Someone Beside You
98 Min, Color, Dolby Digital, 35mm, 2006, OV CH-German/English

Along with several courageous psychiatrists and their clients, the author sets out to film a documentary road movie that takes him to Switzerland, Europe, and the U.S. On their travels in mobile homes, they explore the depths of the human psyche in search of answers to the question: What is the human mind and how does it behave in psychotic extreme situations? By the time Edgar Hagen meets the Buddhist monk and trained psychiatrist Edward Podvoll in the U.S., Podvoll has only a few more months to live. His vision – that courage and friendship have the power to make recovery from mental illness possible – is an inspiring legacy. In a dialogue between Western psychology and Eastern spirituality, a message of hope emerges: It is always possible to regain mental clarity no matter how severely confused a mind may have become.

Director's Statement

We are shocked when a person is shaken to the core and just "snaps." But it can happen to anyone, man or woman, rich or poor, young or old. A relationship of many years goes to pieces, a child dies… and suddenly even the strongest and most level-headed among us can find themselves in a locked ward. When that happens, those close to the person usually feel helpless, and often afraid, as well. Yet when the crisis has passed, we tend to block it out and pretend that nothing happened.
Why are we at such a loss? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we don't really know what happens when people "crack up" and even less about how they become "normal" again? While we have meanwhile learned quite a lot about the mechanics of the brain, we still know next to nothing about the human mind and how it works, how it behaves in extreme situations, or how we can bring it back when it has been "lost." Getting to the root of this uncertainty and general lack of knowledge was the challenge posed by this film.
This film tells of the human mind going through crisis. I was primarily interested in showing its gradual emergence from the state of mental breakdown rather than the process of disintegrating and spiraling into madness. This was possible by focusing on a visionary approach that draws on ancient knowledge to derive a new outlook and new ways of dealing with all kinds of extreme mental states – and that ultimately concerns every one of us.
Edgar Hagen.

Main Characters in Someone Beside You

Edward Podvoll / Lama Mingyur (1936-2003) was a physician, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and Buddhist lama. One of his basic tenets was "If you have a mind, you can lose it." Much like Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (who served as the model for the doctor in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden), he becomes convinced early in his career as a psychiatrist that recovery from psychosis is possible. He regards psychosis as a spiritual crisis rather than as the incurable illness it is considered by most conventional schools of thought. Podvoll's encounter with the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the 1970s and his deep involvement in Buddhist meditation practice reinforce his conviction that it is possible to recover even from the most extreme mental states. He becomes Director of the newly-established graduate program in Contemplative Psychotherapy at Naropa University, a private liberal arts institution founded by Trungpa in Boulder, Colorado in 1974.
His experiences with Tibetan Buddhism and systematic self-experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs convince Podvoll that a "healthy core" resides in every human being and that it is possible to connect with that healthy core even in the most extreme states of mental confusion. It is on this principle – which Podvoll believes is the key to recovery – on which Windhorse is based. Founded by Podvoll in Boulder in 1981, the Windhorse project has the goal of treating and fostering the recovery of individuals in extreme mental states. Central to the Windhorse approach is the willingness of therapists to explore the depths of their own mind and develop an authentic, sincere connection with their clients rather than maintaining the reserve that usually characterizes the doctor-patient relationship.
In 1990 Podvoll goes into strict retreat in a Buddhist monastery in France. Even during this time, Podvoll does not regard Buddhism as a religion, but rather as a form of depth psychology rooted in a 2500-year tradition of observing and contemplating the human mind.
In late 2002 Podvoll, meanwhile suffering from terminal cancer, decided to return to the U.S. and complete his life's work surrounded by his followers in the Windhorse project. When Edward Hagen visited Podvoll several weeks before his death in the fall of 2003, the two had a series of lengthy conversations. Hagen captured their encounters on film – recordings which in a sense constitute Podvoll's legacy.

