Mystic or Mentally Ill?

My grandfather died when I was twenty-one. Upon returning home from his memorial mass where I gave his eulogy, I experienced an altered state of consciousness when crossing the Bay Bridge. My skin tingled, I felt an energy push out of my skin, and I felt a new cleansing energy fill me to replace the old energy. At first the experience concerned me, for I was driving after all, but I signaled a lane change, safely changed lanes, found that I was still aware of my surroundings, and decided it was safer to continue driving that to stop in the middle of the bridge. I went on to experience at will, usually by staring into a candle flame, a series of altered states that felt either cleansing or seductive. Ever since that time, I have identified with mystics.

Since I had a history of severe suicidal depression, I realized then that if I saw a psychiatrist and described my experiences, I would likely have received a diagnosis of mental illness. Because I ascribed religious meaning to the experiences and believed that God was calling me to some purpose, such as seminary training or a ministry of some sort, I did not seek psychiatric help. Instead, I attended the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) at Newman Hall, the Roman Catholic community at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a student. I went back to my family’s religious roots to make sense of what I had experienced. Today I understand that my mystical experiences can also be explained as symptoms of the manic and hypomanic states of bipolar disorder.

My current belief system is not limited to a Christian viewpoint, though I do love Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. Never have I ruled out other religions, or secularism for that matter, as valid and valuable belief systems. Honestly, if you seek truth and love, you’re going in the right direction. I am open to any explanation or definition of a higher power, whether that be a scientific explanation, nature itself, consciousness, existential freedom, humanism, pantheism, Western monotheistic concepts of God, or Eastern religions and philosophies. For simplicity, I use the term God to encompass all meanings of higher power or greater order, including most importantly love, truth, and universality.

That said, when I was thirty, I went on a one-week contemplative retreat, the topic of which was the Christian mystics. I had no idea that going on a contemplative retreat meant spending a week in near total silence. I went on the retreat because of my interest in Christian mysticism and left with a new discipline – contemplative prayer. This discipline, practiced by the mystics, gave me a new way to pray, to open myself to God’s love, and to experience God’s presence in my life. In the busyness of life, I often forget the lessons I learned on that retreat, and find that I must return to mystic visionaries to remind myself that I, that we all, can have a close, personal, sometimes maybe even exhilarating and ecstatic, relationship with God (or whatever concept that most closely reflects the meaning of truth, love, and universality).

The retreat was a much-needed respite from a very challenging year. Before the retreat, my maternal grandmother died. For the three weeks she was in a coma, I had been extremely ill with a gastrointestinal virus, unable to keep down food, and lost too much weight. When I gave the eulogy at my grandmother’s memorial mass, family members were shocked at how gaunt I was. I had to reassure them that I was not anorexic. Just after the retreat, a good friend from high school died of AIDS, hitting me particularly hard and triggering depression. Finally, in my job working with severely emotionally disturbed adolescents in day treatment, a six-foot-tall sixteen-year-old boy attempted to rape me during session, disconnected the phone when I tried calling for help, and blocked my exit from the office when I tried to leave. I managed to get out physically untouched, but the emotional trauma affected me deeply.

The following day, I was unable to get out of bed. My depression was severe. I called my parents for help, and they advised I see a medical doctor or psychiatrist for medication. What followed was multiple medication changes over a few months. After taking tricyclic antidepressants, I ended up unable to sleep for a week with full-blown mania. Flying through my mind at a speed making it impossible to process the content, I had simultaneous streaming thoughts in binary (ones and zeroes), about chaos theory (advanced physics), and about Christian mystic saints. At the time, I could observe the thoughts and wonder as to their meaning. I felt like I was channeling knowledge, that somehow, I had tapped into a vein of mystical wisdom, but had no way of knowing whether the thoughts were wise or whether they were nonsense. I was familiar with the Christian mystics, having studied them and identifying with their experiences. At only the most rudimentary level, I was familiar with the work of physicists and theologians linking chaos theory with theology. I knew the ones and zeroes represented binary code, but I had no way of reading or unlocking the code.

Mysticism can most simply be understood as the direct experience of God. Mystics seek to directly experience God through physical and contemplative states. Can God be known by reason or the five senses? Perhaps. Apologists and scientists use reason. Those who find God in nature, through the senses. The soul can also experience communion with God through direct, personal experience, intuition or insight. Throughout history there have been mystics claiming to have known God through visions or other revelations. Many have argued that these mystics suffered from neurological or psychiatric disorders, which may very well be true. Regardless, I for one find inspiration in their experiences and in the wisdom they gained and subsequently shared with others. Mystics continue to inspire and to raise questions as to the cause of their mystical experiences. Were they suffering from the symptoms of mental disorders? Were their visions the result of severe austerities including self-imposed near starvation and sleep deprivation? Or, were their experiences divinely inspired?

