This post is an entry in the 2nd Stratejoy Essay Contest. Throughout the next month, we will be featuring each finalist writing their answer to the question: What would your TED Talk Be? On September 13th, we will open the voting to YOU, our community, to select the winner of the $500 prize.”
*MENTAL ILLNESS ON THE MAT*
What comes to mind when you hear the word yoga? Perhaps an image of a dreadlock sporting, patchouli smelling, matcha tea drinking hippy shows up for you. Or do you think of overpriced mats, yoga blocks and straps, 105 degree rooms, and chanting?
Now, think of the words mental illness. What comes to mind? Prozac, Zoloft, Cymbalta? Or maybe it’s a feeling of helplessness due to a loved one’s personal battle or it reminds you of homelessness, struggle, sadness, and depths full of darkness.
In my own life, I have been able to bridge the two very different worlds of yoga and mental illness and I so passionately believe right down to the core of my being that yoga has the power to heal and replace mental illness with juicy, unmatched, amazing, and phenomenal sound mental health and create a life worth living.
I want to be clear that I am not a doctor. My experience is my truth and I will stand by that until the end of time. I also would not have arrived to where I am today without the support, specialized care, and love from all sorts of professionals in the medical and alternative healing community.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. These mental disorders can take the form of Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Eating Disorders, and others. This is a staggering statistic, not only because of the numbers, but because psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, social workers, and professionals in the medical community have worked and continue to work on finding out the reasons behind these disorders.
My strong relationship with mental illness goes way back to when I was growing up. My paternal grandmother, who recently passed away, suffered from Bipolar Disorder. She struggled with years and years of major depression and then like a flipped switch, would move to a state of mania, overspending, having delusional ideas about family dynamics, and trying to make up for lost time. It was beyond a rollercoaster of emotions but more like a tsunami type encounter.
Then, when I went back to college for my sophomore year, something wasn’t right. I wasn’t sleeping. I was going to bed at 4:00am and getting up at 7:00am to make an 8am class. The nights were brutal. I would hear people knocking on my door, or a phone ringing and have crazy thoughts about catching on fire in the street or wishing I could fall down off a mountain. That’s the psychosis. It eats you alive. I had racing thoughts. I was engaging in heavy drinking and experimenting with marijuana. I was taking more risks than usual. I knew I needed help.
Mental health professionals use the American Psychiatric Association DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) for the diagnosis of a mental disorder. Based on an intensive intake with a patient, a psychiatrist can look at a symptomatic snapshot and compare to this tool and make their “best, most educated medical diagnosis.” Unfortunately, mental health professionals haven’t reached the point where mental illness is as clear cut as a broken foot or collapsed lung.
So, I walked into the Campus Counseling Center on a crisp fall morning in October and two weeks later, as I was sitting in the psychiatrist’s office, the words “I am diagnosing you with Bipolar Disorder,” came out of her mouth. I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder and told that my life would never be the same again. There was a high possibility and somewhat of a certainty that I would have to take medication and be in therapy for the rest of my adult life. My feelings spread across the continuum from shame and embarrassment to confused, scared and angry. I was living in a very small mountain town with very limited resources in terms of support networks and mental health advocacy.
Sometimes, it occurs to me that the stigma of mental disorders and mental illness continues to exist so strongly, despite how many people are suffering from some form of it. The NIMH (National Institute for Mental Health) says that the most apparent reason for disability in the United States is mental disorders. I will say this: more and more people are telling their stories and that is the way a stigma is dismantled. There are more and more support networks and resources out there not only for patients, but for family and friends.
Over the course of 8 months, I was on 12 different medication combinations before finding one that worked. Different doses, different side effects, everything from weight gain, drowsiness, severe dehydration, fatigued, shortness of breath, sun sensitivity, etc. Medication is only one piece of the puzzle, which so many fail to realize. I stand strong in the view that mental health must be approached holistically. There is no quick fix or immediate gratification solution.
There was a pivotal moment where I debated ending my own life. I remember sitting on the edge of a beautiful lookout in the Colorado National Monument and having a feeling of hopelessness and a deep despair. I wanted to end it because the pain had gotten to be so bad. I wasn’t in control of my own life anymore; I was a zombie going through the motions without any emotions. There was not an ounce of bliss left. Thankfully, somewhat of a divine intervention pulled me out of that moment. I thought to myself, there has got to be a better way. I was determined to prove the doctors and the world they were wrong. I was determined to not only live, but to find and follow my bliss.
On a frigid February evening in 2005, I walked into a small yoga studio across the street from my college. I met the teacher & studio owner, Miya, and participated in my first Vinyasa style yoga class. I not only fell in love with the hot room, the music, and the flowing style of yoga, but I felt at home in my body again. Class after class, my anxiety started to disappear, I wasn’t feeling so numb, and I felt life shoot through my veins again. My heart was open, I was grounded, I was sleeping, and I was living again. Miya, my yoga teacher, would mentor me, share the wisdom & sacred texts of yoga philosophy, and push me to my growth zones on my yoga mat. Miya and the practice of yoga saved my life. I slowly transitioned to a more healthful diet, daily journaling and meditation, and less medication and today, I am proud to say that my lifestyle changes, including a foundation of yoga have allowed me to be off medication for over 5 years.
In November of 2007, I received a phone call letting me know that my yoga teacher Miya had committed suicide. Little did I know that she was dealing with her own internal struggles while helping me through mine. At first I was angry and didn’t practice yoga for months. I didn’t like how the divine took away the one thing that saved me. Over time, I arrived at a place of peace and I knew what I needed to do was to get back on my mat. To this day, I honor Miya every time I unroll my mat to practice. I never had a chance to tell her what she did for me but I do know that because of her, me and anyone suffering from mental illness can live, both on and off the mat.
I was introduced to the quote by Joseph Campbell “Follow your bliss,” back when I was 14 years old. Now, 14 years later, it serves as my personal mantra for everyday living. Originally from a small town in Maine, I moved to the Rocky Mountains for college and have lived in Seattle, WA since 2007. I work at a small Microenterprise Development Organization and I truly live for outdoor adventure, yoga, spiritual growth, friendship, family, and love.
*This post is an entry in the 2nd Stratejoy Essay Contest. Throughout the next month, we will be featuring each finalist writing their answer to the question: What would your TED Talk Be? On September 13th, we will open the voting to YOU, our community, to select the winner of the $500 prize.*