Mental Health In The Mindfulness Community
You know what I did not do the day I nearly collapsed in the lobby of a Duane Reade, overwhelmed by the sea of plastic consumption I saw line the shelves, manic sobs and snot ripping from my face, my mother’s voice pleading with me from the other end of the phone, the security guard staring, the whole of Manhattan swallowing me as I begged for relief from the horrors and terrors and the unjust that I was sure I could see and only me, the chosen one, the prophet, the bearer of all terrible and the one made to suffer?
I did not meditate. I did not drink green juice. I did not become one with the ocean as the ocean became me.
I found myself in a psychopharmacologist’s office, was diagnosed with clinical depression, and prescribed the medicine that would save my life.
I was 22, freshly graduated, a playwright with a whole lot to say and ready to work hard to say it. I had been future-thinking during undergrad and completed a 200 hour yoga teacher training. The plan was to skip having a job I hated and start teaching immediately while I pursued my art.
Instead I was having panic attacks at a receptionist job in midtown. After work I would take the train to my father’s office, having promised myself each morning that I wouldn’t, and silently weep on his couch as he called my mother to tell her - yet again - that I would be commuting home with him.
My grandmother was dying and my sickness manifested in an obsession with death. I could not be near anyone over the age of 60 as my her mortality and mine became fused and slinked farther away from the both of us. I could see death etched on everyone’s faces just like I could see it on hers. My eyes became projector screens of my brain’s convincing. I would die, everyone would, and what was the point of living at all? I looked at the tag of a sweater and became so overcome with the worry that someone died making it that I could not breathe. I made love to my first love, the feeling of his skin the only thing that remedied the my sicknesses’ longing, and saw death in his face as we fucked. The ride home from the movies where my crying convulsed me, my mother climbed in the backseat, my father felt like he had failed as a parent, unable to console my cratered brain, I rocked myself into the opposite of sleep and whispered death over and over inside chapped lips.
Full-moon manifestation was unhelpful during this time.
Depression wasn’t new. I had had my first bout of it three miserable summers before, where I quit a retail job and didn’t tell anyone, and didn’t leave my bedroom for days at a time. I ached an ache I never had before and forgot how to eat, which is romantic for a while until you realize you’ve only managed to down mushy watermelon and microwavable mac n cheese. I longed for comfort. I felt deeply alone.
I knew depression well, because I knew my mother well, and she had openly lived with it for my entire life. I didn’t fear the disease, I never vilified it, it was part of my mother but not one that I often saw. Her depression and the maintenance of it was common as Tuesday garbage day. The possibility of me having depression was very high, but it was also a shrug. Could happen, I thought. But if it did, she reassured me, we’d get better together.
I told my mother at the end of that summer that I was sick, and soon after I went into therapy. I got better. For 3 years, talk therapy was insurmountably helpful. My therapist encouraged me to develop a practice of moving my body, as it seemed to help lift the depression and lessen the blow of bad days, and I began doing yoga.
My practice grew and with it my creativity. I wanted to know more. Could I become a yoga teacher? Could I help minds like mine find the same relief I had?
After some google searching and an assessment of my bank account, I found a teacher training in Mexico that lasted 3 weeks, exactly during my winter break from college.
A month before the trip my grandmother was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.
There is clinical depression and there is situational depression. Clinical depression is a diagnosis of of a perpetual chemical imbalance, meaning that a brain is unable to maintain an appropriate level of serotonin to function healthily. Situational depression is caused by an inciting incident in a person’s environment that triggers a depression. It is easier for people who lean towards being neurotypical (without a a chronic chemical imbalance) to overcome a situational depression than those who are neuroatypical. People who have functioning clinical depression, meaning they are able to maintain a mostly healthy balance, can also be triggered into a situational depression, but it is much harder for them to navigate their way out of it. For someone who is already susceptible to depression, each bout of sickness will weaken the brain more as the body tries, and often fails, to make the necessary amount of serotonin to function. This is where medicine comes in and begins to act as that missing serotonin, bringing a sick person back to stable ground, giving them what many healthy people take for granted - the human right to their own vitality.
But medicine would never be for me. I had already overcome my first depression with talk therapy alone. Surely I wouldn’t ever fall back into one, and if I did, I would just do more therapy. The want to believe that you are fixed of mental illness after beating it is normal, because for those who have suffered the thought of another episode is terrifying. But the reality is that there is mental illness upkeep. For those with diabetes, taking insulin is a daily must. It isn’t likely that a diabetic would inhale five donuts just for kicks. Similarly, people who have a proclivity towards depression cannot live their lives as if they are not at risk of a recurring episode, even if they are currently stable. Going off of medication without professional help, not sleeping enough, drinking excess alcohol or doing drugs (depressants), not exercising - all no-no’s in the mental health maintenance book. While mental illness does not have to become your identity, it can’t be discounted as part of it.
As my yoga teacher training approached, my grandmother got sicker. I was in a wildly unhealthy relationship, exhausted from school, graduation was looming, and I was ignoring all the symptoms of an approaching depression. I knew I didn’t feel good, but it would be okay, because now I had yoga.
As I delved further into the yoga world, especially the online community, I found myself inundated in talks of holistic practices that could cure depression, and an endless sea of Instagram accounts that could vouch for them. I was thrilled. I now had a singular Way to make sure I was fully integrated into my mind-body and highest self, for the rest of always and forever.
I went to Mexico. I was immediately suspicious of the utopia I was presented with, as it is in my nature to distrust groups of people preaching harmony. Show me real human conflict and tell me your vices and you’re much more likely to gain my trust. But that distrust comes from an experience of immense hurt inside a community, and our hurt often lives in tandem with a naive hope that someone or something will come and heal it. Cue Old White Yogi Man.
