The Ten Day Voyage

This is a true account of a psychotic episode based on a recorded conversion that took place around 1964 between Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing and a man named Jesse Watkins. The account  remains faithful to Laing’s original written description. The value of this commentary lies in its description from a psychological point of view.  Laing’s commentary has been updated to bring it into line with current terminology and practices.

I have replaced most of Laing’s original commentary to take into account my own psychotic experiences as well as encounters and conversations I have had with a number of psychotic people over the years. Not surprisingly, psychotic people tend to understand each other much better than mental health practitioners usually understand them. If you want to see the original version, read chapter 7 of Laing’s book. [1]

JESSE WATKINS (1899 -1980) was a well-known British sculptor. He was born on 31 December 1899 and went to sea in 1916 on a tramp steamer during World War I. His first trip was to North Russia. In the same year he was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. In 1932 he served in a square-rigged sailing ship. He served in the Royal Navy as as a Commander and Commodore of coastal convoys during the Second World War. During his career at sea he encountered shipwreck, mutiny and murder. He drew and painted since early youth and constantly did so at sea. While ashore for brief periods he sporadically attended life drawing classes at Goldsmiths’ College and Chelsea Art School. He also wrote and had published short stories of the sea.

Around 1937, at about 38 years of age Watkins went through a ‘psychotic episode’ that lasted ten days. Laing tape-recorded a discussion with him about this experience in about 1964.

In my own writings I use the terms shared reality and unshared reality to describe the normal and so called psychotic mind spaces as I have personally experienced them. Laing uses the terms outer and inner space. As far as I can tell we are talking about exactly the same thing but using different terms.

The italicised conversation is an account of Watkins journey into unshared reality or inner space and time. The experience itself is not particularly unusual, but it is unusual to come across such a lucid contemporary account of it.  Although the events happened many years before the recording was made,  Laing appears to have been confident that Watkin’s  recollection of the events that took place many years before the interview were vivid and accurate. Watkins regarded the experience as one of the most significant in his life.

The Preliminaries

Laing was mainly concerned about the psychotic episode so he provided only minimal details of the events before hand.

Watkins had recently moved into a new environment, presumably a place of living and working. He had been working seven days a week, until late at night and felt physically and emotionally exhausted. Then he was bitten by a dog, and the wound did not heal. He went to a hospital where he had the wound attended to, probably under a local anaesthetic, and returned home by bus.

His 7 year old son came into the room and Watkins started seeing him in a new, somewhat detached way.

The Journey

‘… suddenly I looked at the clock and the wireless was on and then the music was playing – um – oh, popular sort of bit of music. It was based on the rhythm of a tram. Taa-ta-ta-taa-taa – something like Ravel’s repetitive tune. And then when that happened I suddenly felt as if time was going back. I felt this time going back, I had this extraordinary feeling of – er – that was the greatest feeling I had at that moment was of time going backwards….

‘I even felt it so strongly I looked at the clock and in some way I felt that the clock was reinforcing my own opinion of time going back although I couldn’t see the hands moving – – – I felt alarmed because I suddenly felt as if I was moving somewhere on a kind of conveyor belt – and unable to do anything about it, as if I was slipping along and sliding down a – shute as it were and – er – unable to stop myself. And – um – this gave me a rather panicky feeling – – – I remember going into the other room in order to see where I was, to look at my own face, and there were no mirrors in that room. I went into the other room, and I looked into the mirror at myself, and I looked in a way strange, I seemed as though I were looking at someone who – someone who was familiar but – er – very strange and different from myself – as I felt – – and then I had extraordinary feelings that I was quite capable of doing anything with myself, that I had a feeling of being in control of – of all my faculties, body and everything else, – – and I started rambling on.’

Watkins behaviour these days could be described as dissociated psychosis. Laing makes the point that these sorts of “journeys” have been known about since ancient times, typically in a spiritual, religious or shamanic context.

