Hey, so it’s been while but can I let you into my inner world? Like, really let you in? It still feels kind of crazy that I should be writing about my vulnerabilities and sending it out like this, into the ether; the world-wide database of our collective conscious, but I would like do my drop-in-the-ocean part of breaking the stigma which so often surrounds the topic of mental health. I’m going to try to let you in on my depression. You see, I seem to have this notion, firmly lodged in my mind that it’s kind of tricky talking about ‘the problem which has no name.’ I also seem to stand by the idea that that which troubles you the most, although most likely cut from the same cloth that troubles most of us humans during our short duration here on the planet together, are best kept to yourself and your tight circle. The trusted few. The paid professionals. These ideas have been spun upon the spool of my impressionable childhood years: absorbing the polite, stiff-upper-lip culture of my English heritage; duplicating the stoic blueprint from my Kikuyu genes. This spool, on which the earliest impressions of my past conditioning have burrowed themselves into the very bones of my memory, now continues to weave itself snugly into the omnipresent reservation of my Finnish environment. This is perhaps why it’s easier for me to write about this than to talk about it. Talking about sticky things with too many, too much of the time, is draining, whereas writing feels productive, helpful even. With evidence that the number of people currently suffering some form or symptom of depression(an estimated 121 million people around the world) makes up a pretty decent (diagnosed) chunk of the population, I get the sense that I am certainly not alone. It is in this vein that I would like to share my story with you while offering the nine ways I am working through this episode. If this helps one person in his or her current struggle, then it’s been more than worthwhile to come out of my protective shell. Heck, if it helps me break the notion of a taboo in my mind alone, I consider this to be a risk worth taking.
(photo courtesy of Charlotte Eugenie Bjurehag)
It actually shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The depression, I mean. When you look at race, gender and depression, it is pretty much acknowledged that overall women have higher rates of depression than men. and African-Americans have higher rates of depression that whites. Women, in general, are also twice as likely to have depression or symptoms of depression as men of the same age. A special place is reserved for mothers: 1 in 10 experiences symptoms of depression in the weeks after having a baby. In my case, the first 10 months or so of motherhood were fine. As a matter of fact, I felt pretty psyched. I even started a blog on yoga and motherhood, a Facebook community page for fellow yoga mothers and participated in several yoga challenges on Instagram It was actually when I stopped breastfeeding this past spring that I started to feel the darkness descend upon me. It felt, as all the hormones that had been biologically supporting me and making the daily/nightly labor of caring for an infant psychologically possible, like I was left with nothing but my own shattered devices. After months and months of disturbed sleep accumulating into sleep deprivation, of not having my previous work identity to stand on, of living an erratic nomadic lifestyle without a sense of being psychologically secure and grounded in that mythical place most of us call ‘home’; all these factors, not to mention the jewel in the crown of negotiating the daily family dynamic with another adult and a baby…well, you get the picture. As a result, this past spring did not feel particularly green and fresh for me. It felt instead, rather like a raging fire, the scorching flames of self meeting self searing through long-held illusions and morphing into blinding smoke that tasted bitter as I choked it down. So I spent the summer cooling the embers, nesting, healing, contemplating and sorting through old files in my brain and hitting delete, and with the arrival of autumn, this sense of renewal and promise I currently feel has been a long time coming. I have struggled to confront myself as I am, not as I would wish and hope and think of myself to be. I’ve worked diligently and with tangible commitment so that I can behold the phoenix rising up from the ashes of my spring. My inner Shiva sadhu is naked and glorious, save for a thick layer of white ash from the purifying bonfire and silver dreadlocks down to his heels. Om Namah Shivaya!
