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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