Mania and the ‘awful rowing toward God’: spiritual enlightenment, madness, or a combination of both?
Updated: Jan 29
Ever since I had my last mania five years ago, I have been left in confusion about what really happened.
This is partly due to the disastrous ketamine infusions fiasco that prompted the whole episode, but also because of the incredible spiritual journey that mania took me on.
I had a transcendental experience where I was in another realm which was running in parallel to this one. I was within two interconnecting circles, one Heaven and one Earth and I was able to access both planes simultaneously – I know how completely crazy that sounds, but it was so very real, and I still find myself sometimes questioning the difference between reality and spirituality even to this day.
Even crazier still, my mind took me back to the beginning of the cosmos and everything took on multiple layers and meanings. For example, an egg would not just represent something you eat but also the source and circle of life, fertility, hope, and even the creation of the universe.
What is mania?
When I write or talk about the manic side of my bipolar illness (which is not often), l always feel that it’s important to explain what it is because even with the increase in mental illness education it’s still so blatantly misunderstood.
A journalist even wrote about my ‘descent’ into mania the other day and she clearly had no clue about the monumental upswing of the illness.
Just to clear this up – when you’re manic you’re as high as a kite constantly for weeks on end, you don’t sleep a wink and your thoughts are going a million miles an hour. It’s very obvious that something is wrong and although the person experiencing it is often in raptures, it’s terrifying for those around them.
Before it goes completely out of control there’s a magical few days of bursting creativity where you feel as though you could learn six languages in a week, write a novel in one sitting, or paint a Gainsborough in a matter of a few minutes.
You feel so empowered, so talented, funny, witty, clever, which is kind of ok until it escalates into full blown mania where car parking spaces are being saved for you and you’re controlling the songs that are being played on the radio through the frequency of your thoughts.
Every time I meet a bipolar patient who has had a full-blown manic episode, they’re always so excited to tell me about their ‘amazing’ experience and although I think sensationalising mania is wrong, I do find the different presentations of manic episodes fascinating.
Differences in manic presentations
The question that really fascinates me is: why is it that people have such different experiences of mania? Why do some have religious or spiritual ‘awakenings’ like I do, whereas others spend ridiculous amounts of money that they don’t have, are promiscuous, and think they’re better born?
The thing that annoys me in all of this is that no professional in twenty years has ever asked me about any of the details of my manic episodes, either at the time or afterwards - I’ve just been dismissed as ‘mad’, and then left wondering how to make the distinction between reality, spirituality and madness when I’m ‘better’.
My manic episodes have always consisted of heightened spirituality and religious beliefs. I’ve never had any of those classic manic symptoms, like promiscuity or ridiculous spending, it’s just been God, Christianity, angels, Jesus and Heaven, seven perfect reincarnations, being able to predict the future, oh and a lot of dead people sending me messages.
Still now I question the whole thing – was there some truth in it and am I a gifted medium that’s been reincarnated seven times and here for the eighth and final one, or am I just simply bonkers?
Or, is there a sort of mixture of madness and clairvoyancy or did I have a spiritual awakening and I’m not bipolar at all (I don’t believe that last one but a lot of people do!).
A patient from a recent research paper that I read sums up this quandary quite nicely by saying:
“I really feel that yes, I had a lot of experiences and they were beautiful, but what can I do with them? Those experiences cannot easily be integrated in daily life, and in fact you have to keep your distance from them and continue in the “normal” world; for me, that is difficult.”
‘Touched With Fire’
Recently, I was watching YouTube videos about mania and madness and came across filmmaker Paul Dalio who wrote and directed the 2015 film ‘Touched with Fire’ (trailer at bottom of this post).
The film explores the relationship between two poets suffering from bipolar disorder. I have to confess that I’ve not watched the whole thing yet as just watching the trailer sends me shivers and takes me back to a place that I’m not sure I ever want to revisit!
Anyway, Paul explains his manic episodes so descriptively and articulately and he’s given me the confidence to discuss the ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, and more stigmatised side of my illness, hence this post today.
Paul explains his first manic episode by saying:
“I went completely crazy. It was like a bolt of lightning to the brain. All contemporary meaning to every object around me vanished like some cosmic, mythic thing. At first, it was radiant. I thought God had struck me with a vision that unveiled the whole miracle of the universe. I went outside and started running through the streets. At the peak, I was telling people I was the Antichrist.”
This is pretty bang on with what I experienced but with one big difference – I didn’t think I was the Antichrist I thought I was Christ! It then didn’t help when I wound up on the psych ward in Oxford and met a wonderful young man (now a close friend) who truly believed he was God!
We spent hours riffling through the bible and discussing parables and gospels even though neither of us has a particularly religious background!