Jakob Litschig, (55) a physician, psychiatrist, and psychotherapist in Zurich, has experienced psychotic episodes himself. In 1997 his license is revoked when a psychiatric evaluation determines him unfit to practice medicine. He is personally committed to seeking alternative approaches in psychiatry that have the potential to radically improve the chances of recovery. Among other things, Litschig is a cofounder of Verband Psychose- und Psychiatrie-Erfahrene Schweiz (VPECH), an association for "veterans" of psychosis and institutionalized psychiatry, and Psychose-Seminar Zurich, a self-help group in which sufferers can speak of their traumatic experiences. Edward Podvoll's work is a major source of inspiration to Litschig in his quest to find new approaches to therapy and treatment.
In the film, an RV (motor home) serves as a mobile research and therapy station in which Litschig accompanies Kaspar, 49, Andrea, 27, and Anonymous, 38 – each of whom been committed to psychiatric clinics repeatedly over a period of many years – to the places where their psychoses first struck. Together, they attempt to make sense of a phenomenon that is commonly regarded as completely incomprehensible and irrational – as madness. On their journey through Switzerland and Italy they come to realize that both the extreme behavior of self-directed violence and violence towards others are at root desperate cries for help from human beings who have been pushed to the breaking point

Karen (54) lives in Colorado. She experienced her first psychotic episodes in college. When she was twenty-one, her family committed her to a prestigious private clinic in Kansas, where she remained confined for three years. When her doctors attest that there is no chance she will ever recover, she concludes that her only way out of the situation is to run away. She jumps from the tenth story of a high-rise building – and survives. Later she goes to Boulder, Colorado and seeks professional help from Edward Podvoll, an encounter that prompts him to start the Windhorse project. The first "Windhorse therapeutic home" is established with Karen and Naropa students. Karen recovered after a few months and has since lived a self-determined life without antipsychotic medication.
Podvoll devoted an important chapter of his book The Seduction of Madness to Karen, an inspiring and fascinating account of their shared journey on the road to recovery.
During Edgar Hagen's stay with Podvoll in the fall of 2003, Karen and Podvoll met again for the first time in many years. Karen decided to allow the director to accompany her on a film journey that would take her back to the sites of her traumatic experiences.

Lama Lhundrup / Dr. Tilman Borghardt (47) is a physician and head of the retreat center at the Tibetan Buddhist monastery Dhagpo Kundreul Ling in France's Auvergne region. He spent three years here with Edward Podvoll in a strict group retreat. Both in his work as a doctor and as the leader of the retreat center, Lhundrup has witnessed individuals experience psychosis in the course of their spiritual quest. Like Podvoll, he defines psychosis as one extreme state of the mind. He believes that awareness and understanding of one's own extremes can open the door to recovery even in cases of severe psychosis and so-called chronic schizophrenia. As Lhundrup says, "This ancient knowledge has been lost in the Western tradition; we are profoundly estranged from it." In the film Lhundrup acquaints us with Podvoll's quest for self-awareness and elucidates the novel perspective Podvoll opened up: the synthesis of Western and Eastern psychology. This approach is not concerned with pathologizing, but with helping people develop the healthy aspects of their personality even during severe mental crises.

Eric Chapin (51) is a psychotherapist at the Windhorse project in Boulder, Colorado. In the thirteen years he worked as a forensic psychiatrist in El Paso, Texas, he was confronted with incredible suffering. In the mid-1980s, he came across an article by Edward Podvoll in a magazine and decided to go to Boulder and study with Podvoll, hoping to learn from him how severe mental suffering – or psychosis – can be transformed. He later taught the psychosis class at Naropa University for many years as Edward Podvoll's successor, and today he is one of the most experienced psychotherapists in the Windhorse project. The film includes a scene in which Chapin and Podvoll elaborate on their new approach to psychotherapy.
His unwavering faith in the essential sanity and intelligence of even his most severely disturbed clients is nourished by regular periods of retreat he undergoes in an old school bus in the remote wilderness of the Rocky Mountains, inspired by Podvoll's example. The film accompanies Chapin on his fascinating daily rounds. We see him visit Susan (51) in her home, a client who had refused to speak to him for many years. Now we hear the two of them reflect on the purpose of their sessions together. We accompany him as he visits another client, Jonathan (47). Hospitalized and sentenced to jail repeatedly over a period of twenty years, Jonathan is now able to speak about his experiences with self-awareness and confidence.
Finally, the film takes us back to Eric Chapin's school bus, where Podvoll's ashes have rested in a small orange urn since his death in December 2003.

