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Musician Kristin Hersh Returns from Bipolar

By Sara Calabro

Kristin Hersh is the founder, lead singer and guitarist for the popular 1980s rock band Throwing Muses. In addition to her continued work with Throwing Muses, Hersh performs with her other band, 50FOOTWAVE, and as a solo artist. Her latest album, Crooked, is available as a book, CD and app. She also is the author of Rat Girl, a memoir released last year that chronicles the early stages of Hersh’s 20-year battle with bipolar disorder.

After two decades of trying everything from lithium to vitamins to exercise to just succumbing to her symptoms, Hersh had nearly given up on hopes of becoming well. Then she found acupuncture.

AcuTake: What led you to acupuncture?

Kristin Hersh: I had been on many different medications over the years. The only one I ever found to be truly effective was lithium, but the side effects were debilitating. The medications made me so sick. With bipolar, you’re not always out of balance, so it gets to a point where the problem is more often the medication than the disease. That was a life-long frustration for me.

Lithium, as effective as it was, can easily build up toxic levels in your system. My kidneys were a mess; my liver was destroyed; my thyroid was a mess; my hands would shake so badly that I could no longer play guitar. Music is what supports my family so I didn’t really have the option of being on medication anymore. It was keeping me from functioning. This is not a universal phenomenon—many people love their medications and have great success with them—but I needed something else. I had just about given up looking when I found acupuncture.

A friend of mine who is an acupuncturist approached me after one of my shows in Chicago. She said, “I can’t watch you do this anymore when I can help you.” I had no idea acupuncture could be used to treat bipolar. I thought of it as something that was used for things like bursitis. But I agreed to try it, so this friend came and met me while I was on tour in San Francisco. That’s where I got treated for the first time, in 2007.

Did your first experience with acupuncture line up with your expectations?

I thought the effects of acupuncture would be very subtle. I was completely wrong. It knocked over a wall. It felt like I was having a heart attack, literally. I had pain behind my left shoulder blade and down my arm, and double vision. I am not a hypochondriac at all. I’m the opposite; I have a history of being suicidal. But this felt so real.

I, of course, wasn’t having a heart attack, but there was a major shift happening. The best way I can describe it is that as I was being treated, I felt as though race cars were driving the outline of my body. Every time I closed my eyes, I knew that my real body was in a completely different place than the outline that the race cars were driving. It literally felt as though my body was to the right of the outline. Where I needed to be was inside that outline.

When did you start noticing an effect on your bipolar symptoms?

After this first treatment, my friend came to New England and treated me about seven or eight times over a weekend. Then she flew around the country and gave me treatments while I was on tour. Eventually, over the course of three to four months, I got to a point where my body’s outline was no longer different from that phantom body image. For the first time in my life since I was a child, I had no emotional imbalances. I saw my body reorientate itself.

After that initial breakthrough, did you continue getting acupuncture?

I saw some other acupuncturists, but the treatments weren’t always effective. I eventually found a few acupuncturists around the country who could recreate the powerful effects that make me non-symptomatic. Once I found those people, I got acupuncture initially twice a week, then once a week, then once a month. Now I’m at a point where I get treatments as needed. When I am off balance, I book an appointment.

The person I work with here in New Orleans is a bipolar expert. Not everyone likes to treat us because it’s like treating a different person every time. But in general, my emotional spectrum tends to be much more narrow now. When I begin to be out of balance, there is no spiraling up or down. I go there and I come back.

A common criticism of acupuncture is that we can’t prove it works because a reduction in symptoms could be due to another concurrent therapy or lifestyle change. How do you know that it was acupuncture that helped you?

Bipolar disorder doesn’t lie to you; it doesn’t make anything up. This world will always reflect your depression or mania because it can. There are bright lights and shadows in every aspect of everyone’s life. But you can’t live that way. I had been going from that dark truth to light truth, back and forth, for so many years. Acupuncture was the only thing I ever tried that could alter my response to what this world presented me with.

