Success Story

imageIt’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.