My Beautiful Psychosis: Making Sense of Madness by Emma Goude is a gripping, up close and personal look at what it’s actually like to experience psychosis. The author’s honesty and complete openness quickly shatter any stereotypes of psychosis being frightening and dangerous.
The book begins with the events leading up to the author’s first episode of psychosis. When she is hospitalized, the first doctor she sees asks three questions: “Do you know who you are?” “Do you know how you got here?” “Do you know who I am?” The description of Emma’s attempts to formulate responses to these seemingly simple questions offers a powerful insight into how psychosis affects basic thought processes.
As is the case for far too many of us who’ve been admitted to a psychiatric ward, Emma was soon mowed down by a paternalistic approach. A doctor who’d asked no questions about what she was experiencing informed her that she had psychosis, and told her what had brought it on. She observes that it was “a psychiatric system that operated as if it did know and if you didn’t agree with it you were seen as non-compliant, which only served as further evidence of your insanity.”
She writes that she stopped taking medications after discharge due to side effects. While the book doesn’t take a broad anti-medication stance, Emma makes it clear that for her it hasn’t been a good fit. Despite thinking at the time she would be unlikely to have another episode, the psychosis reemerged six years later in what would be an ongoing pattern of episodes.
Emma’s descriptions of what it was like in the midst of psychosis were impeccable. A few instances that stood out for me:
- She believed that she was able to hear her boyfriend telepathically and hear multiple voices, and as these things were occurring, she recognized that they were unusual, but they just seemed to make so much sense.
- When she sees lights flashing she believes she’s not hallucinating, and is determined to solve the mystery. She looks outside and entertains the thought that is might be fairies in the garden, musing “I don’t believe in stuff like that, but I’m not ruling it out.”
- Describing an experience while in hospital: “She ever-so-gently, without making an incision, removes the eggs from my ovaries one by one. I feel a small tug as each is pulled out. I guess that means I won’t be having any children.”
- Once she asked her father how he could be sure she was not dead, thinking that might explain the spirits and strange worlds she was seeing. He responded that she must be alive because she needed to eat. She pondered that, and concluded that it made sense and she would need to find another way to account for the “weirdness”.
- During one episode she was quite seriously contemplating extracting one of her teeth with a claw hammer.
The author’s interpretation of her psychotic episodes was that they represented spiritual emergencies rather than medical ones. The book follows her exploration of a variety of spiritual practices in an attempt to find healing on a deeper level. On multiple occasions, though, participating in spiritual retreats actually triggered episodes of psychosis, and it was interesting as a reader to see her evolving awareness and ability to recognize when an episode was coming on. One night after day at a shiatsu training retreat, she writes that “I get the feeling that God’s around again. Oh dear. That probably means another episode is on its way already.”
The book draws to a close as the author becomes involved (as a filmmaker) in a training program to introduce the Open Dialogue model of care to the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS). It’s a model that was developed in Finland is person-centred rather than illness-centred, and emphasizes the role of community and working together. People are supported in making sense of their own experiences and making their own decisions.
Open Dialogue thus became the spark for this book. Emma has a remarkable way of understanding psychosis as something that can be transformative, healing, and a process of finding wholeness. She describes it as a way to access a realm of greater perception than what we’re normally limited to, and to identify the parts of the self that need to be processed and integrated. She adds that to label these experiences as delusions or hallucinations devalues them.
Though Emma’s perspective on psychosis clearly goes against a biomedical view, her stance is clearly well thought out, and it’s a very hopeful, strengths-based way of looking at the condition. Personally, a have a fairly strong biological leaning, in part because of my health professional background but also because medications have been very important for me, but I appreciated that she kept her interpretations focused on her own experience and and the potential for others to find healing without extrapolating to everyone who experiences mental ill health. There should be plenty of room for all individuals to interpret their condition in the way that is most meaningful and healing for them, and everyone living with mental illness deserves to be empowered to approach their condition in a way that is consistent with their beliefs and understanding.
Throughout the book I appreciated how the author was able to describe things that were profoundly unusual as taking place in a normal, matter-of-fact way. She effectively capturing how reasonable psychotic ideas can seem in the midst of them, and how it’s possible to recognize things are unusual but at the same time accept them as real. I was experiencing some psychotic symptoms of my own as I was reading, and Emma’s words really resonated with me.
This book is a must read for anyone wanting to know what psychosis actually feels like as opposed to the picture that stereotypes paint. It’s also a great way to raise awareness about the Open Dialogue movement, which sounds like it has a great deal of potential to accomplish some very positive things.
You can find out more about Open Dialogue here.
My Beautiful Psychosis is available on Amazon.
I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
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