I can’t quite remember the flight from Toronto to LAX but I remember the time leading up to it. I was 19 and I had recently returned from a commune in East Texas, my post high school dreams included escaping my abusive home life and possibly becoming a stage actress, maybe I could find some way to kill two birds. Continue reading
It’s been a full year since I wrote my last blog post. It was a biggun’ I outed myself, made my vulnerabilities known and gave more insight into my world then I normally would under any other circumstance.
It wasn’t something I did easily, in fact most days I wish I hadn’t. Because while some things changed for the better, I noticed some shifts that I wish weren’t a regular occurrence when people in my life find out I live with a mental illness. In some ways these shifts are subtle but I’ve gotten so accustomed to it happening that it might as well be blatant. The shifts were so loud to me in fact that, despite the many pieces I’ve attempted to write since that piece I’ve been unable to hit the “publish” button for fear of judgement, loss of employment and friendships.
There’s an unspoken expectation in Yoga land that in order to be successful you must be a success story, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of admiration for a yoga teacher who openly struggles with severe mental illness, in fact the overwhelming sense I get is that it would be preferable if I just went away.
I know I wanted to believe at one point that my yoga practice would improve my condition if not dissolve it all together, perhaps that was my own naivety. But with so many positive, grateful, glowing celebrity yoga endorsements I didn’t have access to the dissenting discourse that I’ve had to purposely seek out now. Yoga is at its best as a marketable enterprise when people believe whole heartedly that it will solve their problems, give them superhuman qualities and make them rise above their trifling day to day. No one wants to hear that yoga might give you the ability to see yourself with a little more clarity, especially your “dark parts”. No one wants to hear that if you have a mental illness there may be some elements of yoga practice that could make things worse, not better.
But that’s precisely what happened to me.
I’ve been on and off the mat for nearly 17 years now. I dove into a daily dedicated sadhana which looking back seems more like extremism about 5 years ago. I was meditating, pranayamaing and sometimes asanaing upwards of 4 times a day. But it all felt like I was training to burn through my own psychic knots as I was instructed to do by my teachers, practice and all is coming they would tell me. I believed that no matter what came up if I just kept going it would all be ok.
Until I hit a wall, I’d wanted to run so far from my suicide attempt 5 years ago, I wanted to make up for all the hopelessness and despair I’d given in to. But after 5 years of fervent, dedicated practice what I felt more than anything else was despair, I wanted to end my life now more then ever. The bright side of this story is that I was able to find a few experts who were able to validate what I was experiencing, helping me discover that meditation and some of the other practices that had been prescribed to me were actually not helpful and generally are contraindicated for someone like me.
I’m a “sensitive” soul, in PTSD terms it’s called hyper vigilance. I notice subtle things I can’t help it, it comes from my chaotic and tormented home life in the first 20+ years where abuse, neglect and manipulation were daily occurrences. I’ve been trained to look for anything that could be a threat or an unfavourable response as a self preservation tool. One of the positive aspects of this particular skill is that I have been able to use this skill as a yoga teacher to read my students body language. One of the annoying somewhat heart breaking side effects of this skill is that I can tell when I’m being treated with kid gloves, condescended to, lied to in order to spare my feelings.
When I came out, started revealing my mental health openly as a yoga teacher some of the responses I received were non-verbal and therefore not something I could openly call out as discriminatory. The subtle ways people distanced themselves, the small gradual ways I could feel my employer telling me I no longer fit in, when literally the only thing that had changed was that I had revealed that I live with a severe mental illness.
What I wanted most was to be embraced by my community, supported in my efforts to use the skills I still manage to hang on to in light of such a debilitating condition. But what appeared to happen was that people replaced their very real experiences of me as an individual in their lives with their perceptions of mental illness and allowed the popular narrative to replace the truth of who they knew me to be. It was also apparent that there was an underlying opinion in some that until I was “better” I shouldn’t be putting myself out there as an expert in anything or even a teacher.
What tugged at my heart through all this were these questions: What if this is what better looks like for me? What if this is all I get? What if the success in my story is that I haven’t killed myself? Am I too mentally ill to contribute? Is that really what my peers are telling me? Why does someone have to be completely cured to be a success story, to be worthy of the mantle of teacher?
When I was writing my blog post last year I was expecting to be embraced by the yoga community, especially the community I taught in. I thought my honesty would open doors for a deeper conversation, one that I was literally dying to have. I received a few private messages laced with well meaning platitudes like, God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle, everything happens for a reason, and you must have a very special purpose.
What this made me realize is that as a whole we aren’t ready to admit that there are some of us for whom this practice doesn’t work as we’ve understood it. There seems to be a fear of admitting that our personal truth isn’t universal truth. Rejection was what I felt, and it hurt.
It’s been a a tough year, my health has gotten worse. In addition to PTSD I’ve been diagnosed with a chronic pain condition, a condition that notoriously goes hand in hand with complex trauma and DID (multiple personality disorder). The DID diagnosis brought me to my knees because I realized that most of my life, experiences, relationships were all experienced through this lens, I wasn’t really sure which part of me was in control for certain parts of my life and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to ensure that “I” was in control, infact i wasn’t so sure who “I” was anymore.
But what hurt even more, brought me even more sadness was that I felt like there was no room for me in yoga land. I didn’t see how anyone would want to hear my perspectives. I get written off as negative, no one wants me to harsh on their yoga buzz by contradicting the universal truths spouted by so many of Yoga lands glowing luminaries.
I hang on by a thread, daily debating in my mind if it’s too much for me to keep trying to talk about it, teach about it and live with it? Should I just walk away? Or should I stand and fight for my voice to be heard, as a valid and needed contribution?
