Exhibition at Gallery Gachet: Beauty of Life In Psychosis

An exhibition featuring work by young artists with lived experience of hearing voices, seeing visions, other unique perceptions, and/or psychosis will be opening tomorrow, May 13th, at Gallery Gachet in Vancouver. The exhibition is based on a peer-led project originally known as the Hearing Voices Art and Storytelling Workshop and later as Beauty of Life In Psychosis (BLIP), which brought people together to create art about their experiences. A catered opening reception will be held from 6-8 pm – no tickets are required. The gallery is also hosting a public event May 20th where community members are invited to drop in between 2-6 pm to add to several collaborative canvases that will be displayed in the gallery. More information about the exhibition is available below.

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Submission: “Skepticism, Psychosis, and Hallucinations as Evidence for Our Beliefs,” by Bradley Astra Aldridge

If mental experiences are inherently influenced by biological and psychological processes, then human experience is intrinsically subjective. Given that these limits apply to the cognitive processes of all human beings, no individual can claim to adopt a viewpoint that is truly objective[…] Rather than hallucinations being an aberration standing in contrast to a normal, objective experience of reality, skepticism can help us to see that all experiences of reality are subjective and contextualized within our own unique life-worlds. Our perceptions don’t just passively record external reality, but reveal the personalized dimensions of our own individual understandings of the world. 

“Skepticism, Psychosis, and Hallucinations as Evidence for Our Beliefs,” Bradley Astra Aldridge

In this thoroughly-researched essay, Bradley Astra Aldridge argues for the benefits of accepting voices as a meaningful part of subjective reality, approaching the topic from a philosophical perspective grounded in skepticism. Tightly argued and drawing on a wide body of literature – including philosophy, psychology, and anthropology – this thought-provoking article expands on the link between trauma and voice-hearing to propose that all perception is ultimately shaped by the personal beliefs and experiences of the perceiver.

About the author: Bradley Astra Aldridge is a voice-hearer and undergraduate philosophy student at the University of British Columbia. He has previously worked as a facilitator of hearing voices groups.

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Submission: “Holism, Not Invalidation: A Schizo/Crazy/Neurodivergent Witch-Bitch Manifesto,” by Sankofa Backwards-Looking Prophetess

Don’t we humans and demigods have the power to make things sacred – especially together? Isn’t that what our magic is all about?

In this manifesto, Sankofa Backwards-Looking Prophetess encourages us to think multi-dimensionally about madness. According to Sankofa, to move beyond invalidation toward genuine understanding, we must bring together decolonial, trauma-informed, biological, and spiritual lenses. Rather than discounting either the usefulness of medication as a tool or the value of spiritual experiences, Sankofa argues for a holistic approach, alchemizing insights from social science, psychiatry, neuroscience, Indigenous ways of knowing, and Sankofa’s own experiences with the otherworldly. Sankofa keeps the reader on their toes with cheeky humour and no shortage of good-natured zeal in this lively exploration of body, politics and magic.

You can read more about Mad Pride and reclaiming words like “crazy” and “mad” here. You can read more about neurodivergence here. As always, different people will have different feelings about the terms and concepts they prefer to use to talk about their experiences.

About the author: Sankofa is a Black and mixed poly, queer, trans and gender-transcending possessed and shapeshifting survivor and prophet who writes from traditional, ancestral and stolen lands of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani); the Tsuut’ina; the Îyâxe Nakoda Nations (including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations); and the Métis Nation (Region 3), where Sankofa resides. Sankofa is eager to join the fight to democratize the arts and obsolesce prescriptivism. Sankofa believes that making art is an inalienable part of being human. Further, Sankofa knows that art is key to decolonization and a better world. Sankofa is a proud and unapologetic schizo witch-bitch. Sankofa’s pronouns are Sankofa/Sankofa/Sankofa’s/Sankofaself.

