Tough Grace: mental illness as a spiritual path

IMG_0307I found my own feminine ground in the course of dealing with the ravages of manic depression. For 12 years I suffered intensely, including spending some time living on the streets—not because I didn’t have assets but because I got separated from them in my delusional times or was too paranoid to tap them. Since 2006 I have been in recovery although it has taken me these 10 years to fully rebuild my life.

Jungian analyst Marion Woodman suggests that women who achieve fully developed consciousness often incur illness as part of the challenge. To do so is what forces us to dig deep to profound inner strength. Shamans also do this. They are required to heal themselves. They experience near-deaths and extraordinary events. Psychiatric androgyny is common to Shamanism world-wide. They are capable of mediating between worlds. Their initiation illness is a call to a life of both privilege and danger. If they survive the challenge, they bring back gifts from having gone beyond the established limits of society. I believe manic depression (otherwise called bipolar mood disorder) involves these challenges, but it will not fulfill the promise if the traditional medical model prevails.

I brought back from the depths of my madness a revolutionary way to see mental illness— as a spiritual path worthy of the highest esteem and honor versus being seen as damaged goods. To undergo this pilgrimage is to undertake the hero’s journey of separation, initiation and return as defined by Joseph Campbell. It is a path of trials and tribulations all along the way. I have published a book about this journey (see below for details), and I am a frequent public speaker on the topic. The book’s contents also serve as the basis for a therapy group I co-facilitate at a VA Mental Health Clinic.

The symptoms of manic depression and other mental illnesses need to be seen in the context of an age when we are seeing many more modern day mystics than ever before, trying to function beyond the support of cloister and community. The path is a demanding one, a more realistic version of true spirituality than the usual conception that spirituality is a pleasant, almost romantic route to enlightenment. In contrast, it requires perseverance, courage, endurance, hardship, faith, testing and trials. The rewards for staying the course, however, are immense, including depth of self-knowledge, closeness with spirit and peace of mind that are a privilege.

I see the present and coming times as something I call “The Humanarchy,” a time of feminine-masculine balance and the opportunity to know and practice love at last. The time has come to heed society’s breakdown warnings and cries for rebirth. The time has come for transforming our collective madness into a new order for the ages.

Alice Holstein, Ed.D., is an ex-organization development consultant and college instructor who now speaks, writes and consults about mental illness as a spiritual path after having survived years in a wilderness experience that has birthed spiritual depth and wisdom. She is the author of TOUGH GRACE: MENTAL ILLNESS AS A SPIRITUAL PATH. (Chipmunka Publishing, 2011). Click here for her website.

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