Why I talk about my mental health so openly
If you’ve been reading my newsletters or blogs for the past two years you may or may not know that my mental health has been through some ups and downs. I know that many of you reading this are nodding and thinking “PREACH! Me, too.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned through this journey it’s this: whatever I’m feeling, someone else out there has felt it too and I’m not alone — that really helps.
There have been mixed responses to me sharing about my mental health challenges as I’ve started sharing more and more. I’ve received lots of concern, lots of care and lots of unsolicited advice (no worries if that was you 😉 we all do it!) I wanted to take a minute to unpack why I share about these challenges so openly and why you might consider opening up to your loved ones about your challenges, too.
In case you missed it, let me start this email off by naming the labels that have been attributed to my mental health over the years: ADHD, cPTSD, highly sensitive, anxious, depressed and rOCD. As one of my teachers, Martin Stock, would say: “It makes for an interesting life, because what’s a life without challenges?” I usually want to jump off our Zoom meeting when he says that… but he does have a point. I was recently doing some research on the challenges that folks in the LGBTQIA+ community face and found that we are 2.5x more likely to require mental health services than folks who are not. So I guess it adds up.
One of my earliest meditation teachers, Michael Stone, had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder that I discovered when I heard that he had died of a drug overdose alone in Vancouver. At the time I was living at the Sivananda Ashram in California and the news bowled me over. I can remember being in my tent on the ashram grounds and crying and crying, being so shocked and angry with him for taking street drugs laced with opioids (he had taken the drugs during one of his manic episodes.) “He should have known better!” I kept repeating out loud to the trees. This was a person who taught about ethics and morality and the importance of being trauma aware. He advocated for conservation of our natural world. He had three kids and a wife… and yet this is how his life ended? I admired him so much and often looked to him as a guiding light when I felt lost. None of this made any sense to me at the time.
He had never told his students about his mental health condition although apparently, he was just on the cusp of doing so before his passing. I can only imagine how isolating that must have been for him… he had a large global following and was a tremendous teacher, philosopher and lecturer, yet he also had a mental health challenge that he never talked about with his community. I’ll never know why he chose not to, but I can imagine that the stigma of having BPD while being a spiritual teacher, activist and leader was a tough gap to cross.
Through Michael’s passing, I came to see understand a few things about how I was relating to him as a spiritual teacher:
I had elevated him on a pedestal
I assumed that he lived life with a general sense of ease and calm
Being on a pedestal is a lonely place to be
We do this with so many of our teachers and leaders, don’t we? And we’re always so shocked when they fall (see: almost every major school of yoga who’ve come out with deep histories of abuse and trauma). We project onto these teachers what are called our “golden qualities” — the qualities that we have not yet embodied ourselves but can see in others. We talk about how wonderful they are and how it’s such a shame that we will never have those same qualities ourselves. We forget that we can see those qualities in them because we have them in us. For example, I thought Michael had a powerful and engaging way of speaking to his students. I’ve been told similar things by my students but I struggle to see those qualities in myself without someone telling me.
I think to some extent it’s also a way for us to create the feeling of safety that we lost in childhood when we found out our parents were not in fact all-knowing but were disappointingly human and fraught with imperfection like the rest of us. We project our hopes of finding a new “parental figure” on our teachers who seem to have it all “figured out” and now we have someone to look to again when we’re scared, lost and confused. We’re so willing and ready to hand out power away so that we don’t have to take full responsibility for our lives.
Further, we assume that because our teachers teach about peace, enlightenment, compassion and kindness that they must be experts at embodying those qualities themselves on a daily basis. They must always be peaceful, compassionate, kind... right? This is a huge disservice to us as students and also to our teachers because it creates a false illusion about what it means to be a human being. It also leaves our teachers entirely encased in an image that we need them to uphold so that we can feel better about being around them. God forbid they show their humanness and then we are faced with the painful reality of their lack of perfection.
So I try to be honest about my humanness and about my struggles and challenges, as much to protect you from your own delusions about me as it is to protect me from being held on a pedestal in a role that I cannot possibly sustain nor do I want to — it’s too isolating being up there, encased in gold like an Oscar statue.