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Submission: “Hearing Voices: What I Experience,” by Tom

Today I have been hearing voices, and my mind is still, even after all my research and self-reflection, coming up with theories as to where the voices may be coming from and who may be causing them, in a desperate attempt to find the source of the voices and make them stop. No matter how unrealistic or ridiculous I think the theories I come up with are I still believe them to be true. I have to remind myself that there is no evidence or logical reasoning to back these theories up, and that I am just hearing voices again; that there will eventually be an answer as to why I hear them. This whole cycle of becoming distracted and feeling harassed by voices, then having to reject my mind’s theories as to where they are coming from and just accept that I hear them, every single day, becomes exhausting. I find that sharing my experiences with others, whether it be online on a voice hearing website or with people close to me I can trust, helps me both emotionally and psychologically. I hope that writing this essay, and sharing how I hear voices, helps someone who is going through a similar situation.

–“Hearing Voices: What I Experience,” by Tom (excerpt)

Those of us who hear voices often struggle to make sense of the experience. Beyond the fear and confusion we may feel from the voices themselves, it can be difficult to figure out the “right” way of thinking about the experience. Sometimes, we feel torn between competing explanations – or unable to find any satisfactory explanation at all. In this submission, Tom describes his own process of reflection and how he’s forged an understanding of his voices. Tom considers (and dismisses) many different possibilities with care and curiosity, ultimately building a tentative case for the root causes of his experiences. As Tom reminds us in this thorough and insightful essay, having the space to fully explore the personal significance of our experiences is invaluable.

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Submission: Three artworks by Joan

Abstract Painting, n.d.
Acrylic

Today’s blog post features three artworks by Joan, who has lived in the Comox Valley for the past two years and finds creative practice to be a key part of mental health. For Joan, self-expression through art is valuable – but so is the way it connects us to others through a sense of recognition and mutual understanding. Joan writes, “To me altered states, hearing voices, visions… have much more purpose than a diagnostic label.”

These three works evoke a stark and powerful sense of place. As the viewer (or listener), you are transported for a moment to another world: one that is abstracted, shattered, or out on the open sea. At the same time, Joan delivers a message of hope: “I am up. I am breathing. The sun isn’t up yet, but I’m sure it will rise also.”

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Psychosis and Personal Mythology by Rory Neirin Higgs

fashion woman notebook pen
Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

Following the rise of the biogenetic model of psychosis, psychiatric doctrine has held that the cluster of experiences so-encompassed – voices, visions, unusual beliefs, and other non-standard modes of perception – are little more than chemical noise, devoid of any real meaning or relationship to a person’s life. Many clinicians maintain that encouraging patients to talk or even think about the content of their psychosis feeds an illness that should be starved, constructing psychosis as a kind of malignancy that invades and cannibalizes the afflicted’s senses.1,2 But this explanation doesn’t always fit comfortably to the contours of lived experience. Since my own diagnosis, I have come to think of my psychosis (or, as I have sometimes preferred, “personal mythology”) not as a disease that hollowed out my capacity for self-knowledge, but as a strange and lovely cipher.

For me, the grain from which voices, visions, and unusual beliefs take root is typically an inner impulse that I am not yet able to address directly. I am confronted with a reality that is too threatening or confusing to assimilate into my conventional belief system, and the thematic kernel of it finds other ways to communicate itself. For instance, while reflecting on an instance of childhood abuse, I recently found myself wondering whether there was something inherently wrong with me that could have provoked it. Unable to sit still with the possibility that others chose to harm me of their own volition, my thoughts paced towards alternative explanations: perhaps, as a child, some kind of mind control beacon was implanted in my brain that caused people to mistreat me despite their best efforts? On its face, this is an impossible contortion of logic. But in that moment, it was the only way I could translate my feelings of self-blame and denial about the cruelty of other people into a tolerable narrative about my life. Once I calmed down, I was able to reassess this belief – but made note of the autobiographical information woven into it, in the threads of insecurity, shame, and betrayal.

Traumatologists maintain that a central characteristic of traumatic memory is that it is incompletely processed and integrated – more of a gallery of disjointed images than a coherent narrative.3 Accordingly, research suggests that traumatized people are less able to articulate our experiences verbally.4 If ordinary life events are remembered, it may be more appropriate to say that traumatic ones are dismembered. To draw again from personal experience: some months ago, I decided to start talking to others about an abusive relationship I had been in, spanning several years. I was stymied by the realization that I didn’t know where to start. There was no beginning or end to what I could remember, no backbone of “and this is why it all happened” to bind the story together. I found myself with only scattered vignettes that I struggled to gather into a legible shape, like crushed glass rendered from what must have once been an ornate cathedral window.

