It Might Be Time to Talk About What You’re Afraid to Talk About: My experiences with mental illness, dissociation, and spiritual bypassing

In the late 17th century, three young girls — Elizabeth “Betty” Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam Jr. — began dabbling in fortune telling and experiencing “fits” — screaming, throwing objects, contorting their bodies, and claiming to feel biting and pinching sensations throughout. As a result, more than two hundred people were accused of witchcraft, twenty of whom were executed. Say the wrong thing, and you would have been one of them.

Before the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, the witch hysteria haunted Europe for hundreds of years, during which tens of thousands were executed. For those of us with European ancestry, there’s a good chance that fear was engraved into our DNA. Because here in the 21st century, so many of us are still afraid of saying the wrong thing, of sharing something out of the box, of facing consequences for simply being who we are. If we weren’t born with this fear, we may revert after the consequences are met.

My therapist, a middle-aged former musician from Laurel Canyon, also provides therapy in a group setting. I don’t partake, but recently he filled me in on one of his activities.

_______ is something I don’t share with people because they will think _______.

People, he said, were rather uncomfortable with this activity. To fill in the blanks meant to test their theory. Would the others think just as they thought they would think? Or were their fears completely irrational? Either way, it appears they didn’t want to find out. My therapist chuckled to me, suggesting that maybe they shouldn’t be in group therapy.

What are you afraid to share? Do you understand why? Asking questions is how you unearth the root of your feelings.

What I’m afraid to share:

My spiritual beliefs and experiences are something I don’t share with people because they will think I am crazy.

Asking questions and understanding why:

It was only the morning of that therapy session when I acknowledged that I hadn’t fully tackled that fear. When exploring why I couldn’t say, even in my journal, what I wanted to say, I wrote:

Maybe it’s because I was chastised and told I was crazy. I was punished for speaking my beliefs, my truths. I was called ‘mentally ill.’ What does that even mean? ‘Mentally ill.’ I did take things too far. I did lose my grip. I was, I suppose, spiritually bypassing. I do deal with depression and anxiety. Is ‘mentally ill’ too strong a phrase or is there still too much stigma that I can’t ignore? Jenny called me ‘emotionally and mentally unstable.’ That, I think, is more accurate, or in my mind, more acceptable.

I’d become emotionally and mentally unstable because my spiritual experiences made me think I was crazy. So maybe it’s true what they say: what others think of you is only a reflection of what you think of yourself.

———

On December 31, 2018, I was in the midst of a nervous breakdown. My distorted reflection stared down at me with beady eyes and a clipboard. I’d barely spoken, barely ate, and couldn’t face myself in the mirror for going on two weeks. In a heightened state of dissociation, I uttered the words: “I have dreams and premonitions…” (e.g. dreaming someone does something out of the ordinary and they do it the next day, or dreaming someone is wearing something I’d never seen, only to find out they were wearing it as I dreamt it, et cetera and so on.)

I didn’t elaborate on these dreams or premonitions, and I said this to someone who I shouldn’t have said it to. Without asking, he reported that I heard voices. I did not then, nor have I ever, heard voices. I can’t erase that report of his gross misinterpretation, not without jumping through an ungodly amount of hoops anyway. And I was too traumatized to file a complaint against that man — who had also asked inappropriate questions about the woman of subject. At any rate, both my therapist and psychiatrist were appalled.

———

“Some people think mental illness is a matter of mood, a matter of personality. They think depression is simply a form of being sad, that OCD is a form of being uptight. They think the soul is sick, not the body. It is, they believe, something that you have some choice over. I know how wrong this is.” ― David Levithan, Every Day

———

So what does it mean to be “mentally ill”?

As a teenager, it was obvious I was depressed. Even I didn’t refute that. I wore my suicide attempt at age fourteen like a badge of honor. I’ve felt some shit. (Though it was more of a cry for help than actually wanting to die.) Then a year or so later, my mom handed me a piece of paper, folded suspiciously to hide the top. I looked over the list of symptoms, then unfolded it and denied everything. Anger boiled in my stomach and rose through my esophagus like a bad case of acid reflux. Anxiety? I wasn’t about to be plagued with another mental health issue. One was a rite of passage. Two was crazy. And I was nowhere near ready to stop suppressing the trauma that had altered my very existence. That piece of paper could describe me to a T if it wanted to, but I was done being labeled.

I wasn’t directly called mentally ill, a decade and a half later. It was more of a passing suggestion. “I understand. My brother is mentally ill too.” Something of the like was told to my mom after yet another suicide attempt. (This time I did feel death was the only option. It wasn’t.) I suppose after all that had happened, it was an understandable assumption. Depressed? Yeah. Anxious? Absolutely. Traumatized? More than I realized. But mentally ill? How dare he call me such a thing? He’d never even met me!

Mental illness, by definition, “refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders.” Not only are Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder mental disorders, they’re also disorders that I’ve been diagnosed with by mental health professionals. That would make me, at the time of that phone call to my mom, mentally ill. And that would mean, according to my inquisitive journal entry, there is still too much stigma that I can’t ignore…right?

———

“Dissociation is numbness and nothingness; it is a feeling of being lost; it is floating on a cloud that threatens to suffocate; it is automatic speech and action without awareness or control; it is looking at the world and blinking to try to remove the blurry fog; it is hearing and seeing the immediate world and simultaneously feeling very far away; it is raw fear; it is unfamiliarity in familiar places; it is possession; it is being haunted everyday by unknown monsters that can be felt but not seen (at least not by others); it is looking in the mirror and not knowing who is looking back; it is fantasy and imagination; and, above all else, it is survival. Dissociation is all of these things and none of them at once.” ― Noel Hunter

———

What is dissociation?

My mom loves M*A*S*H, the 1970s television show about an Army hospital in the Korean War. During every visit to her home in New York, I end up watching it at least once. On my last stay, Sergeant Jerry Nielsen was dealing with a case of amnesia. Dazed, he didn’t know who or where he was. After being put under hypnosis, we, along with the characters, learn that his brother was just killed in battle. To avoid facing the weight of the devastating trauma, he disconnects from reality.

In his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter A. Levine writes: “In its mildest forms, it manifests as a kind of spaciness.” We’ve all experienced this from time to time, whether we’ve intentionally lost touch with our surroundings by getting lost in a daydream or a movie, or are in the process of doing something so routine, such as driving a familiar route, that our minds wander without our conscious decision to allow it. “At the other end of the spectrum,” Levine explains, “it can develop into so-called Multiple Personality Syndrome.” Now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, this is less common and more severe, but the cause of the outcome remains the same: the need to escape.

The American Psychiatric Association defines dissociation as “a disconnection between a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of who he or she is.” If an experience, past or present, becomes too difficult to endure, the person may dissociate not only from the experience, but from everything else as well.

When the supposedly trained mental health professional (a member of the LAPD’s SMART team, the division responsible for welfare checks) reported that I heard voices, I was in a state beyond spaciness, but not dealing with amnesia or a separate identity. I knew who and where I was. I knew when I was. But I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. I shut down to an extent that I can only describe as emptiness. I remained quiet and avoided eye contact with anything but the floor. “In these dreams, are you being told to hurt her?” I was asked.

“NO!” It was the first my voice rose above a pin-drop, the first I rose my head and looked directly at the person in front of me, and the most certain I’d been since unwelcomed visitors had infiltrated my apartment. It was, in fact, the first I’d felt something: the horror that anyone could think I would physically harm the woman I love. But when I was asked if I was being told to hurt myself, my head fell back down, and my silence won again.

It was only later I’d be able to process the questions I was asked that day. Had I not dissociated from what was happening, I would have recognized his assumption of my dreams. I would have explained my premonitions. Though I don’t gather it would’ve helped. It’s not easy to explain that you instinctively know that someone is having sex a thousand miles away, just because you feel it. No, they would’ve taken me to the hospital no matter what. At least this way, I didn’t have to divulge any further.

———

“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.” ― John Welwood

———

What does it mean to “spiritually bypass”?

I didn’t know what this meant until recently, let alone that I’d been doing it. The notion of spiritual bypassing was introduced by psychotherapist and Buddhist John Welwood in 1984. As defined in his book Toward a Psychology of Awakening, it is the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

Simply put, to spiritually bypass is to avoid being human.

In my mid-twenties, my spirituality exploded from Yeah, I believe in soulmates to Who is this woman?? What is happening?? How did I know this? How did I feel that? I am terrified! I am in love! Who is she?? Somebody give me a fucking answer!!

Eight months in, I Googled a question out of exhaustion, not expecting to get an answer. The question had nothing to do with spirituality, yet Google delivered an article about twin flames — a soulmate to the nth degree; some say one soul in two bodies. I had never heard of such a thing. It appeared to be the answer. But an answer that only gave rise to more questions.

Life only got more confusing. The connection only intensified. I sat on the possible answer until my pinky finger could no longer cover the volcanic eruption. Long story short, letting her in on my little discovery didn’t exactly go as I’d hoped it would.

Again, I only had more questions. My trail of breadcrumbs was leading me in circles. I explored my spirituality, but neglected my mind. I focused on her, but neglected myself.

Everything I feel is because of this connection. Everything that happens is because of this connection. That was how I saw my life. Because the connection became my life. No matter what happened, facing her meant I wouldn’t have to face myself.

Like dissociation, spiritual bypassing can be a defense mechanism, or a way to cope. It wasn’t until the man thought I heard voices that my wall of defense began to crumble. If he was a reflection of my fears, I finally had to look in the mirror. Suddenly traumas I hid from were begging to be processed. Answers I sought had nothing to do with her. And I wanted to know who I was, instead of who she was.

If facing her meant I wouldn’t have to face myself, something got twisted along the way. Because that’s exactly what facing her got me to do.

———

“If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” ― Brené Brown

———

Now let’s go back to my journal entry. Sometimes you need to analyze what your brain tells you. It’s not always right.

Maybe it’s because I was chastised and told I was crazy. I was punished for speaking my beliefs, my truths.

Was I told I was crazy? Kind of. Crazed was the word. They didn’t know me and were reacting to something that didn’t actually happen. Was I punished for speaking my beliefs? Not exactly. Actions have consequences. Even if actions are exaggerated and consequences are unjust.

I did take things too far. I did lose my grip.

Is to say that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am now spiritual bypassing? I don’t think so. Do you believe in co-creation? In lessons and teachers? I do. I can’t change what I did then. I can only choose what I do now.

Is ‘mentally ill’ too strong a phrase —

By definition, no. I was mentally ill. Now, for the most part, I am mentally well.

 — or is there still too much stigma that I can’t ignore?

In the context, the answer has nothing to do with the question. It was everything else. It was his idea of me. It was that lie (or misunderstanding) he told my mom. It was the whole damn situation. But underneath the context, the answer is yes.

We’ve come a long way in destigmatizing mental illness. We share our struggles openly on the internet. And we do so without getting sent away for a lobotomy. But shame may still linger, especially when it’s coupled with guilt. It will taunt us when we thought we’d escaped its wrath. In my case, my mental illness was not only exaggerated, but made to be the crux of who I am. And I won’t deny that it hurt.

We are not one-dimensional.

———

After the initial accusations of witchcraft, the “fits” experienced by Betty, Abigail, and Ann spread to others across town. In the centuries since, scientists have considered the symptoms experienced by the accusers. A 1976 study by psychologist Linnda Caporael discovered that both the physical and mental symptoms, including body contortions and hallucinations, aligned with those of individuals who consumed foods contaminated by ergot, a fungus found in rye — a dietary staple in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts; and a fungus that thrived in its climate. It appears the village had jumped to a witchy conclusion.

A lack of understanding for those who are unlike you doesn’t make it the devil to blame.

As you may have caught on, had I talked about “dreams and premonitions” in previous centuries, I likely would have been hanged from the gallows. Emotionally, at times, it felt that may have been easier. A sudden death, rather than a long, drawn out one. But I’m not here to scare you away from sharing what you’re afraid to share. By contrast, my hope is the opposite. A rebirth only feels like a death. It was only by hearing what other people thought of me that I began to reevaluate what I thought of myself. And it was only by going inward that my perspective was able to grow outward.

Sometimes you’ll share something about yourself and people will get the wrong idea about who you are. Like the man who thought I heard voices, or the one who called me mentally ill. But sometimes you’ll share something about yourself and others will relate, others will learn. Maybe some will get the wrong idea, but maybe it’s the only way you’ll get the right one.

_______ is something I don’t share with people because they will think _______.

You may not be ready to share it or even face it, and that’s okay, but I propose that you fill in the blanks for yourself. After all, if what others think of us is truly a reflection of what we think of ourselves, then taking a look in the mirror is the only way to change it.

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