Let’s call him Brian, because his real name is equally boring. A white beard and rotting tooth. He had clear blues eyes that might have been nice if he didn’t make me stare into them uninterrupted while he told me he would die for me. I’m jumping ahead of myself.
The first thing Brian asked me, as I scooped out some unsweetened oatmeal at one of our silent breakfasts, was if I had experienced mental illness.
Red-flag number one! But, because of general societal conditioning and the perceived safe and sacred setting I was in, when A Strange Old Man asked me an Invasive Question, I did not Walk Away from him and instead I Told Him Everything About Me.
Brian told me he’d been watching me (red flag number two!) and that he knew I was special, because he Knew Things and could tell, and would I like to have private meetings with him accompanied by Rick, a man he’d seen me briefly interact with, to ensure I felt that he was not a Sexual Predator? I said yes.
I wanted to be Harry Pottered. My grandmother was dying, my boyfriend was cheating on me, I was graduating college with an art degree. Here was a Guru, not mine, but he wanted me.
Brian told me that with his help he could cure me of my depression. With Special Doctors and special water and nature walks. Then he told me I was a reincarnated saint and that with his help I could do whatever I wanted in my life and change the world.
Like all great narcissists, he made me believe he was capable of fixing me. Looking back I do believe he did see hidden parts of me, that he was gifted and powerful, and I believe those qualities do not give anyone the right, ever, to take advantage of another person.
Simultaneously, I had been entrenched in yoga philosophy for weeks. But I didn’t feel that there was any encouragement to take the teachings with a grain of salt. I could not acknowledge the impossibility of fully integrating eastern thought into a western lifestyle, so I took it to mean I had to renounce everything I had ever known. I was so porous and confused about my secret lessons with Brian. I wanted direction, a Path, so I swallowed all these teachings whole. Instead of wondering why I was sobbing through every lesson and unable to sleep at night because I was so frightened, I believed I was having a spiritual awakening.
I wasn’t. I was spiraling into a deep depression, triggered by my personal life, and I desperately wanted that not to be the case. Because I had embraced Mindfulness, because I had been told The Secret and that I was special, and if all of that was true then depression wasn’t real. If suffering was the Truth it was okay because I had been granted the gift of knowing it.
At the end of our time together Brian told me, smiling, that I actually didn’t need any of his help and did I know that he could see my pubic hair through my yoga pants?
I came home with a certificate celebrating 200 hours of teacher training and had never been more terrified of yoga.
And yet I believed I knew The Way, I had been graced with an ultimate knowing, and that the pain I was feeling was just part of that package. I believed I was lucky.
Because that is what a sick brain does. It convinces you of whatever paralyzing truth it can hold over you and I had picked a doctrine of thought with a reputation of profound healing. No one knew I was doing the exact opposite.
I spiraled for the next 8 months. I wasn’t honest with my therapist, I spun the story of Brian differently to her because I knew that something had gone wrong, and if I admitted that it would discount me being special, and I needed that validation because I was about to graduate college. I distracted myself with the workload and celebration of my last semester of school. I let myself cling to a high, but I knew that a low was inevitable, because any prolonged moment I spent alone I could feel a terror simmering below my surface. At a certain point that terror became too much to hide and my sanity began to escape me. I could not speak from a logical reality. I could not write with any sense of clarity. The depression was speaking for me. I was deeply paranoid and believed I was destined to live in a cave like the Buddha, a thought that felt so real that I longed for my life even as I was still living it. At any moment it would be taken away from me so I could live my highest purpose, however painful that might be. When I started to admit these thoughts to my therapist and my mother, they both gently, and then strongly, encouraged me to go on medication. I refused.
All of this lead up to those commutes home with my father, the sex with my boyfriend, the sweater in the store, and finally the panic attack at Duane Reade.
I knew it was time to take the medicine.
I understand this massive call to yoga we are experiencing in the western world. Our society is sick and we are starving for connection and community. But this so quickly turns an obsession with positivity and a renouncing of human pain. What is meant to be an ever-accepting lifestyle is instead perpetuating a vicious competitiveness, fear, and shaming by the yoga community - especially online. I see an epidemic of people ignoring human pain because they are trying to live up to a standard of impossible holistic excellency. It is not the mindfulness practice that is bad, it is the way that it is being interpreted. People are ignoring their history, their biology, the environment they were raised in, and instead jump hard and fast onto the wellness train with blinders on and a self-assuredness that they’ve bought themselves a one way ticket to happiness and never have to look back.
This idea that we can heal ourselves with mindfulness alone discounts mental illness as a disease. And it is fine and fun to wax philosophic on whether or not man has created most of his downfalls, but it is only the privilege of the healthy to have that discussion. And as they do, those suffering get sicker.
I’ve been on medication for 4 years. I am living the most whole life I could have ever imagined for myself. It took time care and patience from a good doctor who studied my family history to find the right medicine for me. I have never felt numb, or foggy, and my libido is…awesome. Creatively, I am thriving. I am in therapy twice weekly, and I see my psychopharmacologist every four months. I am deeply privileged to have access to such incredible healthcare.
I practice yoga four times a week. I meditate through a daily writing practice. I drink green juice on occasion. I embrace and fiercely encourage many types of holistic healing.
I have taught yoga for three years and completed a second teacher training, and with 500 hours of study under my belt, I consider myself a highly educated student of yoga. Not yoga as a trend, an Instagram fad, a solely physical practice, full moons, standing on my head, and not as The Way. Yoga as a profound practice of mindfulness, rooted in an ancient history, and one singular thing in my life that helps me feel good.
I really love yoga. But yoga did not, and could not, save me.