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Bipolar – Not A Life Sentence


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Chaim* was admired in yeshiva for his incredible diligence. His days were consumed with learning and he could be found in the Beis Midrash almost 24/7. For him, sleep was a waste of time. Great things were forecast for his future until neighbors found him lying in the middle of the street in Geula, hallucinating that he was Moshiach. Medications stopped his racing mind but made him feel like a zombie. He became depressed and shell of his former self. His parents thought they were acting responsibly when they had him hospitalized and then put in a hostel.

Rivki*, a lively high school senior, was flattered when she was chosen to lead fifty girls on a two-week, end of the year outing. It was exciting, but between planning the next day’s activities and studying for her final exams, Rivki barely had time to sleep or eat. In fact, she discovered that she needed no sleep at all. By the end of the two weeks, she began to hallucinate and ended up in the emergency room. Despite a six-month stay in a psychiatric facility, where she received shock treatments and a variety of drugs, Rivki’s condition deteriorated over the next three years. Her mother heard about me and was willing to try a different approach. When I first met Rivki, she was overweight, lifeless and depressed. Eventually, during the three months it took to wean her off the meds, she adopted a healthy diet, went to aerobics classes and took the natural mood-stabilizers I recommended. She soon lost weight, regained the spark in her eyes and enrolled in college. She told me recently, “I feel like I’m alive again, having emerged from a three-year nightmare during which I completely lost my sense of self.”

While I do not hesitate to recommend drugs for the severely disturbed or for a short-term crisis, I believe the vast majority of people can improve by learning to overcome negative thoughts and self-harming habits, and especially by getting adequate sleep and propernutrition. Telling people they must be on meds forever is like saying that we must take antibiotics forever due to one infection. This is especially true during the turbulent teen years or during a single crisis, when it is normal to suffer from intense emotions, fears and identity issues.

I know this because I went through one such experience myself forty years ago, at the age of thirty. Like many emotional and sensitive types, I loved the excitement which came with creative endeavors. So, as I was writing my doctoral dissertation in psychology, I gave full expression to the impulse. With ideas flooding my mind, I easily skipped breakfast and then lunch; I was on a high which filled me like no food possibly could. I felt no need for food or sleep. I wrote day and night, only stopping to take care of my daughter until she went to gan or returned. This continued for three weeks during which time I did not lose weight; I was sustained by a delicious divine energy. I thought I had reached such a high level of spirituality that I no longer had physical needs! But then, at the end of three weeks, I began to hallucinate, thinking that I had G-dly powers and secret information to reveal to the world. A relative took me to Dr. L., chief psychiatrist of a prestigious hospital who, after reviewing my history, looked grimly at my family member and said, “She will need to be medicated for the rest of her life and will probably need frequent hospitalizations.” He handed me a list of prescriptions and ushered me briskly out.

Thankfully, this relative took me to a n alternative healer who had helped her in the past. He gave me a shot of vitamins, as well as various supplements to help me calm down. He told me about the importance of sleep and good nutrition, which no one had ever mentioned before. Since then, I have never relapsed, although I still take natural supplements, avoid junk foods and gluten, and make sure to get adequate sleep. I share this in a public forum because Big Pharma and its advertisers have teamed up to convince people that they cannot be sane without psychiatric meds. They minimize the fact that, in addition to the “minor” side-effects, such as dry mouth, stomach upset and loss of libido, these drugs accelerate Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s, internal bleeding and osteoporosis. True, some people want to be put out of their misery quickly with drugs, but they must be informed of the consequences. If this article gives people hope to heal without drugs, then it is worth facing the ridicule and censure which is bound to come from people who are threatened by the concept of self-healing techniques.

There are three main reasons why a perfectly functional and responsible person might have a breakdown.

LACK OF SLEEP: Few people are informed about the importance of sleep; in fact, we are constantly surrounded by the opposite message. We praise gedolim who sleep only 2-3 hours. We praise community activists who say, “You can call me 24/7.” Many people see sleep as a waste of time. Young men in yeshiva are proud of their ability to outdo even the gedolim by not sleeping at all! Some creative artists enjoy the flow of energy which accompanies and inspires their work. Writers often welcome the nighttime “high,” when ordinary mortals are asleep and they can use the peace and quiet to create. A new mother may find it impossible to sleep because the baby keeps waking up. She may think, “It’s not worth going to sleep, since I’ll only be woken up anyway.” New mothers may also suffer post-partum depression due to lack of sleep; if and when their babies do sleep, they use the time to work. Teachers often tell me that they sleep only three-four hours a night. Young people are not told that almost any person who goes without sleep for three or more nights will start to hallucinate. While 1% of the population needs between 4-5 hours of sleep, ordinary people need between 6-8 hours. Less than that causes the body to produce cortisol and other stress hormones which can cause high blood pressure, diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. During sleep, the body performs numerous rejuvenating activities which it cannot do when we are awake, such as consolidating learned information and cleansing the cells of toxins.

