Spirituality: Real Medicine for Mental Illness

by James Callner, MA, AFOCD President. James Callner is an award winning writer, filmmaker and speaker on mental illness.

Jimgood260Note: Use of the word "spiritual" is not meant as a reference to any organized religion; instead, "spiritual" is meant to be understood as one's spirit that needs to be mended or reclaimed.

Who Knew? A phrase my Jewish relatives instilled in me decades ago. Who knew, that spiritually would be the strongest, most lasting, medicine for my Mental Illness? Who knew, that reclaiming and cultivating the damaged spirit within me would calm the trauma of Anxiety, Panic and Depression?

In 1982, at age 29, I had a devastating nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for six weeks. Eighteen years later I still don’t know why they call it a nervous breakdown? My nerves didn’t breakdown. I certainly had tactile feelings. I could touch my own arm and feel the sensation. So what nerves broke down? I have come to learn that it wasn't my nerves but my emotional defenses, my emotional guard, my perception of who I am that became confused and full of fear. I became fearful of living. Sounds scary? It was beyond scary.

I had an extremely severe case of (OCD) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a disorder that I experienced as a child and throughout adolescents without knowing it. When my full onset hit in 1982, my symptoms were classic OCD such as, Washing, Checking, Counting, Obsessions about harming others, etc… The primary symptom was the phobia of Germs and Contamination. I would let no one touch me for fear of passing or receiving germs.

The touch example will give you a basis of how OCD Germ and Contamination phobia works. If you touch me I develop anxiety, questioning what germs are on your hands. Then I would start obsessing if those magical germs may harm me? The magical thinking or obsessing exacerbates. My fearful inner dialogue continues: ‘You touched my hand. I now have your germs. If I touch someone, those germs may get on some one else and harm them. They may get sick or die, simply because I wasn’t careful, and it’s my entire fault!’

Sound irrational? It was. However, OCD is not a psychotic disorder, it’s a neurotic disorder. It’s a ‘Worrying’ state of being. It is a progression of obsessions (worrying thoughts) and compulsions (behaviors to try to control the worrying thoughts) all expressed from fear. It develops into anxiety and panic. However, at the same time the OCD mind is frustrated and confused.

I used to say to myself, “this is ridiculous, how can this be happening? I don’t really believe all these obsessions, but why can’t I stop?” OCD is a neurological disorder. It is a progressive disorder if not treated. In 1982, there was little or no OCD medication that would help. Anxiety reducing medication and ERPT, Exposure-Response-Prevention-Therapy worked the best for me; I’ll talk more about that later. I became much worse before I started my journey to recovery. Washing hands nine hours a day, bathroom rituals taking up to four hours per day, two hours to take a shower, checking and counting with scrupulosity. I was obsessed with fear of virtually all my surroundings. I had lost my job, my relationship, my apartment, my life. I remember my Psychiatrist sending me the message that this would be the greatest journey of my life. My question was; when does it end? When does this great journey find peace? When will it all stop? I was willing to do any thing to make it stop!

Recovery began with anti-anxiety medication so I could begin the long process of Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (ERPT). This was a process of exposing myself to fears and phobia’s and then not responding with rituals. Example: Using ERPT with a phobia of public bathrooms and germs. Here’s how it worked for me. I would get cognitive support from my psychiatrist to work up a head of emotional muscle to take the risk of using a public bathroom. Then I went to a local hotel lobby. I used the bathroom. Now, the trick was not to ritualize the fears away by washing my hands for hours. I washed my hands twice and walked out the door. I then had a wave of anxiety that I was instructed to feel the feelings. Not go back and wash or do any other ritual to take care of that feeling. Just sit with it and let it dissipate. It worked! I have been doing ERPT since 1982. I had a tool that with much practice would be a solid treatment. However, now that I could lean on ERPT to help my symptoms what was there to help balance my emotional life? What was there to bring serenity and peace back in to a life of stress, control and fear? What I found was some thing that I would never have thought of approaching. This nice liberal Jewish boy from Wisconsin was about to enter the realm of Spirituality.

The Spirituality I am talking about is not religious in nature. It does not come from any religious denomination or sect. It is a spirituality that is about reclaiming ones broken damaged spirit. Mine needed extreme mending! It all started when my psychiatrist suggested I be around ‘like-people’. He recommended going to a 12 Step group.

I am not advertising or promoting any 12 Step program. It’s not for every one. You have to decide for yourself. I am simply describing my experience and how it guided me to an extremely strong medicine called, Spirituality.

At that time, Obsessive Compulsive Anonymous was virtually nonexistent in my area. My Psychiatrist suggested I go to Al-Anon. I said to him: "Now wait a minute, I don’t think so. There’s nobody in my family that is an alcoholic, why are you suggesting Al-Anon? I have OCD." He sat back in his chair with a gentle smile and said; "The first step of all 12 step programs reads the same except for one word. For instance, in Alcoholics Anonymous it will read; ‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -that our lives had become unmanageable’. In Codependent Anonymous it will read; ‘We admitted we were powerless over others-that our lives had become unmanageable’. In Emotions Anonymous it will read ; ‘We admitted we were powerless over emotions-that our life's had become unmanageable’". Then he looked at me with his soft nonjudgmental eyes and asked; "Jim, what are you powerless over at this time in your life?” I replied;” My fears, my OCD". He agreed and continued to ask me these bottom line questions. "At any level, has your life become unmanageable or out of control"? I thought for a few seconds. Bang! It all made sense. I had no control over my fears from OCD and my life was a mess because of it. He then asked the crucial question, "Jim, in that first step, do you think you could replace that single word with “fears"?

