Is bipolar disorder a precursor to a spiritual awakening?

sufferingThe idea that bipolar disorder is somehow linked to spirituality is an extremely fascinating topic to me. If you or someone you know has experienced manic-depressive episodes, you may be aware of certain spiritual themes that frequently occur with this disorder. It is not uncommon for people diagnosed with bipolar disorder to report times when they felt pure bliss or a divine connection to everything. Some say they received messages from God or that they were God. Some also say they received visions and had a sudden influx of creative ideas. There is often a feeling of power and confidence that accompanies a manic episode. To someone with an average/limited level of consciousness, these experiences are indications that someone has “gone crazy” or has “lost touch with reality.” Someone with expanded consciousness, though, recognizes that these experiences have a spiritual undertone, which may indicate that bipolar disorder is so much more significant than just mental illness.

I’m glad to find that other people are noticing the potential link between bipolar disorder and spirituality and that they are discussing their experiences with this “illness” because it may help us discover a better explanation for why it is happening to more and more people. Of all mental disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are typically considered the most severe, yet traditional medicine has failed to explain exactly what causes these disorders and why some people suffer while many others don’t. Of all mental disorders, I think bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have the most potential to lead to spiritual experiences, so I’m not sure that I agree with the Western approach of medicating and suppressing whatever emotions, thoughts, and sensations that these patients are experiencing. Suppressing what these people are feeling might be a suppression of the spiritual path that these people were meant to follow.

In some cultures, mental illness is not seen as a problem or defect in the person who is experiencing unusual symptoms. In this article What a Shaman Sees in a Mental Hospital, Dr. Malidoma Somé explains that in his culture, mental illness signals a spiritual crisis and “the birth of a healer.” When someone is suffering, people in the community assist that person through shamanic rituals. Of course in Western culture, everyone is expected to fit neatly into the norm, and anyone who steps away from the norm gets labeled as unstable, ill, and/or insane. The unusual symptoms and thought patterns displayed by the “unstable” person are viewed as a problem that need to be eradicated as quickly as possible. There is usually a lack of guidance and support to allow the person to navigate through the process naturally. Instead of becoming a healer, the person is expected to become a lifelong patient with no hope of recovery or healing. It is a depressing view of mental illness that limits our potential, and I think that view has become very outdated.

I have a history with bipolar disorder and was stuck for years in that limiting mindset where I viewed myself as a lifelong sufferer of the illness. My experience with manic-depressive episodes began when I was 17, and I coped with it for three years without medication. I’m not sure exactly what triggered my first episode, but I recall drinking energy drinks around the time it occurred. You might be thinking caffeine is too weak to trigger a manic episode, but I’m pretty sensitive to it and have avoided caffeinated beverages for several years now. My first episode wasn’t too intense. I just felt significantly more energetic, lighter, and more social than normal. My behavior and demeanor had shifted enough for a couple of friends to notice that I seemed different. The positive, hypomanic feelings lasted only a couple days, which was followed by a horrible crash that prevented me from getting out of bed and going to school. It was hard to explain it to my mother, but I just knew I couldn’t face the world and function while feeling that low. Around that age, I was no stranger to depression. I started struggling with depression when I was 15, and the manic episodes didn’t start until I was 17.

My late teens were a rough time. I had no plans for my future because I remember coping with depression on a daily basis that sucked away my hope and aspirations. Then, after discovering that the few friends I had were users, the depression turned into deep resentment against the entire world. To protect myself, I turned into a hermit and spent approximately a year-and-a-half in solitude without anyone to turn to discuss what I was feeling. Most days, I felt very depressed and hopeless, but occasionally, a hypomanic episode would strike for a couple of days, which was always followed by a crash into suicidal depression. It took me a while to notice the pattern in my mood swings, but once I realized what was going on, I tried to deny the fact that I needed help. I had convinced myself that I had bipolar disorder, but I stubbornly wanted to overcome it by myself.

