Spring is here and with it comes the burst of tree buds and daffodils and piles of bags to be delivered to the Salvation Army after a good weekend cleaning session.
There is rebirth and re-imagining, a new pope and a new pair of sandals.
I walked out of my house the other evening and was transcendentally stunned by the evening sunlight after months of darkness.
I rolled the car windows down and took off for dinner with a friend; it was at this point that my spring buzz wore off while listening to public radio. The show focused on the fact that spring has the highest suicide rate of all other seasons. They reported that this increase is seen around the world, regardless of culture or socioeconomic level.
In some cases the increase in what they termed “successful” suicides is as much as 50%. Upon hearing this, I changed the channel to the R&B station.
This is information that I already know.
For one, the CNN news ticker is always glad to assure us around Christmas that we are fine, that the peak suicide time isn’t for months down the road. We can eat and drink and be merry. Then, spring comes in with a roar with the mandatory depression segment on every morning show and we are reminded that some of us aren’t so interested in sandals or sunlight.
While it’s very hard for me to see how someone can be unhappy when the world is awakening and oozing every glorious color imaginable, I myself have experienced this strange spring melancholy and walked through it like a blind woman; it was hard to see through the window while my shades were drawn.
I’ve had so many friends who’ve experienced it as well. There have been the all-night phone calls and the desperate texts and the cancelled plans. Or the bleary-eyed co-worker who begins to eat lunch alone in her office and cries quietly in the bathroom stall.
Though it can be hard to imagine, you don’t really have to—either through social media or human contact or personal experience, you’ll uncover someone who is feeling more gangrene than green.
Researchers don’t actually know what causes this spike in depression and anxiety during spring. There are a million theories, some stating that sunlight causes hormonal changes that may trigger these experiences; some say that sunlight may give a depressed person more energy to plan their own deaths.
This seems absolutely contradictory to other research that claims that people who live in hot, sunny climates suffer from depression far less than those who don’t. Most research seems to indicate that sunlight is good for your mind and your body, that it makes people more content and tolerant.
For the most part, doctors don’t seem to have any concrete answers about why this is the case. They do, however, claim to have a way to solve it: prescription medication. Take a piece of paper to the pharmacy, obey the instructions, don’t worry too much about the side effects, and you’ll be feeling better in under a month.
It seems like it should be the simplest of solutions.
Unless you’re a yogi—one who prides herself on having a direct connection to her mind and body. A person who has dedicated herself to wrangling her mind and twisting her body into a toxin-free pillar of light and love. The yogic life is one of organic kale and fresh squeezed juice and PBC-free yoga mats.
We have to consider not only what we put out into the world, but what we put into ourselves, too.
The primary reason for this is that yoga is essentially a way to reach a blissful state through meditation. We practice this skill of quieting our minds with the assurance that it is achievable—that we can gain control of our chaotic inner states. The Bhagavad Gita tells us that this isn’t easy, and it may take a thousand lifetimes, but eventually we’ll get there if we remain dedicated.
As someone who does meditate daily, I agree that it isn’t easy and I acknowledge that it may happen in my next lifetime, when I don’t enjoy Us Weekly and vodka quite as much.
I have unwavering dedication to my meditation practice because I have reached the sweet spot a few times. Those few amazing seconds of anchorlessness proved to me that I could dive down into that ocean of pure consciousness, as David Lynch says. There is, though, no place for smugness or certainty. The next day’s meditation is more akin to a reeking Carnival Cruise-liner with a chorus of complaints.
Why is my mind a stranger to me?
To understate: the mind is a mystery, even to those who spend their lives studying it. We have traveled to the very ends of the earth—to space even-—but the dead north of our bodies is a largely unexplored territory. I recently read Diane Ackerman’s perfect memoir, One Hundred Names for Love, in which she tells the story of her husband’s stroke. The doctors claimed his brain was so damaged that he would function at a childlike level for the rest of his life. Ackerman and her team of believers nursed him back to neurological health.
He’s now writing novels again, much the to the doctors’ wonderment.
Is this a miracle, or did Ackerman stumble onto a revolutionary new cure for brain damage? You could say that either one is right, because the truth is…we just don’t know. For those suffering from depression and anxiety, this not-knowing is important to understand. There will be yogis who tell you that your current state is just the mind-stuff, or the swirling Vata energy of the season. They will say that you need to ground yourself, redouble your meditative practice and clean up your diet. No medication required.
Doctors will say that you need to seriously consider getting your serotonin levels balanced and give you a free sample. They will have the perfect pill for you if you don’t mind your sex drive decreasing and your waistline increasing.
Most of them will be genuinely concerned about your welfare and hope to give you your life back. Yes, they say, keep up the meditation and yoga. But you have to bring in the big guns for this one.
So many people I’ve known down through the years have been torn between these two modes of thinking. For some of my yogi friends, depression was a secret kept close—a perceived failure of practice or right living. The yoga community is very compassionate when it comes to depression, but when you are depressed, you’re already suffering from feelings of guilt and self-doubt.
To some, admitting you are depressed feels like an admission of wrongdoing—admitting that you’re taking a mood-altering pill feels criminal.
Yogis are right to have their concerns. A 2011 report by the CDC revealed that 1 in 10 Americans are on antidepressants. Not surprisingly, women were the majority of that group, with as many as one in five of women ages 40-59 taking some form of antidepressant.
It’s telling that the highest percentage of Americans on antidepressants are going through the major life change of menopause. There’s a lot of literature out there about the western fear of women’s emotions and bodies, and it seems entirely believable that we’ve medicated what is a natural—albeit disconcerting—experience.
We also know that our children are overmedicated, with nearly 4% of those ages 12-17 on some kind of prescription antidepressant.
We see the abuses of the pharmaceutical companies everyday, simply in the way their commercials invade our sitcoms and our internet searches. It’s hard not to feel wary of these pills, and understandably so. We should be like mother bears with our minds and protect our little brains ferociously.
Research and religious texts aside, I had a yogi friend recently ask my advice on the subject of medication. She was deeply depressed and hopeless, and had been for at least the last year. To anyone who may see her in a class, this would be a surprise. She is the most vibrant light in any room and the most dedicated of students.
This was a sorrow she was able to manage quietly until the last month.
And now it’s to the point where it’s scaring me, she said.
I thought about the public radio segment and how unqualified I was to give her any advice on the matter. If I gave her the wrong advice, would she do something irreversible? If I told her to take the medication her doctor offered, would I be a bad yogi? If I told her not to take it, would I be endangering her health?
Perhaps it took me too long to respond, but in the end she answered her own question. I think that yoga teaches us to listen to our bodies and minds. To mindfully care for our mental and physical health.
She reached the conclusion that taking the medication would be caring for her mind and body, that yoga had helped her to see how truly devastating her condition was. She knew her mind well, and because of that she knew how deeply troubled it was.
She listened to herself. After researching and weighing the options, it came down to a meditative investigation of what was best for her.
This, I think, is the yogis responsibility: to take the gifts we’ve been given and apply them when we hit rough waters.
Some people need life rafts and some don’t, but eventually we’ll all dive into that deep ocean.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise