In 1989, when I went inpatient for the first time, I thought there was going to be a line-up of hippy psychologists with beards and geeky glasses and long hair who talked about Jung as easily as Freud. I imagined I would spend hours in therapy with my favorite counselors when I was good and ready to talk. I thought I would get to pick the shrinks that I got good vibes from and that I would basically get a no pressure, stress-free time to decompress from my inner pain. Be left alone.
I soon discovered that being inpatient and receiving psychiatric treatment wasn’t anything like I had fantasized. I hardly ever saw a therapist. It was just being force-marched from one group activity to another, always being made to do what they told me to do under threat of the Quiet Room for acting out or resisting or complaining or questioning why —I— had to go to groups that I wanted no part of.
Eventually, I was forced to take a debilitating overdose of drugs that I never desired or asked for. Drugs that seriously screwed me up and made living with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and my life in general as a teen far, far worse. All the psych nurses told me was, “You are bipolar, these are the drugs that bipolars have to take. Swallow them now, or we’ll pin you to the floor and make you.” No choice at all.
As for my bipolar ‘cred’, I was born to an artist and musician mother who was an abuser and who suffered from suicidal depression and manic episodes all while we were growing up. My own depression started at age six, drawing images of my own death with Crayola crayons.
Like my mother I am naturally something of an artist and musician. The creativity and interest and ability comes spontaneously from within. I am sure you can imagine the results of a mania-fueled inspiration spree where you simply must finish a drawing or sketch that is fixated in your mind.
You tune out everything, forgetting to eat and not needing to sleep, insanely pissed off at anyone who dares to interrupt your muse or distract you, for as long as that image or song in your mind demands that it be realized by your own hands. Only when it is finally the way you want it, does the pressure in your head leave off and you can deal with people and responsibilities again.
Basically, according to manic depressive expert Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, I had the classic ‘artistic temperament’ inherited matrilineally. And the standard treatment for the depression and the recurring manic and psychotic features of that genetic package is: a lifetime sentence to being on lithium and neuroleptics. But I never could accept that I was defective simply by birthright or that creative mania didn’t have its uses. Nor did I believe that I would be doomed forever to uncontrollable manic episodes or depression.
So, I used my constitutional right to refuse medical treatment (psych drugs) for my mental illnesses and decided to see if I could do better than the psychiatrist who had Dxd me bipolar-for-life. In the midst of what could only be called a spiritual emergency, after my last overdose and resulting near death experience, I put the brakes on my life. I stopped trying to slot into the rat race, keep up with the Joneses or cut myself a slice of the American pie.
I had been diagnosed as a child basically, a young teenager, with a lifetime disability. I could have gone on permanent government disability benefits as soon as I turned eighteen and no one would have blamed me. I experienced a lot of, what they call in Buddhism, ‘suffering’.
I had a difficult time coming up with reasons why I should continue to remain, and suffer, on this mortal coil for another day. I used to think long and hard about it all the time. I simply refused to accept that I was doomed from birth to a life of mental illness. Which led me to studying meditation with a couple different people.
I decided that my next big ‘grandiose’ plan would be to see if I could put some of the techniques I learned from them into play. And see if I couldn’t somehow find the DOS window, the access port to my own inner matrix. Really apprehend the code in my being that programmed me with recurring mania and depression cycles—and play with it. See if I couldn’t edit that code just a little and get a noticeable result.
What happened is that, slowly, week by week, month by month, year by year, all the intense, uncontrollable-seeming symptoms just slowly started to go away. As if my mental illness volume had started at zero, become about a level six or a seven as a child and evolved all the way to level eleven as a young adult. Then, as I started meditation, my mental illness seemed to begin to fade to ten, then nine, then eight. The better I got at programming my mental Disk Operating System, the closer I got to my madness.
For awhile, I even went backward. I had some moments when meditating, that the volume of my mental illness suddenly went from an eight, to a twenty-five. That was pretty rough. But I stuck with it and did not give up and the volume went back down again. Eventually, it rarely got higher than a four or five. Then it became a level one or two illness for awhile, barely there. Not really bothering me much. Then the volume simply stopped coming at all.
