Together at the Poles

Bipolar Disorder and Spirituality: The Data of Religious Experience


The idea that mental illness and divine inspiration are connected is extremely old, going back into the very roots of the roots of our language. “Mania” itself is a Greek term that Plato hypothesized is connected to the word “mantikē” or “prophecy”. There was a time when madness was not so much the enemy of reason but the friend to the gods.

If there is something to this connection, and I believe there is, then spirituality is one area in which those of us who are mentally ill may have some special expertise. I know that personally, having bouts of mania and hypomania have been especially influential in the way that I think about beauty, the universe and God. In fact, one of the main reasons that I am religious (I am Catholic) is because I have had to find some way to account for these ecstatic experiences in how I conceive of the world.

I’m going to put forward a hypothesis here that may ultimately be untestable, because it depends so much on shared experience. I’m hoping it will at least be expressible. The hypothesis is the following: mania and extreme hypomania give us direct access to the “data” out of which many spiritual experiences, including those of non-bipolar people or non-episodic bipolar people, are composed.

Spirituality and Objects

Spiritual experience is impossible really to express except in works of art that replicate the experience.

"Observer" by Hartwig Kopp-Delaney

“Observer” by Hartwig Kopp-DelaneyCC BY-ND 2.0

Let me explain. Even when I’m not episodic, when I enjoy a work of art, experience a beautiful work of nature, or am inspired by a prayer, there is something about those experiences that allows me to call them “spiritual.” It is what allows me to point at these disparate events and say, “There is something about the universe, or perhaps something about the way that I experience the universe, that inspires awe.” Spiritual experience is impossible really to express except in works of art that replicate the experience. However, since everyone has these spiritual experiences, we can talk about what they might mean.

These experiences can happen in just about any context, but they do cluster around beauty. At this point, people go different routes. Those who gravitate toward religion and spirituality will see the experiences as actually expressing something about the world, showing us that at its core is something beautiful that is communicating with us. Those who do not will try to find something about human nature that triggers aesthetic experience in certain contexts.

In either case, though, when I’m not episodic, I will have certain spiritual experiences, that is, things or events in the world that inspire me. I say, “That is a beautiful sunset,” or, “Being a father is marvellous.” When I’m not episodic, I encounter this beauty as being in the world.

Spirituality without Objects

From the outside, people stop being able to follow me because I’ve stopped making any sense, but from the inside, everything starts making too much sense to follow.

Still Open... The Magical Door to Paradise

“Still Open… The Magical Door to Paradise” by Hartwig Kopp-DelaneyCC BY-ND 2.0

When I’m manic, though, or when extremely hypomanic, my experience of the beautiful gets ripped from its objects entirely. Instead, it becomes a kind of pure experience that starts to find its way into anything I encounter. It will follow me even if I close my eyes into whatever I imagine, and even when I stop imagining.

Everything becomes a pattern and everything starts to make sense, though I couldn’t possibly express what sense it makes. Events become serendipitous, words and concepts flow together and apart in so many different ways, that my purely linear speech can’t keep track of them and my limited memory forgets. From the outside, people stop being able to follow me because I’ve stopped making any sense, but from the inside, everything starts making too much sense to follow. The experience is terrifying and wonderful, and I mostly want it to stop.

What happens, then, is that my aesthetic experience simply drops any need it might have for objects or perhaps any particular object. It is like somehow I am not seeing beautiful things but Beauty itself. Of course, at that point, it certainly feels as though I am directly experiencing God, and, depending on how severe the episode is, I might start even that believing I am.

So Now What?

Rather, ecstatic bipolar episodes and everyday spiritual and aesthetic experience are made of the same stuff.

The Adoration of the Lamb on the Throne

Ghent Alterpiece – Public Domain

After the episode is over, I’m dropped back into my euthymic state with memories that may or may not be accurate of what seemed to be a direct experience of the divine. And, of course, I now face the very real question: “What the hell was that?”

I’m not a theologian, and I’ve gone out of my way not to become one, so I won’t discuss it in those terms. What I will discuss is how the experience has actually affected me and the way that I relate to the world.

What I find is that I need to make room for those experiences, not just as something that happens in neatly segmented “episodes”, but as something that I carry with me all of the time. After these experiences, all beautiful things, amazing things and even significant things resemble these ecstatic experiences. It’s like I see their signature on everything.

This happens even when I am completely non-episodic. It isn’t a little bit of an episode left over, like residue. Rather, ecstatic bipolar episodes and everyday spiritual and aesthetic experience are made of the same stuff. The difficulty is that the episode was that stuff in its pure, unrefined form. And I am reminded of that on a daily basis, even when I’m completely non-episodic.

