by: Casey Geiger
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. This blog post is a reflection on my experiences and should not be considered professional advice. Also, I refer to some potentially triggering concepts in this post including, suicide and self-harm.
Major depressive disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder. Borderline personality disorder.
These are the mental health conditions I’ve been diagnosed with to date. They are as much a part of my being as is my love for Diet Coke, thriller novels, and John Mayer. And just like those facets of my personality don’t define me, neither do those diagnoses. Diagnoses label symptoms, not people; they exist to help practitioners craft an effective treatment plan.
The Dark Days of Diagnoses
Despite this, I spent many years in a fraught relationship with my diagnoses. Early on, I used them as an excuse for not so savory behaviors. It wasn’t constant, but I could really be manipulative, stubborn, unsympathetic, self-centered and at times, just plain mean. Rather than take ownership for these behaviors, I succumbed to the role of the victim. Indignantly blaming my behavior on an anxiety or depression flare up, or a mood swing, was much easier. “It’s not my fault my brain is so messed up!” was a constant refrain. Getting defensive and pushing people away was easier than looking at my responsibility for my actions and my recovery face-to-face. Let me tell you, accepting and making the decision to not live a life tainted by the negative side effects of your mental health conditions is some seriously tough stuff.
After a few years, burned bridges, and lost relationships - friends, family, and otherwise, the realization of just how many people I’d hurt with these behaviors dawned on me. Then I felt an overwhelming wave of shame. During these days, I spent a lot of time being so angry with myself, hating myself for how I’d treated people. These were some of the toughest times I can recall in my life - frequent suicidal ideations, issues with self-harm, deep, aching loneliness, and an all-consuming fear that it’d never get better. It was during this blur of dark and seemingly endless days that I signed up for yoga teacher training, hoping that I’d find the peace I’d found in yoga in years past (a hail mary of sorts). I wanted to bring others the same relief I’d found in yoga, because I truly did (and still do) believe that we are ALL worthy of feeling mentally well. But sometimes I think that on a deeper level, I also was chasing that high of feeling worthy of existing by serving others.
The Roots of Recovery
I wish I could say there was some life-altering moment or magic cure that ceased the storm waging in my head, something that quickly and easily settled the waters and gave me time and space to come up for air. Unfortunately there’s no such fix, but I can tell you what worked for me. It was rediscovering regular therapy appointments with an exceptional counselor. Researching the psychology, neurology, and biochemistry that contributed to my diagnoses. Making amends with the people I’d hurt and accepting how they chose to respond - I didn’t get to save every friendship and I had to be okay with that. Throwing myself into dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) - learning about emotional regulation, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and mindfulness. Oh man, was it mindfulness.
The Yoga Teacher Gets Taught
About the time I began DBT, I also began yoga teacher training. I unfurled my mat the first day of teacher training ready to learn all the sanskrit terms, improve my flexibility, strengthen my body, and learn to guide others into the poses that had so helped me in my times of need. I was hyper-focused on doing everything I could to be a “good” yoga teacher, ready to push myself until I got it perfect. I guess the universe had other plans for me, though. That first day of training we examined the concept of ahimsa, one of the ethical tenets of yoga, meaning non-violence or non-harming. I nodded rapidly; I knew all about how important it was not to hurt other people - I’d spent the last year berating myself for doing it. But then the instructor reminded us that ahimsa was also a vow we take upon ourselves. As practitioners of yoga, we agree to abstain from harming ourselves - be it through physical harm, unkind words and thoughts about the self, not honoring the boundaries of our mind and body, etc. It turns out that hating and punishing myself for my previous behaviors was not very yogic of me.
I got home that night and just broke down. For so long, it felt like someone had put a soaking wet blanket on top of me and I couldn't breathe. I couldn't see where the escape was. I couldn't see anything at all. I could only feel. Feel the tightness in my throat, the too-rapid beating of my heart, the burn of tears threatening to explode from behind my eyes, an uncomfortable warmth all over - as if my blood had turned to lava, the desire to just stop. Stop trying, stop being scared, stop being sad, stop existing. And hearing this simple sanskrit word, ahimsa, was like someone had pulled that wet, heavy blanket off of me. Mental health diagnoses, flaws and all, I was worthy of self-compassion and kindness - full stop.
