Medication and Spirituality

Lynne Vanderpot, PhD
7
2064

I have a real appreciation for Steve Jobs’ suggestion about connecting the dots in your life – he said you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. Only now can I trace the dots of my concerns regarding psychiatric medication and spirituality.

In 2007 I returned to school to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I remember being confused by the over-emphasis on biological treatments for suffering which seemed to me much more spiritual and relational in nature. A few years earlier, my misgivings had been stirred as I sat on a California beach listening to a friend tell me about what it was like to be on Prozac. She told me that she couldn’t really cry anymore, or connect to her deeper feelings. She couldn’t orgasm. I recall my throat closing up, my thoughts running panicky and confused. I was so disturbed by the power of this drug to rob her of her tears and climaxes, experiences I associated with the more private, sacred parts of being human.

While pursuing my masters in psychology counseling, I primarily focused my coursework on mindfulness-based interventions. I became very interested in compassionate, individualized approaches to care. Witnessing the ubiquitous use of drugs as a first-line therapy remained a serious concern. I continued to worry about the effects the drugs might be having on a person’s spirit. The psychiatric literature reported numerous physical, mental and cognitive side effects of taking psychiatric medication. I began to wonder if these effects were in fact having an impact on an individual’s spiritual dimension as well. I see spirituality as a highly personal concept; it can mean lots of different things to different people. Within academic literature, it is a diverse and evolving construct, and is commonly associated with a person’s deepest values, notions of connectedness, and with the quest for meaning in one’s life.
Was feeling tired all the time on medication experienced as an interruption of a person’s deeply valued activities or states of mind? Was the stigma of medication perceived by users as a disruption of feeling connected to others, or to oneself? Did the mental fogginess caused by the drugs impact a person’s search for significance in their life? I speculated on the possible overlap between the physical and mental side effects commonly associated with psychiatric medication, and the impact these effects might have on a person’s expression and experience of their spirituality.

It was only after I attended a lecture by Robert Whitaker in the spring of 2012, and subsequently read his book Anatomy of an Epidemic, that I decided to do my PhD research on the impact of psychiatric medication on a person’s spirituality. There were a few anecdotal accounts in Anatomy of an Epidemic which, to me, stuck out as billowing red flags. Like when Cathy describes her life of cycling in and out of hospitals, saying, on pg. 20, “With a life on antipsychotics, you lose your soul and you never get it back.” And there was the quote from a NY Times article on the torture of Russian political dissidents through the forced administration of atypical antipsychotics; the Times concluded that this amounted to a form of spiritual murder (pg. 267). We all have our triggers, our responses to what we have read, and in a book filled with so much potential for response, these two passages would. not. let. me. be.

Does psychiatric medication have an impact on a person’s spiritual and/or religious life? If so, what kinds of impact are people experiencing, is medication interfering with their spirituality, or is it working to enhance their ability to connect with this dimension in their lives? This is the focus of my study at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, under the supervision of Professor John Swinton and Dr. Helen Bedford.

To be clear, I am not the kind of researcher who is concerned with prevalence rates, efficacy, or on drawing universal conclusions from the data. In academic terms, my study employs a qualitative approach using hermeneutic phenomenology. Simply stated, my aim is to understand the depth of peoples’ lived experiences, and the meaning these experiences hold for them. This is achieved primarily through unstructured interviews, using open-ended questions about what kind of impact a person perceives medication may have had on their spiritual and/or religious life. Phenomenology is sort of the opposite of having a hypothesis and then trying to gather data to support your theory; this method is best suited for research questions like mine; questions focused on the importance of understanding several different individuals’ experiences of a particular phenomenon. It is an approach which values human experience on its own terms, and it resists diminishing it or reducing it to inadequate language borrowed from other scientific perspectives.

