In conversation with Vasavi Kumar:
If there is one word to describe Vasavi it is “vivacious”. Right through this interaction there wasn’t a moment where we couldn’t positively resonate with her thoughts and be touched by her view of life. She talks about “Facing up to Bipolar Disorder the Ayurveda way” from a first person’s perspective having experienced and attuned her outlook towards the ailment and life in general. Here are gems from our discussion to enable people suffering and people supporting, to realize, accept, and deal with Bipolar Disorder the natural humane way:
Q. Why is bipolar disorder considered a “disorder”? Does society look at it as a mental illness?
People who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder are often misunderstood because of the stigma that is attached to the label.
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels and the ability to carry out daily tasks. Does society look at it as a mental illness? Absolutely. The way that it is talked about in our society is rooted in the belief that there is something “wrong” with an individual if they have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. People who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder are often misunderstood because of the stigma that is attached to the label. It is not just bipolar disorder that is misunderstood, it is all mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.
There is a wide gap between people’s perception and understanding of bipolar disorder and the nature of the “illness” from a spiritual and Ayurvedic point of view. Western medicine’s approach to helping people who have been diagnosed as bipolar is one of suppressing emotion, rather than going to the root of the issue. Because of this one-sided and narrow approach to healing, it is no wonder that society deems those who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as “crazy” and “insane.”
From an Ayurvedic perspective, bipolar disorder is an excess in Vata in the mind
From an Ayurvedic perspective, bipolar disorder is an excess in Vata in the mind, mimicking many of the manic symptoms (talkativeness, hyper-sexuality, excessive spending, racing thoughts) and an excess in Kapha, mimicking symptoms of depression (sadness, lethargy, lack of sexual energy) If one suppresses their emotions long enough there is a much higher probability of exploding and on the flip side experiencing periods of deep depression. That which is forced to be “contained” will eventually find an outlet to express itself. It is because of the lack of awareness of bipolar disorder and how it is diagnosed, the etiology, pathology, and treatment of a person who has this label that society continues to view this as an “illness.”
Q. Are the causes/triggers and frequency of episodes more physiological or psychological?
The key here is to examine ALL the areas of your life and see which areas feel out of balance.
The causes/triggers are both physiological and psychological. But it doesn’t stop there. You have to be willing to look at nutrition, environment, the type of media that is being consumed, the people that you are surrounding yourself with, exercise, spirituality, and vocation. Another factor that definitely needs to be considered are cultural differences. Having been raised in a strict Indian immigrant household there were a lot of “rules” which often times felt like a prison. Many people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder often experienced and witnessed the extreme highs and lows in their own families growing up. These extreme highs and lows can and will have an effect on how the individual deals with life and stressful events.
The problem with traditional Western medicine is that the “solution” is often to prescribe antipsychotic and/or mood stabilizers to a patient and call it a day. Of course there is encouragement to see a psychotherapist which definitely helps the person who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder to heal from any past pain and hurt. But often times what happens is that a newly diagnosed patient will be confronted with this label and then not know how to treat themselves on a holistic level, rather, simply take a pill as prescribed by their doctor. Taking a pill alone is not the answer. The key here is to examine ALL the areas of your life and see which areas feel out of balance. As humans we are naturally inclined to seek balance. Know that if you are one day feeling extremely “high” your mind and body will do whatever it takes to feel its counter opposite.
Q. What works more? Medical intervention, spirituality, counseling or the social support system?
There are so many methods of healing if you have been diagnosed with a mental illness. There isn’t ONE specific route to your path of feeling well. Medication to begin with may feel like the only option when you are first diagnosed. And for some, taking these medications to suppress your highs and lows may help in reducing certain symptoms. However, the goal here is to be willing to explore your options.
I began practicing yoga, signed up for a women’s boot camp and really started to pay attention to what else I needed to feel better every day.
Having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2002, I initially began my healing process by taking a cocktail of prescription medication. I gained about 45 pounds and felt extremely lethargic and tired all the time. In 2005, I started to become curious about what more I could be doing to feel better. The truth was, the medication alone just was’t helping me. I started reading books on clean eating and delving into different ways to heal myself through food. From there, I began practicing yoga, signed up for a women’s boot camp and really started to pay attention to what else I needed to feel better every day. In addition to learning more about healing through food, I also continued to see my therapist on a weekly basis just so I had someone to vent to.
You don’t have to go through this alone.
When you get diagnosed with a mental illness, it is very easy to feel alone and different, like you don’t belong anywhere. That is why cultivating a tight support system is essential to treating yourself. You don’t have to go through this alone. If you do not have friends or family that live close by then finding a support group would be the next best step, as well as developing a spiritual practice. This is often overlooked, but the most intimate relationship you can have is with yourself and whatever you consider a “higher power.”
Q. Are there natural (alternative) remedies for bipolar disorder? Is there a permanent cure?
One “remedy” that I cannot emphasize enough is having a strict routine and structure to your daily life.