So, on a Wednesday night, I went to my first 12 step meeting. In the beginning I found myself internally fighting with the program. For example: fighting with the principals, fighting with the ideas, fighting with the common sense simplicity of it all. All these slogans that made absolutely no sense to me. ‘Let go, let God’. My brain screamed silently; ‘what the hell was that suppose to mean’?

It was clear that the program was not a religious program. The words, God and Higher Power were used only in the context of choice. A Higher Power of your choosing. It could be the Universe, it could be the group, it could be anything outside of yourself.

I went back to my psychiatrist, and asked; "What the hell does ‘Let go and let God' mean?" He replied with words that I carry to this day. He said plainly; “All it means is Stop Trying to Figure It Out." For the first time in my life I got very very quiet and literally stopped talking. ‘The committee’ in my mind, stopped arguing. Something finally made sense. I had been ‘figuring out life for decades rather than living it. Then my brain snapped back into judgment mode. It sounded just too simple for a person so phobic and fearful. I said to him in a defending voice,” Stop trying to figure it out? And then what"? He replied with another life changing spiritual concept; "and then, let go of controlling all your feelings and fears. Have them. Own them. Feel them. Life is about feeling all feelings, including fear and not controlling them. Jim, live life on life’s terms not your terms". Ouch, that made sense! I couldn’t remember when I just let myself feel fear or anxiety and let it pass through me. I always tried to control it with rituals or obsessions.

Spirituality is about rebuilding and reclaiming a damaged spirit. Children, whom have not experienced abuse, judgment or disorders, are children that are full of spirit. They play, they laugh, they explore. When children or adults have any dysfunction, come into their life, their spirit or life force diminishes. The goal of Spirituality is to bring back your spirit with new tools. Tools you may have forgotten. Tools that were always with you, but because of the dysfunction, have faded. For myself, I wanted spirit back. I wanted to let go of control and live in a place of serenity not fear. Control is my issue.

There is a very strange paradox about control that you learn when you get in to spiritual work, whether it is through 12 Step programs, Course in Miracles, a large amount of books and tapes on spirituality from authors like Melody Beattie to Wayne Dyer to Depac Chopra.

The paradox is this, ‘When you let go of control and stop trying to figure it out… you get control. Let me repeat that. WHEN YOU LET GO OF CONTROL, YOU GET CONTROL. Isn't that strange? I found it unbelievable, but I tried it and it works every time.

In rebuilding my spirit I found I was a tremendous people-pleaser, judger and controller. However, I learned a spiritual truth that I use to this day. I don't have control over what other people say, do, act or behave. I can influence other people, but I have no control over them. I have no control your feelings. I have no control over how you are perceiving this information you're reading right now. I do have control over my own thinking.

A good example of this was in my beginning years of recovery using spirituality. One Wednesday night I was sitting in a 12 step meeting. In this particular meeting there was an elderly lady sitting in the corner knitting. She never spoke, she just listened. She looked a little like Aunt Bea from Mayberry who was a sweet, kind, elderly lady, knitting in the corner of the room. She sat in the same chair, the same place, every meeting, every week. That night I was talking about how bad my day was. I was filled with anxiety, rituals and obsessions. I was exhausted from it all. Mad, frustrated and damn angry! The elderly lady put up her hand for the first time in months. She was chosen to speak. What came out of Aunt Bea’s mouth was the most profound thing I had ever heard. She quietly said; "You know, you can start your day anytime you want." The room went quiet, very quiet, for a few moments. Then, my thoughts started to judge her statement, as I had been judging her silence for months. ‘How can you start your day anytime you want’? I didn't understand. I asked myself. “If I have an anxious day from 7am in the morning till 11 at night and I go to bed at 12 midnight, between 11pm and 12 midnight I should start your day”!? She quietly expressed; "Exactly”, and then went back to knitting.

Aunt Bea wasn’t Aunt Bea anymore. She was my Guru!

That was the day I started to understand gratitude. I had a horrible day but I could make the conscience decision to start the day over no matter what time it was, and be grateful to the Universe or God that I had an hour of a good day. I could then build on that gratitude. Maybe next time I would have two or three hours, just because I changed my attitude in to gratitude. Start my day over at any given moment, what a concept. Rebuild my spirit at any given moment, what a gift. Take back my power and decide to feel the feelings of anxiety and let them pass, at any given moment.

I stopped judging this woman and began coming to meetings hoping she would speak.

Adding Spirituality, in all it’s many forms, to my treatment and recovery from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has changed my life completely. I believe that it is the missing treatment modality that many of us need. It has given me life tools to work with. I wish I had a Spiritual Compassion class in the 3rd grade. For the majority of us, we were never taught spirituality without religion attached to it. Relearning how to look at my life from the inside out has been the most powerful medicine I have experienced.

On my road to recovery, I continue treatment through cognitive therapy, medicine, exposure-response-prevention therapy, risking, 12 Step programs and spiritual books and tapes. All have helped me get back my life. The spiritual component has been the strongest. At first, spirituality seemed New Age. It’s actually Old Age, based on philosophies centuries old, and now made understandable for us slow learners.

Belief was one of the strongest dynamics to change my biology. My heart is now open to all the possibilities of life.

My favorite spiritual saying; ‘When the student is ready, the teachers will appear’. When I became willing to heal, all new spiritual concepts arrived, and I got better.

Spirituality; who knew?