Whether or not people believe in God, or identify as spiritual, they tend to attach significance and meaning to things in their life. I have come to believe in and trust the unique significance each person searches for in his or her life. This is why I’m deeply troubled by the prolonged use of treatment which is harmful to so many over the long term. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” is how a U.S. military official justified the senseless death of civilians during the Vietnam War. I sometimes imagine an analogous suggestion by the proponents of biological treatment, “We had to destroy the person in order to help them.” My hope is that the findings in this study will help to lift the voices of people who may be having a difficult time being heard.

An important aim of this study is to add to the growing body of knowledge which attests to the user’s perceptions of the effects of medication, not the psychiatrists, and not the pharmaceutical manufacturers. The national trends which show such dramatic increases in the use of medications over the last 25 years are not matched by rigorous studies into the lived experiences of the people taking them. It is hoped that the outcomes of this study will lead to greater understandings of the experiences of taking medication, which will facilitate more individualized, compassionate care for people who are suffering and are trying to get some help.
I’m looking to interview persons over the age of 18, who self-identify as either religious or spiritual, who are currently or have in the past taken a psychiatric medication, who are not currently in an acute phase of crisis, and who are willing and able to provide a rich verbal account of the experience. Interviews will take place in the UK and in the US. If you are interested in participating in this study, please contact me at [email protected]

Lynne E. Vanderpot received her Masters in psychology counselling in 2012 from Goddard College in Vermont, U.S.. Currently she is a first year Ph.D. student under the supervision of professor John Swinton at the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability. Her research is focused on exploring the impact of psychiatric medications on a person’s spiritual life.

7 COMMENTS

  1. There seems to be a rather paradoxical assumption that biology & spirituality are mutually exclusive, in your premise here;

    “I remember being confused by the over-emphasis on biological treatments for suffering which seemed to me much more spiritual and relational in nature.”

    In my own transformational experience of many, many psychoses, understanding my relationship with my sense-of-self, has involved a self-exploration of my hidden biology. My brain-nervous-systems, and my major organs, and their stimulation of my psychology and inherent spirituality.

    I agree with many who have the lived experience of antipsychotic medication, compounding problems within the nervous systems, so often related to previous traumatic experience. Sadly, there is, IMO great confusion and denial, about our evolved nature and our intimate connection with the biology all nature, including the Cosmic background from which we emerged.

    Emerged, as the Cosmos, perceiving and acting upon itself. Hence the religious notion that God is found within? This is the psychological transformation which self-education and a less fearful experiential approach to self-discovery, has enabled in my personal sense of being spiritual.

    In line with John Weir Perry’s understanding of “waiting on psychosis,” I’ve found the notion “the best out, is through,” expressed by so many here on MIA, to be personally revelational.
    Allowing myself to experience four, roughly six week long psychoses, has affected a deep and profound shift in my sense of personal & species meaning. Previous experiences of “self-referential” ideation, so ridiculed by society and dismissed by so many health care professionals. I now understand as a species phenomena, of hyper-sensitive awareness, rather than symptoms of madness.

    Recording my experiences of psychosis, for later self-reflection, has brought a deeper appreciation for my meaning making consciousness, my biology and my connectedness to all creation. Please consider a previous analysis of a six week long psychosis, which continues to evolve, in my understanding of my nature;

    “At the height of manic euphoria the Christian Bible and the Meaning of Life always consume my minds attention. Its been that way since 1980, on or off medications, regardless of the trigger and my more normal, rational desires.

    A gushing sense of spiritual oneness overwhelms me every time, even though between episodes, a return to normality wishes it would just leave me the hell alone. I just want a normal life!

    Objectively it makes no sense that Biblical references should flood my over emotional experience when I’m high. Euphoria is treason to any normal sense of reason?

    I’ve been a democratic socialist for Christ’s sake, with an Atheist disbelief in God during long periods of my everyday social sense of normality. Yet in times of manic flight, biblical stories mesmerize me with their sense of something deeper, something beyond their literal setting in external reality. In heightened states of euphoria I catch sensation glimpse’s of deeper meaning, in these metaphoric stories of human existence.

