Sprekend op de conferentie

Er waren 39 nationaliteiten aanwezig op de vierdaagse, internationale conferentie “Stranger in the City” in De Doelen in Rotterdam. Zaterdagochtend mocht ik een half uur lang spreken over het onderwerp ‘Psychose en Jihad’. In het Engels, want dat was de voertaal. Dit was mijn verhaal:

At the age of 18 – in January 1966 – I was quite suddenly hit by a psychosis. I didn’t sleep the night before. I then wrote a number of scriptures of what should become “A New Bible for the World.” Then I wandered through the streets of Amsterdam for a week with a sword that I had bought in Toledo the summer before. I have never shown violent tendencies before or during my psychosis, or have cherished desires in that direction. But there was no one at the time who encouraged me or tempted me. Nobody thought it strange that I was walking through the city with a sword. I didn’t hurt anyone at the time, not even myself, but it could have ended differently. I was literally capable of anything.

Almost half a century later, on April 9, 2011, the 24-year-old Tristan van der Vlis shot 6 people in the shopping center in Alphen aan de Rijn and then killed himself. He had previously indicated that he wanted to punish God by torturing and killing his creatures. He heard voices from God, had prayed a lot, but was never heard. In the meantime, he too had begun to write “A New Bible for the World.”

When I first heard this, I suddenly saw the wonderful connection between the story of my own psychosis and that of Tristan van der Vlis in Alphen aan de Rijn. I too had started a New Bible for the world. But I also saw the possible connections with all those young people running amok these days, in all their gradations between psychosis, mass-shooting, school-shooting, spree-killings, terrorist violence by lone wolves and terror arising from radicalization processes. The problem of the “confused adolescent” who gets into a psychosis and commits violence seems increasingly difficult to distinguish from a radicalized jihadist terrorist who takes to the streets and becomes a danger in the public domain.

Dramatic processes of this kind are taking place in today’s rapidly globalizing world. In the big cities and metropolises, where globalization and alienation often go hand in hand. Sudden loss of mental balance can be accompanied by an explosion of seeming knowledge and self-understanding. Yes, even with some form of religious revelation. Then something breaks through on the surface, perhaps of the absolute, the ground of existence itself.

The French newspaper Le Monde recently reported that there are 4000 jihadists in France, two-thirds of which are between 15 and 25 years old. Jihadism deliberately responds to this vulnerable group of adolescents by making propaganda on social media. The Jihad offers an all-embracing ideal that apparently removes fear and uncertainty for the person concerned and a sense of liberation. He can then change into another person in a very short time, thereby losing a large part of his problematic identity. He becomes a seeming automatically acting terrorist who apparently has himself completely under control.

In addition to these psychological causes, social and political reasons may also play a role. Perhaps this phenomenon says something about our Western society dominated by capitalism and the free market, in which materialism and consumerism are the dominant values. Those are all guesses, but nobody really knows how these things work. Sudden explosions of violence, whether or not arising from a psychosis, form a mystery and the solution to that mystery concerns me to this day. I now know one thing for sure. Alienation and mental transition are the keywords that have these fatal processes in common. 

My early psychosis in 1966 has changed my life. During about sixteen years after that, I continued to suffer from a kind of manic depressive wave in my mind, which sometimes left me very close to a psychosis. Strangely enough, this dramatic event on the threshold of my adulthood has also left me with a strange feeling, the longing for a deep happiness that is not of this time and possibly not of this world.

After my sudden psychosis I was able to continue my studies at the time. In the late nineties I started writing about my psychiatric past. But as if by the 9/11 attacks my interest was focused on  violence and religious revelation and the underlying question: what are the effects in the human psyche processes as globalization and alienation. In fact my interest got focused on the proces of too rapid secularization. My consciousness was disturbed by the fact that I too quickly surpassed a traditional image of God in the Roman Catholic worldview, which seemed to be crushing under my eyes within a few years. Anyone experiencing that process on the eve of adolescence may be in a similar danger to what many Moroccan adolescents face today in the rapidly changing Dutch society. At the intersection of cultures and value systems, the mind can suddenly derail on the threshold of adulthood. When I started working on this matter, I gradually saw patterns and started asking uncomfortable questions. What has rapid secularization and terrorist violence – whether fundamentalist or otherwise – have in common with that specific illness of the psychotic adolescent?

It is part of human nature to yearn for transcendence. This can be expressed as a desire for a superhuman eternity, but also as a desire for a fragile form of transcendence with a more inner and human character. But no matter how you define this desire, in a world where every view of transcendence disappears, something threatens to suffocate. The fascination for intrinsic evil can be a result of this feeling of suffocation. An act of terror can result from a painful lack. It then becomes an emergency leap to the absolute.

