alone in a place where the labyrinths of psychosis feels safer than the isolation one faces in the ‘real’ world. It’s a story of brilliance, madness, betrayal, friendship, courage, and renewal. It’s also the story of how the rest of us can help by changing the way we view madness, and how we can better understand those around us who’ve experienced or will experience psychosis.

I have faith that, despite the inevitable imperfections of my telling here, you will never forget Jones’s’ story.

A brief excerpt:

Words started to look strange. She began experiencing “inarticulable atmospheric changes,” as she put it—not hallucinations, really, but alterations of temporality, spatiality, depth perception, kinesthetics. Shimmerings in reality’s fabric. Sidewalks would feel soft and porous. Audio and visual input would fall out of sync, creating a lag between the movement of a speaker’s lips and the words’ arrival at Jones’ ears. Something was off.

Another time she found herself staring at the stone wall of a building on campus and realizing that the wall’s thick stone possessed two contradictory states. She recognized that the wall was immovable and that, if she punched it, she’d break her hand. Yet she also perceived that the stone was merely a constellation of atomic particles so tenuously bound that, if she blew on it, it would come apart. She experienced this viscerally. She felt the emptiness within the stone.

The Touch of Madness, at Pacific Standard.

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