I am a simple woman, 47, single mother of two beautiful children, diagnosed bipolar 10 years ago, and I want more from the way I’ve been living since that diagnosis. I have been medicated, several different kinds, for different reasons, because some didn’t work, and some still don’t, and some probably won’t, and still I am not well. A few years ago I began to read about alternative ways of thinking about mental health, not just eating differently, or other ways of healthful living, which all help, most definitely, but I’m talking about radically thinking about the origin of mental illness in a different way. The conclusion I’ve come to is that mental illness is a spiritual illness, and if you’ll indulge me, I’ll attempt to describe why.
When I was six years old, I was looking at a photo album my mother had put together of our family, and I was crying; crying because I knew someday that everyone in that photo album was going to die. I felt their mortality, and mine with it and I was overwhelmed by a profound sense of loss and loneliness that I had no words for, no expression for, no way of talking about to my parents, or to anyone else. I thought there was something wrong with me. It was a milestone in my early childhood and growth as an existential being.
Years later, I had an equally profound, yet different experience. Somewhere around age twelve, I was walking with my family on a warm spring afternoon, right after the rain had subsided. My sister and I were ahead of my parents, running and splashing around in the puddles, laughing and having so much fun. Suddenly the sun came out, streaming through the trees; I turned around to look at my parents and I was overcome by a penetrating sense of joy, even beyond joy; it was something like ecstasy. I felt beyond myself, as if I was looking at my family from a distance and seeing them as they were from the inside out. I felt full of love for them…they were beautiful; everything was beautiful and I felt connected to all that was around me, at one with the world that surrounded me, that was beside me, inside of me, part of me. Energy was coursing through my body and I felt truly alive – I was trembling with electricity; the light was brilliant and there were rainbow colors hovering around me. The feelings were real, more real than anything I had ever felt. I felt whole; I was connected to my self, my family, to nature, to all of my surroundings in a way I had never experienced before. I was free and full and deep and open and full of beauty and joy. That lasted for what seemed hours, but it was only minutes and then it dissipated and I felt bereft, as if I’d lost something precious, essential to my being. I felt confused and lost and lonely again. It was the first time I’d experienced a kind of depression that came from the disconnection from joy and beauty and wholeness. Even this depression was part of the spiritual experience.
As I realized later in my life, all of those experiences I’d had were spiritual openings or as Christina & Stanislav Grof describe in their book The Stormy Search for the Self, it was the beginning of a “spiritual emergence” for me: “In the most general terms, spiritual emergence can be defined as the movement of an individual to a more expanded way of being that involves enhanced emotional and psychosomatic health, greater freedom of personal choices, and a sense of deeper connection with other people, nature and the cosmos. An important part of this development is an increasing awareness of the spiritual dimension in one’s life and in the universal scheme of things.” (Grof and Grof, 1990, p.34)
What happened to me, however, is that part of this spiritual emergence became a spiritual emergency as Grof and Grof describes in their 1989 publication entitled, Spiritual Emergency, When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis:
Feelings of oneness with the entire universe. Visions and images of distant times and places. Sensations of vibrant currents of energy coursing through the body, accompanied by spasms and violent trembling. Visions of deities, demigods, and demons. Vivid flashes of brilliant light and rainbow colors. Fears of impending insanity, even death.
Anyone experiencing such extreme mental and physical phenomena would instantly be labeled psychotic by most modern Westerners. Yet increasing numbers of people seem to be having unusual experiences similar to those described above, and instead of plunging irrevocably into insanity, they often emerge from these extraordinary states of mind with an increased sense of well-being, and a higher level of functioning in daily life. In many cases, long-standing emotional, mental, and physical problems are healed in the process.
We find many parallels for such incidences in the life stories of saints, yogis, mystics, and shamans. In fact, spiritual literature and traditions the world over validate the healing and transformative power of such extraordinary states for those who undergo them. Why, then, are people who have such experiences in today’s world almost invariably dismissed as mentally ill?
(Grof and Grof, 1989, p.2)
That is the million-dollar question, and brings me back to the beginning: seeing mental illness as a spiritual illness. Grof and Grof describe it as a spiritual emergency – a crisis of the evolution of consciousness – a time when I experienced the highs of spiritual awareness and the lows of spiritual disconnection. Why am I dismissed as simply mentally ill and not treated as a whole human being who is going through one of the most difficult transitions of my life, as going through an “evolution of consciousness”? Where can I find guides who will help me and not pathologize me and simply medicate me to stop the “symptoms?”
I have another way of looking at this process of spiritual transformation, from my own experience, that I’d like to offer as well: In essence, I believe that when we are born into this world, into this human body, we immediately begin the process of spiritual transformation that lasts our entire lifetime. Being born in itself is a disorientation that forces us to deal with a whole host of elements of living – figuring out how to use our bodies, trying to make sense of the physical world we live in, creating meaning for ourselves so that we can move out into the world in some semblance of a functioning person. In other words, I don’t think we have a choice about the transformation – that is the condition of our existence as living beings – it then remains HOW we deal with this in our individual lives that is the question and the challenge.