In the 3 years of dealing with bipolar disorder without medication, I found that each hypomanic episode was slightly different from the other. Some were relatively mild and only caused me to feel hyper and happy. Some were terribly uncomfortable due to the fact that I could not sit still or concentrate. One morning, I woke up to such rapidly racing thoughts that I literally thought I was losing my mind. I wanted to scream out of fear and frustration. A couple of manic episodes caused me to feel agitated, angry, and irritable. Those were definitely uncomfortable. There were some episodes that caused me to feel more creative than usual. Then there were those episodes that were very blissful and magical. Though my energy was extremely elevated, I could actually think very clearly during those episodes. My thoughts were extremely positive. I felt powerful, confident, and limitless. I felt love and compassion for everyone and everything. Though I wasn’t a spiritual person at the time, I felt like there was a greater meaning to everything and that everything was perfect as it is. There was so much inner peace and happiness within me that I remember feeling like absolutely nothing could bring me down. I also remember during one of the magical, blissful episodes, I felt a sexual energy stirring inside me that caused me to feel attracted to people I wouldn’t normally consider attractive. It was odd and unusual to feel all those things I didn’t normally feel, but it was also intensely pleasurable to feel bliss and inner peace on that level.

In the eyes of someone who is not spiritual or consciously awake, I probably appeared to be a very unstable person who was in desperate need of psychological help and medication. I’m not denying that I felt very unstable when I went through all that, and medication and therapy did in fact help me, but I think it’s important to investigate why there seems to be a spiritual quality to some of the manic episodes that people, like myself, have experienced. To be honest, I didn’t start noticing the spiritual undertone to some of my episodes until a few months ago when I read a quote by Adyashanti that says, “All is always well even when it seems unbelievably unwell.” I immediately remembered how that exact thought came to me during a manic episode when I was 20. The thought popped into my mind that no matter what is wrong on this planet or in the universe, it is all perfectly ok and serves some kind of greater purpose. There was no desire to fix or change anything because it seemed that everything would eventually balance itself. I knew that everything would ultimately be ok no matter what happened. Being in such a peaceful, accepting state of mind was far different from my normally anxious self that wants to fix things and make them better. To an awakened person, it might appear that my ego temporarily dissolved while I was in the manic state.

It is still difficult for me to understand why I experienced all those strange and unusual symptoms at that particular time in my life, but now that I have been having a true spiritual awakening for the past year, I wonder if maybe my mind, body, and soul were attempting to undergo a transformation years ago. Perhaps there was too much pain within me back then that needed to be released and healed, so it’s possible I wasn’t prepared yet for a fuller awakening. I wonder how many people have followed a similar path in which they had a full spiritual awakening after experiencing manic episodes. Is it possible that if someone has bipolar disorder, they are more likely than the average person to awaken?

I don’t personally know a ton of people who have struggled with bipolar disorder, but almost all the people I have met who’ve had bipolar disorder or bipolar tendencies were awakening or had so much potential to awaken. Well technically, everyone has the potential to awaken, but some of the people with bipolar disorder whom I’ve known appeared so close to it. While I was an intern at a mental health clinic, one of the clients I worked with had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and almost every single time I saw her, she said she was having a spiritual awakening. My boyfriend, who helped awaken me to all the major conspiracy theories a couple years ago, dealt with a mild version of bipolar disorder in his teen years. The person who educated me about factory farms and encouraged me to become a vegetarian had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. One of my online friends whom I refer to as my soul sister is following the spiritual path and was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. A friend who was a former atheist eventually became very religious after experiencing severe manic episodes. There certainly seems to be some kind of pattern here between bipolar disorder and expanding levels of consciousness.

What is the link, though? The traditional explanation in the field of psychology says that a difficult childhood can contribute to the development of bipolar disorder. Many people in the spiritual circle say that pain and suffering can lead to spiritual awakening. Does the pain and struggle of dealing with bipolar disorder lead to an awakening, or is bipolar disorder really just a sign of unresolved pain that causes our soul to awaken so we can heal ourselves? Maybe both are possible. In the past couple decades, why has there been a staggering increase in the number of adults and children who’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder? It’s likely that the pharmaceutical industry is a major culprit here in misdiagnosing people so they can sell more and more prescription drugs, but it’s possible that there really are more people suffering with this disorder in recent times. If that’s the case, are bipolar symptoms a sign that humans are trying to evolve? Is it a sign that there is something horribly unbalanced about our lives today? There is an idea that our internal world and the external world are direct reflections of each other. If more people are feeling emotionally unbalanced inside, maybe we can assume that there is something horribly unbalanced about our lives and the world we live in today. These are all just ideas to consider to bring us to a closer understanding of the nature and origin of bipolar disorder. There are plenty more ideas to consider, and I’d love to hear any theories you might have created about why bipolar disorder exists and why manic episodes seem like spiritual experiences in some cases.

