Spirit Work & Mental Illness

21 Oct

Alternate title: Quit romanticizing my illness.
Alternate title #2: Quit demonizing my treatment.

Every so often I will see little flare-ups in the pagan community that center on two fairly unrelated topics: spirit work and mental illness. Don’t get me wrong, these topics can be related, but they aren’t necessarily related, though many people try to make them out to be. I’m sure many of you have seen articles like this and this that go on and on about how we’re killing our spirit workers because they have mental illness and are not handling it “properly”. And if we’d only just learn how to “properly” handle these “gifts” that we’ve been bestowed, we’d suddenly find that our problems would poof out of existence.

Being a spirit worker myself, I read these posts and feel my jaw clench shut as I find rage welling up in my stomach. These posts are so damaging on so many levels, to both spirit workers and the mentally ill (as well as mentally ill spirit workers), and it really bugs me that so many people don’t see what is wrong withposts like this. There are so many flaws with these kinds of posts that it’s almost impossible to know where to start when critiquing them. But here are a few of the main problems that come to mind whenever this sort of stuff shows up on my FB wall or dash:

Your illness is really a gift from the divine!

One of the first issues that I see popping up with these kinds of articles is the idea that  your mental illness is not actually an illness or a problem, but is really a gift from the gods. And if you’d just learn to accept that, you’d feel all sorts of better! This is also sometimes presented as “if only our society would see the inherent worth and value of your mental illness, you would feel all sorts of better”.

The truth of the matter is, most of the spirit workers I’ve met who are also mentally ill don’t feel like their mental illness is “divine”. I’m here to tell you that I don’t perform as well as a spirit worker when my mental illnesses are flaring up and ruining my life, and it seems like many people feel the same way. Even if society were to somehow make it a-okay to be depressed and anxious all of the time, I would still feel pretty miserable regularly, and wouldn’t be able to operate at maximum capacity.

Mental illness is an energy suck. It sucks the life out of you and leaves you feeling drained, tired, and miserable (most of the time). I can’t imagine how anyone would find this to be divine in nature. Quite honestly, I would expect being tired, drained and miserable would be the opposite of being divine. And no amount of outside support is going to change that my illnesses leave me feeling like crap on the regular. You can’t sunshine and rainbows away mental illness. You simply can’t. And implying that this is a gift is like spitting in the face of every person who has to work really hard to function despite their mental illness/es. Implying that someone with mental health issues doesn’t really know what their illness “actually” is is also ableist. Of course, if you are mentally ill and wish to make it a part of your spirituality, or find that it is a source of power for your spirit work, that’s fine. But it’s one thing to believe that your particular mental illness is a strength for you, and quite another to imply that everyone else who is mentally ill should operate the same way.

I’ve also never understood why so many people believe that mental illness always makes you a spirit worker. I have been depressed and anxious for as long as I can remember, but spirit work wasn’t really a part of my life until I was in my mid-to-late 20’s. And truth be told, my mental illness didn’t really play a role in my becoming a spirit worker (and based off of what I’ve read, mental illness was not a common indicator of spirit work in some cultures in the past- physical health was another story, though). If anything, my mental illness often gets in the way of doing what I need to do Over There, and there are many times when I get really frustrated with the constant interruptions that crop up from my brain deciding that it needs to tank my mood right when important work needs to get done.

There are many mentally ill people who are not spirit workers, and who don’t want to be spirit workers. Conversely, I’ve met plenty of non-mentally ill spirit workers. I’m not sure where this idea originally came from, but it’s an idea that needs to stop propagating. You can be mentally ill and a spirit worker, you can be a spirit worker who isn’t mentally ill, and you can be mentally ill and not a spirit worker. None of these things is necessarily related.

Medication is bad, m’kay?

The other factor that I see constantly brought up in these articles is the idea that if you’re using western medicine in any capacity, you’re drugging your abilities away, or ruining the gift that you’ve supposedly been given.

For anyone that has been following me for any amount of time, you know that I have worked on finding ways to medicate myself, and that I’ve had a fair amount of success with it so far. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to go back to pre-medication me. Medication can take all sorts of forms, and since mental illness can’t really be cured, we really have no place to judge what works or doesn’t work for another. So long as you’re being responsible and healthy about your medication choices, that’s really all that matters. The idea that medication is somehow going to ruin you is so damaging, and prevents people from seeking out treatment. It causes people to be miserable because they fear seeking treatment, or they feel like treatment makes them weak as a person.

Everyone really needs to stop implying that medication is inherently bad (you are treating an illness, after all. And if you’d take medicine for a physical illness, you shouldn’t be chastising someone for taking medication for a mental illness). There are so many people I have met (spirit workers and non-spirit workers alike) who have become better and more stable because of their treatments. I have met spirit workers who feel like their medication makes them better spirit workers. Because, wow, you can actually get more work done when your brain isn’t working against you.

Discernment? What discernment?!

