Yesterday evening I spent some time in the Mad Studies Discord drop-in session where my pal Unchange2change shared some opening thoughts for his thesis on madness as it relates to play. So before I go any further, please let me acknowledge that my post today is inspired by and courtesy of that sharing. I hadn't thought much about play in relation to madness – but how apt it is, and how central it has been to my own experiences.
In my first psychotic episode, which I think of as The Descent, I imagined myself to be Pandora, opening her jar and unleashing mayhem upon the world. The architecture of that particular spell involved delving wholeheartedly into chaos and disorder, and playing with terror and self-loathing. What I mean is that those elements of thought and emotion were my close companions, teasing me relentlessly with games of pinch and run. I flailed about, without any rules in place to contain me. At one point I fled from the hospital where I'd been taken, and was chased down and tackled to the ground by an orderly – hunted and captured by the psychiatric team like some awful game of tag.
Play featured too in my second episode, a couple years later, which I think of as The Adventure. Following the invitation of inner compulsion, I embarked on an unscheduled trip to Amsterdam. This time my companions were angels, and we occupied ourselves at the Rijksmuseum with an extended and extraordinary dance of hide and seek. Later as I walked through the city streets, the rules of the game became enmeshed with the ringing of bicycle bells such that every chime led me to change direction, until I was completely and delightfully lost, and drunk with an expansive sense of freedom.
What is play, anyway? Is it always about having fun? Or rather about testing boundaries? Playing by oneself involves creating through imagination, playing with others involves creating through relationship. So is play always about creation? Surely not: crashing and smashing can be incredibly entertaining and absorbing. But then: is that the destruction of order, or the creation of mess?
Play is also about engaging with the unknown: surprise, spontaneity and improvisation. The unknown can either be fearful and threatening, or evocative of delicious tension. Is this the difference between danger and risk? Madness is often pathologised for engendering 'risky behaviour' yet in other contexts risk is permitted and even celebrated. I was recently chatting with a taxi driver about the TT races in the Isle of Man. Bikers race through narrow winding roads, up and down hills and around tight corners – there are often fatalities. What exactly is the difference between madness and extreme sport?
It all seems to boil down to social context: a folly shared is a folly tolerated. Madness takes one out of context, and into a private realm. The primary offense of madness seems to be its privacy, even something as harmless as a blissed-out game of hide and seek with angels.
So what does Pandora have to teach us? The jar was opened, and amongst all the ills released into the world there remained one consistent voice to disarm them: hope. Hope allows one to engage and to explore and to create. Hope gifts us with the ultimate unknown, it is the redeeming thread running throughout all play that keeps the lines open and the possibilities fluid. Madness and hope: two sides of the same coin?