The American terrorism expert Jessica Stern has pointed to an intrinsic link between jihad terrorism and the experience of transcendence. According to her, a sense of transcendence is one of the many attractive aspects of religious violence. It would even go beyond the appeal of achieving the goal as such. According to Stern, contemporary, young terrorists not only strive to achieve their goal, it also concerns the strive as such which contains the experience of transcendence. 

Before my psychosis, I tried to avoid for months every human contact for as much as possible. I wanted to separate myself from my own identity and preferred to be completely deprived of my own humanity insofar as it concerns being touched by feelings. At the same time, I lived under a glass bell jar that I could not break through. Sometimes at that time I thought there were no more thoughts in my head, that I was deflated and that my soul slowly disappeared.

The question that comes to my mind is the following. Is there a connection between on the one hand the process of rapid secularization and on the other hand processes of radicalization in adolescents or the sudden outbreak of a psychosis in this vulnerable phase of life? As secularization in our Western society carries on, it appears that most people can live very well without religion. They do not suffer from it, let alone develop psychological disorders.

Yet it is possible that the rapid surpassing of the religious worldview can cause a mental illness, whether or not accompanied by an outburst of violence. There are philosophers who point out that the secular man of today can become disoriented by the disappearance of transcendence too quickly. In his book A Secular Age, George Taylor talks about “a loss of horizon.” In the heart of modern times, “he argues,” the desire for transcendence will emerge again, escaping any calculability and human autonomy. “

That desire, whether hidden or not, can also resort to the extreme in the spectrum of good and evil. Young people experiencing their adulthood at the interface between two cultures can experience a kind of extreme disorientation. Apparently there is such a thing as a leak in the ontological macro-sphere that has traditionally protected existence from the outbreak of an epidemic mental illness.

You could use the term “caisson disease” as a metaphor in this regard. It’s like an overdose of oxygen that then ends up directly in the bloodstream. Too rapid transgression from a religious worldview can lead to spiritual derailments. With a sudden lack of “mental oxygen” the mind gets confused. In analogy with the actual “caisson disease”, you could also speak of a sudden surplus of “mental nitrogen”.

The metaphor of a psychic caisson disease was first used by French philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in her book Histoires d’amour. Too rapid transgression from the familiar patterns of what she calls “the psychic space” disrupts the balance between legitimate self-love and the ability to truly give yourself in love and to receive love. An affective emptiness arises, a no-man’s-land in the domain of feeling. This does not only apply to religious worldviews that are suddenly in danger of disappearing, but to every ideology that is left all at once.

In our secular society, old social forms of solidarity disappear like snow in the sun, without always having to replace them with new ones. The value of the individual is nowadays heavily overvalued and at the same time, the desire increases for strong identity, which is rooted in a historical or religious community. We experience a time of great nostalgia for existential security, but all the roads that lead back to it seem to be blocked for good. For me too, religion has disappeared from my life forever, but the desire for it has continued to this day.

The leap to the absolute, which seems to manifest itself in a sudden explosion of violence, is in essence a denial of the profoundness of existence. Western man, with all his technology and civilization, is still standing in front of that abyss, even though he is inclined to deny it. That abyss instills fear and is increasingly denied with the disappearance of transcendence.

On the other hand, many people see in religion as such precisely the main cause of the current epidemic outbursts of violence. In doing so, they forget to distinguish between the ambivalent nature of a healthy religion and the longing for the absolute, which unhealthy religious experience has in common with the absolute denial of any form of transcendence. It should be the task of every right-minded person to combat these absolute claims on both sides of the spectrum. That is, not only the craving for fundamentalism and violence inherent in religion as such, but also the demonic that can be hidden in an extremely secular culture that suffers from a void and what Taylor called “a loss of horizon’.

The social system is based on holy violence, but the experience of a bottomless emptiness produces a new kind of holy violence. The origin of the new terror violence does not lie in a sudden insight that breaks through – like a lightning bolt from a divine heaven – but in something divine that is hidden in the engine on which the entire system runs. It is the secret of the sacred primordial violence that reappears in the act of terror and psychotic violence in our days. If nothing is sacred anymore, the sacred finds its way again into the void. Only emptiness creates terror and violence. Only from emptiness does holy violence arise.

In this sense, contemporary adolescent psychosis and the radicalization process that occurs as a result of alienation are aligned. They are signals from a lower layer of the collective consciousness system that has something wrong with it. The alienation is in ourselves, in existence as such. We are all strangers in the city. 

