Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Life with Mental Illness

I am taking a deep breath now and going to the fire of courage and the light of faith to write what I am about to write.

This month, yes it is still May, is Mental Health Month. I have been thinking of, tossing around, and considering writing about this since the first of the month and yet the month is nearing its end and I am pushing myself, and hard, to write. With so much tragedy and violence stemming from mental illness in recent years and currently in the murders at UCSB it is clear that mental health issues must be brought out of the shadows. It is important that we start to look at the stigma around mental illness which, I believe, is fueled in part by the fact that people are perhaps only seeing a one dimensional view of it, through cases that land in the media spotlight involving mental illness which has spun out of control and ends in such devastation. Even in such extreme cases we must look at the progression of the illness in the person and consider how we as a society are going to work to create pathways to healing and then deliver them in a timely manner. The call for advancements in awareness and treatment for mental health are clearly needed. There are many different forms of mental illness and they present very differently from each other and each individual is unique. I am not a psychologist so I will just write about my own personal experience and insights.

As I think about where to go with this I realize it is not a one post topic. It is a volume. It is an integral part of my life story, and yet, if you met me today and we sat and had even a lengthy conversation you would probably never guess that I have had a life long struggle with anxiety disorder, decades of depression, and post traumatic stress. I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember being alive, and depression was not far behind. I believe that like many diseases my anxiety and depression have roots in my genes and my physiology, and also became triggered by various environmental events and traumas.

As a teenager my struggles became intense. I felt increasingly alone, depressed, angry, agitated, misunderstood, and I was in emotional distress and pain all of the time. I found myself acting out and engaging in behaviors that were risky and sometimes outright dangerous. I was self medicating and would struggle with substance abuse for several years. I was out of control and I didn't care who knew it. I didn't really care about anything and I hated myself. I don't blame anyone that I didn't get the help I needed at the time, because unfortunately, no one knew what to do with me. I think this failure to identify and treat mental illness effectively continues today. When kids are acting out as a cry for help, it is often dismissed as an adolescent phase or just a "bad" kid, and as adults we learn to hide in shame and keep it quiet. The result is that there are many people, right now, kids and adults alike, who are not being seen and not being helped, and the help available is not always effective. The pain of living in denial and shame added to the illness itself can be excruciating. The results of this are often nothing short of devastating.

When I was twenty I got into some serious trouble which resulted in my entry into a treatment program and the beginning of my journey to healing. Twenty two years later I am still on that journey. I have been in and out of counseling, on medication multiple times, and have received many different therapeutic techniques. All of these were necessary and helpful in different ways. Therapy and medication got me through initial stages of processing and integration so I could find some balance and stability. I still have a coach and teacher who helps me immensely. Then I found Kripalu Yoga and it has become my greatest healer, my way of living, my way of being. I have become a Kripalu Yoga teacher and from there rediscovered dance in an amazing practice called Let Your Yoga Dance. I teach Let Your Yoga Dance as well. I run, bike, swim and stay very physically active. I eat healthy and care for myself on all levels. I am creative and love art and writing. I have been married for almost twenty years now and have four beautiful children.  My journey to healing has brought me so much abundance. I have been med free for quite a few years. Now my medicine is doing all these things I have discovered along the way, the things that bring me joy and personal fulfillment. I still have my good days and bad days, I still ride the waves and remain mindful of my emotional state and my energy levels. For the most part though, I have the ability to sense when I am veering off course and I go to all these tools and supports I have, and it works. I can't help but think this must have some relevance in how to treat disorders such as mine.

The main point is that it is possible to heal and live a wonderful life, even with mental health issues. I have grown and learned so much from every experience I have had, both the very painful ones and the joyful ones. Without the huge challenges I have faced I couldn't have arrived into the life I am living today, but it did take a lot of help, from a lot of people. I got lucky and landed in a place where I couldn't hide or evade and was forced to confront my illness. I have had my family and friends by my side. I couldn't have made it this far without helping hands, hugs and people who didn't let me brush it under the rug or bury my head in the sand,  people who helped me get real and get better. I can't say I am cured but I can say I am empowered and passionate about my life.

