On Spiritual Emergency, Shamanism, Mental Illness, Therapy, and Anti-Psychiatry Sentiment in the General Pagan/Polytheist Community

Alternative Title: I’m Gonna Keep Talking About This Until It’s a Generally Accepted Thing…

It happened again. Someone posted another article on mental illness being a sign of a healer being born on the Local Pagan Facebook Group with the general overarching but not direct message being that all native and ancient cultures saw it as this. Now I don’t deny that mental illness can be the birth of a healer. I’ve known too many people who have struggled with a history of it, myself included, that haven’t found themselves called to help others dealing with similar problems.

However, these articles tend to stress how society is actually the sick one, and how we need to stop shoving pills at people to fix all their problems.

Anyone who has ever been on psychiatric medication will probably tell you that pills don’t solve all the problems and most professionals are pretty upfront about that fact. Chronic illness medication isn’t meant to cure diseases. It’s meant to treat symptoms. Mental health issues fall under the chronic illness umbrella most of the time.

Today I’m not going to rant about this playing into the Noble Savage stereotype of indigenous cultures that is out-and-out racist. This rant is saved for another day.

Today, I’m going to dig through Wikipedia and summarize some ways that ancient societies handled mental illness in the past. Since we romanticize and glorify ancient cultures, we might as well take a good look at what our spiritual ancestors did for those suffering from mental health problems, right?

And then I’m going to dive into my own experience and what I’ve learned about our community, healthy boundaries in medical relationships, and my own personal journey with mental illness, spiritual emergence, and spiritual emergency.

(And yes, I am using a single Wikipedia page to illustrate how easy it is to challenge these harmful ideas that are keeping people from getting the help and relief they need.)

Here we go!

In Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Ebers Papyrus suggests lots of things from applying bodily fluids to painting to hysteria treatments involving fumigating the vagina. (Actually, I’m tucking this back, because it looks like an interesting paper.)

Ancient India tended to believe that mental disorders were spirits or witchcraft. Maybe you angered the Gods, a teacher, or other superior. Maybe your three bodily fluids were unbalanced due to inappropriate diet or something in your body generally being off whack. They used herbs, charms, prayers, moral and emotional persuasion, and emotionally shocking the person to treat them.

If you add in acupuncture, you’ve summed up Ancient China for the most part, too.

But it’s Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome where the foundation of our modern concept of mental health come from… Socrates did indeed find that there were positive aspects to madness. Prophecy, mystical initiations, inspiration, and induced hallucinations were accepted, but you notice that those things fall within controlled parameters and not just people wandering down the street left to freeze to death in the cold.

Hippocrates came around and classified mental disorders into paranoia, epilepsy, mania, and melancholia.

Then the Romans took on what they’d learned from the Greeks. Asclepiades threw out the humors theory and advocated for humane treatments and allowing those who were mentally ill to not be confined. They were treated with diet and massages. But then it kind of swung back into other types of treatment.

These cultures treated mental illness like real diseases, because they are real chronic illnesses. Even if there was a point where they noted a positive trait to it, it was still considered something that needed the negative aspects kept under control. And this is where my voice of genuine experience as someone who has completely walked through madness and managed to come out alive and stable comes in…

There are mental illnesses that can teach us an infinite amount about the way the world and our own minds work. I have social anxiety disorder that’s kept me from living life to the fullest at times, and you know what? It’s not Gods-sent. It’s not here specifically to make me stronger, but it has taught me a lot about how strong I really am. It’s caused by how I was raised, a biological propensity towards panic, and a brain disease that causes me to have sensory overload super, super easily. There is therapy for it. And when therapy doesn’t work, there is medication that helps me control the panic attacks.

I have experienced Spiritual Emergency, which is a term that the New Age and general Pagan community have picked up on. But it seems like no one has actually read the literature put out by the people who coined this term… Spiritual Emergency, the shaman’s initiation for instance, is exactly that: an emergency. It’s the point where a healthy and natural spiritual emergence situation turns into something that causes a person to no longer function in a way that is healthy for themselves and those around them. It’s a crisis. These people in spiritual emergency need help. For me it was a slow build of Bipolar II, which it took psychology and psychiatry almost a decade to catch up to what was I was telling them I was experiencing to get that diagnosis.

