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. stoner on a rollercoaster June 27, 2018 / 4:32 am

    when my dad went manic for the first time recently he was suddenly becoming extremely religious, which he wasn’t all his life.
    after he was back to senses after like 15 to 20 days doctor asked him in therapy what happened and he said he found peace in praying and reached a point where he got in direct contact with God. but he realizes he was delusion and it wasn’t true as he was told by God that mom is going to return in a few days (we lost mom to cancer last year)

    the problem here is in our society literacy rate is low and stupidity rate is extremely high. if we tell this to anyone they will start treating dad like he ha some superpowers. education saved the day here.

    we are muslims. we believe God is everywhere and he sees us and knows us. you can talk to anytime you want. but if we tell people what happened with dad they will go badly astray and completely shun the concept of mental illness.

    thanks for sharing your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley June 27, 2018 / 9:45 am

      I hope that your father is stable now under the care of his doctor.

      So important that we promote mental health education globally. Thank you.

      Yes, God/Allah is everywhere. I admire the Muslim practice of praying five times a day.

      Peace be upon you and Allah’s mercy and blessings.
      Assalamu Alaikom warahmatu Allahi wa barakatuhu.
      السلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته

      Liked by 1 person

      • stoner on a rollercoaster June 28, 2018 / 11:31 am

        doctors are still working on his medication and he is in therapy.
        it is very crucial and the need of time.

        I am glad you do acceptance and appreciation helps us co-exist. I hope worlds learn that soon.

        Wa Alaikum As Salaam.

        this was absolutely heart-warming gesture. Thank you so much 🙂🌺

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kitt O'Malley June 28, 2018 / 2:28 pm

          I lived in Saudi Arabia for five years when I was two to seven. Although I don’t recall Arabic, my father always used Arabic greetings. My parents taught us to respect all the world’s religions. God loves us all. God truly is great.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. foralllove March 13, 2018 / 6:04 am

    I too have a mental health/psychiatric diagnosis. It has been suggested, because I am deeply spiritual/religious and am quite intelligent/scholarly, that I pursue a calling into Holy Orders (Episcopal). But there is this mental illness thing…

    The question I struggle with is the belief that God may be calling me to a deeper experience necessarily mean I’m crazy? I know many “rational” atheists would say so.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley March 15, 2018 / 1:52 am

      Mental illness makes the process of discernment more challenging. That’s where spiritual direction helps. I’ve received spiritual direction in both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches and later attended, but didn’t complete Fuller Theological Seminary (non-denominational Christian).

      Should you pursue a calling into Holy Orders, the process itself would help you better discern God’s call to you. God bless you. I hold you in my prayers.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. steven1111 January 29, 2018 / 5:42 pm

    I’ve experienced mystic and/or delusional states for most of my life. I’ve seriously explored whether it was manic or magic. Just one letter and a world of thought different. I still don’t know which, if either, or both is correct. I suspect both. I think that the most important thing to do is to stay engaged with our own process and know that we are all parts of one entity of life. I don’t call it god, it’s too loaded with bad connotations for me, but I still revere the concepts of awareness it entails. What I think is that it’s all about connecting to a sense of unity. I’m a pagan and I do it thru Nature. That works for me. There are so many ways to find peace and tranquility and oneness, even in being Bipolar 1. Good article with excellent thinking and conclusions. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley January 30, 2018 / 10:32 pm

      Agree that we can be both manic and mystic. Important to both care for the physical (for me that means treating my brain with medication and therapy) and to care for the spiritual, recognizing that sense of unity with Nature. I’m not married to any one theology, because I, too, sense that unity.


  4. The Colour Of Madness July 5, 2017 / 8:50 pm

    Great post! Its an interesting topic, despite not being raised in a religion nor practicing one as an adult I have a tendency towards spiritualism when I am euphorically manic, its as though I can feel the whole flow of the universe inside me and I AM part of ‘God’. I will also connect everything I see (ie number plates of cars in front of me seem to have hidden meanings).
    I had many ‘psychic’ visions through my life – hindsight tells me I was manic during 99% of these – and my mother who has found spiritualism in her later life encourages this ‘psychic ability’ whole heartedly and also discourages the use of anti-psychotics which have always stopped these sensations.
    I appreciate her view point, however she doesn’t seem to realize that this fuels my mania and I am not psychic, I am actually unwell and need help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley July 8, 2017 / 12:00 pm

      Good thing you understand that your mother’s advice is dangerous for your health. Difficult to discern when in the midst of mania.


  5. thebipolarswing June 1, 2017 / 9:36 am

    I can relate to feeling at one with the universe, or God as you put it. It’s an incredible high feeling. People pay money to achieve it with drugs while we are sometimes blessed or cursed (depending on your perception) with. Great read. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mark Lanesbury November 1, 2016 / 2:52 pm

    Well written Kitt, it is in understanding ourselves that we are set free 🙂
    Plus, my journey has been opened to a ‘knowing’ that comes through. I have had similar experiences as you, to reach where I am now at and I’m not suffering from any mental illness ( I think 🙂 ), but then, are we all suffering mental illness quite simply because of the journey we are all now taking…to be inspired within the journey to finally find that gentle, calm, loving place when we reach that place within.
    To be honest, I will take mental illness any day, if it means through it I can truly find that unconditional love within 😀
    A great post and a great share, thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kitt O'Malley November 2, 2016 / 12:03 pm

      Not so sure you would take severe mental illness that involves great pain, as does bipolar disorder, severe depression, debilitating anxiety, or schizophrenia. I’ve experienced both, and have chosen stability.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Mark Lanesbury November 2, 2016 / 1:24 pm

        Actually, my comment was a very poor choice, and in saying it I belittled your journey.
        I most certainly do not have any idea of what you have endured, and in the instances that I have come face to face with mental illness in my healing, I can only ‘feel’ the pain and torture that they are going through.
        That is still not experiencing it in any way, so my comment was a bad reference, and in that I unreservedly apologise Kitt.
        And I could imagine that stability would most certainly be the life of choice after experiencing what you have.
        Blessings on your journey, and I am glad that you have found that stability within yourself, it would have been a ‘dark night of the soul’ to go through, and at the least I hope it has given you a sense of who you now are.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kitt O'Malley November 2, 2016 / 4:12 pm

          I wasn’t offended. Just wanted to clarify why I choose treatment. Not everyone does. I have an obligation to myself, my family, and society to maintain my own mental health. We affect one another. I want to be the best mother, wife, person that I can be.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Mark Lanesbury November 3, 2016 / 4:02 am

            And doing so with great courage Kitt, those choices can only be made by you, and with a great awareness of who you are within to take those steps. That in itself takes great strength 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Annah Elizabeth October 9, 2016 / 12:11 pm

    Dearest Neighbor Kitt,

    THIS: “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.”

    As someone who struggled for years with severe depression, I relate to your vigilance in knowing your body and recognizing those signs that indicate you might need a little extra outside help and I applaud your courage and willingness to reach out to others who can help. I live this, always aware to the fact that the depression may return and striving to understand if the lower vibrations I might be experiencing are, indeed, returned depression or an element of situational grief.

    You are an amazing inspiration, Kitt…and then I come to this page today,where I discover how you came to embrace both the Spiritual and Scientific, Academic and Alternative sides to this life. Thank you for your sharing your journeys, for the world is a brighter and more beautiful place with you in it.

    Yours in hope, healing, and happiness,

    Liked by 1 person

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