MANIA OR MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE?
THE STORY OF MY SPIRITUAL EMERGENCE

by Lori H.


My most powerful experience yet of the "mysterium et fascinens" occurred five years ago when I lost my mind. This is an attempt to tell the story of what happened and why it happened, to the best of my current ability. According to the DSM I experienced a full-blown manic episode, but I prefer to perceive what occurred as a spiritual emergency, or a numinous experience gone awry.

I was twenty-five years old at the time, living at home in Greenwich, Connecticut with my parents, and working in a quasi-counseling capacity with severely mentally disturbed clients. I was under severe stress as one of my clients had recently killed his father (accidentally) and another attempted suicide. Although I had not been working in the mental health system for very long, I was very disillusioned with how I saw the mentally ill being treated. I knew that there must be a better paradigm for understanding and helping these people. More than anything, I felt that they needed hope. I did my best to instill that.

Meanwhile, I had been actively pursuing my "spiritual path" through extensive reading in New Age, Eastern mysticism and Transpersonal Psychology combined with a Zen meditation practice. Now, I was not living in an environment conducive to spiritual growth. My surrounding culture was very paternalistic and materialistic, and I found few people (all significantly older than myself) with whom I could share my evolving beliefs and fascinations. I was questioning all of the assumptions about reality that I had been raised with, as well as the pathological view of mental disturbance that permeated my work milieu. I was very much out on a limb, diving into unknown territory in search of a more authentic way of being, both with myself, and with my clients.

This quest for authenticity and a more spiritual worldview began in childhood. I was raised Catholic until the second grade, at which time I refused to continue with Church and Sunday school. I simply never resonated with anything that was preached. I hated it, in fact! I always felt that religious or spiritual conviction had to come from within, and not from following someoneís dogma. I found numinosity not in the Bible, but in the writings of Plato (especially his "Allegory of the Cave") and other luminaries, music, the wilderness and the rocks.

It is relevant to note that a year before I "lost my mind", I had a powerful numinous experience while rock-climbing in Sedona, Arizona. While taking a "journal break" I wrote that I needed to let myself "die" in order to wake up to the present moment. I felt that I needed to let go of all of my cultural conditioning and the intellectual truths and defenses that I had made up to make myself feel protected. With this circling through my mind, I mistakenly stepped onto a narrow ledge to find the rocks crumbling beneath my feet. It was only a matter of time before I fell, as I was holding myself up with my hands and they had started to go numb from the frigid breeze. In the moments before my anticipated death my life flashed before my eyes and my heart opened with gratitude as I could suddenly see, in complete splendor, how blessed I was. I was filled with both grief at having to leave my life, in which I now placed such high value and appreciation, and excited anticipation for what was to happen next. I somehow knew that upon death I would not cease to exist, but would be traveling through a door into some other reality. When I survived (quite miraculously, but that is a whole other story!) I had a powerful gnosis, or deep intuitive knowing, that my life had been saved for a reason. I felt that there was some sort of mission for me to perform that had to do in some way with inspiring others and possibly writing. Also, before my accident I had planned on returning home to save enough money so that I could move to Sedona and work at the spiritual retreat center where I was staying. That was not to happen, however, as I was laid up in bed for several months and then began the job working with the mentally ill.

The night my awakening, or spiritual emergency began, the dream of moving to Sedona resurfaced. I experienced a gnosis that I was meant to travel West to pursue my spiritual passions with others on a similar path. The gnosis evolved into intense affect while listening to a song called "Home" that sang to that desire to find oneís true, spiritual home. Although I was living in the house I grew up in with my parents, I never really felt at home in Greenwich, or even with my family. I loved my family but part of me just never fit in. I saw the world differently and had different aspirations. My heart was breaking with the realization that it was time to find the home within myself, with my Self, which, at that time, meant leaving my security and journeying West.

I did not just pack up and leave, however -- much was yet to transpire. Yoga psychology would describe what happened as a kundalini rising: my heart, throat, third-eye, and crown chakras burst open. In the language of Depth psychology, I was incarnating the archetypes of the healer, teacher, and visionary. I found myself filled with love and compassion for others, words and connections at the tip of my tongue to explain the wisdom and insight that seemed to be pouring into my being. Although I had never been able to "grok" poems before, I now intuitively and affectively grasped them. I started thinking metaphorically, which also had been previously challenging for me.

I felt as if I had tapped into something much greater than myself, and that essence was carrying me. I felt called, as I had after my accident, to do something very important. The first few days were amazing. My empathy and compassion were so heightened that I had several profound experiences of connection with my clients. One client who was entirely shut down emotionally and terrified to let anyone into her world sobbed in my arms and allowed her pain to flow out. Another (not a current client but someone who I had been a volunteer "companion" to years prior) called late at night on the verge of committing suicide and I managed to talk her down from it and instill hope. These are just a sampling of several similar experiences I was to have during that time.