I have often wondered, how that could be? How did I get a cure, when my mother and sister and others do not? What did I do, that my sister and mother, didn’t do? Well, Ma went with the, “There is nothing wrong with me,” philosophy and so, never got better. My sister went with the, ‘It’s a chemical imbalance,’ idea, took all the right drugs, lithium included, and is, well, mostly disabled and not what anyone would call a happy or motivated person.
A lot of people seem to either, deny they have mental illness and therefore don’t acknowledge its existence and keep suffering. Or they get on the standard treatments they are told to take for life and get hung up on polypharmacy roulette and all the side effects that come with it.
Even those ‘proper treatments’ don’t work one hundred percent. For example, Dr. Kay Jamison says in her own memoir: ‘Unquiet Mind’, that despite being on lithium, she still has bad times and that it mostly stabilizes her, most of the time. I didn’t think that the side effects of this ‘mostly’ effective treatment which can leave you on the waiting list for kidney replacement surgery and dialysis, are worth it. That’s just me. I didn’t like the emotional blunting of lithium or how it screwed with my intense feelings. The risk-reward trade-off was not worth it in my book.
Thus, I was basically doomed to either self-medicate the worst of the depression and manic symptoms forever, or find another path. Unfortunately, psychologists and psychiatrists don’t know about other paths, generally speaking, and so can’t tell you about them or their effectiveness. So began a quest to learn how to self-heal—which led to meditation.
Meditation, it has been discovered, promotesneuroplasticity in the brain. And it does it, in the very area of the brain that has been fingered by some neuroscientists as being defective or underdeveloped in people with manic depression and schizophrenia. That is, meditation causes intricate connections to grow between your prefrontal cortex, your frontal lobe, amygdala and other basal brain structures, like a spider web that keeps getting denser and denser and more complex the longer you weave it. This has the net effect of growing a circuit in your brain that slowly reduces the wildness and intensity and unpredictability of mood swings, severe cycling, triggers, inner voices, psychosis, rages and all that stuff.
This makes total sense to me because, I did not get a magical cure. I didn’t wish upon a star and it was so a few days or even weeks later. My recovery was very subtle and slow and I didn’t even notice I was getting better until I realized one day like, “Hey, when the heck was the last time I was depressed or manic or assailed by loud internal voices?” And the answer was, “Hmm, let me think about that….wow…awhile. At least a year or two.”
Those two years became four, then six, then ten then fifteen. I am just as much a passionate person, an artist, with my full creativity intact as I ever was. I just don’t get the extremes anymore. It’s like I outgrew it. And the PET and MRI scans of brains of meditators show that, well, you do grow something. Greater connections from your frontal lobes to all your mood associated brain structures.
It takes years to cultivate this neuronal growth and complexity which essentially is like a self-policing DOS program, a defragmentation subroutine. A debugging utility that looms over all incoming and outgoing thought and emotion traffic like a firewall, opening and closing ports and granting or denying access. That Overwatch program is real neuronal hardware, grown in my head. It’s complex and intricate firing would be visible in a PET scan if I had one done. It reliably prevents me from going from one extreme pole to another. No more incredible destabilizing mental and physical energy shifts that used to take over my whole life and leave me exhausted, burned-out, restless and ill-at-ease.
So what did I do that my depressed mother, bipolar sister, and most other people with mental illness, don’t do? I ground my life to a screeching halt, and devoted myself to becoming a full-time, dedicated mental-matrix programmer. And I led a very boring, solitary, quiet life for many years while I did a whole lot of nothing. That is, I did a lot of sitting by the river or on my bed or in a chair, simply scanning and editing my inner software, finding the trojans and logic bombs, disarming them and moving on.
Did I discover a cure for manic depression and schizophrenia? Well, not a genetic or chemical one. What I did was, cure my mental and emotional malfunctions with an ontological device: meditation, which allowed me to directly access my mental and emotional states first-hand in a more intimate and confrontational and intense way than most any therapy that currently exists right now. Nothing counselors can do for you or teach you (that I know of) is as, well, frankly, awesome, as this very ancient method of getting your head and heart under control. CBT and DBT are fairly pedestrian compared to this kind of deep internal diagnostic and editing software.
