The Mental Health Benefits of Flow Arts and Fire Dance (Personal Experience Story)

Sam Tobey
14 min readAug 5, 2019
Photo by Jacob Avanzato

I’m not much of a blogger, or a writer for that matter, and yet here I am, staring at my laptop, trying to remember tips that my English teachers went over in high school. Trust me, I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t injured. I would be in my backyard, listening to Eminem, drilling foot shots with my rope dart. But… my doctor insisted that I immobilize my ankle for a month, after a nasty sprain that occurred back in April, so that’s not really an option. I am taking extra good care of it because I have some shows coming up. So instead, I am looking for other ways to be productive.

The fact that I am taking care of my body, and searching for healthy ways to occupy myself is not really consistent with anything about me before 2015. I didn’t have discipline, focus, or the desire to improve. I was quite the opposite actually. Self-destructive. Impulsive. Erratic. Aggressive. Well… I shouldn’t imply that I’m not aggressive anymore. I most certainly am. The thing is, I actually love that quality about myself now, even though it used to get me into MOUNTAINS of trouble.

When I was pretty young (maybe like 5), my mom went to a parent-teacher conference and was told that her daughter was a fun girl, but that she “scares some of her friends away with her intensity”. Allegedly, I would hug them too tightly, pull their hair, jump on them, etc. Sounds about right. I don’t remember much, but I could totally see it. I had a ridiculous amount of energy (like most kids), and I definitely remember getting way too excited and freaking everyone out. That stuff doesn’t seem like too big of a deal. Kids are freaky creatures. What my teachers didn’t know was that I was developing FAR more concerning behaviors than that. I used to steal the most RANDOM trinkets from Staples and 7/11, so that I could bring them to school and give them to everyone, so that they would like me. Scratch-and-sniff stickers, candy, markers… My backpack was filled to the brim. I would fight boys on the playground and tell insane lies to get kids to think I was cool. At age 12, I would ride my bike into town, weaving recklessly in between cars, and wander around asking strangers for cigarettes. Things got more out of control as I got older. Lies turned into bigger lies… Petty theft turned felony-level… I was becoming a grade-A problem child. No one knows to this day how concerning my childhood tendencies really were. I don’t even remember all the weird things I did. All I know is that my general behavior was definitely unhealthy.

High school wasn’t much better; I looked for every possible opportunity to get away with breaking rules, and was surprised to make it out with only one suspension. I continued to steal things, even through college, now under the convenient guise that I was ‘sticking it to the corporations that are destroying third-world countries and the planet’. It was really just another thrill-seeking opportunity. College was also the birthplace of my rollercoaster ride through substance abuse. I worked at bars on the weekends, and blacked out by the end of most shifts. One time after work, I got dropped off at the police station for harassing my Uber driver… allegedly. I truly recall nothing of the sort. I pushed the limits on many other substances, daring myself to do something that would result in real consequences. The more extreme the behavior, the better. That is what most of my behavior centered around: a plan to do something extreme. Whether the outcome was good or bad, I have always craved the extreme. I have totaled cars, shoplifted tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise, prompted police intervention during relationship fights… And don’t even get me started on the relationships themselves. So yes. The fact that I am currently sitting on my couch, with an ice pack on my ankle, writing down my feelings after a productive day of video-editing… feels like quite the contrast.

I don’t like labels much, and I have a particular disdain for the way the psychiatric community over-simplifies their diagnoses… but I will admit that I checked every single box on the little pamphlet titled “How to Find out If You are Bipolar.” Do you ever experience “elated” moods? Yes. Exaggerated self-confidence? yep. Racing speech and thoughts? Violent urges? Constantly. Do you easily become irritated or hostile for no reason at all? You know it. Feel like you can do a lot of things at once? Hahahahahah. Dude. The list goes on and on.

