Tag Archives: madness

The power to choose how we respond

There’s a popular line of wisdom that goes ‘we always have the power to choose how we respond’. For general purposes, it’s a useful line of thought. Often, when we have nothing else, we do still have power over our own reactions. What we say and do in response to circumstances is ours to decide, and how we act throughout an experience is our choice.

Except when it isn’t.

This failure to recognise what happens when you no longer get to choose how to respond is really unhelpful for people who experience that.

You don’t get to choose how to respond unless you are able to move or express yourself in some way. There are many physical conditions that can take some, or all of that away. You may still get some choice about what you think, but there are also illnesses, accidents and experiences that can rob you of this, as well.

Panic attacks are not a choice. Hiding them is feasible for some of us sometimes, but not for everyone. A severe panic attack takes away your choices about what you can do and say, think and feel.

Conditioning – which is most likely to happen in an abusive and controlling situation – takes away your ability to choose. If pain and fear have been used to train you to react in certain ways, you don’t have the freedom to choose your responses until you have first dealt with the conditioning.

Everyone has a breaking point. For all of us, there is scope for experiencing more than can be coped with and breaking down in a way that means there is no choice about much of what we do. Anyone can be driven mad by excesses of horror, and suffering, by gaslighting, by sleep deprivation and other forms of torture.

Not having the power to choose how you respond is a terrible thing to have to deal with. We do not have to add to that by repeating the lie that we all, always have the choice of how to respond. Sometimes there are no options available. Sometimes minds and bodies are too broken for choice to exist.


The language of Madness

I’ve been conscious for a while now that abelist language is a thing, and that how we talk about various forms of disability, and how we use it as metaphor needs keeping an eye on. As a person with mental health issues, how should I talk about madness?

It is important to me to talk about it. I don’t feel at ease with more clinical language, I want to talk experientially and about feelings. I think if I want to describe myself as having been ‘bat shit crazy’ then that’s ok. There’s issues about reclaiming words and undermining them as insults.

It’s difficult at the moment because cognitive dissonance is everywhere, and there seem to be a lot of people who would rather, for example, contrive complex conspiracy theories about how someone has made a hurricane happen rather than deal with the issue of climate change. What do we call that aside from madness? In psychological terms, the line between sane and not sane is all about functionality. I see so many people who are so in denial about environmental issues, that they are not functional. It might even be technically accurate to refer to this as insanity.

We’re collectively quick in the wake of a mass killing to talk about the killer’s mental health problems (when we’re talking about a white guy). The major problem with this is that it can lead to the impression that mentally ill people are dangerous. In practice, most of us pose no risk to anyone but ourselves. The trouble is that not all forms of madness are created equally.

I’m conscious that there are many Pagan practices which, in their ecstatic and dramatic extremes, take a person out of consensus reality and into something the consensus considers insane – hearing and seeing that which others do not, knowing things from this experience… conversations about shamanism especially, and madness have been going on for some time.

I’m also conscious of the madness of creativity. Again, it’s an ecstatic form, wild, deranged, visionary, extreme, profoundly dysfunctional and potentially life wrecking, but also able to think otherwise unthinkable things and bring beauty into the world. The risk of talking about this in terms of madness is that we romanticise and make attractive the kinds of experiences that can also kill people.

Along the way I’ve known a number of people whose relationship with reality has, by anyone’s standard, broken down dramatically at some point. In some cultures, this would have made them holy, important, their experiences re-framed as something significant to their community. Even in Christian history we see space, historically, for the holy fool, the mad mystic. When did we collectively decide that madness was a shameful thing that should be locked away, hidden from sight and never spoken of? And more recently, medicated out of sight? I know that the vast majority of low level mental health issues – depression and anxiety – are caused by our workplaces and other stressors like poverty and insecurity. We are to tidy it up and hide it away and not deal with the sick systems creating it.

