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Spirituality: Real Medicine for Mental Illness

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

 Note: 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. 


Over twenty five 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, and 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. 


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Mr. Callner started his teaching and professional filmmaking career in his early twenties. He has earned over 35 national and international awards and critical acclaim for writing and directing films about physically and emotionally challenged (more...)
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