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Ed-podvoll Windhorse Talks Series

Recovering Sanity Session 2: Mania and the Risk of Power

Over the course of the next few months, Windhorse Northampton will be having discussions about Podvoll’s Recovering Sanity which is a principle book towards the Windhorse approach to recovery. The discussion is lectured by staff members and open to the wider Windhorse community. This first post was lectured by Cat Sargent  The following is an edited (for ease of reading) transcript of the lecture. When listening to the discussion we thought it best to break the discussion into 2-3 posts;

We hope that these series of talks further highlight our history and approach to recovery.

Background on John Custance

Cat Sargent - John Custance - Manic Depression - Windhorse TalksGood morning. Welcome. We’re here to delve into the second parable in Recovering Sanity together. I want to thank you for being here and giving me the opportunity. It has been a blast preparing this.

Before I dive in, I want to say a couple of things, four things exactly, as a preamble. One is that the parable that we’re going to be looking at is exploring the experiences of a man named John Custance. He was diagnosed with manic depressive illness. We typically don’t use diagnostic terminology here, but for the purposes of this talk, I’m going to use what he uses and what actually all of my reference material uses, which is that term. Forgive me, but I’m going to go there just because it’s an easier shorthand than anything else I could figure out.

The second thing I want to say as a preamble is that it’s very interesting that this is the chapter I got because it’s the one that I feel the most resonance with, partly because I was raised by a man that was diagnosed bipolar. We don’t share gen etics, but I know I was imprinted by his energy and I pretty much land squarely on that continuum myself It just has been really interesting to delve into this particular part of the book, which is so resonant with some of my life experiences.

The third thing I want to say by way of preamble is having dug in so deeply to not only these books, but then I started getting into many artists and their experiences, and I find myself wanting to just defend them in a way, or propose that manic depression is valuable, and maybe even invaluable to humanity.

Having said that, it exacts a big toll on the people that experience it and the people that love them–and it also bears immeasurable gifts. I want to recognize both and I want to celebrate the gifts part. Then we’ll explore the costs together. I’m going to read a list of names of people that are said to have wrangled this dragon. I just ask you to open yourself to whatever sort of resonances or images come up in you as you hear them. Then we’re just going to leave it there. I want to open with that introduction.

Alban Airy, Adam Ant, Russell Brand, Art Buchwald, God, I’m so fricking emotional. Kurt Cobain, Mary Ellen Copeland, Francis Ford Coppola, Ray Davies, Richard Dreyfuss, Carrie Fisher, Ernest Hemingway, Abbie Hoffman, Jesse Jackson, K. Jamerson, David LaChapelle, Demi Lovato, Gustaf Möller, Kate Millett, Marilyn Monroe, Sinéad O’Connor, Phil Ochs, Jaco Pastorius, Jane Pauley, Edgar Allan Poe, Lou Reed, Anne Sexton, Mona Samone, Frank Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, Ted Turner, Beethoven, van Gogh, Brian Wilson, Amy Winehouse, Jonathan Winters, Catherine David Jones, to name a handful. Just sit with that.

Then my fourth thing before I actually start is that I really intended to read the chapter in Recovering Sanity and talk about it. Then Victoria wrote a letter to someone in our community and invited her to join us for this. That person wrote back and said, “No thanks, but whoever talks about Custance should read the chapter on Custance and Agnes’s Jacket by Gail Hornstein because it’s a really good treatment of his experience.”

In Agnes’s Jacket, there are in fact two chapters about Custance. Then I read Custance’s own books. It was a lot to synthesize. In fact, I’m going to probably spend most of my time talking about what Custance had to say. So let’s get into it. Who is John Custance, and why did Ed Podvoll want to explore his experience in Recovering Sanity? John Custance was born in 1900 and was raised among the leisure classes of South Central England. Just as an aside, the leisure classes part is kind of interesting in the sense that he was basically gentry and so was Perceval who’s the guy we talked about last time. I think that it just bears mentioning that both of them had the experience that they had largely because they were privileged, and had some influence. I just want to throw out that this book would never have been written if he wasn’t born into the strata that he was born into.