It wasn’t long before peculiar beliefs began their restless turning over in my skull. In the past, these beliefs – or delusions – had grown rampantly where they sprouted, elaborating into something vast and sprawling faster than I could prune them. This time, they merely flashed through me, like the spark of some secret metabolism. I’ve learned that this reflex to mythologize is how I come to tell my formless stories. Literary trauma theory has investigated the idea that both autobiographical and fictionalized life-writing are a way of synthesizing meaning from traumatic debris,5,6 and psychiatry itself has employed related clinical practices, particularly during its psychoanalytic heyday.7 Delusion, I would argue, behaves similarly. It pulls symbolic and exaggerated elements into the orbit of an essential truth in order to describe its gravity. In storytelling about my life – even or perhaps especially in this abstract, subconscious form – I am drawing maps between memories, across the black and foaming gulf that would strand them.

The emerging field of narrative therapy has similarly embraced the power of storytelling. Narrative therapy holds that the stories we internalize about ourselves inform how we interact with the world, and that exploring the origin and significance of these stories can guide us in establishing new ways of thinking.8 Likewise, cognitive psychology has suggested that memory is not a photographic but a constructive process, involving the incorporation of our preexisting ideas – or narratives – about the world, and that recounting events to others helps us to recall information about them later on.9 To me, this again demonstrates the importance of storytelling in organizing memory. Perhaps, for those of us who have never had the opportunity to tell our stories in our own words, who have become accustomed to the grisly work of dis-membering, the personal mythology of delusion offers a sanctuary: a domain in which we are free to speak about our injuries without the intrusion of outside perspectives. Society cannot or will not follow us into this magical-metaphoric thicket. Here, we are free to imagine and reimagine our experiences in ways that would otherwise be forbidden to us.

I think of the stories I told, glossolalic, through my psychosis. I think of how documenting this mythopoetic otherworld was, for me, a kind of testimony, laying claim to my role as author and narrator of my past. And I think of how psychiatry’s response of enforced silence and forgetting only intensified my need for meaning-making – how urgent it became to excavate the things I had interred. Psychologists have observed that the content of an individual’s psychosis is often related to past experiences,10 but I would take this conclusion a step further. My voices, visions and beliefs have been not only a distorted reflection of life, but their own vital truth, running parallel and symbiotic to my “sane” understanding of the world. I am re-membering the past, now, returning the red and beating soul to the sterile, lifeless history I had cleaved from it. I no longer hold the beliefs that characterized my psychosis as literal truth. But I have great respect for the stories I have told, and will continue to tell.

References

  1. McCabe, R., Heath, C., Burns, T., & Priebe, S. (2002). Engagement of patients with psychosis in the consultation: conversation analytic study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.)325(7373), 1148–1151. doi:10.1136/bmj.325.7373.1148
  2. Wang, E. W. (2015, October 1). Toward a Pathology of the Possessed. Retrieved from https://believermag.com/toward-a-pathology-of-the-possessed/
  3. Bessel A. van der Kolk, James W. Hopper & Janet E. Osterman (2001) Exploring the nature of traumatic memory. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 4:2, 9-31. doi: 10.1300/J146v04n02_02
  4. Miragoli, S., Camisasca, E., & Di Blasio, P. (2017). Narrative fragmentation in child sexual abuse: The role of age and post-traumatic stress disorder. Child Abuse & Neglect,73, 106-114. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.09.028
  5. Caruth, C. (1996). Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  6. Henke, S. A. (2008). Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Life-Writing. New York, NY: St. Martins Press.
  7. Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988). SUNY series in philosophy of the social sciences. Narrative knowing and the human sciences.Albany, NY, US: State University of New York Press.
  8. Morgan, A. (2002). What Is Narrative Therapy?: An Easy-to-Read Introduction. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.
  9. Pezdek, K. (2003). Event memory and autobiographical memory for the events of September 11, 2001. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17(9), 1033–1045.doi:10.1002/acp.984
  10. McCarthy-Jones, S., & Longden, E. (2015). Auditory verbal hallucinations in schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder: common phenomenology, common cause, common interventions?. Frontiers in psychology6, 1071. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01071