What I mean is, if you are waiting for once or twice a month CBT sessions with a facilitator, you are missing out on a potentially much, much faster, but also, much riskier and more painful form of self-therapy which can, to be honest, seriously unhinge you in a hurry. Even if you do know what you are doing. However, if you can find inner relentlessness to get through those dark nights of the soul, you come out on the other side—changed. Stronger. Happier. More at peace. Free of your earlier conflicts and pain.
Only you can know if you can arrange your life to make that kind of training an obsession. And only you can find out if you have what it takes to work through the quintessence of madness and lunacy as you get closer and closer to your real mind. This is no joke. You can find yourself in dark water quite quickly, lost in your mental illusions, voices, self-doubts and uncontrollable imagery, even derealization or depersonalization, the deeper into the mind that you go.
A lot of people seem to endure an alarming array of awful physical and mental dysfunction on psychiatric medications in the hopes that the drugs will help. Meditation has its own dues to pay and unlike meds, there is no predicting: “Yeah, just tough it out for a few weeks, you’ll get better.”
You may come face to face with hell as you realize that you do not need to die to go there. That life itself—is hell. And meditation can potentially open the doors to that hell by sensitizing you to your own demons and head games and making them seem suddenly much louder, much more real and overpowering.
But it’s just your mind getting closer and closer to, and sensing more accurately, the noise that is going on inside you all the time. If you do persist, you can clear a portion of your inner sky. When you do that you achieve the eye of the storm inside your mind, you gain a little of what is called simply, stillness. You can rest and regroup there and recover. You will see that suffering is something your own mind manufactures for you, usually without your conscious awareness of it. When you do realize that, you can achieve a measure of control over it.
If you can somehow arrange your life so that you have no obligations, no responsibilities, no worries, and you can create a safe environment where you can be psychotic and ride it out without having a live-in relative instantly call 911 and get you picked up by the men in white coats and delivered with haste to the ‘proper’ experts on the mind. If you can arrange that kind of self safety-net and can overcome fear of actually being (even more) insane, then you may just have what it takes to face the whirlwind and come out on the other side using meditation.
Your chances of succeeding are higher if you are armed with the technical know-how and experiences that you can learn from different meditation instructors. In essence, you get the training and become your own guru, therapist and support group and you fix yourself by riding the lightning deliberately, so you can get the access codes that control the lightning.
The thing is this: People these days, unless they work out of a home office or operate a family vineyard or have some kind of slow-paced down-to-earth job, move so fast now, that they never witness changes to their own mindscape. Mood swings, erratic energy shifts and racing thoughts or suicidal ideas come out of nowhere, somewhere between attending a board meeting and picking up the kids from the soccer game. But if you spend hours and I mean hours, of your life in meditation, you can see these mood shifts coming like a cloud on the horizon.
You can determine for yourself how your own reactions to stress and triggers bring that cloud bearing down on you. Then you have a chance to reverse the mental and emotional firing, the stress hormones, the high speed chaos and inner turmoil and quite literally, reverse a manic or depressive episode before it even happens. But to gain that ability, to become Network Admin and Head Coder in your mental IT department you may have to radically change your life in ways most people would find unthinkable.
I can not guarantee that you would automatically get the same results from my practice as I did, anymore than a doctor can guarantee which drug side effects you will or will not come down with. What I can say with some degree of certainty, is that you have nothing to lose by trying. Even if you can’t do or don’t want to do what I did, which was, essentially give up on a career, a family, school, romance and dating, in order to devote every fiber of my being to understanding myself (not even knowing if it could work or how many years it would take before it did), you can start the process and give it a shot.
What do you have to lose except more years of life enslaved to your own suffering? Maybe you have a lot to lose Maybe you have a corporate job and three kids, two dogs, live-in in laws, sick, dependent or dying family members, a disabled spouse. If you have those kinds of commitments than curing yourself like I did, using that kind of lifestyle is for all intents and purposes, impossible. For you. For the time being at least.
Why this lifestyle worked so well for me, was that I didn’t have any of those things as a young adult. I didn’t have parents calling me to wish me luck on my finals for my grad school classes, pushing me to get into the rat race asap with a shiny new degree and then start making babies so my parents would shut up about wanting to be grandparents.