The Awful Rowing toward God
It has been estimated that 30% of people who have a manic episode experience it in a spiritual or religious way. While trawling the internet for research in this area I was pleased to find a paper from 2019 entitled “The Awful Rowing toward God”: Interpretation of Religious Experiences by Individuals with Bipolar Disorder.
The Awful Rowing toward God is the title of a poetry collection by Anne Sexton a bipolar sufferer, written one year before her suicide. Her poems reflect both her severe suffering and her fierce religious longing, coupled with her profound questioning of the destiny of mankind and the meaning of life. It all sounds so worryingly familiar to me.
Anyway, it is still a comfort to know that other people have these spiritual and religious longings in tandem with bipolar disorder and many of the comments from the study resonated and brought some sort of reassurance.
Spiritual enlightenment, religious experience, mania or madness?
The research included a range of bipolar patients, with varied backgrounds, all of whom had had a spiritual or religious manic episode. The paper is long and as with most of these medical journals you need the IQ of Stephen Hawking to interpret it, but the main finding was this:
“Most mentioned were experiences of the presence of a transcendental reality, either divine or more this-worldly, of unity, of vocation/mission, or of meaningful synchronicity. Less mentioned were the various other religious or spiritual experiences of a paranormal or supernatural kind such as apparitions and voices, symbolic images or visions, and out-of-body experiences.”
I was so interested to read this because it fits with my simultaneous Earth / Heaven experience, the transcendence into God’s reality and of the divine importance and mission ‘messages’.
Another interesting section of the paper discusses how people’s interpretations of their spiritual experience differs when they’re either manic, in a euthymic state or suffering from depression.
Personally speaking, in periods of depression, especially when suicidal, I have felt as though God is actually willing me to end my life. He’s still present, even when I hate everything and everyone and have no interest in living anymore which is strange because if he’s there then why doesn’t he give me any hope?
The results of the research study were conflicting because some people dismissed their diagnosis of bipolar disorder completely and truly believed that they’d had a ‘spiritual awakening’. Others accepted the manic episodes as medical illness and dismissed the spiritual experience as nonsense, and some believed that both aspects were involved and held some validity.
There’s definitely something going on, even when I’m well I still think I’m receiving ‘messages’ sometimes but I just block it out because I know I can’t deal with it and I don’t want to be sectioned again and ridiculed for thinking I’m psychic!
Talking about all of this is difficult because I’m putting myself out there to be judged and dismissed as ‘mad’ but then again, I know it’s important for others to be able to gain insight into the manic brain and for people like me to be able to gain some empathy and understanding of their manic, religious and/or spiritual experiences from other ‘sufferers’.
Nearly all of the patients in the study agreed that mental health care was lacking with regard to helping people understand their experiences. The paper states that:
“Mental health care was evaluated as not being very helpful in dealing with religious experience with regard to illness management, and contributions of the hospital chaplaincy was viewed as not integrated into the treatment. A majority in the present sample expressed the need for open dialogue about their religious experiences within their treatment and the opportunity to explore and critically evaluate them.”
The truth is that there is no kind of help with dealing with anything at all on the current system and if they can’t even separate cases of psychosis from chronic anxiety and PTSD then it’s going to be an age before this kind of support and guidance is available in psychiatric hospitals.
All we can do is to share our experiences in the hope that it helps to enlighten others and allow them to understand what’s going on. Hopefully, that will mean that people will feel able to discuss the full spectrum of their illness openly, rather than worrying about being ridiculed and mocked by the psychiatric profession or society.
A profound change
A third of the participants in the study reported that the experience of a spiritual mania had brought about a profound change in them. One participant said:
“I am not the same person anymore. When your mind is expanded like this, there is no way back”
I don’t know that I feel as though there is no way back, but I do understand what she’s saying here because a spiritual bipolar mania is something so extremely ineffable that it’s impossible to explain it to someone who’s never experienced it.
My overriding feeling with the whole thing is that even though mania is a magical experience it is also highly destructive and the catastrophic depression and mixed state that follows it needs to be avoided at all costs.
I know I couldn’t survive another prolonged depression or mixed state, I just haven’t got the strength to handle it anymore, I would honestly rather die.
Sorry to be blunt but that’s the brutal truth, and quite honestly, I think people should do everything in their power to avoid the ‘awful rowing toward God’ and the destruction that follows it.
I can confidently say that even though I’ve ‘touched’ God and experienced this realm of serenity and beauty, I never want another mania ever again.
If you would like to read “The Awful Rowing toward God”: Interpretation of Religious Experiences by Individuals with Bipolar Disorder then you can find it here.
I would love to hear of other religious and spiritual experiences that have emanated from manic episodes so if you’ve had one or know someone who has then please do get in touch!
Thanks for reading,
Speak to you soon,