Heal Yourself and You Heal the Culture:

The Soul Journey of Mental Illness

By Alice A. Holstein, Ed.D.

“Heal yourself and you heal the culture.” The words haunted me for months. I knew they applied to me, but how? They came from Deena Metzger, healer, essayist, poet and elder wise woman, when she addressed a group of women with cancer. The women were gathered at a conference where a slate of speakers encouraged them to seek non-traditional healing. Deena herself had beaten cancer; her profound words helped me see that illness can help us examine everything, far beyond the personal.   Deena herself had beaten cancer; her profound words helped me see that illness can help us examine everything, far beyond the personal.

For years, however, I felt like my battle with manic depression was merely a personal journey of survival, which it was. The effort to get up again and again, to endure numerous hospitalizations, to be traumatized by the illness itself, to be locked in so many psych wards, to face stigma, shame and rejection, to deal with damaging spending sprees and horrible clean up chores, to be weighed down to breaking with hospital bills---All of this kept me so self-involved, so much in survival mode, that I literally became sick of myself. My energy was so swallowed up in daily struggle that I had no interest or energy for anything else. Many years of almost unendurable suffering and chronic stress characterized my life.

Then, in 2002 I began to reclaim myself in earnest. As I did so, some larger meaning emerged. The manic episodes didn’t stop, but gradually I began to see and feel the underlying wholeness beneath the messes. I no longer suffered from depression. Every episode revealed important life lessons. Mysteriously, they also served to push me along my path, frequently removing work or people or connections that were keeping me stuck. It was as though the episodes were a house cleaning mechanism, albeit a painful way to grow. Some years ago I found evidence from progressive psychiatrist, Stan Grof, (Beyond the Brain) that episodes may actually increase the more you work on underlying problems. Pioneering psychiatrist, John Weir Perry, suggested in the 1960s and 70s that there was, indeed, an underlying wholeness beneath both manic depression and schizophrenia. He developed humane treatment methods that featured listening, “being with” people in their psychosis rather than judging and dismissing them.

Although each of my episodes had its painful aspects, I was creative, as never before. I noticed a deepening wisdom. Others noticed too. During the reclamation process there were breakthrough moments when understanding the multiple causes for my illness came clear. Medicine, however, says there is no known cause. I concluded that my primary causes included personal and cultural emotional wounding as well as physical imbalance from earlier alcohol abuse, smoking, poor diet, hypothyroidism and mid-life hormonal changes. My diligent mid-life inner journey work, from age 36 to 43, also seems related, although psychiatry would not understand it, nor do they plumb the correlation between spirituality, creativity and high intelligence that are common to manic depression sufferers. My inner work opened me to strong spiritual insight in the 1980s, but as these periods continued, I was unable to handle the energy. Many spiritual teachers warn of the dangers of Kundalini energy in an unprepared body. Some mystics have pointed out that to be a channel for spirit means you must be physically robust and emotionally healthy. Most of them had the protection of monastery or cloister, which meant freedom from everyday stresses and support to stay grounded. By comparison, being part of modern Western civilization means a people cut off at the neck, full of intellectual knowledge but disconnected from both ourselves and nature. I did not understand this disembodiment factor until illness led me to authors such as Marion Woodman (Dancing in the Flames) and Morris Berman. (Coming to Our Senses). Now I have come to see that a daily spiritual practice is grounding. This consists of journaling and a faithful commitment to exercise four times a week. I stay in lose touch with my support system. I have also done work with an energy healer, a decision that was triggered when I was doing some grief work with myself and experienced abdominal pain. Such signals can mean that there is something unconscious you are ready to heal.

The fact that a spiritual opening might contribute to triggering the illness in young people, often diagnosed in their late teens or early twenties, is also possible. This is, of course a time of significant stress, but there is evidence from at least one medical expert and several psychologists, along with the Native American culture in general, that young people experience spiritual openings at this age. Our Western society, however, has little or no understanding of such a passage, how it might produce a psychotic break or how that occurrence might be dealt with besides merely pushing drugs on patients.

