“People are just as happy as they make their minds out to be.” -Abraham Lincoln
I remember, just four years ago, when I was wrapped up in the grips of depression, that this quote made me very angry. I thought it was so absurd that I was in control of my thinking, that happiness was my choice. At the time, I believed I was my diagnosis— which actually was a misdiagnosis of bipolar disorder— and that I had no control over it. Doctors told me that I was “sick”, that I had a “brain disease”, and that it was just the way it was for me, and the way it always would be. I also endured severe anxiety that was so intense I wouldn’t leave the house most days and fantasized about death as a way to relieve my suffering.
I believed those doctors and suffered tremendously and silently for the next twelve years, wrapped up in my many addictions and a lifetime of negative thinking. As chance would have it, I started to feel that something was seriously wrong with me, and consulted a naturopathic physician for help. Blood work revealed that I was unhealthy in every way possible and that I had about six months to live before my liver failed completely. It was overloaded with chemicals and toxins from medications and my addictions. Miraculously, my intuition hadn’t been completely silenced after all.
With nothing left to lose, I’d reached the point at which I had to make a choice: to fight, or to give up. Though things seemed to not be going my way, I decided to take back control and make drastic changes in hopes to survive. That’s when yoga, meditation and nutrition came into my life, but first, I had to find a doctor to help me get off the medication I was currently on. The doctor I’d been seeing had refused to help, so I printed out a list of doctors covered by insurance and made some calls. Each nurse I spoke with wanted to help but doubted the doctor would take my case on. Weeks and thirty-seven “Nos” later, doctor thirty-eight finally said “Yes”. This doctor was not covered by insurance but had a sliding scale payment plan available, which made it possible for me to see him. The painful journey of detox began and so did my intense study of meditation, yoga and nutrition.
Up until this point in my life, I was searching for balance, peace and happiness outside of myself rather than looking inside, where I know today that it really resides. Yoga and meditation allowed me to journey inward and take a look at my internal world. Through daily yoga and meditation practices, I began to get to know myself better and discovered the way my brain worked. I uncovered a stream of negative thinking about myself, others, and the world around me. I began to see that these thoughts made me feel terrible and would often spark more negative thoughts and depressed or anxious feelings. With what I learned from meditation, I began to notice and be aware of my thinking, and then my moods. I learned to become the observer of not only my thoughts, but also my emotions.
Being the observer made me aware of what was going on in my body and in my mind. I realized it was the awareness of what I was feeling that enabled a change within, for it is in the light of awareness that darkness can dissipate. Gradually, with commitment to my practices, I got better at noticing negative thoughts and would make a conscious choice to change them and not get hooked into that negative stream anymore.
The more I decided to shift my focus, and practiced it, the easier it became. I started to examine my thinking off my yoga mat and in everyday life. I noticed what happened to my thoughts when something didn’t go my way or I wanted to change some situation but couldn’t. I soon realized that most things were out of my control and instead of feeling like there was something wrong with me, feeling discontented or disappointed like I used to, I chose to find something neutral or positive to focus on. With a great deal of practice, I didn’t allow that negativity to determine my mood anymore. I felt for the first time that I was indeed in control of my happiness.
As I examined the workings of my mind more and things started to shift, I found myself questioning everything. I remembered that when I was first diagnosed bipolar, something felt wrong. Part of me felt relieved that what I was feeling had a name to it but part of me felt as though that wasn’t necessarily true. Because I trusted doctors, I trusted the diagnosis and went along with the treatment they prescribed in hopes it would help and because I knew no other way. Down a long destructive path, however, I came to see that the medications did more harm than good.
During my time of healing, as the medications and detox symptoms slowly wore off, my intuition grew stronger and I started to trust that intuitive voice even more. One chilly October morning, I was sitting at my table, meticulously finishing up the final strokes in an oil painting, when the thought came in to question my diagnosis of bipolar.
I thought about growing up, and my behavior as a child and a teen, and I realized that I never exhibited bipolar symptoms such as mania or euphoria before I was put on prescription medication. I was able to take a step back to examine my past, and I saw clearly that my extreme moods could be explained by unresolved emotions, an unhealthy diet, consumption of processed cane sugar and processed foods, alcohol, drugs, an erratic sleep pattern and irregularities in my hormones and thyroid function.
I sat in stillness, staring at my painting and felt deeply in every fiber of my being that the depression and the anxiety I had experienced were very real, but the mania was not. I only experienced symptoms of bipolar and mania after I started taking prescription meds, and then things got worse. As I held my hand steady to paint a few final strokes, I silently and undoubtedly felt that I never truly suffered from bipolar disorder and it was only my desire to end the suffering of depression and anxiety that I wanted that diagnosis to explain what was wrong with me.