As a former psychotherapist and as someone who both identifies with mystics and has struggled with the sometimes exhilarating and sometimes terrifying symptoms of a brain disorder, namely bipolar disorder type II, I believe that mystical experiences can be both divinely inspired and biologically based. God speaks to us, loves us, holds us close to Her/Him/It, in our illness, amid hardship and suffering, as well as in health and joyous celebration. She/He/It is there when we soar high, as well as when we fall.

47 thoughts on “Mystic or Mentally Ill?

  1. ridicuryder August 21, 2016 / 6:57 am

    Hi Kitt,

    I’m with Jim / Shoe1000 above. Medications and therapy are sort of like training wheels at first – not necessarily discarded when you learn to ride the bike…just pivoted back a bit so you can swoop through life’s turns. 😉

    Mark

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley August 21, 2016 / 12:31 pm

      For me, as I have bipolar disorder which is a serious mental illness, I must take medication. How much and what kinds may vary from time to time. Medication is more than training wheels for me. Medication is necessary for maintaining stability. Therapy I do not always need, but I find it helpful. Coping skills, knowing myself, taking care of myself, are a must, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ridicuryder August 21, 2016 / 12:55 pm

        I’m with you in that “let’s be reasonable” way. But spinning with neurodivergent or mystic non-sensibilities has a dynamic where things are both stable and unstable. Managing the wobble by bringing the training wheels down (what I do most of the time) works, but now and then a crash happens – seldom pretty, but the ride was fun…”let’s do it again.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • dbp49 January 30, 2018 / 11:58 am

        I think we, in this age of advanced medical knowledge, as well as knowledge of human biology and chemistry, etc., may sometimes forget that the medicine men, shamans, and the like, which frequented earlier societies, were basically the “scientists, chemists, psychologists, counselors, etc. of those days. While many of their practices may seem primitive to us, and though many of those practices were indeed based on superstitions, and outright nonsense, there were treatments, and even drug use that were well established, and effective for what they were used for. Our modern societies may have greatly refined the use of pharmaceuticals, but we certainly didn’t invent the practice, and if we are to be fair, we should always approach the subject with an open and unbiased mind. As for your “mystical” experiences, I believe that’s a subject which the Western world is just now beginning to rediscover, and possibly you may be one of those somewhat ahead of the general learning curve. (Sorry about the length of this reply Kitt, I just wanted to strive for clarity in the thought I was trying to express.)

        Liked by 2 people

        • Kitt O'Malley January 30, 2018 / 11:00 pm

          Great reply. I agree with your observation about the evolution of medicine. Many “modern” medicines are derived from former herbal or folk cures. Others we are just beginning to understand. Similarly, our understanding of the connection of mind, body, and spirit is evolving. Research has shown us that many treatments we once considered superstitious nonsense actually do heal. Practices such as meditation and prayer heal.

          Liked by 2 people

          • dbp49 January 31, 2018 / 11:27 am

            Exactly, I myself have discovered that quite often the BIGGEST advancement we’ve truly made over the ancient cultures, is our ego. Lol.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Carlene Hill Byron January 1, 2016 / 2:58 pm

    You might like “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzmann, which looks at mysticism through the lens of epilepsy, but still seems relevant to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. pedrol October 8, 2015 / 10:36 am

    I´m very interested to read about it and your experience has very impact when shared. thank you! PedroL

    Liked by 1 person

  4. cd April 22, 2015 / 10:59 am

    Wow. I love this. I’ve often wondered about my own mystic experiences (mostly in my 20s) and the fact I was always drawn to spiritual seeking during long episodes of depression. However, I don’t want to pathologize all my behavior, or see it all thru the lens of BPII. Anyway, sounds like you and I had some crossover. I got my BA at UCB and attended Newman Center mass a few times. I’m pretty much a lapsed catholic who turned to Buddhism and meditation. It’s actually very difficult to sit in silence or meditate when you are sucked into depression. At least that was my experience. I found it very frightening, which was also revealing.
    So glad I found this section of your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley April 22, 2015 / 4:51 pm

      Cool! We may have crossed paths. I graduated from UCB (admittedly HUGE school) as legal studies major undergrad in 1986. Went to grad school in SF at New College of California. Yes, mediation can be scary when you go to dark places and are uncertain whether you will survive it and come back whole or come back at all.