My self diagnosis includes an interesting perspective from Jungian, Robert Johnson, who ties our wholeness evolution to Carl Jung’s fourfold typology of the psyche----thinking, feeling, intuiting and sensing. Johnson suggests that you find your way to God through your weakest function. He means that you will be brought to your knees this way. Sure enough it has been my sensate side, my weakest side, although I am a woman with a strong body otherwise, that produced the profound spiritual path of manic depression. Several episodes made it clear that I had to seek unconventional approaches or else I would die. The support to do so came partly from pioneer, Dr. Candace Pert’s work, verifying that emotions are found throughout the body, not merely in the brain. Why doesn’t psychiatry know or pursue this? Her work suggests the wisdom of various forms of body work, based upon the idea that our emotional wounds become embedded in the cells of our body. Most alternative healers accept this without question. I had learned it first hand in the 1980s through the success of working with an acupressure bodywork specialist. Now the illness pushed me ever deeper to those wounds, requiring that I keep searching for insights, including the thought from physicist, David Bohm,that insights themselves are healing. He suggests they change the structure in the brain. I had missed this simple truth before, but I see in retrospect how nine years of searching for answers beyond medicine created healing and insights that allow me to live with the illness better than most despite my scars. Unfortunately, psychiatrists do not encourage us to undertake a relentless pursuit to heal ourselves as much as possible nor do they know the tools that might help. Why does the profession keep searching for cures mostly in chemicals and test trials? In the face of seemingly unknown causes, why have they not broadened their search? The brain is the most sensitive organ nutritionally speaking, but they do not address diet or other things that might affect brain chemistry, such as belief, imagery, music, energy work and more.

Why especially do they not pursue the critical factor of emotional wounds that lie buried deep in the unconscious? My diagnosis came late in life, at age 52, but the symptoms were probably present in my early forties. I can trace a trigger trauma event from that time period, although I did not make the connection until a dream in 2002 that said, astonishingly clearly, that I had abandonment issues and needed cranio-sacral help. How can a dream be so specific? I do not know, but I know that it catalyzed several days of revelations about much abandonment baggage. I can remember feeling something like electric currents in my head, as though hundreds of new connections were being made. The incident in my early 40s that seems related to my initial energy surges was serious family rejection. That came after I had talked back to my father, a patriarchal figure who would not listen when I tried to help him recapture the family business during troubled times. Dad’s reaction was to disinherit me; the communication with both parents was shut off for months until my father’s diagnosis with cancer. Then I again assumed the hero role I’d played in this alcoholic family. Manic depression literature indicates that early loss experiences are often associated with the illness as is trauma in general. There is also a known correlation with stress.

The abandonment dream felt like a gift from God. I saw its personal effects as well as that the feminine in general has been severely abandoned in our culture, wounding both women and men. There is a great deal of psychological literature to that effect, but the knowledge is still not common nor is it related to the serious, seemingly intractable problems on the planet, but that is a separate essay. To return to the personal, my father abandoned me emotionally through alcoholism and workaholism. My mother was emotionally absent too, full of her own losses never grieved. Several workshops I’ve done, called Hellinger Family Constellation work, showed me family dynamics that I would never have known from conscious memory. Each invoked breakthrough healing experiences. A momentous discovery was how my father’s front-line World War II experience likely affected me. I have watched other workshop participants unearth wounds that sometimes skip generations, becoming hidden burdens for the children, totally inexplicable previously and immune to discovery through any other way.

I would have missed the gift of that dream if I had not known the value of keeping a journal. It was one of a number of things I did to get well, to overcome the hopelessness messages that seem endemic to this illness. They ranged from herbs to acupuncture to balancing my body with supplements, changing my diet, pursuing energy healing, body work, mindfulness practices, breath work, meditation and more. Some of them cost money, some of them very little and many nothing at all. All of them nourished a soul and the mind-body-spirit-heart connection that traditional psychiatry does not see or treat with its almost sole reliance on pills. I have also read all of psychoanalyst and author, Alice Miller’s profound books on the hidden effects of harmful child-rearing that usually passes for normal. I have read people such as Dr. Peter Levine, Dr. Ed Tick and Stephanie Mines who acknowledge how easily trauma is incurred and how seldom it is properly treated. All of this has transformed the way I think and live.

