A Little Kindness, by voodooxfishy
First, I’d like to dedicate this post to Dorothy L. Wood, whom I knew to be talented, enthusiastic, kind and despite her troubles, a truly mystically-inclined person.
WOOD Dorothy Lyn Wood was born May 24, 1985.
She was a beautiful and unique woman.
Dorothy was a talented artist, and free spirit. She was empathetic, loving and bright. She had a passion for nature and travel. She was loved by many, and will be deeply missed.
This was originally going to be part 5 of my series, but following the death of one of the contributors to the Persephone devotional, I decided to bump it up to edition #4. There is a huge deficit in the pagan and magickal communities on how to deal with mental illness, and I think one of the areas of focus of these groups as New Religious Movements (NMRs) should be some kind of “pastoral” training on sensitivity to and how to handle mental illness. There are a great many people who struggle with mental illness, but are able to keep it under some control. There are a lesser amount of people who need constant or frequent supervision-those who live in residential communities or are under hospitalization, for example (hospitalization, I might add, being a short-term solution). There is a large amount of people, also, that fall in between…who have severe and persistent mental illnesses, who have a lot to give and contribute magickally and religiously, who need to be able to count on their support group (which may include the coven, group, etc.) for help when necessary. Seeing an episode in full swing, without warning, can make support difficult to grant due to the extremes of emotions that are provoked on all sides.
There is A LOT that goes into episodes of any kind. Using my own example, I was simply AWFUL for about three years because of misdiagnoses (major depressive disorder and anxiety rather than PTSD and Bipolar I disorder…kind of a huge difference, there), taking the wrong medication (I was on Lexapro for depression which contributed to delusional mania, as SSRIs are found to do), shoddy medical care (a doctor who insisted I keep taking the Lexapro despite the obvious contribution it made to my mania), a substance abuse problem (drinking too much certainly didn’t help) and various stressors I won’t bore you with. It took two and a half years, a harsh wake-up call, an accurate diagnosis, kicking my substance abuse problem and a hospitalization to get the correct medication to straighten me out.
I was lucky to be able to get any of this- there are those who are unable, either because they don’t know how to get this help, or don’t realize that they are ill and need help, or they are simply too overwhelmed by their illness and don’t know how to find a way out of it without intense intervention. There are those who are continually marginalized and screwed by the system, written off as “undesirables” or seen by the medical community (that’s supposed to treat them) as just another paycheck.
Some people can’t get out of it, and it is in no way their fault- there are severe enough versions of various mental illnesses that some people will be disabled by it all their lives. The structure of their brain, the imbalanced chemical components, the complicated neural wiring or the trauma they’ve experienced can be life-crippling.
Those who are mentally ill don’t always see it. It’s common to deny, ignore or just accept the way you feel as normal, perhaps because of the stigma associated with mental illness can feel so overwhelmingly burdensome or because you’re so used to feeling that way, you sincerely believe it to be normal. It took me an internet search about bipolar disorder and the movie “Mr. Jones” to realize, “Wait a minute…this is really familiar…” This was around late 2007. I had accepted it as reality by the time I went to be screened for it- however, the PTSD diagnosis came out of left field for me. Not so for everyone who knew me, who had known me for years… and reminded me of the things that I had been doing that supported the diagnosis- nightmares, obsessive thoughts of revenge, reliving the events, etc. It’s a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees- you’re in the middle of it. You deal with it, you become inured to it, and since you are dead smack in the center, you have no idea how big the problem is or even if there’s something outside the forest- hypothetical meadows where you can see clearly, for instance.
Now…imagine dealing with all this as a member of lodge, coven, house or online group. Imagine trying to run a lodge, a coven or a group of someone kind and someone starts exhibiting some obviously maladaptive behaviors. I *imagine* (know) that it can be overwhelming for everyone involved, depending on the illness and how it manifests.
Group Dynamics in Pagan/Magickal Groups and Mental Illness
I want to illustrate a couple of examples regarding the way I’ve seen mental illness handled in groups, real life stuff.
Example: Healthy Dynamic
A group I was in had one of its “important” members suddenly afflicted with a severe psychotic episode. I am not going into details about the event because I don’t want to cause said person any embarrassment should they come across my blog. Needless to say, there were emotional and financial concerns, as well as practical concerns as to the running of the group.
Everyone stepped up to the plate, at least those who knew of the events, and offered support in whatever way they could. The person in question was allowed to step down from the position without recrimination and a new person was put in their place. Members of the group checked in with said person as best they could, or minded their own business. There was no ridicule, there was no judging or blame, and the person was welcome and as far as I know is still welcome at other events as they wish to attend. Financial issues were cleared without finger-pointing, jeering or pitying shakes of the head.
