Spiritual Emergency

Recently, while reminiscing with my stepmom Susie about an episode I had at the beginning of 2006—an episode that I interpreted at the time as a breakthrough into enlightenment; it was undoubtedly one of the most intense weeks of my life—she reminded me (or perhaps I understand it only now for the first time) just to what extent she and my father prevented the psychiatric and medical staff from administering their solutions on me—Halodol and then electroshock therapy. I had also forgotten that my father, after learning they had me strapped to a chair, insisted on staying with me overnight in the psych ward, even though he was not technically allowed on the unit. (I also now remember what a wonderful, magical night that was, explaining to him what I felt at the time was something like the logic of divine action in the cosmos; everything, every number, was a sign or symbol of it.)

Sadly, many of the details of this experience are missing in my memory. Here is a link to the first text I wrote during this episode, [bombs birth a butterfly]. Susie says I didn’t sleep, or barely slept, for about 11 days. Most of it was spent fasting, writing and trying to communicate everything to my friends and family. She and my dad took me to the hospital initially after I’d called her explaining there was an emergency and she needed to come home quick (for some reason, I was concerned that something was going to happen to her). When she got home, I was laying on the couch with a fever and a heartrate of over 100. After two nights, one in the psych ward and one at the UIHC in the pediatric wing (so many strange stories to tell here…)—during which all sorts of hypotheses were advanced: bipolar, mania, Reyes syndrome, effects of a hallucinatory drug (I had not taken anything)—I ended up back home, somewhat stabilized, but now a little confused and still not sleeping so well. My father’s solution? Benadryl. I took however many of them I needed to sleep and slept for a long time. When I finally woke up, I asked them what on earth had happened. Of course they didn’t know. It would be, and will be, a lifetime of continuing searching to understand. In matters such as these, there is no easy way through (this is the first time I’m even writing about it directly).

I’m attaching this article which references a concept I discovered in the months that followed, when I returned to my freshman year at Iowa and tried to piece things together. Here is the important excerpt on “spiritual emergencies”: “Stanislav and Christina Grof have described the spiritual emergency as a crisis often resulting in intense emotions, unusual thoughts and behaviors, and perceptual changes. This crisis often involves a spiritual component—such as experiences of death and rebirth, unity with the universe, and encounters with powerful beings. Such crises bring about the potential for profound psychological and spiritual change (Grof & Grof, 1989), but often appear to be similar to psychotic disorders. The experience of a spiritual emergency—if managed and treated under supervision—can, therefore, be life-changing and offer the individual a deeper sense of passion, wisdom, love, and zest for life; and an expanded worldview and overall psychosomatic health… If one believes in the tenet that all experiences are transformative, then it can be said that there’s something to learn from each one of them, either at the time or after comparing journal entries. But, chances are there’s more to learn from a spiritual emergency than from a psychotic episode because it might be a more profound experience. As Socrates once said: ‘Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided that madness is given us by divine gift.'”

Let me close by saying two things. First, to state the obvious, our society is profoundly spiritually immature (and all the bickering about religion is only one particularly petty aspect of this immaturity). Until we seriously begin to learn from the sages, mystics, shamans and other scientists of consciousness, we will continue to “misdiagnose” those who go through such emergencies. We will ostracize and institutionalize them; they will appear dangerous, abnormal, threatening to us; and we will set them on paths of remediation that destroys not just their potentiality and their life, but also nullifies everything they might have discovered and contributed to society, once the crisis had passed on.

I feel so lucky to have been spared the modern remedies, at the protection and faith of my father and Susie. They ended up prescribing me Depakote for bipolar disorder, but I did not take a single one of them; my dad supported me in this choice, and probably encouraged it. I believe today that horizons of higher consciousness (call it what you will) are real, at least for certain people, and that they will continue to burst in to confuse our world, which for its part is mired in materialism, vital desires, discourse, spectacles, etc. It is important that we and science learn from other traditions which, however “primitive” seeming, have advanced technologies and models to deal with these breakthroughs; without them, we will miss an opportunity for our own collective growth and delay the inevitable realization of “heaven on earth.” Truth is, these experiences are intense and terrifying, for they bring us face to face with (ego-)death, with what can feel like time’s end (Eternity). It will be a very long struggle, but certain horizons of surrender to that, and knowledge of it, are already wide open. We should figure out what it means for us to be ready for it and to participate.

Secondly, and much more importantly, I just want to emphasize how thankful I am not just for how my dad and Susie protected me, but also for the atmosphere of openness, forbearance, and love that they, along with Maree, surrounded me with during that time. It is a grace beyond graces that they were there, listening to me, laying with me, going along and attempting to understand. Perhaps they were scared, but they never looked at me like an alien or pushed me away. On the contrary. I’ll always remember when Maree said to me, so gently, “Tim, come back.” How glad I am that I did. But I’m also glad I was given the chance to bring what I had experienced back with me—and not to reject it as a symptom of some psychological aberration.

Although I never once entertained the idea that something was wrong with me, I can imagine that in different circumstances, fear and paranoia would have set in. I might have started to doubt my own experience and believe the immature guess-work of the “professionals.” And if it had not been for the caring and curious environment that the three of them sustained around me, I would not have returned to classes the following week, I would not have insisted that the doctor remove his diagnoses from my permanent file, I would not have felt as bold and certain as I did going forward, envigorated and not at all debilitated by this trial. And, let’s be honest: such an event wouldn’t have even happened without them and so many others surrounding me with kindness for so many years. Even though we struggle with these things internally, in the corridors of the heart and mind where things are so expansive and strange that they seem nearly incommunicable, they are also always lived in common, in a network of others who have things to teach us and things to learn from us. Reminding each other that we are never alone in our unique journey is one of the kindest things we can do for each other.

So, the point is: do what you can do to make others feel at home, for this is what invites the spirit in and allows it to run. You will never know fully what it does in them or where it will move them. Perhaps it will even move them away from you, who knows. But the love you’ve shared, if it goes deep, will always go with them. It will be preserved in them, and it will be passed on, even if it remains latent and confused for years. Have patience and give comfort. Remind each other that evener days are coming, that peace is possible, and that the horizon can be better comprehended—even if the consequences of travelling toward it are not always clear.

Our world today is not well-constructed to receive all this, these experiences and messages; but this should not be a great cause for worry, only extra incentive to trust our own love, our own strategies and insights and support-structures, everything which used to be called very simply the “wisdom of God,” to which the world by definition is blind. We all know this wisdom: it is the happiness of a safe home, a welcoming environment, a space where things can get wild for a while, where it is known that we won’t be abandoned for sounding crazy or for acting strange. During this and other similar experiences, it was always the odd embracing of “me” by the universe and by those around me who loved me that brought calm, perseverance, and a sense of love and connectedness when it seemed like the entire cosmos had fragmented apart into nothingness. Hard as it is to testify to this, perhaps deep down we all know this simple power, which is realer, so much realer, than any abyss.

This post is dedicated to Maree, Susie, and my late dad Jim.
—October 8, 2017

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