Breaking Down is Waking up: The Connection Between Psychological Distress and Spiritual Awakening
I wrote a very honest post, a couple of months ago now, which detailed my incredibly powerful spiritual experience of mania which happened in 2017, and I discussed the residual confusion that I have been left with since it all happened.
I often feel as though I'm quite biased on this blog when I discuss the professionals in psychiatry and the current treatments. I try not to be because I know that criticism isn't always the most constructive of attitudes to adopt, but I just feel so let down!
The truth is that not one psychiatrist has ever asked me about my (if you will), 'spiritual enlightenments' over the years, or tried to understand my experience from an intelligent viewpoint. I've been completely left to my own devices, yet (as I regularly discover), it's the primary thing that virtually every bipolar patient wants to discuss!
I want things to be better for future patients which is why I continue to write and document everything: in short, I want to work with the profession to first highlight problems, and then collaborate to improve things for the better. My intention is not to upset anyone - I truly want to help!
Anyway, in the spirit of 'bibliotherapy' and my continued passion for learning, I am adding today, the introduction to a book I started reading on Sunday.
After reading the first page I immediately thought:
'This psychiatrist GETS IT!'
So, I am adding his own words this morning, so that people can begin to understand what I'm expecting from the current psychiatrists and as a demonstration of what anyone considering a career in the psychiatric profession MUST prioritise before they do!
The following is the introduction to the amazing Dr Russell Razzaque's —
"Breaking Down is Waking up: The Connection Between Psychological Distress and Spiritual Awakening."
EVERYONE NEEDS A BANISTER; a fixed point of reference from which we understand and engage with life. We need something to hold on to, so that when we’re hit by life’s inevitable disappointments, pain or traumas, we won’t fall too far into confusion, despair or hopelessness.
With a weak banister we risk getting knocked off course, losing our bearings and falling prey to stress, psychological turmoil and mental illness. A strong banister will stand the test of time in an ever-changing world, giving us more confidence to face the knocks and hardships of life more readily.
Understanding who we are and how we fit into the world is a quest we start at birth and continue through the whole of our lives. Sometimes these questions come to the fore, but usually they bubble away somewhere beneath the surface: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Am I normal?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Is there any real point to life?’ Deep down inside we know that nothing lasts–the trees, landscapes and life around us will all one day perish, just as surely as we ourselves will, and everyone we know too. But we have evolved ways to hold this reality–and the questions it hurls up–at bay.
We construct banisters to help us navigate our way round this maze of pain and insecurity: a set of beliefs and lifestyles that help us form a concrete context to make sense of things and, as the saying goes, ‘keep calm and carry on’. But, for most of us, the core beliefs and lifestyles that hold us together still leave us vulnerable to instability.
The sense of identity we evolve is so precarious that we’re often buffeted by life onto shaky ground. And, as a consequence, we become prone to various forms of psychological distress; indeed, for vast swathes of society this proceeds all the way to mental illness–whether that be labelled as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or the most severe form of mental illness, psychosis.
There are as many types of mental illness as there are people who suffer them. One of the reasons I decided to specialize in psychiatry, shortly after qualifying from medical school, was that, unlike any other branch of medicine, no two people I saw ever came to me with the same issues.
Although different presentations might loosely fit into different categories, there appeared to me to be as many ways of becoming mentally unwell as there were ways of being human.
I have since specialized in the more severe and acute end of psychiatry–I currently work in a secure, intensive-care facility–but to this day, in 16 years of practice, I have never seen two cases that were exactly the same. And the numbers just seem to be going up.
In the UK today, one in four adults experiences at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year. In the USA, the figure is the same and this equates to just over 20 million people experiencing depression and 2.4 million diagnosed with schizophrenia, a severe form of mental illness where the individual experiences major disturbances in thoughts and perceptions.
The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 450 million people world-wide have a mental health problem. Beyond these figures, however, are all the people who struggle with various levels of stress throughout life and, all the while, carry a fear at the back of their minds, that they too may one day slide into mental illness.
In my experience, this is a fear that pervades virtually every stratum of society. Rarely am I introduced as a psychiatrist to new people in a social gathering without at least some of them quietly feeling, or even explicitly reporting, that they worry that one day they are going to need my help. Such comments are often made in jest, but the genuine anxiety that underlies them is rarely far beneath the surface.
