This reflection bythe first Unpsychology Voices pieces to be published on Medium in 2015. Julia has chosen it to be reprinted here on Substack as an invitation to consider madness in all its vulnerable beauty. Her latest project has been to put her lived experience to use by rejoining academia, on the Mad Studies postgraduate course at Queen Margaret University. You can read more about her experiences at her Substack page: madreality.
“And all I really want is to be an honest-to-goodness teenager!”
Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl
My friend Chloe and I have joined hundreds of teenaged and twenty-something hipsters at a rare performance by Neutral Milk Hotel, a band from the late 90s that recorded two albums only and met with critical acclaim but limited success. After the second album they split up and stopped performing. But their music gradually gained traction among the indie underground and developed rather a cult following. One might say they’re the Big Star of this generation.
Strictly speaking, they’re not a band from my own youth. Their second album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, came to my attention back when I was the lone mother of a young toddler. I had neither money nor inclination to buy or explore new music other than nursery rhyme compilations and the Singing Kettle, and I certainly didn’t get out to gigs. But I love the album and it has become one of my favourite pieces of music. It really is a beautiful creation, with surreal lyrics full of imagery based loosely on the diary of Anne Frank, and with music and voice together evoking grief and longing and frustration and affection and a sort of dazed joy.
They’re not a band from my own youth, but the show takes me right back and sets me to communing with my teenaged self. It touches the same nerves, standing there in the crowd: the clashing impulses of attitude and insecurity, togetherness and separation, belonging and isolation. Only this time around, the clash doesn’t distress me. I hold the impulses together, in a paradoxical balance of positive and negative charge.
We scan the crowd, Chloe and I, people-watching and remarking on outfits and hairstyles. We must be the oldest ones here. We’ve been standing a long time and find ourselves bending our limbs and shifting our weight, to relieve the fatigue. Money on it that no one else in our vicinity has clocked the danger of deep vein thrombosis. At nine p.m. the main act still hasn’t started, and we marvel together that we’re out in a club at the hour we’re usually getting into bed. Later, during the performance, I fret that Julian Koster is wearing too many layers under the stage lights; he’s dripping sweat onto his synth equipment and risking electrocution. My teenaged self is no match for the mother-of-a-teenager in me.
So really: add to the heady mix of my evening the paradox of youth and age. Why else does Anne Frank’s life story sting so poignantly? She desired so much yet lived so briefly. She dwelled in hiding yet lived so wholeheartedly. She wrote about her own tragic circumstances, in her own unique voice, yet reflected hopes and fears and wishes shared by everyone, young and old. She died a teenager and missed out on all the following chapters of her life.
I love the entire album, but I have a special place in my heart for the penultimate track, an unnamed instrumental to which I always imagine the same: Anne Frank hiding among a crowd of modern-day teenagers in the mosh pit of some dark club. She’s wearing black tights and DM’s, and thrashing herself back and forth with utter abandon among the sweaty and throbbing kids crammed together in front of the stage.
Do they play this unnamed song at this gig? They do. I stand only a few feet from the edge of the thrashers, and I watch out for her. Yes, yes her ghost is there among them: I see her fleetingly among the different faces. I feel her stirring in my own heart — in the undertow of longing and the upsurge of joy. Deeply satisfying, and very much alive.
It is my contention that the future — the new order — is breaking through the boundaries of the present social order under the guise of madness, of “psychosis.” It is breaking through in the psyche of the mad person. What we call madness is not a sickness; it is the future itself seeking to be born, to be incarnated in “the real world.” Seth Farber, The Spiritual Gift of Madness
I’m back now from spending a few days in a psych ward in Amsterdam. A gradual and minor change of meds has stirred up my brain’s chemistry sufficiently that one gentle push from life’s odd assortment sent me reeling, flying high into the sky to dance with the angels. And angels there were, many of them, all over the place. Don’t believe me? Try looking into a mirror, look right into your own eyes and think to yourself of one or another kindness you have offered to someone in the world. See now? Angels.