My hope is that by writing and sharing this I will create a wave or even a ripple of understanding. If even one person is helped or supported by reading this it would be enough. If you are suffering in silence today, reach out and if at first you don't find the right people to help you, keep reaching out. If you know someone who may be in need of support, talk to them, tell them they are not alone. We must find ways in our individual relationships, in our families, and in our communities to meet each other and attend to each other in a grounded and compassionate way. We need to treat people with mental health issues in the same manner we should treat people with any health issue, that is with tenderness, care and basic human respect. We all deserve that much.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sitting with the Angel of Struggle

A week ago today I embarked on a day of retreat to be in silent contemplation of "the place of struggle and grace on the path of love".  This retreat was homework for a group I am a part of that is committed to the practice, the study, and the living of  Kripalu Yoga.

Yoga is not a physical exercise regimen. Yoga is a complex set of practices and inquiries that guide the aspirant toward a life of consciousness, a life of awakening and spiritual evolution. Struggle is a part of life for everyone. Yoga provides us tools to be with struggle, to see the gift and opportunity that struggle offers. Struggle will come and then we get to choose how to relate with it. In the face of struggle we will take some form of action, the question is will our action be ruled by fear or by faith, by judgment or by compassion?

Swami Kripalu said, " When we consider the nature of our struggles, we may think them to be cruel or depict them like horrible demons. Yet the true nature of struggle is not evil. It's really an angel in disguise, bringing good to everyone. struggle keeps us from becoming lazy. It keeps us active and aware, and bestows the kind of knowledge that can't be obtained from any other teacher. struggle is thus the prana or animating force of our lives. Leading us from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, and from death to immortality, struggle is a skillful sculptor who carves a beautiful statue out of an ugly rock." (excerpt from the book Pilgrim of Love)

As I set out to do the prescribed practices, meditations and journaling for this day as directed by our teacher, I was actually quite excited to have a day of quiet and solitude dedicated to my own practice. That does not happen too often being a mother with three kids at home.

I was riding the flow, feeling content and connected, until about seven hours into the day. At that point I was doing a walking meditation outside. It was quite a hot day and the Shanghai air was a bit heavy, as it can be. As I walked I started to feel agitated by the quiet, unsettled. The aloneness started to feel sharp and uncomfortable. My very meditation was becoming struggle itself. At that point I also happened to be walking past an abandoned gated compound of houses that is crumbling away and looks so forlorn and desolate. As I felt myself crumbling a bit myself I tried to be in the experience I was feeling, lonely and desolate. I happened to look to my right and there was a sign, a graffiti sign in fact. There in black spray paint on brick was one word, "solitude" . I got goosebumps upon seeing it, and I truly felt like it was put there somehow, for me, in that moment. That simple sign shifted my outlook and brought me back to the oasis of solitude and out of the shadow of loneliness.

An angel in the struggle. Grace at work.

I continued my day and received great insight, formed intentions and sealed them all in prayer and devotion. My final journal entry that came through source, intuition, divine guidance, or whatever you might call it, was quite powerful to me and so I will share it with you.  

"Keep opening your heart, that is where all the light and knowing you need resides. Keep stepping through doorways of faith, you are protected and provided for. You do not have to fix anything or rise to any occasion. Be always in the company of your breath, your light and your love. Do not worry about any outcome, just give. Give of yourself with a brave heart and an open hand. Remember who you are. Return to the shelter of your spirit, to love. Dedicate to that in practice. Freedom is already within you. You are love and love will never abandon you. Take rest."

A day of solitude and reflection is a powerful thing. We spend much of our lives looking outside ourselves when the greatest treasures are within. Consider taking the time to be quiet and come home to your heart.