A New Framework for Mental Illness

By Alice Holstein, Ed.D.

My journey through Hell, including 12 horrific years of suffering, eventually yielded a positive outcome despite some 14 manic episodes, manic messes, many hospitalizations, spending sprees and severe financial consequences. From it I brought back a new view of mental illness and a tremendously hopeful vision of recovery. This path emphasizes the heroic aspects of the journey. Mental illness can be a route to a new kind of wholeness instead of the idea that we are damaged goods with something broken inside our brains.

Discovering these truths included living on the streets periodically as well as fighting a faulty medical model that often treats us inhumanely as mere diagnoses and problems to be fixed. In my search to become as well as I could be I tried some 50 different things, including support groups, energy healers, Reiki, traditional therapy, Emotional Freedom Technique (ETF), prayer and meditation, changing my diet, exercise, forgiveness exercises, self-designed rituals and much more. Some of it cost money, some very little and some was free. Having a strong intention to get well was critical.

Along the way I was forced to haul around my then 220 pound body, bloated by medicine side-effects while living on the streets when I was a senior citizen ill-equipped to handle hardship. I once had been a well-educated professional career woman, teaching college and consulting with organizations while enjoying a privileged lifestyle. But I became a genuine bag lady at times despite having assets that were unavailable to tap. I eventually reframed the suffering, however, as a purifying experience, a heroic path to new inner growth.

Much of what I discovered upon reflection was the profound value of things such as endurance, courage, humility and compassion. Never again would I see street people or those suffering in any way with the same judgment that I once possessed. More importantly, I discovered a new definition of the spiritual path in general, Author and international trainer, Carolyn Myss, revolutionized my thinking with her tape on “Spiritual Madness.”. In it she said that we usually think of the spiritual path as something sweet and easy to follow but that it is actually usually full of suffering and hardship. Author and researcher, Joseph Campbell similarly identified “the hero’s journey” as something filled with trials and tribulations.

In addition to reframing the suffering, I experienced miracles and help which eventually gave me a rock solid faith. Some incidents included a pair of heavy oxfords just my size lying along a highway when I walked through an approaching winter storm, a windbreaker wrapped around a tree, a couple in California who took me in for a whole week and a man in Colorado who prevented me from being picked up by an unfriendly police force.. Another family gave me a ride to a hospital and a man in a Laundromat gave me $20, unasked, when I was sorting through disgarded socks to use as mittens. That bought me a taxi ride to the next homeless shelter in the midst of winter.

My path was otherwise strewn with gifts of “tough grace”. For example, I now have an expanded sense of purpose because I have the opportunity to speak publicly about my story and I work part-time as a peer support specialist in a mental health clinic where I deal with people on a “been there, done that” basis. I also appreciate things large and small in ways I never saw or felt before, nor do I fear death because I faced it so often in several ways. I also developed strong self-care habits.

From these several angles---the reframing of suffering, the recognition of miracles and extraordinary help plus the gifts of the journey---I am led to the conclusion that my mental illness has been a profound journey to the soul, an amazing path to wholeness despite the fact that I am not “cured” and still suffered another manic episode in 2011. I recognize that my story is a bone-crushing path, but I choose to call it “tough grace,” and that has made all the difference.

What a difference it would make to the mentally ill in general if we saw the challenges of mental health in this revolutionary way. The vision de-stigmatizes mental illness, which can overcome much of the trauma we ingest from others or our own wounded selves. The vision engenders hope and pride in our efforts to survive with dignity and deepened self-respect. “Tough grace” is an avenue not just to wellness but to wholeness and renewal. Mental illness can be a decidedly spiritual path.


Holstein, Alice A.: A Tough Grace: Mental Illness As A Spiritual Path. London, England, Chipmunka Publishing, 2011. (Available through Amazon.com)