I'm in the first grade. My parents are in the midst of a volatile divorce. My role is to keep things peaceful, which is no small task for a six year old. I approach my teacher during silent reading and ask her if it would be ok for me to step outside the back door, because I feel like I need to scream. She says yes. I walk out and scream as loud as I can. When I'm done I walk back inside of the classroom, go straight to my desk, and resume silent reading.
It's the fall of 1992. I'm 12-years old and trying to find my way in middle school. I join a group of kids who have mostly known each other from before. I do my best to try to stand out, but not too much; to get good grades, but not look like I'm trying too hard. It's both exciting and exhausting. The pressure mounts and I regularly feel as though I can't catch a deep, full breath. My dad schedules a doctor's appointment where they give me a breathing treatment. Midway through the treatment, I find myself still unable to get a deep breath. The doctor confirms that it doesn't appear to be asthma, but that's all we're left with.
I'm a senior in High School. I'm sitting in the intensive care unit at UCSF, holding my dying dad's hand. He's been there for months and I am driving back and forth between Sacramento and San Francisco to visit him as often as I can - all while managing financial aid and college applications, friendships, a relationship, homework, a job, and everything else that comes with wrapping up your adolescence. He would eventually die a few months before graduation. As a 17-year old, I'm holding it together as best I know how. But two things remain certain: I still can't catch a deep breath and I still want to scream.
But I don't.
I power on, because quite honestly, I don't know how to do anything else.
I'm now 19-years old and a sophomore in college. I'm in the midst of a painful break-up with my best friend, the person that helped move me through my dad's death. I'm forced to face both losses. I don't have the tools to walk through it gracefully. I drink excessively, eat terribly, never manage to get enough sleep, and I neglect my body. I'm hanging on by a thread. While driving home one night with a friend, I am sitting in the back seat, with an overwhelming feeling that something is very physically wrong with me. I am nauseous and hot. I feel weak. My heart is racing. I feel tingling and numbness. I ask her to take me to the emergency room. They hook me up to monitors and run tests. A nurse comes in and she is so patient and gentle with me. I trust her, which is a relief, because in that moment I don't even trust myself. She talks to me about how worked up she can get sometimes and how amazing it is, the power of the mind.
Everything in that moment stands still.
Is it possible I have created this? Is it possible that all of this in my mind?
This thought had never once occurred to me.
That moment marked my first conscious experience of anxiety, which seems so hard to believe. How can something have such a profound impact on your life, yet you didn't even know it was there? How can you be living your life in defense of something and have learned to masterfully navigate it, without even knowing you have it? It makes me want to hug my young, small self when I think about how big and brave I had been all those years. I was in full armor and fighting a battle I didn't even know existed.
That night set the ball of panic attacks in motion. Things I normally loved, like going to school and spending time with friends, would become daunting. My world became small and mostly vacillated between worry and panic. But you wouldn't have necessarily known that, because my standard modus operandi has always been Brave Little Soldier.
I powered on.
But I knew deep in my heart that this couldn't sustain, so I eventually found my way to the Wellness Center on campus where I signed up for free therapy. The therapist told me the plan was to create awareness of the anxiety, so that I could at least try to stay one step ahead of it. My biggest fears usually centered around having some type of health issue, which doesn't seem surprising in hindsight considering what I watched my Dad go through just two years prior. Death was scary. And it felt like it was chasing me. After a few months of therapy, for the first time in my whole life, I felt in control. And not in a superficial or compensating kind of way. But in a genuine, and real, and powerful way.
A few years later, I felt courageous enough to connect with my grief. I found a therapist who was both nurturing and firm. She had me doing some unconventional work, like using a red crayon on butcher paper to express anger while crying or screaming, or planting my feet in soil to reconnect to a sense of groundedness. She taught me the value of a good, ugly cry. She held space for me to be silent and not have answers. She taught me how to use my voice so that I could stand up for what I believed in, but even before that, how to discover what it was that I believed in. She taught me about worth and to be gentle with myself. She also taught me that sometimes you just need to let things fall apart. And that sometimes that dismantling is the beginning of something beautiful.
What I didn't know then, but I am fairly certain of now, is that for the first time in my life I was seeing myself for who I really was. Not my likable self, or my good self. Not my representative. Not the self I had created so that you liked me and I fit in. But the honest and raw and real me. And what was most surprising was that I actually really liked who I was seeing, much more than I ever had before.
