Pivotal Mental States

The idea that adversity presents us with an opportunity for change is familiar to all of us in the form of a story.

We have all heard stories of sudden self-transformation, or what the US psychologists William Miller and Janet C’de Baca call ‘quantum change’, whether it’s the religious conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, addicts at rock-bottom finding God, or near-death experiences that give people a new outlook on life. But not all sudden – or seemingly sudden – changes of outlook and personality are beneficial. The onset of psychosis in particular involves a strikingly similar transformation of reality, but one that precedes a frightening descent into mental illness. Consider this experience of psychosis, described in The Exploration of the Inner World (1936):

“Strange and mysterious forces of evil of which before I had not had the slightest suspicion were also revealed. I was terrified beyond measure … There is probably no three-weeks period in all my life that I can recall more clearly. It seemed as if I were living thousands of years within that time…”

Amazingly, the author of this account, Anton Boisen, snapped out of his psychosis one night with a sudden realisation: the giant cross he saw covering the Moon, which he previously interpreted as a clear sign of impending catastrophe, was actually a visual illusion caused by the wire screen outside his hospital window. Boisen went on to become a hospital chaplain and pioneer of clinical pastoral education. He noted that the early stages of schizophrenia often feature similar preoccupations with cosmic catastrophe and change, senses of being on a personal mission, commonly preceded by an initial period of panic, terror or paranoia.

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