Frail Equilibrium by Olesya Novik
Magick and mysticism are unbalancing. They are meant to be that way because they tear down the preconceived/illusory notions upon which we base our lives. We cannot have our foundations ripped from us and expect to remain perfectly balanced and stable: it is up to the magician to rebuild his foundations as necessary. Four quotes sum this up perfectly for me:
“Sanity is the lot of those who are most obtuse, for lucidity destroys one’s equilibrium: it is unhealthy to honestly endure the labors of the mind which incessantly contradict what they have just established.” — Georges Bataille
“…there are some kinds of madness that are gifts from the gods.” — Plato
“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Viktor Frankl
“What doesn’t kill us, makes us stranger.” — The Joker from The Dark Knight
If doing magick doesn’t upset your balance, to quote several pagan forums I’ve seen, “UR DOIN IT WRONGZ!” Nevertheless, just as magick is meant to imbalance you, it should re-balance you as well, though the efficacy of one option or both really depends upon the efficacy of the magician. Magick is meant to “break open the head”, to redefine one’s perceptions and spiritual/mental boundaries, and it can take quite some time before you are able to process all that you’ve learned. This can be painful, but in reality, it is a gift, and an opportunity to forge yourself as a weapon and through the fire become stronger than you already are. I can certainly say (and I think I have) that overcoming my mental illnesses daily is both the making and the breaking of me, an almost constant opportunity to transform myself when the old ways no longer suit. No matter how severe our illness, no matter how tenacious against medication, most of us still have a choice in how we perceive the hand life has dealt us and what we do with the cards we’re given. Even more so, those of us who are mentally ill who practice magick, since we are doubly undergoing transformative experiences that can meld one into the other. There have been times I’ve utilized my mania enough to teach me spiritual lessons…and there have been times that I’ve been too out of my mind with mania to do much of anything. Mental illness and magick can be a potent combination, yet certainly hazardous if not used correctly and with caution.
In the end, I can say the same thing about mental illness and magick- it doesn’t leave us in a safe, normal little place. We’ve grown beyond our own boundaries and re-erected them, and often grow beyond the confines of what society expects of us. Some of us are more apt to protective camouflage than others. While I think everyone needs a little protective camouflage just to be able to keep your head down when you need to, I am also heartened by the fact that magick and mental illness both force you to confront the truth of yourself, to dig deep and find in the muck of all that pain something valuable, something beautiful and worth polishing until it shines like a star.
We’re getting a little Orphic, aren’t we? I suppose it’s appropriate.
But, can magick itself make you crazy?
You know, there’s a wide variety of answers to that question and usually needs more questions for clarification. Can magick make a perfectly normal person go nuts? Does there need to be precursors, such as stress, predispositions to mental illness, etc.? How do you tell the difference between mystical experience and mental illness?
There is really no simple answer to this question, and pagans/magicians are going to come out left, right and everywhere in between. I can only give you my opinion, which I’ve based on my experience with my own madness and with my own magick, observing others in the pagan community struggling with similar stuff, and my experience in the mental health field in being able to observe first-hand diagnosable conditions which mimic divine experience. It all, really, should be judged on an individual basis. But, to answer each generally…
Can magick make a perfectly normal person go nuts?
Sure! But what doesn’t?
Thinking logically, dealing with something that is unbalancing absolutely has the potential to make you crazy, BUT doesn’t necessarily mean its going to. There are plenty of people who do their magickal work and work through the imbalance it sometimes creates to rebalance themselves. Magick, as I’ve mentioned, also serves to rebalance you, and rebalancing is a part of magick’s natural progress. In that sense, magick could also help make you sane, eh? It really depends upon you and the kind of work you’re doing- and honestly, there’s no one work I would call “taboo” to the mentally ill or say would make you nuts, even if it seems that way in many cases. Some people I know can NOT handle Goetic work and it’s majorly triggering for them; however, I also have friends who thrive on it! While Satanism has never worked for me personally, I have a friend for whom it changed his life for the best. For every kook you have in chaos magick who doesn’t know what he’s doing, there may be one more who thrives on it. So, you know, don’t judge.