The logic of fundamentalist terrorism turns the world upside down, just as the delusion of psychosis shows an inverted world. The sanctification of the profane, the manifestation of evil as something good, the reversal of the reversal. In the discourse on contemporary fundamentalism and terrorism, an antinomy pops up again and again: that is, to put the current legal system out of action. It’s a similar antinomy that can manifest itself in a psychosis. 

In other words, sudden explosions of violence in adolescence are not primarily characterized by irrationality, but by a surplus of rationality. Too many “logos” is always the reaction to the disappearance of the “mythos”. In this “reversal of the reversal” perhaps the mechanism can be found that explains not only the deepest secret of the contemporary jihad terrorist, but also of every suicidal, whether or not psychotic, perpetrator.

It reminds the Bible story of the blind Samson, who once again shows his devastating power and destroys the temple. It is the absolute breakthrough of the sacred, which religion is looking forward to, but which now appears as the black light in a total eclipse. After all, the God of monotheism can also be a cruel God. In that total eclips the evil can even be hidden in the good as good can be hidden in the evil. The dualism of good and evil can suddenly emerge behind the relativistic denial of evil as such.

So the question arises:  What is mental health in times of terrorism? That question seems to be asked again by contemporary suicidal perpetrators of violence and jihadist terrorists, not only with regard to themselves, but especially with regard to the possibilities of mental health care. This mental health care must find its way into a post-industrial, often secular society that not only has to deal with phenomena such as extreme autonomy and self-determination, but also with an invasion of a pre-modern religion with absolute and revealed truths.

I recognize that clash of two opposing law systems. It is perhaps a similar clash that a spiritually sensitive adolescent experiences when he must suddenly abandon his belief in a God and the supernatural.

But the key question is of course, what does all this mean for psychiatry? Psychiatry is a branch of science from which you might expect some light in this actual issue. But apparently psychiatry is trapped in the crippling system of mental health care with its increasingly sophisticated classifications, protocols and increasing diagnostic reductionism. Since psychology has disappeared from human sciences, psychiatrists are no longer so easy to make wider connections with other areas of philosophy of life and cultural research. Perhaps there is a new kind of mental illness, where it is no longer clear whether there is actually a mental illness or something much greater than that.

We apparently lost something, but what? At the time when the consequences of psychological problems are becoming increasingly visible in the public domain, current mental health care in the Netherlands is under pressure. Experts and many stakeholders in the field claim that she should become more proactive, with psychiatrist Jim van Os as the main advocate for new treatment structures in mental health care. The increasing, often hidden, market forces are creating problems. The phasing out of beds has so far been insufficiently compensated by the construction of alternative “treatment arrangements.”

A “social network approach” is advocated together with other partners, while mental health care must be taken to ensure that “knowledge assurance”  remains possible. That is pretty much the common thread in the critical noises that are heard today when it comes to better mental health care. In short, it means that psychiatric expertise must be better embedded in the social domain. But how do you do that if the problems at play in that social domain reach much deeper than can come to light within these types of flexible safety nets?

I think there’s a more basic problem to discuss. I dare to claim that the term “mental health” needs a thoroughly review. The spiritual component of the overall well-being that we call ‘health’ is in danger of becoming invisible. The current phenomenon of terrorist and suicidal violence could be a symptom of an imminent “illness of the soul,” an ailment in the collective lower layer of consciousness. I have to admitt, these are pre-war terms, words that are no longer qualified in the lexicon of contemporary psychiatry.

But on the other hand you can put the uneasy question: Is there still some reflection on the borderland between psychiatry and religion? That borderland seems to have disappeared with the disappearance of spirituality from psychiatry. The psychiatrist is tong-tied. Through the fading boundaries between psychotic and terrorist violence he is no longer in his wheelhouse. In fact, the solution of this kind of problems needs the foundations of a world view, but psychiatry no longer has a world view and therefore does not feel addressed.

Psychiatrists nowadays usually remain silent in all languages ​​when it comes to this larger issue. Perhaps they should move to other branches of science that were once annexed to psychiatry: philosophy, the Geistesgeschichte, reflections on art and culture, but also religion and theology. In short, everything that traditionally had to do with the mind in the broadest sense of the word. Psychiatrists have started to name psychological problems from a paradigm of functional rationality. The buffer, which traditionally formed the institutional religion against purely instrumental thinking, has disappeared. As a result, all terms of each discourse will change content.

