Bipolar in Recovery

By Joshua Hotir 08/28/16

I heard someone qualify that he had stopped taking his psychiatric drugs for his bipolar disorder with the help of God and recovery. Instantly I decided I needed to do it, too.

Bipolar in Recovery
Serenity can be stressful.

When I fell into recovery, it wasn’t from being surrounded by a lake of booze or piles of drugs, but being clenched-knuckles-dry, fractured inside and trying to control everyone in my life. I knew for five years that I was bipolar, but thought that was my whole problem.

I now accept that my bipolar condition and addiction cannot be put in two, neat, walled-off boxes as if they don’t affect each other, even though they both need distinct support.

Since I had received my diagnosis, I’d been under a number of awful drug combinations ending with a cocktail that seemed to suit me well—comprised of Lithium, Wellbutrin, and a quarter of a pill of a rather savvy medication, Luvox, which both reduces obsessive thoughts and gives you a slight lift. With a razor, I sliced a pill in quarters every four days. I had personal relations with each of the pills as well. The red-coated Wellbutrin anti-depressants were my favorite. Their bright red coating and chalky insides made me think of women’s lipstick and sex.

Although I didn’t know it, I wasn’t the only person on the planet who was bipolar and needing recovery. According to Mayra Hornbacher’s studies, the probability that a person with Bipolar I disorder will also struggle with substance abuse is 60%. The rate of alcoholism in bipolar men is three times higher than in the general population. The rate of alcoholism in bipolar women is seven times higher than in the general population.

The most recent statistics on the disease show that 50% of all people who have bipolar disorder have, at one time, tried to commit suicide. Another study shows that at any given time, only half the people with the disorder know they have it. All of this indicates that many people who are bipolar don’t know it, and of those who do, many need recovery as well.

I didn’t know a thing about recovery when I first walked in—not the slightest bit. During my first meeting, when the chair asked if anyone was at their first meeting ever, I raised my hand and all the small chatter around the room fell off a cliff. Everyone looked over. The following rush of applause made me blush. When the chair asked my name, I said my first and last name. God, they laughed so hard. I can still remember the sound, as though I’d just been born into that metal chair. A large black man in one corner with a month said, “Shit, that just made my day.”

I instantly took to recovery, often going twice a day to meetings. I had nothing else to do. My anxiety ebbed, the panic attacks stopped. The job I was about to lose gave me an award for being the most improved employee six months later.

Then, three years into the program, I heard someone qualify that he had stopped taking his psychiatric drugs for his bipolar disorder with the help of God and recovery. Instantly I decided I needed to do it, too. It sounded extreme, cutting edge, like spiritually jumping off a cliff and hoping my new, shiny recovery wings would hold.

It worked for six months until things began to fray around the edges. I had a harder time sleeping, I had lost track of my recovery posse. Then, during a Buddhist retreat where I was silent for three days straight in deep meditation, something unexpected happened—a creeping sense of anxiety took me over on the second day.

Part of the Buddhist retreat involved having the choice of getting whacked on the back with a wooden paddle called a keisaku, which is about the thickness and heft of a cricket bat. The purpose of whacking the two long muscles along the spine with the bat’s flat side, is it helps the meditator stay more awake. I noticed the whacker hit the person next to me with a zeal, reminding me of my childhood punishments. Tears filled my eyes. I felt lonelier on my meditation cushion than I’d ever felt before, like I was a child who had been abandoned there, and was pummeled with panic attacks for days on end afterwards.

I begged my psychiatrist to take me back. I called my sponsor three times daily, but he had no idea what to do with me. I no longer identified with most of the shares around the room. I sometimes didn’t sleep two nights in a row.

My sponsor then let me know that the way I was going would land me in a hospital or worse, if I didn’t start seeing my experience through the lens of recovery—that my problems were much simpler than I was making them. I was lacking a relationship with a caring higher power, I was choosing not to identify at meetings, and I was staring at torments of my past instead of the reality of my present.

I found one person in recovery who was also bipolar, and he told me how he’d had the same meltdown in sobriety and learned to put extra effort into seeing his situation as the same as others. My call to him every day was such a relief, because he got it—he, too, hadn’t slept for days during manic spells.

I did small things to reduce my anxiety. I cut out coffee. My meditation time each day became less of an austere Zen silence within a silence, but a time to find a gentle connection with a caring force in the universe. I separated my recovery issues with my bipolar issues, and my world slowly became less anxiety-filled.

There were other things which helped. My psychiatrist told me to take, along with my time-release Lithium pills, double the normal daily dose of cod liver and to exercise daily no matter what. After not having a bike for 15 years, I finally got a bike and began to ride over the bridges into Brooklyn as if they were mountains. A woman told me she’d had a traumatic breakdown in recovery and couldn’t hear anything anyone said in meetings for weeks, so she asked to be hugged. I let people hug me, too, and found that those hugs could reach where words could not.

Fifteen years later, I now accept that my bipolar condition and addiction cannot be put in two, neat, walled-off boxes as if they don’t affect each other, even though they both need distinct support. I know if I exercise daily, sleep regular hours, avoid caffeine, my tendency towards becoming manic will be kept at bay. Likewise, if I begin skipping meetings, leaving them early, or going to ones that are convenient yet don’t do anything for me, my serenity will quickly slip and my mania once again will assert itself. Healing abhors a vacuum.

Most importantly, I have to be very careful not to let me see myself as different, and therefore separate in my recovery rooms, because of my bipolar condition. At times, however, I still feel like I’m of a different species—my mood disorder can be so extreme. But if that feeling becomes a belief, no light of the sun can get through. Some days, the solution feels like balancing on a log crossing a rushing river far below. Other days, my vulnerability helps me be incredibly empathic to others' pains, and my super-fast mind feels like a gift from the heavens.

Joshua Hotir is the pseudonym for a writer and Craniosacral practitioner based in NYC. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on twitter at bipolar2balance.

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