How a Yoga Class Helped Me as a Person With Bipolar Disorder

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Growing up in Philadelphia, I realized early on that police sirens were a mainstay of city living. Though I must say, it’s quite surreal when the sirens are for you.

In the back of the police car, I was met with a hard plastic bench that was about as comfortable as a toilet seat. The officers dropped me off at the crisis center a few blocks away. As I got out of the vehicle, the thought of running into the middle of traffic crossed my mind. Almost psychically, one officer yelled, “Go inside!” I did as he told and spent several hours at the facility wondering what the hell just happened.

Vanessa Hazzard (Photo credit: J.J. Tiziou)

People at the crisis center were loud, mad and animated. Two women were yelling at the nurse because it was ridiculously cold and they needed a pair of socks. Another man kept singing the theme song to “Sanford and Son.” That was the first chuckle I had in what seemed like forever.

When I did manage to sleep for a little, it was on a hard plastic bench, not unlike the one in the police vehicle. Fourteen hours later, they found a bed for me at Belmont.

I live with bipolar disorder. When I separated from my then husband in 2012, my symptoms were amplified. That led to my son and I moving back to my mom’s house. The dissolving of my marriage and family led to PTSD. Along with extreme bouts of mania and depression, living with both disorders was a dangerous combination of paranoia, hallucinations, dissociation and insomnia. After a severe psychotic episode, I was taken away to receive psychiatric treatment at an inpatient facility.

I had mixed feelings about being hospitalized. My previous experience, several years prior, was memorable for all the wrong reasons. I was largely ignored by the staff, and the psychiatrist and therapist I was assigned to were very condescending. And worst of all, the food sucked.

On the other hand, I needed help. I needed it badly. The outpatient care I was receiving prior to being admitted to Belmont wasn’t enough to keep me stabilized.

Along with the symptoms of bipolar disorder and PTSD, I felt incredibly hypocritical. I’ve been employed in the health and wellness industry since I was 20 years old. Throughout the years, I’ve been a group fitness instructor, massage therapist, community herbalist and workshop facilitator. These roles were more than just jobs to me. They were my way of staying healthy physically and mentally while helping others do the same. Ironically, in the midst of this psychotic episode, none of these avenues helped me when I needed it the most. I felt defective, fraudulent even, and questioned my worth as a wellness professional. If I couldn’t help myself, how could I possibly help anyone else?

Needless to say, when they announced at the morning meeting that yoga was on the schedule for later that day, I was less than enthused. I dreaded the thought of practicing yoga after all of my failed attempts over the past few months. Although it wasn’t mandatory that I attend, it was highly encouraged if I wanted to receive other privileges. So I just sucked it up and joined the class.

The instructor went around the room and asked us to introduce ourselves and to state if we had practiced yoga before. When my turn came around, I begrudgingly said I had been practicing off and on for a few years and that I’m a yoga teacher. Her demeanor went from neutral to as if she had just met a peer. At the time, her expression made me nervous because I didn’t want to have any expectations of being “good at yoga” placed upon me. But upon further reflection, the fact that she could see herself in me, a bipolar single mom in a psychiatric hospital, was quite beautiful and affirming.

When the practice began, I did my best to release any criticisms or judgments I placed upon myself. I just followed the instructions being offered without being concerned with how pretty it looked. It was a simple class with simple movements and breathing. It was a far cry from the classes I was used to, which were hot and vigorous with lots of very specific anatomical cues. This stripped-down class was easily one of the most powerful classes I’d ever taken.

For months, I was so determined to heal my mind and body with a self-led yoga practice, but my ego had a vice grip on my good intentions, so each attempt was more fruitless and frustrating than the last. This time was different. My ego was listening to a voice outside of my head for once that allowed me to be gentle with myself. For those 45 minutes, I had control of my feral mind.

The following week, the instructor returned and I was eager to be led. We used the wall for some balancing poses. One of the other patients was having trouble with a pose. The instructor asked me if I wanted to help him with it. I was nervous, but I walked him through it anyway. Those few cues I offered allowed him to safely enter and exit the half moon pose. He was ecstatic, and so was I! I’m pretty sure I was smiling throughout that entire day, and it wasn’t from the five different medications they had me on.

When I left Belmont after my 10 days of treatment, I had a renewed acceptance of myself. I’ve come to realize that riding the highs and lows of bipolar disorder means taking the scenic route to well-being. I’m optimistic that my yoga practice will sustain me on that journey.