‘My wife became very – um – worried. She came in and told me to sit down and lie down in bed and because she was alarmed she got hold of the man next door to come in. He was a civil servant and he was also a bit alarmed and he calmed me down, and I was rambling on to him, and the doctor came up – um – and I was talking of a lot of these feelings I had in my mind about time going back. Of course, to me they sounded perfectly rational, I was going back and thinking that I was going back into sort of previous existences, but only vaguely. And they obviously looked at me as if I were mad, I could feel – I could see the look in their faces and I felt it was not much good talking to them because they obviously thought that I was quite round the bend, as I might have been. And – um – then the next thing was that an ambulance came and I was taken off…’

Today in Australia, Watkins would typically be taken by ambulance to the psychiatric ward of a public hospital. He would normally be given a sedating injection by the ambulance paramedics which would probably make him quite drowsy and placid but not necessarily have any significant affect on the psychotic experience.

‘I was put into bed and – um – – well, I remember that night it was an appalling sort of experience because I had the – had the feeling that – um – that I was then – that I had died. And I felt that other people were in beds around me, and I thought they were all other people that had died – and they were there – just waiting to pass on to the next department…’

Watkin’s feeling of having died was a loss of his sense of self. This is fairly common occurrence in the unshared reality space. A sense of time is also commonly lost or distorted as is the ability to communicate using normal language. To the uninitiated, this experience can be confusing and distressing and can result in speech or behaviour that others may regard as symptoms of mental illness. Depending on the response of those around and in particular, the use of force or restraint, panic can very easily be induced because the person is already likely to be  disoriented and in unfamiliar mental territory. Quiet, gentle reassurance is what is required but in today’s usually busy and often frantic psychiatric ward settings this is often not provided. Sometime psychotic people become violent but not nearly as often as is sometimes claimed. When it does happen it is often the result of induced panic through an inappropriate response to an already highly distressed psychotic person.

‘… then I started going into this – – real feeling of regression in time. I had quite extraordinary feelings of– living, not only living, but – er – feeling and – er experiencing everything relating to something I felt that was – well, something like animal life and so on. At one time I actually seemed to be wandering in a kind of landscape with – um – desert landscape – as if I were an animal, rather – rather a large animal. It sounds absurd to say so but I felt as if I were a kind of rhinoceros or something like that and emitting sounds like a rhinoceros and being at the same time afraid and at the same time being aggressive and on guard. And then – um – going back to further periods of regression and even sort of when I was just struggling like something that had no brain at all and as if I were just struggling for my own existence against other things which were opposing me. And – um – then at times I felt as if I were like a baby – I could even – I – I could even hear myself cry like a child….

‘All these feelings were very acute and – um – real and, and at the same time I was – I had – I was aware of them, you know, I’ve got the memory of them still. I was aware of these things happening to me – in some vague sort of way, I was a sort of observer of myself but yet experiencing it. I had all kinds of feelings of – this sounds, because it’s nearly thirty years since I experienced it, it sounds a bit disjointed because I’ve got to drag it out of my memory but I want to be particular that I’m only telling exactly what happened to me and not embellishing it with any sort of imagination or anything like that. Um – I found that I had periods when I came right out of this state, that I’d been sort of moving into, and then comparatively lucid states I had, but I was reading – I read newspapers, because they gave me newspapers and things to read, but I couldn’t read them because everything that I read had a large number of associations with it. I mean I’d just read a headline and the headline of this item of news would have – have quite sort of – very much wider associations in my mind. It seemed to start off everything I read and everything that sort of caught my attention seemed to start off, bang-bang-bang, like that with an enormous number of associations moving off into things so that it became so difficult for me to deal with that I couldn’t read. Everything seemed to have a much greater – very much greater significance than normally. I had a letter from my wife. I remember the letter she wrote to me and she said, “The sun is shining here” – and – er – “It’s a nice day.” This is one of the phrases in the letter. There were a number of other phrases and I can’t remember all of them and I can’t remember all of the phrases in the letter which evoked responses in me, but I remember this one. She said “The sun is shining here.” And I felt that if it were – that this was a letter from her, she was in a quite different world. She was in a world that I could never inhabit any more, – and this gave me feelings of alarm and I felt somehow that I was – I’d gone off into a world that I could never move out of.’