I truly felt as if I had awakened from a deep sleep. Unfortunately, only my mentally ill clients could begin to relate to what was happening to me. Perhaps I opened up too much to them. That may have been one reason why my mystical experience soon turned delusional. Another major factor was that, as is the case with mania, I had little need for sleep or food. I stayed up and ate very little. As I understand from yoga psychology, my upper chakras had opened but the lower chakras were ignored. I had no grounding. I also lacked the wisdom to keep my great insights and revelations to myself. Infused with the visionary and teacher archetypes, I went around impetuously sharing my visions and trying to dispel people's illusions.

While during the first few days of the experience I was filled with gratitude and felt relativized in relation to a much greater power than myself, I soon began to identify with that power. My reality-testing became distorted and I started to accept the various ideas and visions that were flooding my psyche at face value, without conscious reflection or discernment. I became convinced, for example, that I would win the lottery and write a best-selling book. I started to believe that I was more enlightened than I really was, and that I was now exempt from the karmic wheel, or gradual evolution. I was already "there". Those who could not understand my experience were perceived simply as less evolved. I now realize that I lacked the mental structures to contain the overwhelming force of the archetypes that flooded me. It was too much, too fast.

Towards the end of the two-week episode my underlying terror became evident. At the height of my delusions I summoned an ex-beau, D. to fly 2500 miles to meet me so that we could be spiritually married and ascend together (I did not even know what "ascend" meant). I was deathly afraid of walking my path alone. Back in the "real" world, my best friend was getting married and I felt abandoned. I now see that I was defending against my disowned shadow qualities of dependency and envy. I so desperately wanted someone to make me feel whole and to share my life with. D. was the perfect candidate because I had successfully projected my own God-image onto him. He seemed to me the most spiritual being I had ever met, and I desperately wanted to become more like him. I had pined over his loss, blaming myself for sabotaging our relationship. From an object-relations standpoint, I had destroyed the loved "good objects" within myself as a result of my destructiveness and fear. As a consequence, I felt persecuted by the remaining "bad objects". It was as if I had destroyed my own spiritual connection by destroying my relationship with this man.

I was also defending against guilt. Later I was to discover that I had unconsciously harbored feelings of responsibility for the death of my clientsí father, my other clientsí suicide attempt (not the woman who I talked down from suicide), and for the actualized suicide of an ex-boyfriend four years prior. While I intellectually realized that I was not personally responsible for these events, on a deep affective level I felt that I had played a significant role. This realization was too painful to be accepted by my conscious awareness.

Yet another contributing factor is that I was playing out a long-held fear about becoming like my mother. From childhood I perceived my mother as fearful, weak and dependent. An actively drinking alcoholic, she often became extremely explosive, rageful, and out of control. My feelings towards her were split between loving the "good mother" who, while sober, was extremely loving and wise, and hating the "bad mother", who, while drunk, was emotionally and, on occasion, physically abusive. When drunk my mother would often project all of her self-hatred onto me. A sensitive young child, I internalized it and developed an extremely judgmental and punitive superego. One can see how I might have developed a tendency to swing from depression to mania, from insecurity and inferiority to grandiosity. I had no authority figures, growing up, to provide healthy self-object experiences that I could internalize in order to form a balanced sense of self.

Returning to the story: Upon coming down from my psychotic delusions and receiving my "Bipolar 1" diagnosis, I contemplated what to do next. I could go in-patient, but then I might wind up like my clients! No! I knew that what had happened to me was more than just an episode of mania, and that I needed to be in an environment conducive to healing that would affirm my experience and not brand me "crazy". With nothing to lose, I packed my bags, got in my car and finally followed my calling to Sedona. I returned to the retreat center where I was to live and work for one transformational year. The center was (is) aptly called, "The Healing Center." There I found a surrogate family that helped me to integrate and understand my experience. My spirit was affirmed and held.

There are many stories to tell from that year in Sedona. I am so grateful to the people who supported me there and did not judge me. I internalized new self-objects that helped me to strengthen my self-esteem and become more emotionally and mentally balanced. My disowned shadow aspects showed their true faces as I struggled to let go of my attachment to D. and went through the real work of relationship with the man who was to become my husband. He brought up many of my unresolved family issues, having been an alcoholic himself. I traveled with him to rock bottom and, fortunately, made it to the other side.

I was also given tools to ground the continuing, though much more subtle, incarnation of the teacher, visionary and healer archetypes. I learned Hatha Yoga, which put me back into my body, gave me my center and helped to strengthen my container. I continue to practice yoga and for the past two years have been fortunate enough to be able to share it with others through teaching. The numinosum, while not incarnating in such an extreme way anymore, is ever present in my life.

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