During my dark year of depression, I worried about that constantly. When I was finally able to start seeing a therapist, I asked her directly if she thought I might be developing a more serious, delusional disorder.
Her first reaction was surprise. Her second reaction was to ask me to tell her more.
A good therapist will spend more time listening to you than telling you what to think. If they notice a distortion in your own thinking, they will try to guide you towards noticing it yourself, rather than spelling it out for you. My therapist listened patiently as I went deeper and deeper into what I knew about mental health and how the evidence stacked up.
As I looked at the issue from different angles, I started to notice something. Even during the most skeptical part of my atheist detox, if somebody asked me about the religious beliefs of others, I would defend my religious friends. I would point out that no reputable psychologist thinks religious beliefs and experiences are inherently signs of delusion. I would also argue that, while I prefer avoiding beliefs I can’t prove scientifically, there is a big difference between an unproven belief, like one in a soul or an afterlife, and a disproven belief, like a flat earth or the humors system of medicine. And speaking of the latter, for a long time that was the dominant belief of rational, scientific men. It fit nicely with their philosophy and the things they could observe, and they didn’t have the tools to observe germs. If you tried to explain germs to them, they would have thought it sounded less like a scientific theory and more like a way to dress up fairies and ghosts in medical language.
Seriously, I gave that rant all the time, even when I did not actually believe in souls or a God or the afterlife. I cared about my spiritual and religious friends, I knew their beliefs were not causing them to be unkind or irrational, and I didn’t like seeing them picked on.
Then, when I started having spiritual experiences myself, I started to beat myself up for having them. I took every skeptical, materialist argument, including the ones that I had always thought were flimsy and downright mean-spirited, and hurled them back at myself. And when someone suggested that I try to defend myself the same way I would have defended a friend, I felt like I didn’t deserve that.
To my therapist, this was a lot more of a concern than, say, having a vision where my dead Uncle lovingly told me not to harm myself.
She also helped me notice how cautious I was being. I wasn’t saying that I knew for certain that Uncle Wic was a ghost, or a past life, or just my unconscious mind slipping into a suggestible state and conjuring up whatever I needed to hear. Just that it was a meaningful experience, and it helped motivate me to fight harder against my depression.
Therapists are generally in favor of that kind of thing.
Honestly, the last thing she seemed to care about was whether I knew exactly where every intuitive impulse or spiritual experience came from. She asked far more about the following;
- Was I surrounding myself with kind, supportive people?
- Was I finding ways to relieve stress?
- Was I getting better at fighting those inner voices that tell me I’m worthless and don’t deserve anything good?
- Was I able to do what I could to get out of my shitty situation?
- Was I developing coping mechanisms for the areas where I had no control at all?
- Was I still able to use my background to recognize red flags?
I want to emphasize that the last question still mattered. I am not about to go “atheists and skeptics all suck, bring on the woo!” because there genuinely are dangerous ideas out there. I don’t want to take poisonous herbs just because some fellow witch says they are more “natural” than prescription medicines, thank you very much.
When it comes to spirituality, are common sense precautions that any person can take. I think those aren’t discussed enough in the spiritual world, and so I’ll talk about them in the next post. Until then, love yourselves, support your people, and thank you so much for reading!