This altered state of consciousness that Watkins reported is very typical of a psychotic episode.

‘You know, I was perfectly well aware of myself and aware of the surroundings.’

It is not uncommon to experience a heightened sense of awareness both during and after the episode.

‘… when I went to the hospital, because of this feeling, this intense feeling of being able to – um – govern myself, my body and so on, I said to the nurse who wanted to bandage my finger up: “You needn’t bother about that.” I took the thing off and I said: “That’ll be all right tomorrow if you don’t deal with it at all and just leave it.” And I remember I had this terrific feeling that I could do this and – this was – this was a nasty cut right down my finger. I wouldn’t allow them to put anything on it and they said, oh well, it’s not bleeding and they’d leave it, and the next day it was perfectly healed up, and because – it sort of – I put a sort of intense – er – attention on it in order to make it do that. I found that I – I tested myself with the man opposite me in this ward who was very noisy at times, he used to get out of his bed, he’d been having a number of nasty abdominal operations and I suppose it had affected him and probably had caused his breakdown. But he used to get up out of bed and swear and shout and so on, and I felt a bit alarmed about him and I felt very compassionate towards him, and I used to sit in my bed and make him lie down by sort of looking at him and thinking about it, and he used to lie down. And to try to see whether this – this was a – just an accident, I had tried it also with another patient at the same time and I found that he – that I could make him lie down.’

It can be difficult to account for these sorts of experiences in a scientific sense but as many know, these thing can and do happen. There is growing awareness these days that our minds can have a significant and sometimes substantial impact on physical health and healing. The apparent ability to control another person actions through thought might be explainable in terms of synchronicity or communication through body language. Often there is a rational explanation if one is open minded enough to look for it. This includes being willing to see things from the psychotic person’s point of view which entails a metaphorical rather than just literal point of view. It also requires recognition that scientific thinking, while useful and valuable in many areas has definite limitations. This is particularly true when dealing with the phenomena of mind.

One of the first things people often learn, usually from other more experienced inmates, in a contemporary psychiatric setting is not to talk about these sorts of experiences to staff. It is likely to evoke a hostile response from them  and  be deemed as further evidence of chronic mental illness. This in turn may result in additional unwanted and unwarranted treatment.

‘I felt that I had sort of – um – tapped powers that I in some vague way I had felt I had, or everybody had, although at that time I’d been a sailor most of my life, I had not – I had read quite a bit when I’d been at sea but I hadn’t read any esoteric literature then nor had I since, I hadn’t read anything to do with, er – with – ideas of trans-mog-migration of souls or whatever you call it, trans-mog transmig – reincarnation. But I had a feeling at times of an enormous journey in front, quite, – er – a fantastic journey, and it seemed that I had got an understanding of things which I’d been trying to understand for a long time, problems of good and evil and so on, and that I had solved it in as much that I had come to the conclusion, with all the feelings that I had at the time, that I was more – more than I had always imagined myself, not just existing now, but I had existed since the very beginning – er – in a kind of – from the lowest form of life to the present time, and that that was the sum of my real experiences, and that what I was doing was experiencing them again. And that then, occasionally, I had this sort of vista ahead of me as though I was looking down – looking to an enormous – or rather all the – not looking so much as just feeling – ahead of me was lying the most horrific journey, the only way I can describe it is a journey – a journey to – um – to the final sort of business of – um – being aware of all – everything, and that – and the – and I felt this so strongly, it was such a horrifying experience to suddenly feel that, that I immediately shut myself off from it because I couldn’t contemplate it, because it sort of shivered me up. I – it drove me into a state of fear, so much – I was unable to take it.’