There is a niggling worry at the back of many people’s minds that something might be wrong with them; that something isn’t quite right. What they don’t realize, however, in their own private suffering, is just how much company they have in this fear. Indeed, I include myself and my colleagues among them, too.
None of us is immune from the existential worry that nags away in the back of our mind. But, if we look closely, there is also another process that can be discerned underneath all of this. Deep down inside every bubbling cauldron of insecurity, we can also find the seeds of a kind of liberation. Something is just waiting to burst forth. This something is hard to define or describe in language, but it is often in our darkest hours that we can feel it the most. And the further we fall the closer to it we get.
This is why, I believe, mental illness can be so powerful, not just because of the deep distress that it contains, but also because of the authentic potential that it represents.
Mental illness, however, is just one aspect of a continuum we are all on. All of us have different ways of reacting emotionally to the experiences we encounter in life and the ones that involve a high level of distress–either for oneself or for others–are the ones we choose to label as mental illness.
And it is this end of the spectrum that I will focus on most in this book, as it is these most stark forms of distress that present us with the greatest opportunity to observe the seeds within, and thus, ultimately, learn what is in all of us too.
There may be a variety of factors that contribute to the various forms of mental illness, of course, from childhood traumas to one’s genetic make up, but as the cut-off point always centres around distress–which is grounded in subjective experience–the definition itself will always remain somewhat arbitrary.
That’s not to say that such definitions have no utility. By helping us communicate with each other about these complex shapes of suffering, they will also help us communicate our ideas with one another about how to help reduce the suffering encountered.
That is why I use these terms in this book, but it should be noted that I attach this large caveat from the outset. Ultimately, the only person who can really describe a person’s suffering is the sufferer himself; outside that individual, the rest of us are always necessarily off the mark. What must invariably be remembered, however, is that there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. We are all vulnerable to emotional and psychological turmoil in our lives and there is something fundamental about the human condition that makes it so. That is why I believe, as a psychiatrist, that the best research I ever engage in is when I explore my own vulnerabilities. That is when I start to connect with threads of the suffering that my patients are undergoing too. And what I find particularly fascinating about this process is that the deeper I descend into my own world of emotional insecurity, the more I grow to appreciate an indescribable dimension to reality that so many of my patients talk about in spiritual terms, engage with, and indeed rely upon so much of the time.
In a survey of just under 7,500 people, published in early 2013, researchers from University College London found a strong correlation between people suffering mental illness and those with a spiritual perspective on life. Though the results confused many, to me they made perfect sense.
There is something at the core of the experience of mental illness that draws sufferers towards the spiritual. Their suffering is an echo of the suffering we all contain within us.
That is why I can say from the outset, and without reticence, that my insights are based largely on a subjective pathway to our shared inner world. And it is through this perspective that I have evolved what I believe is a new banister: a new way of seeing the world and being within it.
It is, however, not just that my introspection has taught me about my patients, but that my patients have also taught me about myself. Indeed I can safely say that I have gleaned just as much from the individuals I have cared for as I have from the professionals and teachers I have learnt from.
I consider myself hugely lucky to work in a profession in which looking into myself and learning about my own inner world has been, and continues to be, a vital requirement of my work
(though, it has to be said that, sadly, many within my profession do not recognize this).
It has propelled me into a journey of limitless exploration–of both myself and the people I care for–and this has led me to ever deeper understandings of the nature of mental illness, the mind and reality itself.
I have drawn upon a diverse array of wisdom along the way, and my journey has ultimately led me to construct a synthesis of modern psychiatry and ancient philosophy; of new scientific findings and old spiritual practices.
But this banister comes with a health warning, as indeed all should. Just as a set of perspectives and insights can be a useful support in times of instability, so too can over-reliance on them become counterproductive. That is why a banister needs to be held lightly.
Gripping too tightly to anything in life is a recipe for exhaustion and, consequently, even greater instability.
What we need is a banister that, when held lightly, can allow us to move forward, rather than hold us back. I believe that such an understanding of reality and our place within it actually exists; it is also imperative to our survival as a species.
I believe that life’s potential is far greater than most of us are ever aware of, and that our limitations are a lot more illusory than we know. In a sense I feel we are all suffering from a form of mental illness–a resistance to the realization of our true nature–and to that end I humbly offer this book as a guiding rail out of the turmoil.
— Breaking Down is Waking up: The Connection Between Psychological Distress and Spiritual Awakening by Dr Russell Razzaque
I really hope that's given people something to think about!
Thanks for reading!
Speak to you soon,