When my sister took me to the emergency room of the psychiatric hospital in January of 2013, I was simply a mess. I had barely slept for weeks, having visions of an evil, black shadow hovering over me and telling me to kill myself. All of this made me so paranoid that I began slipping deeper and deeper into suicidal ideation, which scared everyone around me.
The previous three years had been very tough on me. I had been through a separation from my cheating husband, which left me to care for my two small children alone. A severe hand injury threatened my career as a portrait artist. In addition, I had also undergone the stress of moving cities with the family. It was like fighting a battle from all sides without a break, and the constant repression of my own needs so depleted me mentally and physically that I lost my balance.
I started having mood swings that made me feel like a different person from one day to the next. Some days I felt like I was on top of the world—invincible, without the need for sleep. Other days I was a complete failure without energy or motivation and experienced a paralyzing lack of hope. The abrupt swings from euphoria to dysphoria and back were tough on me as well as my family. As an artist, the hypomanic phases usually seemed great at first because I got a lot of projects done working through the night. However, once completed, I felt as if I were burnt to ashes.
Being a highly responsible ‘perfectionist,’ I still managed to function well as a mother, taking care of the house and children. But it became more and more of a struggle as I found that I could only cope with life by using my angry and aggressive side, which was huge. I found myself transformed into a very tense, high-strung person who was constantly agitated, pacing around the house and losing my temper over nothing. The only short period of relaxation I could find was through drinking wine. In the end, I could not even recognize myself.
At the hospital they gave me the diagnosis of ‘Bipolar Disorder II, type Rapid-Cycling.’ There I was, helpless and labeled as a mentally ill person. I was devastated.
My hospitalization was the beginning of a real odyssey of searching for the right medication to stabilize me, since I had strong reactions to the drugs they tried. Most of the medication either caused severe side effects (which were life-threatening on two occasions) or they made me feel dull, which I could not accept because I enjoy being an active person. So I was in and out of the hospital and day clinic for nine straight months. The drugs simply could not get a hold of my rapid cycling in a way that I could live with.
The depressions were strong, but once I regained my sleeping pattern, my determination to heal this ‘disorder’ became stronger. Being a born competitor and former Karate world champion, I was never going to give up this fight. I was desperate to get off the medication. I wanted to be in control of myself again; independent and capable. The label of Bipolar Disorder made me feel like I was seen as a crazy person who did not fit into society. I wanted my dignity back!
As the health system is quite good in Germany, I was able to experiment with a variety of different therapies such as CBT, art and occupational therapy, as well as several physical therapies. I found something inspiring in each therapy: the creative therapies helped me express my true nature better, and the educational group therapies helped improve my awareness about my issues. It was also the first time in my life that I was able to focus only on my inner self, not having to think of my family responsibilities. It gave me a break, eventually.
After my release from the hospital in December of 2013, my closest friend came across Sean Blackwell’s book Am I Bipolar Or Waking Up? and suggested I read it. This book certainly made it sound as if there was more to ‘Bipolar Disorder’ than it simply being a mental illness caused by a chemical imbalance.
The book was impossible for me to put down—I read it all the way through in one night and went into hypomania right away. I had finally found a plausible explanation for the cause of my breakdown! It seemed that the impact of major life changes had caused a ‘Spiritual Emergency’ which greatly contributed to the mess I was in.
I was so enthused that I went to Sean’s YouTube channel and watched all of his videos. For the first time, I saw light at the end of the tunnel—a hope that I could be med-free and healthy one day.
Since he was looking for translations of his videos, I started translating them into German. Shortly after that, I got in contact with Sean who told me of a healing retreat that he and his wife had created for people diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Since he would be in Europe soon, it was THE opportunity for me. I wanted to heal, and was desperate to show everyone who doubted I would ever heal that I could beat it! I was convinced that this program was the missing piece of the puzzle for my healing. The therapies that I had tried so far had helped me function better again, but none of them could erase the underlying cause of my ‘disorder,’ which was mainly rooted in childhood trauma.
In November of 2014, I had a private, two-week retreat with Sean Blackwell at a house that I rented in the German countryside. My closest friend from the USA came to help support me through the program. The retreat was life-changing. It mostly involved using spiritual techniques that are known to release trauma, such as Vipassana meditation and Bipolar Breathwork (an offshoot of Dr. Stanislav Grof’s Holotropic Breathwork). Bipolar Breathwork is a form of voluntary over-breathing accompanied by special music, where the person breathes deeply and rapidly to get into a non-ordinary state of consciousness—this allows previously unprocessed subconscious material to become conscious and integrated. Through these techniques I was able to release many of my inner tensions, energy blockages and traumas.
The most significant breakthrough came during the fourth session of the breathwork. After three painful sessions, all of which seemed to bring up more traumatic material, everything came to a climax during one powerful session in which I accessed repressed thoughts and feelings related to my history of child abuse. Horrific memories surfaced that I had buried somewhere deep inside myself decades earlier. Not only were the memories and emotional pain excruciating, the huge release of physical energy was also quite tough to bear. I often found myself quivering as hot and cold sensations took turns surging through my entire body.
But by the next day I already felt much better. I felt as if a weight had lifted inside; I was peaceful and confident and ready to proceed with the work. Everyone with me could see a shiny new glow on my face.
During the following session, I felt that another big change was happening within me. I had my first enlightening experience in which I could feel cosmic oneness as well as a deep reconciliation with my past. I could forgive my abusive father, who had died 19 years earlier, for all the pain he had caused me as a child. It was as if a heavy curtain was drawn back from the window of my soul and I could see my true self in the light for the very first time.
Right after the retreat, I was able to get off my antipsychotic medication without having any side effects, which seemed like a miracle—in previous withdrawal attempts, I had experienced severe side effects with even the slightest change in dosage. With the antipsychotic out of the way, I tapered off the mood stabilizer more slowly, just to be on the safe side. However, in truth, by the end of the retreat I felt that the medication was not needed anymore as all of the tensions and traumas had been washed out of my body.
For the first time in my life I felt settled, calm and peaceful. The retreat helped me discover the ‘real me.’ I found my true values and strengths. The urge to put myself down all the time vanished completely, and I can appreciate myself now for just being me. This helps me get back my inner balance whenever it is challenged by life circumstances. Life has not become less demanding, but it cannot harm me as much anymore—and this makes all the difference.
After one year off medication, everyone involved in my healing process is confident that I will stay episode-free in the future. Still, just to be sure, I had another retreat with Sean last year. On this retreat even more unprocessed subconscious material was released, much of it related to birth trauma. This latest experience has brought me an even deeper sense of peace and relaxation than I had before.
The whole thing was such an incredible experience that I decided to share my story. I want to give hope and courage that there is a way to heal ourselves, we just have to find the right access to our own inner healer.
Being an artist, I created a film series of my seven breathwork experiences which can be watched on YouTube. I hope that by adding a visual element, I can give more insight into what is a very important inner process that cannot be seen by outside observers. I would like to encourage people diagnosed with ‘Bipolar Disorder’ to overcome their fears and doubts and believe in themselves. I know that healing is possible. We just have to be willing to do the hard work to get there.
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.