In 25 years, I had tried absolutely everything. I took supplements; I exercised; I was very clean of substances; I had familial support; I had meaning in my life; I had great work; I had a perfect diet. All of that was actually very depressing to me because it seemed like there was nothing I could do. No matter what I tried, I was still living a strange switch-flipping existence where I didn’t know who I was going to be in the morning. The only thing in my life that changed was that I started getting acupuncture. I assumed it would be subtle, but it was completely overwhelming and far more powerful than any medication I had ever taken.

In addition to a reduction in bipolar symptoms, have you noticed any other benefits or changes from acupuncture?

There were innumerable symptoms from the bipolar that are just completely gone from my life now. One of the biggest, most impressive results was that my liver function improved. As part of my condition, I felt as though I was dirty all the time. I could never take enough showers, never eat clean enough food. I couldn’t live clean enough to keep up with the hangovers from life. In this way, acupuncture made me feel like a child again—I finally felt clean. As an adult, I hadn’t ever felt that way. I couldn’t take an aspirin without getting a hangover the next day. I had very little cleansing going on. I was always toxic. It was a huge shift to feel clean again.

There is a lot of debate over how acupuncture actually works. Based on your experience, what is your interpretation of how acupuncture works for bipolar?

The way your soul is oriented to your body, it wants to be balanced; it wants to heal. But there are so many influences affecting us physically that it can’t always orient itself to the right position. It felt to me as though acupuncture reoriented me to the point where my soul knew exactly where it needed to be in my body.

When I don’t get acupuncture, I am not orientated in my body, and my body isn’t functioning the way it should. We are emotional, psychological and intellectual beings, and all of these systems in me have orientated themselves since getting acupuncture. I haven’t yet experienced any symptoms that couldn’t be alleviated by coming back into balance that way.

Acupuncture is a systemic treatment rather than a symptomatic treatment. I trust this approach much more than the band-aid that medications provide. Bipolar is a host of conditions with a different array of symptoms depending on the person. I don’t experience this imbalance the way every other bipolar individual does. It is imperative to treat the disease at its deepest level. I didn’t want to live my life treating symptoms.

I was diagnosed with bipolar about 25 years ago. That’s a long time to be trying to solve a problem and not succeeding. To have every symptom work itself out—to become unnecessary, is how it felt—makes me think that acupuncture works by treating the condition at its deepest level.

Photo by Billy O’Connell

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Comments

Beth
Reply

Very moving and resonated with me deeply. The relief I received for my debilitating anxiety disorder from acupuncture is what lead me to becoming one!

Thanks

Sara
Reply

Glad you enjoyed Kristin’s interview, Beth. I know the way you apply personal experience to your acupuncture practice in New York City is helping many people. Thanks for reading.

Sara

Chris Primavera
Reply

This interview is really good. People need to hear about the dramatic way in which acupuncture can change someone’s life. Finding the right practitioner for the individual is crucial. But it’s worth the search, with the hope of getting off these harsh pharmaceuticals.

Alma
Reply

Is there any information on acupucture for treating early onset bipolar disorder? My 6 year old has this and we are hesitant to keep throwing meds at her little body but if we don’t, then she is miserable and everyone around her is miserable.

Sara
Reply

Hi Alma,

Where do you live? I might be able to recommend some acupuncturists who specialize in pediatrics.

Sara

Diane Marie Kloba
Reply

Hi, I am a musician and reading your book, I was laughing at first about how you hear music in the air as I do too but later in the book realised what a serious and confusing thing this must have been. I am so happy you feel better lately. I know life is can be hard at times but you know, you can fight of the bad by turning it into something good. For example your beautiful music. I have been a fan for years Keep up the good work and love your little angels as they surely sing so sweetly through the storms. I like the acupuncture, healing with no pills!

Alma
Reply

Hi Sara,
Boulder/Denver area. She is also receiving Body Stress Release, which is amazing and we love it and has many of the same principles as acupuncture I think, but it seems to make her hypomanic for a day or two after, so I wonder if acupuncture might do the same or if the mania is necessary to her brain/body in order to work towards regulation?

Suzannah
Reply

I live in new Orleans and have bipolar disorder. Could I get the information for the accupuncturist mentioned in the article?