    Sometimes it feels like I’m right back there under those star filled, dark desert sky’s, filled with a sense of awe and wonder? A trick of the light perhaps? An illusion of form, and an earth bound sense of time? How could this current moment be an eternal now, for God’s sake? Isn’t everything separate, isn’t this just my dream? You go and do your own video log, as Jake Sully advises in a very popular movie? Yet inside this belly of a cosmic whale, just what is dreaming within our collective perception of life?
    Is the task of maturing self awareness best described in Joseph Campbell’s defining of the hero’s journey, upon which so much movie making is based. Jake’s journey to a heart felt maturity begins in the belly of a spaceship. Is this an objective dramatization of a subliminal metaphor? In William Blake’s painting of the belly of the whale, we see the cosmic serpent so universally described in primitive creation mythologies.

    “And as we wind on down the road. Our shadows taller than our souls.” _Led Zeppelin. Is it only the instinctual shadow of our evolution that prevents the transcendence of our Cosmic Soul?

    When coming down from a euphoric high, with its impulsive energies of thoughts and behavior, I’m left to ponder just how and why? Wonder how my experience fits into a theory of chemical imbalance which somehow fuels these flights of time enfolding illusion? Most Doctors agree, discussing the mindful content of a manic episode is unhelpful, preferring to observe physiological patterns. “How’s your sleep, your appetite and your libido” they ask, choosing to ignore the universality of existential content and heightened instinctual senses.

    I wonder why even after I‘ve learned to identify the physical needs of an easier approach to myself and others, I fall into such a mesmerizing fascination with biblical stories? And why is the savior motif so common in madness experience? Is it about subliminal expressions of meaning and our place, or immersion in the very fabric of the Cosmos? Are we not, its manifest form of perceiving its own quantum formation, through this sentient life form? When my family ask me to get back to normality, are they speaking of the social adaptation through suppression, of our vital instinct for life?

    “Its about reactive energy states, not objective labels (metaphors)?” I wrote at the top of part 1 of “Mad Visions or Mental Illness?” In part one I pointed to the recent discoveries of the body/brain’s hidden regulation of metabolic energy states which includes our thoughts. Going on to challenge the medical definition of delusion and altered states of mind, and suggesting there is a double bind in our mind/body split which actively prevents a holistic self awareness? A socialized double bind too, in our common agreement to deny the raw emotive energies of our unconscious motivations, just as a medical model of disease, denies what may be spiritual content in experiences like manic euphoria.”

    http://bipolarbatesy.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/mad-visions-or-mental-illness-part-2.html

    This was my “approach using hermeneutic phenomenology,” rather than the cause and effect logic of a subject – object orientation, which underpins the scientific method, and assumptions about pathology, in the medical diagnosis of psychosis.

    Best wishes for your research,

    David Bates.

    • Hi David,

      I’ve been reading from this site for a few months now, but only registered to comment today. I’ve been both down the psychosis rabbit hole, and worked for and with others within the system experiencing the same.

      I just read this reply you’ve written for the first time today, and it was like reading the thoughts of a kindred spirit. Thank you so much. I’ve spent many years off and on making meaning out of my own experiences with the deeper dimensions of my own thought and am about to re-enter the helping professional role after getting my MSW. I’m afraid to work within the system again, and watch as people try to find joy and meaning while taking multiple, potent psych drugs. Your writing resonates deeply with my own experience and the experiences of the folks I’ve worked with. I hope I can be a voice for acceptance of “symptoms” and learning from them, growing in the gifts they offer us, though often painful and terrifying, so often also beautiful and sublime.

      Take care,

      Cynthia

  2. It sounds like great research, and I like the way you think about it. I’ve been very interested in the spiritual dimensions of “madness” and the way it can be tricky to separate what is helpful or “spiritual” from what may be unhelpful or “mad.” One way to deal with that problem, obviously, is to give drugs that suppress that whole dimension of human experience…..