One long rambling post about mental illness, paganism and magic
Okay, fair warning: some of this might be triggering, some of this may be a bit weird. Behind the cut, I’m going to be rambling about mental illness, neopaganism, how my condition affects my practice, and how not to be an ableist knob-end in the pagan community. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, then scroll past this and forget you ever saw me cluttering up your dashboard. If that sounds interesting, then….
I’m going to be talking about two things I don’t often mention in any great detail here, namely my religion and my mental health. At the time of writing, I’m in the middle of a depressive episode and long story short, I got thinking about how my mental health affects me as a practicing pagan and how the pagan community deals with mental illness. I’m not looking for sympathy, I’m hoping to raise awareness. I’m hoping people will start to talk more about disabilities in our religion because there’s not a lot of discussion out there, particularly not when it comes to all things mental.
Obviously, this is really personal, I’m talking about my own experiences and opinions here. I can’t speak for all pagans or all people with my condition. And, uh, as I said, I don’t talk about this often so it’s not easy for me to write this. I might even take this down after I while I’m not sure. Here goes…
By way of an introduction: Who am I and what am I going on about?
You can call me pixie, I’m an eclectic pagan and I have bipolar disorder. So what does that mean? Bipolar disorder is what used to be called “manic depression”, but gods that’s a stupid term. “Bipolar” is a bit misleading too, I think it sounds as though you’re always either one or the other. In reality, most of the time a person with bipolar is fine. They get their ups and downs like any other person. Every now and then, though, they get extreme ups and extreme downs caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The thing you’ll hear most people talking about is depression, the low. It’s… not fun. Sadness, self-loathing, anxiety, loneliness (but not actually wanting to be with people because aaaaargh! People!), worthlessness… all wrapped up in a handy little package. It’s a bit like having a little voice living in your head that beats you up about everything you do. And it can go on for months. Like I said, not fun.
The flip side of this, the bit people tend not to mention as much, is mania, named after a group of Greek goddesses of madness. Mania is the high, so you’ll often hear people who don’t suffer from bipolar saying “oh I wish I had mania”. You don’t. See, mania might be fun to begin with but it’s not fun for long. You’re bursting with ideas, so many you just can’t get them all down in time and that gets frustrating pretty quick. You find you’re talking to someone and you’re talking too fast for them to keep up, and then you get angry with them. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat (or you eat too much), you obsess over ridiculous things. It makes you act like the worst reckless jerk. Some people take drugs, others get promiscuous and forget about protection, I once climbed up onto the roof and tried to walk along the guttering. Mania can be a lot more dangerous than depression.
Another thing people don’t often mention about bipolar is that severe cases of mania or depression you can get psychosis. Which means, yes, you can get hallucinations. No it’s not like tripping. Generally, we’re talking about vague auditory hallucinations here; the sense that there’s someone murmuring in the next room when the next room is empty, and generally those voices don’t sound very happy. And generally they’re talking about you. You can also get full blown visual hallucinations. And by “you”, I mean “I have done in the past”.
Right, who’s still with me after that bombshell? Who’s thinking “oh dear gods I’m reading the words of a crazy person”? Don’t answer that.
Bipolar and day-to-day pagan practices
As I said, most of the time, I’m totally fine. My medication helps keep me more stable for longer so I can carry on with worship, magic, meditation, all that good stuff, but the medication doesn’t keep it away completely. When I’m on an up- or down-swing, I struggle with routine, so daily meditation or yoga tends to slip to… weekly… or not at all. Concentration is a problem too. With depression, it’s more just general listlessness and despair distracting me, with mania it’s everything. Seriously, have you ever tried meditating with mania? Ain’t gonna happen.
In these extreme episodes I try to avoid magic, particularly the more labour-intensive work. It’s frustrating, because you’re at a point when you feel you really need it, but you know you’ll get yourself in a mess. For one thing it’s really hard to focus on intent when you’re feeling like shit. You’ll notice I said that I “try” to avoid magic; trouble is you’re not thinking straight, especially with manic episodes where you feel like you’re immortal and unstoppable and whatever other nonsense you’ve gotten into your head. I’ve now gotten into the habit of hiding my ritual kit and a lot of my books when I’m starting to get manic, just as some people find it helps to hide sharp objects when they’re low (wow that got dark quickly, didn’t it?)
At a point when you really want to look out for communication from your deities, for signs of support, you’re constantly aware that your mind is making bizarre connections and you’re leaping to ridiculous conclusions. How do you tell when it’s the god-phone and when it’s just static? And remember those auditory hallucinations I mentioned, well they’re eerily similar to experiences I’ve had with ghosts. When I’m low, I find myself doubting my own UPGs and… well… that’s pretty soul destroying. Now to be fair I doubt everything when I’m low. Religious experiences are different to psychotic ones, don’t get me wrong. As someone who has experienced both, I can attest to that. But the thing is, the difference is surprisingly small. And if you’re thinking “fuck off pixie, no it’s not, that’s a really insulting thing to say”, I’m not the only one who thinks so, check out this article.
