Spiritual Lessons in Recovery
by patricia.deegan on Thursday, November 4, 2004 - 9:06am

I recently wrote a paper on the topic of spirituality and mental health recovery for a conference in Kansas. Here is an excerpt from that paper (note: this material is copyrighted 2004 & Pat Deegan PhD & Associates, LLC)…

Distress, even the distress associated with psychosis, can be hallowed ground upon which one can meet God and receive spiritual teaching. When we set aside neurobiological reductionism, then it is conceivable that during the passage that is madness, during that passage of tomb becoming womb, those of us who are diagnosed can have authentic encounters with God. These spiritual teachings can help to guide and encourage the healing process that is recovery. Let me give you an example from my own experience.

I was in a very difficult, emotionally turbulent passage, punctuated with periods of psychosis. The anguish of it seemed endless, and I had lost all sense of time. I remember pressing my body against the concrete wall in the corridor of the mental institution as wave upon wave of tormenting voices washed over me. It felt like I was in a hurricane. In the midst of it, I heard a voice that was different from the tormenting voices. This voice was deeply calm and steady. It was the voice of God, and God said, "You are the flyer of the kite." And then the voice was gone. Time passed and I kept repeating what I had heard, "I am the flyer of the kite." When I repeated this phrase, I had the image of a smaller me, standing deep down in the center of me. The smaller me held a ball of string attached to a kite. The kite flyer was looking up at the kite. To my surprise, the kite looked like me also. It whirled and snagged and dove and flung around in the wild winds. But all the while, the flyer of the kite held steady and still, looking up at the plunging and racing kite.

"I am the flyer of the kite", I repeated again. And, slowly, I began to understand the lesson. "I have always thought I was just the kite. But God says I am the flyer of the kite. So, even though the kite may dive and hurl about in the winds of pain and psychosis, I remain on the ground, because I am the flyer of the kite. I remain. I will be here when the winds roar, and I will be here when the winds are calm. I am here today, and I will be here tomorrow. There is a tomorrow, because I am more than the kite. I am the flyer of the kite."

The notes in my chart that day probably said I was floridly psychotic. However, for me, that day was an epiphany. The lesson I learned on that day was a lesson I relearned, over and over again, in my recovery. Basically, I learned there was a deeper part of me, that was centered and unmoving and steady and constant and calm. Without this deeper part of myself, the wind could easily blow me away. This deeper me learned not to over identify with the good times or the bad times.

Like the kite blasting around on a windy day, my recovery often meant having a difficult time, with lots of ups and downs, pain and suffering, setbacks and bad days. But God taught me there was more to me than these ups and downs. Deep down inside, no matter how rough things got, there was a still, quiet place within me that held steady and that survived. On some days, recovery, was just about learning to ride the tumultuous winds, while hanging tightly to the kite string, until the storm passed. At other times in my recovery, I needed my therapist or a trusted friend to hold the string, until I could reconnect with the flyer of the kite within me.

If mental health professionals are to support the spirituality of people in the recovery process, then it is important to remain open to the possibility that people receive authentic spiritual teachings during periods of what gets called psychosis or psychiatric disorder. These spiritual teachings can provide a resting place for the weary; nourishment for the hungry; meaning for those in despair and a compass for those who are trying to navigate the passage of recovery. Simply allowing a client to discuss the spiritual teaching, while listening respectfully, can be healing. If the client is willing, exploring the teaching, applying it to daily recovery, and reminding the client of the teaching when it’s been forgotten can be helpful.

It is imperative that professionals not invalidate spiritual teachings received during psychosis or severe emotional distress. It is important not to dismiss such teachings as delusions. Do not interpret them as symptoms of disordered minds and then ask for an increase in psychotropic medications. If, as a mental health professional, you feel uncomfortable listening to spiritual teachings, because you are not an expert in such matters, own this personal limitation and share it respectfully with clients. Clients are then free to find other people who are more receptive to talking about spiritual teachings received during periods of altered consciousness and extreme emotional distress.

In addition, if mental health professionals are to develop an understanding of the role of spirituality in recovery from psychiatric disorders, they must be prepared to explore the depth and breadth of their own spirituality. It is not enough to study the spirituality of people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, as if our spirituality were somehow different from yours. This objectifying, non-reflexive perspective will not do. If professionals are to support people in recovery, they must live in hope and understand no one is beyond hope. No one is completely lost. No one is chronic. All are of value. No one is a waste of your time. In other words, professionals must be willing to look into the places where human hands can not reach and abide in faith that there, too, God dwells.