Why the Illness-as-Demon Model Needs to Die

by Mike Sententia on September 24, 2012

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Ona asked me to comment on her post, “The Trouble with Demons.” I tried, but I can’t. It’s about what I call the “illness-as-demon” model of mental illness, which absolutely detest. So, instead of talking about her post, let me tell you why the illness-as-demon model needs to die.

Illness-as-Demon: What is it?

“Demons” are psychological afflictions, distractions, unwanted urges, and the like. Strictly speaking, they are undesired thought patterns internal to the person’s mind, and have no existence outside the person’s mind. Talking about the condition as a demon is strictly a metaphor. And, nothing against metaphors, but this is a bad one.

If a friend had these problems, I would use healing techniques like consciousness integration or memory-emotion splitting (for PTSD), or refer them to a therapist. I’d expect a medical or mental health perspective to be effective. Also, I’d expect shielding and other legit fighting techniques to be ineffective (beyond placebo).

The Problem

The illness-as-demon model makes you want to fight the demon, rather than heal the mind. If you imagine an imp perched on your bed, whispering insecurities into your mind, your first thought isn’t, “How do I update my thought patterns so my mind doesn’t generate these insecure thoughts?” No, your first thought is, “How do I punch that imp in the nose?”

So, it’s misleading for mental healing, energy healing or otherwise. But that’s not all. Some problems are actually caused by actual external spirits doing actual magick. And for those problems, you actually do have to punch the imp in the nose, or at least learn shielding. And, if you approach these external spirits as though they were ordinary internal mental illnesses, you’ll be just as ineffective as if you try to shield away ordinary depression.

A further complication: The spirits occasionally produce problems that look like mental illnesses, and everyone has a story of a friend of a friend whose mental illness went away when he learned to shield and ground, which convinces them that every mental illness would go away if the person just learned to shield and ground. (It won’t.)

In other words, the illness-as-demon metaphor confuses two real problems, making it harder to solve both of them. It guides you to ineffective, incorrect solutions. And, as much as I want to be polite and find something good in every idea, I have to take a sharp position here: The illness-as-demon metaphor is harmful, and we should let it die.

Ona’s Post

Now that that’s out of the way, a quick review of Ona’s post. It’s as enjoyable and well-written as we’ve all come to expect, and I think she may agree with me, at least a little. Here’s the quote:

A person with a problem may wish to call that problem a demon, but in doing so he is creating a rather arbitrary separation in his mind. On the one hand he has tolerably pleasant or ordinary experiences, which he decides to own up to and call “mine”; on the other hand he has a trauma, memory, painful situation, or dysfunctional habit, and decides to call that a demon: “not mine.”

I’m sure there will be a lively discussion in the comments. Enjoy.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ona September 25, 2012 at 2:49 AM

Hey Mike – thanks for your thoughts on the matter. :)

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Ananael Qaa September 26, 2012 at 6:59 AM

I’ll actually go further on this one – the “demons as microcosmic” idea is in my opinion something that needs to die. I do not believe that the term “demon” should be applied to mental constructs of whatever sort. It seems to me that if you mix up mental constructs and spirits with their own independent existence you can get into a world of trouble.

I’ve met some magicians who describe themselves as Typhonian, for example, and view “demons” through the lens of Jungian psychology. Jung postulated that people have a “shadow” as a component of their minds, which is formed from the coherent integration of repressed material. In Jung’s system, the idea is to integrate those repressed components back into the personality. According this model, “demons” are representations of this shadow material. So can you see where this is going? The path to mental health is the constant invocation of demons!

That’s wrong on a whole lot of levels, starting with the neuroscientific discovery that psychoanalytic “unconscious repression” is absolute bunk because our memories don’t work anything like what Freud and Jung’s models propose. No unconscious repression means no shadow – so what are these folks invoking? I will add that I have yet to meet one who strikes me as a particularly together individual, and their practice along these lines may be why.

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