Madness takes many forms. Some of its forms are so hideous and destructive that there’s nothing we can currently do except institutionalise the sufferers. Some years ago I knew someone who worked in that kind of environment. We’re still hiding the worst of it under the social rug, and most of us have no idea what goes on. Changing what we call it can just be a new way of hiding it from ourselves.

I can’t find any easy edges around when and how we should be talking about madness, and when we shouldn’t use that kind of language, because so much of what I see around me is itself insane. I think we need to be more willing to talk about the madness inherent in the system. Madness is not just something that happens to you, it can be the direct consequence of a deliberate choice not to deal with reality. Say and for example, by being in denial about what all the violent weather might possibly mean.

what will your demon do?

c. Tom Brown

I have a fascination with demons – the sort that live inside your head, and mine… the sort that are born of nightmare and fear, and also the ones that might be real. They crop up every now and then in my stories. This is Gary. He’s not from round here.

“My demon, who fashions Danish pastries with fingers born from the leavings of madness. He crafts so sweetly, living to delight. Who knows what those flaming eyes have seen, peering into the midnight places of soul and monstrosity. Cupcakes, light and pleasing. Croissants so airy they might float. Let me share my demon with you, children. Let me show you how he transforms tears into honey. An alchemy like no other. There are stories he could tell of degradation, the very worst one being can inflict on another, to make idle daydreams of your precious heartbreak. He cooks waffles and brownies. Spreads syrup and cocoa. It is a better magic. Is it enough to cry out in pain, describing the worst? Making a culture of compromised flesh and hope. We could bleed the world to death, you and I. Is this why we sought out poetry? To wade knee deep in fluid metaphors for torment? Chasing the title of bard because we are wounded. A world of Fisher Kings, and no one pure enough to seek the Grail. Let go. Forgive yourselves for all you have endured and lost. Make stories, turn it to crystallised history. Give the past no power over the future you shape. Pared to the bone, you must grow new flesh. Grow wings and tails, horns and haloes. Be more than downtrodden. Be the beautiful essence pain has revealed. Fertile, tree growing soil, not barren wasteland, holding tight to every poison that stripped it. We are not what they did to us. We are ourselves, and true. My demon bakes fairy cakes, light as laughter. Look yours in the eyes, be they ever so fierce. Look your demon in the eyes and demand to know what good it means to do.”

Fast Food at the Centre of the World, happening in 2015.

How not to go mad

I watch friends struggling with depression and other mental health issues. I’ve had a few fights of my own, although am starting to feel like I may be winning. I am increasingly convinced that the regular end of mental ill-health (depression, anxiety, crippled by self esteem issues etc) has far less to do with being ill as an individual, and far more to do with living in a sick society. Ideally we need to fix the society, but in the meantime, knowing may well help.

1)      Exhaustion triggers mental illness. Lack of rest creates self-esteem issues. Being run ragged all the time with no respite makes people anxious, stressed and ill. Insufficient sleep makes people ill. This is the hectic modern lifestyle in action, ever longer work hours, ever more demands and a finite number of hours in the day. Modern work makes people ill.

2)      Being burdened with responsibility but no power to act makes people ill. We have a blame culture, it is hard to own mistakes, whistleblowers are not well protected and we’re barraged with news about all that is wrong in the world, and there’s so little most of us can do as individuals.

3)      Consumerism. We are constantly sold the idea that to be happy and socially accepted and to have status, we must buy more stuff. The stuff we have already is out of date and not good enough. This keeps us buying, which serves the economy, but it does not ever give us a sense of social security, status or success. The goalposts keep moving. We get depressed.

4)      Lack of social contact. We evolved to live collectively and co-operatively. The absence of work-life balance, the rise of solitary, technology based entertainment and the pressures of money isolate us, and being isolated will make you miserable.

5)      Lack of green spaces. There’s plenty of evidence that getting outside in green spaces, even for as little as five minutes a day, will improve your mental health. Time and money pressures don’t help us with this one, and access to pleasant green spaces can be a big issue, too. Fear of crime keeps people indoors and a culture that depends on the car far too much means we don’t walk and meet people.

