This blog idea has been stuck in my head for a while, yet I am just as motivated to post it as I am to not post it. I don’t want to offend anyone. I don’t want to mislead people, or denigrate anyone else’s experiences. But at the same time, I am compelled to write what I feel I was lacking when my mental illness first crashed over me. And so- how does one tell the difference between the onset of a mental illness and spiritual revelations?
I would like to point out first that there is this notion within Wiccan and Neo-Pagan circles that one can NOT and absolutely NOT tell the difference between the two. Be it in Facebook arguments or published books, there is this notion that spiritual revelations could be easily mistaken as a mental illness.
But here’s the thing. There’s a TON of differences between the two. Why? Because if you know the two (and especially if you experience them both) there is some crucial differences.
Primarily, as a specifically polytheist Wiccan speaking theoretically, there is the difference of where the action is taking place. Mental illness is all within the brain, it is in the very physical matter. A hallucination will have its roots within the person seeing it. Chronic depression and anxiety will be caused by the imbalances in the brain.
But a spiritual revelation in the shape of a vision will be from the exterior, because it is the spirit revealing itself to the person. In the case of anything acting upon the person that may be causing symptoms such as anxiety or depression, (negative energy attacking, bad spirits lingering around, a spell gone haywire) it is often exterior acting upon interior.
Now, there is the case of the person’s inner working being disturbed and affecting the person as a whole. (I know many Wiccans and Neo-Pagans are firm believers in the Archetypes and view the deities as inner workings of the soul, so I think that view fits here as well.) Chakras, chi, psychological problems, what have you- this will also be a certain dynamics. To the experienced eye I believe it may appear similar as a mental illness yet be crucially different. Unfortunately, even though I am a Wiccan I am not a very experienced witch. I am not an experienced healer in mental illness. So I cannot talk about how it would appear in the chakras, the energies, and how one can desperate the two.
What I do know is how the two appear different to me. This is the list that I have drawn up, and it is personal. I do not believe it will apply to everyone as mental illness is so amazingly diverse. All I hope is that it could help someone out, and maybe lead them to find their own distinction between mental illness and spirituality. Hopefully I won’t have contradicted valid medical evidence. Take everything with a grain of salt, I am certainly not a doctor!
- My symptoms of mental illness are alerted to by my service dog 20 minutes in advance. This is my number 1 way of distinguishing, and why I am such a huge defender of service dogs for psychiatric conditions. It really, really helps me tell the two apart. I simply do not perform spiritual activities if Lightning has signalled, period. I do not want to cross the lasers!
- But if I am sensing something and I cannot remember if my dog has alerted or if I am away from her for whatever reason, I run through a small checklist. First of all, am I experiencing any other symptoms? Such as…
- Am I feeling confused by simple things? [Spirituality, for me, brings about clarity of mind and a sense of true inner peace. It does not bring on the hazy sense of ‘high-ness’ and dulling of the mind that my symptoms cause. Spirituality makes me feel sharp like a knife and makes me visibly more efficient and functional.]
- Is the world appearing different in any way? [My symptoms make the world seem dark and grey, or special and full of magic. Spirituality does not affect this, it brings about a sense of what I call ‘educated wonder’ where I know more and am more perceptive. This, again, is a different sensation from being ‘high’.]
- Do people who know me see a difference in my behavior? (I ask them if I appear confused, if my facial habits seem the same, if I appear as ‘fast’ and mentally capable as I ‘normally’ am. Some people can tell the difference, some can’t.) [I do not act differently when I am spiritually functional. Unless intentionally doing trance-work, there is only a sense of (again) being heightened in a functional and ‘sharp’ way. People would say that I am thinking faster. Not so when I am in a slump of mental illness. I appear hazy, unfocused, and often my face is held differently. Again- ask people who you know you can trust.]
- From a more long-term perspective, say things seem to be getting strange in the past month, check your grades, your dishes (my stack of dirty dishes correlates immediately to my episodes), any small markers that show you’re having a hard time doing things that you normally do. Why? Because mental illness usually affects functioning. Positive spirituality (spiritual teachings, revelations, enlightenments) won’t. My dishes get done when I am spiritually fulfilled and functional. My circle is cast, rituals are performed, and my apartment is sparkling and my floors washed. Not so when I am struggling mentally.
- Are other psychics picking up on this?! Again, pick psychics you can trust who you believe. It serves nothing if you won’t take their word for it, and especially nothing if they’re just going to tell you what they think you want to hear. A good psychic won’t be afraid to contradict you. I’ve had many psychics tell me they weren’t seeing what I was seeing, that there was nothing there. This was often the case with my recurring visions of what I now know are hallucinations. This was not the case with spiritual experiences, which others agreed with me that they too were experiencing, and which were non-repetitive. Which brings us to our next point.
