The Slippery Slope of Spiritual Poverty

I know that when my physical and mental states are in poverty that I fall easily into the trap of spiritual poverty. It is hard to avoid. No matter how excellent the mental health care one receives is, mental health care does not provide any type of spiritual support. There is a small movement, in its infancy, which seeks to change the current model of mental health care to add more spiritual and family support, but it is a long way from any type of implementation.

When my mental illness is at its worst it compels a withdrawal from ordinary social contact, so the I withdraw from my church and my spiritual elders and this begins the cycle of spiritual poverty. When I can not afford to purchase appropriate offerings for my Gods, I lose faith in the simple offerings than I am able to afford, and I cease making offerings at all. When I can not make offerings, I feel ashamed to approach my altars, so they go untended. Without access to my altars, I fall out of the practice of prayer, and I become divorced from my spiritual practices. This separation from spiritual practice is the ugly face of spiritual poverty.

The Orisha calm me on sad days
Obatala from NacionYoruba.com

Living in a state of spiritual poverty removes a lot of joy and wonder from my life, and when this is paired with depression, hearing voices, seeing things that are not there, shame, humiliation, and anxiety I tend to spiral downward rapidly. This pattern of spiritual poverty has been the hardest of my patterns to break. I usually can not break it until I can once again afford to make appropriate offerings. Then I slowly can reclaim my spiritual life, and with my spiritual life restored, gradually the depression will lift. When I am less depressed the anxiety and the schizophrenia will lessen.

And I know this from repeated downward spirals. I know that if I can cling to my spiritual practice that I will not fall so far so fast. And yet I still lose my religion as soon as the spiraling begins. Currently, I have a job that pays decently, so I am beginning to do better. Most of my pay is spent on bills and the things I need to succeed in my new job, so I still can not afford really good offerings, but I can afford small appropriate offerings, so my altars are being tended, I have gotten back into the practice of praying, and I feel that connection with my religion once again.

But we have these patterns so we can learn from them. And I am struggling to learn from this pattern so I do not need to repeat it.

I am coming to accept that if I am going to break this pattern I need to seek help outside of myself. But asking for help does not come easily to me. I have decided that I need to begin praying to my Gods that I don’t get lost from them when things get bad. I have decided that I need to tell my therapist that staying on a spiritually even keel needs to be a major goal of therapy. But these two decisions are going to be complex. I feel very shy of asking my Gods to keep me from getting lost, I fear that losing my Gods shows poor character on my part, and my religion ever strives toward good character. I really don’t want my Gods to think poorly of me. And any discussion of spiritual matters with my therapist is getting into dangerous water. Because schizophrenia often causes inappropriate religious fixations, treatment for schizophrenia tends to be very leery of spiritual matters.

But I must overcome my fears, both the real fears and the imagined ones. I must remember that my Gods love me warts and all. I must remember that my therapist and I have been working together for several months, and that she knows that I do not have inappropriate religious fixations, and that she can help me to find ways to stay spiritually balanced.

Spiritual poverty is a destructive force in my life, and I must use all of the tools that I have to break its hold on me. My life, when it is good, is a spiritually rich place, and when I live in awareness of my spiritual wealth, my life is a joy. When I am in a state of spiritual poverty, my life is a burden, my life is something I no longer want.

I do not pretend to know how spiritual wealth and poverty effect anyone but me, but it is very clear to me that, for me, choosing spiritual wealth is a matter of life or death.

Between Madness and Priestess: Dancing the Tightrope

There is a delicate balancing act between the part of me that is a functioning priestess and the part of me that is desperately trying to step out of my own madness.

And it is not easy to understand, and it is not easy to explain.

The people who do not know me well see the chalice, the sword, the diadem. They approach me shyly, thanking me for my words, my service. People who barely know me never see the price beyond the regalia, and they never seem to realize that at my best moments of priestessing, I have shed my own self and plunged into the sacred spring where the goddess and the madwoman lie tangled in their eternal embrace.

