Where Are We Now? – David Bowie and Psychosis

The mercurial David Bowie has left the capsule and the world is a poorer place. His circuit is dead, and there definitely is something wrong, at least for those of us still on Planet Earth.

There have been many tributes, noting Bowie’s impact on music, art and cinema, and the extent of his eclectic tastes. But one significant part of Bowie’s life has barely merited a mention – his experiences with psychosis – despite the fact that it had a major impact on his life and featured in some of his most important work.

Bowie was familiar with psychosis from an early age, not least because it affected his close family. Two of his aunts were reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and third was confined to an asylum.

One of Bowie’s most influential early role models, his half-brother Terry, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and reportedly had marked periods of psychosis.

Here is Bowie, discussing one of his brother’s psychotic episodes, in a 1998 documentary for VH1:

Bowie’s brother was admitted to now defunct Cane Hill psychiatric hospital in South London and the experience heavily influenced 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World album with a drawing of the hospital appearing on the original sleeve art.

One of the songs on that album, All the Madmen, vividly describes madness and treatment in the old asylums, and was discussed in a 2010 article for the British Medical Journal:

“All the Madmen” was inspired by the mental health problems of David Bowie’s brother and was released 39 years ago (before Bowie achieved major fame), on the album The Man Who Sold the World. It recognises the separation from society of mentally ill people, who are sent to “mansions cold and grey.” In a lucid interval, spoken instead of sung, the national shame of mental illness and policies of alienation and institution are questioned with sadness: “Where can the horizon lie / When a nation hides / Its organic minds in a cellar.”

Faced with the prospect of discharge, the patient protagonist recognises his comfort in Librium, considers his ability to cope outside, and pushes the risk buttons with, “I can fly, I will scream, I will break my arm / I will do me harm.” He adopts a catatonic posture, standing with a foot in his hand, talking to the wall. He is accepting of electric shock treatment. When he asks, “I’m not quite right at all . . . am I?” is this a cryptic taunt that he knows he is putting it on, pushing the psychiatrist to keep his place in the institution? Or, more worryingly, is he questioning his own sanity and certainty?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the themes of madness pervade Bowie’s work. The title track for the Aladdin Sane album (a play on “A lad insane”) was inspired by his brother, as was the song Jump They Say. Some other references are more obvious, such as in the song I’m Deranged, while some only allude to altered states and psychological alienation, as in The Man Who Sold the World.

Little known is that his most famous character, Ziggy Stardust, was based on someone who experienced striking periods of psychosis. In a 1996 interview, Bowie recounted how Ziggy was based on the obscure rock star Vince Taylor who Bowie met several times, presumably between the periods Taylor spent in psychiatric hospital.

Bowie himself was widely thought to have experienced an episode of psychosis himself, some years later, largely due to a period when he was taking very large amounts of cocaine while working on the album Station to Station.

Several biographies describe how he feared evil entities floating past his window, thought The Rolling Stones were sending message to him through their music and believed witches were stealing his semen.

But the semantic traffic between madness and Bowie’s work was not solely one way. The medical literature has reports of Bowie featuring in the delusions of people with psychosis. One case report described a “32-year-old divorced white female with a long history of affective and behavioral problems”:

She believed she was secretly married to the rock star, David Bowie, after supposedly meeting in a church camp several years previously. She described seeing him “wait for her” outside her hospital window. The onset of this delusion coincided with a local tour by Bowie.

As Bowie was the master of looping cultural expression, making his art reference himself reacting to cultural responses to his work, it’s a return acknowledgement he may have appreciated.

16 thoughts on “Where Are We Now? – David Bowie and Psychosis”

    1. The Bad Wolf: “the correlation between brilliance and mental illness”
      –> it is sufferable, though, and there exists a hype regarding certain types of mental illnesses and brilliance in pop culture [e.g.: Autism, ADHD, ADD, et al.] that can sometimes be heavily detrimental to the patient’s on-going process to recovery only because the illness itself is hailed as, in all its subjectiveness, “cool”.

      Overall, the fascination on the healthy level with regards to the brilliance hidden or expressed through many who suffer from varying degrees of mental illnesses mostly speaks for the vast majority in society that are literally dying in their left-brain-oriented conditioning for fresh air away from thinking within the box or about the box.

      …the ideal, in my opinion as someone who went a bit too far on the right-brain wing between periods, remain a healthy mid-brain activation throughout schooling. This appears to help one cope better with emotional issues which make up a large portion of most issues we face daily, and becomes the mind-heart platform by which our internal doctor can heal us in case of any epigenetic and genetic triggers for Schizophrenia and other illnesses.

      1. I was speaking rather literally that there needs to be more research into furthering out understanding of genetic influence on neurologically based mental disorders and understanding the level of correlation between suffering and brilliance. I speak so from a scientific point of view, not a pop culture viewpoint.

        Only the uninformed hail any neurological disorder and mental illness as “cool.” There is absolutely nothing “cool” or enjoyable about bi-polar disorder (though sufferers will often forgo medication to maintain their mania), major depressive disorder, autism, etc.

        I’m also not entirely sure what you mean about the “mind-heart” platform or the “internal doctor” you speak of. Did you mean mind-brain?

      2. Dani, I cut-n-pasted this comment from >madinamerica.dot.com<, where it was written 4 years ago….Let the VICTIMS speak for themselves:
        "….Steve, I remember when I was trapped in the mental health system as a child and the constant fear I lived in of the psychiatrists. I had so many bad reactions to drugs that by the time I was 13 I was so apprehensive of future appointments that I wound up out of school because I couldn’t sleep due to the anxiety, a problem that wound up putting me in a state mental hospital for 4 and a half months on Haldol. If I ever was forced to have to see a psychiatrist under court order, I would probably kill myself, even if that psychiatrist didn’t immediately want to put me on drugs, but as long as I knew he had the power to do so, I would not be able to live with the fear. You should think about that.<…."…./
        THAT is the TRUTH, Dani….

