In many respects, resilience is the most important sign of health. This is true in physical health, and even more so in mental health. Resilience is what I spend my working hours trying to help others achieve. Resilience is what I have spent my own life discovering, harnessing, and finally thriving with. Quite simply stated, resilience is the ability to bounce back or recover from the trials and tribulations that living as a human being inevitably comes with.
As a naturopathic doctor (ND) who focuses on mental health, most of my patients come to me seeking to get off of psychotropic medications. Physical, mental, and emotional resilience is what I endeavor to achieve with them because this is what will ultimately allow them to live a stable life off of medications. The goal of my blog is to write about the process and challenges of helping patients get off get off medications. The process is no easy feat, for many reasons related to emotions, lifestyle and physiology/pharmacology which I will discuss in more detail in future blogs. Rather than start with the science and practicalities of medication reduction for my inaugural blog, I would like to introduce you to the toughest case study in achieving mood stability I have dealt with to date – my own. I happen to have the diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
I was misdiagnosed with depression at age 16 and given a medication that sent me skyrocketing into hypomania. I was the first in my family to be taken to a psychiatrist, so no one had any suspicions that my sudden newfound energy might be a sign that something was amiss. I went off medications on my own, and rode the waves of highs and lows, never realizing that the highs were anything other than me feeling my best. I went to college, had a bad day and impulsively quit and joined the Navy. I learned Arabic and ended up working odd shifts and rotating hours in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and at Fort Meade, MD. I was active duty for 6 years, the last 4 of which I also attended school full time, earning my pre-med Bachelor of Science in physiology and neurobiology. In retrospect, my misdiagnosis and the accompanying hypomania was what allowed me to thrive during my time in the Navy.
The rotating and midnight shifts made the high and low waves more pronounced, but I used that to my advantage more often than not. It was the highs that allowed me to complete my degree with a high GPA and still fulfill my duties as a sailor. It was the military culture of “suck it up and drive on” that allowed me to push past the lows. But then one day the lows won out, and I couldn’t drive on anymore. I went to bed that night comforted by the thought that I may have “accidentally” taken a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol that would prove fatal. I awoke the next morning disappointed that I was still alive, swallowed my pride, and called to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. This time, the psychiatrist got the diagnosis right, and my relationship with lithium began.
My diagnosis and my own personal experiences played a major role in how I ended up as a doctor who works to help others who suffered as I did. I won’t go into the gory details of my struggle to accept my diagnosis or to trust a doctor. I am sure everyone reading this has had a similar experience. I also won’t go into the numerous times I went on and off medications or the many medications I tried hoping that something would help me stay stable without taking away my personality or ability to think clearly. I am sure that is also a familiar story that we all share. It was this very struggle that led me to seek out a different path in healthcare, despite having been on the path to conventional medicine for years.
I stumbled upon naturopathic medicine almost by accident, but when I found it everything clicked into place. I had been seeking out ways to become a doctor that used evidence-based therapies alongside natural treatments to achieve better health outcomes. Naturopathic medicine does exactly that. I learned that doctors of naturopathic medicine are trained in high tech diagnostic studies, intensive lab testing, and both conventional medications and natural therapies. The fundamental training of an ND is as an integrative doctor who focuses on the whole person, not just a disease. After visiting the colleges and seeing the rigorous training involved, I made up my mind and started the path that led me to where I am today. I am proud to be stable without medications, and helping others to achieve the same in my practice.
This transformation didn’t happen overnight or even over a few months. It took me years to be able to rely on my mental state. I had to relearn an awareness of myself that I had lost while I was on medications, which led to several rocky spots as I came off my medication. It also took a lot of hard work on my part – diet and lifestyle changes, identifying hormonal dysregulation and its impacts on my moods, genetic mutations that impacted my functioning and their workarounds, and most importantly, regular follow ups for homeopathic prescriptions from my ND. The last part was the hardest for me to accept because my science centered brain didn’t understand how it worked. What finally allowed me to give it a try was the assertion my psychiatrist made that if I wanted to have children, I would need ECT because the meds weren’t safe in pregnancy, and neither was I if I were to go untreated.
Trying homeopathy was like a Hail Mary – if it didn’t work out I would be no worse off than I already was. In retrospect, I should probably write a letter to thank that short-sighted psychiatrist for giving me so little hope I would try something I didn’t believe in because homeopathy ended up being the most profound medicine I have ever used. Homeopathy gave me relief from depressions and brought me out of manias quickly and without negatively impacting my cognition or sense of self. To this day, I use it with my patients as a cornerstone of their treatment and see the same results for them that I saw for myself.
I am going to end my introductory blog by returning to the initial concept of resilience. About 3 years ago I realized that this is something I have cultivated in myself through all the work I have done. It is what kept me going when it felt like I couldn’t get function at all. It was what helped me to recover from the excesses I would set myself up with when I was manic. And today, it is what helps me to bounce back from a stressful situation that in the past would have triggered an episode. I also realized that resilience is the true key to health. Avoiding bad feelings or too much excitement is unrealistic and in many ways pathological in and of itself. Life is full of ups and downs. We are supposed to get sick, and develop better immune systems from doing so.
We are supposed to have bad times that we can grow from, and exciting moments are what make the day to day of life worth it. Resilience is when you can get a cold and be back on your feet in a few days. It is when you have a bad day or two and it stops there without leading to a suicidal depression. It is when you have an energetic or high stress day and you don’t lose your connection to the world around you. Everything I prescribe for my patients has this one goal in mind – to improve resilience. Resilience is strength, resilience is health, and resilience, not perfection or suppression, should be the ultimate goal of any treatment.
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.