Bipolar or Waking Up?

Sean Blackwell is a former advertising executive, who in 1996 entered a state of ecstasy so intense that he thought he had died and was going to Heaven. The episode ended with Sean being handcuffed by two police officers and taken to a psychiatric emergency ward for refusing to put his clothes back on in a Toronto hotel ballroom. At the hospital, he accurately perceived that the psychiatrists completely misunderstood what was happening to him, as he was certain that he was undergoing a profound spiritual awakening. Leaving the hospital un-medicated, Sean was sure that his experience was not a "mental illness". Only with the recent diagnosis of his two nieces was he shocked to learn that people labeled as having "bipolar disorder" often have experiences very similar to his own, yet are medicated for their entire lives.

Am I Bipolar or Waking Up? describes Sean's "manic" spiritual awakening; his subsequent struggle to create a meaningful life for himself which could serve the call of his awakened soul; and finally, how he began to work diligently to rescue members of his own family and others from the jaws of psychiatry and their stigmatizing label, "bipolar disorder." He tells his story in stark contrast to Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison's, An Unquiet Mind - a bestselling book whose theoretical ideas he believes to be unproven and without hope.

Questions and Answers

by Trung Nguyen

What inspired you to write your book, "Am I Bipolar or Waking Up"?

I had originally written the story of my hospitalization about a year after it happened, because I wanted to share it with a transpersonal psychologist, to get his analysis. Plus, I really didn't want to forget anything. While he was impressed with the document, I shared it with a few other people and got 'silence' as feedback. Apparently, most people, even friends were simply not ready to hear what I had to say at the time. I'm finding that people are a little more receptive now.

Then, about 9 months ago, Chipmuk Publishing, contacted me, asking if I would like to publish my story with them. Since I had the bulk of my experience already complete, it was a bit of a no-brainer. All that was left was to fill in the rest of the story - how I went from being a frustrated Canadian advertising executive, to moving to Brazil where, after some years, I finally starting to heal bipolar people who are being medicated for life, starting with those in my own Brazilian family.

For the most part, as a child you had a stable upbringing, if not a privileged one among your peers. But what was it about suburbia that did not suit you?

I think it was the overwhelming sensation that nothing was actually happening. You step outside your house and its so damn quiet all the time. I think what I like about Sao Paulo, Brazil is that there are so many people, EVERYWHERE. Every time I go to a mall or a movie, the place is always packed, lots of energy, lots of human interaction. I think this is a big part of the reason formerly suburban kids are now moving into downtown condominiums in Toronto, Vancouver, etc...

This is an excerpt from your book, "Most children have some curiosity regarding electrical outlets, but once they were shocked, that was the end of it. I would go back for more, hairpin in hand. Like a lot of young boys, fun for me was hitting anything, but especially the private parts of my relatives." Where do you think the behavior of children stem from? Do you think that your behavior as a child was genetic in nature or it was learned from those around you?

I'm not a big fan of Freud, but I think he got one thing right when he talked about the 'Id' being our primal impulse to seek pleasure and to destroy. At three years of age, I had a lot of both, I guess. Leave most young boys alone for any amount of time and somebody's gonna get hurt. We are pretty violent creatures. I'd say some degree of aggressiveness is present in all men, before our parents attempt to civilize us. But I also had this driving, insatiable curiosity. I was willing to take a few lumps in exchange for a new experience.

You're an Aries (the God of War). What is your view that a person's Astrological sign contributes to their character traits?

Seeing how my wife and I are born on the same day at the same time, I'd say there definitely is something to astrology, especially with regard to how the planetary forces influence your personality at birth. I agree with Dr. Stan Grof when he says that astrology deserves more open-minded, but vigorous scientific inquiry.

Right now science simply sneers at astrology as something for weak minds, all the while turning a blind eye to some pretty obvious occurrences, like Virgo people being detail-oriented and picky, or Aries types being great 'idea' generators, although they sometimes have trouble putting their ideas into action.

Regarding my own personality, if I were to assess where most of it derives, it seems to have much more to do with being born under the sign of Aries than it has to do with the personality traits of either of my parents.

The symptoms of Bipolar are behavioral ones. Do you think that your behavior prior to the first manic episode contributed to your bipolar condition? Or that the sum of all your past behavior, good and questionable, led up to the first manic episode?