  1. So-called “schizophrenia” is an imaginary “disease”, or “illness”, which has NO objective reality. Except in rare cases of actual neurological damage, ALL so-called “mental illnesses” are only imaginary, conceptual constructs. And, the pseudo-science of psychiatry exists solely to $ELL DRUG$….I wasn’t aware that “autism” was considered a “mental illness”….

      1. No, Dani, I’m not being “sarcastic”. I’m being 100% serious. All so-called “mental illnesses” have no objective reality. They are imaginary constructs which exist only to justify the selling of dangerous pharmaceuticals, and to serve as excuses for social control of those who the powers-that-be of society finds inconvenient, or bothersome, or threatening in a non-criminal way. I have studied neuroscience, medicine, metaphysics, linguistics, and public ralations, all at the PhD level. You need to go to >madinamerica.dot.com<, and re-educate yourself. Try Whitakers' "Anatomy of an Epidemic", for starters. So-called "psychiatry" is best seen as the pseudoscience drug racket which it is. It's 21st Century phrenology, with dangerous drugs. Why would you think otherwise?

    1. You are absolutely wrong. Schizophrenia specifically runs in my family and Ivebeen exposed to it may whole life. It’s not imaginary and it is in fact very scary to deal with a sibling who can’t tell real from imagined, and is at risk of harming himself or others because of it.

      1. To clarify, my grandfather who’s passed was Schizophrenic, my mother, and my younger brother developed it around the time he was 17 going on 18. He was a normal intelligent person before this. If it hadn’t been for us finally getting him help he’d be dead or have killed someone else by now. We’ve kept him out of the hospital except for short term visits when he starts having bad episodes of violence, usually when he stops taking his medication because he believes he doesn’t really have an illness. It’s a hard thing to cope with. My family’s welfare and security is up in the air at all times.

        I have a feeling the poster claiming Mental illness is imaginary is someone diagnosed with a mental illness who refuses meds. Just have a feeling. That’s all I have to say.

    1. I simply don’t have your agenda and don’t particularly find lying and attacking people online a good way to “educate” people to your thoughts and beliefs. Have a wonderful day.

      1. Dani, I never lie, or attack people online. If you truly believe that I have done either, please call me out on SPECIFICALLY which statements I have made, that YOU believe are either untrue, or “attacking”. Yes, I write/speak with direct personal knowledge, training, and education, and I am very strong, personally, in my understandings and knowledge. Perhaps it is *THAT*, which you find uncomfortable….????…. Those who have lived lies imposed upon them by others, often experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, when their once-cherished beliefs are finally invalidated. “Ye shall know the TRUTH, and the truth shall set you FREE”, as the Bible states….

      2. Accusing a person who actually HAS studied and has degrees in neuroscience, philosophy, and medicine of wanting people to suffer is absolutely ridiculous. Everyone is entitled to their opinions. I have no cognitive dissonance over anything you have stated because they are subjective experiences that do not remotely invalidate the field of neuroscience. A persons experience with poor treatment (especially as it relates to Haldol, a horrible drug) is an experience that may be atrocious and poor care, but poor treatment and horrible experiences are no excuse for then ignorantly claiming that an entire scientific field is trying to cause suffering and produce money. Psychiatry is medication focused, and yet I still said nothing in my comments about promoting medications. I am promoting research in my own field because I, rather than blindly following others, seek to further understanding and knowledge through scientific qualitative study. Blindly following others beliefs and quoting OTHER peoples experiences does not make anyone an expert. I am appalled at the misuse of your so claimed PhDs in all those fields you claim to have studied, as I am equally appalled at any maltreatment of patients through harmful antipsychotics. Being strong in belief is not being strong in “knowledge.” I suggest utilizing your proclaimed many degrees for your own studies and research rather than regurgitating the vitriol of others. And the bible does little for science, as I have yet to see the bible give us any further knowledge and understanding of our world.

  2. WOW!….you sure are confused, Dani! But, responding to your confusions is part of my ongoing training and education. First, I wrote:
    ….apparently, “Dani” WANTS people to suffer!”….as a stand-alone, rhetorical comment. For you to mis-construe it as a formal accusation,
    or statement of fact, is evidence of your confusion, and muddled thinking. I did NOT “accuse” you of wanting people to suffer. And, I have said NOTHING about the “field of neuroscience”, as you phrase it. I HAVE, however,
    ridiculed and rejected the pseudo-science of psychiatry. They are NOT the same thing. About the only things that psychiatry DOES, are cause needless suffering, and earn money for quacks, and support a bloated pharmaceutical industry, which alone has paid BILLION$ in fines to the U.S. Govt for their various nefarious practices. And, again, saying that I have “studied at the PhD level” is NOT the same as claiming to have earned PhD’s, as you seem to falsely allege me to have done. Please go back and CAREFULLY RE-READ what I wrote….Yes, the Bible does little for science. But, the Bible remains a valid source of wisdom, and confirmation of some basic HUMAN TRUTHS. You are still trapped in delusion, confusion, and the bondage of lies.
    But, I admit, i find much MORE wisdom in studying Buddhism, particularly the Mahayana/Tibetan tradition. Wanna try again, kiddo?….
    (If I didn’t respect you, I wouldn’t bother to reply. Your cognitive dissonance is the sign that your brain is still functioning, neurologically speaking!….*GRIN*….

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