That’s it. End of story. Boundaries were respected, this person’s feelings taken into strong import and support offered as it was appropriate. It was as simple as that.
Example: Unhealthy Dynamic
And of course, for those of you brave enough to slog through my post on bullying (part 1…there will be other installments), this will be a familiar story. There was a group I was involved in where a member had bipolar disorder. His behavior was erratic and troublesome, but he did not deserve the manipulation, ridicule and jokes aimed either behind his back or to his face.
I remember him always being slighted by members of the group. Rather than being gently told that he needed to take care of himself or to take a break from the group, he was “dressed down” in front of others and encouraged to drink heavily at group events, even with his current medications (the combination of alcohol and meds would eventually cause him to have seizures).
And, you may remember me mentioning that he had tried to commit suicide. And you may also remember that the group “leaders” decision after this event was to ridicule him, and “strip him of his attainment” (his rank within the group) since in their minds it was no more than he deserved. After the group split up, he left the state and I am unclear as to what became of him.
The person in question, ill or not, is responsible for his own actions, absolutely. He hurt others with his behavior and he probably needed alone time and further treatment before being healthy enough to participate in a group. However, he STILL did not deserve the utter cruelty of those he was trying to lean on for support, who in turn encouraged his dependence- it should have been the leaders, as caretakers of the group, to encourage him to care for himself, offer him support or tell him to leave the group until he was recovered enough to participate.
It’s not hard to see the distinction.
I won’t lie- mental illness can cause disruption in group settings, especially during intense magick or mysticism if an episode is present or about to occur. But so can interpersonal dynamics such as failed relationships within a group, bullying or other things that are common. Sometimes, I think wherever there is human interaction there will also always be drama and disruption- Eris will find an opportunity to fling an apple and we’ll all prove ourselves flawed fighting over it. Mental illness is not the only cause of group disruptions or even the worst of them.
The disruption that active episodes can cause can be mitigated by understanding and right action, compassion mixed with pragmatism. In some cases, the person in question may have to leave the group for a short time, or permanently, or perhaps not- it really depends on how the situation is handled and how it all affects the group as a whole. As we can see from the two examples above, acting with kind efficiency leads to a cleaner, more satisfying result for all involved than cruelty.
Seeing someone have an episode can be confusing, disconcerting, annoying, worrying or even frightening- especially if no one understands quite what is going on. The person who is experiencing the episode is perceiving and feeling things markedly different from the way everyone else is. A person’s reactions may be deemed extreme when to them, they are acting reasonably…or are partially aware that they are episodic…or, in the cases of many highly-functioning mentally ill folk, they are aware they are in an episode and still cannot stop themselves from feeling as they do, though they control themselves as best as they can.
There are those who will say that getting over a mental illness is just a matter taking responsibility for what you do and not engaging in maladaptive behaviors anymore. IT IS NOT THIS SIMPLE. Taking personal responsibility is only the beginning of what could be a life-long struggle, and depends on so much more than just what a person can control in their lives. There are many examples… Not everyone with PTSD can avoid triggers. Not everyone with depression can just “buck up”. No one with schizophrenia can just stop having psychotic episodes because they don’t want to do it anymore. Not everyone with bipolar disorder can just calm down. Not everyone with mental illness can be so vigilant that we avoid episodes or triggers all of the time, and there are times when we can do everything right and it’ll creep up on us anyway. It is difficult to treat and cure pathological conditions that occur in the brain. While there are many who will disagree with me (and this is fine), given my own study of how mental illness effects the brain (remember my references to brain structure, neural pathways and chemicals?) or rather how structural and chemical differences in the brain can alter behavior, I am of the school of thought that mental illness is a brain disease, an illness that is and is not an illness like any other. I’ll get more into that in part 5, which will talk about divine madness, mental illness and spiritual emergency. Nevertheless, like any other chronic condition, those who are afflicted with it learn to live with it and learn to manage it to the best of their ability.
While the illness does not define you, it’s a part of you that you live with as long as it is active. When a person is in treatment and they are medication compliant and they still sometimes experience epsiodes, do you know what the mental health community calls this? Normal. These lighter instances of mental illness are called “breakthrough episodes” and commonly happen at times of stress, good or bad, even as the person is taking medication.
This is a point that needs to be kept in mind when dealing with people in pagan or magickal groups who are mentally ill. They do not deserve recrimination, or even pity. They deserve to be treated with respect and kindness, yet also with firmness where necessary. We don’t blame the person who develops diabetes, thyroid disorder, cancer or epilepsy (and two of those can cause similar changes in behavior)…why blame someone for being mentally ill?
