Mania as spiritual emergency

I posted this in the past. I like to repost stuff from time to time since most of my readers have picked me up in the last year or so and some good stuff was posted before then. Also, I’m not very well right now and therefore often not terribly creative. I’m pretty much hunkering down and taking it easy. I don’t get around to blogs much anymore and I’m finding that cuts down on bloggers commenting here which I really miss. I would love to hear from some of you quiet ones out there!!

Anyway first posted August 24th of last year:

Below is an article that speaks to mania being a spiritual emergency. I’m convinced at this point in my life that what was stopped in me by powerful psychotropic drugs could have been a healing experience. Had I had the proper supports and a safe place to stay I would have emerged healed and healthier than I had ever been. Instead I have been oppressed by medication for 20 years and have suffered immensely as a result of not being able to see my healing process through. The below experience of Robert Whitney is very much like what I experienced except I had no one outside of the hospital to support me and tell me that my psychosis was purposive.

Psychosis as spiritual emergency can also be considered a “psychological emergency,” for what it is is the psyche calling out to be heard and processed. You need not be a new age believer to appreciate the validity of the psychotic process being one of the psyche demanding to be paid attention to and healed.

For more information on psychosis as spiritual emergency see the blog Spiritual Emergency. Also see my post with Sean’s youtube video which I recently posted.

Stanislov Grof has also written a book called Spiritual Emergency and countless others have remarked on this phenomena perhaps not always with the same vocabulary. People like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell and John Wier Perry among many others.

Now the article:

Mania as Spiritual Emergency

Edward Whitney, M.D.

One night in May 1994 I was stopped by the police as I wandered on the beach in my underwear and T-shirt, merging with the electrons in distant galaxies and looking for God. I was not sure whether I was Hitler, Elijah the prophet, or King Lear gone mad. All I knew for certain was that I had surrendered my customary frames of reference and had chosen to trust a process over which I no longer had control. As the police asked me who I was and where I lived, I tried to come up with a story that they might accept. I told them that I was a doctor who was deeply concerned about the Clinton health plan, that I lived four blocks away, and that I needed to go home. I was certain that they were angels sent by the Lord to prevent me from disrupting the flow of energy in the galaxies with which I was merging. If God had sent them, then all was well; I could trust them.

Their police radio said something that included the words “sevenfour.” They were checking the seventy-fourth decimal place oftheir calculations; this was the precision they needed to besure that all the electrons in the universe were still in place.They were, therefore, connected to the mind of God.

Friends and housemates were becoming alarmed by my recent behavior.I, on the other hand, had never felt more sane. The processwas a healing one; all the shame I had felt for decades aboutbeing a disappointment to my father (an internist who had diedwhen I was 15) had fallen away in recent weeks. I felt a deeptransformation of the meaning of everything that had ever happenedin my life. I was receiving assurances from Heaven itself thatI needed to feel ashamed no longer, that I was loved for alleternity. Everything that existed was holy. Angels were everywhere,beautiful and terrifying.

I had always scoffed at those who said that we could do anythingwe put our minds to, and that our beliefs were what limitedus. We had to let go of our doubts, they said, and visualizewhat we wanted. Now I stopped scoffing; it was time to believein myself, just as they said we needed to. I knew what I wanted:years before, I had lusted after an exceptionally desirablewoman named Robin. My housemates and I had a cat named Bandit,and I reasoned that a bandit is a robber and robbers engagein robbin’; therefore Bandit could be transformed into Robinfor my carnal delight. I visualized the metamorphosis, liftedBandit to my face, and rubbed noses with him. He blinked atme and meowed.

Fantastic! Cats were cats, and women were women; reality hadlimits, and therefore my thoughts could not destroy the universe.Therefore, I was not God. I was relieved beyond measure. AsI digested this momentous discovery, my housemates and friendsbegan to make arrangements for finding me a safe place to be;three days later I was in the hospital on a 72-hour hold. Thismeant that I was Jonah the prophet, and that I had been runningfrom God my whole life, and was sent by Him to spend three nightsin the belly of the whale.

I told the psychiatrist about being overwhelmed by a sense ofangelic presences; he said that this idea was psychotic andthat he would put me on risperidone, a new antipsychotic drug.The healing intentions of hundreds of people who had developedand tested this drug were enfolded within this pill, I toldmyself, and it would reveal what I needed to do in order tofit into this world in which I had always felt like a stranger.

About 20 minutes after the initial dose, I had my very firstpsychedelic experience—brilliant rivers of intensely saturatedlight flowed before my eyes. Assuming that the vision of flowinglight was the intended therapeutic effect of the drug, I realizedthat disdain for psychedelics had been my basic problem; I hadplaced too much trust in reason and science. Risperidone wasa wonder drug! I was cured!

