There are many reasons why people don’t accept a diagnosis of mental illness.

I received an email the other month from someone whose spouse had psychotic experiences and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, the spouse believes they had a powerful spiritual experience.

The spouse has agreed to see a psychiatrist, and continues to see their counsellor, but won’t take medication.

I’ve been in that very position, refusing both the diagnosis and medication. Understandably. The experiences I’ve had (two, quite recently) from a science approach typically are called psychosis. I like to call it non-shared reality. Regardless how you describe them, elements of these experiences are profound for me.

I’ve always had difficulty with the ‘either/or’ perspective. Either my experience is an illness as seen through the medical model OR it’s strictly a spiritual experience as seen through alternative perspectives such as the anti-psychiatry movement or transpersonal psychology.

What I experienced was more nuanced. To cavalierly categorize it as either only alienates me from potential help.

But what to do?

In my case, I encountered a brilliant psychiatrist who helped me understand what I experienced could be both. Or, more accurately, they could exist simultaneously.

I had undergone (and continue to undergo) spiritual experiences meaningful to me. While at the same time I have a mental illness that would benefit from some medical assistance.

I’ve come to understand the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis does not diminish the importance of these personally transformative events. Mental illness and spiritual awakening are not mutually exclusive.

This was life-changing for me. It allowed me to embrace the spiritual path I held so dearly while also accepting much needed treatment for psychiatric disorders which were, in no uncertain terms, ravaging my life and relationships.

I am of the belief, for some people, we need to blend both approaches, spiritual and medical. If either one excludes or denigrates the other, it won’t be helpful. For me, the litmus test is this: does the person have the quality of life they want? Is the approach they are using causing them more suffering or less?

I wanted to be someone who didn’t need to take medications. But I’m not that kind of person. Some people don’t need to or can manage without. For me, I needed to be open to the possibility of needing meds and not needing them. I needed my support circle to be on board with that too. Or to be honest with me about any bias they had. That built trust. Trust in the end is the best bridge to help build a life worth living.

Allowing for ‘Both’ rather than forcing an ‘Either/Or’ stance made getting better, well…better. I am able to comfortably hold both my spiritual and medical model perspectives. It’s a fine line, but that’s fine with me.

The following are resources to help those of you grappling with the ‘either/or’ situation. Whether you are supporting someone who identifies only with the spiritual, even to their detriment, or for those of you given a psychiatric diagnosis and trying to reconcile it with your profound experiences, I hope these shed some light and offer insight.

1. Visions Magazine – This edition focuses on spirituality and how it related to mental illness. Visions is an award-winning magazine that brings together many views on mental health and substance use.

https://cmha.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/visions_sprirituality.pdf

The following I wrote or created in partnership with others. Each describe in different ways my journey integrating both a spiritual perspective and medical model approach to help my life come into balance so I could begin to flourish.

2. Bridging Science and Spirit – a 7-minute documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXq9B9a3sOI

3. Does God* Have A Place In Psychiatric Treatment Plans? – blog

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/crazy-life/200910/does-god-have-place-in-psychiatric-treatment-plans

Note: I use the word ‘God’ but don’t mean it in the strictly religious sense, per say. I use it interchangeably with Love, the Divine, Universe, Spirit, Goodness, what-have-you. Please replace it with what you are most comfortable with.

4. I Went Off my Meds to be More Spiritual: Spiritual Growth and Psychiatric Medication – an oxymoron?  http://victoriamaxwell.com/i-went-off-my-meds-to-be-more-spiritual/

5. Crazy for Life – My theatrical keynote (aka one-person stage show) focusing on my struggle to reconcile the mental illness diagnosis with profound spiritual experiences. In it, I describe how medication, for me at least, needs to be part of my wellness tool box. Not the only one, but one nonetheless. View a clip from the show here (watch at 1min 25sec): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-CU5DaOl74&t=7s  Also available for download purchase. http://victoriamaxwell.com/product/crazy-for-life-a-story-about-accepting-help-for-mental-illness/

Have you had spiritual experiences within your mental illness? Do you think it is one or the other? I’d love to hear from you to learn about how you made sense of it.  

© Victoria Maxwell

I went off my meds to be more spiritual. There, I said it.

Well, okay – let me qualify that. I reduced my meds because I believed I would have more access to my spirituality and spiritual gifts. Now, I didn’t say this was a smart choice. And you’d think, since this ain’t my first rodeo with mental illness, I’d know better. I’ve lived (and lived quite well on the whole) with bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis for over 25 years and for most of those years I’ve taken medication.

Though this has been the case, there’s always been this niggling feeling that if I could just reduce (and eventually not take any) medication I’d be better off for it. More spiritual – closer to the divine, more peaceful, more at one with the world, able to become more self-realized, liberated and enlightened.

Who can blame me? I don’t know of any spiritual teachers on psychiatric medication. Not any who admit it anyway. Dali Lama? Not that I know of – maybe meds for high cholesterol, but even that’s a guess. Eckhart Tolle? Doubt it. Byron Katie? Not likely. Though, they might be. Perhaps I’m just imagining what spiritual celebrities are all about.

Regardless, stigma about mental illness in general and psychiatric medication in particular runs deep. More accurately, misinformation about it runs deep. Really deep: “threads-of-steel-around-the-roots-of-a-tree-and-into-the-magma-of-the-earth” kind of deep. Even for me, who has experienced relief by taking medication.