David
Reply

The first recorded Acupuncture book is called the Ling Shu- ‘Ling’ means soul, the book is usually translated as meaning ‘spiritual compass’, a way, using needles, to reorient yourself back to your true purpose, to your soul to your Self- so Kristin is right on in that last paragraph.

Sara
Reply

Thanks, David. Appreciate the insight.

Sara

Indrani
Reply

Hi….could anyone recommend a good, experienced english speaking acupuncturist in Shanghai? Many many thanks, Indrani

Jack
Reply

My partner and I adopted a child five years ago from Brazil. This past year for him has been a living he’ll (and for us and his sister too). He is now fifteen, and was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, along with PTSD. His anxiety is off the charts, and he picks himself to scarring. He is on tons of medications, and was in an institution for two months this summer (five psychiatric stays since April in addition to this summer residential) Do you know of anyone in South Florida we can see? I constantly cry wishing for him to heal.

Alison
Reply

Hello Jack, I am not Sara, but in response to your South Florida inquiry to seek help for your son, I highly recommend Isaac Goren in Hallendale. http://Www.Tao-house.com. There IS hope!

Ben
Reply

Does anyone know of any accupunctrists in NYC area or vicinity that specialize in Bipolar treatment?

Sara
Reply

Hi Ben,

Therese Sibon has come highly recommended. I have not been treated by her personally but I know her and have heard great things about her work (she specializes in emotional/spiritual health). She sees patients both upstate and in the city. Here is her website:

http://theresesibonacupuncture.com/

Best of luck.

Sara

Livia
Reply

I just started to get treated with Lithium, after 10 years of hypomaniac episodes and some depression ones. I would like to try acupuncter as well, can you recommend anybody in Italy? Thank you so much!

Sara
Reply

Hi Livia,

I don’t personally know of anyone in Italy but AcuTake just launched a new acupuncturist directory, which I hope can eventually help you find what you’re looking for. It’s brand new, and we don’t yet have any representation in Italy. However, your request will be added to our ongoing list of “acupuncturists wanted,” which gets distributed to AcuTake‘s acupuncturist mailing list. This often results in someone knowing someone who knows someone who can help you.

To help direct our outreach efforts, where in Italy are you located?

Best,
Sara

Linda A.
Reply

Do you know of anyone in the Memphis, TN area that specializes in acupuncture for BiPolar Disorder?

Sara
Reply

Hi Linda,

I don’t personally know of anyone in Memphis but AcuTake just launched a new acupuncturist directory, which I hope can eventually help you find what you’re looking for. It’s brand new, and we don’t yet have any representation in Memphis. However, your request will be added to our ongoing list of “acupuncturists wanted,” which gets distributed to AcuTake‘s acupuncturist mailing list. This often results in someone knowing someone who knows someone who can help you.

We will be in touch whenever we come across a suitable match. Thanks for commenting and for reading AcuTake.

Best,
Sara

Michelle
Reply

I have bipolar type 1 and is it possible to get off medication completely and rely on acupuncture alone?

Sara
Reply

Hi Michelle,

I would not recommend going off your medication without discussing it in depth with a healthcare professional who is familiar with your specific case. Everyone is different—some people are able to manage bipolar symptoms without medication and others find that a combination of therapies works best. There are many, many factors to consider, so it’s always best to discuss all the options with a qualified healthcare professional who can help you make sense of the various pieces.

Wishing you luck on your journey,
Sara

joseph maher
Reply

Hi,
My name is Joseph and i am from Ireland.

I am bi polar and would like to know are there are acupuncturists here who treat bi polar.

Pam
Reply

I think she was lucky. If this worked EVERYONE would be getting acupuncture for their bipolar. Acupuncture has been around forever, you all don’t think it has been tested over and over for it’s efficacy.?We would have heard about it by now. The placebo effect is 30 percent. That means 30 percent of the people would get better eating grass if they thought it would help them.

Her descriptions of the side effects of her medicine are weird also. Lithium doesn’t make people totally exhausted like it did her.

Bottom line. Be careful. Learn about what causes bipolar (neurotransmitters not staying in the synapses long enough) And, please don’t go off your meds without talking to your psychiatrist.

