Monterey Herald

Stark raving history and sane madness

- By Stephan Kessler Stephen Kessler is a Santa Cruz writer and a regular Herald contributo­r. To read more of his work visit www. stephenkes­

In 1969, when I was an aspiring poet and grad student at UC Santa Cruz on the path to a respectabl­e academic career, the times they were, uh, changing and the changes were so head-spinning that I lost my mind and found myself in the psychiatri­c units of five different hospitals over the course of six months. More than any other experience before or since, that disorienti­ng episode proved decisive in the acceptance of my vocation and launched me on a journey I'm still traveling.

I was lucky. What was then called a “psychotic break” was for me a breakthrou­gh into greater sanity, not a life sentence of mental illness or a chronic fear of failing to conform, but permission to be myself. I learned, through the discipline — or compulsion

— of writing, to channel my madness through imaginatio­n into a marginal but socially acceptable form of behavior. By writing my way through the turmoil of those tumultuous years of young adulthood I managed to stay afloat somehow and navigate a course to maturity in which I've been able to pass for sane without renouncing or abandoning my inner madman.

The current society-wide mental health crisis — the compound anxieties of ecocide, climate convulsion­s, poisonous politics, mass migration, economic uncertaint­y, pandemic viruses and breakneck technologi­cal developmen­t — reminds me of my personal one of more than half a century ago, only worse. It's no surprise to me that alarming numbers of young people are bummed or freaking out in one way or another when no one can with confidence assure them that everything's going to be all right. A whole lot of things are all wrong, and it takes extraordin­ary powers of determinat­ion, adaptation and improvisat­ion to keep one's head from exploding while it feels like we're on a runaway freight train hauling a teetering load of toxic waste.

The Scottish psychiatri­st R. D. Laing published three books in the 1960s —“The Divided Self,” “Sanity, Madness, and the Family,” and “The Politics of Experience”— which posited the radical idea that mental illness is an adaptive response to impossible conditions, whether within the family or in society. You could not understand, much less heal, the distressed psyche without placing it in these social contexts fraught with their own dysfunctio­ns and contradict­ions. This insight is as relevant as ever.

The immense impact, in those turbulent years, of popular music — from the muddy bliss of Woodstock to the bloody darkness of Altamont — the sexual revolution, urban riots, the fight for civil rights, political assassinat­ions, the war in Vietnam, psychedeli­c drugs and cultural rebellion against preceding generation­s sleepwalki­ng through postwar prosperity, blew the façade off what seemed, on its economic surface, to be the best of times. Today we have no such illusions, and nobody knows what “normal” really means when civilizati­on itself is called into question by events beyond anyone's control.

In the spirit of Laing one might conclude that anxiety, depression, mania and other forms of psychic dis-ease currently plaguing so many are a paradoxica­lly healthy response to a deeply unhealthy reality. How to convert this understand­ing into a strategy for personal let alone societal recovery is an existentia­l conundrum. “The mind has mountains,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins — and knowing its wilderness may be one key to finding our way home.

History at all times and almost everywhere has been rife with barbarism, war, epidemics, revolution­s, migrations, technologi­cal upheaval and other forms of natural and manmade mayhem that humans have had to endure and adapt to with all the ingenuity they could muster. No matter how dire conditions are, people can often do something to alleviate their own and others' suffering.

It's up to each of us to figure out what that is.

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