- Repetition. Are these experiences constant and repeated? Spirits get bored. In my experience, they’ve manifested in multiple ways, with differing imagery, changing messages and desires. Not so with mental illness. For depression, it was the same constant feelings of dread and the desire to end my life. For other symptoms, it was often the same vision, same placement, same feeling when they appeared. Most importantly, NOTHING I did could change these. Which again is it’s own point.
- Can you interact with these in order to bring about a change to them? Now I know that with my hallucinations (and they are very very mild) I could hold a sort of conversation with them. I know for others too that this was very very possible. So here I feel like I am crossing a line. So I want to say that at least for myself, and perhaps only for myself, even if I could converse with them I could not change them. No amount of smudging could make the boogiemen go away, if you will. No amount of prayers or invocations made it stop. Nothing could shake my depression or anxiety either. However, spiritually, I can summon deities. I can ask them to leave – and they will. This brings me back to my first theoretical point on spirituality being exterior and mental illness interior. Mental illness is something we do not have control over to a large degree. We may use tools to affect it, such as pills, hot baths and exercise for anxiety, but we cannot simply will it away. Yet we can ask spirits to do things and we can affect them through our magical thought. So… this is a delicate distinction. A very very delicate one that I am hesitant to voice because I find that for much psychosis, it probably does not hold. But perhaps for other symptoms? Again, please take this with a grain of salt. I am not a doctor.
- ‘Is this going anywhere?’ Now, again, this especially doesn’t apply to all symptoms. But one thing that I have noticed is that my symptoms never brought me anything. They never built to revelations, spiritual powers, or a cohesive goal. Because they are not exterior and autonomous beings that I am having relationships or discussions with, it is a stasis. There is no teaching or goals to the interaction. There is no real reason for them to show up and frighten me. It is simply events that I may try and glean some self-knowledge from, or have discussions with people with. But with my spirituality, I grow to learn about my fellow spirits. I learn about spiritual truths and wisdom. There is so much developing through these relationships and experiences than there is with my symptoms. In retrospect, I’ve gleaned so much from my spiritual relationships, and though I have gained self-knowledge from my experiences with mental illness – it was gains that I struggled to glean from what feels like an inert object that randomly popped up.
- Injected thoughts vs. godspeak. Everyone’s godphone is different. I would just like to mention that for me, I have come to sense a difference between the two. Namely that my symptoms are far more clear and direct than my deities are (HAH!). I do not get specific words from my deities. They are more nuanced, more gentle, and I often need to use tools such as runes or tarot cards in order to decipher them. If I am lucky, a few spattered words will pop out at me. Not so with my symptoms. When I get what I call ‘injected thoughts’ or perhaps ‘intrusive thoughts’, they are statements that are sharp. Phrases such as ‘there’s a dead body there, beware!’ or ‘that’s a dead mouse!’ (for a tea bag) are crystal clear. With my PTSD waves of fear and sense of doom and hyper-vigilance, I am not left wondering as to what the meaning of my feeling is. I know there is doom coming within my bones, I have vivid flashes of what may occur. When I receive commands as a symptom, they are harsh and direct. Not so with my deities. They are gentle, soft, and nebulous as can be. Now, again again and again- this may not be the case for everyone. This is merely my experience. This is only what I have observed as a difference between my deities and my symptoms. If you are uncertain or you see an overlap (your deities are commanding, they give very clear orders) talk it out with your gods. Ask them to change their methods of communication, just so you can sort their voices out from the chatter. Better yet- consult a doctor who is respectful of your beliefs and practices.
- Psychiatric medication. Oh boy. I’m going to maybe offend people the most here, but this is one that I firmly stand by. If your medication affects it- it may not be real. Ouch. This one shocked me a lot. I was surprised when so many things in my head stopped once my medication stabilized. It was like looking around a room that had just a moment ago been crammed full, and now was suddenly empty. No matter how much introspection I did, I wouldn’t have guessed that so much of that was my mental illness. And that’s my final note on this. You can guess and decipher, but ultimately it’s not the same as the advice of an experienced doctor that you have good communication with. Medication can help, and I was very lucky to strike upon one that worked very well for me and knocked out a whole lot of symptoms all at once. Seeing the effects of this medication (and several others) is what made it possible for me to draw up these differences.For anyone wondering how my medication affected my spirituality (or if you are worried about how it will affect yours), I’ve blogged about it before and will do so quasi-continuously in order to promote positive use of medication. My spiritual experiences have bettered from being on stable and properly dosed medication. My spiritual experiences have become more clear as I have gained sharper focus while regaining my mental abilities. The terrifying hallucinations have diminished and become far less credible as my other symptoms lessened. For anyone out there worrying if the medication will impair their spiritual abilities, the answer is no. Flat and simple. Your guiding spirits will still be there and they will still be reaching out to you. They do not need you to be impaired and imbalanced in order for themselves to be heard. They are so much more than that. Take care of yourself, and at least for myself, it made it much easier for them to reach me. I hope it does the same, no matter what path you choose for self-care.