Mental Illness and Online Pagan Communities
The internet is perhaps one of the most visible ways mental illness plays out in the pagan and magickal communities. It offers the mentally ill individual the power to express themselves, for good or for ill, and give voice to their distress, their delusions, or anything else. While being heard can have the potential to be healing for the individual, being heard in that state by the internet…not so much. People on the internet are very quick to attack, to humiliate, to judge without knowledge of the situation…even well-meaning folk. So-called friends may take from locked posts and “spread the word”, mentally ill folk may be called out on blogs, online communities or even YouTube (yes, I’ve seen YouTube) and their own blogs are often lobbed with ridicule. Further, there isn’t as much opportunity as there is in face-to-face magickal and pagan groups to SEE the person outside of a post fueled by depression, manic or schizophrenic delusion, or PTSD/Borderline rage. There isn’t as much opportunity for the mentally ill individual to “prove their worth” to the group, so to speak, to be known outside of their illness, or even at times to be seen as more than a post on a computer screen.
And yet…I can understand the alarm others may feel. Dealing with those who are mentally ill online (especially if you don’t know the person, especially if you’ve never seen them at their best, especially if the person is talking about things YOU hold sacred, especially if the person’s behavior is frightening or what we consider blasphemous)…it can be difficult to know how to act. We have a right to disagree with someone and call “bullshit” on charlatans, phonies and attention-seekers, so long as we aren’t cruel in how we do it. We have a right to call ideas into discussion and, if we ourselves are targeted by people stridently stepping on our toes, we have a right to tell them to back off.
This is all well and good under the usual circumstances. However, in the instance of the mentally ill person interacting dysfunctionally with the online pagan community, it will only create a cycle of distress on both ends. Remember what I said in part 2 of this series about “sense of noesis”, something mystical experience and psychosis have in common- the sense of being let in on an important, wonderful secret that brings with it a sense of ecstatic joy or terror. A part of this is the desire to share these things with others and one of the key differences often lies in how the information is shared, as well as other characteristics of the information. “The quality of the psychotic, however, is that no amount of evidence to the contrary [of what he or she believes] will convince him.”
So, imagine it: The mentally ill person, in the grip of a delusion which makes them feel incredibly ecstatic or frightened, feels that they are obligated by some duty or driven by some fear to air some of their deeply seated, but wrongly held, beliefs. And they figure, online! Everyone will see it there! And everyone does. Those who may not quite understand what’s going on see the post, and think, “WTF is this, who does this person think they are?” They argue back, trying to call the person out for what they see as offensive, blasphemous, etc. The person is thrown into deeper distress (potentially providing a trigger for further behavior) and stridently argues that YES, this is really happening, and they are completely sincere in their belief. Arguments ensue: the mentally ill individual may attack those who don’t believe them online, calling them out, or may stridently insist in further posts on blogs, community forums and email lists that what they are experiencing is real, which further inflames those who see it. The cycle continues until the mentally ill person’s episode passes or those online get tired of arguing the point.
Some may address the issue without calling attention to the person in question- addressing a general trend rather than pinpointing one source. This is fair. These people may be targeted anyway for respectful disagreement or the post in question… attempting to spare the mentally ill person humiliation while addressing the overall scope of the relevant problem may still lead to being called out by said person anyway. There may be threats. There may be demands for recognition. There may be justifications for beliefs and behaviors, there may just be a plea to be understood. The mentally ill person will still feel targeted, wither or not they are right or wrong.
Everyone, in all groups, is doing their best as they see it. What do you do?
A quick note… there are the ones who just find it funny or expedient to make fun of those who are mentally ill or use their distress to make themselves seem wiser in comparison. Who snicker, laugh and deride the person for the pain they are honestly going through. These are trolls and cyber-bullies, have no excuse for their behavior and I’ll be dealing with that in another post. But for the record: those guys are fucktards.
Another note…there are also those who are obviously just seeking attention and will do anything to get it. Ignore them, avoid them, and if they’re disruptive, ban them from your group or forum. There are also those who are young or very new and may *seem* ill when they ask questions like, “When am I going to learn to shoot fireballs?” (No, really, I’ve heard this one.) Give them a break. If you can’t do that, ignore them. If you don’t want to deal with them, respectfully send them on their way with reputable resources. They’ll probably remember you well for it if they take something valuable from your interaction.
That being said…
Be educated about mental illness and learn to recognize the signs.
