A TOUGH GRACE Mental Illness as a Spiritual Path


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By Alice Holstein

ISBN: 978-1-84991-390-4
Published: 2011
Pages: 101
Key Themes: Manic Depression, Spirituality, Homelessness, Mental Health


A Tough Grace: Mental Illness As A Spiritual Path proclaims the revolutionary idea that mental illness can be a profound spiritual journey. Contrary to popular viewpoints that spirituality is pious and easy, this work suggests that the path is usually one of tests and trials and suffering. Mental illness can be a kind of “tough grace” where people can reframe their experiences to understand them as a hero’s journey that creates wisdom and steely strengths. This shift makes a tremendous difference to enhancing self-esteem and reducing stigma. This book is a major contribution to a new paradigm. Mental illness can be a journey to the soul, a challenging route to wholeness.

About the Author

Alice A. Holstein, Ed.D., born in 1943 in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, was once a proud career woman with a doctoral degree who taught college courses and had a successful organization consulting practice. In her late 50’s and early 60’s, however, she was reduced to periodically living on the streets as a bag lady because of manic depression episodes.

She spent 12 horrific years trying to recover. Finally, in 2006, Alice began the climb to solid recovery. Reframing her experiences as a profound spiritual path was key to creating a fulfilling life. Today she works part-time in a Veterans’ Administration mental health clinic where she uses both her veteran status (Vietnam-era Intelligence Officer) and her illness to help other veterans recover.

Book Extract

Honoring Suffering and the Hero’s Journey

The first inkling that there might be something valuable about the suffering came when I relocated in 2002 to my home town, La Crosse, WI after 40 years absence. There I came into contact with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). No one connected with them said anything in particular about honoring suffering initially. Perhaps I just sensed it because of their strong social justice ethic. Or maybe it was their knowledge of the saints and mystics and the suffering many of them endured. Their compassionate stance was demonstrated by their ability to listen non-judgmentally. Speaking the truth about my path, only some of which I tentatively shared, was possible in these circumstances. This helped me begin to stop living the lies that hide mental illness. The Sisters were accepting and empathetic.

Participating in a spiritual direction group led by one of the Sisters paved the way to seeking her out after a manic episode when I was having trouble integrating psychotic aspects of the experience. Feeling otherwise fearful about sharing with others who might be judgmental, I found her receptiveness to be therapeutic. Then I found the mysticism series offered at the Spirituality Center. This reinforced the ties between mysticism and manic depression. Hildegard de Bengen, for example, experienced years of visions before she found the strength to act on her convictions through writing and lectures to priests and Bishops about the ill effects of the patriarchy. Before her emergence into a tireless life of education and service work, however, she had taken to her bed with illness. She spent ten years writing her first work. As the Franciscan Sister who gave this program suggested, there is a very thin line between mysticism and mental illness. Joseph Campbell similarly compared the life of the artist and the mystic, finding their lives very parallel. He suggested that the artist with a craft remains in touch with the world while the mystic frequently spins off and loses touch. (Cousineau, 1990)


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