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Columns   |    
Personal Accounts: Making Art, Exploring Madness
Meghan Caughey, M.A., M.F.A.
Psychiatric Services 2011; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.62.2.126
View Author and Article Information
Ms. Caughey is coordinator of the Peer Wellness Program of Benton County Health Services, Corvallis, Oregon (e-mail: meghan@meghancaughey.com). Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H., is editor of this column.

Copyright © 2011 by the American Psychiatric Association.

I just spent the day in the studio painting a picture about what it was like to be hospitalized for schizophrenia again after more than 11 years. I had thought that I would never see the inside of a hospital again, but I was wrong. I started having major symptoms—the voices, the frightening images—and they were too strong for me to bear.

I argued with my psychiatrist and my therapist, who both thought I should go into the hospital. My close friend, Beckie, whom I respect very much also, echoed their opinion. Finally, I could resist no longer—I went, but not to the local hospital where I sometimes work. I did not want my colleagues to see me as a patient.

I went about 50 miles out of town and checked myself into the hospital in Salem. I went voluntarily, even though I was fraught with hesitation and fear.

When I arrived at the hospital, I was ushered inside by two female staff members. They took me to an empty room and instructed me to remove all of my clothing. They said it was for the sake of safety. I was very shocked and frightened by the notion of removing all of my clothing in front of them, and I told them that I could not do it. They persisted and showed me a little room with a tile floor with a drain in the center and said I could remove my clothing inside there by myself. I went in and removed my outer clothing, handing it out to the women. I did not remove my camisole or my panties, and the staff women were unhappy that I still had clothing on. They had me come out of the little room. I was reluctant.

They made me stand until one of the women took her hands and opened up my panties in the front and back and looked inside at my genital area. She also raised up my camisole and looked at my breasts and back. I wanted to push her away and run. I was terrified, and I stifled my impulse to push her or try to get away because they seemed more powerful. I was afraid that they could do something to me that would be even worse.

After they had looked me over, they said I could put my clothes back on. I did this very fast. I was very shaken up; this had not happened to me before in any other hospital. Here was the humiliation and intimidation that comes with being in the role of a psychiatric patient. I had not been an inpatient for years, yet here I was, stripped of my garments and feeling completely vulnerable to strangers and feeling powerless and small. I was not accustomed to being in this role. In my job at the health department I sometimes visit the inpatient psychiatric unit, and I am aware of all the privileges (and power) of staff.

Even though my hospitalization was helpful in some ways—it did get me through a very rough time—I could not let go of my apprehension and shame. Perhaps my problem had more to do with my view of what hospitalization says about me than with the hospitalization itself.

It has been hard to cope with the reality of returning to the hospital, when I had thought that I would never go back. I have had to change my view of myself. Before this hospitalization, I had thought that I was finally "immune" to my mental illness and completely finished with that part of my life. I had decided that I would never go there again; it was completely no longer an option. I felt that I had "recovered" and that because I was recovered, I had also transcended my problems and was no longer vulnerable to being hospitalized. I wanted to be a shining example to my peers—someone who had really gotten out of the "system."

It seemed fine to tell other people that at one time in my life, I had been very sick and that I had been hospitalized over 100 times. The key to revealing this information about myself to someone else was that it was always in the past tense: "I used to be this way, but now I am not." I become an example of the miraculous—I could refer to myself as having "been through the fire, and come out the other side." I used to like to tell this to the clients I worked with. I thought that my miraculous conquering of the land called Schizophrenia could only serve as fodder for hope if I were totally free of any residual trace of illness—finally "immaculate"!

If someone I knew had a psychiatric relapse or a similar experience, I would have known many compassionate things to say and I would have meant every word. However, it seemed much harder, if not impossible, to find a compassionate position in regard to myself.

So, what could I say to myself now—that I was a complete failure, a sham?—that it was all impossible to live and be free, and that I had been wrong all along, and that it was not worth even trying, much less buying into the deception?

Where was hope now?

It seemed that I had let everyone down, including myself, and that there was no way to live in the garden again, now that I had seen this flaw re-emerge in myself. It was easy to get cuttingly cynical about everything that I had accomplished and the work I had done for myself and for others. In my mind, there was no middle ground; I was either recovered and successful or terribly flawed and worthless.

All of the old bad voices and arguments were back.

There was just one thing I could do to counter the merciless voices that were berating me. I went to my studio and tried to get up the nerve to paint how I felt. I sat there without moving for a very long time.

I felt scared to pick up a brush, to make a line on a blank, empty canvas. Would I, could I dare to paint what was raging inside me? All through my life, making art has been one way that I have integrated disparate facts and experiences into my psyche.

The painting that came to me was a figure trying to hide herself. I went back into that awful experience—I went back to the strip search at the hospital. It was painted in phthalo blue and cadmium yellow: The figure itself is yellow, and the field is blue. [A color image of the painting is available online in the PDF of this column at ps.psychiatryonline.org. See also www.meghancaughey.com] The nipples in the breasts are cadmium red; there is a blue and red inverted triangle of pubic hair. My mind returned to the mad realm as I painted. The expression on the face shows the shock and bewilderment—the betrayal. …

Later in the day, I thought about the words of Pema Chödrön: "Our brilliance, our juiciness, our spiciness, is all mixed up with our craziness and our confusion, and therefore it doesn't do any good to try to get rid of our so-called negative aspects because in the process we also get rid of our basic wonderfulness."

I had worked so hard to not be crazy and to put that behind me. It would seem that I had tried to snuff out something essential in myself.

I started thinking, "What if I allowed myself to own my madness? Why is it that I have to have the ‘perfect recovery?’ What is this myth that I have been telling myself? Why do I think that I have to be so perfect, and put together, and for whom?"

I recalled that when I'm at work, I say I am fine on days when I can barely hold it together. When the voices and images come, as they do, why do I fight so hard to push them away? It just makes them press down harder on my skull. It makes a war zone inside my head.

What if I were to embrace my madness, to embrace it wholly? I have acknowledged that it guides my art; how about embracing my mad self?

Doing so would be like taking the oil paint that I love and dipping my fingers into those great blobs of pigment, smearing them across a pristine white canvas, and then from the canvas across the white walls, allowing pigment to flow wherever it wants to go and allowing the images inside the pigment to emerge—just that dance of moving, liquid color across an expanse. How delicious and free! I say, this is the soul of art making!

What if I took full measure of joy in the juicy, spicy, and brilliant craziness and confusion that Chödrön writes about? What if I stopped resisting? If I could be grateful for the madness itself—really grateful—then the foundations that my whole being is founded on would give a mighty shudder, and a gigantic shift would occur.

I am to a point where I am ready to surrender to it and open wide to it.

This feels like a relief. There is fear but hope, too. I don't have to be "super-sane" anymore.

Is this true? Can I do this?

I will have to explore to find out.

The realm of madness in art is a juicy, promising land, sometimes of pain but also at times a dark exuberance.

I have embarked as a traveler in this land of my life.

Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump

Strip-Searched on the Inpatient Unit

Oil on canvas © Meghan Caughey, 2010

Strip-Searched on the Inpatient Unit

Oil on canvas © Meghan Caughey, 2010




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