When I’m low, like now, I tend to spend a lot of time reading because, hey, if I can’t practice at least I can swot. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ableist, dismissive shit in metaphysical writing. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve read that people with mental health issues shouldn’t practice magic at all, or that if you can’t do x, y and z every day you’re lazy, or how if you don’t do this particular wossname right you can “go mad” (what happens if you’re already mad, that’s what I want to know), or how a witch must be serene and happy and all that fluffy bunny bollocks that makes me throw the book into the bin. It’s funny, but a lot of the time I find it more satisfying to read mythological stories about “crazy” people at times like this. It’s oddly comforting to recognise something of my own experiences in, say, the story of Heracles’ frenzied rage or Cassandra’s confused predictions (seriously, her dialogue with the chorus in the Agamemnon is pure psychosis). And then there’s the Celtic stories about wildmen, whose madness drive them out in the forests to become half-feral. That really appeals to me, I’ve got to say, partly because they’re sometimes redeemable (like, say, Suibhne) and because there’s a tradition of them writing poetry (that whole Touched with Fire thing, the whole “wow crazy people are super artistic” thing, turns out it’s pretty old). Incidentally, there’s a really interesting chapter in The Princess who Ate People: The Psychology of Celtic Myths by Brendan McMahon about madness in Celtic mythology and using it to critique Freud. But now I’m getting distracted again.
The point I was groping for (before I went off on one) was that the Greeks seemed to be aware that the line between magic and madness is pretty thin. Both involve altered states of consciousness. Both can involve the intervention (imagined or otherwise) of gods, spirits or demons. Both can drive a person to the fringes of society. Both make a person see the world in a different way. So why are we, as magical practitioners, so afraid of mental illness? What can the community do to include people who suffer from it?
Inclusion, or how not to act like an arse
Okay, first things first; I get it. I get why “sane” practitioners are wary of… the rest of us. If you’re running a circle or you’ve got some ritual going on or whatever, you don’t want some fruitcake bringing in bad energies or freaking out in the middle of everything and putting everyone else off (or worse). Besides as a witch, you have to be “aware”, and how can you keep an eye on the universe if you can’t trust your senses, right?
Some groups completely exclude people with mental illnesses. I’ve even heard of some circles excluding people based on the medication they take, which seems a little backwards to me. Luckily for me, I prefer to work alone, the closest I get to group work is standing down the front row of an Inkubus Sukkubus gig, but that doesn’t mean that everyone with my condition does. In fact, many people with mental illness really desperately need to be with other people, to be part of a community and more than anything else to get support.
So what can groups do? Well, I would say don’t completely rule someone out until you’ve met them and spoken to them. Many people with mental illness, like me, are stable most of the time. So why exclude them? Instead, keep an eye on them. Make sure you know what their condition is and research it. Make sure you know what the possible “warning signs” might be. If they turn up at an event and they don’t seem fit, if you think they’re going to cause trouble, then gently but firmly ask them to sit this one out. Be understanding, but don’t stand for any shit. If they’re being unreasonable say “no”. And for gods’ sakes, steer them towards help. Even if you have to phone their doctor or their mum or something, if you think a person is a danger to themselves or to others, get them help.
What if you’re just pottering around on the internet? Well, this is where you have to try to be understanding. Think before you post. Remember, just because someone has a mental disorder it doesn’t mean they’re going to be all crazy all the time. Someone can be mentally “ill” and still stable, intelligent and hard-working. Like I said before, it’s really hurtful to see comments saying that you “shouldn’t” do something because of your disability (because it is a disability). It can be equally upsetting to see posts saying that if you can’t keep something up on a daily basis you’re “lazy” or words to that effect. Try not to use “going mad” as a threat if you’re into curses. Don’t post smart-arse comments about how if someone was “really” a witch they could magic themselves happy. And if you’re going to post about something that you think might be triggering, for fuck’s sake warn people at the start.
If you’re a moderator, try to keep an eye on the more…wobbly posts you might find. If someone seems unstable, get them help if you can. Try to keep the trolls away from them, but don’t be afraid of removing the person causing all the histrionics in the first place. Your site (or blog or whatever) is not there for people to use instead of psychiatric help so don’t stand for it (unless your site is there for psychiatric help, in which case
you’re screwed use your head!)
And lastly a few general tips in dealing with mental health:
- Don’t you dare tell someone not to take their meds. Don’t tell them their medication is “stopping them from seeing reality” or any of that bullshit. You wouldn’t tell a cancer patient not to go to their chemo, you wouldn’t tell a diabetic not to take their insulin, so don’t do it. Some conditions, like mine, are literally an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. I need to add a chemical or two to balance me out. Deal with it.
- Don’t tell someone not to trust their doctor or psychiatrist. Some shrinks suck, some shrinks are great. Just because you’ve had a bad experience in the past doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t seek help.
- Don’t write off someone’s experience just because they “have the crazies”. When you suffer from psychosis and/or hallucinations you start to learn where reality starts and the condition stops, even if it’s hard to tell them apart when you’re in the middle of an episode. In the pagan community, that means not writing off people’s UPGs.
- If someone you know is having an episode, try to be understanding. Give them space but let them know you’re there for them if you feel you can be.
For those out there who are suffering with mental illness and need a bit of support getting into the pagan community and all things magical, I’m probably not the person to talk to but there’s some useful stuff in the third part of that series I mentioned earlier.
Well that’s it. Gosh, that was longer than I’d planned. Thanks for reading. If anyone has any replies or comments, I’d be interested to hear them (within reason, don’t be a jerk).