When I was a younger man I went through a profound experience of severe confusion, bizarre thoughts, strange physical sensations and profound anxiety and depression. Certainly if I had worked with a doctor my guess is I could have been given any number of diagnoses- Bipolar, OCD, Schizophrenia, Anxiety disorder, major depression- I suppose they all could have fit for that time period. In time and with the help of a few key people, I was able to work through these complex states and go on to live a good happy life. As I get older and work as a therapist, I hear this story increasingly commonly; young people experiencing strange sensations, rapid wild thoughts, confused perceptions and sometimes hearing voices. Generally, these experiences are considered psychotic and evidence of a “first break”, meaning that the person is going through one of many “breaks” with reality and evidence of an underlying disease and mental illness process.
But there is increasing talk that these strange experiences are fairly normal and occur far more often than we think. The British Psychological Association delivered a report that describes psychosis such as hearing voices or having odd perceptions as a common experience that does not necessarily need to be seen as a medical condition requiring medical intervention.
I generally think that some people are more susceptible to these states than others. Perhaps there is a genetic component. Perhaps it is similar to the ancient idea that each one of us carries a particular constitution, and some temperaments are more sensitive to incoming stimulus and sensory information. I think some of us act as conduits and our sensory gates are often far more open than normal. We pick up on the smallest cues, a minute shift in expression, the sound of leaves rustling from far away, the tone coming from a distant voice. Most of us tend to tune out these observations as they threaten to overload us with information and make us feel vulnerable. But some of us are far more attuned, far more open to the slightest sway in the breeze, the perception of emotion by facial expression.
For those with much wider sensory gates, this excess of information tends to elicit multifold internal reactions. Some become truly overwhelmed by this overload of sensory experience. People labeled with autism tend to experience a much higher rate of sensory information which can lead to feeling deeply overwhelmed. Rocking back and forth, repeating the same word over and over, yelling, avoiding contact- are all ways to manage high sensitivity.
Those who are labeled with bipolar or schizophrenia also tend to take in a much higher degree of sensory information. In psychosis, that information can become deeply complex and the brain searches for ways to make meaning out of the complexity. In a recent conversation with a client, we talked about the difference between having true psychic and spiritual experiences versus misperceiving life as bizarre, interconnected or disorganized and delusional patterns. For some, underlying trauma mixed with psychosis lead to paranoia or obsessive patterns of behavior to ward away the potential for further victimization.
The challenge for many who are immersed in these complex states is to integrate their heightened sensitivity without becoming mired in loops of thoughts, misperceptions, disorganization and disassociation that leads to fragmented lives. This is the fine line, the edge that many people walk. I think of these edge walkers as akin to the tip of a nerve ending. They pick up on far more sensory information than others. For some this can truly turn into a form of madness and for others it can turn into subtler forms of sensory overload such as health related conditions like fibromyalgia, food sensitivities, chronic fatigue syndrome and autoimmune disorders. In essence the body cannot handle the pressures of this level of sensory overload and it begins to internalize and then break down from the pressure, like sticking a 50000 watt device into a socket that can only hand 1000 watts. Too much.
The edge walkers in life are often told they have an illness when in fact they have often been given a gift, just a very deeply challenging gift. Our answer to this gift is generally to try and shut it down mechanically, either through the use of alcohol and street drugs, or through some form of pharmacological psychiatric intervention that act as gaba agonists or dopamine antagonists, stimulating or blocking neuroreceptors as a way to sedate the individual and reduce sensory overload. On a short term level these interventions work, but in time they tend to lead to worsening health and a reduction in vitality and personal agency.
As a therapist I often work with people who ride the rough intensity of walking these edges. They are labeled borderline, aspergers, bipolar, OCD and schizophrenic. These are labels that imply disease instead of the possibility of offering great gifts through their supreme sensitivity. Instead, we can call them back by their true names- visionary, artist, psychic, shaman, empath, seer. We can find out what their gifts are and nurture that beauty, honor those skills and depths that are often hidden.
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health.Share This: