The following was originally published as a guest post for YogaByCandace.com.
If you met me on the street today, you’d never know that four years ago, my life was teetering on the edge of absolute destruction.
Today, I’m known as the passionate and energetic yoga teacher, the girl who writes from her heart, the yogi who seeks to inspire and uplift. But before all of this entered my life, my identity was composed of a single, two-letter description: mentally ill.
Since I was a child, I’ve dealt with mental illness in an invisible battle I carried with me day and night. Anxiety and depression followed me like a cloud; always hanging over me and waiting to strike me down with its lightning storms of panic attacks and self harm. I struggled to relate to my seemingly carefree and happy peers, shirking away from crowded social gatherings and events for fear of being humiliated by the onset of an attack. All I wanted was to fit in, but it felt like a fruitless task: either I risked being anxious in public and being teased for it, or I ostracized myself from my peers through self-isolation out of fear of being teased.
When I was fourteen, I felt lonelier and more out-of-place than ever. My depression worsened, I became even more isolated and fearful of my own mind, and my parents were at a loss for how to help me. It was as though my mind was a kingdom that had been overthrown by some cruel dictator that stole my autonomy by plaguing my mind with worries, fears, and doubts I couldn’t shake. My life felt like it was spiraling out of control, and in a desperate attempt to find some semblance of it, I fell into the dark world of an eating disorder.
Taking control of my food gave me a high like nothing else I’d ever experienced. Counting calories, weighing and measuring every bite of food I put in my mouth, spending hours running on a treadmill just to watch the numbers on the screen tick away calmed the anxious voices in my mind that had been chattering my entire life. Seeing my body change- no matter how unhealthy it was becoming- made me feel as though I had finally stolen back control from my mental strife.
But as with all highs, I eventually had to come crashing back down.
The spring of my sophomore year of highschool, I was hospitalized in an attempt to save myself from myself. My body was shutting down, as was my will to live. The doctors warned my parents that I was at risk of a heart attack, as my organs were so starved for nourishment they were preparing to shut down. Hearing this news should have terrified me, but I received it with a startling calm: I felt like I deserved such a punishment for being a broken, ill person. I felt that my mental illness made me a person beyond hope, a person who could barely be considered a person. What hope was there for someone like me, tortured by their own brain?
But the longer I spent in the hospital, the more my perspective changed. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life here, stuck in a sterile kind of purgatory where you couldn’t allow yourself to wither away into nothing, but at the same time couldn’t flourish or grow. It felt like a place where I was being kept artificially alive; force-fed bland food until I felt ill and watched for all hours of the day to make sure I didn’t harm myself further. Looking back, I view it as the doctors and my family trying to force me to stay alive until I could regain the will to live for myself once again.
It was in that purgatory that I had an epiphany. I wasn’t standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down at rock bottom. I wasn’t peering down into utter destruction, about to topple over. I already had. I was sitting at the bottom, dazed from my fall, but still there. Still breathing. Still in one piece, mostly. And that’s when I realized: the worst had already happened. I’d had my breakdown, I’d wrecked my body, I’d horrified my family, I’d allowed my mental illness to consume me. And yet, I was still here. I had an opportunity to see rock bottom not as my grave, but as my foundation.
I chose to try and climb my way back up, and I chose to believe in the power I’d caught a glimpse of within me.
Over the next four years, my life changed entirely. I found and devoted myself to practicing yoga, and eventually teaching it. I began writing about my experiences with mental illness rawly and authentically. I began working with women who’d dealt with similar experiences, and helping to create a documentary about mental illness and the healing powers of yoga. The control I’d once sought with my eating disorder no longer came from starving my body, it came from fueling my soul- from finding the things that inspired me and sparked passion within me.
Throughout this journey, I’ve come to see that mental illness is not a death sentence. It is ugly, it is hard, it is long, but it is not the sole defining force of one’s life. Where I once saw mental illness as a cruel king ruling my mind and my actions, I now have come to see it (with the help of a therapist, countless yoga teachers, hours of writing, and lots of tears of self-discovery) as simply a part of my life that must be navigated like any other kind of ailment or condition.
Like someone with an allergy who avoids nuts or wheat, I have learned over time how to identify and avoid triggers, and watched in awe as life slowly gets easier as I do. I’ve learned to stop beating myself up over these hardships life has handed me to overcome and strengthen me. I’ve learned how to identify myself first and foremost as myself, and not as someone who is depressed, or someone who is anxious, or someone who is anorexic. I’ve learned that recovery exists, and while it isn’t easy to find, it is so incredibly possible and worth it in the end.
But most importantly, I’ve learned that mental illness does not make a person weak, or less-than, or “broken.” Mental illness is simply a part of life a remarkable amount of us face in our day-to-day lives, and while it does help shape who we are, it does not have to define us. Living with any form of mental illness can be terrifying, it can be frustrating, but it can help us grow in ways that are unimaginable with a shift in perspective.
Elizabeth Gilbert says that life tries to guide us to our path with happiness: when we come across sparks of joy, we know we are on the right path. But if we’re too stubborn or scared to listen, life sends us misery in the hopes that we’ll turn back around and try again. While I could view my eating disorder as something that nearly robbed me of my life, I choose to view it as something that helped wake me up, helped me flip a u-turn and reevaluate my life. My mental illness forced me to see the power that lay within me by shoving me right into the fire and watching me navigate my way back out. Along the way I was forced to confront my flaws and my cracks, but I came out the other side stronger and far more fearless than I ever thought possible.
No, I am not weak because I have dealt with mental illness. I am not hopeless. I am not broken. I am strong, because I have had the worst happen and have chosen to use this as an excuse and a reminder to live fearlessly every day. To be mentally ill is not a shameful thing. It is a reality of life, and it is a tool of the universe to shape us into resilient and brilliant human beings.
If you met me on the street today, you’d never know that four years ago, my life was teetering on the edge of absolute destruction. You’d probably never know that my happiness comes not despite my mental illness, but because of my gratitude for and acceptance of it. You’d never know that to some people, I am “weak” or “broken” because of who I am.
That is living fearlessly. That is living with gratitude.
That is living with mental illness.