Who calls herself a priestess nowadays—and what’s she so mad about? Or is she mad as in crazy? Or both?
A priestess might be a woman considering various definitions of mental health and fighting for clarity about what heals the mind, spirit, body—and the Earth.
She may have frequent, intimate dialogues with water, land, sky, and flame who tell her: Do this for us, please; what’s happening at human hands is insane. The mad priestess is a conduit. There are many of her ilk among us.
It doesn’t matter whether the priestess is AngryMad or CrazyMad—the two are famous for their dovetail. If you can’t handle your anger, you get urged into therapy or some pills to take the edge off. Especially if you’re female and don’t properly blunt your voice. But you could be crazy with grief, with loneliness, with the curve balls life’s thrown at you. You might be at the end of a rope that is custom-fitted to your tenuous grasp, and not know why. Anger and madness have a friendship that is long-standing.
On the other hand, you might learn how to priestess. You may ask, how megalomaniacal is that? Priestesses don’t exist, except as figures of archaic lore—sibyls and seers—long before asphalt and computers and stuff, right? Wrong. Today the work of a priestess could be directing intention toward change in service to communal health, guiding others who will listen. She can only do this in her own chosen way.
A priestess moves undercover, and that’s not easy. But she can handle it, studying the ley lines of madness that run through her people and her world. She turns to the felt experience of body and spirit, searching for clues as to why humans are chronically sick or sad, why we lash out against select Others.
Or why we are despoiling this lovely home we’ve been raising ourselves on for over 200,000 years.
Ever heard of madness as spiritual emergency? A spiritual crisis? The feeling that you’re losing your mind may come on suddenly, intensely, and be quite disorienting:
Spiritual Emergence is a natural process of human growth and transformation characterized by increased awareness, greater sensitivity and richer connection to others and the surrounding world. These experiences may seem unusual and challenging either to the experiencer or to those around them as they can seem outside of everyday reality. It is common to become more concerned with social, economic, health, and ecological issues and the bigger questions in life such as purpose, meaning and values.
This emergence is so much more than running down the avenues of a private, harrowing ecstasy. You end up “concerned with social, economic, health and ecological issues…” once you navigate the dark night of the soul. Call me a mad priestess then, trying to resolve a spiritual crisis on a threatened planet where species extinctions, war against women and people of color, plus a global pandemic, escalate daily.
In ancient times when priestesses were prophet-counselors whose job it was to share visions in rambling monologues with everyone from householders to world leaders, the concept of hearing voices had a different feel. We are so superior now? Don’t we still sometimes turn to psychics and mediums for their attunement to a stratum of oversight they could possibly be authentic enough to sense? Relax, that’s not me; but a mad priest/ess may see things about this world that are easily missed or pointedly repressed.
I see “mental illness” shifting its shape. It leaks beyond the stigma for “those people” and into us all. This did not happen overnight. It matters that we track these changes, because if there is a great shift then many of us may be set free.
In the 1970s there was an early sign: Christopher Lasch’s groundbreaking book, The Culture of Narcissism, deftly warned about a widespread, unhealthy me-ism. Prozac hit the world between the eyes in the late ’80s, and the proliferation of antidepressants and antipsychotics claimed many, killed many, and made some kill others. That was new.
Now the president of the United States is openly called “unhinged,” a sufferer of “Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” and said to show “impaired mental capacity” in a from more than a hundred mental health professionals. His own Cabinet once talked to the FBI about invoking the Constitutional 25th Amendment to remove him from office as mentally unfit. Vanity Fair describes Trump’s meltdown over COVID 19, reporting his fears that the press tried to contract the virus in order to give it to him on Air Force One. Let’s not even talk about drinking disinfectant.
How does this whack our perception of mental illness when the topic is regularly paired in the news cycle with a nation’s chief executive?
Half of the population already says keeping up with the news cycle causes anxiety, depression, and PTSD, according to the American Psychological Association. Now, with the coronavirus, we are torn between talking about the burgeoning “mental health crisis” and talking back: Get your labels off me and let’s fix this thing together! As a mad priestess, I find a great empathy brewing: is the barrier between Us and Them getting busted to pieces?
