Finding a Way to Be Spiritual and Mentally Ill
Another excerpt from my work-in-progress memoir.
Posted Apr 21, 2020
As my husband and I move past the 40-day mark of staying at home due to COVID-19 (egad!), I thought another excerpt from my work-in-progress memoir might be a nice diversion. Not much context is needed for this. Gentle feedback is welcome. Happy reading!
For years I tried to manage without help from the medical system. I put up all the clichéd roadblocks: I don’t trust big pharma; doctors just want to push their agenda, their pills; I don’t have a mental illness; I didn’t have psychotic episodes; I had spiritual awakenings; I don’t like the labels. I don’t want the drugs; I want to treat it, heal it the "natural" way—read: the ‘healthy’, morally superior, spiritually evolved way.
I tried everything from colour therapy, primal therapy, aromatherapy, psychotherapy (you gotta wonder why they call it “psycho”-therapy—pretty insulting if you ask me), astrology, numerology, reiki, and pranic healing. I saw channelers, tarot card readers, psychics. I studied "A Course in Miracles," the Alcoholics Anonymous’ big book. I went to halfway houses, support groups, one-day workshops, weekend retreats. I did muscle testing, moving meditation, insight meditation, got acupuncture, shiatsu, massage. I took flower remedies, Chinese herbs; did affirmations, journaling, morning pages, automatic writing, body work, dream work, aura cleansing, aura reading, chakra balancing, chakra clearing. Joined AA, OA, OY-VEY. You name it.
If it was New Age, Self-“Yelp” or somewhere on the shelves of Banyan Books (Vancouver’s oldest new-age bookstore), I had read it, paid for it, trained in it, practiced it, meditated over it, ingested it, sniffed it, got fleeced by it. And none of it, not really, super down deep, was enough to keep me well.
My last resort? Enlightenment. See, I thought if I got enlightened, I wouldn’t feel depressed anymore. I wouldn’t feel anything anymore.
I have more trouble telling you I went to India to visit a guru to get enlightened than I do admitting I ran down the street naked in a euphoric psychotic episode and ended up in the psych ward. Four times.
I don’t know why. Maybe because the perfectionistic overachiever that I am is ashamed I failed to reach my goal. I am definitely not enlightened. Maybe because mental illness is common, enlightenment not so much. And what’s the point of it, really? It’s not like being enlightened is practical or even attainable. Mental illness, however, now that's attainable. Though mental illness isn’t all that practical either. Practically fatal, perhaps.
Spiritual searching (more like lurching in my case) is… embarrassing. My fervent hunt for enlightenment revealed my desperation. Granted, it kept hope alive and as a result, it kept me alive.
Depression led me to question everything. Like paint thinner, depression denatures our lives of purpose and point. Living with dramatic despair and mangy meaninglessness, I spiraled into an existential crisis. Over and over and OVER again, I was caught in an Escher-like maze of questions: “What is God? Why are we here? What’s the meaning of it all?”
On a cloudy North Vancouver day, my dad sat beside me on my springy mattress in my bedroom. Both of us looking at the floor, him shaking his head as I rattled off those questions that ricocheted between my temples. With that furrowed brow of his, he sighed and grunted, “Man has been asking those questions from the beginning of time. If you keep that up, you’ll go crazy.” More prophetic than either of us knew.
Instead of focusing on a traditional way of combating my malaise by going to my doctor, treating the symptoms, or continuing with counseling, I assumed if I discovered the meaning of life, I’d be fine. Enlightenment, the end of suffering, the Buddha said. What’s not to love? Those contemporary gurus seem pretty chill too, right? The Dalai Lama is pretty much always giggling. Eckhart Tolle – though a bit creepy in an elfish kind of way – seems fairly content. Thich Nhat Hanh – now that dude is laid back. Pema Chodron? My rock star. She exudes equanimity while also readily embracing her messy humanity. I put all my energy into seeking the answers to life. Because that was the real root cause of my suffering. Not this thing called mental illness.
The new age movement says the psychoses I experienced were spiritual emergencies and awakenings. I didn’t need to "resort to" medication or medical treatment to heal. The medical system has one perspective: Mental illness is a disease, a complex interplay of genes and environment. I hadn’t experienced God.
It’s a blessing or a curse. I was caught in a psychiatric “Sophie’s Choice.” Choose the spiritual perspective: suffer. Choose the medical perspective: suffer. But over the course of 25 years since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve discovered, it’s not that clear cut. It never is.
Maybe I have a hard time telling you I went to India to sit with a guru and “wake up” because I think my seeking actually led me into the foul spiral of mental collapse. Maybe. Just maybe – I feel like I’m to blame for bringing my mental illness on myself. Or that I failed myself. If I had just been more grounded, more prepared, that massive burst of energy that coursed through my body on that particular evening in a meditation room wouldn’t have resulted in me believing that I saw my own grave and that I could drive my car with my thoughts. Maybe, just maybe, I’m disappointed in myself. That somehow, I could have harnessed that moment into permanent liberation, instead of plummeting me into a fight for my vision of spirituality and for my mental health.
Do mental illness and spiritual experiences have to be mutually exclusive? That's what I felt the medical system was telling me. That’s what I thought my spiritual community was telling me. It was one or the other. But I needed it to be both. Both. For me to stay alive, I needed to find a way to be spiritual and mentally ill.
To be continued…
© Victoria Maxwell