I am convinced, by a whole host of experiences in my own life, but perhaps most obviously, outside of myself, by watching my children as they’ve come into this world, struggling with their bodies and basically getting used to being alive, and then being with my mother as she died, that there is something beyond our purely human experience. How it is manifest to me is in a wholeness (wisdom traditions have named it in various ways: nirvana, god, a place of complete and total love and compassion) that must come through this narrow door of a human being, physically and in narrow consciousness and it’s a very uncomfortable entry and a difficult process of working out what to do once we’re here. I think every spiritual tradition has described this wholeness that becomes a part in the form of a human being, yet contains the wholeness within them. It is like this poem by Thich Nhat Hahn:
What is the home of a wave? The home of the
wave is all the other waves, and the home of the wave
is water. If the wave is capable of touching himself
and the other waves very deeply, he will realize
that he is made of water. Being aware that he is water, he
transcends all discrimination, sorrows, and fears.
You see, as each of the waves is separate, an individual wave, yet it too is part of the water. We are all a part of the wholeness from which we come and as such, we feel both the separation of being a part and the connection of being the whole.
Because of this paradox, there is set up a tension that plays out throughout our lives and experience of living. As human beings, I think there is a part of us that senses, experiences, yearns for this wholeness, this feeling of complete connection. When we experience the world in this way, it becomes obvious that we are “home.” Then as we slip from this True Reality of connection back into the world as we know it in our everyday existence, we experience a deep sense of dis-ease that involves feelings of fear, separation, disconnection, and alienation – essentially feeling lost. This is where spiritual emergency entered my life. Because I had been “home,” I found I yearned to be in that place of wholeness all the time, and when I found I couldn’t, because it was nearly impossible, I became terribly depressed and disconnected.
I think in some cases we can name this process of completely connecting, then disconnecting and understand it for what it is, other times we simply react, especially when we are children. Paulo Freire talks about this experience as being a semiconscious exile in one of his Letters to Christina. As he is describing a time in his life when he had to move from his childhood home he says this: “More than anything else, I felt like I was being expelled, thrown out of my sense of security. I experienced a fear that I had not felt before. It was as if I were dying a little. Today I know that I was feeling, in those instances of fear, a second experience of semiconscious exile. The first was my arrival into the world after leaving the security of my mother’s uterus.” (Freire, 1996, p.36)
Every time we face a potential change, a possibility of spiritual transformation, this paradox of connection/disconnection, wholeness and part is echoed, mirrored in the specific situation. What then can rise up in us is a form of profound fear and insecurity, which may become the barrier to transformation. However, I think everyone experiences this reality differently. Perhaps how it could be explained is to say that there is a spectrum of how people react to evolving and change – in its specific form and in its deep reality. For some, evolving and spiritual transformation come more easily, with less fear. For others, making a choice to evolve and grow spiritually is such a significant show of courage that it is humbling to even imagine what it took for that particular person to attempt the movement from where they were.
For people with a mental illness, I think we are particularly sensitive to these changes and shifts in movements in life, to this deep separation from wholeness, and that is why we suffer so intensely from depression – the depression is the darkness of disconnection, the times when we feel only a part of what we could feel and we have no way to escape from the despair of being apart. And also for those who are bipolar, in the manic phase, when we are briefly connected again with that wholeness, we are so ecstatic with the joy of that connection that it is almost too much to bear and it overrides our circuits so to say. These are spiritual matters, not medical matters, at least for many of us they are. Everyone has a different experience of their illness and what measures it takes to heal. What is needed is an acknowledgment from someone that this process of connection and disconnection is going on constantly within the context of mental illness and these movements of soul cannot simply be reduced to a medical explanation and then medicated away. There is a matter of balance that is happening here and the balance is never quite right with mental illness; this is what I have found; this is what I have lived.
Being in this profound relationship to wholeness and disconnection is not necessarily a pathology, or an illness or something for us to be labeled and stigmatized about. For me, I see it as a gift, a visionary sensitivity to life that I need help navigating from people who understand this journey. I don’t want to be medicated into submission and have my joy and my pain taken away. That’s what life is about; it’s about the ups and downs, sometimes the extremes of the roller coaster, but if I had a support group of people who understood my sensitivities, my openness to life’s transformations, and I used the coping skills and other tools I’ve learned over the years, why is that I couldn’t survive in this way? But this is not what the medical establishment is telling me right now, and not what my own fear is convincing me right now. I want to believe in myself, in my instincts and advocate for myself. I want to gather my support team together, including my psychiatrist, and therapist, my friends and family, to support my decision to make different choices, to have the courage to live my life as I am meant to live it, to live the spiritual path I know I have always been destined to live, ever since I was a child. Is that so “crazy?” Tell me, I’d like to know what you think, and what you might want to do with your life if any of this resonates with you?
Freire, P (1996). Letters to Christina. New York, NY: Routledge
Grof S. & Grof C. (1990). Stormy Search for the Self. New York, NY: Penguin
Grof, S. & Grof C. Eds. (1989). Spiritual Emergency When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. New York, NY: Penguin
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.