“Mental illness” has long meant stigma, a trash bin for placing losers and the lost with their little diagnosis tags as a consolation prize. I know the drill. As a teenage runaway who found herself institutionalized in 1969 . . . as a family member to those labeled schizophrenic, depressed, or bipolar . . . as a mom still parenting a young adult with autism who can’t find her way . . . it seems that most of my life I’ve been shuttled into a tribe contrived by the steamroller of the medical-pharmaceutical complex, whose cruel compassion, as Thomas Szasz put it wants me to be grateful for finally having a place I can belong, where me and mine can get “help.” But a mad priestess doesn’t cozy down into such environments.
My older brother once said, “You know, I’m always interested in the nature of reality.” He struggled most of his life with the collection of symptoms known as schizophrenia, but that remark was no nutty non sequitur. He was referring to the one thing he never lost–an unflagging love for mathematics, physics, and chemistry. How he squared this with “schizophrenia,” a word that never passed his lips, is a topic I regret not broaching with him, but how could I? He was my brainy brother until the end, and we both knew on some level his broken life was not his failing nor in service to justice.
Before he died, he was quarantined in a nursing home, ravaged by C. difficile, with several textbooks literally stacked around him. In his bed, next to his pillow, jostling the aluminum bars raised to keep him from falling out. These scientific tomes were bricks of solid knowledge he’d never crack again, their dark colors stark against the white bedsheets. “They’re like his teddy bears!” an administrator crowed. Simply more evidence to the observer that my bro was a crazy man.
I suggest it is the duty of all mad priestesses to join artists, shamans, consciousness-researchers, mathematicians, and spirituality-of-science buffs in looking into the Nature of Reality, crazy as that may seem. To what end? The more you look, the less is ironclad; you just might understand how little you can ever profess to know about another person’s reality.
Often the idea of “mental illness” becomes embedded in a family line. Even though my brother has passed, there’s still the unstoppable drive within my family that someone–at least one in each generation—be labeled mentally ill. A need to attach this person, for the long-term, to the most dangerous drugs psychiatry has to offer, to ensconce another lifelong consumer into the machinery of the mind-fixers industry.
Despite my writing a book about the roots of this on our father’s side, which my family did read, the pattern unfolds with a life of its own. It’s partly why I must come forth as a mad priestess now–I’m watching helplessly as the next generation falls in line.
A young person who should be grabbing life with body and soul finds himself so wracked by drug experiments he threw up bile for months as the professionals attempted to “adjust his medication.” In a year’s time, he seemed to have shrunk in stature, though family called it an optical illusion due to significant weight gain from Risperdal–“well worth it,” in their minds. Eventually, a hiatal hernia was discovered, which can be a side effect of antidepressants. This is a human being who’s been on many cocktails since he was a little boy: Ritalin, Adderall, Abilify, Lithium . . . and has begged to get off his meds.
He is talked about behind his back by family members; he has been the chaos that wears out his parents; there were triangles that I unfortunately got caught up in, all of us trying to help. The professionals’ answer was to peg him as bipolar, with its concomitant med-checks, psychiatrist visits, therapy sessions, support groups, and medications that will define his life.
As with most of our afflicted, it’s his oh-so-vocal, too-public suffering that family members fear—the outrage he expresses over his loneliness, envy at what a sibling has, anger that spills everywhere because he yearns for a romantic partner to marry and raise a family with. How human: He feels life passing him by.
It is suffering, it is sorrowful, but is it mentally ill? Proponents of the “genetics” argument, take note: Adopted from another country, he is not genetically descended from the bloodline where our schizophrenics and suicides have clustered since the 1800s.
But the family pattern grinds on–the Mad Priestess’ calls to alternatives ignored–because no one can deal with him: He’s too raw, too open about his pain.
And it’s frightening to look ahead: who will be next? The newest generation, not even in preschool yet…which of them will be chosen to serve the stigma someday? Due to adoption plus marriage, they don’t carry the genetics for “the family disease” either.
May this tithe to madness end, with courage instead of fear. Because it takes courage (and stamina!) to sit with persons in their sadness and loneliness. And a little something more, accepting the reality known to adherents of Eastern religions in the Sanskrit phrase, tat tuam asi—you are that, it’s you. In the autism enclaves, we say it this way: We’re all on the spectrum somewhere.
