Q: “This medication is making me feel really weird, Doctor, a bit vague, plus I have an insatiable hunger. How long will I need to stay on them?”
A: “You’ll have to stay on them for the rest of your life.”
This was my psychiatrist’s categorical response back in early 2010. I’ll never forget the intensity of the sinking feeling I had when he said it. Luckily for me, it is just the shadow of a memory now, one that causes me to shudder nonetheless as I think of how my life, my precious life, would have looked had I listened only to my psychiatrist.
A Strange Euphoria
Several weeks before, at the age of 32, I’d been voluntarily admitted to hospital and diagnosed with an “acute psychotic episode.” I had spent the weeks prior to that acting out of a newfound and totally unfamiliar feeling of love, which became so intense that by the time I was hospitalised, I concluded that I must have died and gone to heaven.
A few months earlier, in September 2009, I had graduated from college on a high—ironically, with a first-class degree in psychology. This accomplishment brought about feelings of self-worth, self-esteem, hope, and happiness. My naive self, true to a deep-rooted personality trait, had pinned all hopes of being and finally staying happy to completing this degree. As I came to realise, this externally-induced euphoria was no different than any of the others before, and by November, I’d fallen back into the depths of an equally familiar grey and hopeless depressive mood.
By Christmas Eve, however, I had gone from that grey state to an increasingly potent state of wonder, awe, and magic. A qualitatively different kind of high, one akin to the emotions felt by my young-child self, unable to sleep in the magical anticipation of a visit from Santa Claus. For the first time ever, these feelings had come from within. On the outside, nothing and no one had changed, but on the inside, everything was different. Everything.
Totally captivated and inspired by the messages and principles within a powerful book I had flippantly picked up in mid-November, I’d begun to feel like I was being born anew. The book was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle and, in every sense of the word, I devoured it. It felt like cognitive behavioral therapy for the soul.
I had studied CBT at college and learned coping tools to manage my “stinking thinking,” a.k.a. cognitive distortions. But Tolle’s teachings introduced me to the “pain body” –the unresolved emotional pain we carry around with us—and invited me to stretch my understanding of this concept to incorporate a universal and intergenerational perspective that took me beyond my wee self toward something more expansive.
I immediately applied Tolle’s principles to my everyday life and thought processes, and very soon I began to feel their incredible effects on my day-to-day experiences.
My mood-ometer went from 0 to 60 in just a few weeks. I began to understand what freedom and forgiveness felt like. Thoughts I’d obsessed over before just came and went like a passing breeze. I saw such beauty in everyone and everything—even people I didn’t like and things I’d never noticed before. I felt open and connected to the universe. My sense of curiosity about life, people, and nature soared. I became aware of the many times in my life where I had acted out of fear and hurt others. New feelings of forgiveness fueled my ability, in many cases, to go and say sorry.
Perhaps most important of all, I began to feel the grief of realising that I had been a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
I now recognized that I had spent years pushing this truth down so hard that I’d convinced myself that my experience of abuse wasn’t significant, that I wasn’t really a victim. Now, however, my heart had burst open and been purged of all the repressed and suppressed memories and emotions I had not fully felt nor expressed before. At one point, I remember looking in the mirror and being helplessly struck by simultaneous feelings of deep loss and profound joy. Loss, because the intense feeling of pure and almost overwhelming love I saw reflected back to me had never been there before, and joy because now that it was back, I could barely contain my sense that this love was washing everything clean from the inside out.
A Divine Mission
By December 26, these feelings and experiences had become so intense that I began to feel boundless. My thinking mind was flooded with unlimited possibilities for experiencing life from this place. The visceral, loving energy I felt was immense. Having zero knowledge and understanding and no frame of reference whatsoever with which to interpret my state other than my Catholic upbringing, these escalating feelings segued into thoughts that I must be the Second Coming. Now, feeling that I had been gifted with the ultimate elixir of life, I interpreted this experience as an initiation into a divine alliance with God. My mission was to spread the word and the way to this gift for all.
This alliance with God manifested as the voice of Mother Nature. She and I entered into a kind of inner conversation, in which we negotiated my every action toward what I believed was deliverance. Central to this process was my task: to write a book. The book would be the “new” Bible, outlining the same freedoms I had been gifted in the weeks before so that we’d all be delivered. So I wrote and wrote; the finished product was entitled She Has Spoken – At Last. Next up, I was to give the book to Father Joe—our local parish priest, who would see to its publication in all the local newspapers on New Years’ Day 2010. I remember thinking how right and good it was that the Second Coming would be a woman!
