J. Peters

The “Sign,” “Signified,” and “Psychosis”

The human experience is so unique that there is no universal way to signify or capture the experience of psychosis. This is a critical linguistic-praxis-based discussion of psychosis, language, and interpretation.

My Lived Experience with Psychosis

In my last semester of college, my mental status went from slightly confused to floridly psychotic and admitted to a state psychiatric facility six months later. I was an English major with a concentration in critical theory. For three years, I was at work studying the English language. When I finally became psychotic, I was acutely aware of how the psychosis impacted how I understood and used language to communicate and connect with others.

In my autobiographical memoir, University on Watch: Crisis in the Academy, takes a close look at my connection between language and my worsening condition: “The disconnect between what I thought I was doing and what was happening widened by the day, and by the semester’s end, I envisioned a new reality that was apparent to me alone” (University on Watch, J. Peters).

Importance of Critical Reflection

People experiencing psychosis need to be critical in their reflection. I looked back on my memories while symptomatic all the time. I am no stranger to mental health blogging, writing, and other reflective practice. Like how I wrote and reflected in my memoir, linguistic self-study provides the teeth to begin a vast, retrospective psychological profile. Reflecting is also the point of departure for dialog between a therapist and patient to discuss and reflect on their experience.

For those reflecting on their past psychotic experience, demystifying the taboo of psychosis and recasting belief in recovery is critical. Doing so rekindles social networks for people who might be isolated or ostracized and ushers in support and reassurance for someone needing immediate help.

Interpretation Schema: Sign, Signifier, and Signified

The concept of ‘signs’ has been around for a long time–classic philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle studied these terms. The terms are now associated with Semiotics. Derived from the Greek root seme, as in semiotics (an interpreter of signs), Saussure and American philosophers used the term through history, rhetoric, and communication.

Saussure created the terms signifier and signified to break down what a sign is, literally and metaphysically. The takeaway from Saussure’s scholarship was on the level of language: these signs make up people’s understanding and interpretation of the world. A direct relationship exists between increased psychotic symptoms and the speed at which sign interpretation transforms. However, the volume of change, how much or little people can tolerate/process, varies…from person to person. Some folks are more adaptive than others.

After all, I am talking about completely restructuring a person’s interpretation system. As psychosis worsens, signs changing will impact a person’s language, oral expression, and how they interact with the world. Instead of painting the clinical picture in pathological colors, the person experiencing psychosis is humanized, allowing them to take full responsibility and ownership of its impact on their life.

Instead of peers and clinicians spending so much conjecturing, arguing, and surmising what psychosis is out of fear of participating in stigma or the medicalization of the disorder, the wholesale commonalities between people’s extreme states can be readily embraced by consumers.

Physiological Impact of Psychosis

Coping with a loss is taxing and stressful. When superabundant, stress impacts people’s relationships with their worlds. Psychosis symptoms can be a healthy bodily response to radical and unsettling life adjustments. In doing so, the mind is coping with whatever is happening.

The body compensates, and handling the change in brain function is, in essence, a method of coping and adapting to something altogether wrong for the body. The response can be healthy, creating a reality by changing or challenging a person’s interpretation. Sometimes, the mind must deal with the dysfunction of its regulation by systematically changing its signs. During initial psychotic symptoms, I fully believe the early moments of a person’s ‘break’ is more systematic, organic, and healthy than the toxic things people say about psychosis. The composition or nature of the ‘break’ is NOT disordered, but rather a natural bodily process best understood through Semiotics and Language.

Psychosis carries with them a constellation of related and altogether unique symptoms differently. At different times, psychosis symptoms exist in a dark harmony along a spectrum, sometimes feeding off one another and working in complete isolation. Before psychosis symptoms become too overwhelming, I suggest they shift from more systematic sign change to more disruptive, arbitrary, and altogether difficult-to-follow changes within a person’s system of signification and interpretation of the world.

As brain tissue becomes more damaged, neurons and their pathways become more misaligned, and signals become more chaotic and dysfunctional to and from the brain. Therapists can measure the rate of change before things get out of hand and introduce measures to worsening psychosis symptoms by charting and mapping the rate of change within the person’s signification system.

