Healing–it means to make something feel better, to alleviate some physical, spiritual, or mental issue. This goes the same with curing and fixing. By the end of this process, we expect the problem to be gone.
The Mental Health community has emphasized that mental illness is similar to physical ailments yet is treated like it isn’t “real”. I am reminded of this comic.
I get it. There are some things that we can do to ease the symptoms, but it is a legit, possibly chronic illness with no cure (only treatment). You learn to live with it. You make compromises in your life to be healthy—-like compromising to eat one donut instead of five because you run the risk of numerous health issues when you eat irresponsibly. Responsible bikers wear helmets to protect their heads from being busted open on the pavement despite the fact that helmets aren’t necessarily the coolest looking things. Just like these examples, as someone living with mental illness, you make compromises like carving time into your daily routine to take your meds correctly EVEN IF IT IS INCONVENIENT. (And when I say “correctly,” I mean taking your meds as prescribed. No wiggle room, no skipping, taking it with food if necessary; the whole shebang.)
But how far does this go? Is treating mental illness similar to treating physical ailments? Can you heal it naturally? Is it mind over matter (no)?
I am not one to criticize someone’s means of treating mental illness, but recently, I read a little something called How I Healed My ‘Bipolar Disorder’. What caught my attention was the scare quotes around bipolar disorder. It suggested to me that, to this person, they legitimately believed their initial diagnosis of bipolar disorder was wrong and, more so, that bipolar disorder wasn’t even real. It’s a lot to gather from scare quotes, but at this point, I was curious to read what this person had to say. Mission accomplished, right?
Moni Kettler, the author of the post, starts her story like most other bipolar stories. She is struggling with symptoms that baffle her and has been hospitalized and falls into a deep depression. She describes her struggles with the medications and her desire to live without them—I get it! I struggled with all of what she was talking about. But then I saw it—
“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.” (Kettler)
Reading it initially bothered me. Realizing that Kettler does nothing to reconsider her words (devastated) and position throughout the entire post pissed me off.
What took the cake was:
“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!” (Kettler)
My blood pressure spiked at those words. I could understand the feeling of being “seen as a crazy person who did not fit into society.” But dignity? Because you have bipolar you have lost your worth to be respected? Your feelings are valid, but to make such a claim is irresponsible. It’s a dangerous thing to suggest that a chronic illness can take away someone’s dignity. There are plenty of people in the world who live with dignity despite having some mental or physical issue. I know a wonderful woman who suffers from PTSD, who exudes confidence, kindness, and positive energy, and PTSD can be a destructive force to be reckoned with. To demonstrate strength despite living with PTSD or Crohn’s disease or anything else shows that you have dignity. THE ILLNESS DOES NOT DEFINE YOU.
This article does an “amazing” job stigmatizing mental illness (though it is targeted specifically at bipolar disorder). So…you can say that I feel slightly attacked. Yes, it sucks having bipolar disorder; yes, life would be better if you didn’t have it. But then when you think it couldn’t get any worse, Kettler’s description–no, advertisement for Sean Blackwell’s spiritual retreat just nailed the coffin shut. I tried to keep an open mind, to not discount an individual’s way of coping, but as I kept reading, the entire thing screamed “cult!” to me. It started out simple.
Friend: Hey, I found this interesting book (Am I Bipolar or Waking Up?) You should try to give it a read.
Friend: I haven’t read it myself, but it sounds pretty interesting.
Kettler, reads book and reviews:
“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.”
Well, yes. (Also, there she goes with those scare quotes again.) There are many factors that may exacerbate the symptoms, and there might be other personality disorders that accompany the disorder, but at its core, bipolar is caused by a chemical imbalance. Let me repeat. There are factors, like child abuse and neglect and other traumatizing events in one’s life, that can exacerbate the symptoms, but they DO NOT CAUSE bipolar. It’s like this. A nasty fall breaks your leg. The fall caused your leg to break. Factors that worsen the ailment are walking and jumping rope on that leg when it’s not yet healed. The ailment doesn’t improve, and it possibly gets worse.
Kettler goes on to describe two successful times she went to Blackwell’s two-week retreat. One “healed” her bipolar disorder through essentially deep breathing and meditation and allowed her to immediately stop her antipsychotics (though she weaned herself off her other meds like a responsible adult). The other helped her come to terms with her past child abuse and helped her forgive her abusive father. The latter, I can see working, but the former? Something smells fishy.
I went to Blackwell’s website after reading the article. Just to see what it was all about. I stopped at his bio and closed the tab.
“…I’ve been researching the spiritual dimension of bipolar disorder since 2007. However, prior to that, I was sent to the psychiatric hospital in 1996, for a short, but traumatic stay. For me, my experience of so-called “acute psychosis” was more like a spiritual awakening, something for which I am forever grateful.” (Blackwell)
“A spiritual awakening”… I wish I could describe my first instance of my “so called “acute psychosis”” as a spiritual awakening. But I’m pretty damn sure it was the mania taking over.
Again, I find this all very irresponsible, and I am struggling to accept this as a legitimate approach to bipolar disorder.
And then of course, me being me, I look at the damn comments for Kettler’s article. Plenty of people encouraging Kettler. Plenty considering the retreat. And plenty demonizing the pharmaceutical industry. Yes, the industry definitely turns a profit by horrible means, but I can say for a fact that once I took my meds as prescribed and found the meds that worked for me, the meds worked and my quality of life has improved ten-fold. And to also demonize the field of psychiatry as a whole? I’m sorry if you’ve had a bad experience with individuals in the field, but as a whole, it has brought so much good and understanding to people’s lives.
The weird thing, though, is that this retreat has helped a number of people. I don’t know how, but it has. I do not endorse it, but I have to recognize that for some people this is an option.
If only “healing” bipolar was that easy.