There are many guides written today for people with manic-depression. Most are clinical, some are personal, but I have not found one that addresses the spiritual dimension of this “disease.” It is hard enough to live a spiritual or religious life in today’s post-modern world; when you mix it up with a mental illness, it can fly off the handle. Or not.
Manic-depression, like all mental illnesses, has the ability to manipulate a person's reality--that is, how they view the world. In depression, the mind slows and time seems to have slipped into an eternity. In mania, the world is sped up to a dizzying pace, the body frantically scrambling to catch up. Schizophrenics struggle to differentiate between real and imagined voices, while those with multiple-personality disorders try to keep themselves from splitting in two, or three, or four.
The mind, in term, interprets reality according to what it is given. The expression, “you become what you love” is fitting for this phenomenon, for all of life is interpreted through one lens or another. For those with strongly held religious beliefs, life is interpreted in a religious paradigm.
People who live with manic-depression have special challenges that most of the populace does not. They need to stay balanced. They need to stay rested. They need to learn to manage their responses to stress as if their life depended on it.
Religion and spirituality are like all things: they can be well-adjusted and properly integrated into one's functional life; or they can be created as an escape from reality. Spirituality at its essence is being comfortable with what is not known. Religion and religious practice can help to facilitate this integration of the known and the Unknown. Tragically, though, most of us succumb to the powerful temptation to trade in our uncertainties for a sure set of answers.
Religion is the proposed answer to the questions which most vex us: "Who am I?", "Why am I here?", "Where am I going?" The desire to find the answers for oneself is the beginning of the spiritual path. It is my belief that religion and spirituality work hand in hand to try to help us to live better, more meaningful lives. When either fails to do this, it is no longer serving its function, and must either be abandoned or reevaluated in a different light. Mental "illness" can provide that different light.
I am grateful for my mental illness. I would not trade it anymore than I would trade my right arm or left foot. It is not "me," but it is a part of me that can never be separated from me, whether I want it to or not. It cannot be cut out like a tumor, or sewn up like a gaping wound, or annihilated with chemotherapy. It cannot be pointed to anymore than the wind can be pointed to. But one knows when the wind is blowing strongly or whispering softly, and in what direction, by what moves around it.
The question of whether I consider myself to be mentally "ill" demands a different consideration. There have been times in which my mental health was in a state of dis-ease. There have also been times when my body has been in a state of dis-ease. I do not consider my body to be in a constant state of illness, so why should my sometimes-sick mind brand me with the titled of being forever "mentally ill?"
The fact is that sometimes our mind does get sick, and things get out of whack. The brain is an unbelievably complicated and delicate thing (that is why it is surrounded by such a thick skull!). Just as a slight disruption in the beating of one's heart can be adjusted with a pacemaker to avoid catastrophic repercussions in the vital organs, so can medication help to stabilize and regulate the flow of chemicals. I am a proponent of medication therapy, despite all the horrors it has put me through. But I don't think medication alone will cure anyone.
There is a growing recognition in our society of the integrated structure of our being. That is, we are more than just a body--we are also mental, emotional, sexual, spiritual beings. Hollistic arts and metaphysical science hold this assumption as part of their core beliefs. With regards to mental health, neuroscience has the physical part of the mind covered. Psychotherapy handles the emotional, and Freud singlehandedly explained away the psycho-sexual. So who is taking care of our spiritual selves?
For many of us, we are. In a post-modern world, the institutions which provided traditional spiritual guidance have (supposedly) run their course. Where, then, do we turn for spiritual guidance? From here and there...really, wherever suits our fancy. There is nothing wrong with a spiritual medly per se. Such a technique does, however, resist a systematic approach to spiritual practice through a particular religious tradition which by its very nature has the potential to infuse order into already chaotic lives.
The mind predisposed to mental dis-ease is like an unstable isotope: it has the potential to shoot off in any direction at any moment. The resulting dis-order is a far cry from any place of peace or tranquility spoken about by the great spiritual teachers, who became masters of all their domains--body, mind, and soul--through systematic religious practice.
Spiritual health and mental health go hand in hand. The mind is enriched by spiritual practice, and the spirit, likewise, benefits from a stable mental state. That is why many of the great religious traditions warn against the use of intoxicants, because they induce a state of mental dis-ease. Scrambling one's mind with drugs or alcohol doesn't make much sense for someone with a mental illness in dire need of a balanced, unclouded mental state. I suppose that is why it is so fun, in a rebellious teenager kind of way.