My parents went to great trouble and expense to ensure that I grew up embedded in the Catholic tradition, a very subtle form of child abuse if you ask me. Christianity paints a picture of a paradise forever out of reach, far away on the untouchable horizon, somewhere else other than right here in front of us, to be touched on our skin, to be smelled by our noses, to be tasted on our tongues. According to the Christian worldview underpinning Western culture, Eve’s disobedience sent us out of the garden, but I don’t buy it. Aren’t we just still here in the garden? Only the grass is riddled with our trash. An empty Irn Bru bottle. A used condom. A squashed KFC container. A broken needle.
The psych ward in Amsterdam has happened because I’ve done something impulsive, something that people don’t normally do. Like Joanna Lumley, I’ve done it “because I wanted to, and because I can.” Because I can. Let that one sink in. How often do we do what we can? How much more often do we abide within parameters of what we’ve been told we can? Or more to the point, what we’ve been told we can’t.
When my family come to retrieve me from the psych ward in Amsterdam, they speak to the discharge panel as though I’m not there in the room with them, as though my presence means nothing. She is normally not like this, they reiterate. She is normally not blissful, she is normally not smiling and relaxed and chatty. These symptoms shows us how ill she is. We like her better when she’s miserable and suffering… only not so much that she can’t cope! That’s her ideal state: quietly melancholic. Biddable.
Riding in to the rescue on their pale horses, they have brought with them a heavily clanking suit of shame, resentment and damnation with which to cloak me. Troublemaker, me; selfish and irresponsible me; who do I think I am, being so… so…blissful — it’s not fair!!
The future itself is seeking to be born: indeed, and we’re only in the earliest stages of labour. Spasms of pain as our cosmic pelvic bone creaks itself apart, shifting our very insides to make space for manoeuvre. There is a girl wanting to be born, wanting to be born again, wanting to be reincarnated into this troubled and troubling world. She’s a teenaged girl, body sizzling and crackling with innocent lust and divine curiosity. She was hidden away for years, imprisoned in Prinsengracht before they “buried her alive with just her sister by her side.” The future itself seeking to be born carries her with it, into the here and now, into “the real world.”
Dance, why don’t you? Smile and laugh and dance in utter crazy unadorned bliss. Because you can.
Sometimes I think God is trying to test me…
Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl
What if our potential involves the transformation of the human condition itself, from a state of miserable endurance to a state of joy? Joy in being alive, joy in impermanence — illogical, impractical, uncontrollable, uncontainable, utterly pointless joy?
At one point in my Amsterdam travels I am walking along the edge of a canal, looking at the cold, cold water and wondering what would happen were I to go diving. Would I sink like a stone? Float like a flower petal? Would I drown? I sit down by the water and contemplate the test being set before me: is death my friend, or my enemy?
Here’s what I feel: absolutely ready to die — and at the same time, in the same moment, in the very same state of mind and emotion, absolutely ready to live. Unfettered. Unbounded. Blissful.
And that of course is when the politie step in and invite me to check into the psych ward. Sure, I say, let’s go.
The building in which the clinic operates offers the most spectacular and inspiring piece of artwork to its visitors: How To Meet An Angel. A figure climbs a ladder up into the sky, arms open and reaching out.
What if we opened our arms up, opened our hearts up wholly to our impending death? What if we befriended it as our inevitable companion, acknowledged it as our divine partner, and danced with it like there was no tomorrow?
For all the incredible discoveries by science about our brains and our minds, the vast possibilities remain untapped. We still understand so little about our individual minds, not to mention the uncharted, exponential potential of those individual minds connecting and sparking off one another, creating ever new combinations of information and possibility.
So yeah: what if our mind in bliss is an integral part of our collective human capacity? What if our mind in bliss, our angelic potential and our interconnected consciousness were to become the norm around which we organised our reality and our societies? What if our psych wards were to admit today’s average citizen, rather than today’s blissed-out crazies?
It’s just an idea: think about it. And dance like there is no tomorrow. Dance because there is only now, and you are alive.
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Thank you, Julia! I can only say how much this echoes through my soul...and at the end of many travels and locked wards, yes, bliss.