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Spirit Work & Mental Illness

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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How Can You Support Community When You Suffer From Misanthropy?

Alternate Title: Why Pagans Suck.

Recently, someone likened the Kemetic community to islands. That many of us Kemetics are on their own little islands, doing their own things (for better or worse). If I were to use this analogy, I would be on a boat (probably with this guy right here) running around from island to island trying to establish trade routes and networks between the islands.

However, it seems that every time I approach an island, I get spears chucked at me. Or the natives run and hide while I dock- and by the time I get to their settlement, it appears everyone has left. Sometimes they don’t even hide- they just pretend I’m not there and ignore me. Even when I venture out to islands that aren’t Kemetic in nature (but still are within the Pagan network of islands) and try to talk with the ambassadors there, I get the cold shoulder, or spears, or whatever.

Even on my own island, there is an element of cold shoulder. Take this blog for example. I work pretty hard to create content that has some use for other people. I create guides, lists and other stuff for others to read and learn from. I scour books for facts, quotes and ideas to share with others. And despite having (apparently) 50 subscribers, I’m lucky if I ever get feed back or comments. My own island is silent, and for all intents and purposes- ignoring me. And I am not the only Kemetic with this problem. I have a list of Kemetic blogs I read, and most of them get absolutely no comments at all. And they are all creating great content. Blogs are the lifeblood of this path. There are so many great ideas and thoughts that only exist within the confines of someone’s blog. How many times have we gotten awesome ideas from a blog? How many times have you seen great ideas from a blog, and never let the writer know about it? If a writer thinks they are only writing to themself, how long before they stop writing all together?

The entire world of Paganism is fractured. It’s broken. You try to start conversations, discuss ideas, or question the status quo, and suddenly you are evil. And in the Kemetic area, I would say the problem is even worse. There are so many ways to approach Egyptian deities, to create a practice around the Egyptian pantheon- Tameran, Kemetic Orthodoxy, Recon, Reformed, Revivalist, Greco-Egyptian, Wicca-ish, and anything in between. Yet any attempts to bridge the gaps or understand each other better is met with hostility, name calling and mudslinging.

What bothers me most about this is that many (if not all) of the civilizations we model our religious and spiritual paths after had a huge focus on community. The ancients knew how important it was to value your neighbors, your family, your community. And while it’s entirely true that not everyone got along- there were wars, murders, fights, etc. – they still tried their damnedest to get along. And in many situations, community was the fabric of the society, and was an undertone of the religion itself (even if the religion wasn’t separate or defined within the culture).

So if that is the case- why is it so damned hard to build a community now? Why is everyone at each other’s throats? You even remotely suggest another way to look at something- and you instantly get shot down. People are so closed off to new ideas or differing thoughts that it creates a virtual landmine field to walk through. You can’t share anything, you can’t discuss alternate views. It creates gridlock in a place that needs more communication. We don’t all need to agree or see eye to eye- but being able to hold a conversation without it degrading into “You’re a poopy head!” would be nice.

Heka creates everything that we see and do. The words we speak create our reality and our community (both Pagan and Kemetic) desperately needs us to talk more- to express more. If all we ever do is set up camp on our own little islands and never venture out (or talk with anyone that might show up on our shores) how on earth are we going to create anything that is viable and lasting?

And while I see many Kemetics say “Oh yeah, community is important”, I see very few who actually jump in their boats, and talk to others on other islands. No one from forum X visits forum Y. The Kemetics in Group D hate the Kemetics in Group M. Someone creates a mixing pot forum for Kemetics, and people from forums L, T, and V refuse to join. No one wants to play nice with anyone else. No one wants to put themselves out there in a way that could create connections or ‘trade routes’ as it were between the various islands.

And let me tell you- for those of us who are trying to create those routes, those connections- the work is very hard. And very thankless. And it’s times like this where I question why I even bother. And wonder if all that I am trying is for naught. The Pagan community at large fills me with disappointment. Son, I am disappoint. It’s sad when a misanthropist like me can even see that community is lacking here. That despite said misanthropy, I keep trying to establish those networks. I keep paddling my boat, trying to make a difference.

There are ways that we could all create links and networks between us. Exchanging ideas through comments and threads is one. Actually responding to comments left on your blog is another. Linking to other blogs and good blog posts is another way. Who knows where ideas can take us. Bezen‘s idea of using fake food in the shrine completely jump started my method of offerings to the gods.

Or another example of SatSekhem writing about isfet. And then Veggie hops on the boat of discussing what isfet is. And then there is an entire thread over here about it.

Or in the case of Kemetic Recon- who wrote about Heqet. Which then spawned this blog writer to create a prayer about it.

Ideas create things. Ideas bring us together and create a community. And the only way ideas can be heard is through communication. The only way we’ll ever be able to communicate is if we get off our islands every now and then- and go visit someone else’s. And if you’re shy or busy, at least be cordial if someone shows up on your island and says “hi”.

Do you ever comment on blogs? Start discussions? Branch out to other ‘islands’? Are you ready to venture off of your island? Why or why not?

Posts that are similar in nature, and worth reading:

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2012 in Kemeticism, Rambles

 

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