Psychosis and Healing: A Tale of Two Doctors, Jung and Nash

Patient Expert

I came across the following this morning on Gianna Kali's blog, Beyond Meds:

Rather than being defeated by it as are most, Jung stared psychosis in the face, unflinchingly confronted and explored what he found there, and ultimately came out the other side stronger, wiser, and more whole.

Ms. Kali was quoting from a blog on Psychology Today by Stephen Diamond that reviewed the 2009 release of previously unpublished personal writings of Carl Jung, collated into a 416-page compendium entitled, "The Red Book." We know that in 1913, in the aftermath of his bitter split with Freud, Jung suffered an extended breakdown, what he preferred to call, "a confrontation with the unconscious." On the lake shore in Zurich he collected stones and built a miniature village, including a castle, cottages, and a church.

According to Dr Diamond:

The Red Book is a very personal record of Jung's complicated, tortuous and lengthy quest to salvage his soul, and a first-hand description of a process that would later fundamentally inform Jung's unique approach to psychotherapy he called Analytical Psychology.

Ms Kali comments:

Thank you Dr Stephen Diamond for stating that which many of us know but that which psychiatry denies. When we are medicated into oblivion the above journey cannot be made. And given we have so little support it's a wonder any of us make it these days.

Ms Kali provides links to recovery stories on her blog, and concludes: "Many more people would make it if they were given a safe place and a chance to heal."

No question about it. "Asylum" means "safe place," and way back in the early-mid 1800s, "insane asylum" was not a dirty word. The old fashioned rest cure and "moral [ie humane] treatment" promoted recovery. Clearly, Jung's lake was his asylum, his safe place to confront what was both a crisis of the soul and psychosis. Four decades before Thorazine came on the scene, Jung healed himself, and - to borrow from his own thinking - transmuted his personal base metals into gold.

Fast forward fifty years to another celebrated break from reality, that of the Nobel Laureate John Nash, subject of the book and movie, "A Beautiful Mind." Dr Nash, too, reached a healing without meds. The catch is it took him a quarter of a century. "A gap period of about 25 years of partially deluded thinking," as he refers to it in his 1994 Nobel autobiography, a "vacation."

His first break occurred in 1959, following two or three years of increasingly strange behavior. He had periods of recovery, but then his illness gained the upper hand. Thorazine and other first generation antipsychotics were available to him, which appeared to have helped his symptoms somewhat but hardly restored him. Early on, he went off his meds, which author Sylvia Nasar in "A Beautiful Mind" acknowledges may have been the wisest choice.

In his Nobel autobiography, Nash confides that notwithstanding his disordered thinking, his "relatively moderate behavior" allowed him to fly under the psychiatric radar. Fortunately, as Nasar makes clear, his long-suffering wife and companion, Alicia, was there for support and sustenance. Fortunately, also, the Princeton campus offered him sanctuary, safety, asylum.

Over time, under the right conditions, John Nash did heal. But in the interim, he lost a quarter-century of his life. In his 1994, Nobel Autobiography, Nash reported:

So at the present time I seem to be thinking rationally again in the style that is characteristic of scientists.

I was lucky enough to hear Dr Nash speak at the 2007 American Psychiatric Association annual meeting in San Diego. Significantly, he mentioned that his recovery began when his reputation finally started catching up with the acclaim he felt he deserved.

Again a supportive environment.

When psychosis occurs, our doctors are very quick to advise us we may need to be on antipsychotics the rest of our lives, and indeed this may be the case for many of us. I have heard way too many horror stories about what happens when people do go off these meds. In one case, involving someone I know very well, around 15 years ago this individual was encouraged to go off his meds under the so-called care of a program that offered the kind of supportive environment that both Ms Kali and I both strongly advocate.

The catch was reality intruded. This program wasn't there for him when his psychotic break happened, and he wound up paying in full measure. He has been on his meds ever since. The side effects from these meds are as much a burden as his illness, perhaps more so. He, too, has a beautiful mind, but no one is about to publish his insights in the form of a Red Book or hand him a Nobel Prize.

If only, in the right environment, healing happened overnight. If only, with the best medical care, our meds worked like magic bullets. Alas, there are no easy answers.

As always, the best insights come from you. We need your input in this discussion. Comments below ...