This journey, back to the very roots of one’s being, is indeed a vast one. Watkins realisation of that coincides with the awareness of an innate sense of inadequacy in every every human being sometimes called existential angst. The growing awareness of the distance required to span that gap can be quite daunting. I clearly recall that same experience many years ago. When I mentioned it to someone at the time I was wisely offered the advice from an old Chinese proverb. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

‘Yes, the – that was the enormity of it, that I – that there was no way of avoiding this – facing up to what I – the journey I had to do. I had, I suppose because of having been brought up in the religious atmosphere, I had – my mother’s religious, not in the church sort of way but religious in a – in a real sort of way, tried to teach us something about religion and – er – the sort of attitude to life….’

Laing: “He had a ‘particularly acute feeling’ that things were divided into three levels: an antechamber level, a central world, and a higher world. Most people were waiting in the antechamber to get into the next department, which was what he had now entered”.

‘… they were sort of awakening. I was also aware of a – um – a higher sphere, as it were. I mean, I’m rather chary of using some of these phrases because they’re used so many times – you know, people talk about spheres and all that sort of thing, but – er – the only thing that I felt – and when I’m describing these things I’m describing more feelings – er – a deeper experience than just looking at the thing… an awareness of – um – of another sphere, another layer of existence lying above the – not only the antechamber but the present – lying above the two of them, a sort of three-layered – um – existence….’

Laing; ‘What was the lowest one?’

‘The lowest one was just a kind of waiting – like a waiting room.’

Laing: “This was linked to the experience of time.”

‘I wasn’t just living on the – the moving moment, the present, but I was moving and living in a – in another time dimension added to the time situation in which I am now…. The point I want to make is that I hadn’t got any ideology. The only ideological part of what I told you was the part where I went through the Stations of the Cross, because there I was sort of joining it up with an ideology at that time. I have often thought about what I went through then. I tried to make some sort of – um – sense out of it because I feel that it was not senseless – although I suppose to others about me I was – er – mad in as much as I was not living in this present time, and if I was not living in this present time I was therefore incapable of coping with it properly. But I had this feeling all the time of – er – moving back – even backwards and forwards in time, that I was not just living in the present moment. And I could much more easily go back than I could go forward because the forward movement was a bit too much for me to take.’

The road map or context that we use or encounter in our  journey into unshared reality seems to depend on whatever mental story or model we have evolved throughout our life. Watkins describes himself as a not particularly religious person however on a couple of occasions he mentions using the Christian meditation known as Stations of the Cross during this psychotic episode. He apparently learnt this from his mother and may have absorbed a lot more than that from her which he wasn’t consciously aware of. Watkins experience of three planes of existence is not a specifically Christian concept, but schemas like this are quite common in all sorts of religious and metaphysical arrangements.

Laing seems to have concluded that Watkins had no road map but I don’t agree. I think he probably had quite a good one thanks to his mothers informal training. I do agree with Laing who seems to think that a good road map is important to survival in this unshared reality space. Having such a point of reference probably helps significantly to reduce the risk of panic which can drive a person  further into the morass where they get completely out of their  depth, particularly if they have no skilled guide to help them.

‘I had feelings of – er – of gods, not only God but gods as it were, of beings which are far above us capable of – er – dealing with the situation that I was incapable of dealing with, that were in charge and were running things and – um – at the end of it, everybody had to take on the job at the top. And it was this business that made it such a devastating thing to contemplate, that at some period in the existence of – er – of oneself one had to take on this job, even for only a momentary period, because you had arrived then at awareness of everything. What was beyond that I don’t know. At the time I felt that – um – that God himself was a madman… because he’s got this enormous load of having to be aware and governing and running things – um – and that all of us had to come up and finally get to the point where we had to experience that ourselves…. I know that sounds completely crazy to you but that’s what I sort of felt at the time.’

Lang: ‘You mean a “madman” in the sense that people in the state that you were in are taken to be mad?’

‘Yes, that’s what I meant, that he was – er – he was mad. Everything below him or everything below that got to the point where he got – er – had to treat him like that because he was the one that was taking it all at that moment – and that the – er – the journey is there and every single one of us has got to go through it, and – um – everything – you can’t dodge it…. the purpose of everything and the whole of existence is – er – to equip you to take another step, and another step, and another step, and so on….’

