This Is What Being in a Madhouse Taught Me about Hope
“When will society realize that the one who locks people up is crazier than those locked up.” — Graffiti at Borda Asylum
The first time I entered a lunatic asylum, it was on my own terms.
Like most kids, I was confused. I thought my hobbies and life’s purpose were the same.
I loved to draw and to write short stories and poetry. That’s why I started my career in advertising: to work as a creative. Until I became obsessed with understanding human behavior.
After graduating from college, I wanted to go beyond the behavioral psychology models I learned in advertising.
My exploration took me in various directions. I spent over a year studying psychoanalysis, and then, Gestalt, holistic approaches, you name it.
I never thought I’d found the answer inside a lunatic hospice.
Crossing the Borderline
“The road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there.” — Ernest Becker
My curiosity made me enroll at a Social Psychology school in Buenos Aires, 25 years ago. I joined creativity groups with my friends. Learning was everything we cared about. Experimental was my favorite word back then.
My first visit to the Borda Hospital — the largest and most notable psychiatric hospital in Argentina — was to co-facilitate a creative writing workshop.
“The Borda is like a big mouth that will swallow you whole.” — Graffiti at Borda Asylum.
I was terrified. We are wired to see crazy people as dangerous. “I entered the ‘prison’ now. Will I be able to get out?” — I thought as the heavy door closed behind me.
That world of an asylum is defined by dreaming about the outside and suffering the inside. That’s what I realized as soon as I crossed the line.
I’ve been thinking about this period of my life a lot lately.
By being surrounded by regular ‘sane’ people, we become used to what we call ‘normal human behavior.’ We believe that’s the only way of life possible. Even when certain leaders behave dangerously, no one feels comfortable to challenge them because they are outside.
But, when you cross the door of a mental institution, those parameters get upside down. You get to realize that, even craziness, has its own operating rules. And they make sense.
After a couple of visits, I came to realize that the creativity and passion I experienced within those gray walls made me challenge the notion of craziness and sanity.
The borderline is more than just a division between two extreme conditions — crazy and sane. It’s a mental model that forces you to pick sides.
Either you are inside or outside.
1. Labeling People Is An Act of Ignorance
“People are too complicated to have simple labels.” — Philip Pullman
Understanding others takes time and effort. Categorical labeling is a tool that humans use to deal with complex environments.
Labeling people is an over-simplified way to deal with what we don’t know. Or to alleviate our own pain. Putting others in a box contributes to one of the largest problems we face: stereotyping.
Take gun violence, for example. Most Americans blame it on mental health issues. But the idea that committing every person who’s mentally ill will end mass shootings, “is extremely naive — or politically convenient” as explained in this Editorial from USA Today.
Labelling others can be more damaging than a person with mental disorders. The rate of homicides committed by people with mental illness is 0.011%. Should 11 million people be locked away to prevent them from killing?
What we don’t like or understand we call it crazy. That’s the easiest way to silence it.
The creativity workshop turned into a powerful empathy tool. Writing unleashed many patients personal stories. The ones no one wanted to hear, not even their doctors.
When I started getting deeper into some individual’s stories, I began to understand the suffering they’ve experienced. Pain can drive anyone crazy.
I couldn’t but ask myself: “Why are these people here? Shouldn’t others be in this place, but not them.”
2. We Silence What We Don’t Tolerate
“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
― Woody Allen
Intolerance is a byproduct of ignorance.
The word “tolerance” was a grand, dignified word. Now we confuse it with agreeing with what one thinks.
“Intolerance” is the inability to experience a stimulus, caused by a person or thing, without negative effect. In other words, “tolerance” is not reacting to something we don’t agree with or it’s hard for us to accept.
Tolerance requires acceptance, rather than reacting.
The paradox of tolerance is that you have to accept everyone, even those who are intolerant.
Some of the patients at the Borda weren’t what you would normally call “crazy.” Political repression was why some were behind the walls. There were also homeless people and many others who were abandoned by their families.