The next day, another doctor started me on lithium. Aha! Lithiumwas the lightest of the metallic elements, number three in theperiodic table. It was the ideal conduit by which cosmic energiescould be grounded. The stars were mostly hydrogen and helium;lithium was the vehicle through which their messages could cometo earth. How wise the psychiatrists were! They really knewwhat I needed!

Thus the mental health care system and I were at cross purposes;what I was experiencing as a wonderful healing process was construedby my doctors as a serious disease process. Neither of us hada clue about the other’s perspective. They knew nothing aboutmy issues with my father, the spiritual and religious interestsI had had since childhood, and my recent fascination with theLubavitcher Hasidim, who were saying publicly that their elderlyand ailing leader was the promised Messiah. If the Lubavitcherswere right, then the healing of the whole world was at hand,and we would have no more war. Fear and hatred would rule nolonger. God would no longer be a tool of oppression. With myentire being, I wanted this to be true. For their part, thedoctors knew messianic obsession as a symptom of illness, amedical disorder of the brain.

Mania, in my experience of it, is a process of giving birthto hope in the soul. It is opposed from within by an equallyintense nihilism and fear that the entire creation is nothingmore than a cesspool of doom. Inner conflict can make a personlabile. The cosmic grandiosity comes from trying to answer thequestion “Is the universe a friendly place or a hostile place?”This is ultimately a religious question, hence the preoccupationwith spiritual and religious issues.

The struggle between hope and utter despair can frighten onlookersas well as the person on the inside of the experience. Thereis a difference between the expression and the intention ofany problematic behavior; the expression of mania, intrusiveand melodramatic, gets the attention of onlookers. The constructiveintention, concealed inside a person and covered over by layersof wild behavior, must be looked for or it will be missed.

“If you don’t think of it, you will miss it,” every medical student is told when learning the art of clinical diagnosis. My doctors did not think about the possibility that they were seeing a person in the midst of a spiritual emergency; the concept itself is not on their map of reality. It is not listed in the differential diagnosis of manic episode in DSM-IV. Psychiatristsdo not think about it, and they miss it. The patient, unfortunately,pays the price for the doctor’s impoverished frame of reference.

It is a very serious matter when a physician mistakes a healingprocess for a pathological one. The intention of the doctorswas positive, but their expression was most destructive. Thehead of psychiatry at the hospital told me that I was in denialif I insisted that I had been having a spiritual crisis. No,he said, this is a medical disorder like asthma or diabetes.When I finally understood that he meant what he said, I wasdevastated, and I was feeling suicidal within hours. I couldnot argue with his self-assured, expert manner.

Where, I wanted to ask, were the mast cells, the inflammatorymediators, the glycosylated proteins of this allegedly medicalcondition? But I was too demoralized to speak. I felt only likedying. The whole episode meant nothing; it was just a case ofbad DNA making defective protoplasm. If I had accepted the medicalmodel of my experience, I would not have survived to tell thistale. Despair would have consumed me.

I emerged from despair because other people interpreted thingsdifferently. One of my housemates said, “This happened for areason, Ed.” A psychiatrist who understands the concept of spiritualemergency accepted the legitimacy of the nonordinary statesof mind that I described to him, and he likened them to crisesthat many people had passed successfully through. Outside themedical profession, there were many people who easily understoodwhat I was saying, and they helped save my life.

Medical education does not prepare psychiatrists to deal withspirituality in human experience. In shaping human lives, spiritualityis at least as powerful (and as subject to compulsiveness) assexuality, and just as irresistible when intensely felt. Itis expected that psychiatrists will be able to take sexual historiescompetently, but spiritual histories seem to be another matter.It saddens me to report that physicians were the main obstaclethat I had to overcome on my quest for a hope-filled view ofthe world.

When confronted with manic patients, psychiatrists ought to ask themselves, “Could this be a spiritual emergency?” When no medical illness or drug intoxication is found, this possibility should be carefully ruled out before a medical model is imposed on the situation. There are features in the territory of human experience that are deleted from the professional maps that psychiatrists use. Those maps must be revised. DSM-IV should include “religious or spiritual problem” in the differential diagnosis of manic episode. Physicians who do not think about it when appropriate may do their patients grave harm.

