“The truth about childhood is stored up in our bodies and lives in the depths of our souls. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings can be numbed and manipulated, our perceptions shamed and confused, our bodies tricked with medication, but our soul never forgets. And because we are one, one whole soul in one body, someday our body will present its bill.”
~ Alice Miller, Breaking Down the Walls of Silence
I’m often asked how I became a yoga teacher and wellness coach after spending time in finance.
“I love working with people and staying active” is my go-to response. I’m not lying, but I’m not being entirely truthful either.
The truth is, 10 years ago, I nearly lost my life to depression.
That’s so scary to see in writing, and for some of you it’s scary to read. I’m going to try to deliver my message thoughtfully and honestly. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t want this to mislead anyone to think I’m anti-pharma.
My goal is to inform others about holistic approaches to dealing with depression, anxiety, insomnia and other ailments that hold us back from being our most radiant selves. For years, I’ve wanted to share my health and wellness journey, but I simply was not ready.
In the 1990s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente published a study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (known as The ACE Study). Events such as death of a parent, divorce, neglect and child abuse account for an ACE. Most Americans have one ACE. For a person with an ACE score of four or more, the relative risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is three times higher than that of someone with an ACE score of zero.
For depression, it was nearly five times higher. For suicidality, it was 12. What? 12 times more likely for suicide?
I immediately took the questionnaire to determine my own ACE score: seven. In that moment, I felt like I solved an enigma I had been working on for 28 years.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., explains the study:
“The first time I heard Robert Anda present the results of the ACE study, he could not hold back his tears. In his career at the CDC he had previously worked in several major risk areas, including tobacco research and cardiovascular health. But when the ACE study data started to appear on his computer screen, he realized that they had stumbled upon the gravest and most costly public health issue in the United States: child abuse. He had calculated that its overall costs exceeded those of cancer or heart disease and the eradicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism my two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters…”
Since I was a kid, I battled health issues (asthma, ear infections and allergies). A month prior to my high school graduation, I was diagnosed with autoimmune disease of the liver and acute hepatitis. I didn’t have a family history of this disease, and I wasn’t a drinker. I was an athlete, training for Division I soccer at a PAC-10 University. I had no idea what my new diagnoses even meant. The whites of my eyes and my skin had turned yellow from jaundice (due to the excessive destruction of my red blood cells); my liver and spleen had become so inflamed that they were visible, and painful to touch.
After two weeks in the pediatric unit, ultrasounds, biopsies, blood transfusions and a heavy Prednisone prescription later, I left for college. I was told not to play contact sports, advised to come in for blood work regularly and warned I would likely need a liver transplant by 25.
I was in shock. How could this be?
Shortly after beginning college, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus. My body ached, I had no energy and I was depressed and had trouble sleeping. I didn’t know at the time that the liver and spleen are directly correlated to insomnia. When there is a blood deficiency or excess emotions affecting the heart, the body is restless, and therefore can’t sleep. In addition, Prednisone (the medication I began taking prior to college) has dangerous side effects, including anxiety, depression (including suicidal thoughts), mood swings, insomnia, difficulty concentrating and rapid weight gain and acne.
No wonder I was struggling so much.
I made an appointment with the campus doctors immediately. I was sent home with anti-depressants and sleeping medication. I was now taking new medication to treat symptoms from other medications.
I was 18 at the time; no parental signature or approval was needed to go home with anti-depressants or sleeping medications. Both have extreme side effects. I wanted to ask my parents and coaches if it was okay, but I decided not to. I was too ashamed.
In my senior year of college, my depression became so unbearable that I considered suicide. Daily. Sometimes hourly. While I never attempted suicide, I was certain it was my fate.
One day in Berkeley, I rode my scooter to the local Barnes & Noble. I spent an entire day reading about the immune system, the liver, trauma and holistic approaches to depression. I was blown away by how much material I found on stress and the direct connection to the liver. I read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
I was so eager to kick my depression that I spent my entire grocery budget on new books and a Rodney Yee yoga DVD. Shortly after, I began taking yoga and meditation classes. On days I felt anti-social, I made myself practice at home.
Meditation and yoga have had a profound influence on my healing, both physically and emotionally. I grew up appreciating my body for it’s athleticism—but that’s it. Very often, survivors of sexual abuse neglect their bodies. Some hide it with food and emotional eating. Others numb the pain with drugs and alcohol or become promiscuous and set no boundaries to protect their body, because no one protected them when they were most vulnerable.
Me, I neglected my pain. When I began to suffer with depression, I sought help with medication, but I didn’t seek therapy. In a way, the medication was just a Band-Aid when I really needed stitches. I needed to dig below the surface and acknowledge the root of the problem, the source of the chaos. Yoga helped me initiate the healing process.
In his book, Journey into Power, Baron Baptiste, discusses the magic of yoga:
“…the physical changes are only a by-product of a more empowering purpose. The physical magic just kind of happens as you go through the practice. The real miracle is what starts happening underneath, within you. We soak up life like a sponge, holding tensions, fears, and anxieties in our system. In yoga practice you reach down into all the nooks and crannies and hidden pockets of tissue, excavating all this clogging, unwanted stuff. Through the challenges on your mat, you step up to what I call your edge and pull up whatever is inside you that needs to be healed and released. You also discover how strong you really are, physically and mentally. Almost as if by magic, lifelong fears dissipate, your mind gets quiet and gains startling clarity psychic wounds from deep down surface to be healed… You begin to understand on a deep level what is right for you and what to do.”
Not long after becoming a devoted yogi, and a very inflexible one at that, I began to feel a shift. I stopped taking all medications (the side effects I experienced were far worse than the benefits). My heart began to feel again. On days I could not focus or be present while meditating, I prayed. I found my way back to God—call it what you want, a higher power. I began to love my body and nourish it in ways I never had before. I also found new ways to express my emotions. I began taking improv and acting classes. Acting was (and still is) an expressive outlet that got me out of my comfort zone and brought me joy.
After my third year of yoga practice, I enrolled in a yoga-teaching program. The desire to retrain myself on wellness didn’t stop there. In 2011, I quit my job in finance and traveled to New York to get a second yoga teacher certification. Once I got home from NYC, I went back to school to study nutrition.
After a decade of a healthier lifestyle, I’m still medication free, and my liver is in good health (didn’t need the transplant after all!). My health is still my greatest priority, and I wake up each day loving what I do.
I can’t predict the future, and I’m not certain that lung disease or cancer won’t show up one day. That’s out of my control. I do my best to make positive and healthy choices every day; that is in my control.
I don’t do it for external motives. I do it for my soul, my liver, my heart and my brain. I want to stay well and give my body a fighting chance in case I need to fight disease again one day. Because I’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, the likelihood I develop another autoimmune disease is three times greater than for someone without one. Because my ACE score exceeds four, my life expectancy is 20 years shorter than someone with an ACE score of zero.
While these numbers frighten me, they inspire me more. I have crawled my way out of darkness.
I want to live.
A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response, George Everly Jr. and Jeffrey Latings
Childhood Disrupted, Donna Jackson Nakazawa
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kelk, M.D.
To find out more on The ACE Study or to find out your score, please visit their website.
Author: Katie Martinez
Editor: Toby Israel
Photo: Author’s own