Working out is not an option for me. I don’t mean that in douchey “I can’t lose my gains” way because exercising to achieve physical strength and better fitness is only about 20% of the reason why I drag myself to the gym 5–6 times a week. I exercise for sanity.
Exercise, nutrition, and getting enough “down time” is my anti-drug i.e., the key to me living a happy, healthy, and medication-free life. I believe medication is a wonderful (and in some cases, extremely important) tool to help people live their best lives. It did not do that for me. Over the course of about eight years I was put on ten different medications and various combinations. They made me:
- Feel like things were constantly vibrating (super annoying)
- Unable to sleep
- Never hungry
- Constantly hungry
The last one was the final reason I decided to go off meds. Even though the meds helped with the dramatic mood swings and intensely negative feelings, they began to rob me of any feelings. I wasn’t depressed or anxious, but I also wasn’t happy or even aware of what was going on most of the time. It felt like I was merely existing rather than living, and I was not about that life.
I told the doctor I was seeing while I was away a school (who I hated) that I wanted to go off meds and try alternative ways to treat my bipolar disorder. She said that was impossible and I would need to be on meds for the rest of my life. After that I never saw her again. I told my parents I was going off my meds, which promptly caused them to panic and call my doctor at home to make sure I wasn’t about to lose it. She said that people who suffer from mental illness, depending on the severity, can live without medication as long as they find alternatives. Exercise and nutrition were the top choices. I was in.
It’s been about six years since I went ‘on the wagon’ and while it’s not always an easy choice, for me it was absolutely worth it. Popping five pills in the morning was easy, getting up in the morning and going to the gym is not. However, I’ve built working out into my routine and found something that really works for me (after much trial and error).
Taking care of my mental wellbeing is my number one priority, because if I don’t I can’t do anything else. I realized, very early on, that no one was going to do it for me so I had to learn how to really take care of myself. Certain things that seem simple and natural are actually a lot harder when you’re battling a mental illness. In the beginning, I had to remind myself to take showers regularly. I know that’s gross, but when my mood shifted to depression I would go an unpleasant amount of time without a shower. I had to learn how to eat properly so I could give my body and mind the nutrients I need to be healthy. I quit smoking and started running, which I promptly realized was not a sustainable exercise for me (too boring). I’ve done yoga, pilates, boot camp, weight training, spin, barre, team sports, and pretty much any other class or activity I could find. It took me several years to finally find the right combination for me (because we’re all different); CrossFit and spin.
CrossFit helps me build muscle (which help me deal with a permanent back injury) while also allowing me to feel like I’m part of something. I used to alienate myself when I feel depressed, manic, or anxious, which only made me feel more depressed, manic, or anxious. The community of CrossFit makes me feel included, and gets me to the gym in the morning because I know if I skip class I’m going to hear it from my coach.
Spin just makes me feel good. Although I like being part of a community and being around people most of the time, there’s another part of me like relishes solitude. Spin is a great way to workout in a group while still being alone. I can show up to class and not say a word to anyone (without looking like an asshole) if I’m not feeling up to talking to people. It’s great.
Exercise also nutrition go hand in hand since I need to make sure I’m eating enough quality foods, which has helped tremendously with the body issues and unhealthy relationship with food I’m still dealing with. I also don’t feel as bad if I indulge in one (or four) cookies after spin class or power lifting at CrossFit. I can’t tell you how much this has improved my overall wellbeing.
Regardless of your mental health status or situation, I strongly encourage you to clean up your diet and hit the gym. I cannot say this enough — eating well and working out will change your life. I know it’s hard to find the time or spend the money, but it’s become something that I don’t even give a second thought about. If I were physically sick, I would do whatever it took to make myself better and I hope you would do. Mental health is just as important than physical health, so do your body and mind a favor and take care of them simultaneously.