(photo given by same sadhus in picture)
How to build your own bonfire of transformation…
(photo by ice golfer, http://www.panoramio.com)
1. Seek help. Then receive it coming: I never used to think of myself as one of those people who needed much help. I would keep my own counsel and hold my cards close to my chest. Then along came motherhood and I realised I couldn’t do it well all alone, so I am learning to delegate. I like asking for help now, and receiving it, and I like helping, as far my capacity and abilities allow. There is an etiquette to giving and receiving help by the way. If you are one of the awakened souls who genuinely means it when you say, “Let me know if you need anything, anything at all,” that’s a great instinct but, to a tired, flustered and possibly post-natally depressed mother, this offer is way too abstract. It’s too much like hard work to think what she might need and when. Try instead offering simple, specific statements like, “I can watch your baby for you this Friday from 5-8pm.” If you are the recipient of such a well-thought out gesture, take up the offer and don’t stress out so much about feeling like you have to repay the offer or that you are in debt to someone. Just allow the dance between giving and receiving to unfold fluidly and naturally. The way I see it now is that you don’t get extra points (or any happiness for that matter) for miserably tolerating hardships all by your lonesome will, grimly marching through obstacle after obstacle, jaw locked in blind determination. Self-sufficiency is necessary and healthy, very true and up to a point. To me, a healthy, balanced self-sufficient attitude means a healthy, balanced sense of interdependence with those around us. In my mind’s eye, real self-sufficiency should not come at the expense of cultivating warm, caring and nurturing relationships. There is a saying in the Sotho and Nguni cultures of Southern Africa, ” A person is a person through other people.” Ergo, there is no shame in admitting you need help from others from time to time; no reason to blame yourself for not being able to ‘handle’ things better. My own pride made me ignorant to my reality for awhile. I thought that because I practice yoga I shouldn’t need anything else. I thought that if I was practicing yoga diligently and seriously enough, with a sincere-seeking spirit, I wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, be having these struggles. Then I began to doubt myself and thought that I must be depressed because I must have somehow failed with yoga. Now, as the mist starts to clear and the fog lift, I feel as if (yet another) lesson in the ignorance and delusions of the ego, which the very practice of yoga is trying to soften and dissolve, might be within my reach. If I remain gentle and alert enough, the obstacles truly may present themselves as the means of further discovery and understanding along this spiral staircase of life experience. So I will say it again: there is no shame in reaching out to others for help. This is actually a sign of quiet, humble strength and commitment to yourself: rather than trying to escape from your problems, you will stand firm in your space, however icky and conflicted (so much so that the reptilian part of your brain is telling you to RUN) and confront them. In the acute stages of my episode, I listened to lots of soothing Yoga Nidra before going to sleep. I also listened to (and absolutely love) Deepak Chopra’s The Secret of Healing. He has a most soothing, compelling voice as he recites verses from Maha Vakya’s text on Vedanta, which describes consciousness and the concept of Brahman. Then I got practical and called my mama.
2. Get to know your depression: I mean really get to know it. In my case, in addition to my yoga practice, I felt I needed at first more conventional forms of healing and self-regulation. I started seeing a therapist and got started on a treatment of anti-depressants with a short to mid-term time frame in mind for both forms of treatment. I spoke with my doctor and we agreed on a timeline with the medication. It is now my sincere goal to build up my inner resources through yoga (asana, meditation, pranayama) and journal writing, so that it will be a smooth transition off the medication. I then started doing some general research and found a clip called The Science of Depression. This following clip I find particularly helpful as it talks about the unique stresses that expat spouses might experience while living here in Finland. It really helped me contextualise my situation and not take obstacles so personally, like I was, once again, at fault or to blame for not being good enough or strong enough. I also read in Sue Gerhardt’s book Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, that a diet with enough B-vitamins and omega-3 fatty oils can help alleviate some symptoms of depression, naturally linking into the ides that leading a healthy lifestyle is most likely an important step in beating the blues. Gerhardt, who by the way is a British psychotherapist specialising in parent-infant attachment, also wrote a book called The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot To Love One Another And Made Money Instead. I found this one useful in that it maps out how parenting and motherhood has changed over the course of history. Since the 1960s, as a result of increased affluence in much of the developed world, taking care of an infant is often a solitary act done in the confines of one’s home, which is often the cause of depression in new parents: “In a world where there is no local community watching over us any more, and often no parents nearby, support can make a huge difference to new parents. Warm human contact can lift a mother’s depression and help her be more responsive to her baby. It can relieve the isolation of parenting…human mothers have never before reared babies single-handedly, and have always needed other adults to help them…providing psychological support for the task of assisting the psychological development of the infant.” Reading this sort of useful information helped me understand, once more, the context of my situation and allowed me to put some healthy distance between me and my depression.