A version of this post originally appeared on Blavity.

Photo credit: J.J. Tiziou

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10 Lessons From 10 Years of Living With Bipolar Disorder

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I can hardly believe it’s been 10 years since I received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I wish I could go back and tell my terrified teenage self that though life would sometimes be a roller coaster of ups and downs, a bright future full of hope and joy would await me. It took a while to learn how to navigate this disorder, and the journey was filled with many twists and turns. In these past 10 years, I’ve experienced unimaginable pain, but I’ve also learned how to love myself unconditionally.

As I look back on the past decade, the following lessons have helped me cope and build a beautiful life. Read on for insight into my journey and to see if your unique experiences have taught you anything similar.

1. Make peace with my diagnosis.

I was not able to begin the recovery journey until I fully acknowledged that I was living with a mental illness.  As much as I tried, I quickly realized that choosing to ignore the reality of my situation would not make it go away. I had to learn how to be brave enough to accept that this was my life. From there, I was able to begin the hard work to make the best of it.

2. Adopt the “mind, body, spirit” mentality.

It became clear right away that if I didn’t get regular exercise and make healthy food choices, I would only serve to push myself into deeper depression. Now I see exercise as a wonderful stress reliever, and I love the energy I get from nutritious foods. In addition, I have found that I need to spend time nurturing my spirit. Praying, journaling and corporate worship center my mind and calm my soul, giving me the strength to face each day. These are things I have control over, so I make the conscious choice to take advantage of these tools.

3. Trust my mental health team.

At first, I didn’t want to admit I needed such a large mental health team; early on, they were strangers and I didn’t trust them. But as time passed, I saw that these professionals always had my best interests at heart and were there to help me. Their unbiased advice and wealth of knowledge has proven to be invaluable, and now I respect their opinion and rely on their guidance.

4. Know my triggers.

It took me years to be able to recognize what triggers my mania or depression. Now I have a good understanding of what activities or people will initiate an episode, and I make it a priority to steer clear. If these situations are unavoidable, I am extra diligent about monitoring my mood and taking the necessary steps to protect my stability.

5. Minimize idle time.

I have found that the more idle time I have, the more I begin to enter the world of depression or mania. Making a commitment to get out of the house and work, volunteer, exercise and spend time with family and friends is crucial for me. It’s not easy, but now I push myself not to fill my days with TV and Facebook, but with purposeful and meaningful activities that enrich my life.

6. Sleep is my best friend.

Staying up all night is what triggered my first serious manic episode. Since then, I have learned that my stability depends on getting enough sleep. I always make sure I don’t stay out too late and give myself ample time to rest.

7. Don’t dwell on the past.

If I allowed myself to dwell on each hospitalization, each poor decision I made during manic episodes or all the days spent sleeping during the throes of depression, I would lose all hope. I choose to focus on making the most of the present, and I believe in the promise of a bright future. I acknowledge that the past happened, but I don’t let it cloud the happiness of the here and now.

8. Cultivate community.

I couldn’t do this alone. I need people to come alongside me and walk with me on my path towards recovery. Often, it was hard to let people into my broken world, but I’m so grateful I learned how to allow friends and family to encourage, support and love me through the dark times, celebrate with me as I became stable and enjoy this life with me as I move forward.

9. Walk away from destructive relationships.

Above I mentioned how important it has been for me to have people by my side. But there have unfortunately been other individuals along the way who have perpetuated a mentality of stigma and shame. I learned that allowing these people in my life was not healthy and, when possible, to walk away from the relationship or at least limit contact. I now focus and invest only in the relationships that provide love and encouragement.

10. Always look for the joy in life.

Instead of focusing on all bipolar disorder has taken from me, now, to the best of my ability, I look for joy in all areas of my life. There are still dark days, but now I know there are always rays of sunshine to be found. No matter how small, I choose to focus on the blessings I have been given and the things that make me happy. This gives me so much hope and strength.

This list is not all-encompassing, but these main lessons are what have helped shape how I go about living life with a mental illness. The strategies listed here work in harmony to promote my stability and success. I know the next 10 years will present their own set of challenges, and the ways in which I handle bipolar disorder will continue to evolve. But I’m inspired to take these lessons and continue down the road of recovery and personal growth. I encourage you to take time to ponder what your mental illness has taught you. Reflect on the lessons you have learned throughout your journey, and use that knowledge to build your best possible future.

A version of this post originally appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation’s website.

