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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Bipolar Disorder

 

Catholic Psychotherapy  |  Spiritual Counsels  |  Books  |  About CSF

 
Introduction | The Danger | Mood Stabilizers | Expansive Fantasy | Healing from Grandiosity | One Complication to the Healing: Religiosity | Deceived by “Trust in God” | Psychotherapy—not Arguing | Medications—or Not

 

THOSE who seek treatment for mania (as in bipolar disorder) or hypomania, a less severe form of mania (as in cyclothymic disorder) often find themselves stuck in an unconscious philosophical impossibility. But more about this in a bit.

 
The Danger

Bipolar disorder can be very dangerous. Without psychiatric medication, and under the influence of a manic phase, a person can be tempted by powerful impulses to take risks and engage in dangerous—even life-threatening—behaviors. Moreover, illicit drugs, often used for self-medication, only increase the danger; not only do they damage the brain and erode whatever self-restraint may be alive there, but also they place the individual in dangerous social situations.

Read more about the symptoms of a manic episode
from A Guide to Psychology and its Practice

 
Mood Stabilizers

Mood stabilizers are common medications for mania. Lithium, for example, though not used much today, is a natural salt that helps to stabilize a person’s mood, so that the peaks aren’t so high and the valleys aren’t so low. It’s a fairly simple chemical though it can have some unpleasant side effects, such as a metallic taste in the mouth. But these side effects usually dissipate within a week or two. A mood stabilizer also tends to have a small “window” of efficacy, such that too little does no good and too much can be toxic; therefore, you will need regular blood tests to monitor its serum level. All of this should be fully and clearly explained by your prescribing psychiatrist.

One other effect of a mood stabilizer will be its success: you will lose the “high” of manic expansive creativity. You won’t be a “zombie” like some persons who must take highly sedating antipsychotic medications; you will just be ordinary. This, in fact, brings us to that impossibility I mentioned earlier.

 
Expansive Fantasy

Even though mania has organic causes that involve brain chemistry, mania also has a psychological cause. Its psychodynamic roots lie in a desire to avoid a mature understanding of life and to escape into the pleasurable, uninhibited, and expansive aspects of life. Any attempt to stabilize these expansive moods will feel like a grave threat to the “part” of the personality that uses flight into expansive fantasy as a defense against its inner emotional pain.

Right there is the problem. That part of you that uses “flight into expansive fantasy” as a defense against its inner emotional pain “knows” full well that all human social constructions are empty illusions, and so it yearns for something “meaningful” in life. Even treatment for mania will be seen as boring, and so your manic defense will resist the very thing you need for your own protection. But because the manic defense is just another vain illusion like all the other illusions it seeks to escape, it is always bound to fail.

  

Please notice that I speak here about unconscious knowing, not about what you think you feel or believe consciously.

Sadly, our entire social structure has its unconscious basis in the need to hide feelings of vulnerability and helplessness with feelings of power and grandiosity. Just look at our political system, our law-enforcement system, and our military system. It’s all filled with overblown rhetoric and pride.

Look also at some of our most profound social problems today. Certain elements of certain societies feel oppressed and disavowed. So, to make themselves feel powerful, they lash out with violent acts. Those who are terrorized by those violent acts feel momentarily helpless, and then they respond in turn with grandiose acts of retaliation.

So, if our entire culture has oriented itself around power and retaliation as a response to fear and vulnerability, imagine how difficult it can be for one individual to be healed from the depression and grandiosity that result from this unconscious cultural infection.

And that is why Christ calls us out of what we merely think we are and, through an experience of true love, leads us into the depths of a pure heart.

  

 
Healing from Grandiosity

Healing from bipolar disorder, therefore, can be difficult unless you can disentangle yourself from the unconscious thirst for grandiosity that surrounds you in our culture. For genuine, lasting healing, it will be necessary to accept the true spiritual realization that meaning cannot be found in a psychological defense; meaning can be found only through a humble surrender to something greater than the “self.”

  

I willingly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.

  

—2 Corinthians 12:9b-10

Note, however, that Saint Paul was able to accept his weakness because he was able to surrender himself to Christ with total and complete humility. So be prepared for the fact that as soon as you start to desire healing, complications will arise.

 
One Complication to the Healing:
Religiosity

Once we begin to talk about “a humble surrender to something greater than the self ”—as is done also in 12-step programs for treatment of addictions—we open up an awareness of spirituality and religion.

This spiritual element can complicate the treatment of mania, however, because religiosity is a common component to the manic defense of expansive fantasy. Rather than face the pain of your childhood experiences of aloneness, despair, darkness, and alienation, you can convince yourself that experiences of aloneness, despair, darkness, and alienation are a grand spiritual melodrama swirling around you in the present. Hence, if you were to tell your psychiatrist that you wanted to use spiritual understanding to help you in your recovery, the psychiatrist would most likely panic and would want to increase your medications!