Projections fuel intolerance. We don’t tolerate in other people what we can’t tolerate in ourselves. Others’ suffering reminds us of our own.
We can learn a lot about those who think differently, as I wrote here. But, silencing those who remind us of our pain is a much easier solution.
3. Lack of Empathy Drives Fear
“To perceive is to suffer.” — Aristotle
We fear what we don’t know because we are afraid of our unknown zones. That’s we avoid other people’s suffering.
I was terrified the first time I entered the Borda Hospital. When the doors closed behind me, a strange sensation took over. I felt afraid. “What if I can’t get out of here?” — I asked myself.
Our minds love to play tricks. Fear makes our logic vanish. Being committed means that you are not ‘sane.’
Some patients looked more normal than others. The Borda’s reputation is full of mixed emotions. The conditions of the institution didn’t help to make me feel comfortable. Neither contributed to making patients feel or look ‘normal.’
When we look at people that are out of our ‘normal parameters,’ we tend to disregard them. That’s why homeless people are invisible to us, as I learned by my experiment living on the streets for a day.
That’s what the patients needed too. Empathy. For someone to listen to their stories without judging. I heard stories of killing, abandonment, treason, political persecution, and more.
Once I was able to put my fears aside, I stopped judging them. And I provided the time and attention they needed.
Art is a powerful empathy tool. Patients connected with their own stories in a way that we could all pay attention.
“The world is full of contrast, but here we are the contrast.” — Graffiti at Borda Hospice.
4. The Line Between Creativity and Craziness
“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”
― Oscar Wilde
If we were to commit everyone that has experienced some form of mental illness, we would have missed fantastic artists such as Van Gogh, Lord Byron, Beethoven, among others
Edvard Munch is said to have suffered from depression and to have had hallucinations, one of which inspired his emotionally charged masterpiece “The Scream.”
The Norwegian painter said of the connection between his mental illness and his work, “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. My sufferings are part of my self and my art.”
Art is seeing what others people don’t.
People lose their freedom, not their creativity, when they enter an asylum. I was moved by the depth of the poems and stories that the participants wrote during our workshops. Many sane artists wish they could write as well as these guys did.
Sometimes, madness is in the eye of the beholder.
As Emily Dickinson said: “Much madness is divinest sense to a discerning eye;
Assent, and you are sane; Demur, -you’re straight way dangerous
And handled with a chain.”
5. Don’t Give up on People
“Craziness is what makes the world round, without crazy, there wouldn’t be passion.” — Wes Campton
Locking someone up is deleting his/her humanity.
Labeling people is how society sweeps a problem under the rug.
Is mental illness real?
As Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz famously argued: the idea of classifying psychological and emotional difficulties as “illnesses” takes away personal agency. Instead of holding people responsible for their actions, doctors “take care” of the person, often with medications.
This controversy is as old as mental illness itself.
How we treat people tells a lot about our society. When we give up on people, what can we expect for the future?
We can not erase humanity from those who suffer. Even if someone committed a crime. Removing second chances is like operating under the notion that our mistakes define who we are. Being human is being imperfect. Those who are blind to other people’s mistakes is because they avoid looking at their own flaws.
Michael Moore’s “Where to invade next” documentary shows how Norway was able to erase the line between the “outside” and “inside.” A maximum security prison is run like hotels where prisoners and guards behave in harmony with one another.
Norway’s prison system is based on the concept of restorative justice, which encourages to repair the harm caused by crime instead of punishing individuals. Prisoners are treated like human beings. And they live in a humane environment.
Going back to my experience at a mental institution. When a system forces people to lose their dignity, how can you expect them to recover?
Art is a path to liberation. To express suffering is the first path towards taking agency. And, for the so-called “normal” people, to listen and understand the stories behind those we label as ‘crazy’ or ‘insane.’
The most profound lesson I got from being in a mental institution was this: there’s always hope.
Don’t give up on people.
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