Something else I’ve noticed when these kinds of posts are trawled out is that discernment seems to go down the tubes. In many ways, people seem to believe that if you happen to “see” something that “isn’t there”, then it must be a spiritual experience, and can never be a symptom mental illness.

The truth is that many spirit workers who have mental illness will tell you that there is a definite difference between the symptoms of their illness, and what they experience as a spirit worker. I have met people who have told me that their hallucinations have a very different look and feel in comparison to their astral visions and travels. I’ve met others who tell me that the non-existent things that they hear sound different than when a spirit is talking to them. I’ve met others who tell me that their medication has shifted their experiences (sometimes good, sometimes bad) and that once they took a closer look at their experiences, they could tell what was more induced via medication, and what was genuine.

However, when these posts start throwing the baby out with the bath water, and assume that all visions are the same- regardless of your “gift” of a mental illness, then we stop focusing on discernment and learning how mental illness and spirit work actually play together. Because they can play together, and there are distinct differences between the two for most of us who live with both. When discernment goes out the window, you’re creating a recipe for disaster, because discernment is key to staying safe while working with not only the Unseen, but within our community itself.

Why I consider this to be dangerous.

I personally believe that these sorts of ideas are not only incorrect and damaging, but I personally believe them to be entirely dangerous. They are dangerous because they don’t create an atmosphere where people who are mentally ill can actually seek out treatment that works well for them. The notion that all Western medicine is inherently bad and will completely screw you up often demotivates people to consider all possible treatment methods, and may cause people to skip over a particular treatment type that works for them. It may also be a strong enough argument to convince someone to stop treatment, even if it is working for them. And when people who are mentally ill don’t receive proper treatment, we often run into other problems that causes a decline in our quality of life. Buying into narratives that perpetuate this will cause people to get hurt in very real ways. I have met people who believed that they could spirit work their mental illness away, and let me tell you that the results were often not pretty, and in many ways, produced the exact opposite effect of what they desired.

This is also damaging to the spirit worker community and the wider pagan community as a whole. It causes people to feel inadequate in some ways, and gives people power that they wield poorly in others. The idea that all mentally ill people must be spirit workers creates a rift within the community, as those who are mentally ill, but not spirit workers may feel like they’re doing something wrong. “If all mentally ill people are supposed to be special, but I’m not getting anywhere, then I must be a screw-up, right?”  And if you happen to be a mentally ill spirit worker who is undergoing therapy or treatment, you may suddenly question if you’re also doing it wrong, because apparently these things will prohibit you from being as “good” of a spirit worker as you could be. Not to mention that it makes the spirit workers who are not mentally ill feel ostracized in a community that is already pretty small, niche, and hard to get into.

It sets up this expectation that most people will not meet, and that people shouldn’t have to meet, and yet people continue to push this narrative as if it’s 110% absolute truth. These ideas hurt those who are already vulnerable (mentally ill people) and inadvertently sets them up for a very likely failure. It takes the conversation off of important topics that could actually benefit mentally ill spirit workers (topics such as: how do I tell the difference between a spiritual experience and my mental illness, how do I tell the difference between the astral and a hallucination, how do I work around these crippling symptoms I am experiencing from my illness, how do you manage spirit work and mental illness, etc.) and puts the conversation onto a useless topic of “your medication is bad and everything would get better if you’d just become a spirit worker”.

Yes, it is true that our society doesn’t handle mental illness well. Yes, it is true that we would all benefit from having a society that accepts mental illness and treats it like the illness that it is. But I still don’t believe that spirit work is the cure for all mental illness (quite the opposite, really). I don’t believe that spirit work will make every single mentally ill person feel better (I’m still mentally ill), in the same way that I don’t believe that every mentally ill person is meant to be a spirit worker, or is even necessarily having a spiritual/Unseen experience (many of my symptoms have been exactly that- symptoms, not genuine spiritual experiences). In many ways, mental illness and spiritual experiences can have some overlap, but they aren’t inherently the same thing and it’s better for everyone that this becomes a more recognized and understood thing. I would love to see more discussion on their differences and similarities than the constant “they are all the same” that you seem to get in the posts linked above as it would actually help the mentally ill people that everyone is so intent on discussing.


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12 responses to “Spirit Work & Mental Illness

  1. Shadowed Wolf

    October 21, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    Reblogged this on The Woods of My Heart.

  2. sevenswordsjedi

    October 21, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    I don’t understand why folks can’t see that different approaches work for different people. And yes, I too am one who’s been helped by medication. *sigh*

  3. emergingwitch

    October 21, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    Thank you for this expertly crafted post. My bipolar illness emerged when I was 25 and in the midst of learning about Paganism. It was too confusing and scary to proceed down this path alone…I’m now 37 and on the perfect medicine for my personal composition. I know that for me, having a solid recovery and grounded is essential to a fulfilling and safe practice and life.

    • emergingwitch

      October 21, 2015 at 9:49 pm

      Grounded mind…

  4. ubenmaat

    October 22, 2015 at 8:35 am

    I love how you write, and I still couldn’t finish this one. The argument is so.. so… deeply flawed. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid having it, and I have sympathy for you and others who’ve had to discuss this with the close-minded and uninformed.