That spiritual emergency that came with it, though, was hell. It was a hell I never, ever want to go back to, and at the time it was happening I was not only terrified of what I was experiencing but I was also convinced I didn’t need help. Part of my fight against getting help for the mental illness component was that everyone in this larger alternative religion community told me that medication would only dampen what needed to happen in order for me to become who I was meant to be.

You know what happened while I wasn’t on medication? I couldn’t hold down a job. I dropped out of college twice. I drank in an attempt to take myself out. I ran myself into debt I’m still paying off. I engaged in all kinds of activity that was solely set on destroying myself.

And yes, I would get messages. During that time, I learned a lot about the way the Gods worked. I developed what is referred to as my Godphone. I took the steps I could on my path to getting my spiritual health together.

But my life was a mess. I would be up for days writing. I would smoke 2 packs of cigarettes a day. I would starve myself. The list goes on.

Would having a person around who could have seen the spiritual component to this situation around helped me? Yes, it would have, but only if that person was also trained in what mental illness actually is and took an integrated approach. For me spiritual emergence was tangled up with mental illness, and there was no untangling the two to be done.  That person wasn’t going to be wandering around the local occult shop offering soul retrievals and telling me that medication was only going to make this situation worse. Much like a psychiatrist not listening to my concerns and complaints about medication I was put on was also not helpful.

Eventually I got to the point where I was so exhausted, I was so broken down that I finally realized something had to change. I went years in this cycle, fighting medication. Fighting the mental health community. Not trusting them, because I knew they’d just think I was crazy…  I thought I was crazy.

But in the end society’s view of who I was or how they wanted to medically treat me wasn’t destroying me. The thing destroying me was myself. And, yes, I do believe the Gods put me on this path to become a healer, but I couldn’t walk down that path without regaining some balance. No amount of meditation, diet changes, prayer, or letting me ride it out would have gotten me to that point of balance at that point in my life. You know what did? Medication.

And you know who was waiting for me as the tornadic chaos of hypomania and mania died down with His hand held out to me?


With each pill I took to gain equilibrium, His voice and the other voices coming from beyond my own head got clearer and clearer. I had to relearn a few skills, but those skills came back easier and stronger than they had been.

When we moved to Missouri, I lost my health insurance and couldn’t afford the $800 a month it took for the pills I needed, but I had learned to carefully monitor my own actions. I sat down with family and came up with a plan. And I found that, at that point, things seemed to be under enough control that we were going to trial off the medication… There wasn’t much choice.  If I was going to flounder and fall, it was going to have to be in such a manner that the state considered me disabled and would allow me to be on medicaid.  Which sounds easy, but I’d discovered Missouri’s laws were more complicated than Iowa’s had been.

I struggled some, honestly, until we learned that most likely I have Celiac Disease that was causing some of the mood swings but not all. So I went strictly off gluten, and as soon as I got insurance back (Thanks, Obama! No, really!) I immediately went back into therapy to work on what I still needed to work on… Impulse control, for instance, and being kind to myself. I’m human. I am flawed. I’m not ashamed to admit that, but I’m also proud that I can say I’m working on it.

It’s that whole Maxim of Know Thyself again.

However, with that said, I also have a written emergency plan in the event I ever need it, I want to be hospitalized and medicated. We’re not in denial that this might be a rare remission, because they do happen from time-to-time. In that case, I have no problem being on medication for the rest of my life… I mean, I already am on plenty of medication for other life-long diseases, including an old school antidepressant for migraines. So why not? Because mental illness is illness. It is something many people respond to treatment with, and if they find a doctor they can work with (like any other chronic illness out there) then why are we shaming people for getting help that works for them?

Why are we scaring people away from exploring things that might help them?

Because a few people who have never actually read anything on contemporary psychology and psychiatry have decided you can’t take pills and be spiritually enlightened? Because the vast bulk of the Transpersonal Psychology literature was written decades ago when, yes, psychiatric medication sucked?

