Saturday, February 6, 2010


I promised in my first blog to take a stab at what people with a psychiatric diagnosis ought to call themselves. (Obviously we cannot call ourselves 'people with a psychiatric diagnosis'. Can you say that ten times fast?) So here we go.

I have given a lot of thought to what we have in common. What I decided was that we are subject to altered states. What is an altered state? Simply put, it is a state in which one's reality strongly differs from the more or less agreed-upon reality that those around us tend to share (no, I am not going to define 'reality' for you. Uh-uh. Go find a dictionary).

For instance a person having a panic attack is in a state of unnatural terror which does not seem to have a logical trigger. A person having a flashback has literally moved to the past and is once again experiencing it. A person who believes that extra terrrestrials  are gunning for them is not living in the same kind of reality as most people around them. The thing about 'reality' is that most people in a family, culture, or group are share a mental and emotional landscape. An altered state is simply one where the facts and the rules (and maybe the sensations, sounds, etc) are different.

Are altered realities good or bad? I couldn't say. I personally find them bad for daily functioning but really good for writing poetry. Some people feel they receive unique spiritual gifts and abilities there. Altered states have existed all through history, and many cultures have legitimized and valued them. Some examples are visionaries, shamans, and saints. Often if an altered state is connected to religion it will be considered not only good but inspired. In our culture, altered states are now pathologized, which makes for stigma.

Yet altered states are quite common: they simply go unrecognized. If you've ever slept, or been drunk or stoned or high,  or meditated, or been hypnotized, you've been there. If you've ever suddenly heard that little voice that tells you where you've left your keys, that's one too, in a way. Many people who are not considered 'sick' have experienced serious depression or anxiety. The difference for those of us with a label is that we experience them randomly, involuntarily, and so strongly that they interfere with functioning in the 'standard' reality. And we can't turn these states off or control them without the help of powerful drugs. This is commonly called 'mental illness', which is a term I'll use from time to time, merely for convenience.

But I'd like to introduce a less pejorative, more inclusive term. It's a acronym: PASC, Prone to Altered States of Consciousness. Sometimes I also call it 'special chemistry'. I stole that from the 'special needs' people and it's a little ultra-PC for my taste. But it's a bit better than continually labeling us as 'sick', because that's not the whole story.

The problem is when varying realities collide. Chaos ensues. We all know what happens when political or religious realities collide at the dinner table. Some people will kill each other or start wars to establish their reality over others'. We've been seeing a lot of that internationally - Terrorism is a spectacularly nasty collision of realities.

The basic problem of the PASC, as I will call them, is how to survive when your head is in one reality and your body is in another. Sooner or later you come back to your body, and then there's hell to pay.
Learning how to survive that is the real topic of my blogs. That's what I intend to focus on.


Pre-publication copies of my new book on coping with mental illness are now available for purchase at in pdf format.