I’ve mentioned before that I have some mental health issues. This occasionally intersects with my paganism, but not usually in ways that anyone would notice who didn’t already know I have these issues.
My official diagnosis is GAD, PTSD, and rapid-cycling Bipolar II. Before you decide what that means, let me explain what it means in my case. I suffer from frequent anxiety that is not directed at a source – this can be social, environmental, or just there because it feels like being there. I am fairly easily overwhelmed. I survived several traumatic events and have anxiety and depression related to those events, or things that remind me of those events, and of the three diagnoses a flare up of this is by far the most disruptive. And I have periods of hypomania that last 2-5 days (essentially “high energy” – I’m not delusional, psychotic, or out of touch with reality, but I don’t sleep much, and I might reorganize the filing cabinet 3 times in 3 days, or go on a cleaning binge, or do a ton of writing), followed by 3-4 weeks of moderate to severe depression. Because I have more than three episodes like this a year (in 2013 I had 5), I am classified as “rapid cycling”, and because I don’t have true mania, but experience hypomania, I am dealing with some type of Bipolar II. (Read the Wikipedia links for more info.)
I am under the care of two competent medical professionals to deal with this (just as I am under the care of a competent medical professional to manage my EDS). I take medicine to help regulate my neurochemicals, and I do behavioral and situational management to minimize the likelihood of triggering an episode of any of these. It took awhile to straighten out exactly what was going on (I was in a prolonged state of severe depression when I started this journey), but we’re on the right track now, and just tweaking as we go – for the most part, both I and my doctors are happy with my mental state right now.
Unfortunately, my diagnosis did not make me any friends in my previous attempt at paganism. My former HPS has written that people with bipolar should probably not be witches, because they have enough trouble differentiating reality. Personally, I think that’s more than a little unfair, given that there’s an entire bipolar diagnosis that doesn’t include true mania or psychosis, but she’s allowed to run her coven however she would like, and I understand that there can be a lot of fear and stigma about mental health in communities that practice alternative spirituality, trance, and energy work. (Also particularly in the BTW community, where a bipolar person caused a lot of harm several years ago, so they are understandably wary of anyone wearing that label.) That said, I think I have the capacity to be a pretty good witch when I put my mind to it – something I have been doing more often on my own of late.
One thing that was troubling for awhile was dealing with what seemed to be energy feedback/rebounds after doing ritual though. It worried me because I really LIKE doing group rituals, and didn’t want my brain to get in the way of that.
However, I have figured out where my energy work was causing problems, over the last year or so, and have fortunately been able to entirely resolve it – I don’t have any energy issues with group ritual anymore. Basically, I was dealing with high social anxiety and large amounts of highly concentrated energy without the self-care to know I needed more time than most to ‘come down’ off the spiritual high, or risk kicking myself into depression for a week or two. Now that I’ve figured out what I need to do – manage my anxiety through various behavioral practices, give myself a few minutes alone after a ritual to make sure I ground REALLY well (which I can struggle to do in social situations), and make sure I have some down time before putting myself in another stressful situation – I’ve stopped having mental rebound issues after rituals. I realized this was probably mental health related when I was having trouble in group ritual, but not in ritual by myself. Also, since figuring this out, I have not only participated in, but led several group rituals that had high energy components without issue.
ADF thankfully has no issue with mental illness, but occasionally I struggle with common things asked of members of ADF – especially trance states. I am not the only person to struggle with this, though, and I know I can learn to do it, given time and practice. I have gotten much better at meditation since working with ADF, so I know it’s possible (even on medications!) and even likely that I will be successful at working in trance states. I’ve learned so far that having some kind of audio – drumming or “white noise” – dramatically helps with my ability to focus and zone out enough to approach a trance journey. Also that laying flat on my back is more useful than sitting cross legged or in a chair. It’s just a matter of figuring out and training my particular brain – chemicals and all.
All that said, I am not defined by the classifications in my doctor’s chart, or by the medications I take. I am still a highly functional person with a lot of motivation, a good job, a supportive family, a stable relationship, and generally a stable life and lifestyle. I occasionally bite off more than I can chew, but I manage that like anyone else would. When I go through periods of depression, I hunker down, turn up the self-care, and deal with it until it goes away. (Therapy is helpful for this.) It doesn’t define my life, it’s merely one aspect of who I am as a person – and thus is something that will always be part of my Paganism. For the most part, I am as normal a Pagan as any of us are.
I’m sharing this largely as a statement to say that mental illness and mystical experiences are not mutually exclusive. Yes, it’s hard in the midst of a depressive episode to feel really connected to your Gods, but it is possible, and often helpful, to maintain a devotional practice even through those depressions. I use the meditation techniques I’ve learned both as spiritual exercises and as ways of managing anxiety. I rely on routines to help me get through tough times, and those routines often have a spiritual component to them.
It’s all interconnected, and it can all work.
Stigma against mental illness is a very real thing, even in the Pagan community. I’ve debated about posting about this for awhile, because I don’t want it to blow back on me later. But I think it’s important for people with mental illness who can afford to be open about it to do so where they feel safe. (I don’t share this at work, for example, because I don’t want to risk the repercussions of it.) We are members of your community – huge numbers of people suffer from depression and anxiety – and I’d venture to guess we’re a larger part of the Pagan community than most people guess. (Often people with mental illnesses leave mainstream social and religious groups because they don’t get the care and support they need.)
ADF does a good job of being open to people with mental illnesses, as much as a small religious organization can. I imagine there is a lot more support in areas where there are active groves. So far it hasn’t hindered me in my studies there (or even come up, except when I have mentioned it as something that is affecting my work). I hope I can continue in that trend as I lead my study group and work towards the Initiate’s Path.