Dusts off the microphone.
Hello friends and blog readers. It’s been a good bit of time since I wrote a damn thing, let alone shared it on my blog. But it seemed like the best forum to share what’s been on my mind and where I’ve been for the past year or so.
Brene Brown writes, “When we find the courage to share our experiences, and the compassion to hear others tell their stories, we force shame out of hiding and end the silence.” So, this is me, sharing my experience and promising you compassion if you choose to share your own – privately or publicly. I don’t believe in silence. And I’m done believing in shame.
My first major depressive episode occurred somewhere in the years after the birth of my son. It would have been easy to classify my depression as post-partum- he was, after all, a challenging child when compared to our first. My daughter had been the textbook baby – hit milestones on time, responded well to nearly anything and we followed the rule books on how to be good parents and the rule books worked. She didn’t sleep so much, but what baby did? Baby number two was a bit less textbook, a bit more cranky little man. He nursed at all hours of the day, preferred to be held 23 hours out of 24 and was prone to a low level whining noise as a way to get attention. Trying to be an excellent mother to both of these beautiful gifts was a new level of perfection to hold myself to. Trying to be an excellent human outside of being their mother was like trying to bail water from the Titanic with a sippy cup. Most mornings I barely managed being dressed and showered and my lunch was often graham crackers and water as I sat on the couch, nursing pillow wrapped around my stretched out middle, infant latched at my breast. My new reality felt dark, like a cloud hung over my head wherever I traveled.
Even as the small bundle of crankiness grew and became less and less challenging, and our toddler daughter became more and more independent, my feelings of sadness, anger and lack of joy seemed to persist. My weight crept higher and higher and my ability to get through the day without tears was at an all time low. I had a physical (thyroid fine), attempted therapy (some help, short-term) and began to lose weight and do some simple exercise (more helpful). I read books, I journaled, I tried to do all the right things. But the cloud could not be shaken. Eventually, with a sense of defeat and fear, I found a doctor, discussed my symptoms asked for medication. My first round of Lexapro worked like a dream. After a few days of headaches, the world seemed easier. Lighter. I was able to sleep at night. I laughed more. I was able to wake up feeling well-rested and like I could tackle the challenges that lay ahead in the day. The cloud began to lift.
Months later, I opted to go off the meds. I felt better, even without them. It was a relief to know that my life would not be tied to prescriptions, like I had conquered the problem and moved on. I wish I could say I was right. The storm raged again a couple years later – life circumstances were not ideal at the time and I felt the cloud begin to move back in. My ability to handle the adversity that lay ahead of me seemed to shrink with each given day. Laundry, dinner and bathing two toddlers every night grew to feel like an epic battle. My husband and I worked opposite shifts to save money on childcare and each evening seemed like a solo climb up Mount Everest. I was still managing to take better care of myself physically, still had all the books from round one and still ended back in therapy and a doctor’s office asking for help. Medication round two was equally effective as round one. The cloud lifted and I found my way back to the simple feelings of joy I had known I was missing.
Through each of these experiences, I felt one pervasive feeling – depression was a personality defect, a character flaw that I needed to hide and carry like a skeleton in my closet, aka SHAME. I didn’t talk to many people about it. I didn’t feel as if I could quite get anyone to understand the sense of failure I held deep in my heart. I had a beautiful family, two amazing and intelligent children, a husband that supported me relentlessly. So, why did I feel like such a terrible person? So worthless?
I spent a lot of time and energy fighting these feelings. I proved my worth to the world (or so I thought) with a master’s degree, marathons and triathlons. I was the picked-last-for-kickball-girl who now ran 26.2 miles. I collected medals and honors and still carried the feeling of worthlessness with me at all times. My weight shrunk, my clothing size dwindled, and yet, the exterior feats rarely matched my interior feelings. My running hobby gave way to yoga classes when injury forced me to avoid hitting the road for a few months. I preferred powerful yoga, yoga where I sweat a gallon and felt like I deserved a medal at the exit door. I lost myself on my mat just as much as I lost myself in my running. And that was, after all, the goal of all exercise, right? To drown out the ugly, worthless part of myself that would just be waiting for me when it was over. I, quite literally, was always looking for a means to run away from me.
My journey to yoga instructor was a strange and winding one. After those first few months of classes, I wanted to learn as much as I could about this new passion. I was intrigued at the overlap of physical and spiritual that I felt in some classes and with some teachers. There seemed to be more to it than the running – put on shoes, jog out door – and I wanted to know all of it, right now. I thought teacher training would be a great way to learn. Teaching yoga and sharing that passion with others became a new career focus, a new goal. Teacher training gave way to a daily Ashtanga practice, gave way to giving up running, gave way to teaching yoga full time (like I said, the strange and winding road). And here’s where it starts to get a little ugly and where my feelings about the community start to become conflicted.