Here is an interesting perspective from Sean Blackwell about how bipolar disorder is linked to consciousness:

Although it can be very difficult and confusing for someone to swing so high into euphoria and then so low into depression, maybe there is eventually a pay-off if the person is able to work through it and heal themselves. I took medication for 7 years and saw a therapist between 3 to 4 years, but I’ve been going with a natural approach for 7 months now with no sign of relapse into a manic episode. I think healing is possible, but it may not be an easy, quick fix for everyone who has ever dealt with manic episodes. If you’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or any other mental disorder, I encourage you not to view yourself as a lifelong sufferer. Make positive lifestyle changes, obtain social support so you can discuss your feelings with someone, heal old wounds, and focus on loving yourself more and more each day. In a future post, I plan to share what helped me overcome the manic-depressive episodes that were wreaking havoc in my life because I feel like that’s an equally important topic to discuss.

I would really appreciate your comments about personal experiences or thoughts related to bipolar disorder since I’m attempting to come to a greater understanding about the link between mental illness and spirituality.

Spiritual Awakening: Embracing This Difficult Path

spiritual 21In an effort to more accurately express all that awakening encompasses, this post has been altered from its original version, and I imagine it could be altered many more times as I further understand all the complexity that is involved when one experiences this dramatic shift.

So, what does it mean to spiritually awaken? If your experience has been similar to mine, there is no single word that can capture all that awakening entails. Sometimes you will find yourself expanding and growing, reaching significant new understandings. Hopefully, you will have a few mystical experiences that help open your eyes to seeing life through a new perspective. You will also likely sometimes find yourself stuck in the muck of old, unresolved issues that you know you need to face if you hope to drop the weight of the past. You will hear your soul calling for you to do what is necessary to experience a major rebirth and transformation, but at first, you may feel resistance and a clinging to your old way of life because you have no clue where this path of awakening is going to take you.

In this post, I would like to share my spiritual awakening experience so that others who are currently facing significant challenges will know they’re not the only ones struggling with this strange, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes overwhelming path of discovery. I would like to mention a couple of things before that. One, the journey of awakening never ends once you step foot on this path. There are endless ways to keep growing and shifting. None of us should expect to cross a finish line at any point. Secondly, although I will focus on the challenges involved with awakening, I certainly don’t view awakening as an entirely negative experience. I will dare to say that it is the most profound experience that a human can undergo.

As I have mentioned in other posts on this blog, my spiritual awakening began in April of 2014. Prior to that, I had no understanding of what it meant to be spiritual. Spirituality is something I had always lumped with religion, and religion had never filled any purpose in my life. I rejected religion from a very young age, despite the fact that I grew up in the Bible Belt. I could not convince myself to believe there was a man in the sky who would severely punish others if he was as compassionate and loving as others described him. I saw too much hypocrisy in all of it, so I decided what was best for me was to be an atheist and to reject anything that lacked logic and reason.

Three months prior to awakening, my brother had passed away. Then approximately a month after experiencing that loss, I became friends with someone who was very interested in spirituality. She was a bit surprised when I revealed that I was an atheist, and her comment that she thought there was a lot more to me than that baffled me. I was pretty convinced, at that time, that I would always remain an atheist and never delve into anything spiritual. So, as you might imagine, a spiritual awakening was really one of the very last things I ever expected to happen to someone like me.

The awakening struck without any warning, just a couple weeks before my graduation from graduate school. Essentially, what happened is I noticed that several synchronistic events occurred within a couple of weeks. In the past, I had always been quick to assume that synchronistic events were just random coincidences that weren’t worth any attention, but there was a completely different feeling about it this time. The coincidences were coming my way so frequently and rapidly that it really caught my attention. I knew there was something strange going on, but I couldn’t name what it was at first.

After telling my boyfriend about the recent coincidences, we started recalling other strange coincidences from the past that we had failed to notice. That’s when it hit me. I started to understand that those eerie coincidences were not just coincidences. Some of these things that happened were way too bizarre and statistically improbable to be considered random. They were synchronicities to me, and it was an indication that things happen for a reason and that something was trying to communicate with me through these signs I had been ignoring all my life. Once I came to those realizations, life didn’t seem so random and meaningless to me anymore. That’s the day I quit calling myself an atheist.