Photo of Author as priestess
Me as a priestess with a priest, ready to begin the work

The people who know me well can see almost the exact instant that I leave my self. They see the wounds, the scars, the mess I have made of my own life. My closest circle of friends feel better I think when I set aside the chalice and the blade and live a more solid mundane life. Those who love me want me to be safe, and good priestessing is not safe.

And neither of those things are true for me. And both of those things are true for me.

I need stability in my life. I need to be able to simply chop wood and carry water. I need enough of the material world that my basic needs are met. And I am working toward that again. Schizophrenia is cyclical for me. When it is upon me, it is like driving in a blizzard-slipping wildly, no matter how carefully I handle the wheel, millions of particles flying into my vision hypnotizing me, until I crash in an unpleasant ditch. It takes me years to re-integrate myself, to be organized and clear enough to reinvent myself and start over from square one. And I’m doing that work now, gathering up what was shattered and meticulously gluing my life back together.

I also need magick in my life. I need to fall lusciously into the lap of the goddess. I need to be in the place in the time in the Stone Circle casting circle for the people. I need to plumb the depths of my own soul, and the depths of the cosmic unconscious. I have always been a good tool of the Gods. I can easily fall away from myself, and leave all that space for them. The hilt of the sword remembers my hands, the path around the altar knows my feet, the people have found good help in my words and my works.

Balancing these is hard work. No wonder I sometimes stumble and drop it all. For the mundane life demands I not stray into the realms of madness and the magickal life demands I leap in into madness in my full faith.

When all is well, when all is well, when all manner of things are well I can balance that liminal state. I can live as a fulcrum between those wildly diverse worlds. But to do it requires impeccability. And I am all too human. I can be very disciplined for periods of time-eating well, sleeping well, making good choices. But eventually I make a poor choice. And when I make that one poor choice, all the poor choices I have not made clamor for my attention, and I make all the poor choices at once, and the center can not hold.

I have tried to have only the normal stable life. I have walked away from being a priestess at least as many times as I have derailed my life-maybe more. When I have that life, I do not value it. A life without the wine in the cup of life which is the cauldron of Cerridwen, holy grail of immortality is a life I do not want. Living cut off from the parts of me that are a gifted priestess is my fastest road to a suicide attempt out of a clear blue sky.

As I rebuild my life those closest to me are being tested on the altars of loss, friends, family, and heroes are dying in numbers close to those closest to me. And the people come to me. I do not beckon them, they just come in their pain and loss. And they are not seeking a damaged dysfunctional woman, they seek the words, the actions of a priestess. And I plunge in, falling into trance and finding the right words, the right actions. Through my madness, their hurts are healed, their burdens lightened, even if only for a time. And when my work is done as priestess, I emerge to resume the work of rebuilding my life.

Along this long road, I have seen the carnage of lives. I have seen a gifted priestess who fell into madness almost fifteen years ago. She has yet to emerge. I have seen a gifted priestess walk away to chop wood and carry water. She has yet to emerge.

And me, I continue to try to balance, to juggle, to walk the talk. And I try to do good. I do good. I try to find that fulcrum point and balance there. I hope, I pray that I can balance there. I can not be less than both these things. And we should all know that I will probably fall again, and drop all of the things, and watch them shatter on the ground yet again, yet again. I just need to be patient. I need to trust the process. I need to remember that it does not matter if I fail, it does not matter if I fall. It only matters that I rise again when I do fall.

Sad Day for Schizophrenia: Grief and the Orisha

A friend of mine left the world today. It is a sad day. He was too young to die, but he had fought the good fight with Sweet Lady Cancer a long time. Saying good-bye is hard.

I woke up to this news, and all I really wanted was to pull the blankets over my head, roll up in a ball and hide. But that is not how you honor a fighter. When you honor a fighter, you fight the good fight, too. Even on a sad day, you fight. You follow the example. So I got up, I showered, I got dressed and I went to the appointment I had scheduled. But the best parts of me were still huddled under the blanket.