Not until 2006, however, was I able to look at the illness more deeply, which included pondering the limits of science itself, especially the medical model, which is disease-based rather than a wellness mode. Traditional medicine in general has not yet adopted a whole person model even for conventional illness, and it will not get there by narrow-minded reliance on the scientific method, drugs and the outrageously expensive focus on the latest in technology. Integrative medicine is beginning to make inroads, but so far psychiatry does not appear to participate very often In the case of manic depression, they do not treat post traumatic stress syndrome, stress in general, nor the piles of grief we accumulate from loss after loss after loss, nor the splits in our psyche that are so painful to try to heal, nor the employment issues, nor the shame and stigma, nor the trauma from psychiatric wards. We are largely left on our own to try to put ourselves back together, to somehow just get on with life. We do not wear bandages, use crutches or sit in wheelchairs; we cannot claim heart attack or cancer that bring get well cards, sympathy and well accepted absences from work. Paraplegics may be helped to know that they must die to an old self and get on with a new, handicapped one, but no such understanding extends to the mentally ill. We look “normal” on the outside, but we may be hemorrhaging on the inside, never quite dealing with the psychic pain that comes from so many angles, never really recovering, seldom avoiding the spoken or unspoken terms psycho, nut case, sick in the head, irrational, crazy. Our condition is labeled most commonly, “bipolar mood disorder,” inviting constant negative reinforcement. Who would want to be labeled “disordered,” even if you have been repeated times? Medications may be essential to wellness, but they are not enough! Sometimes they are poisonous, ineffective or have debilitating side-effects. We are poorly educated about these or our options, and we are regularly blamed for not taking them despite a number of extenuating circumstances, such as that we have become paranoid and do not trust them or know where they are because we’ve gone mad. And recently I also see how many doctors simply do not know the full range of medications; they usually have their favorite few, and they often do NOT listen when you try to tell them you are ultra-sensitive to pills!

Being forced to deal with this sometimes bone-crushing load means that I have examined the corruption and brokenness of healthcare, the unacknowledged grief everywhere in our death-denying culture, stress and trauma in general and the hidden effects of war. Having been victimized by a healthcare system that leaves milliona still uninsured, and an insurance system that treats mental illness inequitably, I have come to understand this as criminal negligence. I am angry that both politicians and healthcare professionals do not step up to become voices for change. We need revolutionary protests in front of every hospital in the country, or we need one hospital or one city to stand up and be a voice for fundamental change. But everyone has their hand in the trough, secure benefits and jobs to protect, CEO’s bent on profits, latest technology and bigger buildings. Money is seldom spent on a model change project. I live in a town that has escalating medical costs. When I first began noticing these in 2005, there was hardly a protest and certainly no satisfactory response from the medical community other than a pitiful justification from one board of trustees. Subsequent cost increases have continually climbed with only one citizen protest in a Letter to the Editor. Pretty soon the whole complex system will fall of its own weight nationwide because people stick their heads in the sand, feather their own nests, don’t face the music. One of the biggest cultural ills that I now understand in full is that every organization of every type, including higher and lower education, government, religion, and business needs to reinvent and transform itself if we are to make the course corrections essential to saving the planet.

Given my professional background in organization development, organization transformation, complex systems, group dynamics and psychology, I have examined the broken healthcare mess knowledgeably. Someday I will perhaps have a chance to contribute to solutions, given my additional reluctant, first-hand “research” with many different systems, six emergency rooms and at least 18 psychiatrists. I have some unique whole system wisdom and approaches that could be valuable to a team. My 21 year search for an organization transformation methodology means that I understand that the underlying, fundamental assumptions of our systems, not just the structures need to shift. But that is a separate essay. In the meantime, I have pursued an inter-disciplinary literature about human wholeness that goes far beyond psychiatry. Psychology especially has been fragmented into various schools associated with one major figure so that its findings have not been adopted by society at large. By comparison, my synthesis research, begun 35 years ago, gathers evidence from a number of psychology schools plus many fields beyond them, such as addictions treatment, mysticism, Shamanism, myth and history, etc. The compilation shows that some 34 authors/fields all define the stages involved in maturation or wholeness in the same patterned way. (Mack, “How the Psyche Unfolds,” 2003) This is a picture of wholeness that withstands the verification test of communality. The process of inner growth cannot be proven with the eye of science, but it can be claimed as truth when seen as common by so many diverse sources.