So that’s the situation. I have had multiple psychiatrists tell me that I am on the more manic side of the bipolar spectrum. And what do doctors like to do when they match symptoms up with their textbook definitions? If they are a psychiatrist, the first thing they are going to do is pull out that prescription notebook. Now, don’t get me wrong. I 100% agree that extreme cases may require medication, and that even moderate cases can greatly benefit from the shift in perspective that mood stabilizers provide. But the thing is, that even though I totally just made myself seem like a crazy person throughout this piece of writing, I actually know that I’m on the mild/moderate side of the bipolar spectrum. I am fully functional, I have friends, and I have the capacity to hold a normal job… (although I haven’t tested that theory in a while). Basically, things could be a lot worse.

So when I dropped off my first script at CVS, I was not fully aware of the goal of the medication. I figured I should give it a try, after a particularly crazy couple of months. Well, what I didn’t realize was that the effects of the medication were designed to eliminate a lot of the tendencies that made me feel authentically “me.” After one month of this experiment, the only effect I noticed was that the volume of my emotions had been turned down. In other words, I basically just “felt less.” Yay…? Success? Am I better now…? I definitely wasn’t behaving as erratically, I will give them that. I was showing up to work on time, and getting to sleep at reasonable hours. I also felt slightly more dead inside. Success…? I think not. If you turn down the volume of someone’s emotional spectrum, they aren’t necessarily going to be happier. So, what did I do? Flushed the pills and went right back to my SNAFU of a lifestyle, with my thrill-seeking and impulsive behavior stronger then ever.

OK. Are you ready for disclaimer? Don’t you dare skip this paragraph. This is my OWN personal experience that I am sharing. I am NOT implying that people should go off their medication just because they aren’t in love with the side-effects. What I am getting at is that it is inevitable that some people with bipolar disorder aren’t going to react well to medication, and they are going to exercise their right to stop taking it, whether or not it’s the right choice. Although I don’t have any data to support this, I would guess that the level of happiness someone feels while on medication is going to affect their motivation to continue taking it. I believe that people who experience higher levels of mania then depression might have a more difficult time adhering to a regime of mood stabilizers, because they will miss the euphoria and grandiosity. I repeat. This is not advice; just an account of my own experience, and some speculations.

Speaking of which, back to my story. One moderately well-known tendency of bipolar behavior is becoming suddenly obsessed with random hobbies and projects. I am no foreigner to this concept. I have become briefly obsessed with skiing, singing, rock climbing, dirt-biking, joining a rock band, and a million other random activities. During my fourth year of college, I picked up a hula hoop at a fair in Santa Barbara. As usual, I had found my life’s calling and would devote every day and night into becoming the world’s best hula hooper, until the day I died. The pattern sounded too familiar for even me to take myself seriously. But I still bought one, thinking “at least this sounds more feasible than becoming a competitive dirt biker.” I practiced for four hours the first day. I had no idea what I was doing, but I definitely thought I was going to be AMAZING. Now the problem I have run into with surfing, skiing, climbing, and other exciting movement activities is that they are often not easily accessible. This is one of the reasons I never stuck to anything. When a sudden manic episode occurs, I can’t usually just… get up and surf. Spinning flow tools, however, is instant gratification. It’s at your fingertips. It gets your blood pumping. It’s creative. You can do it anywhere. So for the first time ever, I stuck to a craft for longer than a month. I even found out that there was a hoop dance class at my college, and signed up immediately. I spent hours and hours every day practicing; in between classes; after school, and late into the night. I moved wildly, funneling all of my energy and craziness into my dance. Thinking back on it now, I admit that I must have been alarming to watch. Picture a 21-year-old with displaced rage in her heart, flinging herself around the campus lawns with a child’s plastic toy. Hey, at least I wasn’t driving dangerously, or stealing things as often. I surprised even myself with my dedication and focus. It was so uncharacteristic of me to follow through on any project I started. I actually noticed that I was one of the more consistent students in my hoop class, and consistency is truly the last thing I have ever been known for. Things were changing in small but noticeable ways. This led me to the beginning of my hypothesis that my bipolar “disorder” didn’t necessarily always make me sporadic and unreliable. It could actually have the opposite effect, as long as I was able to easily access my obsession, and could clearly see myself making progress. I started to gain confidence from that knowledge. It was the most exhilarating feeling in the world. I grounded myself in it.