The Potential Clinical Significance

The clinical significance of these claims has potential. If we assume my claims regarding psychosis can be measured, mapped out, and studied EBP will have a big hand in the future when it comes to studying Psychosis. Further analysis will have to research the correlation between sign association and the experience of the individual who has psychosis.

Given all ‘signs’ change, the active disease process moves toward a higher degree of chaos and instability. Measuring distress tolerance to such changes will also be necessary for the research to add new meaning to understanding how everyone’s unique experience shares commonalities.

Challenging Symptoms: Insight-Driven Self-Study

The current provision of clinical treatment is far too broad for the disorder’s individualistic impact. The otherworldly nature of psychosis can be settling. When first activating, there is a certain mystique to psychosis.

Indeed, psychosis does distort how we perceive reality and plays around with our level of attachment to the world. People in extreme situations, unusual situations, experiencing a new or recurrent crisis, and bizarre situations complicate our existence. We know I and introduce new angles or worldviews to cope. While this may seem fascinating, it can be challenging for people experiencing this to pull out of a holding symptomatic pattern. The symptom’s impact on the individual may seem welcome, timely, and needed to experience a necessary change. In my own experience, my psychosis symptoms activated when I needed to experience a change and adjustment. Something was wrong; I needed to fix it. People that need to make a significant life change or radical course correction are more at risk of psychosis.

These patterns are maladaptive. It is the body coping with painting the world in more palatable colors. Psychosis serves to shift human perception enough to identify alternate or new solutions; psychosis can offer an answer to life’s problems by stepping outside your perspective. Job loss or unemployment, relationship changes, and significant life circumstance adjustments are complicated to tolerate.

Periods of adjustment help forge levels of comfort and planning from lived experience. When psychosis first activates simple situations can seem complex, and confusing, making it hard to get comfortable for any lengthy period.

There is a deeper reason for how the unhoused population experiences psychosis. Unhoused and psychotic go together. After losing a home, many unhoused people need to adjust to life on the streets which is a totally overwhelming and inducibility stressful event.

Implementation: Risks to Clinical Application

When individuals are impacted by additional stressors, their symptoms can worsen and become unmanageable. So, this is when a gradual shift in perception becomes disturbing. Identify stressors before they aggravate, agitate, or worsen. When symptoms persist, expect distance from a safe reality to be a sharp departure from what you are comfortable with and familiar with.

For people still adjusting to minor changes in their life, akin to an adjustment disorder diagnosis, recovery is faster than for more significant trauma and PTSD. Big losses and inadequate coping skills might mean PTSD is at work and something more serious is happening. Regardless, people need to cope with their given reality, whatever it is, and create ways to feel safe and reduce the risk of harm to themselves or others. The mind doesn’t work the way it should. In the case of psychosis activating, it may seem to work for some time.

People need some solace to hold on to the hope needed for recovery. The initial stages of psychosis are rough because the shift in perception is so dramatic, making it challenging to adjust to and tolerable. This reality shift can be more comforting than distressing in cases like this. When psychosis becomes out of control or too big of an adjustment, reality can seem distant and the hope of recovery unattainable.

Symptoms can worsen and become more of a struggle to cope. After all, any stressful situation is dangerous when your vulnerabilities are exposed. Being overwhelmed and panicked is why psychosis is disturbing and can be very scary to experience.

“Just rest” is something you would say to a mental patient. Sadly, there is truth to people managing their stress before their anxiety becomes too paralyzing. The real question is whether people prone to psychosis are very sensitive to stress and a person’s ability to cope. The mystique associated with madness makes it sometimes difficult to identify the challenges ahead when the psychosis worsens. Just remember, the more profound meaning is forged from recycled, discarded, and forgotten hope.

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About the Author

J. Peters’s battle with Schizophrenia began at New London University in his last semester of college. J. Peters was discharged from Greater Liberty State Hospital Center in July of 2008, after spending six months there. His recovery was swift, but not painless, and certainly difficult. Mr. Peters is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and the owner of Recovery Now, L.L.C, a mental health private practice. J. Peters blogs daily on his site mentalhealthaffairs.blog and for psychreg.org. Mr. Peters has published several journal articles on recovery and mental health, and four books: University on Watch, Small Fingernails, Wales High School, and Wales Middle School. J. Peters is the chair of the CAB committee (Consumer Advisory Board) for the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene in NYC.