I noticed that MANY people I met in teacher training and in workshops talked about yoga helping them through illness, through grief, through physical injury (my original reason for practicing), through chronic physical illness. People spoke of the process of yoga being transformative and I felt that feeling too, deep in my bones. The process of yoga felt empowering. I felt uplifted. I felt, for brief moments of practice, that I was good enough. But it also felt like everyone seemed to find that practicing yoga, and only yoga, was the means to the healing. Discussion of medication, therapy, hell, western medicine at all, seemed to pale in comparison to the victory of using yoga to conquer what ails us.
So, what about the rest of us who needed “Yoga AND (fill in the blank).”
Yoga AND medication?
Yoga AND talk therapy?
Yoga AND 12 Step Groups?
Yoga class is “cheaper than therapy” is a statement that gets my blood boiling. We can discuss how Medicaid doesn’t agree that a $15 class drop-in fee is therapy some other time. Somewhere, somehow, in it’s growth and entrance into the western world, yoga became synonymous with green juice, detoxifying smoothies and a heavy dose of shunning western medicine, including the world of mental health professionals. Now don’t get me wrong – I fucking love a glass of fresh pressed juice, but I also believe in vaccinating my children against diseases that should remain a part of medical history. But I digress. It seemed that, for some, the yoga was supposed to be enough. That therapy, in all its forms and manifestations, was useless. I struggled to find my voice to express my disagreement.
The “M” Word
If it were only me fighting this battle, I might have kept my mouth shut and never spoke publicly about these issues. If it were only me, I would have probably worked hard in my tiny corner of the yoga community and not ever wrote, or published thoughts on these issues. But it’s not just me anymore.
That little guy that was the challenging baby has grown up and is currently battling anxiety and depression. At 12 years old, it’s a fucking hard battle to wage. And as his mother, and a fellow member of the Secret Squad of the Depressed, I’m fighting a battle on his behalf now. Maybe you are too – and here’s what it feels like:
FAILURE. EPIC FAILURE. HEART BREAKING FAILURE.
We read the parenting books. I nursed him. We read to him. We had him enrolled in excellent preschool education. We live in one of the best public school districts in the tri-county area. Grandparents and family members immersed him in culture – museums, story hours, parks, sports, every learning opportunity known to man. We eat well – whole foods, we monitor sugar, do not eat fast food, we ensure he gets enough sleep. We minimize screen time, we own zero gaming systems, we don’t have cable TV. We go to the library. We encourage social time with his friends, we expose him to new experiences, we eat family dinners 90% of the time, we teach him personal responsibility and we try to lead by example. When consequences are necessary, we prefer that they be timely, short-term and reflect real-world scenarios. We have worked to be the best possible parents we could be.
And my child is still depressed.
We don’t talk about depression the same way we talk about cancer. When a child gets cancer, it’s not the norm that society points its fingers at the parents. “Oh, cancer? Did you not do attachment parenting? Drank too much caffeine while you were pregnant?” And, even better, no one suggests that you go ahead and SKIP CHEMOTHERAPY or that recovery is a MATTER OF PERSONAL WILL. And yet, when we talk about depression, that’s exactly what people feel warranted to do. Everyone becomes an expert on holistic medicine and alternative therapies. Even when you don’t ask. When I started slowly sharing with others that our child was anxious and showing signs of depression, I got reactions and suggestions that included the following:
“Have you tried aromatherapy?” Yep, lavender, lemon, vetiver. You name it, I slathered him in it and diffused it.
“Maybe he’s actually just having seizures. You should probably take him to a neurologist.” It. Was. Not. Seizures.
“Have you taught him to meditate?” Yep. Multiple methods.
“Maybe he’s just an Indigo Child.” Not helping.
“He’ll grow out of it.” Seemed unlikely.
“Antidepressants make kids suicidal.” Sigh.
I stopped talking about it all together. I retreated into silence. I knew that each of these people believed they were being helpful, but every suggestion seemed steeped in skepticism that a twelve year old could be so depressed. I had a dear friend write me off because I cancelled plans with her on a particularly rough day at home. I took that as a sign to get even quieter. My husband and I became a two-person team, the stress of which has come close to breaking us on several occasions. We tried not to leave the house in the evening, because two parents was better than one and one parent could often not handle the stress on their own. Our daughter simply tried to stay out of the way. Daily symptoms included our son having rages of anger and episodes of crying that would happen in the same half hour. He was restless and sleepless at night. He was impossible to get out of bed the next morning. He was chronically sick from the exhaustive effort he was putting in to be a regular 12 year old kid. He no longer wanted to go to school. He felt enormous (self-imposed) pressure to earn good grades and to ace every assignment. He struggled to get along with his peers and often felt singled out, alone. At one point, finally, he informed us that he no longer wanted to live. We wept.
