Reflections on ‘Insanity’ | Mitakshara Medhi

By convention, it is said that that behavior which is deviant from the norms and the culture of the individual is called abnormal. Insanity is a name for those who are at the extreme-ness of the deviation. Madness is something that needs to be “eradicated” from this world, because we need to have healthy individuals who are a “productive” part of the society. And if one were to think of a psychosis that is the most common and feared of all, it perhaps is schizophrenia. The “normal” can be differentiated vastly from those who are schizophrenics, because this disorder has every characteristic that a “normal person” does not.

As psychology student, we are made to be “sensitive” to such issues. And in that “sensitivity”, I had chanced upon this book called The Divided Self, by Dr. R.D. Laing. The book took an existential perspective on schizophrenia; a rather fresh perspective in the backdrop of the pathologizing DSM and ICT. The book reminds one of how psychology has essentially forgotten to understand the world of the individual; what remains now is the categorization on some diagnosis or the other, and the medications that come out of it. It can’t be all bad; but it alienates the sufferer. We impose on them a vocabulary that is not just frightening but also limiting in terms of what they are experiencing. Once the labels are in place, they are never seen beyond their labels, beyond their symptoms and medications. This article tries to critique the diagnostic model by providing “the other” perspective. The following understanding is not necessarily what is written in the aforementioned book, but rather the extensions I draw out of reading it.

But what are disorders, in the first place? Do the “patients” suffer because they have the disorder, or do they suffer because we, as a normative population, are unready to accept their version of reality? What I could gather from the book is that we are not very different from them, and perhaps for some of us, the only difference lies in the fact that they are braver in accepting their fate than us. Let me cite an example.

For a person with schizophrenia, one major “symptom” is isolation from the world. This could be explained in terms of how they view their identity. The way we believe we embody our identity varies from theirs. For them, their self is not their bodies. Their bodies, along with the bodies of the other, are simply “objects” – an “it”. Their real self is hidden in the core which they feel vulnerable of losing. Their identity, and their autonomy – they feel they will lose it all if they love someone. Now, is it a strange fear? I don’t think so. I have seen so many real life cases where people lose their selves in love. The very quotation of ‘you are my everything”, seems to denote that once that “you” is lost, so would “everything” be lost. It is indeed a very realistic fear. When in love – with any individual, not necessarily in a romantic sense – a part of us becomes them and a part of them becomes us. Which is why many a times we “pick-up” their way of being – their behaviours and mannerisms. and eventually we try to shirk it off, when we realize what makes us is not our real selves at all. For example, I know of at least three women who feel they are too much like their mothers. They want their own identity, they want freedom from the part that they are like their mothers. But they simply can’t seem to “get-out” of it. So, the fear that you lose your identity – irrespective of how much part of it is lost – is very real, very common.

For a schizophrenic, this fear is heightened. They feel they already have so less of their self left in them, and so hidden, that to lose more of it is scary. And hence, they begin to isolate themselves from the world. Yet, an individual’s identity cannot exist in a vacuum. We derive our identity from the people around us – even if it is to denote our separateness. I know I am different from you, only because I have established my identity, in relation to you. If you go missing from my life and I live in isolation, there would be no separateness to begin with. I will not have an identity. Hence, for a schizophrenic, in their isolation to save their identity, they lose the very identity they are trying to protect. This soon becomes a tug-of-war situation.

There are other drawbacks of love that a schizophrenic undergoes – the same things we undergo as well; only we are either too scared to accept it, or too ignorantly blissful. First, it is the fear of categorization. Once any relationship with others is established, we are put in categories – which are not just restrictive for us as human beings, but also difficult to come out of. For example, I am the “serious studious girl” for most of my friends. So, now, when I want to go out and party, I am given the look of surprise – “oh! I didn’t know you would be doing this”. In a more restrictive sense, I am usually not picked up for, say, a dance performance in the University, despite the fact that I have had formal coaching in classical dance in my childhood. Second, for a schizophrenic (and us), to be loved is to be engulfed. We are continuously suspicious of the other person’s love – do they love us, or do they have some ulterior motives? For them, love is not very different from hatred – it is just a variation of hatred. Third, for a schizophrenic, the people they love or the people who love them are continually trying to bring them back to the “normative” reality, as if something is “wrong” with them. It becomes all the more threatening for them.

Now the reality comes out – we all are schizophrenics, with variations in degrees of intensity. I, for example, have a voice in my head continuously telling me to do everything with perfection. The reason I term it as a schizophrenic voice is because it is not my own. We all have a voice in our heads. We all have the “symptoms” of schizophrenia, in some form. It is about how brave or encouraged we are to accept it. And how we go on making ourselves comfortable with this realization.

This is just a gist of the phenomenological world of the schizophrenic. There is a kind of freedom in madness that the normative reality keeps us from reaching. For example, many a times we have wanted to dance and sing loudly in the middle of the street out of happiness or excitement. But we refrain back to the veil of civilization, out of fear that we will be judged and perhaps even ostracized. But if we, somehow, knew that we are mad, would we hesitate to express ourselves in the same way? Even in the smallest of the thing – say crying loudly when we are sad – get suppressed by our “understanding of reality”. But if we knew we were mad, we wouldn’t think twice before crying.

This understanding, however, comes with a very moralistic dilemma on my part. By viewing mental illness as freedom from the shackles of my daily life, am I underestimating the sufferings they go through? Am I discounting their struggles to lead a decent life? And with this dilemma comes the question – are they suffering because of the disorder, or because of the normative reality we impose on them? For example, I once read an existential case of madness by Scott Kiser (2004), who had a “psychotic breakdown”, and had documented his illness. But after reading his account, I felt that his suffering mainly resulted from the belief that he was not “right” anymore – not “how he used to be”. Not subduing any of his suffering, I want to point to the fact that his very idea of “right” is a normative imposition. His sufferings were only because he could not adhere to this normative imposition anymore. But it is not to blame him. It is to portray the fact that this normative reality is so ingrained in us, so etched in our brains, the very fact that we are not adhering to it makes us suffer. This is accentuated by the people who surround us and continually remind us that something is wrong with us and we need to get back to the normal life. Not everyone can be comfortable in the idea of alternative realities; and it is very difficult to grasp, for someone like me who has not yet suffered as much as he or the others like him have.

But again, with this comes the main question that we as future psychologists must ask ourselves. Why do we want to become psychologists? By giving them therapy, aren’t we trying to impose our version of reality on them too? Isn’t this imposition unethical, and wouldn’t it aggravate their suffering, by making them feel more alien? If a “professional” with a fancy degree tells them that there is something “wrong” with them, they will believe it. They will condemn themselves.

It is indeed a very uncomfortable question to ask or even to accept, given that this is my line of study, and this is how I plan my career path. We would be jobless if everyone were to accept the concept of alternative realities and be comfortable with it. But what if we find other ways? What if, as a therapist, I don’t impose the normative reality on my clients, but rather make them more comfortable in accepting their own reality, whilst, simply adjusting to the other normative ones? Is it possible to do so, without I being the experiencer of the pain? Would I still be discounting their pain?

Something tells me that the answers won’t be easy to come by. And even if they do, they wouldn’t be accepted. It is a long fight ahead.


  • Laing, R. D. (1990). The Divided Self-An Extential Study in Sanity and Madness. Penguin Books.
  • Kiser, S. (2004). An existential case study of madness: Encounters with divine affliction. Journal of Humanistic Psychology44(4), 431-454.

Mitakshara Medhi is pursuing her Master of Arts, in Psychology, from University of Delhi.

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