Schizophrenia and Wrestling With the Unconscious

There have always been people within our society who have seen and/or heard things that are not apparent to others. Many of them hear “voices”. Some of these may seem to be helpful voices of creation while others come across as malevolent and destructive. In clinical terms, the tendency to perceive and react to stimuli that others do not recognize as “reality” has often been labeled schizophrenia by traditional psychiatrists and behaviorists. Some psychologists maintain that the “schizophrenia” tag has little real meaning insofar as defining a concrete medical condition. Yet the term is still widely used, and it evokes similar associations for many of us.

The issue can be an emotionally charged one, carrying supernatural associations (ghosts, demon possession, etc.) Historically, it has often been assumed that the voices that are heard belong to “others” inside a person’s head – disembodied spirits, for example, or other malevolent forces. In other words, the voices were not considered to be a part of the primary personality as we understand it. Sufferers might experience frightful moments when they would speak and hear their own voice as that of another, or not recognize their own reflection in the mirror. Modern psychology began to transform such thinking, suggesting that the schizophrenic may be experiencing phenomena that are a natural part of the psyche but not properly integrated.

Some thinkers like the psychologist R.D. Laing and mythologist Joseph Campbell took this theory of schizophrenia even further. Both maintained that these voices couldn’t and shouldn’t be ignored or repressed. They had to be confronted – befriended, and even assimilated if possible. The voices of schizophrenia could be the voices of inspiration – part of a healing process, rather than the affliction itself.

Those voices can be both helpful and harmful because, according to the thinking of modern (and particularly, Jungian) psychology, they emerge from the depths of a person’s unconscious. Schizophrenia can be seen as a condition akin to wrestling with unconscious forces. All of us carry such influences within us, but the average person has strong walls separating his or her conscious ego from the spirit of the depths. A schizophrenic has no such protection.

Joseph Campbell once delivered a lecture (later published in Myths to Live By) wherein he maintained that a schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters that the mystic swims in. The main problem is that our culture does virtually nothing to prepare us for what we might encounter down in the depths of the unconscious. Our sciences and our religions are both woefully out of touch with that realm. Seen in that light, a schizophrenic can be defined as a person who has fallen into the underworld of the unconscious and has no choice but to wrestle with it alone – because modern civilization, with its exclusively outward focus, can do little to aid him or her.

The way out of a schizophrenic nightmare is through it. Many people – particularly the young – may have to make some form of this journey if their inner world does not resonate with the society around them. No answers will be forthcoming from the parents, teachers, and preachers of the world. If they are going to survive and discover sanity, they have to learn to swim in those waters of the depths.

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