I was sick. And no one really knew about it.
Some people, like my graduate school peers, suspected something was wrong when I accidentally raised my hand in class and forgot to hold my sleeve up to cover my arm.
The sleeve slid down like a flag falling from its mast and revealed row upon row of red—some scabbed, some fresh—incisions.
I remember the look on one of my classmate’s faces: it was as though she’d come face-to-face with a specter; unable to decipher what, exactly, was in front of her, and yet knowing all too well.
Orphaned before I started high school and thrown into a foster care system that was ultimately unsafe, I became the victim of my parents’ death, and experienced emotional, mental, physical, and sexual abuse all before I hit 16. In retrospect, it’s no wonder that, without the proper guidance, tools, and community, my dive into the vortex of depression, disordered eating, OCD, and self-mutilation was predictable, if not unavoidable.
When a body and a psyche (especially that of a developing child) experience that amount of trauma without a support system, there are consequences.
By the time I hit my 20s I was fighting for my life, and most people had no idea.
Each day was a struggle against an invisible enemy that I couldn’t point to, somewhere out there to be defeated or overcome, because the enemy was within me.
Then, one day, I decided to give up the fight, because fighting any second longer felt worse than relinquishing the very thing I fought for: my own life.
Thankfully, I failed.
Miserably so, because today, I am not only alive—I am fully living; in fact, each day that passes I know healing more than I know meaninglessness.
While my personal experience with mental health is its own topic, one element that isn’t often discussed and that I believe in many ways allowed me to stay sick for as long as I was, is that most people don’t know how to react in the face of such sickness—sickness with symptoms that are self-inflicted, or whose external qualities are ephemeral, even completely invisible.
How do we help someone who cannot help themselves?
Here, we start to touch upon some interesting and important ethical questions—regarding autonomy, for example.
Yet, before we even get to the discussion of whether it is our responsibility to help a peer, coworker, or even a friend or family member who is potentially a harm to themselves, there is a bigger issue at hand: do we know how to detect such a situation?
And if so, what are our assumptions about those who struggle with mental health issues? Furthermore, should we arrive at the conclusion that there is, in fact, something we can do as a bystander, would we be capable enough to tread those waters or know who to turn to for help?
Discussions on mental health are difficult to have, partially because mental health is so often misunderstood, and as a result is littered with assumptions and misunderstandings. Yet, simultaneously, as we look around in our communities and we see the growing instances of gun violence in children, and suicidality in adults, it is a conversation that we desperately need to address.
But it isn’t easy. Even I, a seasoned diver into the dark and dangerous waters of suffering, was shocked to my core when I learned about the death of our dear teacher Michael Stone, one year ago last month.
The news rocked the Buddhist, spirituality, and yoga communities. It was an earthquake, an 8.0, the real deal, and it was asking us to wake up—which, incidentally was Stone’s message to us through his life, work, and teachings: we need learn to, as he put it, “be awake in the world.”
It’s understandably bewildering how such deep levels of suffering can exist in even the most equanimous, kind, and awake of us, lurking deep in the shadows. In fact, Michael Stone’s death was a personal wake-up call for me, as it made me question my assumptions regarding who is fair game for issues of mental health.
The answer, I discovered, is that we all are—regardless of our practices, our commitment to those practices, and our heartfelt desire to heal.
The truth is that a psyche is as delicate as it is resilient.
I believe one aspect of our apprehension to approach the issue of mental health is that, in some ways, it requires us to acknowledge the presence of that potential loss of control within ourselves.
This hits on a critical truth that the philosophy of yoga predicates itself on: as Joseph Campbell once put it, there is no foreground, there is no background—upon closer inspection of our human condition we find a critical truth: the suffering in others happens to be inextricable from our own.
Suffering is an intrinsic part of the human condition, as fundamental to our experience as breathing: so long as we are embodied, we will experience pain. And yet, most of us are not taught what to do with that suffering. In fact, our culture often teaches us to run away from pain, and in so doing, we are fleeing one of our greatest teachers. As a result, we also flee from ourselves, and hence from each other. Then, the gap between us widens, and suffering deepens.
As I’ve been traveling the country on tour for my recent book, Yoga for the Wounded Heart: a Journey, Philosophy, and Practice of Healing Emotional Pain, I’ve had the opportunity to share my work and my story, and it’s a story with one direct message: yoga saved my life.
And yet, there is an addendum: yoga is not a cure-all.
Yoga is a tool—an extraordinarily powerful one—that will help us arrive in full presence for whatever is here, even the specters; in ourselves, and in others.
Yoga teaches us to come back—here, to the center of our experience, to the home in our bodies, in our hearts. It teaches us how to integrate, how to become whole again.
The philosophy of yoga can serve as a remarkable guide through consciousness; one that we can learn to use as we might a compass, as we travel the often uncharted waters of our own internal life. Then, it teaches us how to abide with others, so that we don’t get caught in judgmental glances or confused interactions.
The more I do this work, and the more people with wounded hearts I meet all over the country who share their stories with me, the more that I am convinced of yoga’s truth: unless we are all healed, none of us is fully healed. For me, this is a true call to action—to rise up, show up, and utilize the most healing tool we all have: our unresisting presence.
My hope is that as we continue to abide in presence, our willingness to open up the conversation of mental health will grow, and do so from a place of compassion and curiosity.