So, a few weeks ago, a Facebook friend posted an article titled, ““5 things that aren’t as magical as you think they are”
It sparked an interesting discussion. That alone was cool, but now I’m stuck in isolation (thank you global pandemic), and I’m turning my original comments into an essay. I’m bored. Y’all are subjected to my thoughts now.
So, the author of the article makes some good points, (expressed in atrocious writing, but that’s sadly expected these days). But much of it I only half-agree with. The author took a very simplistic, reductionist view of the subject matter in my opinion. Some of these points are actually correct …. Somewhat. As I said, it’s a very black-and-white view, and life is very rarely either/or. Humans often like simple, either/or thinking, but sorry, Life is complicated and messy (doesn’t Covid-19 prove that??!!!). The author’s condescending attitude is really the worst part of the article. I think she is really addressing a certain type of person that she probably runs into frequently in the pagan community in her area, that it sounds like she is (understandably) fed up with, but I don’t think her complaints apply to most serious students of Paganism.
While on the Facebook conversation I briefly touched on all 5 of her points, in this post I’m really only going to address the first one: mental health issues. It’s the one I have the most experience with and the strongest opinions about. First of all I should say that I absolutely can’t stand when people imply or outright say that I’m less spiritual somehow for taking psych meds. That is absolutely a HUGE problem in the Pagan community. I think that kind of meddling in someone else’s health is just as bad as the paternalism in the health care system and the way pills are often automatically shoved down someone’s throat. Everyone has the right to advocate for their own health.
But … There are several ‘buts’ that go with this statement. And a few of them are big ‘but’s.
I absolutely disagree with her about depression and anxiety being a not sign of being “too spiritual for this world” or however it was that she put it. Modern society is built to generate anxiety, it goes against all our instincts and how we evolved to live, and every generation is getting higher and higher incidences of depression and anxiety (by percentage, not number). It’s not a sign of health to be well-adjusted in a sick world.
Modern culture is soaked in miamsa. It’s hostile to piety in any form (see my essay about how people of faith are portrayed in media to get a better understanding of what I mean). Cruelty is institutionalized and even lauded as a moral good. We are in a serious crisis, culturally, and that was before Gaia sent this plague from our collective shadow to wreck havoc on us. With all of us now forced inside, we are facing ourselves and unable to distract ourselves with work and constant activities. And oh boy, does our culture have problems with stillness. Too much stillness will make us realize how empty our lives really are, how much we are longing for SOMETHING, something we can’t name. Usually this feeling is crushed with sex or alcohol or something else to numb the pain if we can’t run from it, but the fact is we just have to move through it
Spirituality isn’t always (or usually, really), fuzzy feelings. It’s work. It’s hard. It’s backbreaking.
It’s not just about spirituality and religion. It’s about being human. We are built for intense short term stress like running from a tiger, not the long-term, forever hanging-over-your-head stress of insane student loans killing your chance of getting ahead. Your limbic system interprets that as a tiger chasing you, ALL THE TIME. Of course we have fucking anxiety!!
This other part Is going to be controversial. Sometimes, madness is a sign of being touched by the Gods. Why do we always have a God of madness, in every pantheon? Because it’s not just a human experience, it’s a human NEED. My first breakdown can easily be attributed to experiences with Dionysos and Anubis that I wasn’t entirely ready for at the time. There were other things going on in my life, yes, I am bipolar and at the time I didn’t know that and was unmedicated, yes, but …. The big “but” here …. there is a danger to real Divine experience. The Gods can break your head open, literally, and it can be crushing and terrifying experience. Our fleshy meat brains can’t contain Their glory and magnificence, and even a glimpse of it can be too much. But if you manage to come out transformed, reborn in Their power, remade, it’s the most beautiful thing ever.
In ancient times, a shaman had to cure themselves of a disease, to go literally to death’s door and come back. Some might find this arrogant, and maybe it is, I don’t know, but the more I get into spiritwork, the more I’m starting to see my first breakdown and the impossibly deep, dark hole I clawed my way out of as a shamanic initiation. I am always afraid of going back to that place, and while I have been hospitalized once again since the first time, I would describe my other dark spots as “smaller”, I’ve never fully gone back to that deep dark place in the Underworld. (A note: I am not a shaman yet. That is a *very* SPECIFIC title that I have not yet earned. I do not want to portray myself as something I am not. Words have a power and magic all their own. I’m studying, but I’m just getting comfortable calling myself a spiritworker)
Now. The difficult part with this…. How do you tell the difference….??? Good question. Not an easy one to answer. That takes time and experience. A lot of experience. I don’t want to medicate away all my emotions, but my meds make my mood swings manageable. They make it possible for me to live a life. Most importantly, I can’t serve the Gods if I am constantly unstable. Serving the Gods and revitalizing their worship is my most important mission in life. I’m absolutely certain it’s what I was put here to do.
I’m reading a book called “Redefining Madness”. I’m not very far into it yet, but its fascinating. It’s written by a psychiatrist who noticed something interesting about patients he was treating for schizophrenia. Those with the best recovery rates saw their psychosis as something spiritual, and were able to frame it as meaningful in some way, and those were the ones who did best. Even if they were super poor with no support system, they did better than the rich ones who had everything going for them. And, recovery did not mean returning to who you were before the psychosis. It meant understanding that we evolved this ability for a reason, it does something possibly beneficial if you let it. You have to let it transform you and craft yourself into something new. How Dionysian is that??? Some of the schizophrenia patients have now been living for years WITHOUT ANTI-PSYCHOTICS, AND WITHOUT RELAPSE. That is something shocking to the psychiatric community. It shouldn’t be possible, right? But it is. It has been. It will be. And maybe it’s because we are completely misunderstanding the PURPOSE of mental illness. Now I would never, ever tell anyone to just stop taking their meds (all the case studies in the book were done under the management of a doctor), but this goes back to advocating for your own health.
It’s interesting that I am writing about Holy Madness here, when this blog is dedicated to Athena, the Goddess of Rationality. She has not been very active in my life for the last few years. I had wondered if She was gone completely. For the last few years, Odin has been the most active Holy Power in my life, and I expect that to continue for a while. While They are both Gods that rule over intelligence and the mind, in many, many ways, Their energy is pretty much polarized. So I had wondered if Athena was done with me. But I have received divination that I still belong to the Owl-Eyed Lady, but that there is a lot for me to learn with Odin and others of the Norse pantheon.
Thinking about my experiences with Odin makes me think about my experiences with Dionysos. They are ecstatic, earthy Gods of Holy Madness. And you might think that Athena would not want anything to do with Them. But in Orphic Myth when the Titans tore baby Zagreus apart, it was Athena who saved His heart so He could be reborn as Dionysos. They have little interaction in myth, but this detail hints at a deeper interaction between the two. This idea, that madness is valuable, even sacred, is something that our overly rational society is extremely uncomfortable with. But it’s something that Polytheists need to get over, frankly. Because religion isn’t just found in the ivory halls of learning and in dusty scholars debating theology. It’s felt in the blood and the bones, and sometimes that leads you down the path of madness. That doesn’t make it any less sacred.