I’d like to say that any “unbalancing” thing could make you a little nuts, potentially. Trauma, life events (good or bad)…it’s up to you to rebalance yourself.
Does there need to be precursors, such as stress, predispositions to or existing mental illness, etc.?
…well, it certainly helps. But again, it’s no guarantee. Some may have all the perfect predispositions and come out fine. Predispositions are what they are and there’s really only so much you can do to mitigate them, depending on how you live your life.
Existing mental illness can definitely lend to more “crazy” coming out with the magick, but it depends on how you handle it. Honestly- it’s going to happen. You have to know yourself well enough to deal with it.
If there’s any imbalance in your life, you are certainly going to feel it when you start doing magick. In my experience, magick tends to root out your issues and throw them in your face so you deal with them. I can name a whole slew of things I have observed in others, but I don’t want to risk embarrassing anyone. The only way around is through- when magick throws something in your face, DEAL WITH IT. Fix or leave your relationship, get that pain in your side checked out, make a therapy appointment, start saving money, end that toxic friendship, stand up to the bully in your life, etc. Don’t sit and ignore it or whine, that will only make it worse and a further source of imbalance. It’ll be stressful, sure, but not dealing with it will be more stressful.
How do you tell the difference between mystical experience and mental illness?
Sometimes it’ll be pretty obvious. Sometimes it won’t and you’ll never tell the difference. Sometimes it’ll be a little of column A and a little of Column B. Check your experiences against the previous entry (Psychosis and Mystical Experience) as well as your own experience. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard, probing questions of yourself.
Generally…some tips for the practitioner:
Take your damned meds
Do I really need to go into this? Take your medication. Take it as it’s prescribed, learn all you can about possible risks and side-effects, have the courage to question your meds if they’re not working or interfering with your life, thought processes, physical abilities, etc. Be pro-active about it. Once you get the right combination of medication (or simply just one, if that works), TAKE YOUR MEDS. Don’t wean yourself off without doctor’s supervision or advice (I’ve done this for lack of decent doctors…it’s not pretty.) Don’t drink or do other drugs while you take your meds and if you MUST, do the research necessary to learn about drug interactions. Learn what foods, herbal suppliments, vitamins or whatever else could interfere with the efficacy or absorbtion of your meds. BUT TAKE THEM.
Learn all you can about what you have
Knowledge is power. The more you know, not just book-wise through the study of your illness, but through the observation of yourself and learning your triggers, your warning signs and how you behave pre-, during and post-episode, and in this case *especially* observing how different magickal practices effect you and possibly trigger you. Different magickal practices can do different things, and it really depends on what you’ve got, how you handle it and what the magick is supposed to do.
Learn the laws and resources in your area
Learn the resources in your area- emergency mental health clinics, hospitals, advocacy groups, sources of information. Learn what the laws are concerning the mentally ill in case you need to advocate for yourself. (See below.) Learn your rights as a mentally ill person- the right to refuse treatment and medication, the right to decide how your treatment progresses, etc.
Get a damned good treatment team
Don’t be afraid to tell a doctor to fuck off if they are: not listening to you or treating you with respect, if they are transgressing professional boundaries, if they are unethical or even if you just aren’t comfortable with them. Find a practitioner you actually like and who won’t just tell you pleasant untruths, but also find one that respects you while telling you unpleasant truths. Find one you can talk to: a therapist whom you can tell if you don’t like your medication, who won’t project their expectations onto you, etc.
And, I speak from personal experience…if your shrink tells you he’s in love with you? RUN!!! It is a violation of ethics in the extreme, and usually telling them “no” will not stop them. They’ve crossed a boundary and it’s best to sever the relationship and find a new practitioner. Don’t tolerate these actions- it is a person who is in a position to help you trying to take advantage of you.