After a few of months in hoop class, my teacher offered me a spot to perform at a festival. I was ecstatic. The grandiosity of performing was so alluring to me. I drove down to San Diego with another hooper, expecting to be performing on a big stage with hundreds of people watching me. My usual egocentric thoughts. When we finally arrived and finished setting up, it was already dark and music was playing at the main stage. As I drew closer, I noticed that there were three or four dancers in the middle of a closed-off area. I was shocked to see that they weren’t just dancing. They had lit their tools on FIRE. I lost my mind. Gone. Fully transfixed. It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life. The performers weaved around each other, coming playfully close to audience members, teasing them with the flame. I continued to watch as the circle cleared, and a new performer stepped in, shouting that she needed everyone to take a step back. Alone in the circle, she lit her tool and began to dance. This was a new dance prop that I had never come across before. I had seen hula hoops, glow sticks, and fans. This tool looked like a martial arts weapon straight out of the movie Kill Bill. She was wielding an ENORMOUS ball of fire, attached to a long rope. The weapon-like object traveled around her, at a speed that I would have previously not thought physically possible. The fire performer wasn’t smiling while she danced. She looked utterly lethal. And the fire itself was its own intense energy. It lit up the faces of her audience, revealing their hypnotized expressions. The power and precision in the dancer’s movement symbolized everything I had ever wanted in my life: Grace. Purpose. Empowerment. Self-control. Strangely enough, I also saw the reflection of some of my negative energies reflected in her movement. She was unleashing anger, frustration, and ego. It was such a cathartic experience to partake in, even as a spectator. I could see all of her pent up emotion leaving her body, and as I watched her, it almost felt like mine was leaving me as well. I couldn’t wait to experience this feeling first-hand, now that I had lived vicariously through her.

I didn’t perform once at the festival. My entire purpose had shifted. Even though hula hooping had been the initial cathartic release that reeled me into the flow arts community, fire dancing hit the nail directly on the head. It filled the missing piece of the puzzle that hula hoops couldn’t: the element of danger. Fire dance is a wild and primal act, and nothing else in this world compares to it. The day after the festival ended, I bought the same tool that the mesmerizing performer had wielded: It was called a fire rope dart. I began training the day it arrived in the mail. If I looked alarming to watch with a hula hoop, this was nothing compared to the way I moved with a rope dart. I preferred to practice alone, aware of the anxiety I invoked in anyone in my general vicinity. I started training with fire about three weeks after buying my rope dart, and I became utterly insatiable. Every night in my driveway in Santa Barbara, I went through gallon after gallon of fuel.

Throughout the next three years, I continued to undergo more changes and shifts in perspective. I will definitely admit that it wasn’t a straight shot to the balanced life I had always been told I should strive for. I continued to wrestle with substance abuse during festivals and social events, rationalizing my actions by comparing myself with other out-of-control peers in the fire community. However, it was never as problematic as it had been during my college days. In fact, I was surprised that my actions weren’t ten times more disastrous. You would think that my impulsivity, paired with easy access to a wide variety of substances, would be a match made in hell. But I started to grow tired of waking up feeling hungover, because it got in the way of my training. I was much more frustrated with drunkenly losing my belongings, because I was always losing my rope dart. The incentive to change was now significantly higher. I improved painfully, but consistently, as each year went by. And even though I made a lot of mistakes, including waking up in the ER, naked, strapped to a hospital bed, I can’t imagine how much worse it could have been if I hadn’t found a way to ground myself through fire dance.