Image via Thinkstock Images

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What We Need to Remember When Celebrities Struggle With Mental Health

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As a young adult living with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I have experienced stigma very early on in my life. That is even before being formally diagnosed with the illness. Now that I have been stable and in recovery for more than half a decade, most people are surprised when they learn that I have struggled with my mental health. Each time, they are supportive and say they have enjoyed watching my TEDx talk. Or they express admiration for some of the community work I have done or for the awards I have received over the years. But truth to be told, things have not always been this way. And to be honest, I’ve come a long way.

As I learned that anyone can struggle with their mental health, I saw that this is no different for those who truly live with fame. And I was upset to realize that celebrities, more often than not, seem not to be seen as deserving of the same respect I’ve gotten whenever I disclosed my past health issues. And that profoundly bothers me.

We have all these conversations in the media and awareness campaigns about mental
health and mental illness. About how it’s important to be supportive and caring about one another. Yet, whenever a celebrity is visibly struggling, either by posting strange Facebook rants or by their behavior that seems erratic, then all of a sudden, that support doesn’t seem to be there anymore. The empathy goes straight out the door. People start using words like “freak,” “psychopath,” “crazy” and so on. And even worse, that public personality becomes a circus beast for the world to see and for the pleasure of the press.

Let me tell you one thing. Mental health and mental illness do not always look pretty. It’s not always flowers and butterflies. People aren’t always in a place of recovery. It’s incredibly hard to get to that place of recovery. It’s hard to maintain as well because relapses can always occur. You can never take recovery for granted. And, it’s even harder to get to that point when you’re being turned out into ridicule in front of the entire planet when you’re at your lowest. When you’re at your most vulnerable.

It sincerely bothers me. And I find this incredibly hypocritical. A lot of people seem to be supportive of people with mental illnesses only if they are conforming to the norm and walking between the margins or are “recovered.” If they get back to a place of pain and struggle, we, as a society, are quick to judge. We are quick to walk away when this is precisely what mental health and mental illness are all about: a spectrum with highs and lows. Mental health and mental illness is not just an abstract concept. It is very real and has real faces, stories and people to it.

In my case, I personally wonder every single day who, among the people who know about my diagnosis, will truly be there for me the day that I fall back again? It’s easy to be supportive when everything is in order. When it’ll be a mess, who will stick around?

So next time you see anyone — famous or not — who has a behavior that puts you off, think twice. Remember that this could be your mother, father, sister, brother, friend or co-worker. Remember that it could be you. Even if you’re not a social worker, avoid using harmful words. Refrain from condemning that person. Tell this person that you’ve noticed some changes in their behavior lately and that you are genuinely worried about them. Tell them that you trust them to find the solutions that are best for them. Refer them to a professional and offer to go with them. The bottom line is, be kind. To anyone. You never know what battles someone is fighting behind closed doors. Don’t make their burden even worse. And that applies to any human being on this earth.

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To the Boy Who Wants to Get to Know Me

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If there is one thing I’m really good at, it’s blending in. I walk slowly and speak quietly. I avoid eye contact and sit between strangers so as to never engage in a conversation. I know I hide from the world very well. So I’m not sure how you keep seeing me through the woods I call my insecurities.

I hide in the corner for a reason. Although I am not ashamed of my illness, the world is ashamed of me. My aim is to hide my illness from you because I don’t think you could deal with all the ups and downs my bipolar brings. Perhaps you haven’t read my blog. It will show you the real me. The me I cannot express when I stand in front of you.

You don’t know my name, and you shouldn’t. My emotions are a raging storm that act like a dormant volcano. One day there is nothing and the next day everything is destroyed.

How do I tell you I have bipolar? That my depression leaves me crying naked on the floor. The darkness comes creeping in and takes a hold of my mind. It refuses to let me sleep and is jealous of all my friends. It isolates and weakens me. Trust me when I say, you don’t want to know my name. Because when the darkness comes I will become a burden to your spirit, using your light to hide my darkness, using your voice because I have lost mine.

I am afraid to get too close to you because of what I do to everyone I love. My hands are ice cold from years of wiping away my own tears. I do not know if I have the capacity to love you because I struggle to love myself on most days. I look in the mirror and see a shadow. So I cannot understand when you say I am beautiful.

I have asked you on many occasions to not fall in love with me, as the elements of my soul cannot be seen in the frown lines of my face. I am afraid because most people do not know how to love someone like me, someone who’s moods are unpredictable and often volatile. I am afraid of being loved — because I don’t think I know how to love.