In 2006 I felt like Rip Van Winkle just waking up from a twelve year nap. I realized that I had a solid background in humanistic, depth and transpersonal psychology before my diagnosis, but I had somehow succumbed to beliefs and practices that lacked any notion about human wholeness. I see now that that background is part of what nonetheless kept me fighting, that my inner journey work is one of the main reasons for my survival. Amidst all the chaos, despair and trauma, the inner center I’d forged in the 1980s held fast. This year I looked with amazement at the book I’d published in 1992 about the inner journey that told the story of this process in both a general and personal way. I saw that I had been very much on target with the picture of wholeness and the progression involved in achieving it. What I didn’t realize when I wrote it is how much I would be pushed to discover the evidence that confirmed this picture and went beyond it.

When I did see the light, I understood better why I had consistently felt so battered, forced to succumb to the dehumanizing treatment defined by diagnostic manuals, chemical solutions and the opinion that I was a deeply damaged person rather than a creative, extraordinarily sensitive, wounded one, struggling to be whole and healthy if not necessarily “cured” forever. It is easy to do research on medications, and there have been many that have proven helpful, but the reliance on science and the medical model means that the complexity and wholeness of human nature has been virtually ignored. Many of the rich sources in contemporary psychology, such as humanistic, depth and transpersonal as well as mind-body medicine seem never to be even considered by the doctors. The reliance on drugs has meant that psychiatry has not looked for deeper causes or alternative treatment methods. While it is true that medicine has saved my life a number of times, I do not think I would have needed hospitals so frequently nor have been as traumatized by those experiences along with everything related to a psychotic break if there had been a holistic view of the illness and more humane treatment methods. Sadly, I conclude that medicine has done me much harm and that our reliance on drugs is an extremely dangerous, damaging cultural phenomenon that puts society at great risk. The giant pharmaceutical companies, feeding us the most expensive drugs in the world, constantly advertising that pills are the answer to everything, are in collusion with medicine. It is time for somebody to blow the whistle! How many geniuses have we lost, how many millions prevented from the inner growth they need to pursue? How many deaths, both psychic and physical, are owed to the fact that mental health professionals are caught in a paradigm taken for granted that is so highly flawed? The new consumer-oriented movement that focuses more on recovery than ever before is hopeful, but it is still limited in its horizons.

The fact that a “dark night of the soul” is being required for many more than before is proposed by medical intuitive and author, Caroline Myss, who suggests that a new historical phenomenon is appearing. She describes this as a “mystical renaissance,” calling many who are unfamiliar with mysticism or its demands. Her tape on “Spiritual Madness” helped me rebuild a shattered life. I took detailed notes from it and pored over them many times, integrating the ideas that helped me reframe much of my experience in positive terms. Usually the term, “spiritual path” implies a serene and uplifted route, but Myss, suggests that true discipleship can mean learning endurance, experiencing profound suffering, surviving deprivation, developing compassion, testing courage and displaying perseverance.

The fact that a “dark night of the soul” is being required for many more than before is proposed by medical intuitive and author, Caroline Myss, who suggests that a new historical phenomenon is appearing. She describes this as a “mystical renaissance,” calling many who are unfamiliar with mysticism or its demands. Her tape on “Spiritual Madness” helped me rebuild a shattered life. I took detailed notes from it and pored over them many times, integrating the ideas that helped me reframe much of my experience in positive terms. Usually the term, “spiritual path” implies a serene and uplifted route, but Myss, suggests that true discipleship can mean learning endurance, experiencing profound suffering, surviving deprivation, developing compassion, testing courage and displaying perseverance.

Through some of the toughest times I now claim my warrior badge freely; through some of the severest trauma I appreciate that my life was saved hundreds of times by events large and small. Through some extreme deprivation I remember the miracles, whether finding a pair of sturdy shoes just my size lying on the highway, a warm pair of gloves on a park bench, the gift of a twenty dollar bill from a stranger in a laundry where I was busy selecting discarded socks to use as mittens on a frigid Minnesota day. The fact that I have lived for 6-8 months as a homeless person during the last decade, have gone hungry for days at a time, eaten in soup kitchens, discovered the warmth of a cardboard box on a cold evening, crammed myself into a crowded battered women’s shelter, experienced abject loneliness, struggled with both depression and madness and faced death frequently, means that I understand a few things about homelessness, rejection, hopelessness and despair. If it doesn’t break or kill you first, the soul grows stronger and more compassionate through such trials.

