Wednesday Woo

Wednesday Woo #14: Shamanism and Psychosis

For last week’s article, Click Here.

For this article, I wanted to discuss something a bit more serious, as well as very personal. Psychosis, if left untreated can have a negative impact on the individual, causing isolation, loss of financial stability, and self harm (including suicide).

Symptoms of psychosis and treatment: https://www.nami.org/earlypsychosis

The New Age movement has a way of exalting mental illness in a way that can be problematic for those already suffering from delusions and/or paranoia. The belief system provides reinforcement of an already grandiose sense of self, and if one has psychosis or anxiety about the world, it can have significant consequences. A person with mental illness who holds the belief that they are a shaman with special powers, gives themselves the green light to simply follow their impulses, as well as anxious ideas, while disregarding any reasonable explanation. This isolates them from support of family, friends, and psychiatric help that could potentially ease their symptoms. The individual will reject any idea that there is anything wrong with their brain function as a personal attack on who they deem themselves to be. Confirmation bias is all they will allow into their consciousness, and they will seek out persons and sources who will fulfill their fantasies of being a powerful entity who sees and hears that which is not present in reality.

As you can see in the above example, the denial is quite strong in this individual diagnosed with bipolar. Unfortunately, he is not an outlier. Most folks with the same diagnosis are very uncomfortable with being told they have a mental illness, since there is a stigma attached to it (though with expanding awareness, not as much as it used to have), but also the medications they offer tend to dampen the excited, euphoric states of mania and heightened self-esteem that accompanies it. While the heightened state of mood provides a wonderful high, the lows are extremely dangerous. Yes – medications suck, but not being able to function is much worse, as is the inevitable crash that ensues after mania has ceased. Bipolar individuals are at a high risk of suicide, and are more likely to abuse drugs, which medication along with therapy can help curb significantly. The idea of gaining a diagnosis being merely a label is an absolute myth. There is so much more to diagnosis than merely slapping on a “defective” sticker – it is a way of identifying an inner struggle, and offering solutions in order to tackle the issues that arise from genetic dispositions.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004, and began taking medications as treatment. They helped somewhat with manic symptoms, such as impulsivity and racing thoughts, but the depression was much more difficult to manage, so I quit taking them in an attempt to wrap myself in the comforting high of a mood I considered better. Soon after, I left the love of my life during a state of impulsive mania – a decision I regretted for nearly a decade afterward. After moving back in with my mom, I began college and found a bit of solace in my studies. After finals that semester, depression hit me with a vengeance. I began to contemplate how much I missed my husband, and felt all alone in a world that no longer seemed to have a purpose. My mother knew about my feelings, but wasn’t very supportive at all. She assumed I was merely being histrionic when I said I wanted to die. Her lack of empathy made the situation much worse. Now there was a sinking feeling that absolutely no one cared, including the very person who gave me life. So I decided merely wishing for death and talking about it was no longer enough. I took the remainder of my Xanax prescription, and slit one of my wrists before passing out in the bathroom floor. To my dismay, I awoke at some point, though memory fails me as to what occurred for quite a few days afterward. Mom urged me to go back to the psychiatrist, and I began the meds once again.

Things got back to “normal” for a few years. I went back to school, and worked as much as I could to keep busy. After my mom’s death in 2008, my self-care went out the window, and grief took over my life for quite a few of the following years. I quit school, and tried to focus on just going to work. After discontinuing my mood stabilizers, the depression and mania I felt worsened, and it got to where I had to drag myself to my stressful job some days, then ride the wave of irritation on others. It was incredibly rough, not only because I was still grieving, but also having to deal with symptoms of a mental illness for which I denied myself treatment. In fact, I felt the only thing motivating me to continue forward was the manic states, which had me working circles around my fellow employees, and eventually I got promoted to management. When the depression hit, I would often become ill from forcing myself to work at the same pace as I did during mania, but would still press onward because I desperately needed the money.