From,

The Girl Who Is Afraid To Be Loved

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Living With Bipolar Disorder: The 3 Parts of Being 'OK'

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Any day I can get out of bed and make more than a single phone call, I am doing great. I have lived through intense highs and deep lows that together were a personal hell. Such is my experience of bipolar disorder. I lived through it, I live with it and I grow from it. Mettle has been tested and I am f*cking titanium. How come I, like an alchemist, transform this potential fatal poison into an elixir that makes me stronger? I believe it can be broken down into three parts.

For a while, after being in the psych hospital, I was in denial about my illness. I was released under the promise of enrolling in mandatory outpatient care three times a week and under the supervision of a psycho-pharmacologist. There was a moment after being in the hospital that I knew I had to choose. I was sitting in the muted brown and rust colored room of my doctor. I was staring at the acrylic painting of the New Mexico desert with a cactus in bloom. It was there I knew I had to make a choice.

That’s the first part: choice.

I decided to do whatever I had to do to be healthy in mind, body and spirit.

I didn’t chose a brain disorder but I could chose my life, my habits, my nutrition, to take control of my medication and doctors. I chose it all. Whatever I needed to do to be healthy I was going to do it . This also required a new understanding of health, but I didn’t know that at the time.

The second piece to being “OK” has two parts. It’s luck and support. I am lucky to have an amazing support system — and to afford it. I have family, friends and doctors whom I trust and who work with me. If I tell them some medication needs adjusting, they respond. If they see some indicator in my behavior that raises a flag for them, we discuss it. There are no forced medication or treatments.

If I didn’t have them, all the choices in the world would do nothing. I mean that. If you don’t have doctors you can trust, find new ones. It can be work and it is frustrating, but this is your one and only life and your health.

Some things over these years have really sucked. I am angry I had to go to the hospital, angry I am “sick” and that there’s stigma about my brain, heartbroken about all the time wasted on doctors and blood tests and getting medications correct. There is deep grief about the course I felt my life was going to take, but instead I got the “life interrupted” version.

I wish I could say I have found the golden key to make it all better.

What I can offer you is my honesty and experience and willingness to share the journey. This helps. It’s hasn’t always been pretty or easy but I can offer to you with my whole heart and a deep wish that it will be useful to you and your loved ones. I know what it feels like to have your freedom taken away. To wake up when they tell you to wakeup. To swallow what they tell you to swallow. To stare out of one little window for hours. To feel as though you are declared less than human. To be declared incompetent, crazy.

I also know what it is to fight for your life. However small it may seem. I know what it is to be a survivor — to find strength in the darkest days when the best thing you can hope for is to make it out of your bed long enough to go to the bathroom and maybe to the kitchen. I know what it is to feel like there is something inside you that has something to offer this world and that it worth fighting for, that you are worth fighting for. And I finally know what it is to own my own power and be what could only be described as resilient.

And when I truly allow myself to feel the grief, shame and the anger and let the tears come, one thing is always there beneath it all. In the still and silence of myself, there is grace.

This is the third piece. Grace is beyond luck, and more encompassing than support and choice. Even with the best of friends and family and doctors, there are things I have to face alone in my mind and heart no one will ever know. No matter how transparent I am, some things are sacred and private and mine alone. I have learned a kind of surrender and acceptance, and it’s what I move towards every day .

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Real People, Real Stories: Life With Bipolar Disorder E-Book

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Real People, Real Stories: Life With Bipolar Disorder is a collection of 10 powerful stories from people in our Mighty community who live with bipolar disorder.

Click below to download the e-book:

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The book contains the following stories:

I’m an Olympian, Former Escort and Now – a Mental Health Advocate by Suzy Favor Hamilton

To Myself, the Day I Was Diagnosed: Bipolar Is Not the End, but the Beginning by Madelyn Heslet

The Words That Changed My Outlook on Living With Bipolar Disorder by Emily Stainton

‘Functional’ Is a 24/7 Job When You Live With Bipolar Disorder by Steve Imperato

The Secret Truths of a Bipolar Girl by Danielle Hark

The Blur of Bipolar Disorder by Fraser Speaks

Dear Future Boyfriend, From a Girl With Bipolar Disorder by Shelby Manoukian

10 Things I Wish My Loved Ones Knew About Living With Bipolar Disorder by Nichole Howson

Why My Kids Know Mommy Has Bipolar Disorder by Jennifer Marshall

Psychosis Isn’t Shameful, It’s a Symptom by Charlie Kaplan

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