Film Locations of Someone Beside You

Zürich and environs:
Psychiatrische Universitätsklinik Burghölzli, Zurich; various other locations

Reggio nell Emilia:
Ex-Ospedale Psichiatrico Giudiziario

Genoa and Ligurian coast:
various locations

Biollet, Auvergne:
monastery and retreat center Dhagpo Kundreul Ling

Boulder, Colorado and environs:
therapeutic homes run by Windhorse Community Services;
Naropa University, Departement of Contemplative Psychology

Rocky Mountains, Colorado:
meditation rooms at the Shambala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes; various other locations

Interstate 70 between Boulder, Colorado and Topeka, Kansas

Topeka, Kansas: grounds of a former private mental hospital; Jayhawk Tower

Background Information

Psychosis: The Acceleration of Thought Processes

There are many ways to describe psychosis. In the film Someone Beside You Andrea, who has suffered from psychotic episodes herself for many years, compares it to "a dream in a waking state." The mind associates freely, as it does in dreams or nightmares. When people are under extreme pressure, their mind often seeks refuge in alternative realities. Voices frequently play a part; the influence of these "inner" voices can go so far that how people perceive themselves diverges completely from how others perceive them. Researchers today estimate that five to ten percent of all people hear voices. Most hardly confide their experience to anyone, but are able to lead completely normal lives. Only one percent of the population overall are committed to psychiatric clinics and diagnosed as schizophrenic.

The film is not interested in such diagnoses, but rather in the mental processes that take place during these enigmatic moments. In the film Eric Chapin describes how in this kind of state a person's thoughts can accelerate or proliferate to such a degree that he or she is overwhelmed and "swept away." Following Henri Michaux, Podvoll believes a subconscious level of lightning-quick thoughts and associations is present in all of us that can get out of control suddenly for all sorts of reasons. In the film Kaspar compares this process to nuclear fission, in which incredible amounts of energy are released. The opposite side of people's nature often seems to surface at such moments: A quiet, unassuming person can suddenly go berserk and run amok. The shock people feel when things like this happen can tear families and entire communities apart.

Fear and Responsibility

The main problem does not lie in these processes themselves, but rather in our collective fear of them. It is this fear that prevents us from truly exploring and coming to terms with all dimensions of our being and thus keeps us from realizing the simplest solutions. According to Podvoll, treating a problem such as psychosis, which is largely rooted in the mind or simply in the fact of being human with the methods of somatic medicine is an approach that is bound to fail. Today the focus is generally placed on the "biological causes" of extreme mental states. A person entering such a state becomes a victim of these biological processes. Podvoll's primary concern was drawing individuals out of the role of victim into which they are thrust and encouraging patients to take responsibility for their own experiences and actions in order to achieve recovery. Prof. Daniel Hell of Psychiatrische Universitätsklinik Burghölzli in Zurich confirmed in an interview that appealing to clients to take responsibility for themselves – and thus, ultimately, recovery – is largely "taboo" in most mental clinics.

Windhorse: Deceleration and Recovery

His experience with meditation and experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs taught Podvoll that there are intervals of serenity or lucidity even when the plane of accelerated thought processes breaks through into normal consciousness and threatens to plunge us into chaos. Recognizing and nurturing these "islands of clarity," as Podvoll called them, is the key to the Windhorse approach. The therapists must first learn how to recognize this core of sanity in themselves before they can work with people in extreme mental states and get in touch with their "sane core." Thus mental processes can be decelerated by involving patients in simple, everyday activities that "ground" them in the here-and-now. In order for this approach to work, it is crucial that therapists "let down their guard," that is, relinquish the fear and self-protective barriers that stand in the way of true communication and meet their clients at "eye level." Ideally, someone in an extreme mental state is ultimately integrated into a group of "sane" individuals within the framework of a therapeutic home, as Karen describes in the film.

Director's Statement
Main Characters
Film Locations
Background Information