Pagan and Crazy
By Alexandra Chauran. Originally Published in Witchvox, April 22nd, 2007.
I remember meeting my first prospective High Priestess and High Priest in a coffee shop. I arrived agonizingly early, purchased a chai tea and seated myself facing the door, scrutinizing everyone who entered. Finally a man and woman fitting the description arrived to greet me. We sat and chatted. I was charmed by them and eager to learn more about their group and their practice; intrigued by the faraway look the Priestess had in her eyes when she said that a Witch was essentially a Shaman. I nervously wondered when the right opportunity would come up in conversation for me to mention a potential deal-breaker. I suffer from what most people consider to be a severe mental illness. As the conversation wound down to a close, the two Witches were satisfied with me and invited me to visit their home for their next meeting. As the gentleman gathered up his coat he jokingly said, "you're not a psycho or anything, are you?"
"Actually, " I said, "there's something I have to tell you about."
We all slowly sat back down. I explained to them that I have been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; an incurable brain disorder that causes me to experience disorganized thinking as well as altered perceptions. At the time of this writing, I have been managing my illness for about five years, and have been Pagan for considerably longer.
My Pagan path has led me to British Traditional Wicca, which can be a complicated route to follow when mentally ill. Not only do I deal with the psychological issues inherent in any religious practice that involves the supernatural, but Traditional Wicca requires that I work with others who are historically cautious about the company they keep. In fact, Ed Fitch wrote a document titled "So You Want To Be A Gardnerian" that implies that the ideal prospective coven member is, "not currently in psychological therapy." Coven of the Wild Rose does not accept people who take psychotropic medications or require therapy and writes as a footnote to the above document that, "if you cannot function as a fully responsible adult individual in the mundane reality then you cannot function effectively in the magical/mystical realities and should not even attempt to do so until you have all your oars in the water and they are working all in proper tandem."
Their view may seem extreme or even discriminatory, but it is not unusual. In fact, most coven leaders that sincerely care about their members will at least view a mental illness as a red flag. After all, they owe nothing to an eager outsider, and it is in their best interest to be careful with whom they let into the most intimate part of their lives. Not only that, but there can be a real danger to the mentally ill person. Some worry Witches may worry that their fellow Shaman may never return from the other worlds. Some religious practices might exacerbate an already precarious mental health situation. Ultimately, the decision as to whether to admit a mentally ill member is up to the individual coven or group in question. Issues with reality differentiation be a monkey-wrench in a coven's engine, after all, nobody wants to explain to the psychiatrist on duty at the emergency room just what the patient was doing naked in the covenstead when he or she had a psychotic break. (Ironically, the reality issues for a Pagan in the psych ward go both ways. I can't tell you how many times my religion has been considered a delusion by a health worker who can't even spell "Pagan.") A mentally ill Witch can trouble Elders in other, subtler, ways. Although schizophrenia is not a mood disorder, I know that other Pagans with emotional problems can have trouble finding a spiritual community. Prejudged as potential trolls, individuals with bipolar disorder or depression inspire visions of tearful meltdowns. It is often reiterated to prospective members that a coven is not a substitute for a support group!
With barriers like these, is it possible for a mentally ill Pagan to find a group in which they can be accepted? Though your mileage may vary, expect delays. The wonderful couple that I met that night in the coffee shop politely and compassionately asked me to leave the group eight months later, the Priest's last words to me that day were, "sorry we chickened out on you." After trying out a couple more groups, I was initiated into another coven a few years later that I currently consider my Family. My mental illness extended my seeking process and may make my training much longer as well. However, this journey has taught me a few lessons I might otherwise have overlooked.
First, I learned to be honest about my limitations, not only with myself, but also with others. It could be argued that if I hadn't told anyone about my illness, they might never have known, but that wouldn't have done me any favors. It would have been especially cruel of me if I had to tell them later by telephone from within my local psych ward. I learned, also, to enjoy the time that I am spending with those who are with me, however brief that time may be. I've also learned to be just as critical of potential Elders as they are of me. For the mentally ill, this can be an especially vital consideration, since our risks of being victimized can be greater and our pool of potential covens may be smaller. The mentally ill are not always shunned in the Pagan community. Some groups consider being mentally ill akin to being an oracle! It's important to be cautious of groups that pursue aggressively, and at the same time it is a fact of life that some groups do not desire mentally ill members. I have my own strengths, and even Elders have their weaknesses. Don't "settle" for questionable leaders simply because others may not be as welcoming.
If you're a mentally-ill Pagan and are asked if you're a "psycho, " you may do well to answer, "Why, yes! And what's your dysfunction?"