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Mon, April 1, 2013
The Spiritual Journey through Mental Illness
“We are not human beings on a spiritual path.  We are spiritual beings on a human path.”
What is the meaning of, “Journey” when the Path leads through the briars and brambles of psychiatric distress?  When one is suffering in their spirit, can they even be said to be “Spiritually Journeying?”  Aren’t they really just stuck in a place of non-growth, non-progress?  Don’t they exist in a limbo of the lost?  Too much has been written lately about mental health as if this were a commodity held by the righteous few.  Too many are pointing fingers at the mentally ill as if we are somehow “guilty” of our plight.
Those of you who’ve read my CoSozo article of last October [CoSozo Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 10, “Schizophrenia” ( know I work for the Michigan Office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and labored for the National Schizophrenia Foundation from 1999 until 2007.
So it makes sense that I would consider mental illnesses as real illnesses of the brain: real structural and biological diseases of the body’s master organ, as “real” and “physical” as broken bones and kidney stones.  How can I speak of value from a “spiritual Journey” and recovering from such mental diseases as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, chronic depression, major fears, phobias, obsessions and compulsions and traumatic stress in the same breath?
It’s simple, really: I believe in the reality of mental health recovery as a process we all go through as we Journey from illness back to health.  For me, as for anyone who is working to do deep, personal, inner growth work and who also labors to help others through the nightmare of (even psychotic) psychiatric symptoms, it makes good sense to speak of this process as a Journey.
Living as I do within the recovering community, I understand that it makes sense to accept the course of recovery from illnesses of the brain as non-linear and meandering, demanding the investment of our deepest selves to reach final success.  The path demands compassion toward all other sufferers.  This path demands good self-care.  Recovery is, indeed, a long Journey beneath our tired, tender feet. 
So what values must we hold as we Journey—what guidelines tell us we are Journeying away from delusion and despair and moving towards the light? 
Humility.  The beginning of recovery and the Journey toward mental health occurs when you lower your barriers and actually ask for help.  Maybe you go to your pastor or minister first.  Most Americans seek ministerial help first when confronted with psychiatric problems; this usually delays their getting into treatment for what are properly medical illnesses.  My advice is if you sever an artery get medical treatment first!  Talk to a minister after you get your stitches!
I went to one of my dearest friends in college and asked, “Gretchen, I’m so depressed all the time that I can’t do my schoolwork.  What should I do?”  [I was finally open to the possibility that I needed real help.  But I needed to be given direction.]  Her reply was, “Larry, you are mentally ill.  Go to the Student Health Center and talk to someone!”  While my fragile ego held on to the notion that deep depression was somehow not a “mental illness,” I went to the campus health center and saw a professional counselor within a day.  This was the beginning of my Journey to wellness.
Honesty.  To get proper assessment and treatment, you must be open and honest with the mental health professionals assigned to your care.  To be less than 100% honest only slows your own recovery Journey.  Answer the therapists’ questions candidly so they can help your doctor arrive at an accurate diagnosis.  They are in the counseling field because they genuinely want to help you.
Discipline.  When one is Journeying out of the morass of symptoms, one needs to accept the disciplines of medication management and medication compliance—following the medication regimen the way the doctor actually prescribes it.  To do otherwise is just “playing at the game” of getting better—it is not adhering to the master plan for recovery.  More people set out sabotaging their own recovery by playing a wishy-washy on-again—off-again game with medical directions.  One must take the medications as prescribed for a while to see whether the side effects go away after a few days or need adjustment to make them manageable.  Not taking these powerful drugs as prescribed can actually make adjusting to them take longer.
Leadership.  The best resource for the Journey of recovery from mental illnesses is the support and guidance of others who’ve waged the same battles and won.  Support groups exist for most of the specific psychiatric maladies out there.  For instance, NAMI Connection is a national, recovery-oriented support group that is available to the public, free of charge and offered to those who are suffering from all mental illnesses.  Once you invest yourself in a support group, consider giving leadership a try; you will benefit as much as you give.
Peace. The surest sign you are Journeying in the right direction is when you start to experience more peaceful moments in your life again—especially when you find yourself trying new ventures.  When you awaken late at night and realize it is quiet and you are no longer afraid and depressed, you have turned a corner and you are headed toward recovery.
Prayer.  The spiritual disciplines of prayer, reading and reflecting on the holy teachings of your faith tradition and meditating on their meaning in your life should not be tossed aside as a waste of time when you are Journeying to recover from a psychiatric disorder.  You don’t stop being a spiritual being on a sacred Journey when schizophrenia or bipolar or disabling obsessions derail your plans for your life.  The spiritual virtues have served all humankind through horrible traumas and heartache.  Let these faith practices and traditional values lift and comfort you as you Journey toward recovery. 
May these values hold you in good stead as you Journey down Life’s path.

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