The changes felt similar to the shift in perspective that the protagonist of my favorite movie experiences: “Fight club gets to be your reason for going to the gym, (…) keeping your hair short and cutting your nails.” Fire dance was my fight club. I was getting up earlier, to make time for training, and eating healthy, so that I could build muscle and endurance. Instead of planning illegal expeditions to big-name corporations, I was planning trips to LA to take lessons with experienced rope dartists. I was not naturally talented at this martial arts/flow-arts hybrid, but I practiced so much that I learned fast. Within three years, I was performing at events, coming up with my own choreography, and teaching lessons to students who have seen some of my popular videos on the internet. Throughout these years, I continued to painstakingly break the bad habits I had been accumulating, and created an emotional stability within myself that I had theretofore never felt in my entire life. I truly started to think that I had grown out of my bipolar tendencies, or at least that I had finally learned to control them enough that I could stop worrying about my mental health so often.

And that brings us up to speed with everything up until about two months ago, when I tripped off a platform after the end of a performance at a festival. I tore a ligament in my ankle that just wouldn’t heal. After a month of pushing through the pain, I surrendered myself to a doctor’s visit and some tests, and was ordered to immobilize my foot for four to six weeks. Of all the first world problems that I have had to face, this is, predictably, my absolute worst nightmare. No more endorphins, no more adrenalin rushes, no more sense of purpose or stability. I was screaming into my pillow every morning by the second day. My emotions have never felt more insane. I have nowhere to funnel my physical energy, or impulsive behavior. I have never felt so powerless in my life. And not only is my emotional wellbeing riding on being able to move around, but a lot of my financial stability is now tangled up in it as well. The stress level is higher then I have ever experienced.

This is why I am so surprised with my ability to control my behavior on a level that is absolutely unprecedented. I have always used problems and set-backs as excuses to let my emotions govern my actions. This is arguably the most difficult bipolar symptom of them all, as it affects one’s ability to function in society. Although I have had to maintain more distance from some of my favorite people throughout the past month, I am happy to say that there has been significantly less screaming or rude comments fired than I would have predicted during a stressful time like this one. There have been countless moments where I have craved the sound of shattered glass or the feeling of punching a wall, and just sat down and taken deep breaths instead. I have had more wild thoughts pass through my mind, and I have had the hardest time yet resisting the impulsive urges, but also the most success doing so. Basically, I am just as bipolar as ever, but somehow infinitely better equipped to handle it.

I can only attribute this success to the serenity I have felt and the perspective I have gained from the movement-meditation that is fire dance. These life lessons could not have been taught to me through the use of prescription pills, because I would never have learned that I had the power within myself to control my actions, even though I can’t always control my emotions. Once again, this is not an attempt to dissuade people from taking mood stabilizers, but rather an account of my own experience. I have a few friends who have recounted inspirational success stories about their experience with medication, and I am so glad that they found relief by these means. One of my close friends in Santa Barbara uses medication and flow arts as a way to stay centered, and she is an incredible visual artist as well. I guess this means that everyone on the bipolar spectrum needs to commit to tracking down the best way to treat their symptoms on an individual level, because everyone reacts so differently to treatment. There are many reliable doctors that will provide a wealth of knowledge and resources on this topic, and others that will just mindlessly shovel pills down patients’ throats, without discussing a wider variety of solutions. It is up to each individual to source their information carefully.

The main take-away that I am hoping to impart is this: These days I see my intense mood swings as a hidden advantage, as well as an impediment. I feel like I have a power that I previously just didn’t know how to harness. Although the range and erratic nature of my emotions sometimes feels unbearable, it has also pushed me to become the artist that I am today. I didn’t fully grasp the psychological benefits of flow arts until they were temporarily withheld from me. Having a physical outlet that is self-expressive has helped funnel all of my excess energy and pent-up emotion into something that I feel proud of, rather then ashamed of. Finding a passion that involves movement meditation can make the difference between someone who spends their life feeling like a crazy person, and a successful and happy artist.