Know that a mentally ill person truly cannot help what they going through and if they can control it, they can only control it in varying degrees. Know that mental illness is an illness just like cancer (yeah, cancer), just like diabetes or just like any other serious or potentially serious, chronic disorder. Know that sometimes, mental illness can be cured (in cases of social anxiety, etc.) or that it can go into remission (for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.) Know that mental illness can be worked with, worked around and in most cases is very, very treatable. Know your limits and needs, and that of the group. Know the person in question also has limits and needs.
And know what you’re looking at! No book or class will prepare you to make an accurate diagnosis on anyone (nor would I encourage you to do so unless you’re a trained professional in an appropriate setting), but being knowledgeable about mental illness and how it manifests would go a long way to helping everyone involved reach some sort of satisfactory consensus, with the least amount of drama and pain as possible.
Below are links to common mental illnesses that I and others have noticed in the pagan community. As mentioned, PLEASE do not use these to diagnose or fling at people simply because their disagreement with you has left you butt-hurt. Use these as educational tools….cheesy educational tools.
Bipolar Disorder- A Manic Episode
Borderline Personality Disorder
Histrionic Personality Disorder
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Schizophrenia (a child’s diagnosis)
Schizophrenia (an adult)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Often, the symptoms of the various illnesses can mimic the others. So yeah, don’t diagnose others…just know what you’re likely looking at.
Be compassionate, but be practical.
Don’t be an asshole. Don’t make fun of the person. Don’t ridicule them. Don’t laugh at them. Try to treat them with some kindness and even if you can’t understand what they’re going through, give them enough room to be heard and validated. Sometimes, a little understanding can really make a difference in someone’s life.
A good example… I used to be an avid WoW player. (Alliance, Night Elf Druid, level 82…take that, Hordies!) One night while playing WoW, someone came on chat and typed in all caps that they were going to kill themselves. Over and over. There was a large chorus of “Do it and shut up!” from most of the people online at the time. Now, in mental health training, from the lowest caretaker to the psychiatrist doling out the diagnoses and medications, we’re always taught to take every suicidal thought seriously. No matter what- if it’s a cry for attention or a sincere wish, they need the benefit of the doubt. So I told everyone they were a bunch of assholes and I PM’d the guy. Though the course of the conversation, he revealed that he had a serious form of cancer that he wasn’t sure he was going to beat, and while much of the time he felt good about his progress, sometimes he didn’t, and wished he could be heard in a way that wouldn’t upset his family. After we talked (he assured me he felt better), I sent a note to the administrators of the game about what occurred (including the heckling).
Was he telling me the truth?
Does it matter? If he was lying, no skin off my nose. If he was telling the truth, hopefully he felt better.
If you can’t handle it? Then don’t. Walk away, unless the person is in danger- then have the decency to inform someone who can help or who is in a position to do something. Politely excuse yourself. There is no shame in stepping away from a situation you can’t handle or don’t know how to handle- there is shame, however, in being a prick to someone who is likely in a lot of pain. Know what you can handle.
Remember, the person experiencing the episode IS NOT CHOOSING TO DO THIS.
No one in their right mind would CHOOSE to go through a severe manic rage, a psychotic episode, or to think and feel so terribly that they frighten, anger or hurt those around them. Those with active mental illness are suffering. They are people, like you, like me. I’ve known a brilliant would-be physicist who experienced his first psychotic episode and watched his dreams go down the drain. I’ve known (several) artists who are bipolar. Mentally ill people aren’t just in hospitals, residential homes and yelling at you on the bus or train. They’re sitting next to you at work, helping you figure out what your jerk client wants. They’re the soldiers fighting overseas and developing PTSD from the constant stress of war. They’re doctors, they’re teachers, they’re chaplains, they’re clinical psychologists.
They have feelings, needs, hopes…they need love and respect, just like you do.
Don’t write someone off right away just because they’re mentally ill.
Some of the most dedicated, creative and all-out wonderful people I have ever met were mentally ill. I have a friend who has FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) and there are times when he says some wise shit that knocks me flat on my ass. (And he’s a ton of fun.) I have many friends with mental illness who are great people, hands down, no arguments.
People with mental illness can have a lot to offer. Personally, materially, magickally. Crowley is a good example (NPD if I ever saw it, and you’ve gotta wonder about some of his impulse control issues). Many of the better magicians I know are mentally ill, to tell the truth.
Skeptical? Here, NAMI has a list for you…some pretty famous people who contributed a good deal to the world, in their way:
People With Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives
Have resources ready.
Here’s a few examples. These are good to have on hand, should the need arise.