Watkins realised that this was a step by step journey. As previously mentioned you have to take this one step at a time. Any other approach is likely to become too overwhelming.

‘… it’s an experience that – um – we have at some stage to go through, but that was only one – and that – many more – a fantastic number of – um – things have got to impinge upon us until we gradually build ourselves up into an acceptance of reality, and a greater and greater acceptance of reality and what really exists – and that any dodging of it could only – delays the time and it’s just as if you were going to sea in a boat that was not really capable of dealing with the storms that can rise.’

‘The nurse told me that sometimes I kept them awake at night by talking. And they – they put me into a padded cell and I said, “Well, don’t put me in here,” I said, you know, I said, “I can’t bear it.” But they said, “But you – we’ve got to try to do it because you make such a noise you know – talking.” So they put me into this place and I said, “Well, leave the door open”, so they left the door open, and I remember going through that night struggling with – with something that wanted to – some sort of – curiosity or willingness to open myself to – um – experiencing – this, and the panic and the insufficiency of spirit that would enable me to experience it. And during that time I went through – I went through the Stations of the Cross, although I’d never been what you might call a really religious person – I’m not now – and I went through all that sort of – those sort of feelings. Well the – all this experience became – went on for quite a time and I began to – they kept on giving me sedatives to make me sleep, and I – one morning I decided that I was not going to take any more sedatives, and that I had got to stop this business going on because I couldn’t cope with it any more….’

This all happened in 1937. It is noticeable that he was able to ask to have the door of the padded cell left open and the staff complied with his request. He told them that he wanted to stop medication and the doctor agreed. It appeared that the doctor also had time to talk to him and develop some sort of relationship.

In 1971, 34 years later when I had my first and biggest psychotic episode, things had definitely taken a substantial turn for the worst. To put it bluntly it was a horrific and traumatising experience that has taken me the rest of my life to try and get over.

Today, 86 years later in 2023 everything has changed but unfortunately not for the better. The big state run psychiatric hospitals in Australia have gone. They have been replaced mostly with fast turnaround psychiatric clinics or wards in public hospitals. Physical restraint, heavy use of antipsychotic drugs, and sometimes ECT treatment are routinely used but perhaps the biggest problem comes from legally enforced involuntary treatment. Panic from concerned family or friends who don’t understand what is going on can also significantly exasperate the situation.

Involuntary treatment doesn’t  happen only in hospitals. People having psychotic experiences are frequently  kept indefinitely on long term injectable medication known as depots. There is almost no possibility of resolving the psychotic experience under these conditions. In today’s typical mental health environment it is unlikely that someone like Watkins would have emerged intact from the experience and gone on to lead a normal productive life. He would  have probably finished up stabilised on medication for the rest of his life as further evidence to support the often heard claim that schizophrenia is an incurable disease.   It should come as no surprise that as the quality of mental health treatment has systematically deteriorated, the incidence of mental health problems have increased in the community along with the costs.

The Return

‘I sat on the bed, and I thought, well, somewhere or other I’ve got to sort of join up with my present – er – self, very strongly. So I sat on the bed, I clenched my hands together tightly. And the nurse had just been along and said to me, “Well, I want you to take this”, and I said, “I’m not taking any more because I should – the more I take of that the less capable I am of doing anything now – I mean – as I said, I shall go under.” And so I sat on the bed and I held my hands together, and as – I suppose in a clumsy way of linking myself up with my present self, I kept on saying my own name over and over again and all of a sudden, just like that – I suddenly realized that it was all over. All the experiences were finished, and it was a dramatic – a dramatic ending to it all. And there was a doctor there who had been a naval – a rear admiral surgeon – surgeon rear admiral, and he and I had become friendly because we talked about the sea from time to time. And this nurse came along and said, “You haven’t drunk that”, and I said, “I told you I’m not drinking it”, and he said, “Well, I’ll have to go and get the doctor”, and I said, “Well, you get the doctor.” Then the doctor came along and I said, “I don’t want any more of that sedative,” I said, “I’m quite capable of – of running things normally now,” I said, “I’m all right.” And he looked at me and he looked at my eyes and he said, “Oh,” he said, “I can see that.” And he laughed, and that’s what happened, and from that moment I had – never had any more of these feelings….’

