From Madness to Resilience: My Story of Revival
On a recent November evening, as I added the words “trust your resilience” to a professional black and white photo of myself in gate pose, I felt uneasy. Sure, I was pleased with the picture, and I was hopeful that it would be well received by my followers on social media, but I wrestled with posting myself in a stylized yoga pose with an affirmation intended to inspire viewers. Was I portraying myself as an enlightened yogi who no longer needed to aspire or be inspired? Was I suggesting to the world that I have all the answers because I practice and teach yoga? Or that I always trust my own resilience?
And then I randomly glanced at the calendar. November. I felt the unease rise up again as I looked at my photo. I sensed in my bones with absolute certainty that I needed to share a story with you about last November. There’s a truth I want you to know—one I never imagined I would share publicly—about who I am and why I do the work I do.
Last November I was psychotic. Legitimately clinically psychotic. At that time, I was 38, my daughters were 3 and 1, and I was in the sixth year of my career as a medical writer after completing a PhD in English in 2007.
I have yet to discern which was worse, the embarrassment or the horror of my insanity.
I pitied my children and husband. I felt shame that my husband had married a lemon, and I was haunted by the threat that my ill mind would set my daughters up for instability, confusion, trauma, and lifelong therapy.
By the time I was admitted to the psych ward at Bryn Mawr Hospital outside of Philadelphia, my left arm was covered with bright red raised scratch lines from knives, paper clips, thumbtacks, and tweezers. I had had a wire around my neck at least twice, and I had horrifying visions of my body hanging from traffic lights, doorframes, buildings, and light posts. I could not look up at the open sky without seeing my body flailing as it dropped from airplanes or bridges. I was afraid to sleep, fearful that I would not wake up. Yet, it hurt to be awake. I longed to be huddled in a dark hole, hidden from the world, left to stare at nothing. I believed I was forever lost to this world, my family, and myself.
Just five months earlier, I spent a month in residential treatment for a relapse with anorexia. While in treatment, I was diagnosed with depression for the first time in my life. I had tremendous apprehension about taking an antidepressant, but for the sake of my children—for a shot at them having a stable, healthy mother—I agreed to try it. I also hoped that an antidepressant would give me the best chance at maintaining my recovery. If my mood was more “up,” I believed I would be better equipped to handle the endless challenges of recovering from an eating disorder.
Initially, the medication worked beautifully. I noticed an improvement in my mood and overall disposition. Within 2 months, however, my mood severely dropped. I felt empty, unmotivated, sad, and lost. My mind hurt, literally.
Based on these symptoms, my psychiatrist did what any other psychiatrist would do—upped the dose of my medication again.
Relief did not come. My mental pain only grew more fierce. I felt like a sick animal that needed to be put out of its misery. And so, a month later, my medication was increased again, this time to the highest dose.
What followed was a fast, dreadful spiral into hell.
I no longer recognized myself in the mirror or in pictures. I could not access happiness or positive feelings. I was empty. My light was extinguished. My every thought was about death and dying. It hurt to be awake—and the hurt was intolerable.
One morning at work, after vigorously running a thumbtack back and forth the length of my forearm, a crystal clear thought shot into my mind like a shooting star at midnight. I had not had a lucid thought in months. Somehow, my intuition had broken through the mental pain to tell me that the darkness, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and desperate emptiness were induced by the medication. This had to explain my madness, why my behavior and thoughts were so extraordinarily out of character.
In that single moment, I knew this to be fact: there was too much drug in my brain.
That afternoon I showed my therapist my arm. It did not take too much to convince her that my psychosis was medically induced. My wonderfully warm, caring, smart therapist swiftly took action. Because antidepressants are very powerful, tapering requires careful, close monitoring. Plus, my safety was still in danger, as my psychosis grew more threatening. Sadly, the only place that I would be safe was a psych ward—away from my husband and children, away from thumbtacks, and away with other clinically psychotic individuals like myself.
Having had recently spent a month in residential treatment for my eating disorder and now admitting to a psych ward for psychosis, my sense of self-worth and legitimacy in this world was nil. Still, the only feasible option I had was to enter the doors of the psych ward and pray to walk out sane.
And I did.
As the concentration of the antidepressant in my brain lowered, the urges to self-harm and the visual imaginings disappeared. The psychiatrist at the hospital recommended a cross taper, meaning that, as the dose of my current antidepressant was gradually reduced, another one would be initiated and slowly increased to therapeutic range. Luckily, I was sane enough to refuse this course of action; there was no way in hell I was risking the side effects of another antidepressant.
Upon the strong recommendation of my therapist and psychiatrist, however, I agreed to remain on the low dose of my medication after I discharged from the hospital. Eventually, I dropped down to the drug’s initiating dose, and I have remained one that very low level ever since.
I have tried to go off the medication completely, intently wanting to test who I am without it. I learned that without my medication, I am depressed. I believe the hormonal shifts of pregnancy activated my genetic disposition for depression, and I have come to accept that a small amount of drug improves my well-being. I do not feel ashamed for needing it; rather, I am grateful for the stability it provides. I can stand my ground as a mother and hold steady for my daughters and husband.
I continue to work on my eating disorder recovery. For all the torment it has caused, nothing will ever scare me almost to death as the episode of medically induced psychosis did.
I am the strongest, healthiest version of myself when I am on my yoga mat. I express myself most fully and uncritically through asana.
Which brings me back to my photo in gate pose.
I shared this story with you so that should you see a picture of me in a yoga pose with an inspiring affirmation, you know that you and I are the same. No amount of yoga will change that. We are both trying to figure out this life, to heal past wounds, to find steadiness and peace of mind. The affirmations I write are the very ones I tell myself. Nothing has challenged my resilience like mental illness has, which is why I must remind myself to trust.
My life has flourished since last November. My relapse and depression have inspired me to create Chime, to reprioritize how I spend my time, and to commit to resilience.
My work as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist is as much about guiding others to happiness and healing as it is for myself. It is precisely because I work on myself, because I know the depth of darkness and the sheer cruelty of mental pain, that I am devoted to guiding others’ healing. My work as a mentor is an expression of my desire to hold space for others to harness nuances from their life’s experiences and to create meaning out of ordinary and extraordinary moments. Ultimately, my work seeks to draw upon the full spectrum of my experiences to help people thrive in all facets of their lives.
I often question if I am a good enough mother and wife, and if my family would be better off without me because of my eating disorder and depression. Deep down, however, I know that my quest for resilience and commitment to the wellbeing of our family unit makes my heart a worthy one that is capable of mothering, loving, and protecting.
Thank you for bearing witness to my story.
Hold steady in your resilience.