Mental Illness Leads to Spiritual Journey
By Maggie Schie-Lurie

[This is excerpted from a speech given at a convention of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and later reprinted in the World Tribune.]

Spirituality is an aspect of recovery from severe mental illness that has been ignored for too long. My experience with mental illness has led me on a spiritual journey which I could never have predicted.

This experience began 20 years ago when I was a freshman in college. Though I had looked forward to college with high hopes, within a few months I was having serious difficulties with depression and anxiety. I lost the ability to concentrate and to write coherently. I felt as if a great gray fog had rolled in around me, clouding my mind and separating me from the rest of the world. After only one semester, I was forced to drop out.

Over the next several years, I experienced periods of profound depression. After a manic episode in 1979, I was re-diagnosed with manic depression. I got and lost a dozen jobs. I went back to college and dropped out again. My family worried about me and many of my friends stopped associating with me. I withdrew from them and often considered suicide.

It wasn’t that I didn’t try to get better. I did everything that I was told to do. I saw a psychiatrist, took my medication, went to the hospital and tried as hard as I could in school and work. Sometimes things seemed to get better, but it never lasted. I had no sense of purpose or hope for the future. I couldn’t hold a job and worried about my future.

I was raised in a very religious home and my religious faith was always very important to me. But my efforts to deal with my illness through faith alone or even faith and psychiatry were less than fruitful. My attempts to find support and understanding from my church were frustrating and alienating.

I struggled with the lack of answers and the conflicting philosophies and advice that I got from the church, psychiatry, and friends. I was so confused about who to believe and wondered: “What difference would it make anyway?”

In 1979 a friend told me about Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism and how it could enable me to tap the wisdom within myself to make the best choices for my life. She explained that each person has the ability to overcome any obstacle to happiness. She said that through the practice of Buddhism, I could turn my current problems into a source of great benefit for myself and others.

I was intrigued and impressed by my friend’s confidence and sincerity. Here was someone I trusted offering me a strategy for overcoming my difficulties and it didn’t cost anything, wasn’t invasive, and I didn’t have to travel or be admitted into a program. What did I have to lose?

One quote from the founder of this Buddhism especially caught my attention and spoke to my situation: “A mind that is presently clouded by illusion originating from the innate darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror, but once it is polished it will become clear, reflecting the enlightenment of immutable truth. Arouse deep faith and polish your mirror night and day.” He goes on to say that the way to polish the mirror of one’s mind is through consistent Buddhist practice.

As I practiced, I noticed a lot of improvements in my life. I felt better about myself, ate more regularly and began to exercise. I recognized the value of the lithium that had been prescribed — I had previously resisted it because of the influences of friends.

There were two Buddhist concepts that were particularly helpful to me: that the answers to my questions may lie within me (not outside) and that by taking responsibility for all aspects of my life I could change even the parts that I didn’t like.

These ideas opened up a whole new world for me. I realized that I had looked outside myself virtually my entire life for validation, identity and a sense of self-worth — to my parents, teachers, psychiatrists, even God. I borrowed my parents’ values without much question. I didn’t feel good about myself unless I was rewarded with good grades. I expected my psychiatrist to tell me what was wrong and how to fix it. And when my life was really messed up, I expected God to rescue me.

There is a psychological theory about the “hardy, stress-resistant personality” that states that everyone encounters stressful life events, but one’s personality traits determine whether those stresses lead to growth or psychopathology. The traits that enable one to turn stress into growth include what are called the three “C’s — commitment, control, and challenge.

The practice of Buddhism included all three of these concepts. It requires one to commit to the growth and happiness of both oneself and others. The concept of control is very important in Buddhism because it teaches that the individual is 100% responsible for changing his or her circumstances. And the spirit of challenge is also central to Buddhism as one learns to view both positive and negative events as valuable springboards for further growth.

Through applying these concepts on a daily basis, my life has become dramatically different than the years following my first breakdown. I have learned to value my own inner voice rather than looking to so-called experts to tell me what I need to get better. I have made a commitment to myself to recover as fully as possible and to help others do the same.

Recovery has taken more than finding the right medication. When I discovered that I was hypoglycemic with multiple food allergies, I drastically changed my diet, even though my doctor told me it wouldn’t make a difference in my moods. When I realized that much of my depression occurred in the winter months, I invested in a set of therapeutic lights, even though the doctor said I should just increase my medication in the winter.

These stood me in good stead last November, when I had to stop taking lithium because it was causing liver damage. I have been able to survive and thrive without it for more than a year — much to the surprise of my doctor. I think my efforts in other directions have made this possible.

Commitment to others and to a cause larger than oneself is especially important for mental health consumers. We tend to be self-absorbed, sometime ignoring the needs of others and the contributions we can make to them. This self-absorption cuts us off from the rewards of caring and community that I have found to be essential to my own well-being.

Developing the spirit to challenge difficult circumstances has been very valuable in dealing with problems at work, in relationships, and in finances.

Thanks to these inner changes, I have been able to graduate from college with a BA in psychology, have been happily married for 6 (now 16) years, and have been employed full-time for 12 (now 22) years. My friend’s promise that my problems would turn into a source of benefit has come true through my work at NAMI, where my experience enables me to offer encouragement and support to many others.

I know that many religious and spiritual traditions are represented here today. I hope that we can all come together in unity and bring a renewed sense of the importance of spiritual concerns to our work, creating an atmosphere of hope, courage and confidence for all people affected by severe mental illness.

[If you want more info, you can send Maggie an email.]