From what I've seen so far, the 'roots' of Bipolar Mania, as with schizophrenia, are in a person's inability to express their True Self, or Soul, in their daily life. They repress themselves from doing this because their False Self, or Ego over-rides the wishes of the Soul. At first, this situation usually manifests itself as depression, which I endured, for the better part of seven years in my 20´s. However, during periods of rapid change in one's life, the Ego can, in a sense, 'weaken' and is overpowered by the Soul, leading to the person truly living in a dream-state, interpreting everything in this 'real' world symbolically, as if it were part of the dream. That's where the trouble starts. We start to behave as if we are in a dream.

So, I would say that it wasn’t so much my behavior which led to my manic episode. It was my 'repressed' behavior. In other words, it wasn’t being a 'bad' boy that made me crazy, it was trying to be a 'good' boy' - trying to be successful in a business that really didn't suit me, trying to find happiness by trying to fit in. That's what lead to the mania - acting normal.

There seems to be pattern on the maternal side of your family that I found very interesting--that the women followed a similar living pattern generation after generation. What do you contribute this to?

That's a bit of a mystery isn’t it? I'm sure the Buddhists would attribute it to some sort of Karmic resonance, but I really can't say. What I do see is that parents tend to pass on to their children their habits, both good and bad. So a child whose parents are cold and stern will be more likely to be cold and stern once they grow up and have children, but hopefully, a little less so. I like to think that with each generation, we get a little warmer with each other, both in the family and in the workplace. And where there is warmth there is love.

Your bipolar (or waking up) was a spiritual enlightenment for you. Can you provide some examples of how your perception of the world, of yourself, and of those around you have changed pre-manic episode and post-manic episode?

I think my 'rat race' mentality really dropped away - that sense of feeling like I had somehow been victimized by graduating university during a recession, then being stuck in the corporate hierarchy under a deluge of baby-boomers. Somehow, I had always felt that I was 'behind'. That just disappeared, immediately. After the episode I just felt that everything was just fine the way it was.

I realized that I didn’t have to be anything more than I already was. I didn’t have to be smarter or harder working. I didn’t have to have all the answers. In a sense, I stopped trying so hard. I also realized that, as long as I was focused and patient, I could get pretty much anything I truly wanted from life.

I also stopped searching so hard for meaning in life, as I could see that everything was meaningful. Every conversation. Every conflict.

I felt God was with me all the time. Like I said before, when I was 'manic' I felt as if the world was a big dream. It's a very common experience. Someone once asked me when that feeling went away. The truth is it never really did. I just got used to it.

Plus, I could 'read' people better. I didn't need to talk to them to find out what they were all about. I could sense it from the beginning. We are taught 'not to judge a book by its cover', to ignore our intuitions about people and listen to what they have to say. I think my life has gotten much easier by steering away from people I immediately don't feel comfortable with, and gravitating much more openly to people who energize me.

As Part 2 of my book illustrates, I had my share of struggles after my manic episode. It took some time to make my life 'fit' the new me, and it wasn’t without its share of pain and sacrifice. But the building blocks of my new life were all there after the hospitalization. It just took me a while to develop that 'new' me.

What were some of the more memorable responses from your family members when they heard about your bipolar manic episode?

The most memorable comment came from my friend, Dierdre. Telling her the whole experience over dinner one night, she said to me, laughing,

"Sean, that should happen to everybody!"

You've corresponded with other people who were diagnosed with bipolar. Did you find any similarities in their background or behavior?

Too numerous too mention. Just to name a few…

1. Rather than being mentally inferior, they are almost always highly intelligent, emotionally sensitive people who are raised by parents that tend to have quite a rigid way of dealing with their children and with the world. It's this tension between the sensitive 'Soul' (or True Self) and the parent inspired 'Ego' (or False Self) that lies at the root of the crisis.

2. Most people encountering their first manic episode do so during a period of rapid change in their lives, often in their first year of university, when they are leaving home and relationships for a new city, and are being introduced to new ideas, not only in class, but by their new friends. This leads to the collapse of their ego, which triggers the first psychosis.

3. Some, not all, have had quite serious traumatic events happen in their lives which they have not gotten over, such as physical accidents, divorce, death of a loved one, child abuse, or even birth trauma. While they are in an acute psychosis, these experiences resurface as the person naturally regresses back to these troubling experiences. A woman re-experiencing her birth may look as if she is giving birth. A man reliving a childhood accident may take on this facial expressions and voice of himself at that age. Yes, it's freaky, and it scares people to death, if they are not prepared to support someone gong through a deep regression.