Personally, I have not found a “cure.” What I have found are practices and routines that help with the highs and lows. One “remedy” that I cannot emphasize enough is having a strict routine and structure to your daily life. This will help to balance an excess in Vata. There are many alternative remedies and Ayurveda is a great resource for those who have been newly diagnosed or wanting to find other methods to managing their moods. At the end of the day, we all have highs and lows. Those who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder just experience it on a extreme level.
One of the best Ayurveda practices that I have incorporated into my daily morning routine is Abhyangha (oil massage) using warm sesame oil. Oil has the guna (quality) of heaviness and of course oiliness which in turn has a very grounding and calming effect for my mind. I cannot recommend this enough to people who may have an aggravated Vata, especially during the Fall season(and year-round). I also make sure to have free time to spend with myself in nature, as well as creating a routine day to day so that I have both freedom and structure. Also, eating according to your dosha and season is critical if you are working towards a more balanced mental and emotional state. If you do not already know your dosha I have created a free “What’s Your Dosha” quiz which you can take here, along with an accompanying guidebook which you can buy here.
Q. Having experienced this first hand yourself, has the healing process made you what you are today spiritually?
For me personally, had I not been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I would have never embarked on the path of understanding myself on every level.
I wouldn’t be who I am today emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually had I not been given my bipolar label almost 13 years ago. I am who I am today because of my journey—from being diagnosed with what the doctors said would be “lifelong” and that I would need to be on medication for the rest of my life—to learning how to truly care for myself, and listen to and understand my mind, body and spirit. I also respect and honor whatever it has taken me to get here—even the myriad of prescription medication I was given when I was newly diagnosed.
Back then I didn’t appreciate or even fully grasp why I had to go through whatever I was going through. And often times, when we are deep into our healing process, we are blind to the gift that is actually being given to us. For me personally, had I not been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I would have never embarked on the path of understanding myself on every level. I wouldn’t have the compassion and understanding that I do today for anyone going through any sort of adversity or painful situation. I wouldn’t have the perspective on life that I have today. I wouldn’t be relentless in pursuit of my dreams and helping others do the same. I wouldn’t have made myself a priority. I would have taken my life and the lives of those around me for granted. I wouldn’t be a risk-taker. I wouldn’t have been as confident as I am today. I wouldn’t have learned to speak up and take charge of my life. So yes, the entire process has made me who I am today. And I invite any one reading this to start viewing their diagnosis or pain in their life as the greatest gift ever. Trust and believe that it is no mistake that whatever you are going through right now has a divine purpose.
Q. What advice would you give to the “support” system around people with bipolar disorder?
For the people who serve as “support” around your loved ones who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (or any mental illness)–get support yourself.
For the people who serve as “support” around your loved ones who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (or any mental illness)–get support yourself. Your role is exhausting and you need to make sure that you yourself are taken care of. That is the first step. You cannot fully support someone if you yourself are operating and functioning on “empty.” Fill your tank. Be sure to set up a schedule so that you can step away and just focus on yourself. Your role is a big one, and so in order to do what you need to do, you must put yourself as top priority even if it looks like spending the first 10 minutes of your morning enjoying a cup of coffee or tea, alone and in silence.
Second, ask more questions, judge less. You will never ever know what it is like to be in the shoes of the person you are supporting. If you are going to take on the role as a member of a support system then start to get curious and ask more questions. Often times, people in the support role think that they know what’s best. But they don’t. You have to still work hard to maintain, honor, and respect the dignity of the person that you are supporting. Just because your loved one may be diagnosed doesn’t mean that he/she loses all autonomy. At the end of the day, don’t you want your son/daughter/wife/husband, whoever has been diagnosed to be independent? Yes. I know you do. Therefore, it is imperative that you do not treat the person you are supporting as if they are incapable.
Third, get educated about bipolar disorder. Did you know that some of the most creative people of our time were diagnosed with a mental illness? Don’t just listen to what a psychiatrist tells you. Understand and learn about alternative healing methods. There are so many ways to heal. Why not understand more about them so you can be well versed and offer a more holistic option to the person you are supporting?
Lastly, never make the person you are supporting feel like they have something to be ashamed of. I will never forget what my mother said to me when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder. We were standing on the corner of 57th and Lexington Avenue in New York City outside of the psychiatrist’s office. She said, “Never tell anyone about your illness.” In that moment I just remembered how ashamed I felt. For me, I was relieved that I finally had an answer to what felt like a lifelong “problem.” But for my mother she was more concerned with the opinions and perceptions of the Indian society. She had every right to be.
The fact of the matter is, there is still a stigma associated with mental illness. And as a mother she was simply protecting me. But, what I wish to impart to those who are in the support role– there is nothing to be ashamed of. We are all given “obstacles” to challenge us. Whether it may be in the form of an addiction, or a diagnosis, or a fear, everything that has been placed in our lives is there for a reason. The more we shame ourselves, the more our illness stays alive.
Thanks Vasavi for this mindful perspective on life. These insights will empower our readers to face and challenge obstacles in their lives and reconnect with their own SELF. Thank you once again !!