A Dionysian talks about madness
When I tell people that I’m crazy they often smile and chuckle and say something like, “Well, of course you are – you’re a Dionysian!” And then they find a way to quickly change the subject, because it makes them uncomfortable to think about this stuff too much.
Since I’m relatively high functioning and don’t feel any of the social stigma usually associated with such abnormal psychology I don’t fit most people’s idea of what a crazy person is like. It is assumed that I’m either exaggerating or trying to seem weird, edgy or romantic as part of my public persona. Sometimes they think I’m referring to my creative process, to ritually or chemically induced altered states of consciousness, or that it’s a tongue in cheek allusion to the fact that I regularly communicate with an assortment of gods and spirits.
While all of that is certainly true, it is not what I mean when I say I’m crazy.
I mean that since adolescence I have had an assortment of anxiety and identity disorders and periodically suffer from intense and disruptive depressive episodes. I don’t have an official diagnosis, have never undergone therapeutic treatment or been prescribed medication but that just means that I’ve been able to maintain a sufficient level of functionality that I’ve been able to avoid the system.
Thus far I’ve been able to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly, hold down menial jobs and seen moderate success with my writing – but just barely. There have been a couple times in my life when I was a hair’s breadth from being on the streets. I’ve lost jobs because of tardiness and unexplained absences when the depression was so bad I had trouble getting myself out of bed. I’ve gone weeks and even months without speaking to another human being outside of work or online. And though my substance use often has a religious component I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times I imbibed to quiet the noise in my head or make it possible for me to leave my apartment and engage socially. I tend to fixate obsessively. I am prone to disturbing violent and sexual fantasies which I do not permit myself to act upon – stuff that disturbs even me, so you can imagine what the average person would think of them. I contemplate my demise numerous times throughout a given day, and sometimes that thought is the only thing that gets me through when shit is really bad.
Those are the interesting parts of my craziness. It’s not normally so glamorous, however, as Elizabeth Wurtzel observed:
‘Madness’ is too glamorous a term to convey what happens to most people who are losing their minds. That word is too exciting, too literary, too interesting in its connotations, to convey the boredom, the slowness, the dreariness, the dampness of depression. (Prozac Nation)
That’s what my craziness is like most days. Some days are worse than others. Some days it creeps up on me without my realizing it. Things stop making sense, or make too much sense. I retreat into myself and the world stops feeling real. The gods and spirits become mere abstract concepts. I stop being able to relate to people, to understand what they are saying or what motivates them. I’ll stare at objects without recognizing what they are. Everything goes colorless, flat, monotonous. I lose track of time and have difficulty accessing memories, and what memories I can don’t feel like mine. Nothing matters anymore. I become indifferent even to pain and the needs of my body.
I’ve struggled with my craziness since I was a boy and though I’ve made tremendous progress in managing its symptoms I suspect this condition will be with me my entire life. Since I’m not alone in this I would like to share some of the techniques I’ve developed over the years as they may be of some assistance to others.
To begin with I would recommend seeking professional help. I am not a licensed therapist and as I’ve just spent several paragraphs explaining I’m far from a model of perfect mental health. There is no shame in being like this, and even less so in getting assistance in coping. In fact it takes tremendous courage to admit that you have a problem and to bare your soul to a stranger and submit to the process of getting healthy. Not only will they have useful strategies and provide you with a necessary support system but a lot of times mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain which can be addressed through medication. That can be a scary prospect, especially for those of us with a strong religious practice which involves direct interaction with gods and spirits. I know plenty of people in our community who have resisted treatment because they were afraid of being judged or having their spiritual experiences taken as signs of more severe mental illness than they actually suffered. Others have refused to take their meds because of concerns that these substances would hamper their ability to feel things, to enter altered states of consciousness, work magic or perceive and hear the gods and spirits.
These are perfectly valid fears and should be brought up with the professional before treatment begins to determine that they are respectful and sensitive to the issues at hand. There are a number of non-intrusive treatments that can be tried including a variety of drugs that don’t hamper one’s spiritual receptivity. You may have to try a number of combinations before you find something that works well for you but it’s your mind and body so don’t hesitate to speak up for yourself and insist on a change if the side effects are worse than the ailment. If you have difficulty doing so find someone who can advocate for you.
On the other hand, it may not be your therapy and drugs that need to change but your spiritual practices. After all there are many ways to honor and interact with gods and spirits and it can be beneficial for you to explore these whether they are impacted or not. All too often we hit on something that works and stop there, never giving a thought to the whole realm of possibilities open to us. If our circumstances change – which they always do – we can end up in a rut or blocked because we’ve become too dependent on a set of practices. I see this especially in those who come out of neopagan or magical traditions with a strong emphasis on meditation and visualization. If they can’t form vivid images of the divinities or other realms in their minds they assume that their work is ineffectual and the powers indifferent to them, even if all kinds of powerful things are occurring around them. Not only can communication occur through all of our senses, but at least with the gods and spirits I tend to engage with there is often a strong physical component required such as dancing and sacred movement, austerities and ordeals or mimesis and dual consciousness with things done simultaneously in this and other realms. Hell, I’d recommend mixing things up and experimentation even if your practices are working just fine because you never know what you’re missing until you try.