And this fear that if you actually talk to your therapist about what you believe, they’ll think you’re mentally ill? Were you aware that there are actually people out there that don’t do that? Therapists are just like any other healing professional, and you’ve got to find the one that fits you. I’ve not talked about all of my religious life with my therapist, but at the same time my religious and spiritual life aren’t causing me any problems currently. She does know, however, that I believe in some pretty non-mainstream things, and I laid it out for her at the first appointment knowing that if she couldn’t handle it then I would need someone else to work with.

I’m not saying this is an across the board thing, but if you’re going into a relationship with someone you’re paying to listen to you and help you work out your issues and you find yourself hiding large chunks of who you are… Well, it’s time to evaluate if it’s a healthy relationship or not. Granted, I know there are some really deep, personal, on-the-fringe experiences out there, and maybe it will take you some time to build trust to talk about that. Maybe it will never come. But if you can’t talk about your religion and beliefs at all… If it’s a huge part of who you are… If the person you’re talking to can’t challenge what you’re saying about the situation, not in a Hey, I think you’re psychotic! but in a Hey, this might be reinforcing this unhealthy thought pattern you’ve developed from crap you dealt with as a kid. Let’s examine that, shall we? way, what good is this person going to be in your life?  You’re paying them to help you, so you might as well give them what they need to know to help you, right?

I’m not saying stop therapy, obviously, but really evaluate if this is a you not wanting to trust a person issue (I’ve been there more than once) or a this person isn’t the right fit for me and maybe someone else out there will be type of situation. But, please, if you decide it’s the latter, stick with the therapist you have until you find a replacement, too. There’s no point rowing yourself out to the middle of the ocean only to throw the oars out before you get to an island with new ones to buy.

I really, truly, deeply hope that in my lifetime I’m able to see professionals trained who understand mystic and alternative beliefs. In fact, I’m starting to feel like that’s the overarching space my life’s work is meant to fall into that I simply can’t avoid anymore.

But I’m starting to realize that we, as a community, just don’t talk about our dark nights of the soul or where mental health and illness falls into place in our stories when we’ve been touched by it. Maybe we’re afraid of the stigma. Maybe ignorant people from all camps will say “Hey, you’re not legit. You’re just crazy.” So let’s prove them wrong, shall we? Let’s talk about this stuff! Let’s not tuck it away like it’s some weakness…

Let’s challenge those trying to act like it makes us weak. Let’s challenge those who shame us for doing whatever it takes to find what helps us, medication included.

Spiritually-based, biologically-based, or anywhere in between, do you know what the mental illness label makes you in my eyes? Fucking warrior strong.

You may be struggling, but you’re here reading this right now. I know how hard it can be. I know the veil depression puts over your eyes that distances you from those around you. I know the peaks of euphoric mania that are followed by the deathly crash. I know the terror so deeply ingrained in your mind that your body goes into flight-or-fight mode when forced to make a phone call or walk into a room late. I know what it’s like to just want to give up and to think constantly about how you’re going to get around to doing it. I know what it’s like to not know if those bugs you’re seeing or the voices you’re hearing are coming from inside or outside of your head.

But you know what I know even more about?

Having an illness is not a weakness. It’s not something to be ashamed of. Seeking out help is a show of strength. And there’s a certain grace to the person who finds themselves having to do this over and over again in an attempt to find the key that will unlock relief for them.

Let’s stop romanticizing the dangers of things like shaman sickness sending a person out into the wild to freeze to death. Or, at the very least, if we’re going to pretend that we’d be better off in tribal society, let’s look at how our society, our little religious community, treats those who are sick… We still send them out into the cold to freeze to death. Only we do it with shame and perpetuating the myths that modern medicine is never the answer. We do it with turning our eyes away and not speaking up when we’re worried about a friend who seems to be having a particularly hard time…

Let’s be warriors and fight for those who are too entrenched in their own inner-battles to stand up for themselves when the bullies come along saying that they need to get off their psych meds and go live on the outskirts of our society in order to be healers.

The noble savage myth is sickening to me, but I think anyone with sense should be able to see that someone who can’t integrate on a basic level with the society they were born into is probably not going to do too much good as a healer.

Let’s talk openly and expansively about where our own illness has taken us, because being silent about it is only going to allow this level of idiocy to keep taking hold of our people and keep others from exploring on their own if what is available to them may actually help them.