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Mindfulness: healing from bipolar disorder

It is one thing to be alive, to be a living and breathing physical being on this earth, but to the extent one can express life fully, illuminating each day to create magic, relies not on one’s life story, but rather in the resiliency of one’s spirit and the unwavering desire to live life to its fullest potential.

For Scarborough, ON resident Ian Paul Marshall, the fortitude to see beyond the darkness of his bipolar disorder to create his own light has allowed him to become “an expert at living” his greatest life. Twenty years ago Marshall was living life just like any other 20-year-old, enjoying social time with friends, with little stress on his shoulders. At age 18 a break-up in his relationship spurred him on to explore the healing arts through tai chi, yoga and meditation.

“I was always poetic and seeking the spiritual side of my life, so I was on a path of self-discovery, tearing down the walls to discover who I thought I was and it led me on a journey within and without.” And then one day at the age of 20, without any forewarning, bipolar disorder surfaced. “I was out with a bunch of friends and they knew something was up,” Marshall remembers. “They thought maybe I was doing drugs, but I wasn’t, and they didn’t know what to do.”

One of the friends lived near the Queen Street Mental Health Centre in Toronto, and so they brought him there and he ended up being checked in, and “voluntarily checked in.”

He recalls being heavily sedated and waking up three days later strapped into a bed. The “great mystery” for doctors was to understand what had triggered the bipolar in him. Doctors, too, thought perhaps drugs had triggered it, but blood work showed no indication of drugs, and there was no history of mental illness in his family.

“In my life, there had been no triggers, no high-stress moments; my life was beautiful.” Doctors diagnosed his condition as bipolar, and indicated he had experienced a manic episode. “At the time I said “Ok, great, that’s great, and now how the hell do I get out of this hospital, to move on to the next step,” to understand the illness at a greater level, to be able to manage it?

“How do I become the best bipolar patient they’ve ever seen in their life? I didn’t want to just get by in life; I wanted to do everything I can.”

“Radical acceptance” of his mental illness, rather than denial, allowed him to shift immediately into the next steps. Accepting where he was at, at this point in his life, brought clarity to what he needed to do to bring himself to a level of optimum state of mental health in order to move on. He spent three months in the hospital heavily medicated throughout his stay, and had come to one resolve while in hospital – to attempt to live his life medication free.

“Being on medication wasn’t fun,” Marshall says. “It saved my life, but it created a different Ian. I felt like I was living under water. The day wasn’t as shiny and magical as I remember it. Everything was suppressed and subdued. “I felt that since I was young, if there was any chance there was a possibility for me to live medication free I want to test it now, while I’m young so I can bounce back. Young people have that advantage. If you’re young and you have an accident, you bounce back quicker. If there was ever going to be a time period, I had a window of opportunity to test it while I was young.

“Everything about the health care system is set up for just keeping you alive and not to help you thrive,” he explains. “Everything I was given and all the support and help I received was just to keep me alive, and it did, but for me that wasn’t good enough.”

He was on medication for the first four years after being discharged from hospital, and attending weekly visits with his case worker and psychiatrist, all the while putting into place the systems and support necessary to help him wean off the medication eventually. He took a very structured, methodical approach and prepped everyone in his life before attempting the weaning off process, ensuring that everyone had his full permission to bring him into the hospital should he relapse.

Doctors laid out the reality that statistics show that within the first three months of being off medication individuals are bound for relapse, but he says he was willing to take the risk, despite how traumatic hospitalization was for not just himself, but also for family and friends.

“I spent more time consoling (family and friends) in hospital because they couldn’t reconcile (the reality that he was in that state) because it shatters the concept of who you are.

“Bipolar disorder is a dark illness. It’s scary for people, not just those diagnosed with it, but also family. People like consistency and with bipolar it’s an unknown variable; like a loose canon.”

Being open and transparent about how he was feeling, how he was coping, played a role in his healing journey, and as he has come to understand, the healing of others coping with mental illness. “To manage the illness the best was to be able to see it for what it was and create parameters for managing it. “I find that through my openness and honesty it also allowed other people to finally have someone to talk to about it. Countless times I’d be out talking to total strangers and by the end of the night there’d be someone crying and opening up to me talking about the pain and the fear they were experiencing. My acceptance of who I am gave other people permission and a safe place to talk about it.”

During his nine-month weaning off period he delved deeper into meditation and mindfulness practice, to become more self-aware. “Mindfulness and meditation practice is the most transformational practice anyone can do, especially for someone with a mental illness, because it’s non-judgmental,” Marshall says. He stresses though, that those who are experiencing mental illness must first seek medical help, “go see a psychiatrist and sort that stuff out first” before beginning a journey of meditation for self-healing.

“I think the illness spawned my mindfulness and meditation practice and it’s helped me become aware of my emotions, habits, patterns and triggers.” Meditation allows one to look for patterns in thought, in a gentle way, while peeling back layers to understand one’s true authentic self. Practicing mindfulness, being in present moment time, brings a greater awareness of not only one’s emotions, but also the physical aspects of one’s life and potential triggers in mental illness, Marshall explains.

“If I haven’t slept properly for a week I need to knuckle down on my sleep hygiene,” knowing that if that aspect is ignored it creates a risk factor for relapsing.

This is where resilience kicks in – the ability to remain focused on a path to recovery in spite of how one is feeling at that very moment.

Mindfulness allows him to recognize if he’s experiencing high levels of stress or chronic stress there is a need to pull back and de-stress. “Fifteen years being medication free, if three days in a row I’ve had horrible sleep, I know that having bipolar disorder I’m already compromised so I need to be exceptionally aware” of patterns and do what it takes to ensure that poor sleep patterns do not become chronic.

Walking this path medication free requires a kind of tenacity to stay in a space of mindful awareness, to take charge of one’s own health and life and do the things that are necessary to thrive. “Nobody told me to meditate or pay attention to my sleep patterns,” Marshall says. “Because of the lack of resources I was given I had to take charge, asking myself questions like ‘What’s good sleep hygiene? What’s a diet that thrives?”

What triggered the bipolar 20 years ago still remains somewhat of a mystery, although there are hints, he says, that quitting smoking at the time may have played a role. This resolve he came to recently when he quit smoking and found a shift in his mental health. “I had quit smoking and went on a mini spiral into depression,” Marshall says. “I’m a pretty resilient person and have always been like, ‘I’m awesome, I’ll get through this’ but this time around I thought ‘Am I depressed right now?’ I couldn’t shift out of it. I always look for patterns and realized the only thing I’d done differently was quit smoking.”

Twenty years ago when the biopolar disorder was triggered the only thing changed in his life was that he had quit smoking. “I thought maybe what’s happening to me now (with the depression) is similar to what happened back then. I think people susceptible to bipolar probably have lower than average stress responses. They probably do things to self-medicate. For me it was smoking.”

Without mindful awareness these types of insights can be difficult to come by. “I think with bipolar disorder you have it forever; it’s always present and waiting to rear its head,” Marshall says. “I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to live my life medication free for nearly 15 years.” But it hasn’t been by chance, Marshall emphasizes.

“Radical acceptance and mindfulness, taking charge of my life and not leaving it up to chance were the things that saved me.”

This journey has led Marshall on a path of helping others to help themselves. He has authored several books, including The Tao of Abundance, Your Great Awakening and Find Your Soulmate and in 2012 he became a certified Mindfulness trainer. His most recent project is www.buddhafulliving.com.

May 18, 2018