My introduction to transpersonal psychology came in the form of initiation. I was no stranger to adolescent disturbances, assigned twelve-step meetings, and group therapy for my drinking after having wrecked my car, and there were many less outwardly consequential experiences that nonetheless ate at my soul. I could not wait to get to college, with the promise that I could party without getting grounded by my parents. I was a young conservative and aspiring fraternity brother, concerned much more with how many seconds I could do a keg stand than choosing a major.
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There has been no greater motivation for my recovery than fatherhood. Alone, I could go for long stretches of mood dysregulation. Even married, I was afforded the opportunity to sleep excessively and spend large amounts of time devoted to my self-care. Such privileges were no longer my reality once my oldest son was born in 2012. Suddenly, agitation and unease became glaring deficits in my ability to nurture and care for our baby.
I want to start by saying that this list of spiritual traps accompanying bipolar disorder is no scientific article. Rather, it is a list of my own experiences and those of my clients searching for ways to integrate spiritual wisdom gleaned during times of madness while also honoring the painful reality of bipolar symptoms. Just as creativity has been openly linked to bipolar disorder, there is a spiritual component to the illness that gets much less attention due to various degrees of stigma and taboo.
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.
This week we’re celebrating Thanksgiving in the United States. Family, food, and gratitude mark this special time of year. It’s a time when I check in with myself, with my mind and my spirituality. It’s a time when I ask what I’m grateful for, and most importantly, it’s a time when I intentionally foster gratitude for all that I have.
I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a wildly embarrassing acute manic episode. I did it all. I claimed to be Jesus. I punched a friend, who I thought was the devil. I got arrested in the lobby of my freshman dormitory. I stripped off all my clothes and demanded the police come look at my naked body as proof of my divinity. And this was all during orientation week of my very first college semester. You would think there could be nothing worse, and that after such an episode, I would go to any lengths to stay stable and sane. But it’s more complicated than that.
When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was in shock. I had no idea about mental illness or mania or psychosis. I had no idea that my brain could be responsible for altering my reality, for making me think certain thoughts, or for making me feel sad when there was no apparent reason. Up until that point, I took reality for granted, as if it were as constant as gravity. But in an instant, sanity became a precious commodity.
I was eighteen years old when I first experienced acute manic psychosis. I had just arrived at the University of Georgia for my freshman fall semester when I suddenly had what seemed like a profound spiritual awakening. I felt as if I was waking up from a bad dream, as if my mind and body were merely figments of my imagination. I felt an incredible transcendence and oneness with the universe, an experience I could only fathom to be spiritual. Back then, I didn’t know anything about bipolar disorder.
Chris Cole holds a Bachelor of Arts in Contemplative Psychology from Naropa University and is a certified Strategic Intervention Coach. He has recently authored a memoir of his journey with bipolar disorder, titled The Body of Chris in honor of his delusion that he was the Second Coming of Christ. He is also in recovery from addiction and disordered eating. He works as a professional life coach for folks in recovery from any number of mood, addiction, or behavioral issues.