  5. Camilla Laurentine

    October 22, 2015 at 8:35 am

    Reblogged this on Foxglove & Firmitas and commented:
    Glad to see someone else talking about this! Also making me feel that my inevitable return to school to become a counselor is needed by people other than me a decade ago.

  6. Ossia Sylva

    October 22, 2015 at 8:47 am

    This is a wonderful post. Actually, in one of my master’s courses in mysticism and women mystics, we brought up the discussion of evidence suggesting that many women who were having intense religious experiences (and who were also very powerful, influential women) were people who had mental issues and diseases.

    I played devil’s advocate and asked why such a suggestion was important. To me, it seems like it’s a subtle way of invalidating someone’s experiences, whether it’s saying “They’re not real” or “They’re SO real!”

    I am also disgusted by how some people treat mental illness in the spirit working community (and, indeed, in any religious/spiritual community). It shows a clear ignorance of mental illness and a clearer ignorance of spirituality itself. It’s funny how people are so ready to set somebody up for failure and, simultaneously, demand service to the community from that same person.

    This post makes me furious. And I’m glad that it does, because that means that I’m learning. Thank you VERY much for sharing this and for making me angry. LOL I am just outraged. I swear, some people think that the world revolves around them and that spiritual knowledge and sharing in the mysteries is a mandatory work…

  7. Amber Drake

    October 23, 2015 at 4:39 am

    Thank you for writing this.
    I have a mental illness and I’m not a spirit worker. I do sometimes have close encounters with deities, but I’m not a spirit worker. My illness would have been so much worse if I didn’t treat it with medication and therapy.

  8. Amber Drake

    October 23, 2015 at 4:40 am

    Reblogged this on Fire and Ink and commented:
    This is an important post! Please read!

  9. Stormwise

    October 23, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    I really enjoyed this article – and I’m about to go back and thank Amber Drake for reblogging this, otherwise it may have taken me longer to see / read it. I would also like to thank you for having handled this subject as well as you did … and apologize in advance for what I can tell already will be a somewhat lengthy comment. I can speak only for myself here, I think spirit workers have as much right to guard and mend the body and mind as anyone else does. Whether mental illness ‘enhances’ spirit work, or detracts from it – or what effects various forms of treatment may or may have – is the business of the person who is contending with spirit work while being mentally ill. As a community, we have no right to try to impose our own notions (and they are just notions) upon other people, by telling them how they should view their own illness, let alone how they should manage it. As a community, we are supposed to accept and support one another – to me, this seems more like acknowledging someone’s stated illness, accepting their chosen method of experiencing their life (illness and spirit work included), and if anything further simply asking what we might be able to do to help make the way they’ve chosen easier for them. This happens, and it is great; but often enough, something else happens.

    When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder about a decade ago, I received sincere support from some of the readers of the blog I wrote at the time. I also received E-mails from well-intentioned people, telling me to stay strong, resist the temptation to let myself get put on vile medications, and that I should consider that bipolar disorder was really a gift from Odin. When I shut the blog down to concentrate on the treatment I had chosen for myself, I received E-mails accusing me of cowardice, of all things. I had not only let down (according to these E-mails) the Heathen community; but mentally ill people all over the world, because I tucked tail and ran from my illness. Odd, because I was actually turning and confronting my illness with my full attention. From what I know, I am not the only who has experienced this sort of backlash. As it turns out, I stayed strong. Eventually, and with the permission of my treating doctor and therapist, I managed to discontinue taking medications. While I understand that Odin sometimes fetters with the intention that we learn how to unfetter ourselves, I tend to think of my disordered experiences as something less than divinely ordained. Had I listened to the people who were telling me to stay off medications back then, and continued blogging my experiences and struggles, I would likely have died. How would those well-meaning critics have reacted to that, I wonder? Probably with snark about being too weak to pass the tests of life or some other such nonsense. Ten years later, off the medications, and while still bipolar, no longer disordered, I am back to blogging; and I am spending time trying to help others, to include spirit work.

    We aren’t formed by cookie-cutters. Neither are our various illnesses or afflictions. What works for one may not work for the other. Suggesting otherwise does not demonstrate any authority in the field of healing, it demonstrates instead an ineptitude at grasping the obvious. It does not help, it harms. My personal advice to those who might wish to offer help: wish strength and resilience, and ask how you might be able to help. My personal advice to mentally ill spirit workers – and mentally ill people in general – your health is your responsibility, don’t let anything or anyone distract you from that.

  10. Natasha

    November 2, 2015 at 11:51 am

    It is incredibly frustrating dealing with any kind of mental illness issues in the pagan community. Anyone who claims mental illness is some kind of divine gift is off their rocker. Hallucinations are not divine, they are a symptom of your illness. For myself, my own mental illness has been nothing but a damaging hindrance to my spirituality, which often leaves me feeling guilty and depressed.


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