3. Practice yoga. In our current era of modern yoga, we are not far from the Instagram and You Tube yoga star phenomenon. Designed to sell, inspire, connect, promote, create brand narratives, you can pretty much get it all at the social media bazaar. However, all the greatest, most uplifting and inspiring asana posts and quotes in the world won’t amount to much more than feel-good entertainment that gives you warm fuzzies if you do not make the effort to experience yoga tangibly for yourself. It is literally that simple. In order to access a glimpse of that which we call YOGA, you must practice it, following a trusted and experienced teacher who can guide you through the proper method of linking breath with clear conscious movement and concentration. One must practice with the intention and unshakable faith that a return to the natural state of pure grace is possible. You must experience that spark of inner peace circuitry at your own cellular level. And you know what? Asana? All those poses, those fancy, exotic beauties we might not ever know and the Plain Jane bread and butter ones we take for granted? Why, they’re just the tip of an iceberg that has no end, it just keeps reaching out and in, towards infinity…
4. Practice breathing (see above). Most of us (myself included much of the time) could start by remembering that we breath. Once we have established the quiet miracle of, “I breath,” we can try lengthening and deepening that breath. Try inhaling for five or six counts, holding for two or three and exhaling for five or six counts. Repeat as needed. There. Better already, and I didn’t even know I was feeling all tight and tense and weird before.
(photo by Seija Reasola)
5. Meditate. The thing about depression is that it is episodic and recurring, which means that, if you don’t see yourself going to psychotherapy or staying medicated for years and years, you must develop an inner practice which you do consistently to strengthen your positive psychological resources. It can be anything you find useful. In my case, this is Ashtanga yoga, and this summer I added a short meditation practice into my arsenal. It’s a really simple and short affirmation that I repeat silently for five-15 minutes. It can be any phrase really, as long as it’s positive, short, easy to remember and gets to the root of what you experience habitually. Need more confidence? Repeat how you love being confident. Want to feel more joy and happiness? Repeat that you are joy and happiness. Feeling weak and insecure? Repeat that you stand grounded in your own strength. Feeling pitiful because you ain’t got nobody lovin’ up on you? Instead of waiting for your mysterious and intriguing co-worker or that hottie boyfriend potential at your local cafe to realise he can’t go another day without you, try repeating this silently to yourself, ” I am loved.” Then try this, ” I AM Love.” Do that for five minutes each and every day for two months and notice how that just might make you fall head over heals in love with your own self. Or blast, on repeat, Kendrick Lamar’s Isley Brothers’- sampled anthem i and scream at the top of your lungs when the I love myself hook comes in. Same same. If you don’t feel any different, no problem. There is no need to fake feeling like you’re all fairy dust and rosey-golden glitter when what you really feel is like an asshole; indifferent, dull, annoyed, easily and constantly triggered. Just take it easy and sit down anyway for five minutes on the regular and silently repeat your positive affirmation. What have you got to lose by trying anyway?