The DSM-5 makes no mention of something as vague as what Karl Jaspers once called “Die geistige Situation der Zeit”. The field of vision is narrowed, the jargon formalized, while the problems that we are now confronted with seem to deepen and broaden rather, and thus evade any conventional approach. Does psychiatry have anything to say when it comes to extreme manifestations of evil that can be expressed in a psychotic derailment or a terrorist act? Is evil not rather an elusive phenomenon? The experience of that abyss in existence is not only the basis of the emergence of transcendence, but also of the sublime, the awesome, the numinous that both frightens and fascinates.

Whoever wants to play in this problem the role of the devil’s lawyer – and therefore of lawyer of evil – can also ask the following question. Does the experience of transcendence form a buffer against violence, or does it promote violence? Is – as Sigmund Freud saw it – every religion not primarily based on an illusion, and does not every experience of transcendence ultimately produce a foolish image that takes us away from the drifting basis with which men must come to terms with death? In fact, is the desire for transcendence not intrinsically linked to a desire to transcend humanity and, on the contrary, to destroy it?

I think that question can be answered both positively and negatively. The history of world religions – and especially the monotheistic variants of them – shows a series of mass and bloody massacres, in which the violence in a sacred form was just evoked. But these kinds of questions must also be preceded by the observation that the categorical denial of transcendence can imply the worst threats, because the total lack thereof can also lead to violent excesses.

In summary, I come to the following conclusion. In view of the contemporary explosions of violence among young adolescents, the question has to be asked again, what does mental health mean in a time of secularization and terror? In that context, I would argue for a reformulation of what the word “spirit” in the concept of “mental well-being” means today, especially in relation to transcendence and its sudden disappearance.

We seem to have quickly surpassed a religious worldview. This produces strange side effects, incomprehension for religious feelings, for example, but also a collective memory loss. In order to gain more insight into the gray middle area between terrorist and psychotic violence, psychiatry needs an injection of other ways of thinking, ways of thinking that come from other disciplines that were previously called “humanities”. In fact, even after the death of God, psychiatry could well use a theological injection.

Based on my own psychotic experience in the past, I want to draw attention to the typical religious aspects of the radicalization process and the possible related psychotic delusions. Seen in that light, I would like to argue that the spiritual and pastoral expertise of moderate imams should also be included in the treatment of problem young adults with an Islamic background.

Young people who are sensitive to radicalization processes are confronted with a psychological problem that is related to a too rapid farewell of their religious worldview, that is usually the world view of their parents. In their view, their parents’ weak attitude often starts to abhor these young people quite suddenly, whereby they can turn into a radical and perverse variant of the same religion. In fact, there is a paradox here. It is a “radical leap forward, but also into in the past,” a paradox which is also at the basis of the emergence of radical Islam as such. For fear of being swept away, the mind then makes jumps, the nature and direction of which is difficult to grasp from a rational point of view.

And now, what to do against this. As I said, The “mental  disease” is an important feature of the radicalization process among young people. With that observation in mind, in analogy with the standard treatment against the actual “caisson disease”, perhaps a similar strategy can be developed for the prevention of a radicalization process and possibly also for de-radicalization. The treatment of real “caisson disease’ is done in so-called decompression chambers. In fact, they are re-compression chambers, because the pressure is not only lowered, but also temporarily increased again to make the diver resilient against the rapid change of pressure.

The latter could also be the core of treatment against “mental caisson disease.” In virtual situations, where games and apps can also be considered, “spiritual pressure” could be slowly and gradually raised and lowered. In this way, young people could gradually become familiar with the moral values ​​that they so desire, by alternately bringing them into a spiritualized and de-spiritualized environment. Of course, this method requires further investigation and a great deal of elaboration. It will also not be applicable to all cases, but this methodology may be worth investigating, particularly with adolescents from second-generation immigrants who have to contend with psychological problems associated with loss of identity and existential alienation.

There is a gap between a problem that everyone can see and a solution that nobody knows exactly. Psychiatrists understand the mental world of the troubled adolescent, who is tempted to engage in violence, usually only in terms of autonomy and freedom, and not in terms of a limit-experience on the edge of nothingness, an experience where the autonomy of the individual borders on the heteronomy of the divine or demonic.

Perhaps this limit-experience touches something completely different – something higher or whatever – something that intervenes in the experience of freedom and takes over the will in an act of violence. Both in the psychotic state and in the border regions of religion, forces can be released that exceed the ratio. It is the terra incognita of the human mind, where the derailments of violence and destruction, but also healing and grace originate. In this unknown area both a psychotic and a jihad terrorist experience that emptiness of nothingness, but also an ultimate experience of freedom, fulfillment and transcendence. Its from that experience that I thought I should tell you something today. 

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