I had none of those pressures. I had a unique situation where I had no life. Nothing worth doing. It was either, kill myself just to stop the pointless suffering of my existence, or evolve into someone and something stronger and better using the only resource and interest that I had, which was spirituality and occult training.
Either way, I decided long ago that A: meds were a poisonous and dead end. And B: no one could help me, or hold me or walk with me through this process of self-healing. I had to accept it and know and understand, that I was responsible for everything inside my inner world. Every thought and feeling was mine and I owned them.
Not, well my MBTI score says I’m such and such a person and that’s that. Not, my planets and stars were aligned at birth in such a way as to be screwed from this life to the next. Not, it’s my genes’ fault, they made the chemical imbalances which made me be manic. Once I was able to own my suffering and everything inside me and call it me and not ‘bipolarity,’ I was able to start actually taking control over my supposedly uncontrollable thoughts and moods.
You don’t have to take that lifestyle to the extreme pole like I did. If you do something even slightly similar, eg, make more you-time, where you turn off the cell phone and log out of your instant-messenger and stop tweeting and blackberrying in order to try a little relaxation breathing, some mindfulness or something similar, your mind will become stronger and more capable of perceiving its own malfunctions and exerting will over them.
It’s not like the idea of being cured of mental illness was all that out-of-this-world once upon a time. In fact, if you read the book ‘Anatomy of an Epidemic’ by award-winning medical journalist Robert Whitaker, what you will find is that, long before New Era biological psychiatrists armed with anti-this and anti-that meds showed up and told us these conditions were incurable diseases, people did recover. They really got cured or went into remission for long periods, while some outright seem to outgrow the disorder. Almost as if their prefrontal cortex had finally fully matured and starteddoing its job.
There is much at stake in the race to win the info war on what people do or don’t believe about their own mental illnesses. Some people will come out and say, “Recovered, not cured,” to draw attention to the fact they’re getting by, but they are still bipolar no matter what.
In my case, I get to have all the the culturally stereotyped, cool ‘bipolarity’ traits. Like being an artist, being inspired and having creative phases. But I don’t write emo poetry about my awful moods and my gloomy, passionate, but doomed life. I don’t draw pictures anymore that use up all my black paint. I don’t self-medicate with everything in sight to turn off the voices. I don’t talk about ‘being bipolar’ because I am not. Even though some of my other family members still ‘are’ by stress or temperament or diagnosis.
To be clear, I have not discovered a magic bullet, an easy short cut, a quick fix or a take-it-and-forget-it herbal or vitamin supplement that can clear you up in six weeks. What I discovered was that I was able to cure myself by pursuing a mind-body discipline which works directly with your thoughts and feelings in a profound and transformational way.
Years went by before I was cured. It was slow, gradual but also, inexorable cure, as I stuck with my crazy-sounding life of solitude–without a care in the world or a diaper to change or a mouth to feed other than my own. It was not an ‘easy’ cure. You can’t give this cure to someone. You have to teach it to them, then they have to make it happen and start changing their own brain. They may not succeed.
So, no miracle cure or alternative supplement. Not like some of the other theories and modalities you hear about to cure mental and physical illnesses. No detoxing and chelating or colonics or gluten free diets. No vitamin overdosing and omega three fatty acids. No distance healing or eating unprocessed honey. But I did try some of those things.
For example, I did the raw food diet, crystal healing and somatic therapies because I had little to lose at that point in my life. But most of those treatments really didn’t do a damn thing for me. Or, if I felt different initially, it was because I really believed that it would help, or the person that sold it to me had faith in it and pitched it to me very enthusiastically. In short, the placebo effect–which never lasted long before I was symptomatic again.
My cure was a lot of often painfully boring, seeming time-wasting, self-indulgence spent meditating by myself. Like some 90s era wannabe Neohippy drop-out who decided one day after a revelation, to tune in to a higher spiritual calling than slotting into the rat race just to keep up with the Joneses and hopefully die with the most and coolest toys.
In terms of what meditation is and really means to me, allow me to quote a dead guy named Chuang Tze, “Most people would find what I love, to be very uncomfortable or uninteresting.”
