"The Wound is the Place Where the Light Enters You" ~ 'Crazywisdom' explored.

At the second Compassionate Mental Health conference in Cardiff - brainchild (or, in this instance, 'heart child') of Welsh writer and health campaigner, Brigid Bowen - in March 2017 I was privileged to attend a pre-launch screening of the independent, crowd-funded movie Crazywise.

A three minute trailer can be viewed on the website www.crazywisefilm.com, where it's possible to read and watch a wealth of additional material exploring many of the characters featured and themes touched on in the feature film; also, to delve into the lines of enquiry that brought about the idea for the movie, and the associated idea of utilizing it to engender a social movement. 

The film was launched worldwide last year (subtitles are already available in a number of languages: French, Italian, German, Hungarian, Romanian, Dutch, Portuguese & Spanish, & they soon will be in Lithuanian and Norwegian - something which clearly attests to its immediate international appeal). 

I was fortunate enough also to attend its official UK launch in London at Katie Mottram's Emerging Proud event on May 12th 2017, and to have the opportunity to meet for the second time co-director, social documentary filmmaker and photographer Phil Borges, who hosted a Q&A session at each showing. 

An hour and fifteen minutes long, the condensed exploration of 'our broken culture', our 'deskilled' and 'psychotic society' and perspectives upon potential paths towards healing its wounds, features the stories of two young Americans - Adam Gentry and Ekhaya Esima.  Both of them, it transpires, are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and each also experienced what would until recently have been popularly described as a mental breakdown (now it would be termed 'psychosis') in their late teens. Footage was shot over a five year period: for Ekhaya, this turned out to be largely a time of progress and emergence from long years of internal meltdown; for Adam, things proved to be much more up and down.

Documentary film clips of the two main characters, shot at different times, are skilfully spliced together with fragments of the stories of other individuals who have experienced altered states of mind in very different contexts.  Borges' background as an observer of indigenous cultures and ritual behaviours - which, he clearly states at the film's outset, stirred his curiosity concerning widely varying concepts of what the west views as 'mental ill health' - provides a fascinating lead in to the subject matter.

A brief monologue introduction to the complexity and pain in Adam's life culminates in him screaming into his pillow, sitting in the front seat of the yellow car someone had given him to live in at the time on a patch of waste ground in Seattle, as he feels his words fail to convey the depths of despair and frustration that have hijacked his being.  

With this primal expression of rage and hopelessness still ringing in our ears, the camera slowly homes in, in turn, on a series of stark and intriguing photographic portraits of tribal peoples, while haunting, stumbling musical notes hint at the poignancy of their histories. A timeless and universal quality Borges has captured in the shots speaks of millennia of suffering, vulnerability and resignation; but equally of the resilience of the human spirit, of powerful presence and dignity.  The focus, we swiftly realise, is on the eyes of the individuals whose images the photographer has arrested in time - some looking startled, as if just happened upon in that instant; others serene and unfathomable, while paradoxically betraying depths of plumbed experience that defy life to throw anything more. The theme of eyes as windows to the soul is woven throughout the film, it transpires.

Seamless connections are also made between clips of footage featuring knowledgeable commentators in the social - and specifically 'mental health care' - fields; infograms displaying stats, facts and figures; written summaries and statements of key information, and evocative interludes embracing timeless settings within natural scenes and sounds, clearly providing a palpable contrast with the harsh environmental context of the pressurized western 21st century lifestyle.  It is a tribute to the craftsmanship of the filmmakers that, although so much ground is covered, footage never feels rushed and the camera lingers as it pans in from timeless rural scenes to focus on individuals, as if itself seeking to consider the wider context of the unique human stories the film is pursuing.  In this way, the viewer is also offered respite between some harrowing and bleak scenes, and we are shown (or, rather, reminded by being led to recognise the experience for ourselves) that there is a palpable issue of environmental context underlying the human predicament in our times; that anomalies are not just manifesting within a vacuum.

Very little of the film is devoted to discussing Ekhaya and Adam's experiences with the American 'mental health system'.  It is established that both found it largely unhelpful and counter-productive, that it is pretty widely acknowledged to be a broken, inadequate response to people's pain and distress and that this is partly because it is only employed to attempt to stem the tide of emotion once full-blown crisis comes into play. But there is a comprehensive discussion of the undermining status quo in general in interview clips throughout the movie.  The 'system' (as determined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - DSM - is "basically a sophisticated way or not listening to people", observes survivor Will Hall.

