Insanity as Theater of the Absurd

During my most recent stay in a psych unit at the local hospital, the psychiatrist to whom I was assigned pressed me to attend art therapy daily.  While at first I resisted, as I always do – there is something faintly insulting about being asked to play with glitter glue and coloring books – eventually I gave in.  During one session of “Occupational Therapy”, the mental patients, self included, were instructed to create collages where each image supported an inspirational saying or self-affirmation.  We were given a list of affirmations to choose from, or we could create our own.

I chose to create a collage supporting the idea, “Insanity as a Theater of the Absurd.”  I cut out a picture of a goldfish, pasted it on top of a picture of the Australian outback, and pasted the whole thing onto a little notebook.  I was very proud of my art, and I wrote bad sonnets inside of the notebook afterward.  I can write a bad sonnet in about twenty minutes, but I don’t know how long it would take me to write a good sonnet, as I have never accomplished that feat. 

I have been thinking about insanity and absurdity quite a bit lately.  Because I live with a mental illness, I rarely think about insanity.  I have been taught to accept a medical model for my experiences, and to reject the label of madness or insanity, and thus to reject alternative interpretations of the experiences which the medical model labels as bipolar disorder, type I.  I wish to be clear: I do not subscribe to any romantic notion that mental illness is really a kind of artist’s blessing, or else that mentally ill people would have been hailed as prophets hundreds of years ago.  But I do wish to be able to hold in tension both the idea that I have an illness for which there are treatments available, and the idea that my experiences can tell me something about the world and about the nature of human existence.

For one thing, any experience with madness – a term which I use in a non-pejorative sense to describe the experiences free of any medical connotations – will at once show the mad person that their mind is not a purely integrated thing.  Six months ago, while driving by myself down the street in broad daylight, I got into a noisy argument with myself about whether or not I ought to kill myself.  I had been having persistent unpleasant thoughts the entire day, and the part of myself which I think of as “me” decided to yell at the part of myself I think of as “depression” until “depression” shut up about self injury and self-murder for at least a little while.

For another, any experience with madness will expose the mad person to long periods of tedium, punctuated by occasional profound sorrow and, rarely, mortal terror.  Depression is extraordinarily boring, and compulsions to self harm become very dull after a while also.  But the long, suicidal night is a profound and philosophical experience; after one has spent the night standing on the edge of a bridge looking down at the water, one can never fear death again in the same way.  I have experienced no fear greater than during brief moments of psychosis, when I came to believe that I was possessed by a demon, and that the demon would slowly eat me alive. 

As for absurdity, what other word best describes the state of psychiatric care in the United States today?  Our laws allow us to deprive mentally ill people of their civil liberties to a shocking extent, but only for brief periods of time nowhere near long enough to provide adequate medical care.  We have closed down hospitals and reverted to kicking the mad out into the streets until such time as they are arrested for vagrancy or petty crimes, and we have no reasonable system for allowing family members to commit deeply ill people to a hospital for care while at the same time preventing family members at least as mad as the patient from interfering too far.  Medications that treat illnesses common among the poor cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month, and until recently many insurance plans refused even to cover the cost of a doctor’s visit for a mentally ill person.  Yet at the same time every time there is a mass shooting, the news media bleat about the state of mental health care in America.  What other word for that but absurd?

And what other word but absurd for the interior of a mental hospital, where patients so drugged on antipsychotics that they are thick lipped, stumbling, and clumsy are led in jazzercise routines and given knives to carve pumpkins with? 

So I’ve decided to write about insanity – because I am a mad person; absurdity – because I dearly love a laugh; and philosophy – because I studied philosophy for three brief, lovely years, and because I rarely have a chance to talk about it any longer.  I am not a scholar, and so I will not write in a scholarly way, though I may on occasion reference scholarly works or original sources. 

Finally, I make no promises about updating.  I am writing this blog for myself and for my own pleasure.  If I choose to write about feminism one week or prison riots in another, then at least I’ve written something; and if I don’t write for a month, it’s because I have better things to do.

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