I met with Fr. Joe and, although I felt the fear in almost everyone else around me, in him I felt only compassion and understanding. He took the book, thanked me for writing it, and said he would take good care of it until I was ready to take it back. Needless to say, Fr. Joe didn’t get the book published. Years later, I found out that after our meeting, he’d spoken with my mother, a retired psychiatric nurse already on high alert due to the sudden change in her daughter, and advised her that I be sent to the hospital immediately.
Inevitably, I was admitted and commenced a course of antipsychotic medication on December 27, 2009. I didn’t object. It was all part of God’s plan, I believed, so I settled in to stay as if it were a holiday. In many ways, the hospital stay was the most bizarre and beautiful holiday of my life! For example, because I had come to realise that I really was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I developed an insatiable need to talk about it as never before. The only people inside the hospital able to meet this need were my fellow inmates. One in particular: a young woman who believed she was the reincarnation of Helen Keller. We became close companions and, in a very real sense, our long discussions were therapeutic and helped me to feel whole.
Another time, I found hidden in one of the cupboards a pile of beautiful paintings and drawings. I displayed these on the walls of my room, struck by their sheer beauty. I felt like I was sensing a meaningful communication from the artist; how nourishing it felt to just look and “listen”! I was never able to connect with Art like this before, and yet here I was, in the “mental” ward, awakening to the beauty and meaning of artistic expression.
Along with this, one or two of my fellow inmates and I would engage in thoughtful conversations about our status as the “insane.” We wondered if there was really much difference between “us” and “them,” the “sane.” I found sanctity in my insanity somehow, and in relating to the insanity of others. Years later, I came across a quote by Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’’ It was then I realised that my state of insanity was a perfectly natural response to the insanity called my normal life before psychosis.
Even in the hospital, I strongly sensed this truth. The objective of my hospitalisation and treatment had been to keep me safe, eliminate all “symptoms,” and get me back to “normal.” I understood that keeping me safe was a good and necessary thing. And within two days of taking medication, my “grandiose delusions” had been transformed into the simple realisation that I was my own messiah. Still, during the remainder of my time there, I held on tight to the possibility that what I’d been experiencing might just be the healthiest thing that could ever have happened. Yet it was this very experience, and everything that might come of it, that my safekeepers were—with the best of intentions— focused upon obliterating. In time, as the effects of the medication set in further, I began to lose my felt connection to all the luminous perceptions I have described. A creeping fear set in and I began to wonder: Was my disorientation really just a sickness, or in “treating” it here, was I missing a powerfully swift, psycho-spiritual re-orientation toward healing the wounds of abuse?
By the time I left the hospital almost four weeks later, I had so many questions, all of which stemmed from that one central issue – “What… the f**k…. just happened!?” I found myself on a knife-edge, considering two opposing ways to understand it. On one hand, the Mental Health System was asking me to take on a sickness model—a lifetime commitment to medication and a possible diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. On the other hand, the gravity of the experience itself was pulling me toward understanding, listening to, and valuing its reality and its meaning. Rather than being the indicator of my unwellness, was my psychosis actually a response to an inner calling—some kind of mysterious and yet-to-be-understood psycho-spiritual drive toward healing? No matter which perspective I ultimately committed to, I was certain of one thing: I needed to face up to and deal with the impact of my very real childhood sexual trauma.
What came next was quite possibly the most important part of my journey, carrying me onward like a sturdy boat toward healing through all of the rough and gentle seas I would, and continue to, encounter. One word: VALIDATION. Searching online one day, I Googled “spirituality and psychosis,” which quickly led me to Sean Blackwell’s YouTube channel – Bipolarorwakingup. In his videos, Sean shared his own experience of acute psychosis and recovery and offered a different possibility for understanding my experience, one that I’d so hoped would be true. His videos are teeming with information, understanding, and science, offering a broad and empowering perspective. As with the book before, I devoured these videos and came off the knife-edge and onto a new trajectory. Seeing that another had not only had the same experience as I, but also was able to come to a level of understanding where he could now help others, anchored me into believing my reality. Everything that had just happened to me was totally valid and completely worthwhile.
Sean’s videos led me to the work of many others who’d sought to understand psychosis and related experiences, beyond their labels as mere symptoms of extreme mental ill-health. I read Jungian psychiatrist John Weir Perry, transpersonal psychology co-founder Stan Groff, David Lukoff, and Richard Bentall, to name a few. One piece of research led me on to another until, moved to continue learning, I returned to university in September 2010 to complete my M.A. in applied psychology. My thesis focused on the link between trauma and psychosis. I was surprised to learn that there is a well-established and ever-expanding body of research in this “genre” of psychology. The scientific literature points to a significant relationship between childhood trauma, particularly sexual abuse, and the development of what’s called a “schizotypal personality”—a set of traits and behaviors closely related to psychosis.