"I decided to try to get some kind of help," Ekhaya recalls, "I was in the hospital for about six weeks, was put on several different medications - heavy drugs: antipsychotics - and it really changed who I was completely".  This was reflected outwardly, when she gained 70 lbs in weight in just two and a half months, but beyond that "I just felt drugged up", she says. 

Adam tells us:

"I checked myself into a mental institution. That is absolutely not the place to get sane! ... I immediately felt in danger and scared, and so I just decided "NO!" and we went back to my parents' house and tried to figure out what to do". 

While an inmate, he recalls:

"I was put on one (heavy-duty tranquillizer), and then that just started the whole process of "Oh no, now he's crying all day - we'll just sort of feed him this one .."; "Oh, now he's barfing all day - feed him this one!" They always say every brain's different, and their approach seems to be "maybe this'll make you better or maybe it'll make you kill yourself!""

Adam spent four years on various combinations of medication, taking up to 15 pills a day. "I felt like a lab rat", he sums up, "and the side effects were awful. Vomiting all day. I couldn't leave the house, had dreadful anxiety attacks and the thought of interacting with people made me sick to my stomach".

By way of contrast, we are taken at different points in the film to parts of Africa, India, South America, Mongolia and Siberia and learn how differently cultures that haven't yet been diluted by Western thought and values approach instances where someone in the community begins having unusual experiences. 

At first we are introduced to Sukulen, whose striking profile has provided the cover image for the movie.  She is a member of the Samburu tribe, whose grandmother identified 'gifts' in her which set her apart from others and who was able to tutor her in the effective and responsible use of them, because she herself was an elder trained in the same tradition.  

We hear the story of Tibetan State Oracle Thupten who, after collapsing as a young man and experiencing some really frightening sensations and thoughts, was formally approached as a consequence of the altered behaviour he'd been exhibiting by the exiled Dalai Lama and offered training for a key role in Tibetan spiritual tradition.

Archive film from Mongolia leads us, accompanied by the rustic sounds of flowing water and the sawing of wood, to the home of Namid, then seventy years of age but who had had vivid dreams and heard voices since her early teens and whose grandfather was a shaman before her.  Borges, who additionally immortalised her in a truly astonishing photograph, remarks on the extraordinary amount of energy she constantly devoted to healing work, around the clock often, and how much it took out of her.  At one stage, she collapsed, but then got up and carried on.

"I was reminded of how important our relationships are to the healing process",

he reflected while recalling this event and marvelling at the way she devoted herself wholeheartedly to helping others.

We are shown footage of Mengatohue, a powerful shaman and Amazonian tribal leader, entering the induced trance state we are told he regularly accesses into in order to take on the spirit essence of a jaguar, using a process called 'shapeshifting', to guide his people and ensure their survival as hunter gatherers.

"I wonder whether these things could be a metaphor that helps the tribe to connect to nature in a deep and spiritual way",

muses Borges.

Cut to beautiful swaying grassy reeds, whispering in the breeze, to a backwater on the Amur river in Siberia - the place where the word shaman originated, we are told.  Here we're privileged to be introduced to respected healer, Lindsa, one of the two remaining shamans in the Nanai culture at the time in film footage, it transpired, that was shot just weeks before her death.  She had recently begun work mentoring a young girl who was manifesting potential to be able to carry on the work.

"It seemed I was witnessing the disappearance of an age old tradition in this corner of Siberia",

Borges reflects.

It becomes progressively clear during the ethnic film clips that a growing general concern about the erosion of inherited and intuitive life skills and social structures, and the practice of self-agency and community wisdom, became his driving motive for making Crazywise, his first feature length documentary.

Some of the footage of traditional ritual practices might look very alien and be frightening and challenging to western viewers.  There's a scene where Ekhaya is writhing on the floor and her South African Sangoma (healer/teacher) looks as though she's carrying out some kind of exorcism practice.  And yet, soon afterwards we see Ekhaya looking the soul of peace and tranquility, relaxed and recharged, focussed and fulfilled.  The process she is undergoing seems to be the classic initiation experience which forces a seeker to face the shadows, the dark side of self and of life's spectrum of experiences; to feel and not suppress negative emotions in order to attain humility and, paradoxically, mastery of one's own spirit and, consequently, the ability to empathize fully with others. Once you have hit rock bottom, there's great liberation in having nowhere else to fall; nothing further to fear.