The second reason that I try to be forthcoming about mental health challenges is so that people know that they aren’t alone in their struggles and that these struggles are a normal part of being a human. “Terminal Uniqueness” is the term given to the condition that we experience when we are deep in our suffering and we are convinced we are the only person on the planet who suffers in the way that we do. The voice of Shame is loud and she insists that we are broken and alone and unlovable and that no one could ever possibly understand the pain that we’re experiencing when in reality things couldn’t be more opposite than that. In the healing groups that I’m a part of, I’ve witnessed more commonality than difference and more similarity than terminal uniqueness. The voice of Shame is stopped in its tracks when it realizes that our pain is not unique but in fact shared with all of humanity. We all experience loneliness, isolation, boredom, anger, jealousy and irritability sometimes. This is part of the human experience!
I hope for us to move away from the “love and light” culture of toxic positivity toward actual compassion and care.
I hope for relationships where our tough stuff doesn’t get smothered in comments about how we should just “look at the bright side”, “cheer up”, “it can’t be that bad”, “it’s all in your head”, “you’re so sensitive” or “just stop worrying” and instead we’re met with sentiments of “that sounds really hard”, “I can see you’re in pain right now, and I want you to know I care”, “I’m here with you even though we don’t have the same experience”.
I hope that in reading my emails where mental health challenges are discussed readers are
learning to be with their own discomfort with my suffering and then they may learn to be more comfortable with their own. When we’re able to be with our own suffering, we’re less likely to act out through our addictions (social media, work, alcohol, drugs, relationships, sex, talking, smoking, eating, shopping, gambling, etc.) and more likely to find peace.
On another note, here’s what I’ve been focusing on for the last 6 months in terms for supporting my mental health: being a students in the rOCD Course. ROCD (relationship OCD) is a condition where people experience intrusive thoughts about their relationships. This is an experience that I’ve had on-and-off in different shades of intensity for much of my teenage and adult life although I didn’t know it was called that until about 6-months ago. The stress of the pandemic, coming out as Queer, being in my first healthy relationship (to Christa), loosing my job and community at Modo London and becoming a solo-entrepreneur all led to a spike in my symptoms. Now, for the first time in my life, at the tender age of 33, I’m formally learning about cognitive distortions, how trauma is impacting my current relationships, attachment styles, codependency, what love is, how to work with intrusive thoughts and what healthy relationships are.
Sidebar… RIDDLE ME THIS: why isn’t learning about healthy relationships and mental health a formal course of study in elementary/high school?! How much suffering have you had from relationship problems/mental health challenges vs how much have you suffered from unsolved calculus problems? Enough said.
It’s normal for rOCD to spike during periods of change, transitions, loss or in a person’s first healthy relationship when they’ve had a string of dysfunctional ones prior. In this course, I’m learning that our mind doesn’t guide us toward what will make us happy, it guides us toward survival. The mind thinks that what is familiarwill help us survive even if those things are garbage for our quality of life. So I’m doing the heavy lifting of repatterning the way my neurone fire and learning how to recognize what a healthy relationship is and how it feels (hint: It’s boring! It looks nothing like your Instagram feed or what’s on T.V.!)
To bring it back to my point above, I think one of the biggest most healing things that I’m learning through this course is that I am not alone. I am not alone with the intrusive thoughts that I struggle with, I am not alone with the intense emotions that I experience, I’m not alone with the sleepless nights or the urges to escape all the hard stuff and movetoCostaRicaandrestartlifefromscratch (that’s the nervous system’s flight response kicking in!) We have an expression in the rOCD Course community that we say often: #YANA! It means “You Are Not Alone” and we repeat it to each other often to express support and shared humanity in the struggles of being a human.
It takes an enormous amount of energy to heal especially when moving through years of traumatic experiences that have left one’s body and mind feeling like an inhabitable waste land. But reparenting one’s self, healing the nervous system, unlearning poor habits, embodying new ones and welcoming in a new life story is entirely possible for us all. We need practices, community, coaches, teachers, friendship, nature, good food, laughter, relationships, quality information and wisdom to help us through and forward.
I’m also practicing with these meditations daily to nurture qualities of self-compassion.
Kristin Neff: Loving-Kindness and Self-Compassion Meditation
Mark Coleman: Compassion Meditation
These practices are having a transformational effect on my relationship to myself and the challenging human emotions that we all experience. I highly recommend checking them out if you’re struggling with overwhelm, guilt and shame.
I consider it my mission (Dharma) to role model self-acceptance and self-compassion by being transparent about my mental health challenges. In doing so, I hopes that others know that they are not alone in their struggles either and that healing is possible. I hope to remind anyone who needs to hear it that they can leverage life’s challenges as gateways to growth and resilience and that they’re not alone! YANA!!!
With you always,