Laing; “Jesse came through it.”

‘But at times it was so – um – devastating, and it taxed my spirit to the limit, that I’d be afraid of entering it again….

‘I was… suddenly confronted with something so much greater than oneself, with so many more experiences, with so much awareness, so much that you couldn’t take it. It’s as if something soft were dropped into a bag of nails….

‘I didn’t have the capacity for experiencing it. I experienced it for a moment or two but it was like a sudden blast of light, wind, or whatever you like to put it as, against you so that you feel that you’re too naked and alone to be able to withstand it, you’re not strong enough. It’s like a child or an animal suddenly confronted – or being aware of – an adult’s experiences for him, for instance. The grown-up person has experienced a lot in their life time, they’ve built up gradually their capacity for experiencing life and looking at things – and – er – understanding them, even experiencing them for all kinds of reasons, for aesthetic reasons, for artistic reasons, for religious reasons, for all kinds of reasons we experience things, which for – if a child or an animal, say, were suddenly confronted with these things they couldn’t take it because they’re not strong enough, they haven’t got the equipment to do it. And I was facing things then that I just hadn’t got the equipment to deal with. I was too soft, I was too vulnerable.’

A person in this state can be a challenge for someone to deal with unless they have both experience and a good understanding of psychosis and what the person is probably going through. The support person needs to be willing and able to “walk in the psychotic person’s shoes” and recognise that their experiences, no matter how bizarre they may seem, are normal human experiences that each and every one of us can potentially have. Furthermore these experiences always make sense once the context is understood. The therapist needs to put aside any agenda to try and fix the person concerned because there is nothing broken that needs fixing. This doesn’t mean that the therapist needs to agree with the psychotic persons view of shared reality but they should try to understand it and not dismiss or discount it. It has been said that this process is about “being with” the person rather than attempting to “do something” to them.

‘… I would have to – I felt as if I would give in and that I wouldn’t want to be aware of anything at all and I’d just sort of coil up and – um – stop existing as it were. I felt that I couldn’t take any more because I’d been through such – been through such an awful lot, and I suppose there comes a point where a person can only take so much and then they give up because they just can’t take it any more. And if I couldn’t have taken it any more I should have – I don’t know what might have happened – perhaps a feeling of sudden cessation and everything, and if – if they had done that to me I don’t know what I would have been able to – how I would have been able to cope with it, not being shut in that room and – er – of course the room itself, I mean, with the brown, padded walls and floor and all that….’

Laing asked Watkins what principles he felt should underlie the care provided during such an experience.

‘… you are like a vessel in a storm. It puts out a sheet anchor which helps the boat to weather the storm because it keeps its head to the wind, but it also gives it a feeling of comfort – er – to those aboard the boat, to think they’ve got a sheet anchor that’s not attached to the bottom but it’s a part of the sea, that – er – enables them to survive, and then as long as they think they’re going to survive as a boat then they can go through experiencing the storm. Gradually they begin to – they feel quite happy with it even though the sheet anchor might have broken adrift and so on. I feel that if ever a person were to – ever to experience that sort of thing, he’s got to have – well, one hand for himself, as it were, and one hand for the experience. He’s not going to be able to – I think, if he’s going to survive – to get away from his present level where he is… because of all that has gone before, and there’s gradually been a building up of – er – the necessary equipment to deal with the present situation for himself. And that he’s not equipped for anything more than that, not very much. Some people are equipped more for it and some are less – but he’s got to have some way, some sort of sheet anchor which is holding on to the present – and to himself as he is – to be able to experience even a little bit of what he’s got to experience.’

So there should be other people who sort of look after you….