There’s probably more, do add your thoughts in the comments. We live in crazy times. To seem well, functional and happy in face of all of this, I think you have to be quite a strange sort of creature. We need to stop being driven mad, and start getting mad about how we’re being required to live.

Madness and Creativity

This may not bear much resemblance to what I said at Asylum, because I was winging it, but following on from Tom’s Guest blog, some more thoughts about the curious relationship between the two.

The list of identifiably mad creative genius types, is shocking. Depression and mental instability are widespread in the creative community and always have been. However, there are also far more ill people who do not produce great works of art or literature. Being mad means not working, usually, while suicide has cut short too many lives. How different would the world be if Virginia Wolf, Sylvia Plath Thomas Chatterton and others had not taken their own lives? How much more could Poe or Tennyson have done if they’d not been fighting demons? Periods of madness tend to be periods of creative inactivity.  I don’t know if having poor mental health is more likely to attract you to artistic professions, or if the irregular hours and it being okay to not work when you can’t is a part of the correlation. Perhaps being creative runs the risk of driving you mad…

Mostly we measure madness as deviation from normality. You only have to go back a few hundred years and the people we would now medicate, were considered mystics. These days if you went into the desert and heard a voice instructing you to kill your son, you’d be taken into care, you wouldn’t be founding Judaism. It creates some interesting questions about the history of religion, too. Go into a supermarket in your Druid regalia, or your steampunk outfit and if you are the only one, people will look at you like you are crazy. Go in with twenty other folks who are also dressed up, and its instantly more socially acceptable. The impression of madness can be all about the numbers. This rather suggests that if enough of us take up the alternative, the crazy fringe stuff, we could make it normal. There are interesting and amusing implications to this.

To do anything creative, you have to think of things no one has ever thought of before. An excess of thinking things no one else thinks means dislocation from consensus reality. This alone would account for the close relationship between insanity and genius. It’s a bit of a balancing act and for some of us there is a choice. Plunging into the deep waters of awen in search of the salmon of wisdom, can be a deliberate action. Stay in there too long, and you drown. You can also chose not to plunge, to control the mind so that errant thoughts are quickly discarded. We construct our own realities and we have a lot of scope to choose and manage our own thoughts.

There’s a lovely Robert Holdstock term for people who stay too long in the magical forest: Bosky. I have been there. I write about madness. I voluntarily enter into situations that alter my state of consciousness (not drugs, brain chemistry). I am not afraid to think the wilder, more dangerous thoughts, and a great deal of my writing comes out of these journeys. However, I also know how to walk that tightrope, dancing down the edges without falling into dysfunction. I know how to stay real, when to step back from the computer and clean something, cook something, reassert regular reality.

I also know from experience that mental ill health is not creative. Depression and anxiety knock the inspiration out of me, leaving me in a dead and useless head space. Creativity actually takes a lot of discipline, a loss of mental balance does not give you that, wild flailings are seldom creative, which is why merely being a bit mad will not make you a creative genius. It may be true that some of our great creative minds took substances to help them, but taking substances will not turn you into Coleridge, or Hendrix. Vision without discipline isn’t enough.

Playing with that which seems like madness can be a very good thing. It is only by thinking of that which does not exist, has not happened, is not currently possible, that we get innovation, and that’s as true for science as for fiction. I think it’s the person who makes those journeys alone who is most vulnerable. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back, have someone watch your back. Test the ideas on one you trust so you know if you’ve come back with poetry or bat shit crazy. A little more of the right kind of madness would make the world a much better place.

Guest Blog: After the Asylum

(At Asylum this weekend, Tom told a story that he had promised to share when the time was right – one about the origins of Salamandra. I’m re-posting it here for the various people who didn’t catch the panel, and because I feel this is a good sort of story and that there is a lot of power in sharing it. The panel was about the relationship between creativity and madness, this was Tom’s bit.)


