October 10th was World Mental Health Day, a time to raise awareness about the stigma surrounding mental health issues, the serious challenges and problems with mental healthcare affordability and accessibility, and why we can—and should—do better for individuals suffering from conditions than can be debilitating.
The vast majority of the people I have known who suffer from mental illness are afraid to tell those around them. The reasons vary, but it generally boils down to judgment. Will others suddenly begin to treat you with kid gloves? Will they shy away from you? Will they fear that you could blow up or break down at any moment?
Of course, these questions are judgments in their own way. Immediately they judge the individual being told about the problem as someone who does not have the capacity for compassion or understanding. That is just as unfair as being judged over a disease.
About a month and a half ago, I began training to teach yoga. The first weekend was literally life-changing. I’ve honestly been kind of embarrassed at the zealousness I feel when I talk about it outside of the studio. There I am surrounded by a community where my self-consciousness all but disappears. Perhaps it was our teacher’s remark the very first night that our studio classroom was a safe space where there would be no gossip. We began that very evening to put our trust in one another along this journey.
Many people think that yoga is just about the asana practice, but it is so much more. Asana is a component of this science that helps us bridge the gap between what we know and what we understand. On an individual level, each time a breath is taken mindfully, we connect the intellectual and primitive centers of the brain. Yoga is a toolbox that we fill with knowledge of history, philosophy, anatomy, physiology, and ethics, and then take out into the world, hoping that we might share with others. Hoping that by bringing it off of the mat, we will break down the walls that prevent us from acting as witnesses and understanding the true Self. Understanding the commonality that exists between all things, and allowing that to yoke us to everything else that is.
The week after we began our journey together at teacher training, a depressive episode slapped me in the face. It’s always frustrating when it comes out of nowhere. When there’s no specific problem to point to and you’re just depressed, it’s laaaaaaame. There’s not a problem to solve that will achieve the desired result: contentment. I was gritting my teeth thinking of the sheer amount of money I’ve spent on pharmaceutical treatments for depression over the years, how many times I’ve accepted side effects as “tolerable,” and how many times I’ve settled for “okay.” Because okay is better than depressed or manic, right?
My depression. My anger. My frustration.
Then it hit me. Practice aparigraha. The yamas and niyamas are sort of like yoga’s ethical code. I have one of them tattooed on my ankle, the word ahimsa (non-harming). Aparigraha is another of these concepts, and translates to “not grasping,” which is interpreted many ways. Generally I’ve perceived it as not being greedy, not taking from others (or yourself), and not grasping for what is not yours. After all, you already have everything you need when you really think about it.
So why was I so intent on this being mine? My depression. My anger. My frustration. I don’t even want it, so why claim it? Why be greedy and hoard negative thoughts and feelings that do not serve my purpose on this earth. Why let my ego control the game?
A depression. An anger. A frustration.
At that moment, I was looking at these things through a window. We were no longer connected. It was not mine, and it never has been. By changing one tiny possessive pronoun, my whole perspective shifted. Although I felt the lingering of sadness, the ache to hold onto that dark place for comfort and familiarity, it was not mine. That place would not serve me in my quest to love myself and others.
Not a cure per se, but wasn’t this treatment every bit as valuable as the different kinds of medications I’ve been willing to pop into my mouth for the last fifteen years? Why did I consider pharmaceutical treatment the only option for treating a disease of the brain? I truly believe that every doctor who has treated me has been good-hearted. Doctors want to do something to help you. But at the end of the day, my diagnosis was always an educated guess at best. There’s no lab work that shows a quantitative improvement, just a series of vague symptoms entirely told from my own perspective. There are patterns if you look long and hard enough. But there’s no hard and fast way to label it. This isn’t me being all, “Down with medication!!!” because it’s a genuinely valuable tool. There are times in my life that it probably saved me from going down a dangerous path.
But it is just that—a tool. It is not a cure.
I simply realized that it wasn’t the right tool for me anymore. It was right a few years ago, but I am not the same and neither is the condition.
And so, standing in the MOMs getting brown rice from the bulk bin, I froze. My head understood something that my heart had been repeating over and over again:
This is not yours. You do not have to keep it. You do not need to keep it.
I did not flush my medication down the drain, but waited for my regular quarterly check-up with the doctor and told her how I felt. I expected resistance; after all, she has guided my medical treatment for five years. But she embraced my perspective and gave me the confidence and a reasonable pathway to slowly taper away from pharmaceutical treatment. We made our plan to follow up in four months and I left her office feeling a sense of independence. I had advocated for myself as a patient, and felt like I was on a path that’s right for where I am today, and not where I was four, eight, or fifteen years ago when I was first diagnosed with depression.
Again, I want to make it really clear that I’m not anti-medication in any sense. My point is this: Ask why. If you’re doing something and it’s not working, ask why you’re settling for that. Maybe it’s because a thousand other things are crowding your schedule / life and you don’t have time or energy to deal with that one dissatisfaction (for now), maybe you’re afraid because change could be worse than something that works half-way, or maybe you think that you haven’t given it a fair shot and want to see where it can take you long-term. Whatever it is, it’s worth a few moments of meditation, a few pages of journaling, and asking yourself honest questions. The answer might not be an “a-ha” moment, and it probably won’t come right away. That’s OKAY. Just observe it, and let yourself be where you are.
You are smarter, more resilient, and stronger than you believe.
You already have all of the best parts of yourself.
The littlest perspective changes can make a huge difference: “I can’t” becomes “I am currently unable to…,” or “I’m not there…yet.” There is always the capacity for positive change. As much as the source is silly (an old Nike ad), they got it right:
“All your life you are told the things you cannot do. All your life they will say you’re not good enough or strong enough or talented enough; they will say you’re the wrong height or the wrong weight or the wrong type to play this or be this or achieve this. THEY WILL TELL YOU NO, a thousand times no, until all the no’s become meaningless. All your life they will tell you no, quite firmly and very quickly. AND YOU WILL TELL THEM YES.”
Open your heart to possibility, realizing that change is available, it is not linear (ups and downs are a fact), and overcoming the fear is probably the most difficult part. Don’t stop asking questions. Don’t stop learning.
And then listen…really listen for what comes up.
Ciao for now,