Finding Meaning in Psychosis

No one ever sat me down and told me I had bipolar disorder. I can only imagine that some people indeed have this sort of experience. A person might see a clinician, tell them what’s wrong, answer some questions, and maybe fill out a test before learning they have a mental illness, but that just wasn’t how it happened for me. 

I went psychotic. And I don’t mean a little psychotic. I mean full-blown—believed I was Jesus Christ, took off all my clothes in a jail cell, and would initiate heaven on earth once I became the President of the United States—psychotic. Upon hospitalization, I identified with the description of manic psychosis during a psychoeducational group. A doctor stood at the white board listing symptoms like grandiosity, euphoria and delusions of being a prophet or even God, and I raised my hand, exclaiming, “That happened to me!” 

There are people I’ve met that believe their psychotic episodes were obviously the result of neurochemical chaos and odd misfiring in their brains. I don’t think they’re wrong. I know the brain’s chemistry and circuitry can produce an incredible array of altered states of consciousness. If nothing else, I learned this firsthand experimenting with drugs as a teenager. 

But even with some experience of altered states, I felt a tremendous sense of meaning in my psychosis. This felt more real than anything I had ever known. This felt so substantial, even spiritual, like I was waking up to another dimension of reality. I knew there was more to what happened than just chemical imbalance, even if I couldn’t make sense of it at the time. 

Now denial comes in many forms, and I don’t know what would have happened if more meaning was attributed to my experience. But I can say confidently that the minimization of the spiritual component of my psychosis led me down a very long and unnecessary process of denial. I read spiritual books and found the majority of them to validate the spiritual nature of my experience. The deeper I went in my exploration, the more certain I became that I had encountered God. 

Then right when I was convinced that my psychotic experience was spiritual, I didn’t need medication, and I didn’t even have bipolar disorder in the first place, I had another psychotic episode. This time it happened while practicing a lot of yoga and meditation. In the days approaching hospitalization, I truly believed I had become enlightened. When I came out of it, I was devastated. I simply could not reconcile any sense of spirituality and the fact that I had bipolar disorder. 

It wasn’t until I was introduced to basic concepts of dream analysis that I was inspired to reexamine my psychotic episodes. I had always thought of psychosis as a waking dream anyway. It turns out that people think of dreams much like they think of psychosis. Some think dreams are random, odd, meaningless events bubbling up from the brain’s subconscious stew. But some believe dreams reveal unconscious processes that when made conscious have the power to heal and transform the individual. I was inspired; maybe, just maybe, I could examine my psychosis in a deeper way and discover transformation as the result. 

So I took a hard look at my relationship to Jesus, and to positions of power like the President of the United States. I asked myself why I would want to be Jesus or the President or some other beloved figure. I could see that I wanted prestige, control, and admiration from others, when my self-worth was at an all-time low and uncertainty at an all-time high. I also desired purpose in my life during a phase of transition from high school to college, when I had so little direction. 

I revisited how liberating it felt to strip naked and why I would feel compelled to do so. I looked back and could see the progression of sexual shame and body dysmorphia throughout my development. I wanted my body to be accepted. I wanted to be attractive. I wanted to be sexually active without feeling dirty and sinful. Ultimately, I wanted to be loved.

Had my secret, repressed desires alone become painful enough to cause a break from reality? I don’t know. But what I realized by confronting the variables of my psychosis is that my reality—my conceptual mind at that point in time—was close to unbearable. When the mind fails, perhaps something greater, maybe even something divine, is revealed. Psychosis can be more than merely the onset of bipolar disorder. Psychosis can be a wellspring of meaning, an opening of the heart and mind to find more compassion and understanding.

Chris Cole is the author of The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness, and he’s a life coach for people in recovery. Read the rest of his posts for IBPF here

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