That is a big part of the reason why it is so important for us to create environments for these people to go through and complete their process of acute-psychosis. This process heals these traumas, releases ego and literally sets a person free from their past trauma and outworn identities. Fully completed, the bipolar person can experience a true sense of rebirth.

What is your overall opinion on using prescription medication such as anti-psychotics and antidepressants to treat bipolar disorder? And why?

If the main problem is depression, I just think that there are so many other ways to get at the heart of the problem that medication is entirely unnecessary. It is a quick fix which leads to long term hell. Once you get past the marketing and look into even the most rudimentary research, this becomes pretty clear.

My focus however is on the side of the equation where mania becomes acute psychosis. Most people will see this as a period of insanity. As it stands today, almost everyone in this situation sees acute psychosis as something to be medicated, out of absolute necessity. Only a small group of psychiatrists and psychologists see it otherwise. In fact, today it's Tom Cruise and Scientology that seems to be spear-heading the attack; which, unfortunately, is enough for many people to dismiss the position as pure quackery.

If fact, the political climate around this issue is so one-sided, that, despite my obvious interest and enthusiasm for this issue, I am not the least bit interested in getting a degree in psychology of any sort, as I am convinced that as I work with more and more people, some person in authority will have my license taken away. I already know that I will be treated as a heretic by mainstream psychiatry and psychology. So why bother? I'll stay underground.

With that said, my opinion on who should be medicated during a period of insanity is the following:

During an acute psychosis, the only time a person should be using medication is if they, personally, have rejected the inner-healing process which is trying to occur. If a person in crisis looks at you, and says, "Why are you doing this to me? You caused this! You are abusing me!" The only alternative at that point is medication, because the person in crisis cannot heal. Their own fear has blocked them from doing so. This was the opinion of Dr. John Weir Perry, who, I believe, wrote the best book available regarding the treatment of people in periods of psychosis, Trials of a Visionary Mind.

Based on my somewhat limited experience, I agree with him entirely.

Would you say that you are now "cured" of bipolar?

The language around this process is difficult. People like to think that there is something inherently wrong with a person who is bipolar. In my opinion, the only thing wrong with them is that they are highly sensitive people who cannot tolerate what currently passes for being normal - walking into work with a smile on your face when meanwhile, you are miserable; hearing people say they love you when all you feel from them is anger and resentment; watching the environment deteriorate around the world, knowing that we are all part of the problem. This interior battle between the Soul´s fierce quest for integrity and the imperfect world we are all forced to deal with on a daily basis, that is at the heart of bipolar disorder - normal life.

I've had one manic episode, 13 years ago. It ended a 7-year struggle with mild-moderate depression. I was never medicated before or after my experience and haven't seen a psychiatrist since them. It was the single most important, spiritually freeing experience of my life.

So am I cured from bipolar disorder? I'll let you be the judge. Am I eternally grateful? Absolutely.

Any parting words for our readers?

Most of us, if not all of us, like to look into subjects in a funny way. We all scour the Internet and newspapers feeling good about ourselves because we base our opinions on, The Facts. But the truth is, we choose our facts. We choose them very carefully. We pick the ones that 'fit' with what we already know, and we blow off those that we don't agree with as 'insignificant'.

Right now, entire lives are being destroyed because of this fearful attitude. Yes, we get to feel safe, sitting at home with all the answers. Meanwhile some of our friends and family have been drugged into silence because they don't 'fit' with our reality, because they cause a disturbance we don't want to see or feel.

Stay open. Nobody has all the answers. Lives are at stake here.

Am I Bipolar or Waking Up? describes Sean's "manic" spiritual awakening; his subsequent struggle to create a meaningful life for himself which could serve the call of his awakened soul; and finally, how he began to work diligently to rescue members of his own family and others from the jaws of psychiatry and their stigmatizing label, "bipolar disorder." He tells his story in stark contrast to Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison's, An Unquiet Mind - a bestselling book whose theoretical ideas he believes to be unproven and without hope.

About Sean Blackwell

Born in 1966, Sean Blackwell is a former Canadian advertising executive who now lives with his wife, Ligia, in São Paulo, Brazil. Working as a freelance English teacher, Sean invests his spare time and energy on his YouTube channel, bipolarORwakingUP, where he shares his very optimistic ideas on the healing potential of bipolar disorder, debunking the horrific myths of psychiatry along the way.

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