All of this work led me to a place where I took an honest look at my drinking and eventually concluded that I needed to stop. I was done self-inflicting pain. This decision led me to 12-step work, where quite honestly, I became the happiest I had ever been in my life. For the first time ever, I saw my faults clearly. I took an honest look at where I needed to make things right with others and how to be more accountable for my actions. It created a sense of freedom and peace unlike anything I had ever known.
During this time, I deepened my relationship with yoga. It got me back into my body, which was something I had deeply missed. I connected with some of the pain that I had unknowingly been carrying with me for years. I worked through it, often with resistance and tears, but mostly with an open heart. I learned what surrender felt like. I learned how to listen, and how to breathe. For the first time in years, I felt like I finally exhaled. I decided to enroll in a teacher training program and was eventually able to give back the same gifts I had received from the practice.
I also started graduate school to study psychology, with the hopes of becoming a therapist myself. I knew that my own pain and healing were the kinds of ingredients that make someone helpful at walking with others through theirs.
Each of these outlets so perfectly completed a triad of mind, body, and soul. And for a long time, I have taught and lived from this place. And it's been a really incredible place to be.
But today, over ten years later, I have a confession...
All of those tools I developed in my years of training and practice, the same ones I have offered you throughout the years in every yoga class you came to, the ones I taught about your using your breath, and being in control of your own life, and having everything you need inside of you...they aren't working. As hard as I try, they simply won't work. And this place is dark and lonely. And I feel like a fraud.
I don't even know how I ended up here. Well, I do. It started with my mom having a very serious health scare this past summer. It sent me into a tailspin and reminded me that anxiety is always potentially one stressful experience away. Waiting patiently. I am humbled. And I have been reminded that despite the work I have done, and the healing that has occurred, I am not unique. I am a human being, and I am not exempt from suffering. In fact, if I am going to be a healer on this planet, my suffering is necessary. It's important for me not to forget what pain feels like. And I had forgotten. In the same way that you have compassion for someone who has the flu, but you don't really get just how miserable they are until you get the flu again yourself. So, I've got the flu. The mental and emotional flu. And I am remembering. Deeply remembering.
I have been brought to my knees, and although I am still spending time in this place, I am trusting in the gifts that I know will emerge. I'm reminding myself that seeds grow in dark places. They form solid roots in darkness and without those roots, they cannot flourish.
In this humility, I have been forced to find self-compassion. For the past few months I have been white knuckling this pain. I have used up every spiritual, natural, homeopathic, holistic, hippie tool imaginable. Unfortunately, it’s not working. So I have finally offered myself the grace to accept that it's ok to seek out other options. I don't have to be a Brave Little Soldier anymore. In fact, it’s important for me not to be.
I have given myself permission to try medication. And what I have realized is that this is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of true bravery for someone like me. The ultimate act of self-love. I'm guessing as the pill goes down, the tears will well up. But I know these tears are different. They are tears of healing.
I trust with my whole heart that this experience is Divine. It's all part of the plan. I prayed for this, in that I have continued to pray for growth. I have asked to be shown and used in a way that would grow me, and allow me to be of services to others. I wanted the process to be easy but I know better than that.
If you are reading this and you are in your own pain and darkness, I want you to know you are not alone. My wish is for us to hold love and compassion for ourselves to heal in whatever way we need to. I pray that we stay close to the people who love us most, and that they remind us of our worth and our beauty always. May we offer ourselves the gift of self-care. And may we always know how strong and capable we truly are.
I will leave you with a few Truths that I continue to remind myself of lately:
- It's ok to ask for and receive help.
- I am a healer and healers cannot make a difference without knowing what pain feels like.
- Both the light and the dark are necessary in becoming whole.
- Pain increases our capacity for empathy. Our pain and darkness might convince us that we are alone but if we allow it, some of our deepest connections will happen in that space of darkness.
- There is no arriving. God knows better than to allow us to get comfortable.
- Grief needs expression. I will allow myself to scream, and breathe deep, and sing, and laugh, and cry.
- Truth Heals. Even if it's dark.
- When we speak our Truth, we allow ourselves and others to heal.
So here's to Truth.
May we know It.
May we embrace It.
May we be It.