It took me two years to complete my studies, mostly because the deep wounds I carried made the reality of all I was learning very difficult. Most significantly, I tried to answer the question of why the understanding of the relationship between trauma and psychosis was almost completely absent from mainstream mental health practice. How could something as significant as this have been completely ignored? And what if, in the midst of my psychosis, it had been placed front and centre? The sad truth is that the medical model holds a position of unjust dominion as the explanation for, and therefore treatment of, such complex psychological states. The result is a knee-jerk consensus on the chemical imbalance theory as the one and only cause of madness, where the only option for treatment is a disempowering label along with brain-altering drugs—often for life.
My commitment to another perspective secured my decision, a few months after my discharge, to wean off the medication safely and slowly. This was difficult. Intermittently in the years that followed, I spent many, many months in so much psychological and emotional pain I could barely move. There were times when I revisited the counter-perspective and reconsidered the option of medication. I wasn’t able to drop the longing to heal, though. That longing fortified a kind of endurance to weather and work through the pain. Just as I had bathed in the lightness I describe above, I learned that, in the presence of profound meaning, bearing the darkness is also valid and worthwhile.
Truth Telling – and Forgiveness
Ten years down the line, I remain medication free. Most significantly, I completely broke the silence surrounding my childhood sexual abuse. This process took a few years, as I had first needed to reach certain landmarks on my healing journey–my responsibility. I came to realize that I, too, had colluded in hiding our dark family secret. Facing this sore truth, along with cultivating a healthy dose of forgiveness, somehow gave me the strength to speak out.
So in October 2013, after a painful separation from the father of my two children, I realized that the next logical and right step was to report the crime to police. I told my father, who contacted the inspector in charge of retrospective abuse cases. My uncle was prosecuted, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to three years in prison.
I have also forgiven Fr. Joe, who was, in a sense, a major factor in my hospitalisation. Throughout the years, I have recalled this piece of information with an ever-changing and mixed bag of emotions. Betrayal, anger, a sense of being manipulated— at one point I even felt that he was a fraud. Now I have come to know that he, like everyone else around me, did the best he could with what he had.
Coming to realise this was another landmark on my healing journey, bringing with it an increased capacity to offer myself the same concession. I was able to reconnect to the sincere compassion and understanding I felt in Fr. Joe’s presence on the day he’d met with me. He was simply a kind, wise, compassionate, and sincerely spiritual human. His ability to meet me from a place of fearlessness engendered a feeling of safety and trust amidst my own spiritual crisis. Resisting nothing of every inconceivable thing I was saying, and willing to acquiesce to the value of my experience, he simply listened.
Many Modes of Healing
Since grappling with my abuse, I continue to find many new medicines in the form of the arts, meditation, yoga, exercise, good food, singing, making music, and cultivating a curious, open, and resilient mind. Most important of all, I bask in an appreciation for the nourishment of loving family and friends. I found a really good therapist who helped me begin to work through the effects of my trauma and I continue to engage with non-mainstream therapeutic modalities. Things like body work and breathwork, plant medicines, emotional-release therapies, and indigenous healing and ceremonial practices have catapulted my healing ahead thanks to the inherent opportunity they offer to go deeper. Deeper into learning from, understanding, and releasing the complex effects of the many vicissitudes of a developing mind insulted by childhood sexual abuse.
I’ve also come to see that, just as any healing modality has the potential to support recovery, the opposite is also true. It is crucial to apply discernment when choosing your modalities, especially if they’re going to take you on a deep dive into the non-ordinary. Perhaps best are those that seek to combine the best elements of many approaches in a holistic and balanced way, such as the revolutionary healing retreats developed by Sean Blackwell.
I aspire someday to experience Sean’s Bipolar Awakenings healing retreat, as I know I have much more to heal. For certain, engaging with the many different standard and non-mainstream modalities is powerful; they continue to help me tremendously in building an ever deeper and nourishing relationship with myself. Bearing the deep-rooted effects of my childhood sexual trauma, however, continues to interrupt my life more than I believe is necessary.
Healing may be a lifelong journey, but what if living life fully free from trauma’s effects is possible? A question worth holding onto, alongside gratitude for my brush with insanity, the first major landmark on my healing journey. Today, where grey once set the tone for my personal “normal,” now—after my beautiful gift of psychosis—it is just one colour in a dynamic, ever-expanding spectrum of real, honest human emotion.
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.