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About Monica Cassani

Author/Editor Beyond Meds: Everything Matters

17 Responses

  1. “When confronted with manic patients, psychiatrists ought to ask themselves, ‘Could this be a spiritual emergency?’ ”

    Yep, definitely. And they also ought to ask themselves this question when confronted with what they otherwise call “schizophrenia”, or “psychosis” in general. But, apart from maybe a very few exceptions, they won’t do that. Because they can’t tell the difference. Because there is none. Well, except for in cases where the psychiatric symptoms are caused by physical problems like allergies for instance. As I’ve said in another comment here. So, consequently, they would have to replace all their nice, profitable “schizophrenia”, “bipolar”, etc., diagnoses with “spiritual emergency”. And a person going through a “spiritual emergency”, of course, should a) never be medicated, and b) be guided through it by someone who’s an expert in the field, i.e. a healer, a spiritual teacher, not a physician.

    A few exceptions: Paul Levy has had a few people referred to him by psychiatrists, as “spiritual emergence” is a category in the DSM. Nevertheless, I can’t see how anyone ever could have the qualification or right to determine whether a person is going through a “spiritual emergence/emergency”, or whether s/he is “schizophrenic”, “manic”, or whatever of that crap. Just another example of their boundless arrogance, that they think, they would have this qualification/right.

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  2. mary page

    Wow. All I was looking for (and it took a couple hours to find) was a way to dissolve my welbutrin in water in order to withdraw slowly. I liked your thorough and sensitive instructions, so I checked your home page. Intrigued further by your beautiful writing style and quiet honesty, and interesting take on what I think of as mental illness, I curiously read the “Spiritual Emergency” article by E Whitney. Also very beautifully written. And awe inspiring. Inspirational, hopeful. Can this be true?

    I’ve often felt that my depressive states were only painful because of the anxiety, shame, and guilt I carried for even being depressed in the first place.

    I first learned that about 1 month after starting my first psychiatrict medication, Zoloft. My mother, wondering if it could help her, asked if my depression was gone. And I had to think for a moment. I did an internal check and realized I, yes, still felt depressed. Only now, I didn’t care. The guilt, the sense of failure, and the pain were gone. My judgement of the depression was gone.

    I realize now that depression, for me anyway, isn’t painful. It’s fatiguing (so I rest), it’s self absorbing (so I go with that, but try to get out a little everyday to engage with the outside world-for balance) and it has a sad quality (I channel that into journaling and art). But it only gets painful if I judge it and feel that I’m letting others down. If I beat myself up about it.

    So I stumbled upon this website and read about the healing power of mania.
    I never thought that my depression could be healing…wow. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?

    Your expression here is one of the things that makes the internet such an amazing forum. I’m looking forward to exploring your site further. I hope you’re feeling better soon. Keep on connecting in this way and inviting comment. Human contact is so restorative.

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  3. I agree, if you think of spirituality not only in psychological terms, but just as much in physiological ones – and I think, this is legitimate – allergies are part of the picture. When I delimit them from what usually gets termed “mental illness”, it’s because whenever an allergy or other physical condition is the only cause for psychological distress, it ought to be dx’ed as a physiological illness. Someone, who has “hallucinations” and/or “delusions” because of an allergy towards gluten and dairy protein for instance, should never ever be dx’ed as “schizophrenic” or “manic”, or whatever of that kind.

    This is not to say, that what seems to be purely physiological illnesses would lack any spiritual dimension, though. All physiological diseases are our bodies’ reactions to a poisonous environment, IMO. And just as I regard drugging up a psychological crisis, instead of looking at the causes, and doing something about them, a pseudo-solution, I do regard it a pseudo-solution to just pop a pill or two for a physiological crisis, i.e. a disease, without being aware of the causes, and doing something about them.

    You might say, my view burns down to that virtually the entire definition of crisis, or disease, in our western culture is somehow backwards as it tries to place responsibility only and solely on the individual (‘s biology)*, instead of acknowledging, that everything, crisis, both physiological and psychological, included, is a reaction to the individual’s environment.

    *It seems to me, that what (medical) science is trying to do, is to find evidence for our individual biology to be responsible for any unwanted, disturbing reaction to the world we’re living in. If it’s cancer, the flu, or “schizophrenia” we’re talking about, doesn’t matter. The environment is perfect, the fault is with the individual. NOT.

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  4. mary page

    Gianna,
    boy, you are sharp! i just came back to ask about SR in titration and here you’ve already answered!
    I saw that about time released, and i ask- why is that? That did concern me which is why i hunted for an answer in the first place.
    I did hit a website by an MD about titration of an ADD stimulant called Vyvanse. Since it lasts for 12 hours i assumed its slow release (most stims. last 3 or so hours)
    Also they were not titrating for withdrawal purposes, but to get smaller doses for the med sensitive.

