Five years ago, I met my partner. In his early 20s, like everyone else, he went through a messy breakup. Around the same time, he’d had a life-threatening experience, and the combined stress led to a prolonged period of what he describes as “being a little out of it.” Completely sober, he’d get these trippy experiences where time and space would collapse in on each other. The rest of the time he’d just feel monumentally panicked, which he says was about as fun as it sounds.
Naturally, he went to see a psychiatrist. Before that he’d tried two separate neurologists, and neither had found any anomalies on the various scans they’d done. This didn’t deter the psychiatrist from his conviction that these trippy experiences must have been biological in cause. He told him straight up he probably had lasting brain damage, cause unknown.
This made my partner feel exactly as hopeless as you might think for a very long time. After a few months, once he’d picked himself up from that devastatingly casual life sentence, he chose to stop seeing the psychiatrist. He was lucky enough to have that choice; others might not.
He went down a different path, one that eventually involved jumping out of a plane (with a parachute), followed by months of a gorgeous, background euphoria, and an ongoing epiphany about how he wanted to approach this whole being alive thing. Since then, he’s never found any personal value in the idea of mental illness. Even if the “brain damage” suggestion hadn’t been totally bogus – even if there had been a magic pill instead of months on end of increasingly bewildering side effects from the ones that were prescribed to him – in hindsight, he’d still choose his story of transformation any day.
Eventually it led him into peer support work and recovery-based mental health services, using lived experience to support other people experiencing mental distress and to help them rediscover their own strengths.
By the time I came along, his mad experiences were more of a catalogue of his life so far, but the nagging truths of so many other people’s struggles with the system were glaring. Through his advocacy of changing the language and perception of mental distress, I became aware of Mary O’Hagan. Mary had seen the worst of the worst in her brush with the mental health system. She spent five years in and out of institutions in the 1980s. Still, she somehow managed to forge ahead, and with perseverance and a “fuck The Man” approach to life, ended up being a world leader in mental health thinking and in human rights.
I wanted to make a film that was against the typical story of mental health – you know, the ones that say like “mental illness is a big problem in our society,” or “go see a doctor.” Instead, I wanted to suggest that the experience of madness is one that can have value in and of itself – to an individual but also for society at large. That’s how “Madness Made Me” came together.
We have a saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Why can’t we apply that approach to mental health? If you’ve experienced highs and lows, distressing times, hearing voices or just feeling “out of it” – is there no value to this? Instead of eradicating these experiences, shouldn’t we try and learn from them? At the very least we should be able to use our own language to define our own experiences. While for some people, diagnoses may be helpful, for many more, a diagnosis is negative, limiting, and imprisoning.
In making the film and in the response I’ve had, I’ve realized there is a yearning for this perspective. It’s about acknowledging our own mental health and wellbeing as something that has highs and lows, brights and darks, and that it’s all part of the strange experience of being human.
My hope is that this film not only encourages independent thought on issues surrounding mental health, but also instills a deeper understanding of what it might mean for a person to experience madness, and questions how as a society we might emphasize instead of stigmatise the value of these experiences.
Link to video: https://vimeo.com/132294911