Who am I to know. Well, I have had bipolar for 32 years. I have a master’s degree in clinical psychology, and I am an education director for people with serious brain illnesses like bipolar and schizophrenia.

Be careful, it cant’t hurt to try it, just stay on your meds.

P

Alek
Reply

She was not ‘lucky’. Acupuncture is a very powerful treatment, and can bring about big changes in one’s life. I’m sorry that you have struggled with this disease for so long; but please don’t discount someone’s success as ‘luck’.

And the reason why it’s not published in medical studies – well, who do you think funds them? The drug companies. Do you think Eli Lily or Merck would fund a study on acupuncture? Or the AMA, APA for that matter? Of course not – they’d lose business!

Acupuncture is not a placebo, nor is it some fly-by-night new age fad – its history goes back over 3,000 years. (How long has psychiatry been around in comparison?)

I used to have Generalized Anxiety Disorder – struggled with it for years (9 years diagnosed, undiagnosed – ?). While I understand bipolar is a completely different animal, like Kristin I tried everything under the sun – supplements, psychiatric drugs, multiple therapists, exercise, meditation- the only thing that has truly made a difference is acupuncture/Chinese medicine. I no longer get insomnia, and I’m much calmer – it’s made a world of difference. I’m not exaggerating when I say it has changed my life (and thank goodness no more drugs!)

It’s easy to become skeptical after fighting a mental illness for so long ; I myself would have NEVER thought something like acupuncture could heal my anxiety, but that’s exactly what it’s doing. If only I’d known about this years ago!

Best of luck to you.

Alek
Reply

Just wanted to add – you keep wanting to push drugs. But what you don’t understand is not everyone can take them. You can’t have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to treatment – everyone is different. Kristin even acknowledged that she knew people who did well on drugs, but she did not. Just because her reactions are not ‘textbook’ doesn’t mean she didn’t experience them.

Judy
Reply

This article sounds too good to be true. I was diagnosed Bipolar 41 years ago and after one year stopped lithium on my own. Since then I’ve had many major depressive events. For the last 12 years I have been treated with anti-depressants, which keep me stable and able to work. However, I have a son in his 30s who has been diagnosed Bipolar. He has gone off his meds for the last 10-12 years on his own. I know from his calls he is still suffering and can only keep jobs for 2-4 months and he can’t handle it. He is on SS, but no health insurance. How can I help him. I love him.

Lynn
Reply

My son, 22, has recently been diagnosed with bi-polar. Since I’ve had luck with some acupuncture for knee pain, I would love to find someone who specializes in bi-polar/acupuncture. Anything in the DC to Baltimore area, am willing to travel. Any help would be greatly appreciated. So hard seeing one’s own child in pain….

Sara
Reply

Hi Lynn. I suggest having a look for an acupuncturist in your region in the AcuTake Directory: http://acutakedirectory.com/

There are a couple listed in Baltimore and we recently had some more join from DC, who you should see up there soon. Even if the acupuncturists listed do not mention specializing in bipolar, they’d be good people for you to contact. The acupuncture world is small, and acupuncturists almost always have colleagues in their areas who they refer to. They might know of someone in the area who does specialize in the conditions you’re looking for.

After doing those things, please let us know if you still cannot find someone and we will do what we can to help you in your search.

Best,
Sara

becca
Reply

A quick glance at that search directory has no area of expertice for bi polar.

kay
Reply

know of any anxiety/depression acupuncture specialists in/near orange county, california ?…not feeling the acupuncturist I’m currently seeing is experienced/specialized enough for these long standing issues …many thanks!!!

Alexandra
Reply

Hello,
Thanks for your article, it provides a lot of hope for others dealing with similar issues.

Do you know of any specialized accupuncturist for Bipolar in the Toronto, Canada area, or South Western Ontario?
Thanks!

Eliza
Reply

Interesting article! I checked the acu directory, but didn’t see any listings for Montreal, Canada. Do you know of any acupuncturists there who have experience working with bipolar or psycho-emotional issues? Thanks so much!

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