‘Other people who you trust and who know that you are to be looked after, that they won’t let you go adrift and sink. It’s – um – just a question of – you see I feel that – that this business of experiencing is a matter of one’s building up one’s own spirit. Because I remember – to take a normal analogy – of when I went to sea first I was a little boy of sixteen, and we went up to the north of Russia, and we experienced some quite extraordinary storms when the sea was washing over the ship and the ship was rolling terrifically, and there was no food, and I had never experienced anything like this in my life before. Because I’d never even been to a boarding school, I’d been at home, I’d been to a day school and never been far away from my mother. And the sudden impact of this rough and terrific fear-invoking life was a bit more than I could take at the time – and – but then, gradually, as I went into it more, then I first of all started sort of – by being – or pretending to be brave. Then I gradually began to stand up to it, and the thing that gave me comfort sometimes was the fact that other people were taking it, they were living in this – er – environment and they appeared to be quite all right. They gave me no sympathy, you had no sympathy from anybody, and you were left on your own – er – resources to stand up to it. And I stood up to it and then, of course, looking back over the years I can remember sometimes when I had been quite afraid of very big storms at sea – um – but I thought – I often thought when I’d been through these storms I was equipped to deal with them then from experience – but I often thought back to those times when I was a little boy, when I first went to sea, the first week, – because during the first week I was at sea, we went through quite an extraordinary gale, wind, when the galley was washed out, there was no food, and everything was wet, and the ship was rolling about and we were in danger of being shipwrecked and so on – er – I was stricken with fear simply because I hadn’t got the equipment to deal with it. And that’s I suppose the nearest I can take in analogy of how I felt then, was – er – this suddenly faced with this – enormity of knowing….

‘… I think that – er – ten days and what I went through then, it certainly pushed me on quite a bit. And I remember when I came out of hospital, I was there for about three months altogether, when I came out I suddenly felt that everything was so much more real that it – than it had been before. The grass was greener, the sun was shining brighter, and people were more alive, I could see them clearer. I could see the bad things and the good things and all that. I was much more aware.’

As Laing and many before him and since have  seen, an experience like this is not an illness to be cured but a natural although frequently misunderstood state of mind that almost anyone can inadvertently find themselves deeply immersed in for a multitude of reasons.

The hypothesis offered here is that so called psychotic illness is a natural but uncommon experience, at least to the depth usually encountered  in a typical psychotic episode.

It can be triggered by many different things including memories of past unresolved trauma, problematic social conditions, stress, anxiety and even lack of sleep.

It appears that some people may be more sensitive and thereby more prone than others to these types of  experience but extensive searches for a genetic cause suggests that this tendency is quite weak. It seems that most normal people probably experience some psychosis from time to time although relatively few step into this mind space to the extent that they get out of their depth and need rescuing.  Environmental influences probably play a much bigger role than any genetic ones.

When a person accidentally falls into deep water, the outcome of that experience will depend on their ability to swim.  In a similar manner, it is suggested that the outcome of an intense psychotic experience is dependant on the ability to handle or manage the experience. An approximate fairly modern generic term suggested for this skill is Emotional Intelligence (E.I).

Some people voluntarily undertake psychotic journeys. The context is often but not always a spiritual or religious one. Traditional wisdom suggests a long period of training with plenty of practice and contextual learning is required in order to undertake such a journey safely. Even with the best preparation it can end in disaster. A lot seems to depend on the skill and experience of the guide.

Hallucinogenic drugs can also reliably induce what appears to be a temporary psychotic mind state. Like natural psychosis the experience can be managed and result in a good or satisfactory outcome or it can be mismanaged  and result in a bad or traumatic one. In some cases, drug induced psychosis can have a long lasting, permanent negative outcome. Again a lot seems to depend on the  skill and experience of the guide who supervises the drug user during their experience.

I would suggest that if a person under the influence of a psychotic drug was treated in a contemporary psychiatric ward or hospital the same way that many people naturally experiencing psychosis are, the outcome of  most drug induced psychotic sessions would be traumatic and damaging.