My appointment was with the ‘psycho-social vocational rehabilitation unit’ those are people who work very hard to find decent jobs for crazy people. None of that happened for me today. Today was an intake interview-just filling out endless forms. But it is a start, a small step in the right direction. So progress was made, even on this sad day.

I’m glad the appointment was just routine paperwork. I just sat and signed and dated the forms as directed. My mind was free to remember my friend-late night talks about weird and esoteric things, his face at crowded parties, head thrown back laughing, his serious face as he contemplated deep, deep unfathomable things. The memories called up an entire spectrum of feelings, it brought life and brightness into a grey and sad day.

For anyone, mentally stable or not, grief is a slippery state. Grief is a dark sequence of emotions, and they must be carefully traversed, and they must be fully traversed.

In my mind I begin to walk the well-worn path of grief for one who died too young. I really wish this path was the proverbial ‘Road Less Traveled’ but it is not. This path is wider and smoother than it should be. It is more familiar than it has any right to be. When I find this path in my psyche again I know that it is a sad day.

The Orisha calm me on sad days
Obatala from NacionYoruba.com

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I can not grieve only for this man who today died too young. All the others dead too soon crowd around me. I see the faces I will never see again, hear their voices, feel their hands gripping at me. All this grievous company clamor to me. ‘Remember me’ ‘Remember me’ they entreat. As if I could forget them, as if any of us could forget them. And today, there is a new face among them.

This was not the week for me to have to cancel my therapy appointment, but I had to, so it is as it is.

The voices are loud today. Every shadow has hands that grasp. I see a hundred expressions of his face in every reflection. Pete had to go to work early, so I am home alone, and today the house is very haunted.

I remember how we used to flirt outrageously at parties back before he got a girlfriend. Now he is gone with all those sweet might-have-beens.

And I am here.

Sanity is a struggle today. It would be easier to fall into the abyss. Today is one of those days where I would prefer to run toward the voices instead of running away from them. But that is no way to honor a fighter. That is no way to remember a warrior.

I struggle to control my ragged breathing. I stick my hands to the surface of this laptop. I grasp the silvery sides of the laptop, reminding myself that this is real. I urge myself to stay here, to follow the thread of this writing. I fight to remember that this is real. This reality is where I am expected to be. This reality is the place where I must function.

Facebook is overwhelming today. My feed is one post after another of my clan expressing their good-byes. It is a twenty-one gun salute of shock and sorrow. I try to stay away from the facebook page, but it bings seemingly non-stop. Chat windows appear with maddening frequency. Some of the windows are of my own doing as plans are made to attend the service. Rides are arranged, plans are made. Other windows are those who need to talk about it.

I am shaky in my own skin. But people need to talk. I know they are not talking to me, they are talking to the priestess aspect of me. With shaking hands, I straighten my invisible crown. I remember whose daughter I am.

I find it funny.

When my struggles to remain in the material world are so great that I might fall, it is my Gods in the invisible realm who help me stay. Maferefunfun, Obatala! (a blessing of cool whiteness to Obatala whose child I am)

When I am actualized in Orisha, (benevolent spirits, lesser Gods) I feel stable and in control of my life. But it is hard to maintain. Also, you can’t get too religious while you are in mental health treatment. There is a type of religious fixation that is common in schizophrenics-it is a warning sign to the whole treatment team, and it is an express ticket to a psych ward. So I need to thread my way carefully. It is hard this picking and choosing. It would be easier to be completely candid with my treatment team, but I do not care for psych wards, so I must be cautious. I can never share what the Gods tell me. I can never admit that most of the good and sound advice I act on comes from my Gods, not the advice of others or my own good judgement. I can not admit that I see the shining realms and expect to be believed.

There are no role models of how to be Priestess and Patient. There are no good words guiding you on how to grieve for your own loss, but shoulder the grief of others. There are no good ways to explain to your therapist that on certain days, under certain circumstances that the silent eyeless angels come alive, that they have hands and faces and names. To tell that for this next while that I will not ever be alone, to try to explain that there is no discord between the words ‘haunted’ and ‘beloved.’

Beloved of the Dead is how I was named. Nothing could be more true.

