A review of “Mud Flower: Surviving Schizophrenia and Suicide Through Art”
Mud Flower: Surviving Schizophrenia and Suicide Through Art, Meghan Caughey, Luminare Press, 2021.
Psychiatry has a rich history of patient writing offering their personal accounts of psychotic states and brutal treatments, often coercively administered to control bothersome symptoms. In the psychopathology course that I taught regularly at my university, I would include in the curriculum papers written by patients, from the classic A spirit that has found itself (1908) by Clifford Beers, The bell (1963) by Sylvia Plath, in Girl interrupted (1993) by Susanna Kaysen.
Virginia Woolf’s novels also provided plenty of scathing feminist commentary. My students were invited to unwrap this passage from Mrs. Dalloway where Woolf describes his attending physician after one of his emotional outbursts: “Dr. Holmes has returned. Tall, fresh in color, handsome, waving his boots, looking into the glass, he dismissed everything – headaches, sleeplessness, fears, dreams – nervous symptoms and nothing more, he said.
The psychiatric patient genre, from the works of the giants of literature to everyday patients, tends towards the tragic, even though the past few decades have produced a frenzy of upbeat stories about appeasing madness with modern chemistry. .
In his memoirs, Mud flower: Surviving schizophrenia and suicide through art (2021), Meghan Caughey, artist, poet, educator and peer counselor, seeks a path outside the established subgenres of psychiatric memoir – stories that could be loosely categorized into the tragic, the romantic and the triumphant. . Caughey weaves threads of each of these emotional patterns into his memories. But the fabric of his work goes beyond any simple motif or sub-genre.
Describing the shifting views on his own illness, Caughey notes, “Mental illness is intriguing if it is abstract or at a reasonable distance. I was trying to convince myself and others that being angry was a romantic experience. Rejecting the romantic tradition of madness associated with poets and writers, Caughey nonetheless provides the reader with enchanting glimpses.
The title of the book engages the image of the lotus flower in Buddhist thought, a plant that grows in muddy water and whose exquisite petals find root in muddy places. In many Eastern traditions, the lotus flower symbolizes the paradoxes of human life – how precious attributes such as creativity, beauty, and love relate to opposing states such as chaos, ugliness, and rage. .
As a practicing Buddhist, Caughey draws on the rich fruitfulness of the image to advance a philosophy of madness as states associated with muddy currents. For Caughey, schizophrenia produces experiences that oscillate perpetually between chaos and creativity. Like the Buddhist lotus symbol, Caughey finds pathways to enlightenment through his own disordered states of mind.
The author opens each chapter with one of his poems and a painting or drawing to accompany the entries from the years before publication – 2018, 2019 and 2020 – much like journal entries. Each chapter then turns to a period of time, beginning in the 1970s as she entered college and suffered her first psychiatric crisis. The aesthetic choices she makes to structure the book serve as recurring reminders to the reader: the author is an artist, a poet and a person who, as Walt Whitman poetically joked, “contains multitudes”.
More than the diagnosis of schizophrenia and its disturbing legacy as an overwhelming disorder, the briefs speak of the process of having to integrate a mental disability into a sense of self while creating space for a multitude of potentialities. The book’s title, Mud flower, grew from the fertile soil and hard rock of his lived experiences.
Suicide is also part of the title and implicitly links his struggle against schizophrenia to a death drive. Caughey brings the torments of psychosis to an understanding of suicidality and the many reasons people think about killing themselves. Caughey sheds light on a neglected area of the mental health literature on suicide: how psychotic states can produce an almost unbearable load of sensations, disturbing images, and tormenting commands. She describes hearing voices shouting persecution orders, “you should die,” drowning out the softer but less audible voices.
For much of his life, Mud flower attests it, the identity of the author is deeply rooted in his work as an artist. She has produced a range of striking bold and distinctive pieces, many of which have been exhibited in gallery exhibitions. The drawings and paintings project massive strength and fragility, spherical bulges and secluded spaces, forms that are both dynamic and still.
Caughey traces her story as an artist to an art therapy program at a public hospital where she was confined as a young woman.
Like most artists and writers, she draws inspiration from her own life experiences. But it’s important to also recognize the difference between the expressive value of art therapy in treatment settings and the lasting achievements of an artist. Caughey gives both positions a formative place in his development and emotional survival. She projects her identity as an artist through her psychiatric history while claiming her place as a recognized artist.