Perhaps the most important bit of advice I can give is to cultivate mindfulness, non-attachment and an acceptance that change is the only constant in this world. This applies not only to one’s religious practice but to all facets of life.
We get so locked into thinking that the way things were or the way things are now is the way that they will always be when nothing could be further from the truth. Each moment is unique, shaped by what preceded it and shaping what will come – but because of that everything can change in an instant. This is especially helpful advice when you are in the midst of a bad episode. Things may seem really bleak and hopeless, full of pain, fear and uncertainty – and indeed your circumstances may be super shitty. But that’s temporary. This too will pass. Tell yourself that over and over and over again until it really sinks in. This sucks. But it wasn’t always like this and it won’t always be like this. It could get better, it could get worse, something else might come along to take its place but your circumstances will change. You’ve just got to ride it out until that happens or until you are capable of taking the steps required to bring about the change that you desire.
So much of our misery and hardships are a direct result of getting locked into thinking that things have to be a certain way. They don’t. There are very few absolutes in this world. Gravity. Entropy. Mathematics. Everything else is totally up for grabs. Sure, some things are more probable than others, but when it comes down to it you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to except die. Let that freedom sink in for a moment. It’s very liberating. All that stuff you’re sitting there worrying about – you don’t have to do it. Not really. Not if you’re willing to face the consequences of your choices. You’ve got a partner who’s treating you like shit? Walk out on them. The job that’s slowly crushing your soul and vitality – you can quit. People loading their expectations and obligations on you? Fuck ‘em. Even if you decide that it’s not worth the consequences you’re still making a choice and that’s a very empowering thing.
That’s especially true if you experience auditory hallucinations or suffer compulsive drives. Just because the voices are telling you to do something or you feel you must segregate your M&Ms by color before eating them doesn’t mean that you have to. Try telling the voices no, or negotiating with them. Sit with the chaos, no matter how jarring it feels. Failure isn’t fate. Reframe it in your mind as a conscious choice, even if you end up going along with the impulse, because that will lessen your feelings of victimhood. Resist as long as you are able to, prolonging it each time. In the end you may not succeed in fully exerting your will, but it’s still worth the effort because the more you practice this sort of thing the easier it gets. If you can’t fully stop yourself do it slightly differently or half as much as you normally would. Each time build on that success and eventually you will be in control of yourself.
There’s a lot more advice like this I could give, but I’d basically be paraphrasing Buddhist and Stoic authors so instead I’ll just recommend that you go to the source. In particular check out D. T. Suzuki and Seneca. Without their gentle, practical wisdom I would not be half the Dionysian I am today.
Speaking of Dionysos, he’s a great one to go to for help in overcoming the limitations of mental illness. He is not just a god who sends and heals madness, but he suffered its horrible afflictions himself so he has a very intimate knowledge of the subject. Pray to him for help and guidance. Give your madness over to him so that he can use it to open you up and temper you through it. Perform the sorts of activities I discuss in the article “Why we do what we do.” Use your madness to get closer to him and gain a deeper understanding of him and his ways.
For instance, when my depression rears its ugly head instead of trying to shake it and will myself happy I contemplate the tragic figures associated with him and offer up my tears and sorrow for the things they suffered. Through this I usually attain a state of katharsis which causes my depression to release and subside.
Sometimes that doesn’t work though. Sometimes I feel so horrible, so disgusting and miasmic that I can’t bring myself to contemplate holy things let alone approach my gods and spirits and shrines or go through the motions of ritual. And that’s okay. I give myself permission not to, promising to make it up later when I’m able. So many people beat themselves up and deride themselves as failures when they can’t muster the mental or physical energy to engage in acts of worship. Although it’s totally understandable and I have the utmost compassion for them, it’s also fucking stupid. Because not only does it not make the situation any better but it keeps you mired in the depression and exhausts the already depleted resources you’ve got. The gods aren’t going to smite you for missing an offering or festival. They understand. They want you to take care of yourself so that you’ll be around to honor them for a long time to come.
That said, inertia can easily take hold and if you give in too much it can completely derail your practice and reinforce your negative self-image. So if you’re able to and it’s not going to massively set you back, try to at least do something, even if it’s just saying a prayer as you light some incense. Next time try to do a little more and a little more after that, until you’re fully back in the game. But know your limits and don’t be afraid to temporarily put things aside if you need to.