Somehow, I think medication stops me from being all of me, clogs up my energy systems, makes me foggy. When I or others are overmedicated, yes – that’s definitely the case. But I’m taking a dose that doesn’t do any of those things. Yet I still feel I could have more spiritual growth, faster growth, if I wasn’t on medication. Somehow though, in my mind, this didn’t apply to the birth control pills I took. Hmmm?

So a few months ago with the guidance of my psychiatrist I began to reduce my meds. Over six weeks I began, very slowly, to decrease the amount of both my antidepressant and mood stabilizer.

I was honest about the reasons. I told him, one: I have so many effective self-management tools, maybe a lower dosage would be okay. Two: I’d like to be on as little medication as possible due to potential, negative effects of being on meds long term. And, three (most importantly): I had started a spiritual practice in earnest over the past few years and was concerned the meds might be interfering with my spiritual development and awareness.

He said okay. Yup, I know. Very progressive and very good he is. I thank my lucky stars I’ve had the privilege to work with him.

Over the next month and half, little by little, I started reducing. Week one, things are going fine. Week two, the same. Week three, four, five – all good. Then, week six – a bump, well more like a shadow – you know a black, creepy, blur fraying the sides of my life and the inside of my mind, turning my thoughts dark, melting my energy limpish, figuratively bruising my body purple. This wasn’t good. I stepped up my spiritual practice, exercised more, regulated my sleep. The gloomy lump lifted – for two days. Then it was back, in full force.

I was scared. The dark silhouette adhered to my shoulders, behind my eyes, on the bottoms of my feet. It didn’t matter how much exercise, how much sleep or how much light I got into my eyes, it didn’t budge.

I didn’t feel spiritual, I felt wretched.

I meditated, practiced Chi Kung, prayed, ran every day for short spurts, but still depression wedged in every cavity it could. I didn’t know between my fingers could ache so much.

I went back to my psychiatrist.

“Isn’t it true, even if I go back to my old dose, the meds might not work? I’ve heard that. It’s true, right? Right? My old meds aren’t going to be effective. I’ve f%*ked myself.” Why didn’t he stop me before I tried this insane experiment?  

“Nooo…,” he said slowly shaking his head, “that’s not true.”

“Oh,” was all I could say.

So that same day, back at home, sitting at my vanity table, I opened up my two pill bottles.  I picked out the dose of pills I’d taken before said spiritual experiment and washed them down with water in the hopes with the health habits I was still practicing I might regain a feeling of wellness.

I did. Over the next couple weeks I slowly started to feel myself again. After taking my medication (medicine really) and continuing to practice my wellness tools, I started to feel back to my good ol’ Victoria: grounded, clear seeing, content and at ease with the natural ebb and flow of emotions that just a few weeks ago seemed locked away forever and doused with dollops of severe depression. Taking the right dose of medicine, I actually felt more spiritual, not less.

What did I learn? It was something I remembered actually about my journey with creativity.

Years ago, when psychiatric medication was suggested (very strongly) as an additional support to my recovery, I was afraid it would take away my creative spark. I was an actor, a writer – creativity was my life-blood. I couldn’t afford to live without the passion that kept me alive and added meaning to my life.

At first I was prescribed lithium. It had worked wonders for my mom. Yup, bipolar disorder is a family affair. Me, I felt like a walking piece of chalk. Not dampened emotions, just NO emotions. The only thing worse than feeling suicidal, is not feeling anything at all.

But then 2 years of sampling different medications, I was given something else to try – and lo’ and behold, this particular combination of anti-depressant and mood stabiliser helped raise my bottom and gave me a roof to curb dangerous stratospheric spikes in my emotions.

I didn’t feel medicated. I didn’t feel high. I felt like me. Me.

And, what happened to my creativity? It came back to life. My creative output was sustainable, of good quality and I flowed with it instead of being led hurly burly by it.

When I wasn’t on the right medication, the right dosage – my creativity was squelched, lost to the pharmaceutical stew of overmedication or ineffectiveness. When I wasn’t on medication at all, I THOUGHT I was creative. I actually was prolific. I was writing copious amounts of poetry…but, really, really BAD poetry.

When I wasn’t on medicine to reign in the fire that touched my brain, the creativity I had ran amok and was awful. Mania led me to create a lot, but create poor quality. While depression stopped it in its tracks.

Surprisingly (at least to me) the same course of events happened with my spirituality. When on the wrong kind, wrong dose or no medication at all, my access to spirituality and sense of the divine was warped and draped in a painful fog or hysterical mania. The depth of despair was not a ‘dark night of the soul’ it was a cemented state of being that wouldn’t budge. My manias were not wisdom unleashed, but euphoria skyrocketing into heights of dangerous behaviour.

When I am on the right medication (as I am now), the right dosage (as low as possible, but enough to help), I am connected and aligned to what I define as spirit and the divine. I feel the joyful (not manic) flow of life and I rest in trust and ease. Seriously. This is how I feel when I have the correct dose of medicine as well as consistently practice my many self-management wellness tools. Medication is a small, but important, recovery tool.

I can’t shirk any of them. I am adamantly, furiously committed to enacting my wellness tools daily (which includes taking my trusty anti-depressant and mood stabilizer). I can’t afford not to.

Both my creative and spiritual life depend on it.

Do you or someone you know take psychiatric medication? Does one of your clients? What are your thoughts on medication and spirituality? Does it help or hinder? I want to hear about your experience. Please leave a comment below.  

© Victoria Maxwell

If you liked this post, you may enjoy this podcast interview where Victoria and Chris Cole of ‘Waking Up Bipolar’ discuss naked psychosis, imperfect bodies, medication and spirituality.