Meaning and Mental Illness

I wrote this post for Lisa Bortolotti’s project Imperfect Cognitions: Blog on delusional beliefs, distorted memories, confabulatory explanations, and implicit biases.

The blog was founded by Lisa Bortolotti in May 2013, after receiving the happy news that she had been awarded an AHRC Fellowship for a project entitled “The Epistemic Innocence of Imperfect Cognitions“. The core idea of the project was to see whether a variety of cognitions (beliefs primarily, but also memories, narratives and explanations) could enhance knowledge even when they were inaccurate or ill-grounded.

Source: Blog History

Meaning and Mental Illness

Monday, 28 December 2015

For our series of first-person accounts, Kitt O’Malley, blogger and mental health advocate, writes about her experience of altered states and what these mean to her.

When I was twenty-one upon returning from my grandfather’s memorial mass at which I gave the eulogy, I first experienced a series of altered mental states which I chose to interpret as God calling me to the ordained ministry. I questioned that sense of call due to my intellectual skepticism, my agnosticism, and the fact that I had a history of mental illness, namely major depression and dysthymia. God did not speak to me in my altered mental states. I heard no voices and saw no visions. The altered states I entered were sometimes ecstatic and sometimes tempting and dark. My interpretation of my experiences was influenced by my familiarity with the works of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki on Zen Buddhism, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, and Roman Catholic mystic saints.

As I received no definitive instructions, I didn’t know exactly what God called me to do, but I chose to identify with mystic saints and believed that God called me to seminary training. I did not pursue a seminary education at that time. Later when I was thirty, after being prescribed antidepressants, I experienced a week-long psychotic state in which simultaneous thoughts raced through my mind in binary (zeroes and ones), about chaos theory, and about Roman Catholic mystic saints. Even after the psychotic break, my diagnosis remained dysthymic, with the episode believed to be a reaction to antidepressant medication.

Again, I believed God called me to seminary, but I had to address my mental health before I could follow through on my sense of God’s call. At the age of thirty-nine I once again started to experience euphoric sensations and the belief that God was calling me. At that point, I was a mother and wanted to be stable and grounded for my active toddler son more than I wanted to be a mystic. As a mother, the practical trumped the mystical. I sought help for bipolar disorder from a psychiatrist. My diagnosis changed from dysthymia to bipolar type II and my medication changed accordingly with mood stabilizers and sometimes an antipsychotic added to the mix. Finally, after a psychiatric hospitalization at forty-one, I applied to and attended, but did not complete, seminary.

My belief that I am both a mystic and have a mental illness remains. I believe that God has a purpose for me and that I am fulfilling that purpose in blogging about living with bipolar disorder and in my volunteer work as a mental health advocate. At the same time, I am skeptical of my own belief and realize that such a belief can be dangerous and can lead to destructive behavior.

In spite of my skepticism, I decided to embrace my own experiences as meaningful. I straddle both biological and meaning-based understandings of both my mental illness and my experience of divine calling. I believe both perspectives could be true. For me, what is key is that the meaning I glean from my experiences is positive in its effects.

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19 thoughts on “Meaning and Mental Illness

  1. dyane January 1, 2016 / 9:31 am

    So beautifully written – I loved how you shared so much information from the epochs in your life in a concise, profound & eloquent way, Kitt.

    Liked by 1 person

      • dyane January 1, 2016 / 10:42 am

        You’re welcome, my dear. Lots of love to you and prayers for your family….I STILL have remnants of the cough – next time I’m going to a good doctor (if we’re in Tahoe, where I usually get this bug) and I’m getting an MAOI-safe super-duper-powerful cough medicine, if it exists!!! Unfortunately if I used the contraindicated kind there’s a very strong chance of getting serotonin syndrome and other nasties.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kitt O'Malley January 2, 2016 / 10:10 am

          Don’t like that you still have remnants of the cough. Don’t want serotonin syndrome. Dangerous.

          Liked by 1 person

          • dyane January 2, 2016 / 12:13 pm

            If the cough is not gone by Monday I’ll see my doctor. I was thinking about this earlier and I realized I definitely should have gone to Tahoe’s Gateway Urgent Care. Oh well. Anyway, my doctor here is great, and her name happens to be….

            DR.RIDDLE, I kid you not!

            If anyone can solve the mystery of my cough, it’s Dr. Riddle!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. robertmgoldstein December 31, 2015 / 6:26 pm

    I must share some aspects of your illness Kitt.

    I can’t help but wonder if this God and not your illness.

    Happy New Year to you. Thank you for being a model of strength and honesty this past year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley January 1, 2016 / 12:01 am

      Perhaps it is God. I do believe that I live a purposeful life and am thankful for it.

      Like

  3. mythoughts62 December 28, 2015 / 8:55 pm

    Such a familiar story. My first real break involved delusions of being a prophet with a message that I had to spread. It didn’t work out too well… 🙂 That was 12 years ago and resulted in 1 1/2 weeks in the hospital. My most recent break was about 1 1/2 months ago and didn’t involve psychosis, 1 week in the hospital. Which is why I haven’t blogged in that time and had to take incompletes at school. I’m still in a mixed state and will probably drop all my classes in the spring.

    Thanks for sharing, it makes me feel better that other people know the feeling.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Kitt O'Malley December 28, 2015 / 10:17 pm

      No doubt many of us with bipolar disorder know the feeling. Wish you the best in achieving improved mental stability. Mixed states can be tricky. I’ve experienced them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. vanbytheriver December 28, 2015 / 4:36 pm

    Fascinating, Kitt. Thanks for the share. Up until about age 14, I was convinced that I had a calling to the convent. I doubt that it was a spiritual awakening, I think I was just drawn to a life of solitude and meditation, and the peace and tranquility of the convent affiliated with my school…all in contrast to the chaos at home. It was childhood sanctuary.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Kitt O'Malley December 28, 2015 / 5:35 pm

      Sounds wonderful. I took a week long contemplative retreat that preceded my psychotic break. It was wonderful to live among religious in silence, to pray multiple times each day.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. kbailey374 December 28, 2015 / 3:54 pm

    Ditto here. My first psychotic break was most likely due to antidepressants that initiated a manic episode – I do believe that my delusions and hallucinations had an aspect of reality to them, but I sure was not safe and the symptoms were not helpful to me at the time. But in hindsight it is like I had a glimpse of the true divine.

    Great post Kitt! And very clearly stated.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Kitt O'Malley December 28, 2015 / 5:34 pm

      Thank you. I’m sure that many of us who have experienced mania have touched something divine. God calls us not only when we are healthy, but in the midst of chaos. We often feel closest when we are most in need of that love.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. bpnurse December 28, 2015 / 3:23 pm

    I got goosebumps reading this post. Not only is it well written, but I can relate to it.

    I have long believed God called me to become a nurse and then to be the person who’s always in the right place at the right time. It never occurred to me that maybe this was my mental illness talking and that I might be delusional. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know for sure, but I still like to think that He uses me for His purposes, which right now is (I think) to help others through my lived experience with bipolar 1. And if it really IS a delusion, what harm is there in it?

    Great piece. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Kitt O'Malley December 28, 2015 / 5:32 pm

      Precisely. Honestly, I believe that God can and does call us in health and in and through illness.

      Liked by 1 person

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