That kind of feeling-with is a tall order in a culture where an underbelly of afflicted are necessary to prop up the status quo. To patrol the borders, you must keep the Other drugged (feelings zipped up and out of sight, or displayed only in the properly enclosed mental-health settings), because their big black hole (spiritual crisis?) comes too close to triggering your own.
A mad priestess asks: What is this thing we call “mind” anyway? If I’ve learned anything, it’s that healing is done by, for, and with the body and spirit. Popular definitions of mental health latch onto the phrase wellbeing–emotional, psychological, social. Such talk focuses on absence or lack of fulfillment rather than “happiness.” Few in the trenches bother to pin down exactly what is mental or of the mind. The soul is a forgotten subject; behavior is the obsession. The body is all but run away from—too often its brain got medicalized and people were hurt.
But why must we be honest about all potential causes of madness and cures? Because our anguish is real, and to lay it all at the door of “life is suffering” not only sells short humanity’s right to health but also misses our duty to the planet on which we so depend. Fumes, flame retardants, chemical solvents, heavy metals, pesticides, and a host of other compounds are linked to the usual suspects: mood disorders, anxiety, attention-deficit and disruptive states as well as psychotic disorders. The growth of the food industry, along with Big Agriculture, tracks with a scary rise in food allergies and autoimmune diseases in tandem with “mental disorders,” and also hurts our land, air, and water with their greenhouse gas emissions, packaging and plasticizing, groundwater pollution, clear-cutting, and soil depletion. Epigenetics, by which environment (from toxins to trauma) can affect which genes are expressed or suppressed, presages that innocent generations may inherit our worst inclinations.
I have looked for healing in every corner of the mental-health complex, and my personal experience shows me that this megalith profits by exploiting stigma and pushing drugs. I see how alternatives with promise and track records are shunted to the sidelines—and I remain confused as to why there isn’t an outcry for more access to functional medicine or at least integrative healing approaches. Have we given up? Dystopia, I bend my knee to thee?
Why is the idea that what food you put into your body—and its effect on mood–trivialized to “another fad diet?” Why isn’t ecotherapy—soulful encounter in green space—more widely supported? How do indigenous cultures view mental illness and why is that important? What to do as the world grapples with collective violence and hate speech that appears as madness visible? In the soul of a mad priestess, questions like these swirl— but for all her pondering, she gets the label of Munchausen’s Syndrome! It is the nicer way of saying: she is an alarmist, paranoid for other people, and on a mission to make mountains out of molehills.
For salve, I return to the topic of Home: as a psychiatric survivor, and an outspoken one, I still want more for my identity than this noble cause as my only place to land. A mad priestess kicks shame and stigma in the teeth, knowing we can do better. We could be leading the charge for healing—please don’t call it “mental illness” anymore—and take our place as the wounded healers.
Home: We know it when we see it, smell it, touch it, care for it. Looking for a home that promotes sanity? Spend time in Nature. Whether it’s caring for meticulous gardens or hiking wild pathways, we take to the outdoors to ease heavy hearts, negative thoughts, and lonely self-importance. Hearing voices of other species at risk out there is highly recommended: Tat tuam asi.
I wish that members of my family who succumbed to diagnoses as a place to belong could have learned the outdoors as I somehow stumbled onto it. That they could have heard the moon tell them they mattered, found a support group in a swath of bending trees, or divined an animal’s nature and understood they were not alone. This fine medicine for pulling one into relationship is free and open to the public.
These days a mad priestess has no luxury to speak in riddles, so I’ll say it: No one, on any side of any political debate, believes the loss of our Big Home, the Earth, is allowable. We argue about the timeline or the signs of danger, but generally agree that this planet supports us with bounty and grace.
Sometimes I wonder if humans are worth the effort, although I keep reading their books, seeking out their thoughts, marveling at their feats of courageous resistance. Many of them wonder if the path to environmental destruction we forge is the ultimate madness untreated.
But this globe on which we spin–that has me addicted to beauty and the potential to nurture all beings back to paradise—hasn’t it ever captured you wholly when you slow down to note the clouds, push toes into blades of grass, get mindful with water or stare transfixed into a bonfire? If you said yes, then you and I are united by a secret: Earth matters.
I’ll risk being called crazy to dance with an anger that can spark compassionate, sane outcomes for the many nations–not just human–that span this blue-green expanse.
A Home worth fighting for, and I’m mad for Her to stay healthy.
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.