Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

On madness, poetry, and creativity

Jeanne Petrolle
Chicago, Illinois, United States


 Image of Bacchanalia by Henryk Siemiradzki
Bacchanalia, 1890
Henryk Siemiradzki
Serpukhov Historical and Art Museum, Serpukhov, Russia


Nineteen years ago I lost my mind. Working three low-wage jobs and plying myself with caffeine, wine, and marijuana, I became obsessed with a rising indie rock star. Insomnia and euphoria obliterated my good sense. After meeting the target of my obsession, I left my husband and all three jobs without notice to party like a rock star in another city. After the party ended, ordinary life seemed unpalatable. After destroying my driver’s license and credit cards, I started hitch-hiking to Mexico, planning a new identity. Exhausted, delusional, shoeless, and out of cash, I stopped in Kentucky, mesmerized by the dahlias. Police brought me to a hospital when a homeowner spotted me drinking from his garden hose and trolling around for food. The on-duty psychiatrist pronounced me bipolar, offering dire predictions about my future. Without lifelong medication, he warned, I would suffer numerous episodes, require frequent hospital stays, become chronically unstable, and remain professionally unproductive. That is not what happened when, against medical advice but under medical supervision, I ended my use of medication after six months. Instead of becoming a career psychiatric patient, I divorced, completed a PhD in literature, obtained a tenure-track job, traveled to Europe and Africa, published two books, earned tenure, re-married, bought and sold real estate, had a son, produced a film and, eventually, sought treatment for post-traumatic stress symptoms stemming from childhood abuse.

Before experiencing mental dysfunction, I had studied literature, philosophy, history, and social science. I had read Thomas Szasz’s Myth of Mental Illness, Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness, and Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. I knew that once upon a time there was no such thing as mental illness—only madness, a mind-state extraordinary enough to disrupt ordinary life, threaten social relationships, and disturb public order. It could also, according to philosophers, poets, and religious adepts, bring creative inspiration, spiritual awakening, love, and truth. In the three millennia of literature that preceded psychiatry, the poetics of madness fascinated writers. Shakespeare, whose plays often portray madness, writes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.”1 Here Shakespeare connects madness to love and creativity—a connection that characterizes a mythopoetic understanding of madness. Mythopoesis, a pre-modern form of knowledge-making, gives beauty and meaning to its objects of study. Before science became the dominant thought-paradigm, people used myth and poetry to describe their worlds. Mythopoetically speaking, madness, like literature and dreams, contains knowledge about central human concerns: love, beauty, truth, desire, fate, spirituality, God. I use the term “madness” rather than “mental illness” not to insult anyone, or ignore medical terminology, but to restore millennia-old associations between madness and various forms of creative and spiritual power.

Contemporary psychiatry embraces a biomedical concept of madness as “illness.” The “chemical imbalance” theory of mental illness assumes disease, erasing any developmental value madness might have. Unfortunately, preoccupation with biochemistry, while providing excellent tools for controlling symptoms, has not produced widespread mental health. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one out of six Americans is mentally ill.2 The number of Americans disabled by mental illness is growing.3 Anti-psychotics—now a $18.2 billion dollar industry—often produce poor long-term outcomes and have health-damaging side effects.4 A major World Health Organization study found that schizophrenics in poor countries have better long-term outcomes than schizophrenics in the US.5 Apparently, more drugs do not result in better health. Perhaps widespread mental health eludes us because the biomedical model, in reducing madness to its biophysical substrate, oversimplifies a phenomenon that has immensely complicated emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic—as well as biophysical—components.

Biomedical thinking tries to eliminate disturbances; poetic thinking asks what a disturbance means. Why has this mind started functioning irregularly? What do the visions, hallucinations, delusions, fantasies, and strange actions mean? Toward what truths do they gesture? What do they reveal that we did not know? How are they connected to our lives, loves, dreams, hopes, fears, and desires? What do they say that we do not want to hear and wish were not true? How do symptoms call for life-change that could mobilize creative energy? To transform madness into wellness, one has to read the story symptoms tell—translate the metaphorical language of symptoms into actionable insight. Studying literature enabled me to do this. I followed short-term biomedical treatment with long-term effort to read between the lines of my madness. Reading madness like a poem or story enabled me to understand why my mind and body collapsed and what life changes recovery required. To resolve my distress and access its creative potential, I had to plumb its emotional depths and identify its root causes—which went beyond physiology.

In King Lear, madness enables characters to see and speak the truth when deceit has obscured reality. Emily Dickinson also associates madness with truth: “In madness is Divinest Sense/to a discerning eye.”6 I could have labeled my strange actions pathological, taken meds, and thought no further. Instead I assumed that the actions were meaningful and asked what truths they expressed. While insane, I had spontaneously enacted the plot of The Bacchae, a tragic play by Euripides. In this play, respectable Theban housewives follow the god of wine and song, Dionysus—the Roman Bacchus—into the wilderness, where they worship him with music and dance until, mad with ecstasy, they lose control and go on a destructive rampage. Thomas Moore writes in Care of the Soul that “A myth is a sacred story set in a time and place outside history, describing in fictional form the fundamental truths of nature and human life.”7 Contemplating my mental health crisis in the light of the Bacchae myth helped me to identify the “fundamental truths”—the social, emotional, and spiritual truths—at the heart of my distress. Like the Bacchae, the god’s devotees, I followed a modern-day god of wine and song into a wilderness of revelry. After the ecstasy came psychic violence. My marriage, self, and work-life lay in pieces.

The same actions that in my life amounted to madness in the play explore truths about women, gods, domesticity, wildness, entrapment, adventure, and escape from the routines of home-making. Called by a dangerous god, the Bacchae wander off, pursuing socially problematic activities, mysterious initiations, and ecstatic religious experiences. Drunk with religious ecstasy instead of wine, they reach toward experience and fulfillment outside the home. Their loss of control comes from mismanaged God-hunger.