The journey from noticing that something was amiss to full-blown depression didn’t happen overnight. It took months. Along the way we read books, we came up with behavior contracts, positive reward systems, routines stacked on top of routines. We then threw the routines away and tried giving him more freedom. We tried no sugar diets, vitamin D supplements, aromatherapy, Reiki, talk therapy with a professional and endless talking at home. We requested workload reduction at school (homework had become a nightly Herculean effort) and then considered home schooling to avoid the pressure of state testing and the stress of grades. We enrolled him in pilot training – his passion – in the hopes of giving him something to look forward to each week. We lost our tempers. We tried again. We saw our pediatrician who confirmed his general health (NOT SEIZURES) and agreed that we were doing all we could do. And finally, with no other options left, we made an appointment with a child psychiatrist to get medication. We talked it over as a family first, weighed all the pros and cons and, in the end, allowed our son to make the decision himself. He wanted to try medication.
Talking to a qualified doctor was a relief that I can not quantify in words. The doctor we visited listened as I described every intervention we had tried at home and what the results (or lack thereof) looked like. He nodded, he smiled and he reassured me that we had done everything we could have possibly done to intervene. He congratulated us on trying so many avenues of treatment before we sought him out. In a soothing and calm voice, he explained that, in most cases, he sent parents home without medication and with two or three of the interventions we had already tried as a way to get started. Given that we had already done anything he would have suggested, he believed that medication was the next logical step. And perhaps a short-term step and not a lifelong one. As a precaution, we ran tests for ADHD, given a family history of the disorder. They came back negative.
We started medication the following day. And within three days and with little side effects, my son, the curious, albeit hard-headed, little boy was back. The puffiness under his eyes disappeared. He was able to hold conversations with us again (as much as a teenager could) and his ability to rebound in challenging situations began to return. Life is not perfect – far from it. We still have challenges. Consistency with his medication, sleep and nutrition are critical. A day or two of sleepovers, junk food and a forgotten dose means he’s not quite himself. He’s going through puberty, which presents all of the common challenges that parents of teenagers face. We often struggle to see the difference between him being a tween and having depression. We lose our temper. We try again. We cry. We praise him for the smallest of victories. We are on high alert for signs of impending doom.
The past year has left me and my husband a bit shell-shocked. We pick our battles carefully. We watch and observe and monitor and gauge. We work to be good parents to both of our children and to give our daughter the attention she most certainly has lacked this year. All of that monitoring and all of the giving is exhausting and draining. I started a business this year, a stressful and challenging experience. My husband has started a new job. We hope that each day will have a positive tone to it – but some mornings we still struggle and everyone leaves the house for the day on edge. We keep trying new things and remain steadfast in our commitment to a healthy lifestyle.
But, sometimes, I wonder if the feelings I’m feeling are not just that “I started a business and my kiddo is depressed and we don’t have very much money and the cars keep breaking down” feelings. I worry that I am depressed again too. How do you differentiate between the cloud coming back and life just being a shitstorm for a bit? I don’t have the answer. And here’s the other ugly part of it – I haven’t felt like I can talk about it. The rational part of me understands that yoga teachers are fallible, flawed human beings and that it’s critical that we not try to place ourselves on some type of saintly pedestal. I say fuck far too much to be any type of saint. But I worry that as a teacher, I’m supposed to be better, somehow more capable of enduring what life is throwing at me. It’s also that underlying feeling I still sense that the yoga is always supposed to be enough.
I practice six days a week in the Ashtanga tradition.
I meditate daily.
I practice Restorative yoga at least once a week, taking long periods of rest and savasana.
I study the sutras and chant almost daily.
I try to eat and follow an Ayurvedic routine to match the seasons.
I do ALL the things. I try, everyday, to walk the walk.
But right now, I still feel the cloud. I feel the enormity of trying to do all the things on my to-do list each day. I worry, every day, that my baby boy might be in for the same long haul that I’ve been trucking through. I feel slow and sluggish and just not like myself. I have moments of joy and excitement and am eager to keep them going, but they seem to dissipate faster now. I try to see friends and be social and interact and not retreat into my bed. And I’m facing the reality that it all might not be enough. Enough to get back to being me again. And with that reality comes the giant, fat, loud internal message that I am, once again, no good. I’m working hard to shut the voice down. To respond to it with the sassy, finger-waving version of Jessica that knows better. I don’t know what my next steps are but the yoga isn’t going anywhere. I keep putting my feet back at the top of my mat each day. I know that I can no longer seek out accomplishments to drown the voice that says I’m no good – and let’s keep it real here – my knees won’t survive another marathon. I keep showing up for my students. I’m seeking out learning opportunities and teachers who reflect the teacher I want to be for my community. I keep moving forward, one day at a time. I believe that is the best way to live my yoga.
If you or someone you love is suffering from depression, addiction, or any mental health problem, let me remind you that you are not walking this path alone. I do not have all of the answers, but please set your double espresso down and pull up a chair or roll your mat out next to mine and let’s do this thing together. And I don’t give a fuck if you pick lavender oil or Lexapro as part of your treatment plan. I’ll love you just the same.