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Posts Tagged ‘mental illness’

Last year I wrote this piece on what it’s like being a Pagan with mental illness.

Just ran across this vlog from Thorn where she tackles it in video form, and I thought it was good, especially the pseudo-victim-blamey “Oh if only you were closer to nature/drank this tea/balanced your chakras you wouldn’t be depressed” bullshit that seems to get tossed around a lot.

Though old, this piece on WitchVox pretty neatly writes out exactly what the stigma is against mental illness in the pagan community – especially among covens and BTW groups. (Specifically this line, quoting from a coven’s guidelines for seekers: “if you cannot function as a fully responsible adult individual in the mundane reality then you cannot function effectively in the magical/mystical realities and should not even attempt to do so until you have all your oars in the water and they are working all in proper tandem” which was pretty much exactly what I was told in the phone call where I split off from the group I was in outer court with.)

Rant pants on: I dunno what qualifies as “fully responsible adult individual”. Would it be better if I went off the medications and stopped doing the therapy that has kept me from having a major mood episode in almost a year? Do I need to show you my credit rating and my pay stubs to prove that I have a good job and pay my bills on time? What exactly is a “fully responsible adult individual” if it’s not someone who takes care of their shit (mental, physical, or otherwise) to the best of their abilities?

Full honesty here – I miss my witchy people. I love ADF, and I love the study I’m doing and the group I lead, but it’s tiring being in charge when I’ve only been doing this 4 years this month. Sure that’s nothing to sneeze at, but I’m only getting the training I do myself, and there’s not a whole lot of mentorship that goes on, especially on the spiritual side. And I know I’m building a good group, and we’re working on having more spiritual and less scholarly experiences, but I’ve still yet to experience anything that quite matches a group of skilled Witches in a circle. Druids rarely seem to be “up to something” quite the same way that Witches tend to get “up to something”.

For some reason, it’s just hard to move on from that. I’ve gone through a period of intense change in the last few months (up to and including getting a new job), which has put my ADF studies on hold, and still I go back to the 18 or so months that I spent in Outer Court and wonder what life would be like without the bipolar label.

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“Cat hoovering (also Cat vacuuming) – 1. any excuse to avoid writing, even vacuuming the cat (Gerri); 2. A pointless exercise used to avoid real work. (HughSider)”

I was reading this article by John Beckett (if you don’t read his blog, you should) on what priests are and aren’t. He said the following:

A priest serves as an exemplar.  He should model the behaviors and lifestyles he advocates.  He is human and will not be perfect in any of this, but he should strive to live a life in alignment with his highest values and in the spirit of the Gods and Goddesses he serves.  Or, to borrow a phrase from my Baptist childhood:  “practice what you preach.”

A priest will be a counselor.  Show a little competency in leadership and begin exemplifying the Divine to any extent and people will begin telling you more than you want to know about themselves.  One of the most valuable services a priest can provide is simply to listen and be an unanxious presence.

While a proper mixture of divination, prayer, ritual, and counseling can be helpful, a priest can’t solve people’s problems for them.  What he can do is to be with them and support them until they can solve their problems themselves.  A priest must also recognize the limits of his expertise – is what you’re hearing a spiritual problem or is it mental illness?  A priest must know when to say “I can’t help you – you need to see a mental health professional.”

A priest serves as an organizer.  He should make sure the trains run on time:  rituals are performed, offerings are made, classes are held, this-world actions are taken.  A priest doesn’t have to do all that himself (nor should he, in most cases), but he should make sure his religious community does the things it needs to do.  People can – and should, and at least occasionally – be allowed to fail.  Communities can never be allowed to fail.

Now, to start all this off – IANAP. I am not a priest. (or a priestess.) I am a Druid, and an ADF dedicant, and a student working towards Initiation. After which I intend to do at least the first circle of clergy training, so someday I will (maybe) be a priest.

However, I’m doing a lot of things that are similar to the work of priests right now (as would anyone who is in a position of leadership in a pagan group), and gradually getting more and more familiar with that role. But it’s a hard one, and one that I contemplate a lot. I don’t know if I have the personality or the credentials to do this “right.”

And I’d be lying if I said that my mental illness didn’t sometimes factor into my worries about my future in ADF. There’s a reason I started with the IP – Initiates are called to individual service, where Priests are called to community service. Individual service lets me set more boundaries to my own availability and time.