Before going feral, I was unaware of any hunger for religious experience. I fancied myself an atheist, condescending to religious people like any polite intellectual. Since I could not get drunk on religious ecstasy, I settled for wine. Before studying The Bacchae, I had not connected the impulse to intoxicate with the impulse to carouse with a god. Literature often makes this connection. In the Wedding at Cana story, Jesus changes water into wine, which becomes a symbol of sacred transformation and the miraculous. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his men get drunk, then surrender to enchantment, release their true selves, and find courage. Throughout Hebrew and Christian scriptures, characters gripped by theophany are accused of being drunk: apparently, it is difficult to distinguish between a drunkard and someone communing with God. These stories associate intoxication with sacred transformation, miraculous change, epic adventure, fulfillment of desire, and God-consciousness.

Reading my bacchanalia as lived mythopoetic action allowed me to obtain the knowledge necessary for constructing a more satisfying life and self. Having perceived the roots of my distress by thinking mythopoetically, I started pursuing the desires illustrated by my delusions and behavioral chaos. I affiliated with a religious community to address the spiritual curiosity underlying my attraction to ecstatic experience. I planned international travel to sate my appetite for adventure. I entered a PhD program, to build a larger life outside the home and realize my dream of writing professionally. Since my delusional thought-content included a fantasy of having “lost a child,” I re-examined my decision to avoid motherhood. Since in my confusion I had babbled incessantly about sexual trauma, I sought treatment for recovery from childhood sexual abuse. In 2004, less than ten years after going mad, I received a PhD, earned tenure, got my first book contract, and gave birth to a son. Madness unleashed tremendous creative power, spiritual transformation, and personal growth. This would not have surprised Shakespeare or Dickinson. A mythopoetic model of madness expects madness, creativity, and spirituality to be connected. Reconnecting these in modern thinking might improve treatment outcomes.

It took 150 years to change “madness” into “mental illness” and much good came of it. Biomedical habits of thinking and talking about madness make us less afraid and give us more control. The “illness” model of madness enables us to feel we can do something about madness—and we can. We can suppress symptoms, compel insurance companies to finance care, and extend disability benefits to chronic sufferers. We have removed moral blame from those suffering madness and restored their dignity considerably. The “illness” model protects the mad from some of the social consequences that follow from being out of one’s mind. These are clear benefits of the biomedical model. But these benefits have costs. The highest cost of approaching madness strictly as “illness” is that we see only negative aspects of the experience. Like HIV, madness as illness has no positive features. It makes the sufferer a victim. By clutching tightly to concepts like “disorder,” “chemical imbalance,” and genetic inheritance, we create an atmosphere of inevitability and incurability around the phenomenon of mental collapse, creating a danger of self-fulfilling prophecy. In the U.S. and Europe, once diagnosed with mental illness, you are supposed to believe that you have it for life. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that many people who experience breakdown never really recover.

I could have embraced the ill-and-taking-Depakote-for-life proposition. But my academic training does not allow me to accept anything without skepticism, even when a doctor presents it as scientific truth. Doctors used to consider it scientifically true that women’s madness—named hysteria after the Greek word (hyster) for womb—occurred when a woman’s womb detached from adjoining viscera and went floating through her body. Doctors recommended hysterectomy as a cure. Just decades ago, doctors treated madness by drilling holes into the brain. In 1949, Egas Moniz received a Nobel prize for inventing prefrontal lobotomy.8 Walter Freeman invented a more convenient “neurosurgical” technique: during an office visit, without anesthesia, using electricity to render the patient unconscious, Freeman hammered an ice pick seven centimeters into the brain through the eye socket.9 Damaging brain tissue makes patients “calmer,” so mainstream psychiatrists considered lobotomy a breakthrough. In 1948, the American Journal of Psychiatry trumpeted the success of “psychosurgery.” Editors at the New England Journal of Medicine wrote that with psychosurgery “a new psychiatry may be said to have been born.”10 Fortunately, medical opinion eventually turned away from this “treatment.” If it hadn’t, I might have found myself in 1995 lying in a hospital bed with an ice pick in my head.

Instead, I found myself lying in a hospital bed on Haldol, seeing double. I took an anti-psychotic for two months and a mood stabilizer for six months. The drugs calmed my thinking and behavior while causing a thirty-pound weight gain, dramatic hair loss, and sexual dysfunction. These side effects diminished my quality of life and, since I had never been depressed, the diagnosis seemed imperfect. I discontinued medication. During the next nineteen years, I had two smaller-scale mental health challenges, both managed with short-term anxiety medication, behavioral therapy, and spiritual practices like meditation and prayer. With the exception of about a week—the same amount of time a flu incapacitates me—I have not missed work or become unable to meet domestic, parental, and financial responsibilities. It is interesting that I experience this level of function without medication. While there are clearly people for whom lifelong preventive medication is the best choice, there may be more people like me, who could manage their minds successfully with short-term drugs, long-term behavioral change, and far-reaching insight into the social, emotional, and spiritual factors involved in their mental distress and mental health.


JEANNE ELLEN PETROLLE, PhD, is the author of Religion without Belief: Contemporary Allegory and the Quest for Postmodern Faith (SUNY, 2007) and co-author of Women and Experimental Filmmaking (University of Illinois, 2005). She has published articles and essays about literature, film, and painting in a variety of anthologies, scholarly journals and literary journals, including Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Quarterly Review of Film and Cinema, and Image: A Journal of Art and Religion. She teaches literature and visual culture at Columbia College Chicago.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2014 – Volume 6, Issue 4
Fall 2014  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology

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