And don’t go to a General Practitioner/Internist for the psych meds. They usually don’t know what they’re doing.
Advocate for yourself
Stand up for yourself. Even if there are times you don’t know what’s best for yourself, you still, 90% of the time and in 90% of the cases, know better than anyone else. Take your doctor’s and therapist’s advice, but don’t be afraid to take the reigns in your own treatment. Don’t be afraid to change doctors if you need to. Don’t be afraid to ask for a new medication or refuse a medication that is hurting you. Don’t be afraid to work with your medical team. Don’t be afraid to disagree with your doctors if you want to try to go back to school, get your own place, have a family, practice magick, etc. Remember that you are your own person, and don’t let others take your power over your own life away from you.
If possible, have a good support network
It’s nice to have friends, REAL friends. Being mentally ill, especially with severity, you find out quickly who really cares for you. Treasure your real friends and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
Conversely, don’t allow yourself to be sucked into predatory covens, groups or lodges. Like some churches or groups of any religions, unhealthy pagan or magickal groups will lull you with promises of friendship conditional on how well you accept their dogma. They are usually the first to leave when you need them most. Don’t sell yourself to these people for comfort. Stand strong and choose real friends carefully.
Take care of yourself
Eat well. Get plenty of sleep. Moderate your stress levels. Develop a functional routine and stick to it.
If you are potentially violent…
I almost didn’t add this in, but I’m going to. I myself have to watch this- in extreme moments (mania, depression, mixed episodes or just binges of angry) I have the potential to be physically violent. Most of the time, I have a lot of really good self control- I can count on 2 fingers people I have physically attacked since becoming an adult, no matter the circumstances surrounding it (one of those people was self-defense). Nevertheless, I still did it, and it’s not something I’m proud of. However, I have a much stronger tendency to be violent to myself, something I have to work much harder to control. I used to cut quite often as a young adult and have attempted suicide a few times. Obviously, I was not successful. Some tips here:
1. Stick to your treatment team and your treatment plan. Unless a member in your team is doing something really unethical, wait for a better time before you switch up. Talk to them about how you’re feeling.
2. Take your meds.
3. Stay away from specific people triggering you. There was a time recently where I was so angry at someone for their treatment of friends and loved ones that I refused to meet them personally to speak about the issue because I didn’t trust myself not to punch them. It’s probably best not to tell them this, as it can be construed as a threat.
4. Find an outlet. Self-violence and violence against others is often an outlet for the violent person’s emotional pain. Find something else. (I always tell people to run behind a door and call my therapist for me if they see me doing puzzles.)
5. If you have sadomasochistic tendencies, learn how to express them functionally and safely. Not all sadomasochism is a mental illness, but it can be taken too far. Learn the value on consent and stick to it- there are people who can take it pretty far but consent is absolutely key. Learn ways to safely hurt others…as much as they WANT to be hurt and under the circumstances you both agree on. If you can’t do this, then you shouldn’t express your sadomasochism.
6. If you find yourself in a violent moment, take the time to calm yourself. Remind yourself the reasons why you shouldn’t hurt yourself or someone else. Use your outlet. If that doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to call 911 or to check yourself into 24 hour observation.
Tread Carefully- Gear Your Work According to What You Can Do
If you’re stressed out, pushing episodic and need the rest, don’t start the Abramelin Ritual. Really, just don’t do it.
Okay, extreme example (and some people may quip that’s the perfect time to do it), but you get the picture. Don’t do any magick you can’t handle. To a certain extent, it may take trial and error, but to another you can rely on your common sense. Don’t do heavy Enochian work if your mania is about to blow. Don’t engage in katabasis if your depression is feeling oppressive. (Caveats to this advice, see 2 down.) If Kabbalistic work makes your episodes worse, then wait until they pass. Make a logical judgement as to what you can do, and if you can’t make that judgement, well…
Know when to take a break, even a long break
…then don’t do anything, except maybe meditate. Don’t be afraid to take a break, to stop doing magick until you’re better. The gods and your spiritual journey aren’t going anywhere, and from what I can tell, the gods seem to understand if I need a breather in the name of my mental health. YMMV.
