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Ed-podvoll Windhorse Talks Series

Recovering Sanity Session 2a: An Overview of Wisdom, Madness, and Folly

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.

Cat Sargent with Windhorse Talks about John Custance Moving on from Recovering Sanity to John Custance’s own writing. I really loved his book Wisdom, Madness, and Folly. I found it surprisingly penetrable, and I think it’s an intellectual tour de force. I have rarely underlined so much as I underlined in this book. I’ll provide an overview of it, which is really difficult to do in the short time that we have because there’s so much I want to share.

Almost the entire book was either written while Custance was manic or depressed, which is really interesting. The general outline of it is that in the first two chapters he explores mania. Those are called, “Meaning and Mania” and “The Universe of Bliss.” Interesting. The third chapter is called, “The Universe of Horror,” when it swings into depression. Chapter four, I guess not surprisingly is called, “Fantasia of Opposite.” Then that is a description. Chapter five is an exploration of what he calls “Delusion and Reality.” Chapter six explains his “Theory of Actuality,” which I’ll explain in a bit. Then the Appendix offers excellent advice for improving mental homes and mental treatment.

I’m going to sprint through his book with you guys, providing some main points from each chapter.. 

An Experience of Mania

In the first two chapters of Wisdom, Madness, and Folly, John Custance shares his first-hand account of manic states. As Custance begins to experience mania, he notices“first and foremost, comes a general sense of intense well being,” Then he shows some sense of humor about it. He goes, “I know, of course, that this sense is illusory and transient, and that my behavior, while it persists, is so abnormal that I have to be confined, so a good deal of the gilt [frosting] is taken off the gingerbread.” So first and foremost comes a general sense of intense well being.

The second thing he describes are the sensory changes. One thing that surprised me was that he, as he says, doesn’t need spectacles when he’s manic, and yet he can barely see anything when he’s not. That’s really interesting. Ed mentions a woman in her 80s who doesn’t need a hearing aid, and she considers the day that she can take her hearing aid out the day that she returns to life.

There’s a whole plethora of descriptive material about the sensory experiences that happen, but it’s generally wellbeing, fitness, flexibility, general sort of awesomeness related to hightened senses, and then in particular some tingling and electrical sensations, and then intriguingly clicks and pops and electrical jolts when thoughts fall into place. There seems to be a connection between thinking and sensations.

Custance moves on to describing seven different areas of mental changes and they’re all interrelated.

A Rapid Association of Ideas

The first one is an extreme rapidity of association of ideas, and he gives a really in-depth example about viewing seagulls through the window of the asylum. Oh, I wanted to mention he’s writing this part in the manic state while in an asylum.  He says, “The mere sight of seagulls sets up immediately and virtually simultaneously the following trains of thoughts: First [I think of] a pond called Seagull’s Spring near my home. [I also think of] mermaids, sea girls, sirens, Lorelei, Mother Seager’s Syrup, syrup of figs, the blasted fig tree in the Gospels,” and then he goes off on this whole thing about the gospels. Then he continues, as he simultaneously thought of the mental hospital where he used to be, where seagulls came to the courtyard. He says, “And there I thought of myself as a sort of super-gull who hadbeen “gulled” into selling my soul.”, Then he talks about the lost sailors of the world were in the gulls that came to visit and get him because he was bad. He goes on, and all of this is happening in a moment. He sees the seagulls and all those thoughts explode, so the extreme rapidity of association of ideas is the first aspect of mental changes.

An Increase in Association of Objects in the Outer World

The second change is an increase in association of objects in the outer world. He’s talking about what he sees outside. It’s close to the first change but relates to colors. He’s talking about how he notices colors start to have meaning and that they’re attached to all kinds of associations, so it’s a lot like the gulls. He sees women walking by the window wearing green and gets paniced because green means go and where he’s going to go is to hell. He knows that this has meaning, that they’re walking by, so he works with it and talks himself down. He says, “But wait. Green is the color of Spring and it’s also my wife’s favorite color, so green is okay unless it’s with red, which is the color of the devil.” You get the gist. It just spins like that.

A Breach in the Barriers of Individuality

The third change is breach in barriers of individuality. Here he quotes Walt Whitman, who said, “And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own, and I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own, and that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and all the women my sisters and lovers, and that a kelson of the creation is love.” The kelson — I had to look it up — is the central structure of a ship, the base of a ship, so that “kelson of the creation is love.” He’s talking about how people he normally would despise become attractive to him, and he wants to be their friend and help them.

Inhibition of the Sense of Repulsion

He goes on to say that beyond the interpersonal, he starts to like dirt, which in the other state of mind he says that he washes his hands like Lady Macbeth, so it’s a really big tradThen he even starts to have a fascination with excrement, and notes that on the ward it’s a common conversation that there’s a belief that getting rid of that is getting rid of all kinds of negative influences from the devil on down to the mean nurse and her mood. So the inhibition of what usually is repulsive is this next mental change.

The Release of Moral Tension

The he goes on to talk about, “Our release of moral tension, especially in the sexual sphere” and says specifically what used to be sinful is now exalted, and therefore he went on a terror and gave all his money to prostitutes. He gave it because they were exalted now.

He said that prostitutes got to know him and they figured out that all they had to say is that they wanted to live a more pure life. It went so far as to run out of money.  The banks all shut him down, and then he went to some church and was like, “Come on, I’m doing the work of the lord.” Then they arrested him, and he got really mad that they wouldn’t help him.

In the section about the release of moral tension, especially in the sexual sphere, he had what he calls his only pure hallucination. Ed Podvoll references it kind of incompletely, actually, compared to what Custance writes. And I am now going to totally shrink it down to nothing, but he wakes up in the middle of the night. He’s feeling peaceful and calm, and what comes to him in the middle of the air is an image of the great male and female organs of love. They hung there in midair. He writes, “They seemed infinitely far away from me and infinitely near at the same time” and he sees them pulsing and spinning. He knows that they represent the power of love defeating the power of hate, and that vision left him feeling forgiven and at peace. That feeling stayed with him.

Delusions of Grandeur and Power

The sixth change is delusions of grandeur and power. This is what Custance says. “I feel so close to God, so inspired by His spirit, that in a sense I am God. I see the future. I plan the universe. I save mankind. I am utterly and completely immortal. I am even male and female. The whole universe, animate and inanimate, past, present, and future is within me.” I really can’t think of any more grandiose and powerful statement than that. I mean, it pretty well sums it up. I was like, “You go, man. That’s awesome.” If that’s what you’re experiencing, come on. Where else do you want to live?

Finally, the seventh thing Custance says is a sense of ineffable revelation that all truth, all secrets of the universe, are revealed. That kind of covers chapters one and two, which are about mania.