6. Write. It’s a funny thing when you have a small baby at home. Your time is not your own and you must give more of yourself while giving waaay less to yourself. Which feels completely ridiculous sometimes in this current zeitgeist of self-individuation, in which delayed gratification and self-sarifice go against the grain. Oftentimes, writers may have lots of time on their hands but go through spells where they lack creative flow. Writer’s Block. Mine was inverted. As I would move through long stretches of days and nights and days and nights and days and nights with my baby, sometimes a sudden gush of creative energy would rush through me and I could hear and feel the electricity buzzing in my brain as the palpable heartbeat of thought-impulse was conceived and woven into glorious sentences which in turn could, potentially, bloom into rich, abundant paragraphs. And I would want nothing more than to capture these gusts of inspiration; to corral them down onto pen and paper before they evaporated back from whence they came. Buuuut I couldn’t. My baby needed me. And it was a bittersweet farewell that I gave to those fledgling, nascent creatures whom I might see again in the lucid dreams of my sub-conscious but which most likely would not survive to see the glare of daylight, with my brain occupied in the minutiae of everyday life. This unforgiving deferment lead to a panic of a kind. Which led to a resignation of a kind. Which led to a block of a kind to a dullness of a kind. Which solidified into a depression. Of a kind. So that even when I did have a section of a room of my own to write, that shy, slippery, elusive muse of mine refused to reveal her secrets to me. She would lie dormant and still, and I would wonder, “How do professional (mother) writers do this (well) on demand? How does one come up with clear and creative content on a consistent schedule?” I don’t know the answer to that just yet, but I have started a new habit. I write every day. It’s much less grand than it sounds…wait, no, what I actually meant to say is that it’s actually just as grand as it sounds. It’s called morning pages and it’s a practice which comes from a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It seemed that lately I had been coming across morning pages and The Artist’s Way pretty often on my social media channels, so when my friend hit me up to 750words.com, I took the call to action and have been writing just about every morning for the past month and a half. I now consider this morning ritual of writing 3 pages’ worth of stream of consciousness the equivalent of brushing my teeth or getting onto my mat to practice yoga. It’s this routine thing I simply must do that makes my teeth sparkle and my heart go pitter pat. Some days it’s hard, boring and uninspired, when I really have to sit and work to reach the coveted 750 word quota. Other days? Well, other days feel like the morning sunrise. Pure. Effortless. Fresh. Alive. In one of her books, Pema Chödrön explains how you need inspiration and disappointment in equal measure. Inspiration so you can actually get up and do the damn thing and disappointment to keep it real and remain humble. I try to approach both sides of the spectrum, and the whole lot of grey in between with some equanimity of mind because seriously? Being able to say that I have started a new habit of writing every day absolutely rocks my world. Now this may change, as life gets busy and priorities need to shift and dance along with it, but at the moment, I’m rocking out on this journaling tip.
7. Witness the ebb and flow of nature. Watch the phases of the moon. Recall wave motion. Greet the sun and accompany it as it sets. Notice as the leaves bud in the spring and as they change colour and fall in the autumn. Observe how each moment makes up the pattern of the universe; how the rhythm of our lives, of our time together here on earth, are moments which add up to longer moments, into days, weeks, years, decades, and are built upon the matrix of creation, maintenance and dissolution. We die little deaths each and every day and we are reborn again, each and every day. I think the reason why I felt so sad when I stopped breastfeeding is because it felt like a small death, and I had to come to terms that the precious little life that had been living inside me for nine months, plus years before as the very seed in my heart’s desire, was taking his little toddling steps further away from me. Not all is lost though, as now my toddler has no problem sticking his sticky little fingers down the front of my shirt any chance he can get, which can be mostly inconvenient and really annoying at the worst of times. It can also be incredibly touching, I’m not going to lie, as he still seeks and remembers his earliest source of comfort and sustenance, and I’m relieved to see that he too had some healthy separation anxiety.