So, now I’ve got my ecstatic experiences, peeking out from within every beautiful object, and I have to relate to the world in a way that makes sense. It is for this reason that bipolar disorder has been so influential in my own religious development. On the one hand, these experiences lend a significance to my everyday spiritual life, reminding me of what lies behind the veil of my ordinary aesthetic experience.

On the other hand, however intense the experiences are, sugar cane is not candy, and just because something is pure and more unrefined, doesn’t mean that it is more desirable. I don’t actually want undiluted spiritual experiences. Being religious allows me to integrate these experiences into a whole life. It allows me to be human, living my spirituality out in the quite concrete sacredness of the sacraments.

In Conclusion

This, of course, is my own experience, but I suppose that’s part of the point. Bipolar disorder can and does provide some quite different or at least quite intense ways of experiencing the world. One way that it does this is in what are normally called “spiritual” experiences. As a bipolar person, I often find that I have these experiences extremely intensely and divorced from any particular object. Religion has allowed me to integrate these intense experiences with the rest of my life, spiritual and otherwise.

26 Responses to Bipolar Disorder and Spirituality: The Data of Religious Experience

  • Great article, so nice to see this perspective and I share similar experiences. Here’s a link to part of my story that relates. Thanks for the wonderful insight.

    Bret

    https://sites.google.com/site/passionisgatewaydrug/my-hero-s-journey-with-lisa-nichols

  • Me and my daughter have Bipolar plus OCD. We both have a rare form of OCD it’s called scrupulosity. Please read about this if you have never heard of this. My doctor had never heard of it. It is a very hard thing to deal with.

    • Hi Tammy,

      I’m familiar with scrupulosity, and though I’ve never had the full-blown OCD kind, I have some scrupulous inclinations. If you haven’t seen it, there’s a wonderful site called “Scrupulous Anonymous” that you can find here. There’s a book on there called “Understanding Scrupulosity: Questions, Helps, and Encouragements” on there that I’ve found quite helpful. Both are Catholic-focused, but I could probably help you find some non-Catholic resources if you are interested.

  • GREAT ARTICLE ; BUT MY QUESTION IS, ARE YOUR EXPERENCES WITH OR WITHOUT MEDICATION?. AND WHAT KIND OF STIGMA DO YOU FACE?. RESPECTFULLY SPEAKING.

    • Hi Wilson. It’s been a bit of both, though I’ve been on medication consistently for a while now. I wrote a post about my experiences with stigma after going public with bipolar disorder here.

  • I’ve been a christian for over twenty years now, but have only recently begun to trust my spiritual feelings and experiences as real. I’ve been told that I’m a gifted intercessor and I certainly experience prophetic insights and pictures. I think there is a special closeness to God, when you’re bipolar, but I’ve also felt really separated from God when depressed. I’ve had to purely believe in God in an academic way for years, which is hard. I only got over this barren time by coming off Lithium. (Closely supervised, Honest!)

    It’s funny, I nearly shared about this a few days back when you asked if there was anything people really liked about being manic, but didn’t as I felt a bit shy.

    • Thanks for the response, Mandy. After writing this, I realized there are a lot of other things to say on the subject, including depression and spirituality. I really hope to return to this subject in another post.

      In terms of being shy, would it help to know that this is the third draft of a post I started writing a year ago? :) I find this subject especially hard to speak about.

  • Great article Daniel. I know of this kind of euphoric experience…and indeed that was what I tried to explain in my article “My Saviour Sunset”. When I am in this state…everything around me, and especially nature, makes sense in the grand scheme of things. Personally, I love when this happens. My soul soars.

  • Hello, I wandered in off of the internet. Excellent article, thanks for writing. I am a professor of Religious Studies. What is your Ph.D. in? My opinion is that you are on the right track with your analysis and there is a way of exploring what you are referring to, but it is not part of any the traditional disciplines, nor is it particularly theological. You would benefit from some clairvoyant training. The real, serious kind. There is genius here. Best of luck to you.

    • Hi, and thank you for the comment, Yvonne. My Ph.D. is in ancient philosophy, and I find I’m especially attracted to Plotinus, in part because of his transcendent elements.

  • Great article sir.
    How I relate with this, is kinda deep. During my first episode, when I lost complete touch with reality for about 10 days, I was dating a girl called Mary. I used to have delusions that if I marry her, i’ll be the father to the second coming. After being medicated and treated with the routine drugs, I eventually came to see the incoherence of my belief. But quite surprisingly, it didn’t end there.
    The next manic episode led me to believe that I was the mahdi, the last true king of the world. Funnily enough, the religion of islam, as I researched and found out, brings out a close relationship between the mahdi and the christ. Again, it was a drugged journey from darkness to light.
    Its been almost a year since then. And I feel quite normal. A little hypomanic usually, which my doctor says is good.
    I hope I stay this way. But what haunts me at night is- why this enactment of the last days? And what will the third chapter be like… if it ever happens.

