From Manic Insights to a Holistic Truth; Moving Towards Healing with Bipolar Disorder
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I am at a Jewish retreat in Brooklyn, NY with my fiancée. The Kabbalah is the language of wonder. There is hidden wisdom inside all of us, said the Chabad Rabbi. I am taken with this revelation. I have always felt I was the font of all knowledge, that aliens from other dimensions have put me here to broadcast this wisdom and help others to understand. These are the thoughts that run through me as I watch the Shabbat candles be lit, the Challah be broken, and the prayers be recited by hundreds of Jews. I was on fire that weekend.
The retreat has set me off and I spend all night scribbling in my journal on a bed in someone else’s home. I believe I am speaking directly with G-d deep truths about the universe and making up prayers for my loved ones. I even call my dad and leave a voicemail at 1AM to tell him my discoveries. The next day, I talk real fast to my fiancée and everyone else and I don’t want these feelings to end. No one is fazed by my interconnected sudden religiosity but my fiancée privately asks me if I am on my lithium. Even a strong gatekeeper like lithium can sometime let a little mania spill out. A little hypomania enhances creativity and can feel good—good enough to never feel that wave rising. However, I am on an extremely low dose and it might be a sign that my medication needs tweaking.
The interconnections between bipolar disorder and spirituality often play themselves out in florid manias and psychosis. But sometimes in hypomania, the lines get blurred by us never knowing what is real and true and what is the byproduct of mania. Many people with bipolar scoff at treatment not wanting to dull their peak experiences. Good therapists and psychiatrists can guide the person in the direction of separating the illness with the spiritual experience.
Ever since I was diagnosed bipolar 1 over twenty years ago, I have had many spiritual experiences during hypomania or when floridly manic. In college, I studied New Agey stuff superficially. So, when I went into a psychosis and had to be hospitalized, I told a psychiatrist on the ward that I was a New Age healer and could heal myself. All tripped out on mania, I didn’t make a lot of sense. I could see George Bush Sr.’s “1000 points of light,” the source to all beings. They had to bring me down with sedatives.
Poet Anne Sexton, who struggled with bipolar, described it as, “the awful rowing toward g-d”. Actress Victoria Maxwell said it best; “I went into a blissful state with powerful insights which led to a florid psychosis, but the medical system pathologized the entire experience and didn’t give me space to tell them about the beginning part which was personally profound.”
I have been on some sort of medication over half of my life. The high doses tamped down my creativity; the low doses allowed creativity to break through but ultimately led to mania. The mania almost always crashed me into suicidal depressions. Therapy gave me insights into my manic behavior and my triggers, but no therapist I saw ever told me that the wisdom I had witnessed while manic was inside me and could guide me if channeled well. I came to this conclusion on my own after years of episodes kicking me up and down.
After taking a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) class with my therapist, I became enthralled with mindfulness and meditation. I began attending meditation sessions at the local Zen Center in Chicago. I woke up early on cold Sunday mornings to walk four miles to the zendo. I was so manic I couldn’t sit still for these sessions and struggled. Until, one day, they taught us walking meditation. I learned through walking and running, moving my body, that I could feel oneness with the universe. To this day, when I am too anxious to sit on a meditation cushion, I go out for a run and return to my sense of greater purpose. There is a Jewish saying to run and return, which emphasizes returning yourself to the universe through movement.
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I began pounding the pavement through the Chicago streets at the hour of dawn. Running helped me return to my self-insight, clear my head, and not to mention control the side effects of weight gain of my medications. Running to the beat of my iPhone helped me focus the beat of my mind. When I don’t run, I am anxious, uncomfortable, and filled with false beliefs about myself and the world.
During graduate school, I began working Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Steps. The insights I learned about myself sent me flying onto a pink cloud as people in the program say. I literally yelled them out on my rooftop patio of my apartment building and told strangers in Lincoln Park. I was manic that night—somewhere between hypomania and psychosis—when I went to my stylistics class. I felt that oneness feeling and was rhyming the Hebrew word for G-d (Adonai) with the state I lived (Illinois). I was rhyming poetry to G-d. I went on to interrupt class with my great insights and hyperbole. The next day the instructor threw me out of that class as I had offended him.
Soon afterward, my psychiatrist switched my medication and we found that a moderate dose allowed me the fluidity of thought while not launching me into a mania. Spirituality is a good thing, but mania can cross the line. It is important to discuss one’s spiritual beliefs with a therapist to see what is real and what is the illness talking. I wish I had been braver to talk more about my spiritual beliefs with my therapists. I was afraid that I would be labeled, mocked, or spurned. But I did turn to journaling to discover where my inner wisdom was coming from. Now, I see that when I share the truths in my journals with a counselor, it helps to gain perspective on which is me and which is my illness.
Today, I light my red chakra grounding candle. For me, when I ground myself in the present moment, I can truly appreciate my insights for being real. When I am ungrounded and manic, it feels like too much and I can’t handle it. Spirituality whispers itself into my everyday moments. I keep a journal with me to collect the fragments and make sense of them later.
Through the years, I have explored mystic Judaism, Eastern philosophy, Buddhist meditation, New Age occult, the Course in Miracles with Gabrielle Bernstein, and the 12 Steps of AA. Hypergraphia allowed me to capture my manic insights onto paper as it was happening. I compare these journals to those I write after years of therapy. They are raw and scratchy, feral writings hardly legible to the naked eye. One must be a psychoarchaeologist to decipher all the signs, symbols, and ancient meanings in my scribblings. They are the work of a true artist: Virginia Woolf with a Moleskine. Today, I have a greater understanding of my purpose in the universe. My manias taught me much in the beginning, but eventually it became too much too fast. When ideas come, I use meditation, yoga, exercise like running, to control them. Every day insights can come from doing chores. And, medication does not damper them. It only fixes my mind on what is real, true and not a false illusion. I know today that I can own what’s inside of me with confidence. Everyone has hidden wisdom inside of them, but for some, like me, it can go too far. It’s been a long journey but I have finally learned how to wonder and return.