I have a dirty secret. The truth is, I’m not a real yogi.
Lately, I have been going through one of those times we talk about often in the yoga community; a time that tests your faith. A time when you are supposed to tap into all the tools you learn as a practitioner and apply them. So what did I do? I fell right back into old patterns. Now, I’ll never know if my tools worked because I didn’t give myself the opportunity to try them out on the battleground.
When I was about 20 years old, I had my first panic attack. It was an experience that shook me to my core. It was likely the result of post-traumatic stress related to my mother’s death when I was a teenager. That’s just my arm chair psychology speaking, though, so who knows.
At any rate, throughout the second semester of my sophomore year of college, I lived in a state of perpetual anxiety. Many nights, I slept – or attempted to – on the floor of my friends’ dorm rooms, too afraid to be alone. There were even a few nights I spent in the infirmary. I think I drove everyone crazy (no pun intended). All they wanted to do was drink and party, but I needed them instead to hold my hand.
At this time, anti-depressants weren’t as pervasive as they are today. I know some people feel like there is still a stigma attached to these types of medications, but I really don’t. At the time, though, I was shocked at the idea of possibly needing a drug to feel “normal.” Drugs for recreational purposes I understood – that was certainly a common enough occurrence at my school. But needing a pill to simply function every day was one step away from a strait jacket and a lobotomy to me. I wouldn’t even consider the idea.
The acuteness of my affliction ran its course and I began to feel better over time. There were flashes of panic and anxiety, but generally, I was able to leave it on the back burner. But it was still there.
Later, in my 20s, it came back with a vengeance. Again, it was a stressful situation that brought it on, this time regarding a boy. Don’t all stories really begin and end with a boy, after all? Unfortunately, the romantic rejection was less stressful than the subsequent panic attacks. I succumbed to the suggestion of a psychiatrist that I take an anti-depressant. After I quickly gained 15 pounds, I stopped cold turkey. No one had spoken to me of withdrawal or weaning. For a solid week or so, I felt more wretched than I ever had. It was probably the only time in my life, no matter how depressed I had ever been before or after, that I had a fleeting thought of hurting myself. Thankfully, the withdrawal ended and I, once again, returned to a relatively normal existence.
If you’ve ever had anxiety, depression or panic attacks you probably know that feeling that one wrong move will bring it all crashing back on you again. That was certainly always in the back of my mind. And I wasn’t wrong. Ultimately, some things are just a matter of brain chemistry. And mine apparently tends toward the wonky.
So my panic returned, as it inevitably does. Thankfully, I met a doctor I trust immensely and I tried the things she asked me to try. I gained more weight, but I felt better. And I attempted to wean and I panicked again. It wasn’t until my 30s, after yet another unpleasant situation – you know, the kind that happen pretty regularly in life, but that somehow throw me for a bigger loop than other people – that I finally stuck with a particular medication. I was on it for probably close to six years. I’d never felt better (except for yet another 15 pounds that I gained and never lost).
I felt like a different person altogether; balanced and centered. I would even go so far as to say I felt happy; a shocking concept for me. Life continued to have its ups and downs and, occasionally, I would get tossed on my butt as a result. But unlike before, I got up pretty quickly and moved on.
So, why does all this make me a fake yogi? Let me backtrack for a minute.
On a parallel track to my trials and tribulations with the pharmaceutical industry, I met and fell in love with yoga. I learned about the physiological benefits of various postures and how the breath helped to navigate the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems and how meditation literally changes the grooves in your brain for the better. I learned about Ayurveda and how nutrition and self-care help mitigate and manage ailments including those of a psychological nature.
Because I had these tools at my disposal - and because I’d felt so good for so long - I suggested to my doctor that I try life medication-free. She agreed. Of course, I had a moment of “wait, why am I rocking the boat?” But my doctor gently insisted that I give it a try; that I was ready. So, last fall, I began very slowly weaning. And I was doing so well! But then the bottom dropped out.
Looking back, I think it probably started pretty much from the get go, but I didn’t immediately notice. I felt a bit edgier and less tolerant than usual. Problems started to weigh on me more heavily. Around the holidays, I found myself drifting into sadness. But I chalked it up to my usual holiday blues.
My doctor and I monitored it. I thought, “I’ll meditate more, eat more leafy greens and make sure to do a more vigorous vinyasa practice.” I didn’t want to go back to the medication without first applying my yogic tools. I admit though – I wasn’t very rigorous or consistent about doing so.
And then a few weeks ago, the anxiety returned full force. I had forgotten what it felt like; the sides of my neck strung tight like piano wire and a permanent knot between my shoulders. A sense of disassociation colored my interactions with people. My brain latched on to unpleasant thoughts and refused to let go. Crying jags would overcome me to the point where I couldn’t catch my breath.
All I wanted was to make it go away. And I knew, with a few pills over the course of a few days, it would. I knew then that I would go back on my medication. And honestly, I’ll probably never go off of it. I never want to feel that sense of panic and despair again if I can avoid it. Because that’s not me; or at least it’s not the me I want to be.
But I am left with the thought of “what if.” What if I had been stricter with my meditation practice? What if I had done vinyasa every day instead of just three or four times a week? What if I’d eaten healthfully instead of letting my depression launch me into a carb-fest? Would that have helped?
Most of all, I question whether it is the drugs or the yoga that made me a more centered person in the first place. How can I espouse the virtues and benefits of yoga when I can’t be sure that they’re what’s benefitted me most?
I love yoga and I do believe in it. Hopefully, I will always practice. But I will also probably always be on antidepressants as well. I guess I’ll never be sure what the magic equation is between the two. But I do know that when I am miserable, anxiety ridden and beside myself, there is no way I can be the change I want to see in the world. So I guess it’s not an either or for me; it’s going to have to be both from here on out.