Indeed, an endearing passage unfolds around a scene where she shows her paintings to her mother with her expressed childish desire for parental recognition. As his mother turns away from the disturbing images on the canvas, Caughey announces that someone is paying thousands of dollars for one of these paintings. It is an affirmation of the power of the capitalist market as well to decide questions of value.
The specific conventions of the dissertation impose requirements to make the personal story both intelligible and interesting to the reader. Caughey writes about episodes in his life in exquisite detail, for example in his vivid description of the “reparenting” hospitalization programs in the early 1970s for people with schizophrenia – and his own delight and subsequent disenchantment with this unorthodox treatment. The book is captivating and reads like a novel with its strong voice as a narrator, as well as passages that reflect visual acuity and the author’s skills as an artist. The tongue is direct and observational in tone but never dry.
Although the diagnostic criteria have changed over the decades, including recognizing multiple subtypes and overlapping with other disorders, schizophrenia has throughout the history of psychiatry been understood as a characterized condition. by altered affective responses as well as disturbances in thinking.
Caughey captures some of these elements of schizophrenia, most poignantly in passages about his periods of social isolation, numbing withdrawal, and suicide attempts. But she also narratively subverts the oppressive stereotypes of people with schizophrenia as anhedonic and asocial. Conversations with people, as well as communions with nature and its dogs, bring the book to life.
In the tradition of object relations of psychoanalysis, the inner world is understood to be made up of representations of people or parts of people, and psychosis is believed to characterize a state in which the person is not able to keep in touch. mind stable representations of oneself and of the other. However, Caughey’s memories are a highly relational story – one where friends, lovers, family, teachers, as well as his beloved dogs – inhabit his psychic spaces.
A recurring touchstone motif centers around her friendship with a psychiatrist, Maggie, who goes down in history as someone who is there for her during times of crisis but also a source of deep camaraderie. There is a palpable sense of reciprocity in this friendship – places where people offer some kind of support to each other and where creative work flourishes through meeting of minds.
Surprisingly perhaps, the diagnosis of schizophrenia – a subject of ongoing theoretical controversy and taxonomic revisions in psychiatry – occupies very little place in his memoir. After a breakdown and a hospitalization at the university, she is first credited with what she understood early on as a damning diagnosis. “I was doomed,” she recalls.
Rather than debunking the diagnosis or offering a lot of commentary, Caughey seeks to challenge the grim pessimism that continues to adhere to this disorder. She offers a nuanced critique of the medical model, mainly through her experiences with hospitalizations and psychoactive drugs. At first refusing to take antipsychotics, she goes on to describe a complex and mixed story around the role of drugs in treating her mental illness.
She offers vivid descriptions of treatments and what she calls “schizophrenia medications” – and her mind-boggling first experiences with the “Thorazine shuffle”. But Caughey adheres to a pragmatic philosophy, where people find their way to whatever works for them. For example, she shares the story of her participation in a clinical trial for a drug that was found to be beneficial and her decision to make a promotional video for the pharmaceutical company that distributed the drug.
Working in the field of peer support and counseling, Caughey is comfortable with practical advice for sufferers in the same way. “We expect the worst. Everyone expects the worst for us. Everything we see and hear confirms the worst… ”Reflecting on a radio interview for Mental Health Awareness Week, Caughey goes on to explain,“ I will speak to anyone who listens and has been diagnosed. I will say, give it up – not that it will go away or be less valid, but your diagnosis will lose its grip on your life, and once you no longer define your experience with that label, then you can start to live a new, happier life.
Caughey also encourages readers to let go of their own prejudices and their willingness to place those diagnosed with schizophrenia among the damned.
There are many crevices in the paths Meghan Caughey mapped out for herself and others, many of which are carved out by the limits imposed by mainstream society. The author neither endorses the childhood trauma theory of schizophrenia – a theory that was largely displaced by the massive expansion of antipsychotic drugs in the 1960s – nor fully adheres to the medical model.
Although the subtitle suggests an offer of advice, Mud flower is not a self-help book. Rather, the author seeks an ethics centered on the valuation of madness – and on art as a channel of communication of values - for the muddy waters that the dominant society willingly rejects.
Mud flower is a satisfying read whether or not one has a severe mental disorder. The book is a wonderful example of excellent writing in the tradition of psychiatric memoirs by speaking about aspects of the mind and consciousness that go beyond diagnosis. It is a call to face more directly the place of mental suffering and the mixture of pain and joy that are part of the human condition.
Mad in America hosts the blogs of a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion – in the broad sense – of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.