The day before the Berlin Wall came down, I lost my mind. It was the eighth of November 1989; a Thursday. Much later, my best friend Alison noted “two walls came down at once”.
Mental illness affects at least one quarter of the population of the Western World. For those who have not suffered it, the depth of pain and terror is unimaginable. Hospitalisation and/or long-term medication seem to many the only way to survive a torment with no use-by date. That such pain might last even another minute can seem just cause for suicide. That it could last forever is impalpable.
I was fortunate enough to claw my way back from the brink. I did not do so alone, but with loving support from friends and family, and a diverse procession of wise, compassionate professionals who encouraged me to enter the inferno and face the terrifying demons within, unmedicated and unincarcerated, and held my quaking, shape-shifting hand through to the distant other side.
Twenty-eight years later, I consider myself fortunate not only to have had the support that helped me to recover, in great part from an NHS now experiencing a crisis of its own, but also to have experienced the raw, flaying-alive abyss of psychological crisis – although I never, ever, EVER want to do so again. I almost didn’t survive. But it transformed me, elevating me to a new level of existence after dashing me against the walls of Hell. I am more grateful than I can express that I was “chosen” by whatever cosmic decision-maker may preside over such matters to live through and transcend this journey, and ultimately support others ready to transcend it too.
Back to age 29, where life had been stressful for some time. Always, actually, starting with a childhood in which I never felt I fitted, with too many significant deaths, through a dark adolescence to a series of destructive relationships, and chaos-ridden single-motherhood by 28.
In the depths of yet another crisis, I felt I was failing my two children, whose wellbeing was my only goal, and I couldn’t bear it. There seemed no hope of anything ever improving; my life was cursed and I was destroying all of us. A heavy curtain descended in my mind and, just like that, I could no longer access rational thought. There were only feelings, symbols, images, a cacophony of conflicting voices, and moment-to-moment animal instinct.
My environment distorted. I did not know who or where I was. There was no ground and I had no sense of personal substance. Those around me became terrifying, devouring creatures that wished me harm and the faces on the TV lunged at me on snake-like necks. I put my hands over my face and screamed and screamed.
For two weeks I existed in a timeless, nightmare world. I “came to” on a cocktail of prescribed drugs which I immediately stopped taking, obeying an instinct that was primal and non-negotiable, hearing “psychotic episode” and “schizophrenia” whispered down the phone. Referred to a psychiatric unit, I met others whom I recognised at a deep, soul level. I knew their stories, hopes and agonies without words, and they knew and accepted me beyond the boundaries imposed by my more sane contemporaries.
Sometimes, parallel to the continuing terror, I experienced a transcendent wonderland more glorious than words can tell. I knew something miraculous was happening, and that it was fragile. That if I took the medication insistantly thrust at me with dire warnings of the consequences of rejection, the tiny, precarious flame lighting the darkness within would die and all would be lost.
I must interject that I do not judge anyone who opts for medication as a means to alleviate their suffering. I did not rationally choose to shun meds at that time, but acted from the powerful sense that taking them would destroy what little remained of my true essence. However, I am deeply concerned by the continued casual distribution of psychiatric medication as “the only option” despite much scientific evidence regarding its dangers.
There was intolerable anxiety. But then sometimes it seemed I stood atop a mountain, all universal secrets laid exquisitely before me. Gargantuan and powerful, I possessed profound, often esoteric knowledge I had not been taught. Yet I couldn’t function in the “real world”; couldn’t care for my children, or relate to others, and the pain was savage. I couldn’t dress myself, or open a cupboard door, yet I could quote passages of deep philosophy, read minds and hearts, predict the future and visit the past.
I experienced myself jumping dimensions, using language I much later recognised in books on quantum physics. I’d find myself in heaven, then in hell, without control or warning. I couldn’t stay in my body and didn’t believe I was real.
Convinced my children would be better off without me, I journeyed to the cliffs at Land’s End, imagined jumping to the rocks below, my spirit liberated from my broken body. Instead, in that most magical of landscapes, I experienced a blissful oneness with all creation that revived my will to live.
Returning home, I attended an extraordinary NHS-run therapeutic community – now decomissioned – and was gradually reunited with my children. The many fragmented parts of me began to integrate. In group sessions I discovered a talent for supporting others and perceiving their deepest needs. Over subsequent years, I recovered sufficiently to train as a transpersonal therapist, finding meaning in my surreal experiences, guiding clients to transform their lives as I was still transforming mine, eventually developing the AccepTTranscend Model for Transformation and designing and facilitating workshops for a diverse range of people emerging from the ruins of their former lives or seeking new ways to live joyfully.
I knew the crisis that had almost claimed my life was something more profound and positive than a merely pathological “mental illness” and when I heard about Stanislav and Christina Grofs’ work on Spiritual Emergency, immediately recognised this as what I had experienced.
The word “spiritual” gets a bad press, conjuring for some an expectation of new-age zeal, religious fervour or hippy shenanigans (none of which I am dismissing). But the spirit is a vital part of every human being. It is that which animates us, the guardian of our authenticity. It is the spark of life, the fire in the belly. Too many people – most of us – lose track of our spirit as we grow through years of conditioning, convention, familial, societal and professional demands.
A spiritual emergency, as I understand and experienced it, is the dramatic re-entry to consciousness of a neglected and malnourished spirit that will no longer be denied. It emerges screaming for attention and ready to fight for its life. It doesn’t care if the timing doesn’t suit us, if it desecrates our neat, carefully-formated life. It is hungry for a challenge and intends to take the helm and guide us to a richer, deeper way of living than we can imagine.
But it is also hurt, and threatened. It knows its prodigal return is not a welcome one. It needs to be recognised, embraced and honoured, and we need skilled people to guide us through this often traumatic reuinon. To deny the spirit further, to attempt to medicate it to oblivion, can be damaging and very dangerous. Once it has emerged, it cannot be put back. One way or another, nothing will ever be the same again.
A spiritual emergency challenges everything we thought we were and everything we believed about our world. It is usually messy, often violent, and can be the best or worst thing that ever happened to us. Much depends on how it is supported by those around us. I am eternally grateful that the dramatic re-emergence of my furious, glorious spirit was received with respect, reverence and love by many of my friends, family and the professionals who helped guide me forward to recovery (not “back to normal”).
Twenty-eight years on, my transformational crisis continues to inform my life and work. It has been my honour to support others on several continents to move beyond their perceived limitations to new levels of fulfilled existence. I’ve needed to work hard on grounding, and I believe this must be a priority, always, if we emergees are to reintegrate with the world in all its baffling complexity. I still sometimes struggle with balance. Self-reflection, self-discipline and compassion are my daily medicine.
I am excited by the recent groundswell of people like me, with lived experience of psychological crisis, who are sharing their stories and calling for a change in the way mental distress is viewed in our communities. It is heartening and moving to hear so many testimonies similar to mine, and inspiring to witness the work of wise professionals like Stanislav Grof, psychiatrist Kelly Brogan, and Director of ground-breaking documentary CRAZYWISE, Phil Borges.
I cherish the possibility of being part of a movement to encourage a shift in the understanding and treatment of psychological and spiritual transformation. This is a much-needed revolution in our ailing world; the construction of bridges to connect where too often walls have divided.
Updated 11th November 2019
Berlin Wall image by Lear 21 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3692038