8. Create rituals. In this case, make the small things you do in your daily life count. For instance, I try to buy myself a bouquet or two of flowers towards the end of the week so that I can enjoy them over the weekend, and when I throw them out on Tuesday or Wednesday, I take a small moment to observe the passage the flower petals took, from closed potential to full bloom to decay. This outlook helps me look forward to things on the regular and to be more awake in my daily hustle. To show up for my life with more presence. Another ritual? I bless my medicine before taking it in the morning with the following intention, “May this medicine help me feel better so that I won’t need it for much longer.” Of course, the most grounding ritual of all is when I step on my yoga mat, give my respects and gratitude to the Guru and all the teachers from before for keeping the healing tradition of yoga alive and for passing it down so that I might be able to participate as part of the lineage, and begin moving through the sequence of breath and posture.
(photo courtesy of http://www.newsnation.in)
9. Pray (a.k.a put your hands together in humble submission to a force great than yourself that is both within and without your material body. contemplate. sing. make sand castles. play music. make music. let juicy watermelon dribble down your chin. play at being Beyonce or Nicki. then BE your own straight-up type of vulnerable, gentle fierce). Prayer: I did it as a child because I was told to. It never meant a whole lot to me when the nuns at my Convent school would instruct us wiggly, bored, distracted youngsters though the ritual of a Roman Catholic mass. One evening however, many years on, as I was getting ready to say farewell to the home I had made for myself in Chicago, I remember getting dropped off back home after a South-Side house party. I hugged everyone and said my final goodbyes to the good folk in the car and one woman, beautiful, petite, feisty, 10 years my senior in chronological age but timeless in terms of spirit, after we had released each other from our embrace, took a final look at me and out of her brightly-tinted red lips came this simple, profound statement, “Keep God.” Keep God. Words I may not have lived by since that heady night, but words I have never forgotten nonetheless. Keep God. Soulful. Comforting. Soothing. Strong. Two words which I kept tucked away in a quiet, cozy corner of my being, as I was about to embark on yet another journey to yet another far-off, abstract land. Keep God. Yes ma’am.
Today, in yet another far-off land, I Keep God by worshipping the sun. Say whaaat? Not in the crispy-no-sunscreen-tanning-all-day kind of way. By sun worship, I mean that I reserve (SUN)days, rain or shine, for the sun. I have chosen the sun as my ishta devata (the Hindu concept of a personal deity). On Sundays I chant the 12 names of the Sun and do some rounds of sun salutations while reflecting on its positive qualities: warmth, strength, complete lack of discrimination (the sun shines for us all, right? Not just those of us with a fat bank balance, good looks and a smokin’ body; fancy friends in high places or a law degree and a Maserati at the summer home). I then turn my attention from the sun in the sky to the sun within me until I feel like all the benevolent qualities I appreciate in the outside sun (light, radiance, beauty) are a part of me too. It’s nice! I love it. It allows me to create moments of being a source of light vibrant enough not only for myself but so that I may also shine for my son; that I may be part of his source of joy so he can continue to shine as true and bright and joyfully along his path, much further down the road, as he does now.
(photo by Petri Räisänen)
Because truth be told, I may not be getting a new mind any time soon, released from the clutches and well-worn grooves of my past conditioning; free from my tendencies; impulses; moments of inherent darkness, where I am confronted by the restless ghosts and hungry spirits which lurk in the memories of my ancestors. These memories, stored in my genes, can ignite into (internal and external) combustion as they meet with my current karma being acted out. Saraswati Jois, daughter of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, mother of Sharath Jois, said in an unfinished documentary being made during Guruji’s final years, “Yoga gave me the fortitude to face life.” My mind is mine and mine alone to observe and to understand. What great liberation can be found in this profoundly personal and daunting responsibility! So while I may not be able to get anyone to walk in my shoes for me, to truly experience where my story, unfolding at this conjunction in time and space, pinches me, what I wake up for is to claim that fortitude for life. What I can do is to purify the narrative I tell myself daily. By dismantling it at any given moment. By rebuilding it at every given moment. One breath in at a time. One breath out at a time. Because I breathe. I breath. And I be. Om.
(photo by Michiko Blomgren)