When looked at in this context, many mental health practices start to look both ludicrous and dangerous.

The value of  a well managed psychotic experience, be it natural or drug induced are many. The obvious one is creativity in fact unshared reality space is the home of creativity. Even rational science recognises this and the ability to move back and forth between shared and unshared reality is a function of normality. The depth that one can safely penetrate this space will depend on the ability to manage it. An even more important attribute is insight. Those with the not inconsiderable skill to deeply penetrate unshared reality often report profound insight.

Here Be Dragons!

It is interesting that Jesse Watkins was a sailor who experienced his fair share of life threatening experiences while at sea. In days past,  people set out in small sailing ships to discover new worlds.  The maps, beyond known areas were often marked with the warning “Here Be Dragons“.

These ancient voyages were fraught with danger and many perished while attempting them. These explorers were typically regarded as brave souls and even heroes although undoubtedly many looked on them as foolhardy. Today, anyone who approaches the unexplored realms of mind, inadvertently or otherwise is vilified, despised and treated as a social outcast.

It is hardly surprising that an estimated two thirds of people in developed countries who experience psychosis never seek help and attempt to conceal and self manage their condition. Meanwhile we seem to be seeing increased government efforts to hunt down anyone they believe to be having such experiences for the “safety of society and the good of the person concerned”.

Such claims of course have no substance and in view of what has just been written appear absurd.

There is a solution and it is a fairly simple one. More than 200 years ago the Quakers in Pennsylvania USA opened an institution known as the Friends Hospital. It was based on the idea that all persons could live a “moral, ordered existence if treated with kindness, dignity, and respect”, despite disabilities.

On all accounts, it appears to have been successful. In 1971 the first Soteria community house, catering for 6 clients in a supervised domestic setting was established in San Jose, California. That worked along similar lines. The evidence is that this approach works very well but despite the fact that they seem to be cost effective and have much better long term results than traditional psychiatric wards or hospitals a number of Soteria communities throughout the world including the first two established in the US have been plagued by funding problems. Vested interests, claiming without evidence that the Soteria type approach is unsafe, irresponsible or doesn’t work have managed to get funding for these sorts of organisation withdrawn in a number of countries.

I have written an article “It’s Time For Soteria – An Australian Perspective“. It has been published online in the Mad In America e-zine. That is my best answer at this point in time to an issue that very much concerned Laing-  an appropriate facility for supporting people  who are trying to deal with and learn to manage psychotic experiences. This is particularly important for  younger people who often get into terrible trouble with the current main stream institutional approach.

Gaining knowledge and experience about mental health through Soteria style communities seems likely to  take us well beyond just dealing with psychosis. Depression, often referred to as the common cold of mental health, is much more closely connected to psychosis than many contemporary experts would have us believe but perhaps even more importantly is the golden bounty  of creativity and insight waiting to be discovered on these journeys.

The value of peer support is fortunately being increasingly recognized and its importance,  particularly from peer supporters with psychotic experiences natural or otherwise is vitally important.  Without a competent guide an inexperienced traveller can get lost very easily and quickly.

But one thing that must be done and must be done soon is to abolish involuntary treatment for psychosis. It has  proven itself to be  ineffective but often results in considerable trauma and distress on those it is perpetrated on. No good whatsoever comes from it. Only harm.

Ref 1: The Politics Of Experience: Chapter 7 A Ten Day Voyage.  R.D.Laing 1967, ISBN: 978-0-14-194174-5.

One comment

  1. Thanks for this article! It reminds me of a friend who was troubled by ‘storms’ for many years…
    She also thought… ‘I’d been through these storms; I am equipped to deal with them from experience’

    So she decided to rely on her past experiences to manage her episodes herself with rest and good food ie: self-nurture

    As you have written…
    ‘Traditional wisdom suggests a long period of training with plenty of practice and contextual learning is required in order to undertake such journeys safely…
    & that people who you can trust and who know that you are to be looked after; who won’t let you go adrift and sink…

    Most definitely the formula needed!

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