  • hfQoriRVpy1e

    Thank you so much for this article. You have expressed the condition of the apprehension of divine beauty perfectly. I am a literature professor and occasional poet, and did not realize until midlife that the soaring ecstatic state of mind and intense response to beauty you describe were symptoms. I’ve never gone beyond hypomanic or been delusional (though I had a huge conversion experience when I became Catholic). Rather, there is a sense of ineffable presence and profound significance that harmonizes with my reasoned assessment of what might be important in our lives and how we must choose to act. One of my psychiatrists regarded me with something like envy and said I was blessed to have these experiences. I think I agree, and I think we are all blessed to have your essay. Thank you for writing it, especially as you mention that this was difficult for you.

    • Thank you so much, AJ. I’m glad to hear that I’m not alone :).

      I also apologize for the late response. Your comment got lost in a flood of spam that I was fighting.

  • Hi Daniel,

    Wonderful post and I could relate to every part of it. I myself have had similar experiences as yourself and as you said it was both wonderful and scary.

    God Bless the good work.
    Pierce

  • This is a terrific research idea, Daniel. I have bipolar and can definitely relate to some of the spiritual experiences you had. I vividly recall having that euphoric feeling of oneness with the world as well as the ability to feel other’s emotions while manic. As I’m sure you probably know, there’s a ton of information out there to support your hypothesis — particularly in the field of psychology. Self-transcendence is actually a personality trait that is usually held by people with psychotic tendencies such as those with bipolar disorder. I know Carl Jung also did some work in this area. I’d love to read your paper if you’d be kind enough to send it to me when you’ve finished.

    • Thank you, Todd. I couldn’t find a reference to a paper in the article. Sorry if I missed it. To which one are you referring?

  • Very Interesting. I live with bipolar and ADHD. At 46 the “me” I am today is the same person I remember being at 5. I wasn’t given a diagnosis until my late twenties, but diagnosis aside I have always felt a close connection to Jesus. I speak with him daily and I have never known another way. I am also an artist, again creativity has always been a part of who I am. I am a practicing Catholic and I have always experienced my creativity as part of my Faith. Art gives me the same “oneness” with my life as my Faith does. I believe my need and ability to communicate thru prayer comes from the same gift of Faith that my creativity does. I believe that being bipolar gives me the ability to keep my mind’s eye wide open to use my gifts.

    • Thank you for sharing, Lou-Anne. It’s always encouraging to hear someone with such positive experiences of spirituality and art.

  • I have a daughter that is in hospital now, she has been there for four weeks now for experiencing similar, mixed with what others have wrote about. Well, she was admitted not for her religious beliefs, but for going for a week without sleep and hardly eating much for weeks and was as high as a kite on caffeine and the chemical changes in her brain because of lack of sleep. She seems to have come down from her high somewhat and doesn’t speak like she is on full speed or jumps from one subject to another. She also doesn’t look like a frightened animal caught in the headlights anymore. However, she still has not dropped her religious beliefs, that she is one of the chosen ones and the second coming has come and we’re all now changing from our physical bodies to our spiritual body. She seems to be ok for a day or so but then another patient is admitted with beliefs like hers and she goes off on one because she is in awe of the new person as they can see people’s auras and can talk to spirits and so on which she can’t do. The worries about her not eating or sleeping is why she was admitted as she has a young son to look after. However, if they are waiting until she stops talking about Godly things and the second coming before releasing her she’ll never be released. See, I’m writing this and Bryan Adams has come on the radio singing ‘Heaven’ my daughter would say it’s a sign, I just see it as coincidence, she sees everything as a sign. She is still trying to figure out why He put in there as she says God has a plan for her. Some of them in there are like my daughter, however, they have been diagnosed as having bipolar, where as this is her first episode and they’ve just diagnosed her as having a mild manic episode she is in her mid 30’s. She has now started taking medication, but at first wouldn’t as she said there was nothing wrong with her. Even the not sleeping thing she experienced before she was admitted she said was ok as she didn’t need sleep anymore as she’d already started changing to her spiritual being and therefore didn’t need sleep anymore. It’s common knowledge that we can’t survive without sleep. What’s worrying us is before she was admitted she had started saying in time she could also stop eating altogether as her spiritual body wouldn’t need food. We want her home and she is now sleeping ok probably because of the medication and eating ok but we’re afraid if she comes out she’ll revert back to how she was before she went in. She has said she had never been or felt so happy as she did and said she was ecstatic, we’re afraid she’ll want to feel that again…help?