Plus? I’m a human being. I screw up. I get frustrated and say angry things that I don’t mean, or use a tone of voice that makes people feel defensive and hurt. I’ve only been working in an ADF community role for about 9 months, and I’ve already done that at least once that I am aware of. I haven’t had the chance to make amends about it either. (Having done so makes me feel doubly unqualified to do this work.)

I know this is what the virtues are for. They are guides, things to strive for, things to judge my actions against. Have I been a good host? Have I been a person of integrity? Have I shown wisdom? What is my vision? I know I did a bunch of essays on this in my dedicant work, but somehow I still feel like I’m redefining and reimagining those things in my life. As a solitary, the virtues were very personal, and were thus much easier to write about. In a position of leadership (even of a small group), the virtues get stickier. How do I maintain my focus and still be open to others? How do I maintain the traditions of the group but allow for change and growth? How do I respect that my local group has been around for 10 years (but not had much/any growth) but still convince them that growth is possible?

Yngvi would say (and has said) “We do the best we can with what we have, and the rest will follow.” And he’s right, but there’s a lot of in between to that kind of thing. Plus it’s getting hard to juggle supporting the protogrove, planning lessons for the study group (which includes dedicant mentoring), my increasingly complex daily practice, and my own studies on the IP. I’ve completed two courses, and I’m tackling the journaling portions of Liturgy Practicum and Divination II right now, plus the reading for I-E Studies (which will probably be my next submission). Things have changed rapidly from my writing some essays over a year into Druidry taking up a big chunk of my life – which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s something to think about. (And maybe think about ways to maintain my identity as a person who is more than just a Druid.)

I’m probably thinking too hard about this, but it feels like I’ve gone from being someone who can do as she pleases with very little or no ramifications to anyone else to someone who is now *responsible* for stuff. And I dunno if I always like that feeling. But then, I also know I get a lot of fulfillment out of the work I do for the study group and the protogrove, so perhaps it’s a trade off. It’s one I think I’m glad I’ve made, but sometimes it’d be nice to not have to think deeply about every action, and just fly by the seat of my pants for a bit.

Lots of thoughts, not all of them productive, I’m sure.

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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.

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Last year, around mid-October, I decided to do something different with my spiritual life. I was struggling where I was, six or so months after having left/been asked to leave (it’s complicated) a BTW coven where I had been an apprentice for close to 2 years. In my mind, I was preparing for initiation. Apparently that wasn’t how things were supposed to work out, and in the intervening time my HPS has made it clear that she doesn’t think people with my particular brand of mental illness (Bipolar/Anxiety/PTSD) are cut out for Witchcraft in general. Regardless of how I feel about this, it’s not likely to change her mind, and I found myself mired down in trying to sort out what I wanted from my spirituality and struggling with the transition from group-focused work back to only doing solitary work.

So I decided to try something new.

After doing a lot of reading on the ADF website, I jumped in with both feet, submitted my membership, and started on the Dedicant Path. I set myself the goal of completing it in a year – to do a “year and a day” with ADF – something I’d already been doing with my previous path. I didn’t know what I really wanted out of ADF, more than just to explore a new type of Neopagan spirituality and see if, as the song says, a change would do me good.

Over the last 11 months, I’ve worked my way through the DP, guided loosely by Rev. Dangler’s Dedicant Path through the Wheel of the Year book (which I highly recommend). Some of the work was decidedly remedial – I’ve been a practicing Neopagan for awhile, so writing about what the High Days in the wheel of the year were celebrating was a homework assignment and not particularly spiritually nourishing. Still, even those assignments got me to put my thoughts out in text, and sometimes challenged me to learn new things (especially as I started exploring the Northern Traditions/Norse Hearth). I was an established meditator, so that requirement mainly was about documentation, but again I used it to challenge what I had been doing and build new spiritual practices that could sustain me going forward, particularly the mental grove exercises.

What I liked about this work, especially with the guidance of the WOTY book, was how it paced me well over the course of a year. Yes, I finished a little early, but I didn’t get burned out after trying to finish all of the assignments in the first week. Slow growth is hard for me; I tend to get excited and try to do ALL THE THINGS. Because I paced myself, I think I got more out of it – I truly spent a year thinking and working on Druidry, with the end result being that I’m fairly comfortable in this system of practice now.