Don’t practice while episodic, at least most of the time
Most of the time, doing magick while episodic is a BAD idea. I’m not talking mild hypomania (the productive kind), mild dysthymia or some anxiety. I’m talking if you’re wildly manic or incredibly depressed. I’m talking if you’re psychotic. I’m talking if you’re severe enough that you need to be in close contact with your mental health professionals. Get yourself under control, first.
Now, I WILL say, there are exceptions to this rule, but they are few. There have been times that regular practice has helped to calm and center me, or the magick I was doing at the time helped me break through an episode. HOWEVER, I’ve also done magick during an episode and more often it made the episode much, much worse.
Keep a journal, monitor yourself
Record not only your magickal activities, but your mental health patterns and how your magick effects these. These can be INCREDIBLY helpful in discovering triggers and how your magick interacts with your state of mental health.
Keep a healthy dose of skepticism
Sometimes, it’s God. Sometimes, it’s you. Sometimes, it’s both. Don’t be afraid to question and examine your experiences for authenticity. Examine your experiences against the examples of the previous entry in this series and your own experience. Does this euphoria seem more like mania? Does this voice seem more like the spirit I was working with a few days ago? Don’t be afraid to parse the difference between magick and madness.
Practice Introspection and Meditation
KNOW YOURSELF. It’s good advice for anyone. Examine yourself intimately (stop it, I know what you’re thinking here) and practice meditation of some kind to help calm and center you. I would suggest zazen, or if you need more active forms of meditation, hatha yoga or tai chi also work. Creating art can be considered both purgative and meditative. The options are endless.
Don’t be afraid to use magickal, as well as mundane, resources
Spiritual people don’t always stop at just the mundane methods. While I would never recommend skipping your meds or eschewing your doctor, I would recommend (in tandem with these things) trying spiritual and magickal methods as well. Talk to various healing gods and ask them to help you balance yourself and to look out for you: Apollon, Asclepius, Hygeia, Isis or Thoth are some suggestions. Or, hell, here’s a wiki list: Go nuts, or not.
Do some uncrossing and centering work. Work with solar energy or if you can be careful, some gentle lunar energy (sometimes, as you all know, the moon can make you nuttier).
Studying your astrology natal chart can be helpful- I shit you not. Mine has “bipolar” stamped all over it, among other things, and knowing the aspects that cause issues help me to better pin point how to handle them.
Know that you’ll make mistakes, and don’t hate yourself
You will probably, accidentally or on purpose, push yourself too far. There will be fall out you’ll have to deal with. This is okay. Just dust yourself off, pick yourself up, and try again when you feel better.
…and take your damned meds.
These are just general points of advice…any practitioner who is dealing with mental illness can certainly tell you that there are specific ins and outs regarding the individual illness. Manic psychosis is different from schizophrenic psychosis is different from borderline personality disorder episodes is different from Asperger’s syndrome and so on, and on. A lot of this entails personal responsibility on the part of the practitioner: being able to own who you are, warts and all, how to deal with something beyond your control and how to express it in a way that, if does not fit into cultural norms, then isn’t illegal or damaging to yourself and to others. While I personally think a lot of our cultural norms are ridiculous, some of these “lines in the sand” exist out of necessity.
Mental illness can make you or break you. The same can be said of magick. It’s up to you to consistently make the choice…will this kill me, or make me stronger?
Next time…Divine Madness and Mental Illness.
1. Olesya Novik, Frail Equilibrium, http://fantasyartdesign.com/free-wallpapers/digital-art.php?i_i=1776&u_i=2462