So, how can you tell if your spiritual aspirations are genuine or if they are merely defensive? Well, the only way is to look for their fruits.

If your spiritual aspirations produce socially beneficial qualities in you such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then they can be considered to be something more than a mere psychological defense, and they can truly aid your healing.

In contrast, if you are overcome by qualities such as impatience, distractibility, impulsiveness, demandingness, conflict, discord, and scorn for others, then you are growing weeds, not fruit, and you are on a collision course with a devastating breakdown.

 
A Second Complication to the Healing:
Deceived by “Trust in God”

One essential aspect of genuine religion is trust in the guidance of God. The manic defense of expansive grandiosity, however, can deceive you into believing that you trust in God when in reality you are merely indulging your fantasies. By telling yourself that everything you experience is God’s will, you can convince yourself to carry out every impulse that pops into your head.

The problem here—just as with the problem with Quietism—is that you can end up committing grave sins while believing not only that you are doing nothing wrong but also that you are doing something holy and mystical.

What, then, can you do to nurture a true trust in the guidance of God? 

1.

Verify that your intended action is in accord with the teachings of the Church. Ask yourself if your intended action violates any of the Ten Commandments [1] or the directives in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

2.
  

Take the time to pray for guidance before doing anything. If you are not absolutely certain that you are about to do God’s will, do nothing and wait for more clarity. 

3.

Have confidence in saying, “God will protect me,” but understand that this protection refers to protection from your enemies, not protection from your own reckless lack of judgment. If you use your free will to do something foolish, don’t expect God to violate your free will to stop you.[2]

 
Psychotherapy—not Arguing

In intense psychotherapy with someone who really knows his job—or through intense spiritual purgation (as described by Saint John of the Cross)—you can learn wisdom and humility as you encounter them in the healing process. 

But until you reach that place of full emotional commitment to looking beyond what you merely think so as to peer deep into your unconscious motivation, you will always be trying to argue with life (and your psychotherapist or spiritual director) [3] in the same way that dysfunctional adults argue with children.

It will seem that life, in all its empty vanity, is treating you just like a distracted parent treats a child: with expectations, not nurturing. You will want desperately to rise above everything that seems foolish and, as an expression of your deep, unconscious anger, poke holes in it with brilliant intellect.

But, as I said above, because the manic defense is just another vain illusion like all the other illusions it seeks to escape, it is always bound to fail. Moreover, all this grandiosity will open you right up to demonic influence. To really care for your soul, your own inner pain must be understood through the psychotherapy, not hidden away with flashy slight-of-hand grandiose fantasies. In essence, it will be necessary to learn to treat yourself with the honest, compassionate, and gentle understanding that your parents never gave to you. 

 
Medications—or Not

If you have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and do not like the idea of taking medications, it can be possible to find healing without medications. But notice carefully that I said possible, not likely. Healing without medications requires an absolute and total surrender to God along with a desire for the purest of humility. Unless, for the love for God, you are following the spiritual counsels on this website, you don’t have this desire.

Needless to say, at the outset pure humility will seem quite distasteful, more so than the taste of lithium even. Therefore a mood stabilizer may be your easiest solution. Eventually it will force your body to submit to it; it will effectively do to your body what you fear to do: surrender humbly to something greater than yourself.

  

Just remember that psychiatric medications are not curative—they work only for as long as you continue to take them. No one, really, should ever be taking psychiatric medication without also being in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy can lead you to the roots of your unconscious motivation where you can find a more lasting healing than day-by-day containment with medications.

  

So, if only you can get yourself stabilized—if only chemically—then turn to the deep psychological and spiritual issues and do the work to resolve them. Overcome grandiosity by dying to it, as Christ told us to do: Take up your cross and follow me in pure humility through suffering, obedience, and prayer.

The Litany of Humility

 

Who wrote this web page?

 

Notes.

1. Note that it is easier than you might think to violate any of the Ten Commandments. You might say, “I’m not a murderer,” and yet, if you desire vengeance for past injuries you are carrying hatred in your heart, and that hatred makes you a murderer. You might say, “I’m not an adulterer,” and yet if you dress immodestly you are inciting lust, and that lust makes you an adulterer. And on and on it goes.

2. There are times when God does give us the grace of interrupting our plans. For example, a red traffic light inconveniently makes you stop your car; while waiting, you see a tree come crashing down in the next block, and you realize that you would have been killed if you had not had to stop for the signal light. Well, these sorts of things are examples of God protecting you from your enemies. Think of them as unexpected gifts.

3. They will even try to argue with the truth of what is said right here. Still, I say it anyway.

 

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Where Catholic therapy (Catholic psychotherapy) is explained according to Catholic psychology in the tradition of the Catholic mystics.