Eventually forcing myself to deal with a stressful state of grief while working through the ups and downs of my mood took its toll on my grasp of reality. During a day of particular high stress at work, I glanced over toward the store’s entrance to see my deceased mother walk in. I knew it was a hallucination, and immediately felt the tears well up in my eyes. In my distress, I ran to the back so no one would see me so upset. It was embarrassing, especially since we were at the peak time of business, so I knew my absence was quite obvious, but at the same time, I knew my ability to wear a mask of functionality had ceased, and this was a psychotic break.

Once again, I got back on the medication, but this time, I had to take something stronger to tackle the psychosis. There were terrible side-effects: some medications turned me into a zombie, others made me confused. It was absolutely devastating and degrading to have to visit the psychiatrist as well. There had to be another way.

I got online, and I found a plethora of ideas regarding bipolar that made me question my condition. One of the ideas I ran across was presented by Phil Borges, who asserts that bipolar disorder is a spiritual awakening as opposed to a “label” of mental illness. It was an appealing idea for me, so I looked into the concept more and more. I became obsessed with the idea that my mom had REALLY visited me, and that I was being called to mysticism, so I quit my job in an effort to dedicate my life to the esoteric. I felt exactly as the guy in the above video felt – I had been misdiagnosed, and my gifts were being suppressed by medications. I was a spiritual being in a physical body, and all that mattered was my spirit, which of course was powerful enough to heal the entire planet. It was so easy to believe this, especially since it felt good during the manic cycle, but as always, the depressive side of me awaited. Regardless of how much time I wasted learning about the mystical realm, I didn’t truly feel healed. Believing in spiritual concepts only widened the gap between my extreme moods. Considering the notion of the physical world being of no consequence, when the extreme lows hit, they were lower than ever. During one depressive episode after my “awakening” I decided to take a stroll down a nearby highway and wait for a truck so I could jump in front of it. Fortunately, there was no traffic at that time.

While in the manic cycle, I was ridiculously motivated to push these beliefs onto other people, and my delusions of grandeur got much worse. Everyone who rejected my ideas were sheep, and those who agreed were the wise ones of my tribe. Conspiracy theories made the most sense, and skeptics were limited fools who simply held no creative energy. My following on social media expanded to the maximum level, and there were a multitude of folks willing to grant me my delusional mindset, and even cheer me on. This was such an intoxicating feeling, especially for someone who had once felt that absolutely no one in the world cared. I found I could induce psychosis by going into trance states, and felt I had amazing abilities to travel anywhere, even to other planets via the astral plane, as well as intuit what people were thinking.

There were moments to doubt my newfound spiritualism, though. Some of the people had notions even I had to reject. I recall getting a comment from someone who claimed he was the Christ, and that people tremble when he “would become”… whatever that meant. Even in my own madness, I knew this was a strange statement. There were others who acted questionable whom I had attracted, including people who believed bigfoot was a spiritual guardian, and that unicorns were a real thing. I began to veer toward skepticism more and more because of this. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I started noticing the consequences of folks feeling their facts, and how a lot of the stories people were sharing were fake. This made me question some of my own sources. The more real evidence I tried to find to validate my spiritual beliefs, the more I found rational arguments and evidence to the contrary.

After some time, I decided to abandon my spiritual pursuits and get back on medication. Now, I am more or less still in recovery from my partially self-inflicted psychosis, and it is very difficult to be around some of the folks I love because I see them falling into the same traps as I did – the conspiracy theories, grandiose ideas of self, a dangerous rejection of science, and the spread of ideas that cause nothing more than a sense of guilt for one’s own humanity. None of these things are healthy, especially for individuals who are already genetically prone to losing their grip on reality. Some of the folks I have known were driven to homelessness because they chose to follow these ideas and reject social norms like holding down a job, or relying on a family that loves them simply because they suggested they get psychiatric help, or they questioned their supposed shamanistic abilities.