I also learned that I don’t have it in me to be a reconstructionist. While I like history, and definitely enjoy original texts and learning from original sources (or translated original sources), I have no desire to try to recreate accurately a historical Paganism. I am a modern Neopagan, and my practice reflects that. I use ADF-style rituals with no hesitation, even though I know aspects of those rituals aren’t found in the historical Northern Traditions. I combine aspects of the various Germanic Paganisms, knowing that they are related enough to work well in ritual together – my work with the Disir/Matronae isn’t documented directly in Anglo-Saxon Britain (Nor are the Gods Njord and Nerthus) but I haven’t found any trouble working with those elements, even in the same ritual, because they come from closely related cultures. Overall I find academic study interesting and often enlightening, but I don’t want to make it the focus of my Druidry – I am, and always will be, a modern Pagan.

I’ve developed (and am continuing to work on) relationships with a variety of different Spirits, from my Prairie Godmothers (and other Disir/Matronae) to Ing Frey and the other Vanir. As well, I am cultivating a deeper relationship with the land spirits and house spirits that I share my day to day life with. This isn’t new work, but these are mostly new entities for me to build relationships with. This isn’t something that comes particularly easily to me, so I’ve had to really work at this aspect of the Dedicant Path and my Druidry. I’ve found it rewarding, and feel much closer to my various Ancestors as a result. My work with Ing Frey was strongest earlier in the year, but I’m working on restoring that and making it stronger. I had some pretty significant mental roadblocks to working with Him, but He seems willing to be patient with me as I work through them. (Many thanks to Beth for a really enlightening rune reading to help with this.)

I’m also developing a new community of Pagans online, through the various ADF lists, twitter, and (ugh) Facebook. While it makes me very nervous to be involved with Facebook, it seems like a lot of the community is active there, so I’m willing to take a risk. (I don’t like the idea of someone snooping through my Facebook groups and asking me questions about my religion, but I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping my privacy settings extremely strong so far. I need to go through and make sure that’s still up to date though.)

As well, I’m developing a community offline – there is a local Protogrove, and though my original efforts to contact them were fruitless, I’m told there are others who are actively trying to build the community here, so I am looking to find them and see if I can get involved. The Protogrove is Celtic, but I don’t think they’d mind an Anglo-Saxon Druid so much (and I don’t mind Celtic rituals either). I also have friends (online and off) who are beginning their Dedicant Path studies, or thinking of doing so, and I look forward to working with them as they worked with me as I did this program.

Is ADF what I thought it would be? Yes and no. As a solitary, ADF is largely what I make of it, and so I’ve been able to shape the materials into something that works for me. But it’s not the same as working in a close knit tradition either – which is fine, but I definitely miss that aspect of my previous work. It has what is, for me, a good balance of innovation and study, which helps me fine tune my practice. The overtly public nature of ADF makes me a little nervous, but I am not required to publicly do anything, so I can live with other people’s openness. I definitely don’t feel like I’m “done” in ADF – there is more here for me to do, and the last year is only the first step on that path. Whether that means I’m here “for good” or just “for now” I don’t know, but I feel that I’m being guided to go deeper into this tradition. I don’t know what my “place” will be – as a solitary, or as part of the community, or both – but I feel like it is possible for me to make a place for myself in this spiritual community.

Along those lines, I am going to be working on the Initiates Path as my next step in ADF. I do not have a desire to pursue the Clergy Training Program at this time, nor do I have a working community where I could complete that work, but the Initiates Path seems to be the logical next step for me.  I am not giving myself a timeline to do this program, because I don’t yet know how I will take to it. It is both more mystical and more scholarly than the DP. I am thinking of starting with Divination I, because I have been seeking to deepen my relationship with the runes I use in ritual. I am encouraged by the idea of adding a relationship to the Elder Wise to my practice, and of serving the ADF community.

I still miss the group I worked with before joining ADF – it’s possible I will always miss them. Maybe in the future I will be able to go back to that path, though it might have to be with a different group, as while it’s possible I don’t truly have Bipolar (just something that looks/acts like it due to other issues), I will probably always have some elements of Anxiety and PTSD to deal with. For now, I am trying to be content with my new experiences and community and not compare them to things I’ve done in the past. I am striving to excel at Druidry – both as a way to grow my personal spirituality and service to the Gods and Spirits, as well as serving the folk within a greater community.

I can only hope that, through my continued practice and studies, I will continue to grow spiritually and mentally, and develop better and deeper relationships to my Gods and Spirits. In the end, that’s the most important part, right?

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