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How Dante and Virgil Can Guide Recovery From Mental Illness

February 21, 2014

By Eric Arauz
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

“There is no such thing as living in isolation. That which is isolated soon dies.”

Krishnamurti, Bangalore, 1948. 

As diagnostic labels are peeled back, you are left with your “Self.” Not a bipolar self or suicidal self. Not an abused child self or traumatized self but a human Self: an essence, a primal being. And to truly recover, the questions surrounding survival become more basic, more fundamental, and less focused on a particular disorder. They become more about life. 

About love and loss. About living and about dying. Will I ever love again? How do I live? Should I continue this life? 

To achieve the maturation of recovery I have been able to reach, many of the most debilitating questions of my Self had to be faced, and that was not something I could do alone. 

Many things must be in place to take this journey, and some can be constructed through a good client and therapist relationship. 

And many can’t. 

I was fiercely lost in this life since my youth, and the compromised neurobiology of my brain disallowed cognitive narratives to sync with my lived experience, leading to an overall disorganization of my emotions and my physical sense of my life’s journey. 

I understood the idea of recovering from my symptoms, but what I was looking for was recovery of my life. My vulnerability. An innocence of experience that would allow for a visceral hope in the future and dampen the pain of existence. 

To do this I needed a “Virgil,” a guide for my journey through my internal hells who was not a treatment provider or 12-step sponsor. I needed a buddy, a shipmate for my journey as Dante.  

In the epic poem “The Inferno,” written by Dante Aligheri in the 14th century, the author journeys through “hell” and is escorted by the great poet Virgil. Virgil is from the otherworld and can walk with Dante as a fellow traveller and let him experience the catastrophic existential restructuring to foundationally change a life, and, eventually, show him a way back to the world. This relationship model is not a treatment program or an informed guess but rather guidance based on a shared suffering. 

What is different in a Dante/Virgil relationship is that the roles are interchangeable. On some journeys of the self, you may be Dante or you may be Virgil, depending on your experience and the issue. Your suffering has utility. 

When I entered the community mental health world, I was instantly less powerful than everyone I dealt with in my treatment protocol. I felt my freedom was always precarious, and that realization foundationally tainted building true relationships with my therapist. 

In the 12-step world I found communion and formed a bond with a sponsor, but the power division was real. 

It was while I was first getting sober that I met Kevin. Kevin was not my sponsor. He was not older than me. He was not better than me. He was simply fighting for his life like myself, and we bonded immediately. 

We went to meetings together. We went to sober dances down the Jersey shore, and we have both remained sober. Kevin has been sober for more than 20 years now. 

Kevin, a Virgil, was sober longer than me when we met, and he knew some of the ins and outs better than myself. He knew nothing of my other diagnosis and didn't care. He walked with me while others told me to come off medication because I wasn't bipolar. He was in my wedding party after I celebrated four years sober, and he met me without judgment when I walked out of my last mental hospital in 2000 due to non-compliance. 

He didn't lecture me. He spoke honestly to me and let me speak honestly to him when he needed a Virgil. We would suffer, bleed, and succeed together. 

In a new world where I felt less than everyone, it was psychically sustaining to be able to give and guide and not just follow. 

My therapists have changed. My medications have gone from physically obtrusive to below clinical levels. I have gained a posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis and lost 50 pounds, and Kevin is still here. 

I trust Kevin absolutely. I am vulnerable to him in a way different than with professionals. 

He has three black belts: judo, jujitsu, and kenpo karate. And after a 10-year hiatus, I have recently returned to jujitsu to sit at the feet of this martial arts master as I move even deeper into this never-ending journey of life. 

I speak around the world and have best-selling authors laud my book. I have reached unknown apexes in my work, but I sit as a white belt each week listening and learning from a brother with the same soul-burns as myself. I participate in the yin and yang of true spiritual relationship with another human being. 

Kevin and I finish our sessions and go outside and step off the cliffs of our fears, hopes, and dreams. We do this while still holding on to each other and celebrating the existential effort. 

Virgil/Dante. Dante/Virgil. 

Warriors on the path. Committed to saving each other while saving ourselves. 

Have you seen a similar relationship dynamic help one of your patients? 

Eric Arauz, MLER, is an international behavior health consumer advocate, trainer, and inspirational keynote speaker. He is a faculty member at the Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Department of Psychiatry, the Vice-Chairman of the current New Jersey Task Force on Opiate Addiction in citizens 18 to 25 years old, and a person with the lived experience of bipolar I disorder, PTSD, addiction, and suicidality. He is the SAMHSA 2012 "Voice Award" Fellow and the author of An American's Resurrection: My Pilgrimage from Child Abuse and Mental Illness to Salvation. 

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Psych Congress Network or other Psych Congress Network authors.

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