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
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.
Spiritual experience is impossible really to express except in works of art that replicate the experience.
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
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.
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.
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?
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?”
Rather, ecstatic bipolar episodes and everyday spiritual and aesthetic experience are made of the same stuff.
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.
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.