Being a Weirdo, Being Crazy, Being a Crazy Weirdo.

If you really really feel the need to go crazy in America at this time, take this advice:

Be an atheist. Or a secular humanist, or an agnostic. If you must have a religion, be Christian or Jewish. And don’t take it too far. Stigmata lost street cred about the time suburban kids started playing with razor blades…you might be able to go crazy in America as a Buddhist, a Hindu, or a Muslim. But that is only a guess. I’ve never met a locked up crazy person who identified as Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim.

Whatever you do, don’t practice a weird religion and go crazy. It really doesn’t help.

I never planned to take up a weird religion personally, but that is how it worked out.

In college I desperately tried to take up atheism or secular humanism. You never saw someone try so damn hard to disbelieve in your life. At disbelief, I was a failure.

It didn’t hurt that I went to college in Boone, North Carolina…before it got big and fancy. It is tough to disbelieve in God in Boone, North Carolina, or, at least, it was then. But I digress…

Failing to become a non-believer, I tried to get close to Jesus. Best I ever got to there was a sort of take it or leave it feeling. I did get close to his mom, though. (We remain tight) Jesus’ Dad was a different story. After the good old college try was exhausted, I began trying on religions in earnest. Judaism and Baha’i were ruled out as soon as I found Jesus’ Dad.

I worked my way through Wicca and ended up at Santeria.

A small white woman in a big black religion. It worked.

obatala-y-oya8ed7e9

I’ve always felt that there are a lot of roads to the top of the mountain, the important thing is just to keep going up.

Some people have felt compelled to judge me harshly for the path I’ve taken. I can see their point. But this IS the path I’ve taken, and I’ve never really felt much like living in a broom closet, a bead closet, or any kind of closet at all.

Unthinkingly I revealed my religion to a psychiatrist. Their reply was, “Like the Sublime song?” Suddenly, for some reason, I had a very. bad. feeling. It rapidly dawned on me that an African diaspora religion that evolves on its own terms, in its own time was not going to do well in the face of modern psychiatry. I guess you don’t need to be very psychic at all to see that one coming.

The upshot was that the psychiatrist began to try to cure my religion at least as earnestly as trying to cure my schizophrenia. From my undignified position on the icky vinyl couch, I tried to debate that my religion was not pathology. And this with a person whose ‘research’ into the matter turned out to be watching “The Serpent and the Rainbow” They didn’t even get the right African diaspora religion to get misinformed about…

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Well, crap. Even a crazy person knows not to argue with an idiot.

That was probably about 12 years ago now. And I haven’t gone near a psychiatrist since. I have a plucky GP with big brass balls, and a great big heart. He keeps seeing me, keeps trying. And he listens. We laugh about stuff that nobody else thinks is funny. Like me, the crazy phlebotomist, who is too crazy to have a job being the only person in his office who can draw my blood.  (Everyone else in there thinks I’m crazy because I can stick myself. I only manage because I have no desire to die of liver failure brought on by Clozaril…)

I’d like things to be different. I get scared. I get frustrated. I get lonely. My sweet sweet man has been underemployed for a couple years now. Working shitty retail. Getting paid squat. No hours, unless he requests time off. If I was working, we’d be okay. Not great, but ok. But no. I sit here being crazy. And we are not okay. We get tired of eating what the food bank gives us. Our bodies are not used to that much soft white bread or canned vegetables, so we get sick. The cell phones have been off for so long we have quit wondering when we might ever have them. Now there is no gas. No hot showers, no cooking. We are eating from the microwave, the crockpot, and the grill in the backyard.

The whole damn mess is my fault. Or the schizophrenia’s fault, which is mine, too.

echoes_of_schizophrenia_by_xhimsoulsx-d4h6c0f1

And I sit in my room with my phantom screaming voices and jumping shadows, and my kindly ancestors, and my Gods. I try to find a way up. A way out. A road toward the top of the mountain.

But I have this one truth. It is not my Gods that make me crazy. It is my Gods that keep me sane.

santeria-orisha-obatallaa38fb6