There are many other varieties of mental illness that can be worsened by these harmful belief systems that reject science, such as OCD, schizophrenia, substance/alcohol abuse, depression, and other forms of anxiety. The denial and exaltation of these psychiatric problems runs very deep in the New Age community, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues there that can be managed with therapies and medication. The idea that we should play into the delusions of psychotic individuals only makes the problem worse, and can have a life-altering impact. So please, if you are suffering, let go of these unfounded beliefs and get professional help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the national suicide hotline (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org )at 1-800-273-8255

NOTE: The above is a United States phone number. Here’s the international list: http://ibpf.org/resource/list-international-suicide-hotlines

 

This week, I have an additional contributor to Wednesday Woo. Being a nurse, she has a professional perspective, and I am very honored to have her featured. Without further ado, here’s Stephanie’s very apt addition:

TV-Nurse-Jackie

“A Nursing “Woo” Story.

I didn’t decide to be a nurse until I was in college. I was fascinated with medicine growing up but didn’t feel confident enough to pursue a medical degree. Since then, I have found a love for the nursing profession and am very fulfilled. I do not believe I would have found the same satisfaction in medicine.

Having said that, there are disappointments in nursing. One is that while nurses are generally bright individuals, the educational requirements are more rigorous than many paths, the scientific rigor required to practice is extremely variable. Remember that many nurses enter the field with as little as 1 year of vocational school training. As many as 40% of practicing nurses do not have a bachelor degree and have never taken a statistics course or research methods. I did not take these until I was 20 years into my career. I say all this to try to excuse one of the most egregious uses of “woo” within a so-called science-based profession.

Going through nursing school I learned of an alternative therapy called “therapeutic touch”. In short, a nurse trained in therapeutic touch (TT) holds his/her hands over a body part that the patient or nurse feels may be the source of discomfort. By sensing temperature differentials, the nurse is able to tell where “energies” are imbalanced and by some technique (I’m not versed in this) is able to balance the energies and heal the patient of the imbalance. I thought this was crazy when I was in nursing school because I was a good Christian and this sounded like New Age hokey. Later on I became more educated, more secular but had forgotten about TT.

Then I found an article from the late 90s of a school child who tested TT. Unsurprisingly her mother was an RN who disbelieved in TT. Her child had seen her mom watching video of the techniques and supposedly suggested a way to blindly test the practitioner’s ability to perceive energy fields. Previous experiments were not this rigorous, generally had small sample sizes, poor design and a plethora of other issues.

The 11yo helped design, recruit and perform the experiment where the practitioner, who could not see if a person’s hand was behind a curtain, had to feel the energy of the hand and report that the hand was present or absent. The results showed the practitioners had no better success than chance would give them. The parents helped the child write-up the results and they were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Granted, the AMA has on occasion had a contentious relationship with the nursing profession but the data was made available, they were quite transparent. A Cochrane review (one of the most respected reviewers of medical effectiveness evidence) has warned of the unproven nature of the treatment and that any positive effects are likely due to the positive interactions between the patient and the practitioner.

So sorry for the length of this woo story. My take home message is, even respected healthcare providers can be questioned. This technique is still widely taught in nursing schools and is part of many (if not most) of nursing textbooks. One reason I want to be a nurse researcher is to drive the profession away from unproven methods and toward proven methods of helping and healing. The more I read on nursing history and underlying theory, it is really sad how many of them integrate unproven or unprovable premises for nursing practice. The supernatural beliefs run the gamut from Christianity and other traditional religions to more modern versions like New Age spiritualism.

So please, if your healthcare provider wants to try therapies that sound strange, ask them for the supporting evidence. They might not be able to instantly present it to you but should be able to get you a couple of articles at minimum or at least some searchable key words for Google Scholar.

And that little girl, Emily Rosa, she entered the Guinness book for the youngest author of a paper in a peer-reviewed journal and is now a college graduate. I have to believe her parents are so proud of her.

 

Cochrane review:

https://www.ahcmedia.com/articles/33533-therapeutic-touch-and-wound-healing

Emily Rosa’s article:

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/187390

A quackwatch article by one of the co-authors exploring questions on method:

https://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/ttresponse.html

One thought on “Wednesday Woo #14: Shamanism and Psychosis

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