After The Asylum, by Tom Brown


A while ago, I made a promise on Facebook that if Hopeless Maine were to become successful, I would tell you all a story. Well… I’m here, at this event with all of you present, sharing a stage with Professor Elemental. People from Poland, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada and other exotic, far off places have been kind enough to tell us that they have enjoyed their stay. Finally, we share a publisher with the creations of Jim Henson (A personal hero of mine. A man who embraced his quirks and ran with them) Jeremy Bastion, creator of Cursed Pirate Girl, and Chandra Free of The God Machine. I think we can at least declare a qualified success. So… here we go…

Salamandra, our young Experimental Occultist, the heart and soul of our story, was born in a transitional homeless shelter. At the age of forty, I went mad. I had what is commonly referred to as a nervous breakdown. It’s sadly a very common event (especially amongst creative types) I became unable to work and lost my home and many other things I had taken for granted for my entire life up to that time. I simply had not seen this coming and there was no way I could have been prepared for it or what was to follow.

So, after spending some time in a crisis centre, I was delivered to the shelter. I will always be grateful to the staff there who treated me with care, and, the thing I most desperately needed at that time, respect.

I am… an odd sort of person. Those who know me might well protest that this would be an understatement. Therefore, I became focussed on the question ‘what would be a good thing right now?’ Well, as Neil Gaiman said recently (I paraphrase) No matter what happens, make good art. That’s what I set out to do. I had an old project that I thought had unrealised potential. I was called New England Gothic: A dark story with a Victorian setting, on the island of Hopeless, Maine. I started writing and drawing pages, sat at the common table at the shelter. A wonderful thing happened, actually, several. Salamandra came to me. (At that point, her middle name was Weaselgrease. Remember, please, I had just had a breakdown.) I say she came to me because it did not seem to me that I had invented her at all. She was much too real for that. I was just the lucky creator she chose. The other good thing that happened was that other people in the shelter took interest and sat and talked to me, and watched me work. Their mood visibly brightened. There was not much to be excited about in that place. Sal was already tuning out to be a good thing.

The road back from being broken was long and not without complication. I did travel tht road though, and I brought Sal with me. The most important step in that journey, for me, and for Sal was when I was assigned a cover job for a book by Nimue. I fell in love with the writing (firt) and I knew this was the person I wanted to write a short origin story for Sal. It was clear to me immediately that Nimue understood Salamandra better and more deeply than I did. As you may have gathered she did agree to write Hopeless Maine, and then later, to marry me.

Why a I telling you all this? I think it’s important for people to know that it’s possible to fall and find your way back up again. It’s even possible to find something that shines and has worth, at the darkest times.


(Nimue again… writing about Salamandra always felt like writing about someone I had met. It’s been an epic journey for all three of us. Sal has grown up in the stories, and developed a family tree of considerable complication. I fell in love with the art, and rapidly with the man behind the art. I also got to watch about two thirds of the journey, knowing from early on in our working partnership that Tom had walked through hell and survived. He’s done a lot more than just survive though. Out of a harrowing experience, he’s built something magical and profound, his work, and his attitude to life continue to inspire me. The decision to talk publically about such deeply personal things, was a big one to take, but one of the things we have both found is that sharing makes a difference. So many people go through times of intense pain and crisis. In Tom’s case, it was precipitated by horrendous pressures and a very dodgy prescription for ADHD. No two stories are ever quite the same, but knowing it is possible to come back makes a world of difference. I took a long, dark walk in recent years, and knowledge that it could be endured, that it did not mean the end of my creativity, my usefulness as a human being, helped me enormously. And so we share.

Much love to Professor Elemental, who shared in this public exploration of the relationship between madness and creativity, bringing some much needed lighter notes to a hard topic. Living through madness is hell. Playing with madness is wild, and being creative is always a bit insane. )