Yoga has been my ‘centering place’ for thirty years – the one true place to which I turn when my soul needs to celebrate or my heart needs mending. I can stretch the blues away with a few flying dragons or settle unbridled joy by closing my eyes to breathe.
Or at least I could.
Even though I’m now on the other side of the depressive episode that turned my otherwise colorful world black and white, I struggle to find the words to describe the guilt I feel for having fallen ill and the remorse that stains my recovery.
I am a yoga teacher. Today’s ‘californicated’ version of the simple practice I embraced in 1984 promises, with a fixed smile and soft focused gaze, that with the right intention, a few appropriately placed crystals and the strike of a gong all chugged down with a bottle of organic kombucha we can keep the demons from our door and hold close our health and wellness.
I believe this. Or at least most of it. I believe in the power of yoga. I believe in a mind/body connection and that what we think affects what we feel. I have experienced the healing vibration of bells, gongs, tuning forks and even, sometimes, pretty rocks. While I don’t always choose wisely, for the most part my diet is vegetable based and, on occasion, includes the weird tasting fermented fungus otherwise known as kombucha. It’s true. I believe all these things help to sustain our health and wellness. If we’re already pretty much healthy and well.
But last year I wasn’t healthy and well. I needed an allopathic intervention of therapy and pharmaceuticals to change the course of the path I was on.
I’ve experienced three episodes of depression in the past decade. It’s possible I fought my way through the first two but more likely all three are part of the same fluctuating persistent depressive disorder. The last dip, triggered about two years ago, was the most severe and included increased anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Still, I resisted seeking help because I believed, as a yoga teacher, I had the tools to lift myself out of the dark pit I had fallen into. I thought if I could just think the right thoughts, practice enough gratitude and eat good food a bit of light would once again fill my heart. I didn’t want to admit that what was happening to me was more than a bad mood or the blues. I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t strong enough to heal on my own. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t yoga my way to better mental health.
I was convinced that if what I knew about yoga and complementary therapies after working in the industry for twenty-five years wasn’t enough to restore me – that if I had to resort to pharmaceutical intervention – then my practice and my teaching was based on a lie. I was a fraud. If I was a fraud, then what did my life mean?
That’s how ill I was.
I’m not alone.
Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental disorders in the United States. In fact, in 2014 almost 16 million adults over the age of eighteen or older had experienced at least one depressive episode in the previous twelve months. You may be one of the 40 million adults in America who suffer from debilitating anxiety. Most individuals who have anxiety are also depressed.
At the same time, we read reports about the over-prescribing of antidepressants. But if I’d not been given the prescription I’ve been taking since the beginning of winter, this summer would be looking very, very different.
When I finally let go of the idea I’ve heard so many yoga teachers express to their students – that the magical cure for what ails us can’t be found in an orange bottle of little white pills – that’s when the downhill slide I was on began to level. I filled the prescription my doctor offered and within four weeks began to smile in the morning. A few weeks later I could feel my soul warm and now, nine months on the journey, I’m writing again. I’m walking and riding my bike again. Most of all I’m laughing and loving again. I feel better than I have in many years. My yoga practice is strong and my love of teaching has blossomed.
That little white pill may have saved my life. Even if it didn’t, even if I would have finally been all right without it, this little morning pill has given me the strength to open my heart once again to all the self-care tools that have kept me strong in the past – before depression and anxiety had their way with me.
My message? If you are struggling and you think that a deeper asana practice is the cure, or that all the other tools in your self-care plan will bring you back to yourself – maybe they will. But if you suspect, or if someone suggests to you, that you may be seriously depressed, please find a doctor you trust and let them help you.
Besides loving Ben, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I feel true again.