From all of this I gained a rare sense of self-knowledge that I could have found no other way. I now know how precious life is, how important small acts of kindness are. I also see far better the utter falseness of so much of American culture with its materialism and consumerism, achievement emphasis and so-called “success.” What a paucity of feeling, meaning, relationship, creativity, joy, peace of mind, laughter and wisdom is characteristic of our culture. My experiences have tested me mightily, cruelly at times, but they have also helped me know what really matters beyond the plasticity of modern living. As William Styron, the author who suffered serious depression in his 60s said, “illness is the opening to wisdom.” Manic depression helped open the fount of mine, giving me the capacity to live with its pleasures on a daily basis. Surviving serious illness has helped me discover or recover my soul. I would not have liked to have become the person I was becoming before this illness.

Sometimes, as I struggled to stand upright again, I saw that merely to have made the journey and shared these thoughts is to have helped heal a sick and dying culture. Does society in general also need to be brought to the brink time and time again to find its soul? I fear this is true although I do not relish the thought, for it will be the most vulnerable people like the ones I met on my path who suffer first and most. For me, manic depression has been an experience of living out the mind-body split of civilization in the extreme. It has meant recognizing the sickness of our schizoid culture. Without the illness I would never have seen these truths, nor wanted passionately to help heal them so that others might have an easier time, especially the voiceless ones. The human chain that connects us all is strengthened or weakened by our personal response to illness, our pursuit of consciousness, our need to learn to love ourselves and share that. I believe that medicine wholeheartedly wants to help heal, but I hope my fight for survival and healing will call some practitioners to new beliefs and practices. Most of all I hope these words will support others, whether the ill, their family or friends, their colleagues and employers. There are many thousands who have died and many more thousands who live half-mast lives because mental illness remains a neglected subject for enlightened study and treatment. At the very least those of us who bear the label can change that outcome if we define for ourselves what it means to “heal ourselves and heal the culture.”

Partial List of References

*Berman, Morris. Coming to Our Senses. New York, Bantam, 1989)

*Frattaroli, Elio. Healing the Soul In the Age of the Brain. (Why medication is not enough) New York: Viking, 2001

*Grof S. & Grof, C. Beyond the Brain. London: Thames & Hudson, 1980

*Hellinger Constellation work with Peter deVries in La Crosse, WI (2003) and Viroqua, WI, 2005. www.constellationworks.com See also Hellinger Constellation Work as a general search engine entry. (Method developed by Bert Hellinger over 25 years ago in Germany, and very well known in Europe through many practitioners.)

*Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. Basic Books, 1992

Holstein, Alice A. “How the Psyche Unfolds” Unpublished research showing consensus pattern for maturation process. 2003,2005.

*Johnson, Robert. Lecture to Jung Society, Tucson AZ, 1988

*Levine, Peter (with Ana Frederick). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA North Atlantic Books, 1997

*Mack, Alice H. Beyond Turmoil: A Guide Through Deep Personal Change. Tucson, AZ: Connexions Unlimited, 1992

*Mack, Alice Holstein. “How the Psyche Unfolds,”

*Metzger, Deena. www.deenametzer.com (articles and book titles listed)

*Miller, Alice. www.alice-miller.com (12 books listed plus articles)

*Mines, Stephanie We Are All In Shock. Franklin Lakes, N.J.: New Page Books, 2003

*Myss, Caroline. Spiritual Madness. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 199; also “A Message from Carline Myss,” e-mail newsletter, June 13, 2006

*Peat, David F. Infinite Potential: The Life & Times of David Bohm. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1997

*Pert, Candace B. Molecules of Emotion. New York: Touchstone, 1997

*Perry, John, Weir. Roots of Renewal In Myth and Madness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publihsers, 1976 (See also about six other titles by Perry)

*Tick, Ed. War and the Soul. Wheaton, Il: Quest Books, 2005

*Woodman, Marion and Dickson, Elinor. Dancing in the Flames. Boston: Shambhala, 1996