I’ve been asked what the difference is between mental illness and madness. I absolutely love language, and words are fascinating to me. While some people find the term madness to be outdated or even offensive, it is a word that resonates deeply with me. I do not want to step on anyone’s toes here, because there are many valid ways to view mental illness, especially if you have it yourself. My answer is mine alone, meant to reflect my own experience and opinion.
I have mental illnesses, and I sometimes experience madness. Madness feels like the world is burning down around me. I can see things others can’t, I know truths others never will, and I can feel the source of universal pain flowing through me and out into the world. Madness is powerful. Madness is bold.
If I experience madness in a grocery store, I can hear the thoughts of all the shoppers, and I know deep within myself that they are all in danger, and I cannot save them. I weep as I walk the aisles, because surely they don’t all deserve the fate that only I know awaits them. Some of them stare at me, my red eyes and snotty nose, and one even asks if I’m okay. That makes me cry harder. In the produce department, I feel hope when I see the oranges, because they came from the earth. I realize that all the fruits and vegetables came from the earth, and a calm settles over the department. As soon as I turn away from the produce, waves of hostile anxiety rain down on me, and the other items in their cardboard boxes and plastic containers are more hostile and toxic than ever.
Madness, for me, happens during psychosis. Not all of my psychotic experiences feel like madness, but all madness only happens when I’m psychotic.
Words are very important to me, which is why I wanted to address this question. I identify with the word madness because to me, madness is a concept that goes back into ancient civilizations as a common experience among a small minority of people. I know how some of the ancient philosophers, tribal shamans, and early astrologers felt. I can feel my rich inheritance of insight, regardless of whether it is currently productive or not. Geniuses and mystics down the ages have experienced madness. Some were revered for it. Others were executed. Madness is as old as human history.
The difference to me between madness and mental illness is timing. Mental illness is something that is with me all hours of the day and night. Even when I have no symptoms, mental illness is with me; it’s just resting. The goal is for it to rest as often and for as long as possible, but it’s always there, waiting for me to slip up so it can wake up again.
Madness only happens sometimes. I do not feel I have gone mad just because I’m currently psychotic. There is a specific feeling that I identify as madness. It happens when I’m having hallucinations and delusions (psychosis) that are particularly intense. During madness, my emotions are overwhelming. I am at the mercy of my episode. There is no calm inside of me to hold on to while my world spirals out of control. I need my husband to watch over me, because I have no reasoning power left. My mind is madness. The world is madness. I cannot differentiate between my thoughts and reality. I am very frightened, but unwilling to back down from the chaos around me.
My psychosis during normal mental illness, the psychosis that happens outside of madness, is easy to manage. I’ve had 12 years to learn how to keep myself safe during episodes, and I’m fairly competent at self-care. I can use coping strategies effectively, and I can self-soothe. Psychosis doesn’t have to disrupt my entire day. It may just be a couple hours of self-care while doing nothing externally productive before returning to real life to wash dishes and nag my husband to pick up his socks.
Madness for me is much further removed from my control and subjective reality than most of my psychosis. There is an intense feeling inside of it that contains vast knowledge and deep pain. Everything else is just mental illness. Mental illness, I cope and manage. Madness, I merely observe.