March 6, 2016

Confessions of a Yogi on Lithium.


The definition of health is choice.

These were the words, uttered by my yoga teacher, Michael, that echoed in my head. He explained that a healthy joint has full mobility and a healthy mind has the choice of what to focus on.

Locked in that hospital, I in no way felt healthy.

I did not have a choice to be there and I did not have the choice to leave. When I was admitted, I was given two shots of Haldol, told when to eat, took the medicine they gave me and waited on a line every day to use the payphone to call my sister.

Knowing what I know now about the “right to refuse” medication and the psychiatric medical process puts my mind at ease (though I wish I didn’t have to know), but at the time it was a terrifying whirlwind with the panic of a One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest-nightmare. The scariest part of the hospital was the time between being in triage and being sent behind the locked door to the ward on the eigth floor. That was when the terror of Nurse Ratched and electroconvulsive therapy took hold of me. Once I was on the ward, I wasn’t free but I was fine. Nurse Ratched was nowhere to be found, nor were there any strait jackets. In fact, the nurses often let me into the fully padded “time-out” rooms to meditate.

I had just turned 19 and was living in Nepal when I had my first manic episode. It wouldn’t be for another five years, when I was 24 and admitted to the psychiatric hospital, that I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and finally understood what had happened halfway around the world years earlier.

I liken Bipolar Disorder to an addiction—you have a genetic vulnerability and can be in recovery for years, but the potential of a relapse may always exist. As time passes, the anxiety of a relapse lessens but the potential is always present.

Once I was stable and slowly weaned off some of the stronger anti-psychotics, I began to feel my body again. Michael’s words resurfaced. I had to make a choice. I made two actually:

Choice 1: Be healthy.

Choice 2: Get off these meds as quickly as possible. I considered myself a yogi and these meds were “not pure.”

Getting healthy immediately after being in a psych hospital looked like sleeping—a lot of sleeping. There were daily visits to an outpatient clinic and bi-weekly visits with a psycho-pharmacologist, but mostly sleeping and definitely no yoga. I gained about 45 pounds, but I don’t really know how because with all the sleeping (14-16 hours a day as a result of the medication and the crash), I don’t remember eating much.

I got through it though. I held onto my decision to be healthy, that and something else. First there comes a choice and then there comes grace.

After 18 months under the watchful eye of psycho-pharmacologists, therapists, parents and blood tests, I switched to about 20 Vitamin B supplements a day. The theory, while untested scientifically, was that Bipolar Disorder is the result of a Vitamin B deficiency. It is one of many alternatives I have explored over my 10 year battle.

I knew the seasons that made me antsy, the cities that made me edgy. I guarded my sleep like a dragon with its treasure. During the “extra-sensitive” times, I would walk around the city, subways and streets with my headphones permanently on. After three months of “extra-sensitive” time, no matter how hard I willed these supplements to work, they didn’t. I could feel my mind racing and my sleep dwindling.

I had to make another choice—one that I didn’t want to make. Taking prescription medication was difficult because I was against putting anything but natural products in or on my body. I hadn’t always been like this; in high school I took other “supplements,” but with my partying days behind me, I had traded in Ecstasy for the ecstatic chant.

The idea that I was facing “life without parole” from Lithium didn’t make me feel healthy—in fact, it made me sick. But I chose to take the medication.

The definition of health is choice. Like a mantra.

I came to understand that Lithium is an element, one you can find on the periodic table. It comes from the earth. One time, when I was driving across the country, I stopped at these hot springs in Colorado that are famous for their healing waters. Their secret healing property—lithium is in the water.

Every choice has an effect though, including mine. What makes it hardest to practice yoga is the vertigo. It’s a scary feeling when doing twists, inversions and even simple backbends feels impossible.

Sometimes I don’t want to face myself in comparison to what I was able to do only a few years ago. That’s when it is time to take a pause, breathe and feel what the moment is—vulnerable and present. Brene Brown says, in her book Daring Greatly, “Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame it begins to wither”. That’s another side effect, learning to confront shame fearlessly.

The lessons I have learned from yoga and my health is that they look nothing like I thought they would. They are both a dialogue.

When I began my yoga practice, I had a very clear idea of what that should look like. It involved a mat, a teacher, a studio and a $20 per class fee. Fifteen years later, my practice resembles more of what I saw in Nepal when I began to learn yoga. My practice looks like meditation (lots of it), gentle poses (often in my home) and lots of prayer.

I look back now to when I thought I had full moving joints and was healthy. I couldn’t even begin to know what that meant until I actually had to choose.


Author: Jan Lauren

Editor: Nicole Cameron

Image: Lena Bell/Unsplash


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