The next few weeks following my awakening were pretty positive. It was initially very exciting and mind-blowing to make that transition from atheist to a spiritually awakening soul. A small part of me was slightly freaked out but in a good way because I was suddenly able to see just how magical and beautiful life can be. I was simply awestruck. I knew something special was happening, and I felt grateful for it.

After graduating, I followed my intuition that told me to take a break to overcome the stress and burnout I had experienced as a graduate student. I was also beginning to sense that I was meant to go down a different path from everyone else. I had no clue exactly what I was going to do with my future, but I no longer felt like I was meant to go down the traditional path like all my classmates. I felt my soul calling me to go in another direction.

I spent the next few months trying to understand the debilitating fatigue that struck after I graduated. Instead of feeling better after a couple of months of being out of graduate school, like I had expected, I ended up feeling a million times worse once I slowed down and got away from all the stress and deadlines that I had become accustomed to during grad school. This fatigue turned into a horrible, unwelcome visitor that I could not get rid of after I graduated.

I tried to be patient and hopeful that my energy would finally be restored, but I ended up having to visit a naturopathic doctor after suffering from constant fatigue for months. I had a couple of mild vitamin deficiencies, but resolving those was not enough. I had so many symptoms of adrenal fatigue and decided to take a natural approach. Very slowly the worst symptoms started going away, but I am still not completely back to my normal self yet. My body is still slowly healing and adjusting. I am grateful that I can at least eat a meal now without feeling so wiped out that I need to nap for an hour. Sometimes I feel like I am seeing improvement, but then other times I find myself needing more naps than usual.

Despite the intense fatigue I experienced for about a year after the awakening began, there were pleasant moments interspersed here and there. Specifically, I had some sort of mystical out-of-body experience where I felt myself expanding beyond my physical body to the point that the boundaries between me and everything external to my body no longer felt solid. I felt extremely ungrounded and disconnected from my body, as if my soul/essence was floating around and melding with everyone and everything. This sensation lasted for about two days. To be honest, while I was in this expansive state, I was slightly concerned that I was losing my sanity and my ability to function like a normal human. It was also a beautiful experience, though. I finally felt like I was united with everyone and everything, from strangers around the world to the curtains hanging in my apartment. It moved me to tears to realize how much unnecessary separation we experience in human bodies.

The biggest challenges I still face are a lack of motivation and not having much of a sense of identity. Regarding the lack of motivation, I suspect I still have some health issues to tackle, but I also partly see it as part of the awakening process. A lot of my old goals and desires have lost their meaning as I have been discovering what really matters to me, so I am still in a place of trying to understand where I should go next during this phase in my life. Regarding the loss of my identity, I have had to encounter that downright scary feeling of not having a clue about who I am anymore. There have been days where I’ve seen myself in the mirror or in an old photograph and felt like I didn’t know who I was looking at anymore. It feels like the old me has died and existed in a completely different lifetime.

I have also had to face the reality that I have been unconsciously holding onto fear and pain for years, and I am still in the process of working through some of those old wounds and issues. Then there is the fact that my sense of isolation and loneliness has increased as I’ve let go of relationships that don’t seem like a good match anymore. I must admit, it has been hard to let go of some things from the past. It’s human nature to resist change, but the path of awakening can show us that some things from the past simply aren’t serving us well anymore. We learn how crucial it is to embrace new relationships, new goals, and new environments that help us connect with our more authentic self.

There is no doubt that pursuing the spiritual path requires a lot of strength and courage, but I have come to believe that it is worth the effort and the struggle. It means we must abandon many things from our former life, including our identity, but we can become lighter, freer, and more complete as we make this transition into a more spiritual being. Beginnings and transitions are always the most challenging.

If you currently feel lost, confused, frustrated, sad, anxious, hopeless, or afraid, I hope you will rely on your inner strength to get you through these challenging times. If you find the spiritual awakening process too challenging and feel the need to slow down and withdraw to cope with these changes, I hope you will honor whatever it is you feel you need to get through this. Your development and evolution is occurring at the pace that is right for you. We are all somewhere along the spiritual path, whether everyone is conscious of it or not. I embrace this transformation I’m going through. And if you have consciously embarked on a spiritual path, I hope you will find the courage to embrace transformation, too.