Custance experienced repeated cycles of depression and mania, and he wrote about them really clearly and passionately. This book, Wisdom, Madness, and Folly, is subtitled The Philosophy of a Lunatic, and it was published in 1951. Three years later, he published Adventure into the Unconscious. This book is actually still taught. Our edition says it was published by Yale Medical Library. I find it really interesting that it’s still out there being used, and I was really happy to read it.

Ed Podvoll’s Perception of Manic Depression

Photo of Agne's JAcketWhat was Edward Podvoll wanting to illuminate in writing about John Custance? Who knows, but my take after reading this chapter is that I think he partly wanted to simply educate us about manic depression, to give us some sense of what happens, what it’s like, what comes up. I also think he wrote the chapter as a cautionary tail. Ed’s title is “Mania and the Risk of Power.” There’s a sense of caution in that.

When I read the chapter originally, I felt really aligned with Ed’s stance and just appreciated his tone. Then I read all this other material, and I went back and re-read it and found myself feeling annoyed with him because he seems somehow disapproving. Again, who knows, but that’s how it felt to me after I read this other stuff.

Let me just say that Ed does describe the general flavor and shape of manic depression. He talks about the specific changes that Custance and other people experience in the sensory realm. In mania, the senses become really heightened and expansive and kind of jacked up, and in depression the opposite happens. He goes into detail about all of this in the chapter that we read. He also goes into the intensified and expansive mental activity typical of mania and then the opposite when the pendulum swings.

Ed Podvoll describes that, and he also sketches out some of the biographical information about Custance relative to the illness. He particularly delves into one time when Custance sort of falls into and exaggerates a manic episode for the purpose of testing his theory that he could make a big difference in the world. He thought that if he got himself into that state in Berlin at a particular point in time he might be able to unite East and West. On one hand, I kind of want to say that this experience ended badly; he did end up apprehended and thrown into an asylum. On the other hand, he learned a ton and a lot of it went into this book. So it was a mixed experience. Ed characterizes it as ending badly. I could take a lot of time and say what Ed said, but I rather use my time to say what Custance said.

Yeah, so I want to focus on the bits that I’ve found sort of sounding reproachful from what Podvoll wrote. He wrote, “Custance offers answers to the vexing question of why countless people discontinue taking medications and flirt with states of mind that they should know from experience might only end in disaster.” Now, obviously, you could read that in a lot of tones of voice, and there are later happier tones, but to me, it sounds admonishing when I read it, especially again after comparing it to Custance’s own writing.

Ed goes on to say, “Custance maintained a tremendous allegiance to his experiences in the manic states of psychosis,” and goes on to talk about how the desire to experience mania and experience the truths it brings, and the powers that it exposes a person to, and how the person feels like they’re on a path, are evidence of a growing addictive experience, like spiritual materialism. He also puts truth, and power, and path all in quotes. It’s like it’s impossible for him to imagine that there really is truth, or power, or that there is a path there. He puts them in quotes, and it’s like he doubts that there’s validity for the person in that state.

Ed writes, “Custance thought of his illness as being connected with spiritual growth.” There’s a certain tone there that I found, like he was looking down his nose. There’s more, but I won’t go into it all. Oh, he says, “Anyone who has experienced mania knows that these positive states are transitory, and they never yield an internal state of health and happiness,” blah, blah, blah. You get the point.

Podvoll also clearly describes the potential interpersonal costs to manic depression. Custance notes them as well. Although, honestly, not quite as clearly. I will return to that at the end of this talk because we have to go through a little bit of a path to come back around to that.

  • Part 2: An Overview of Wisdom, Madness, and Folly: John Custance’s Writing about Manic Depression
  • Part 3: An Experience of Depression