LACK OF NUTRITION: Few people, especially in the frum world, want to hear about proper nutrition. People associate sugar with love and comfort. A good hostess makes people happy and “proves” her love by making rich desserts, regardless of future illness. Most people imbibe junk foods mindlessly, accepting obesity, diabetes and other illnesses as normal and unavoidable. Those who warn others about the dangers of junk foods are often ridiculed. Here are the facts: Every nerve cell in the body is protected by a myelin sheath, which is composed mainly of vitamin B. Without adequate B, people become agitated, depressed and fatigued. B is lowered each time we use drugs or eat white flour and sugar, which also cause iron levels to fall. Ironically, a major sign of low B is a craving for sugar, which sets up a deadly cycle. Diet substitutes (except stevia) are even worse! Few schools teach good nutrition — yeshiva and seminary food is notoriously lacking in B vitamins, because nutritious foods are costly. Many young people detest the taste of whole wheat bread and never eat fruits or vegetables. Such a diet is almost guaranteed to induce mental disorders due to the lack of essential minerals and vitamins. Yet most traditional doctors claim that nutrition has no connection to mental or physical health!

ABSENCE OF LOVING FAMILY OR FULFILLING ACTIVITIES: In this busy world, there is very little time to express love. Parents race off to work and return exhausted. Dysfunction, abuse and addictions abound. Without love, depression and fear flourish. People also get depressed when they are pressured to please others rather than engage in the activities which provide personal fulfillment.

If you have intense mood swings or have had a psychotic episode, many will urge you to take psychiatric medication. It is very tempting to do so, but psychiatric meds will not provide love for the lonely or meaning for the unfulfilled. Nor will meds teach you how to be self-disciplined, loving or full of faith. To avoid meds, we must learn not to be a victim of our moods. To gain “mood mastery,” you need:

1. Regular sleep. Don’t count on your moods to tell you what to eat or when to sleep. Keep to a schedule despite the temptation to stay on the computer or engage in exciting activities! Make sure you get to sleep by 12 a.m. Sleep at least seven hours during a high mood, but not more than nine during a low. L-theanine (100-200 mg.) induces deeper and better quality sleep. Occasional melatonin can help, especially from the age of 50. You can also try hops, passiflora, uzrad and valerian to calm you occasionally. Turn your cell off at night, and do not tell anyone that you are available 24/7.

2. Regular meals. Have healthy meals at around the same time each day, whether you are in the mood or not. When you are out, keep cheese, walnuts, almonds, and whole wheat or rice crackers with you so that you do not get hungry or suffer from hypoglycemia. The main ingredient in most psychiatric medication is serotonin, 95% of which is produced in the digestive system. Your gut cannot function properly if it is filled with junk foods and medication, which is why so many people need an artificial source of serotonin.

3. Hormonal stabilizers. Women who suffer from monthly ups and downs need gamma linoleic acid (GLA) in the form of borage or evening primrose oil (500 mg. every day and 1000 mg. ten days before the period). GLA is reduced after ovulation, which is why so many women have distressing pre-menstrual symptoms. Chasteberry is also a natural hormonal stabilizer.

4. See a naturopath, who will prescribe a vitamin B supplement for stability. For manic thoughts, add 1000 mg. no-flush niacin and 1000 mg.niacinamide (B3). You might also need extra B5 or B6 and natural mood stabilizers, such as choline-inositol (500-1000 mg. twice daily). L-tryptophan creates serotonin and is calming. L-tyrosine and L-phenylalanine are natural anti-depressants. [These can be adjusted daily according to mood.]

5. Check your thyroid functioning. Lack of sleep and lack of iodine can cause thyroid problems and mood disorders.

6. Learn E.F.T., C.B.T. or other methods which teach you to downplay your moods and reprogram your mind with healthy thoughts.

7. Exercise. Join a club with regular classes and go whether you are in the mood or not.

8. Spot the symptoms and take action before things spin out of control. During “down” times, imagine yourself lost in a snow storm. If you stop moving, which is very tempting, you will freeze to death. Stick to your healthy schedule and do not let yourself lay in bed all day. Volunteer, or find meaningful work. During “up” times, force yourself to shut out the internal excitement and relax with calming activities.

I realize that many people will be outraged by these suggestions, especially those whose livelihood is threatened by self-healing methods. I have gotten hostile calls from conventional doctors who accuse me of being irresponsible and ignorant, and putting lives at risk by providing alternatives to psych meds. They repeat the refrain, “There are no side effects to psychiatric meds! Medication is the only way to deal with emotional problems.” However, I have fifty years of experience which has shown me that people who were functional before a psychotic episode can heal by adopting a disciplined lifestyle, learning to think securely and eat correctly. Teens, in particular, need to learn these skills so that they do not feel like passive victims of their moods, but develop the confidence to help them to ride out the emotional storms with positive thoughts and actions.

For further information, write to emett@netvision.net.il. In Israel, call 02-5868201. My American line is 718-705-8404.

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