Cathy NiGissis Kunze has been a friend of mine since college, around 1982. We became close friends when we both studied with Grandmother Keewaydinoquay on a wilderness island in Lake Michigan. We cooked, chopped wood and spent hours and hours hiking the island together. Since then, we have been through all of the ups and downs  of adult life together. She’s been with

me through marriage, divorce, my pregnancies, adoptions, relationships, travel and moves. I’ve seen her through her relationships as a lesbian, surgeries and health concerns, her travels in India and the US and her on-going mental illness.

Cathy was diagnosed with schizoaffective and atypical dissociative disorder 30 years ago when she was in her 20’s. She has been very athletic and enjoys nature as a way to cope, which she believes saved her life. Having been a public health inspector, she now advocates for those with mental illness and disabilities through enhancing health care policy for the state of Wisconsin.

Cathy NiGissis Kunze

There is a fine line between mysticism and mental illness. A mental illness episode can be a doorway into a mystical experience. And a mystical experience can become a mental disorder or a “dis-at-ease” due to lack of support, compassion or a sanctuary.

Many years ago, I came across a few articles about Stanislof Grof’s work. I give him a lot of credit; he presented ideas that were a very risky position to take at the time. He equated a mental disturbance emergency as a potential spiritual emergence.

You know, Onani, remember how we joked that my psych ward in the hospital was “the Ashram.” (Cathy spent so much time there; I knew the phone number by   heart. ~Onani) I didn’t even know exactly what an Ashram was back then.

When I reflect upon my life experiences while living with a mental illness, I am so aware of the amazing supportive people that had come into my life. It reminds of the saying, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I came to believe it was important to be aware of these potential helpers/ teachers appearing in my life. It wasn’t easy, but I had to relinquish the bravado belief I held that I can do it all on my own. “I don’t need anyone to help me. I can do this on my own.” I somehow reached an inner knowing to trust that there are those who are supportive and believe in me, when even I lacked the capacity to do so for myself during episodes of mental illness and/ or mystical experiences.

I believe in mental illness. I came to learn that I did, indeed have a mental illness. Part of my life is chemical warfare. It’s like a TV or radio- if you don’t have good reception, you won’t have a clear picture. I look back and I’ve had amazing connections. I use to call my psychiatrist “my Medicine Man.” We had a very special connection. With a mental illness, there is often a confusion of ego, identity or sense of self. Well, shamans have to strip the ego as well to go to that other world and there is usually a support person. Like in the Peyote Ceremonies, there is always the Gatekeeper. Even when my family and friends couldn’t understand, I still had gatekeepers, people who kept me anchored and connected.

My psychiatrist grew up on the grounds of a V.A. psychiatric hospital in South Dakota. So it was normal for him to run into people having various episodes in the neighborhood. He also studied yoga, meditation and other spiritual traditions. So I might be obsessing, having illusions, delusions or a spiritual experience; he didn’t know; but he helped me discern my own experience.

When I was in the psych ward of the hospital, we would play The Transformation Game from Findhorn using the Angel Cards with some other patients and nurses. We would have these profound insights to which led to changes in our lives. And not just me- other patients and the staff. The game could go on for days, we’d play an hour or so a day. Then we would have conversations in between. We’d have dreams. We used it as a guidance tool. Sure, we played the game as a “way to express our feelings,” but there was so much more to it than that. I consider it to be a divine guidance tool.

Then the naysayers who are so caught in the rigidity of the medical model — they were so abusive and threatening. Those tended to be the rest of the nurses. But a few staff would interact with us from that mystical level — what was really going on in the psyche. Those nurses really had to watch out for the other rigid nurses. So within the medical model, while getting treatment for our “disorder” or our “illness” we had to create safety within the so-called safety system.

There are those who don’t have a chemical imbalance, but experience mental illness symptoms. We have seen people go to ashrams or meditation retreats and they just flip out. They can end up in the psych ward. I think they just didn’t have the support or guidance they needed. Like supporting a Vision Quest, you know, Onani– even the support people can get goofy. We might be up for 24 hours supporting that person, getting the fire for the sweat ready, all those things the community has to do to support the Vision Quest. So even the support people learn a lot. But it takes a lot of support.

I think there is something really ancient in our DNA, like a molecule or psychic string in our soul or our body. If we feel safe enough and the disease is not so prevalent, we can experience this. How did I ever know how to do some of this stuff? How did I know to trust this innate wisdom? And the staff too — how did they know how to be supportive?

I think there used to be more of a roadmap for this internal journey, but with colonialism and modern society, we lost it. It’s not built into the fabric of society. But we tap into an ancient, innate wisdom that we trust.

Onani, you saw my multiples. You were present and you trusted the process I was going through. And I trusted you. Fear within a witness is so fucking destructive. It just freezes and fractures the person. It’s like jumping into ice water and freezing and then just– CRACK!! Fear from others is so destructive. But you didn’t have that, Onani. You didn’t have the fear that is like lightening in a snowstorm. ZAP! And you crack.

So many doctors have this fear– I had to learn to just go with it. I always had a sense of where I was, but I’ve been around others who didn’t have a tether to some sense of self. Even if I couldn’t talk about it at the moment, I still had it.

The Shaman or the mystical experience is similar. You have to totally let go. But if you do, how do you come back? It’s like having an orgasm– sometimes I can go there and sometimes I can’t, depending on who is with me and what’s going on. If I get totally lost in my experience, do I trust I’m safe?

I’ve never used Peyote or mushrooms, but I’ve used the modern day medical equivalent. My doctor would give me sodium amytal (truth serum) to loosen my control of my ego, and then I would have a session with my therapist. We would just see what happened, where I would go in my mind.

Can you imagine what it’s like to be doing this with no sense of safety, trust, support or understanding? That has to be horrible. So when you were there with me, Onani, and my multiples came out, you weren’t defensive and afraid. I let my defenses down too. It was mutual.

As a person with mental illness, I do question reality and trust. Imagine living in a culture, where there is support, understanding, acceptance and guidance. Just imagine experiencing mental illness when you are young and your grandmother says, “Just lie down over there and see what happens. I’m here with you. I won’t leave you. The soup will be hot when you get hungry. We’ll talk about it if you want.”