Be open to the person coming back, if they must leave…remember, many mental illnesses are HIGHLY treatable.
The course of mental illness is variable. Some people with a serious diagnosis have one episode, and they’re done. Most tend to vary. Just because a person has a mental illness, doesn’t mean they have to be permanently excluded. Don’t be afraid to play it by ear, trust your gut and wait.
A list of tips, since I am getting very lazy and tired of writing…
Tips for the mentally ill joining magickal/religious groups
1. Check the group out as thoroughly as possible. (Look online, ask around, hang out as a guest and keep your ear to the ground. Some things take time to come to light.)
2. Consider disclosing your illness to the group leader. (This can be iffy…consider it though. TOTALLY up to you.)
3. Keep the group leader informed if you feel you are becoming episodic and may need to take a break. (This, on the other hand, may be a must. At least inform the group leader that you are having a health concern and need time to yourself.)
4. If you are definitely episodic, stay home until it passes. (Take care of yourself.)
5. Know who in the group you can trust. (Some groups have great people in them…)
6. Know who to avoid. (…and some do not.)
7. Be careful what you share with others. (You may not need to divulge all the details of your episodes- spare yourself the potential for embarrassment and recrimination.)
Tips for the mentally ill joining online forums/starting blogs
Everything above most certainly applies. I would also like to add…
1. Check the group history online for how they handle mentally ill folk. (If they’re jerks…yeah. Don’t stick around.)
2. Be on the lookout for trolls. (Use the handy “ignore” or “block” button.)
3. Think before you post. (What goes on the net, stays on the net. Which is why I sweat every time I make one of these mental illness posts.)
4. Know when to walk away from the computer.
Tips for dealing with the mentally ill in magickal/religious groups
1. Be sensitive, but don’t be condescending.
2. Be as supportive as you can. (Don’t drain yourself or the group, but also don’t be afraid to help if you can.)
3. Know when to let something go. (They will probably be embarrassed about something said or done later…know when to walk away from an argument or a statement.)
4. Be skeptical of odd beliefs, but don’t write them off right away. (After all, magick can lead to some odd stuff.)
5. Encourage supportive group unity as much as possible.
6. Do not condone unacceptable behavior- in either the mentally ill person or in the group. (Put a stop to unacceptable behavior from BOTH the ill person and the group.)
7. Don’t be afraid to direct the person to the appropriate avenues.
8. If the person is violent or self-destructive, don’t be afraid to involve the authorities when necessary.
9. Know when you’re in over your head. (Don’t put yourself or the group through what you all can’t handle.)
10. Know when to let go. (Know when the person is beyond your help and needs to move on, for the betterment of the group and yeah, themselves.)
Tips for dealing with the mentally ill online
A lot of the above applies. Net specifically…
1. Don’t let a shit-storm start over it on your forum. (Seriously, it makes you look terrible as a moderator.)
2. Cut down on trolls. They’re assholes anyway.
3. If the posts are just on a free-floating blog and not in a group setting…just ignore it. Or better yet, reach out to them and ask if they’re okay.
4. If the person is threatening violence (actual violence, not delusions of spells and magick powers) or self-harm, report them to the appropriate avenue.
5. Know when to reprimand, block or remove the person from the forum.
Dorothy L. Wood was a wonderful, lovely person with a good heart. She was a talented artist, a compassionate and helpful person, a writer…everything said about her in her eulogy was true. I only knew her through the devotional for Persephone, and later through some of her troubles as they appeared online, but this was a person who had a lot to offer once her possibly very treatable illness was addressed. (Many of her symptoms reminded me of myself, a while back.) Without her contribution, the Persephone devotional would have been missing something very beautiful and poignant in the stark, black lines of her drawing, the youthful but wise depiction of Persephone she brought to life. She died at only 27- plenty of time to grow, plenty of time to explore herself and her illness, plenty of time to find peace and a new way of expressing the magick and devotion to the Hellenic gods that meant so much to her.
Dorothy was really someone special, and I don’t think many people got a chance to see that side of her.
Safe journey, Dorothy. I hope you’re okay in the world below.
Persephone Sketch by Dorothy L. Wood
A Piece Dorothy Wrote on Hermes for Neokoroi
1. Kindness, voodooxfishy, http://voodooxfishy.deviantart.com/art/a-little-kindness-64680524
2. “Persephone Shows The Way” (Sketch detail) by Dorothy L. Wood.
Oh, and PS… while your thoughts, disagreements and agreements are always welcome, anyone commenting with negative crap about Dorothy will be reported, deleted and blocked.