    But I’m curious, instinctively i thought it might be a problem, but do you actually know why?

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  5. Just take it easy, Gianna. I often get complaints, that I’m too “airy-fairy”. Sometimes I even get too airy-fairy for myself to deal with… So, it’s probably not your brain but mine, something’s wrong with.

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  6. Thank you for posting this information. You are discovering some thought provoking ideas. Many sites about mental illness just have people trading their stories of medication and side effects. Everyone there is just looking for a magic bullet or a cure, a new variety of snake oil. You are looking at root causes.

    I believe that our medical establishment is just into efficiency–taking care of the most patients in the least amount of time. In some cases quick cures seem to be produced. Many of these people are very defensive about ever living without drugs. Listening to someone in spiitual crises takes time. Doctors have little time–probably only 15 minutes per patient. Maybe our society needs people other than doctors helping the mentally ill. The most successful treatment for many years for alcoholism is AA, not the medical industry. Maybe something similar is needed for the run of the mill mental patient. My doctors usually gave me less than 5 minutes, my AA brothers gave me hours and hours. I can get help for my alcoholism almost 24 hours each day for free. Couldn’t other conditions benefit from such attention?

    It may help if we had a book that contained short stories of hundreds of people who are living without medication. On my site, I tried to use my story to inspire others, but it was only one story. We need stories from all sorts of people: young, old, male, female, rich, poor…

    Thank you so much for keeping this blog going.

    Jim S

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  7. Hey Gianna,

    Thanks for your ongoing words of encouragement at my blog. I have been remiss in visiting others, for same reason you have written about above. But I’m staying home today, to catch up.

    When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I was very non-compliant with medication. I missed the flow of mercurial thoughts and visions, the boundless energy and vast possibilities.

    By the end of the last century, my mental tides had eaten away at the shores of mania, depositing new banks of depression further down. I became a case that doctors feared would die.

    I went through 22 shock “treatments” and was heavily sedated. I don’t recall massive chunks of my life. I finally found a p-doc that could work with me. Although we have worked to bring me off meds, I seem to be too willing to kill myself without them.

    But he believes that I will be medicine-free in the future. Having had eighteen months out of the hospital, I hope to continue to gather strength, to find myself in control enough to be able to chose to lose it and withdraw.

    Congratulations on your amazing journey. I will be following you as you move on.

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  8. Sloopy Cowbell

    A fascinating subject! Thank you for posting it, Gianna!

    It reminds me of a book I once had called The God Machine by Dr Michael Persinger, a professor of behavioural neuroscience at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada.

    Persinger has opened up a new area of research in the field of neurotheology.

    He has discovered a neurobiological mechanism through which he can induce a religious experience in his patients. He uses electromagnetic frequencies to stimulate the right temporal lobe and this triggers a religious episode.

    To achieve this in practice, he places a device called a Koren helmet on his subject’s head. The helmet contains an array of solenoids around its inner circumference.

    The solenoids are hooked to a desktop PC and are driven by software that generates the electromagnetic fields (which Persinger dubs the “fundamental algorithms”) needed to induce a religious experience.

    Persinger keeps a lot of his research secret – which could lead to suspicions that he is sponsored by a three-letter-agency, keen to exploit the technology for warfare…

    Persinger’s has conducted fascinating research in other areas of neuroscience. He claims to have unravelled the mystery of how some animals can “predict” an earthquake. He says that tectonic shifts cause sizeable changes to the magnetic fields of the earth, and that animals can detect this, which causes their behaviour to change.

    From the mental health perspective, it would be interesting to know whether there is a “reverse” fundamental algorithm – is there a set of electromagnetic waveforms that has the effect of damping down a “spiritual emergency” ?

    In other words, does Persinger’s “God Machine” hold the key for curing “schizophrenia” and other so-called psychotic mental disorders?

    No doubt the supremely corrupt drug industry would stifle any research that showed promise in this field….

    Big Pharma doesn’t tolerate cures!

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  9. Eve

    I thought that Marian’s first comment here was very good. It provoked me to think that a spiritual emergency is, on the face of things, pretty easy to identify. God, Christ, the Messiah, and other spiritual entities, symbols, and emblems appear so often in some psychoses that I think a spiritual emergency ought to be ruled out before another diagnosis imposed.

    However, having said that I also think that finding someone qualified to help in such a situation would be difficult in the U.S. I do think it’s possible and have done this healing myself, but again it’s not easy and a lot of practitioners, even those with respectable degrees and training, are not yet accepted, particularly by folks at the APA or AMA.

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