According to his father in an outtake clip of film, the meditation experience made more difference to Adam's mental state than anything they did at the hospital or anything else he tried.  His parents were clearly impressed by the transformation when he attained and managed to maintain a period of inner peace as the result of attending three ten day Vipassana retreats, but sadly he was sent away on a subsequent visit when disturbing childhood memories began surfacing and he brought them to the attention of the organisers - filling them in at the same time about his 'mental health' history.  It is really regrettable that Adam didn't have the fortune to be taken under the wing of a spiritual teacher who was prepared to stick with his process and take him safely through the rapids of disturbed emotion to more solid ground beyond.  I don't think anyone could watch this film and not perceive that he is someone who would stand out in any social context as an extraordinary human soul.  To me, the fact that mainstream society is not equipped to provide a safety net and take steps to rehabilitate even fellow beings with as many natural resources as Adam, symbolizes quite how torn the social fabric in the west has become.

Borges states that he isn't trying to romanticize indigenous cultures, or to suggest they have all the answers, but he is clearly interested in the spiritual traditions he has encountered in the course of thirty years' work as a photojournalist and human rights commentator.  Throughout that period, he has met shamans and healers who told him they had an experience which identified them to community leaders who recognised that they had a gift that could be used for the good of others, for healing or visionary work.

Psychologist and anthropologist Alberto Villoldo explains:

"In the shamanic traditions, there are maps and compasses that you can use to guide you through your dark night of the soul. So you're encouraged to explore the depths of the psyche with all its despair, suffering, and not to get stuck there - to use that as some point of initiation to open yourself up to lucidity and to a sense of personal destiny".

This is clearly a perspective that has almost got lost in today's world.  Borges sees it, though, as a promising sign that Ekhaya was intercepted in a Western country post-existential crisis and recruited for spiritual training to carry on one of these ancient healing traditions. 

It seems as though one main, logical reason that we see, undeniably, more spontaneous resolution of emotionally altered mind states in the non-Western world than within our culture is that our communities have become so fragmented and the mentorship which elders offer in more traditional societies barely occurs here any more.  In fact, our older folk experience their own problems increasingly because they are not valued for their hard-won experience and are rarely consulted about anything of import.

At the end of the film, although things are looking a lot more promising for Adam, the paths he and Ekhaya are treading are clearly not going in similar directions.  It struck me that perhaps this was because of quirks of fate, or bad luck, more than anything else.  Each of the two managed to find a supportive, accepting community - Adam stumbled on the Soul Food Coffee House and its attendant fellowship of musicians, activists and creatives, and Ekhaya found a Peer to Peer Program called Community Links. Sara Pelfrey, founder of Soul Food, told Borges:

"I think a lot of people would say Adam was broken. I don't view it that way.  I think our culture is broken. We say "There's something wrong with you" instead of actually addressing the fact that as a society we don't have the skills to support somebody like that".

However, while Adam found appreciation, fellowship, and open-mindedness at Soul Food, Ekhaya became employed at Community Links - a Peer to Peer support centre where she found individuals who had managed to successfully navigate their crises.  Their support helped her immensely and soon she was acting as a peer for others new to the center.   Soon afterwards, she applied for a position to run her a healing circle at the centre, and was accepted.  A while later, she met a South African shamanic teacher who recognised her potential and took her on as a trainee. 

Makia Oaks, co-owner of Soul Food, made a telling remark about Adam:

"He seems to just tune into what others are feeling.  I don't think he knows how not to feel it for them.  He's be a great psychologist someday, or maybe could work with kids ... he doesn't need to end up in the back of a car".

Because his new connections weren't focussed on the reintegration of fellow spirits into the community in a formal sense - as Ekhaya's were at Community Links - Adam didn't have his exceptional talents and energy reclaimed by society, though, or find his way into channels that would lead him back into a virtuous energy circle.  He was doing okay, and went to house sit on the tropical paradise island, Maui.  Here his fortunes could conceivably have changed for the better, but when his accommodation arrangement fell through he was tragically set upon at night and brutally beaten up. Just days later he learned his mum had terminal cancer and would die soon.

We all rely so much more upon our routines, our work, involvement in our communities and a sense of direction and purpose than we tend to realise.  We also need guidance, support and teaching and in slower-paced, healthily-functioning cultures tend to live more in contact with our innate intuitive skills and a sense of interconnectedness with those around us and of our connection with the planet we rely on for all that keeps us alive and nurtures us. 