Meditation is the ultimate journey into inner and outer space. Can you think of a better more productive way to try to unravel yourself, and the meaning of life, at the same time? I don’t say that to sound patronizing. I simply mean that, if you had suicidal depression since you were a young child like I did, you too, probably spent a huge, ungodly, obsessive amount of time dwelling on the meaning of life and what is or isn’t worth pursuing, like social status, material wealth and ‘things’.
What value is there in stuff, if stuff just becomes something else to worry about? Why do you buy ‘stuff’? Beyond the necessities of life I mean. To distract you? To occupy time? I buy stuff now and read books and watch dvds and have ‘stuff’ delivered to my door for my amusement. But before I got to that point as an adult, I spent an enormous amount of time essentially dirt-poor.
During that time I learned how to amuse my mind and do something useful with myself after a day at the factory. I didn’t have to come home from work to feed the kids, pick up the cat from the vet, get my husband’s dry cleaning, attend a PTA meeting and all the million things people keep themselves busy with.
I had nothing, or, very little, that needed to be done. So I had no stresses that would interfere with my training goals. I didn’t worry about my GPA because I didn’t have one. I didn’t worry about my stock portfolio and investments for the same reason. I just had a, well, boring, private, antisocial and empty-seeming life that I filled up by doing spiritual practices and mind-body disciplines.
What else was I going to do? Being mentally ill for life didn’t sound like something I could accept nor something I wanted to brag about to others. It was embarrassing and futile-seeming. So, I got to work trying to fix the biggest problem in my life at the time. Me.
Meditation was my path to healing. Although I first received meditation training when I was thirteen, I learned it for the wrong reasons. To make myself more powerful and intense and well, strange. Because I wanted a spooky, intangible, psychic edge over other people out of deep insecurity and unresolved post traumatic stress. How much of my psychic experiences were really psychotic ones, is something I still think about and consider many years later.
By my very early twenties I had had several different kinds of meditation training and where had it got me? I was still trying to off myself about once or twice a year. And I was not a happy or pleasant person to be around unless I was stoned out of my mind. What was I doing wrong?
That is what led me to study with a man by the name of Bruce Frantzis who was advertising his Taoist meditation and dissolving training as something that could smooth out emotions, overcome inner obstacles and find yourself, in the midst of great internal disconnection and confusion. His was a method I hadn’t conceived of or heard about previously. Surrendering into your Being–by letting go and allowing transformation to happen. Instead of either forcing it to occur or trying to resist it kicking and screaming.
Dissolving is something that you do with your combined intent and awareness. You use this technique to scan and process your inner world. In Taoism, inner world can be a lot things, most beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, everything from your physical sensations to your emotions can be dissolved with your intent. I used a specific format I learned from Mr Frantzis and his students. One that involves scanning and dissolving myself according to an idea about our ontological makeup called: ‘The Eight Bodies of Being’.
Using the dissolving process, I ransacked every corner of my heart and mind. I simply started from the top of my head and drained down to the floor of my pelvis with this technique. I released and let go of, everything that I was hung up on that prevented me from taking life and myself a little less seriously. The net result was that I became a little bit happier, bit by bit. year after year.
I started this meditation and dissolving method in my early twenties. At a time when frankly, a lot of people first come into contact with a big-time bipolar disorder or depression breakdown on the heels of stressful finals or a new high-pressure job or they start having kids or something. They start hearing voices ‘out of nowhere’. Some tipping point occurs to set them off on the downward spiral that they will later be told is an incurable, hereditary, genetic chemical imbalance.
My training and experiences did not make me enlightened with a capital E. I do not have a halo nor do I even consider myself to be a good role model. I can still be irritated and annoyed. I am not perfect and without flaws. I did absolutely cure myself of several supposedly incurable diseases: PTSD, manic depression and schizophrenia–so that must count for something. I haven’t tried to hurt myself in over fifteen years. I’ve been depression and psychosis free for well over a decade. I am fairly well-adjusted these days, despite my disadvantages growing up.
I healed my inner world with a technique I learned called ‘inner dissolving.’ Which is Bruce Frantzis’ meditation method: The Water Course Way of Lao Tze. In my experience, it is a path to real healing. It’s a road less traveled. And it can take you every place you ever wanted to go inside.