I knew then that I was not my diagnosis, and the belief that I was fell away. For some time, I experienced incredible anger toward psychiatry and the medical model and felt as though I was a victim. Looking back, I see clearly that it was just another part of my journey to confront those intense feelings, work them out and let them go. It was in my control once again to determine my mood. I realized that I was the one who’d trusted doctors and I was the one that filled the scripts and swallowed the pills. I took full responsibility for those decisions and empowered myself by letting go of staying in victim mode and deciding to take responsibility for my life. After all, every decision led me here, and ‘here’ had to change if I wanted to survive.
Since the gift of having to face my mortality, I find that I am committed to feel, whatever that may mean at any given time. I embrace the ability to feel a normal range of human emotions and when intensity comes in, I use my practices to get me through. Examining my mind has been the greatest gift and I am able to see that most times it’s not the situation that makes me unhappy, but my thoughts about it that do.
I also see how easy it is to get wrapped up in self-loathing and self-doubt and to let those thoughts run wild, creating an unpleasant mood. Awareness and knowing myself on a deep level bring these habits into the light, which is where I heal from them. I choose to focus on what feels right or like a blessing in life instead of self-loathing and negativity. I have found that gratitude is always the quickest way to get me out of a low or negative mood. I think of things that I am thankful for, most times something as simple as how happy my dog is to see me or how grateful I am to have clean drinking water. I choose to find a positive or neutral thought. It takes practice but I can assure you, it is worth it!
I feel empowered and continue to deepen my practice and my relationship to my self. Over time and with hard work, I’ve softened around my life circumstances and choose to go with the flow of life, instead of feeling like I’m constantly fighting an uphill battle. I choose positive thoughts and surround myself with positive people and, together, we support each other through difficult times. Feeling better is most important to me; the life of suffering served its purpose, which was to show me exactly how I don’t want to feel anymore.
Today, I do not rely on traditional medicine. I have found that holistic healing and ancient teachings resonate with me on such a profound level and believe that these teachings can benefit all human beings. After all, they have been working for thousands of years. They were the key to my healing and really are the only things that have worked for me. Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now, taught me about what life is like in the present moment. It seemed like such a simple concept to me but I discovered just how much of a challenge it is to practice. So many of my thoughts were regrets from the past or worry for the future and the teachings in this book allowed me to break through old and limited beliefs I had based my life on. This book was difficult for me to read and was almost like another language, so I listened to it as an audio book, which seemed easier for me to grasp. I listened over and over, took notes, and grabbed the pieces that resonated and then applied them to my life. I was consciously making a choice to be in the moment and use this knowledge to assist my growth.
I learned to look inward in each moment and discover my thinking and my reactions to life. I was also able to get to know myself on the deepest level possible and see when it was in my power to create suffering and drama for myself or work through it. I was able to see what was here for me in this time without getting hooked into past thoughts or future worries. These teachings guided me to feel and let go, rather than ignore or stuff down feelings, creating turmoil and pain within. I not only noticed my interior world but also my external world and my place in it. I realized all things are connected, inside and out.
The realization of interconnectedness allowed me to discover root issues and the source of addiction and my suffering instead of treating things separately. Rather than treating issues with a pill or altering my chemical state with alcohol or drugs, I found the courage and strength within to face the intensity of emotional distress and go through it instead of stuffing it down or running from it. Today, I use food and thought as medicine and diet; yoga, meditation, art, and connection to nature are my prescriptions.
With a committed practice to my physical and mental health, I no longer suffer from overwhelming negativity, depression, severe anxiety or extreme moods. Over time, I literally changed the way my brain works and my body chemistry has also drastically changed. Negative experiences, trauma and medications slowly worked their way out of my tissues and cells through yoga, breath work, exercise, massage, chiropractic care, and craniosacral work, and I now live a healthy, vibrant and happy life. I share these practices and my knowledge through lived experience by teaching yoga, meditation and nutrition, which bring me so much joy and give my suffering purpose.
I no longer limit myself with labels or symptoms. I am simply a human being feeling the natural emotions ebbing and flowing through me as I live. I no longer rely on something other than me to feel better. There are many things I use to face the intensity I feel some days and allow it to pass. Food, movement, breathing, art, music, and stillness are my “medication” now. Health is my priority and I feel empowered to know that how I feel in each moment is my choice. I have suffered in the darkness and have basked in the glory of the light. Both were my choice and I choose happiness.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.