      Like

    • Deon March 29, 2016 / 2:08 pm

      You keep it up now, untdasernd? Really good to know.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. gentlekindness March 3, 2015 / 8:13 pm

    I have had this experience when I am not sure if I am in a manic phase or if I am actually accessing inspiration from the universe or God.

    I have gotten onto zones of flow, where my mind felt like it was in a clarity state and I was able to see solutions to problems that I could not see in any “normal” state.

    Once I was telling my boyfriend that I had the solution to his business problem. I really had clarity of how to save his company from going under. I could see this solution and how to enact it all by myself.

    I was telling him how I had the vision and I was going to manipulate things in the social media world in order to generate positive feedback for his product …at some point as he was listening to me , he said “are you sure this is real and not coming out of some kind of manic state?”

    I blew this off at the time. It was annoying to me but I was so wired that I did not even stop to be offended. This was the first time anyone had brought up the idea of my having bipolar disorder. It took me a while before i ever considered it again.

    But I remember this night and what I saw was so clear to me. I really think that I had a solution to the problem with the bad reviews that night. I had a way to fix it that was clear. Maybe I was in a manic state, probably so.

    But who is to say that in the manic state I am not able to have a clarity of thought that do not usually have. I think it is both. I just wish I could access that at will, rather than it being beyond my control about what state I am in.

    Hugs
    Annie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley March 3, 2015 / 8:52 pm

      There is always that debate. Hard to discern the difference. Good to have others around to “ground” you, for reality testing, to observe behavior of which we may not be aware.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gentlekindness March 3, 2015 / 9:05 pm

        I guess so. I really did not see anything unusual about my behavior that night. I thought he should be very happy and impressed with the fact that I had found the solution to the huge problem he was having.
        But rather than responding to the things I was explaining to him, he commented on my behavior. I thought that was odd, at the time. I was like “But aren’t you listening? I have the answers!! ”

        I guess it is kind of funny now, to see it from his point of view. He said it took him 3 or 4 tries and 15 minutes to be able to break into my incessant talking to get out what he said.

        Thank you for your response,
        Annie

        Liked by 1 person

  6. PaulaB January 30, 2015 / 7:34 am

    I think you are dead on the money Kitt. After a very close friend was diagnosed as Bi-Polar, I did lots of research on it…but kept returning to this idea of mysticism. Wondering about the nature of mental illness, and not completely accepting it as a flaw of some sort.

    Too often our modern society ignores this idea, but tribal peoples did not. Many Shamans in our world would be locked up. Its a fine line to be sure though.

    My friend was also diagnosed as Schizoaffective…so his episodes were full of all sorts of strange and abstracted imaginings he’d gleaned from who knows where. I always wondered if maybe within that stream of gibberish there were some kernals of something more he had somehow unknowingly tapped into. You know what they say about seeing the face of god.

    And thank you again for your kind words on my blog. Look forward to perusing here more .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Kitt O'Malley January 30, 2015 / 7:59 am

      I seek treatment for my illness, while still respecting the meaning I derive from my symptoms.

      Liked by 2 people

      • beckypourchot February 8, 2015 / 11:18 am

        Kitt, this is fantastic. You’re saying something here that I have said for years, but haven’t heard anyone else talk about on a personal level before. In the past, every time I started feeling God, I medicated. Though that is what I needed to do at the time, I now see that I can have both. I can walk the line, taking just enough medication to stil feel that mystic connection. I have had to learn to listen to myself ..there’s an art to this balance. Sometimes things go too far and there’s too much noise in my head. These are the times I realize, I must adjust my behaviors or my meds. Its a delicate balance for sure. Anyway, thank you for your words!!!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Kitt O'Malley February 8, 2015 / 1:47 pm

          Honestly, I am well-medicated, so I do not experience mystical symptoms anymore. But since I’ve left the hospital ten years ago, twice I went to seminary. So, something still nags at me. I know that I have a purpose, a vocation, but I try to maintain stability, to not walk too fine a line.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. shoe1000 January 27, 2015 / 6:22 pm

    Brilliant Kitt!
    Campbell said, ““The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.” It is interesting and I am learning that the event is as much defined by how I see it as any other criteria.
    Warmly
    Jim

    Liked by 4 people

    • Kitt O'Malley January 27, 2015 / 8:04 pm

      How we frame our experience is key. We can salvage and reframe what could be a devastating experience into a meaningful one or a transformational one. Still, it is important that we take proper care of ourselves, of our bodies, of our brains, of our biochemistry.

      Liked by 2 people

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