So maybe there was a bit of a life altering moment, but there was no miraculously recovery or stark, immediate change. However, the belief that I was inherently worthy laid the groundwork for my path to recovery.
Mindfulness Off of the Mat
Unsurprisingly to anyone that’s practiced yoga, a lot of the practice is spent just being. Being present and aware of your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, however painful or unpleasant they may be. And then allowing them to pass along, rather than clinging to them as unchangeable states of being, or allowing them to define or overwhelm me. Two seemingly opposing beliefs were true: I had hurt others in my past (including myself), and I was still a kind, empathetic, and resilient person - worthy of living and loving.
In practicing mindfulness, we are practicing a careful balancing act - acknowledging and accepting the presence of something without clinging to it. We practice that same balancing when we accept that we can and will make mistakes, and should say sorry for them, and that those mistakes don’t make us any less worthy of loving. We carry both the idea that we’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got, and the idea that we can do better. Mindfulness is the art of knowing that life can feel devastating, lonely, hopeless, and like a burden, and that life gets better and is worth living. I was eager to spread the word about mindfulness and the ideas it instilled; I wanted others to find the same relief I had upon accepting this realization and I wanted them to know how deserving they were of a content and mentally well life.
The Yoga Teacher Teaches...More Than Yoga
Research brought me to the Wake County chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.” Even with their vast selection of wonderful programs, I was immediately drawn to the Peer-to-Peer program, “a recovery education course open to anyone experiencing a mental health challenge. The course is designed to encourage growth, healing, and recovery among participants.” Following an interview, a weekend long training, and months of juggling a hectic schedule, I recently began leading my very first Peer-to-Peer (virtual) group. We meet every Thursday evening and discuss our diagnoses, symptoms, and unique struggles. We teach tangible skills to ease the symptoms of mental health conditions - like the belly/diaphragmatic breathing I teach in yoga and mindfulness, of course! We own our stories and our unique non-linear and forever on-going paths to recovery.
Most importantly, I get to remind others of and be reminded of our resilience and inherent worthiness of existing. Leading the Peer-to-Peer group, much like leading a yoga class, allows me to assist others on their own journey to self-discovery, awareness, and compassion. I don’t do the work for them, or tell them exactly what to do, because at the end of the day, mental wellness is an incredibly personal, lifelong journey. It doesn’t have to be a lonely journey by any means, we wouldn’t get by without a little help along the way.
The Journey to Wellness
Mental wellness is a choice we make over and over again to partake in a journey every day. There’s no quick fix or magic cure; it is certainly work. There are still days I wake up and feel suffocated by that old, wet blanket, days I wake up and living feels more like a burden than an opportunity, days I feel like I’m floundering in the middle of a chaotic, bottomless ocean. There are days I feel cloaked in numbness, I drown in my loneliness, and I worship at the altar of the false deity of unworthiness. Sometimes I’m up for the challenge of battling these old thoughts, and other times, I’m not. On the days I don’t feel up to the challenge, I accept that, survive the day and then wake up the next day and try again. But there are also the days I wake up and can feel the proof of my progress - days I feel like I’m perfectly warmed by the sunshine, I encounter my old triggers without so much as a flinch, when the Diet Coke is extra bubbly, when I wake up and I actually want to be alive and an active part of the world around.
We deserve to want to live and to thrive. We deserve to feel accepted as we are, flaws and all, by ourselves and others. We deserve to feel worthy of the work it takes to be okay. We all deserve to matter. Our mental health matters.
We are all strong and capable of building the life we want to live. The work of being mentally well is never “complete”, but it is always, always worth it.
Casey is a 2016 graduate of Wofford College, where she began practicing yoga her senior year. Motivated by the profound impact of yoga on her mental well-being, her love of community and her passion for serving others, she obtained her RYT200 from Bliss Body Yoga, a local Raleigh studio and began teaching at local offices, fitness studios and various virtual platforms. Head over to our schedule to see when Casey teaches Flow Yoga next!