I hope things get a little easier for me and others who have had similar experiences, I hope we collectively recognize that the able bodied privilege we fight against in yoga culture includes mental privilege and that those of us who choose to stick around in a culture that overwhelmingly rejects us deserve to have a space here too.
My heart skipped a beat as I held my breath when I read that he was dead. His face so deeply lined with character, laughter and grief, his manic hilarity a tell tale sign of something much deeper, darker and possibly tortured. Robin Williams’ suicide leaves us with an astonishing revelation, depression is not something easily healed and those who live with severe depression long-term do not have much hope for what those who don’t live with mental illness like to think of as a magical place called recovery.
While some are calling his actions cowardly and selfish and others are trying to help them understand, I’m in awe. What a conversation he’s left us with!
I don’t know his story, but I do know mine. I, as he did, live every damn day of my life staring into the deep endless pit that is severe depression. Not a day goes by that I don’t contemplate taking my own life. I used to sugar coat it and say things like “I’m feeling a bit down” or cave to the pressure from my peers and try to put a positive spin on it and eventually kept it to myself because of the rejection and deafening silence I received from most people I was honest with.
I’m a yoga teacher, I teach others how to breathe, enhance their calm, move into stillness and become the observer.
I teach yoga for PTSD, which I also live with. I’m not a comedian like Mr. Williams was, but I’d like to believe I am on the same dharmic path, just trying to let folks who are struggling know they are not alone. I don’t want anyone living with the depth of darkness I live with feeling that no one gives a shit, as I have. I’ve been in the belly of the beast for almost 30 years, and I have some truth I want to share.
I can’t speak for Mr. Williams or anyone else who is living with severe depression but I’m comfortable saying that I may have more insight than those of you who have not experienced severe depression and suicidal ideation.
One of the ways we as a society respond to suicidal ideation and depression is by encouraging those who are suffering to “get help”. I imagine we feel somehow un-equipped to help someone so severely affected and we, out of our best intentions defer to “the professionals”. In my years of seeking to “get help” from the professionals I tried and stuck with every drug I was prescribed, saw every psychiatrist I was told to see and paid the $160.00+ fee per session to see therapists even when I couldn’t afford it as a single mom with no health benefits.
After years of trying to get help, seeking support, trying to think positively, raw food, veganism, exercise, meditation, trying not to burden my friends and family with my “negative” and “toxic” thoughts that they didn’t want to hear and taking “personal responsibility” for my life, reading every self help book I could, I came to the place where I was exhausted from the battle. I was tired of reaching for help and having my hand slapped away, I simply couldn’t fight anymore, so I swallowed a handful of those drugs that were supposed to help.
I’d never seriously considered suicide up until then because I’d always believed there was hope for full recovery. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be experts who had the secret to wellbeing and if I just tried hard enough I would finally be like them, happy, healthy and whole. Every glowing skinned, vibrant expert I sought out for advice assured me they had the secret to end my suffering. But in that moment I realized it was all bullshit, no one knew what it was like to drag this burden around for a lifetime with no real relief, they weren’t willing or able to truly help.
When I woke in the ER strapped to a bed with a tube down my throat, I was confused. Why wasn’t I dead? The doctor explained to me that I had actually been successful in my attempt but they had fought for me and managed to get me back. But there was no part of me that wanted to be there. In that time I had experienced the sweetest peace of my life and I wanted desperately to get back there.
The one thing my brush with death taught me was that I was no longer afraid to die, in fact I realized I finally had an answer after searching all those years for a little relief from this burden, I knew I had something I could do.
I obviously have much to live for, a beautiful amazing daughter whom I love with all my being and an incredible partner a vibrant career as a yoga teacher, while I would never want to hurt those who love me, the helplessness of living with treatment resistant PTSD and unrelenting severe depression seems like a death sentence.
The more I talk about it with people the more they distance themselves from me, the few times I’ve been honest with people about my suicidal ideation they’ve glazed it over and never brought it up again. I suppose they too feel un-equipped as though I am looking for them to “do” something. But the answers we give the mentally ill obviously aren’t cutting it, if someone who had what we would assume to be every resource available to him as Mr. Williams hopefully did, what hope do the rest of us have?
What I’ve learned since that day in the ER is that I may never “get help”.
I may never live without depression.
My meditation and yoga practice hasn’t brought me bliss or enlightenment as it is presented to us by the yoga celebrities of the world. But what it has given me is insight into my own struggles and ways to cope. I know I can’t rely solely on my partner for support, so I reach out to those who I know will respond without judgment, who will listen without feeling the need to fix, who will validate me without trying to tell me I need to stop being negative or view me as toxic and dispel me from their lives, these people are a rarity, especially in the yoga community.
The truth is I have more bad days than good, I cry more than I smile, I’m frustrated more than I laugh, but I’m still here. I’m still striving to resist the urge to sink into the black of nothingness which seems so inviting and filled with relief to me. But I can’t do it alone. I need support and help from people who love and value me personally, that’s something the professionals can never give me, or anyone.
I understand why those who are living with severe depression would want to end their lives and do, I am saddened by the loss of Robin Williams, but I am also strangely happy that he is at peace, his struggle at an end. I hope my struggle ends differently, I hope we move into a deeper level of compassion as a community for those living with real mental illness. I hope we begin to hold them close even when it gets ugly, negative and uncomfortable. I hope we can see that we are all connected, far too closely to brush off each other’s burdens as none of our business. I hope we begin to truly matter to one another and that we can begin to demonstrate that on a deeper level then we have been, myself included.