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Madness That Cures: Speaking for Healing


Narrating our pain to others allows for the healing of body and soul.

Being human means telling each other our problems. This can be for a whole variety of reasons, but our evolution as a species goes hand in hand with this ability to relate our experiences through language. Beyond writing, that is, speech fixed materially on stone or paper, speech and conversation have a power that, while it’s less historically quantifiable, might also imply important changes in the personal histories of speakers.

In the field of mental health, speech has been explored as a therapeutic treatment since the late 19th  century in the experiments of Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud. Recently, two Viennese doctors had the revolutionary idea of ​​listening to what their patients had to say about their own ailments. This is important because it proposes a different conception of the doctor-patient relationship. It’s one which disputes the hierarchy and verticality of medical knowledge facing “disease” and through a horizontality made possible by words.

Before Adler and Freud, psychological suffering was categorized as melancholia, neurasthenia, or neurosis, and reated by a physician through purely physical means. These included cold baths, solitary confinement, and the infamous electro-shock therapy. When a doctor opens up to listening to how “patients” live their “illnesses,” patient retake a minimal but important measure of control over themselves, in the power of speaking of their own experience of how they feel.

Other word-healing experiments have long been accepted within the mental health community. These have included group therapies for the treatment of addictions. Alcoholics Anonymous is a clear example of speaking, but also of listening, and can have powerful implications for the personal narratives of participants. Migrant support groups and those for vulnerable populations can also provide listeners to those who’ve been politically and economically overlooked.

But the power of the word is capable of transcending even the noblest of intentions. The spoken word is capable of inoculating against the same illnesses it seeks to cure. Throughout our lives, we receive pleasant and painful words. These are configured as subjects and, over time, they forge ideologies and armor for our personalities. There are situations and events that bear the weight of truth thanks to their words. Through habit or an instinct for survival, we’ve learned to take this for granted.

A spoken articulation of a series of ingrained, unhealthy ideas may be just the key to ridding ourselves of their terrible spell. For ancient magicians, the magic spell was not “mere words,” but an action capable of producing positive results when performed in the appropriate context. In our own time, when magic is “superstition” and science is the only authorized source of knowledge, listening to the abyss of our own voices can be a transformative experience. It’s the difference between remaining as what others wanted us to be and beginning to be ourselves.

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