    • Hi, L. Is your daughter a part of a certain religious denomination or does she go to church? Sometimes it can be helpful to get spiritual advice from someone she trusts. It might help ground her spiritual beliefs, which would be safer (if she’s not eating), and which could help her when communicating with psychiatrists.

      • Thanks for replying. After all that has happened I’d forgot I’d even posted on here. Yes, she went to church every Sunday as a christian and was involved with other aspects of the church too and even set up a cafe there for two mornings a week. The other helpers used to go looking for her if they couldn’t work the coffee machine and they would find her kneeling at the alter praying. That has all changed now and she hasn’t been to church since coming out of hospital around 5 weeks ago. She ended up going to live with a bloke that she met in hospital who was actually committed/sectioned and is now also out of hospital and has more problems than she has. She has left her home and her son with her husband, her studying for a degree has gone, everything has gone. She has also turned her back on most of her family because they don’t approve of this bloke as he has a record. He is 13 years older than her and on benefits. The reason she feels she is happy with this man is she believes he was given to her by God and nothing I say changes what she thinks. The reason being, she said she prayed to God to meet a spiritual person like herself and of course there were males like her in hospital as she was in a mixed ward. I thought it bad enough she was going to give up everything for God, including her son, to go and tell the world the second coming was here. I thought that was bad enough, but I feel she has lost everything anyway and I do feel as they’re not suited that if not for her belief in God she wouldn’t have chosen this bloke. I feel she is skipping along to her own tune and making things up as she goes along and taking no responsibility for any of it because she thinks it’s Gods will. I now worry not just for her sanity but for her well being and safety too.

  • Enjoyed reading this as a recent experience changed my life profoundly. I’d been firmly agnostic for over a decade when the spiritual journey began for me. It started with what I at first described as a mental breakdown but now think of it as a repentance and humbling before God. I was asked to surrender to a Will that was not my own and given the mission to love the world unconditionally. I gave away every material possesion that wouldn’t fit in my car and ultimately ended up being diagnosed bi-polar 1. Just got out of a 90 day stay at the ward. The meds have not changed my perspective that I have a mission from God to perform now. Rather I see my awakening to God as the moment when lies and sin were removed from me thus clarifying my access to my soul and therefore God. I see the drugs as acting as the barrior that sin and lies did before in me and so I have a harder time seeing the signs in things but still feel the residual. Medicated I was still able to see how my “random” license plate 8008 was actually three infinity signs and thus the trinity. :)

    • Thank you for the comment, Tim. Yes, it’s that feeling of the “residual” that I have as well, medicated or not, manic or not. I called it the frayed veil, and I like your term for it. It’s really amazing that sense of serendipity, too, isn’t it, when there seem to be patterns everywhere? I find it hard to keep track of what is real and what is my own projections, but then maybe that’s not quite the right question. I gave a presentation on providence and signs in a class last summer, and got a mixed response. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

      • Indeed the serendipity of everything is amazing. About a week into my experience I prayed for angel to come down to protect me. When I did this I took in three deep breaths and with each one the fireplace began to roar as though I was pulling wind down the chimney. The next day I set off on my road trip and that night while I was driving on the freeway straight ahead of me a meteror came down and seemed to contact earth precisely at my heading. It also appeared to go through clouds and when it did the reflected light gave the appearance of wings. A moment later a much more normal looking shooting star appeared from the left and went right staying high in the sky. Together they formed a cross. At the time there was no doubt what I witnessed.

        After nearly a year of reflection I believe we experienced what Jesus and Buddha did. For me when I surrendered to unconditional love it’s like I was snapped into the eternal now that is like the peak of a mountain. I almost think that ego death is kind of like a computer reset. When we reboot it’s like we get to look at the source code. Only with the new reboot the programs aren’t there at first, only the operating system. Without the programs(ego) to distract us we get a better picture of the true nature of the universe because we are closer to simple awareness. Of course to everyone distracted by the ego/past/future we seem crazy. Just as Jesus and Buddha were tempted by the devil/god, we too are by our egos as they begin to come back online. Thus the delusions and grandiose thinking.

        Thanks again for putting this up. Take care!

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Counselling from Daniel
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC is a Registered Social Worker and Canadian Certified Counsellor with a private practice operating out of Kitchener, Ontario. He provides in-person counselling in Kitchener and email, video or telephone counselling within Canada.

To find out more, please visit the website for his private practice, Bader Mediation & Counselling Services.