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.
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
Characters in Someone Beside You
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
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
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
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
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.
(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
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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
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
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.
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.