Anthropologist Carolle Dunham reflects:

"I believe that if I hadn't chosen to live in Nepal I would probably have been medicated or institutionalized.  I knew for myself that I couldn't be in a society or culture that was high paced ... creating a lifestyle where I could be (working) out in villages, on agricultural time not on industrial time". 

She introduces the Tibetan concept of 'crazywisdom' which gave the film its name:

"In the Tibetan medical tradition, illness is not just something that's in an individual.  It's something larger ... related to the environment",

and goes on to explain that once societies start to lose a connection with the environment in a very deep way, sickness tends to start manifesting.

Perhaps some of us are less suited than others to be confined within the restrictions of the out-of-balance modern 'first world' society, and the establishment approach to issues of what is seen as emotional imbalance exacerbates this?

The film ends on a hopeful note.  Both central characters seem to be going in a positive direction, although Ekhaya has found more overt purpose than Adam.  I strongly feel its message is that we need a sense of engagement, belonging and direction to have the best chance of maintaining emotional and spiritual balance; and also that we have the answers within us - we just need the accumulated wisdom within communities to be assisted to identify and run with them.  Where we are disconnected and left floundering around on our own, more people all the time are falling down the cracks which are opening up in our dysfunctional societies. 

It is touching but also full of irony that Adam told Borges the thread of filming for Crazywise was probably what kept him together during the five years' progress it documents. 

"Phil has helped me so much",

he reflects,

" ... (coming) to me with just an honest curiosity about my situation instead of an opinion.  I hope that this film ends up showing people that they are okay".

Canadian physician and addiction expert, Gabor Mate, points out:

"Adam, had he had (his experiences) within an Eastern culture where there are mentors and shamans, might have been told he was gifted with sight, and that sight needs to be employed and deployed within a certain tradition, where there's teaching and there's guidance, because it's too much for the individual ego to handle.  Now, in the western world there's no such framework".

In fact, Borges' original idea had been to make a film about meditation. He started working with a friend, Debra Thompson Harvey, who began finding subjects to interview.  One of the first potential subjects she sent was Adam.  Borges was excited by Adam's story when he heard that Adam had stabilized himself by doing a Vipassana meditation retreat after being on heavy medication for 4 years.  As Borges soon learned that wasn’t the end of the story.  It seems, though, that what went down next (as it became clear that nothing cut-and-dried regarding Adam's inner process was occurring) is what took the filmmaker off on a fascinating tangent ... exploring situations in various locations in our contemporary world that are conducive to emotional/mental well-being and growth, or otherwise.

Roshi Joan Halifax remarks:

"What we do in the West is to constrain individuals. People start to manage your experience at a level which takes away your agency, robs you of your autonomy; makes you feel that they don't trust you".

Laura Delano (former patient turned activist and community organiser in San Francisco) concurs:

"Once I internalized a 'mentally ill' identity - came to see myself as having this 'disease' living inside of me - I stopped trusting in my intuition, because I was 'sick'. The only way to find myself again, and to get back to an authentic sense of self, is to feel all of it and to listen to it and explore it and to not be afraid".

Will Hall, who is an eminent figure within the 'peer support' subculture and social movement which Borges sees as comprising no less than 'a grassroots democratization of mental health', tells us:

"We have lost touch in our medical system with some of the simple needs that people have for connection ... and because the mental health system isn't providing it, people who've been in the system are starting to provide it for ourselves".

In summing up at the end of the film, Borges poses the questions:

"What if a 'mental health' crisis were viewed as a potential growth experience  instead of a disease with no cure?"

and

"What if everyone was supported and guided to seek new meaning and purpose in their suffering?"

Will Hall, buoyed up by his own authentic experiences, clearly feels the 'peer support' movement is ready to take up the gauntlet.  He considers the time ripe for change, and that - in the absence of wise elders and traditions - we could do far worse than clubbing together and offering each other support with all the open-mindedness, and from the diverse perspectives, of fellow independent journeyers who have taken a particular route already and survived to tell the tale!

With passionate conviction, he affirms:

"Now is the time for us to be pressing of new ways of looking at things; for funding peer support groups; for getting options out there; for bringing the holistic ... framework into 'mental health care' ... and that'll help fuel a movement that says "Look, we're not alone!", and then we can build a movement that can make change happen".

If you enjoyed this article, my personal response to the film and further reflections can be accessed in my column on the Royal College of Psychiatrists' site, Carry On Caring

If you are interested in organising a community showing of Crazywise, you can find out how to do so by following this link.