In the Sleep Room


I was wondering today why it is that we are all insane.

Years ago, I paid my way through college by working as an orderly in the campus hospital’s nuthouse; and of course later, I dealt for years with church congregations. So I know a lot about crazy people, and the societies they create.

Rather than a peculiarity, life was oddly familiar on the university psych ward, whose inhabitants – whether the patients or the hospital staff – spun about themselves a self-sustaining, insular and utterly dissociated little world that, like society at large, resisted change or even study.

On the ward, I found that I had to remain a perpetual outsider to understand what was going on around me: a skill that served me well in later years, when I confronted far greater madness. For cleaning up and processing feces-covered patients, helping drug and manage them, and listening to their elaborate mental concoctions for hours each day gave me some real insights into the nature of institutionalized insanity, and how convincing it can all be.

The day I started working on the chronic ward of the University of British Columbia’s psychiatric hospital, the head nurse was knocked out cold by the enraged fist of an enormous guy they’d just carted in from Riverview hospital: high as a kite and not the kind of gentleman to be told off, like Big Nurse tried doing.

Violence is unusual in a nuthouse, not simply because everyone is drugged to the nines. Like in any workplace, everything is so completely and mind-numbingly routinized that the assembly line of meds, meals, television and outings leaves no room, or energy, for a completely spontaneous and willful act like striking out at it all.

So, the reaction of my co-workers to the sight of Big Nurse lying unconscious and bloody on the floor of her station, as her drooling assailant smiled down at us, was interesting. Nobody moved. The unpredictable had happened.

As I smiled nervously back at the assaulter, I thought at first that our collective numbness arose from fear, and a natural desire to stay clear of the guy’s sizable fists. But then I saw the genuine confusion on everyone’s faces. Nobody had expected this, even though we had all been trained to expect it.

The procedure had broken down, and without it, we were helpless.

Fortunately, our numbness was dispelled by the arrival of other orderlies from the adjoining ward, who immediately tackled the guy and shook us back to our senses.

Later that night, scribbling my report of the incident in the duty log, I wrote in the margins,

The machine must function without thinking, or individual will, for it to fulfill its purpose of managing the crowd predictably.

The others on staff knew I was training for the ministry, and so I suppose they grew accustomed to such theological musings in the log book.

I’m no fan of Sigmund Freud, but he did hit it on the nail when he observed that the natural instincts of any person must be suppressed for society to function as a mass of managed individuals: a suppression that breeds “civilized” mankind’s basic neurotic condition. Society, in short, makes us all crazy: or more exactly, massively dissociated.

Hardly accidental, or even merely consequential, our insanity is a necessity. For without being dissociated, we couldn’t dwell for a day in what we call civilization.

Since it’s our basic operating principle, let’s examine this thing called dissociation.

Don’t look to psychology for a definition, since like all sciences, it tends to examine and classify the tiny scales of a dragon while ignoring the Beast in its totality. We need to know what dissociation means not just for one person but for an entire culture.

A dissociated person cannot relate and integrate a normal feeling, observation or occurrence with the rest of her being. In effect, that person’s thinking is like a component on an assembly line.

As an example, I recently showed a family member hard and incontrovertible proof that her church was responsible for the death of many thousands of children in their Indian boarding schools. That person acted confused at first, and eventually acknowledged the truth of what I showed her and expressed her horror. And yet the next Sunday, she attended that same church and gave her usual offering to sustain it.

Her mind, in effect, was not capable of integrating a new and unsettling truth in order to allow a change in her behavior. What she knew could not be related to her daily pattern of life.

Psychology likes to treat such dissociation as some kind of individual mental illness resulting from a trauma, ignoring the fact that any large organization, let alone a compartmentalized, consumptionist society like ours, structurally requires such a mentality in its workers for the system to function efficiently.

No hierarchical institution can operate without precisely this dissociated condition among its members, for the simple reason that organizational and administrative cohesion rests on the suppression of unpredictable human responses which might threaten the functioning of what is in effect an enormous machine.

A rational, feeling person who integrates thought and action is potentially unpredictable, and may refuse, for example, to obey an order from above him in the chain of command – and the machine’s operations would then come to a halt. But a person whose senses and thoughts can never possibly affect his behavior will not threaten the automatic life of the machine. Hierarchy therefore abhors an integrated personality because of its essential unpredictability.

To give this idea flesh, in my first year as an ordained clergyman in the United Church of Canada, I attempted to withdraw from its clergy pension plan as a matter of personal choice and faith, following the advice of Jesus not to accumulate security or wealth in this world. I was informed by the head officer of the church that I did not have the right to do so. My attempt to integrate my beliefs with my life-practice, in short, was an unacceptable disruption in the eyes of the church. If I was to remain a “competent” employee, I would have to segregate my conscience from my behavior, in a classic dissociated manner.

I eventually saw the Machine Wisdom behind the church’s response to my attempt at integration: for only a dissociated clergyman who did not link all of his faith with all of his life would be capable of operating competently in a religious culture that preaches one set of values on Sunday, and then lives exactly the opposite values throughout the week: and expects its followers to do the same.

As statistics show, clergy are particularly neurotic individuals who are especially prone to fixations, behavioral disorders, alcohol abuse, divorce and violent obsessions causing the routine abuse of children. This erratic condition is caused by the extreme dissociation imposed on clerics by the severity with which they must daily sacrifice their personal values and faith to the quite opposite standards of a religious corporation.

At the risk of seeming trite, let me say that, if society in general requires its members to go crazy, the church demands that its clergy become Satanic: literally, “the Adversary” of all in themselves that they once held sacred and inviolable.

Again, there is nothing surprising or unusual in such a terrible requirement, from the perspective of the structural necessities of a hierarchical institution.

Looking back, my entry into the insanity of a modern psychiatric ward was just the proper training for the church ministry, since the management rather than the curing of brutalized people by maintaining them in a permanently dissociated state is the core aim of both psychiatry and religion.

It’s small wonder, accordingly, that the power of the secular priesthood of psychiatrists as well as the religious priesthood is traditionally unchallengeable in our culture. For both of these cults claim to have the answer to social and personal happiness, as defined by the neurotic requirements of modern civilization and its organized repression of natural human impulses.

To answer my first question, we are all insane because the God of Commerce needs it that way.

How do we get better? Stay tuned.