What is Madness?



Madness is Terrorism

I am dangerous. My brain is twisted in a way that makes me a danger to myself and others. The horror – you’d have to be mad to do something like that – becomes the fear – if you’re mad, you’ll do something like that. Violence and madness are defined in each other: if I’m mad, I’m going to be violent; any violence that isn’t allowed is madness. And any violence that is socially permitted isn’t violence, but for my own good. I’m a terrible risk, and so I need to be cut out of society. I am a terrorist.

Madness is Neurosis

I am messed up. Through some trauma, some event or series of problems, I can’t react to the world in a whole and healthy way: I act out, I have defence mechanisms that hurt me and people around me. I have unhealthy desires that get in the way of my wellbeing. I need to be helped. If I talk it through enough in the approved way, I’ll identify my trauma, come to terms with it, and find better ways to be in the world. I am a neurotic.

Madness is Laziness

I am a scrounger. I can’t be bothered to earn a wage like the rest of us, so I’m scamming other people. I’m manipulative, looking for any way to get cash that doesn’t involve lifting a finger. I rip off the state and I leech off my friends and family. Don’t help me: you’re enabling me to indulge myself and I’ll never get better that way. I need to pull myself together. I need some tough love: if you take the support I don’t deserve away from me I’ll learn to stand on my own two feet. I am lazy.

Madness is Invasion

I’m not myself. Something has got into me, something has changed me. Maybe it’s demonic possession; maybe it’s a terrible illness; maybe it’s a manipulative friend. Something from outside of me is hurting me. It’s not my fault. We need to find out what it is and get rid of it: exorcise the demon, cut out the tumour, leave the abuser. I am invaded.

Madness is Insight

I am special. I am a shaman, a magician, an artist, a traveller. My unique brain gives me a powerful perspective on the world that you can all learn from. Sometimes it’s scary for you and sometimes it’s painful for me, but we need to honour my fire. If I embrace my gift, I will learn how to manage it; if you respect my energy, you will learn how to love it. I have so much to offer. I am insightful.

Madness is Generational Malaise

I am a Millennial. My whole generation is pathetic. We have been taught to have far too high expectations by our coddling parents; we all think we’re special and can’t stand anything difficult, any struggle. Or else our brains have been reshaped by constant connectivity, by staring at screens too much and too long, by always being worried about what our friends are thinking, by always projecting the perfect image of ourselves, so that we can’t can’t settle, can’t accept ourselves. I need to switch off. Grow a pair. Calm down. Get real. Get married. Get a job. Grow up. I am my generation.

Madness is Difference

I’m not like you. Something about my brain, my body, my mind, diverges from the norm and makes me a minority in society. People don’t understand me, and society is set up to disadvantage, disregard and disempower me. Anyone who’s not normal gets punished, and that’s why I hurt. You need to accept me; you need to make space for me; you need to understand how I am and support me in building a society that looks after everyone, no matter how strange they are. We should destroy the whole idea of normal. I am different.

Madness is Disorder

I’m not working properly. My mind is out of whack with how we all think it should be, and that’s hurting us. Perhaps it’s a twist in my synapses; perhaps I’m missing a part of my brain; perhaps I’ve learned the wrong lessons from life; perhaps the drugs have messed with me too much. I need experts to work out exactly what’s wrong with me through the correct identification of symptoms in a rigorously organised system which will also outline the advised courses of treatment. There is hope, but I might be incurable. I do not fit the order, and I should. I am disordered.

Madness is Chemistry

I have a brain that’s gone wrong somehow. My neurotransmitters are misfiring, or something like that. I need to experiment with different treatments to get the chemicals in my brain back to levels that won’t hurt me, that will stop me behaving so strangely, so badly. I should try drugs, I should try yoga, I should try eating better, I should try CBT, I should try turning off all electronics before I try to go to sleep, I should get more exercise, I should try different drugs. I am my chemistry.

Madness is Capitalist Kyriarchal Oppression

I have been broken by the system. Our economy uses up workers until they can’t work any more: I’m all used up. I am constantly being sold new desires, constantly being told to buy a better way to be, so no wonder I’m unsatisfied. I am at the bottom of the heap, so no wonder I’m sad. I have to keep finding new people to exploit me in case I fall into poverty and disaster, and I’m shackled by a system designed to keep me in want, so no wonder I’m scared. Our society forces people into boxes so as to better exploit them, so no wonder I’m trying to break out. My society is trying to kill me, so no wonder I’m fighting back. I am fighting back.

Madness is Ambiguity

I am a mess. I have ideas of madness that work together and contradict each other. They overlap; they muddle together to create new ideas of what madness is. They argue against each other. They all live in society, and they all live in me. Some of them make me hurt more, and some of them help me find ways to hurt less. Sometimes an idea of madness that helped me hurt less turns round and bites me; sometimes an idea of madness that I’ve railed against turns out to have something useful in it. In order to survive being mad, I need to be able to shift between these ideas of madness.

What does it mean, to madden a thought? To make a theory mad? Madness is both irrationality and the excess of rationality, which, in my society, brewing up a muddle of bias, logic and pragmatism to call just common sense, is the same thing. To be mad is to think too hard, to not think enough. To be mad is to be unable to live with just one idea of how you are, how you should be: there is no idea of madness which is wholly liveable. I drift back and forth between these worlds; in the acceptance of that oscillation, I’ve found, is something like coping. To be mad – or to be mad well – is – I think, I guess, I suggest – to embrace that madness and madness and madness are irreconcilable. I am ambiguous. I am mad.

* * *

These ideas and their theoretical basis owe much to the work of Darcy Leigh, and to dozens of mad conversations about how best to be alive.

For further reading on radical and mad-centred approaches to mental health, all of which have shaped my understanding somehow, see:

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