Many years ago, when I was working on my thesis, I had a breakdown.
Well, I might classify it as an anxiety attack, a breakdown warm-up, like an appetizer before a meal.
I marched around my house trying to pacify myself. My feet hit the old wooden floors like bricks and reverberated through each room I visited.
I took one shallow breath, then another, trying desperately to get enough breath in to calm my brain from its frantic pacing. It felt like I was stuck on a mountain summit where the air is thin and cold.
My heart throbbed against my chest; its booming sound competed with my feet striking the floorboards. A fire burned in my belly. I couldn’t stop shaking.
I wondered if I was about to have a heart attack or stroke.
In the space of five minutes, I went from calmly word-processing my research monster to having a frantic existential trip, overwhelmed by terror that the entire rest of my life was a big, blank hole. It came out of nowhere.
My recently-broken hand ached, and I did what anyone might do in the midst of a panic attack: I lit a cigarette and inhaled the sweet, toxic fumes into my poor lungs.
I didn’t understand why I felt so tired all the time. I didn’t remember how I’d broken my hand during a trip to Mexico the week before.
I saw a psychiatrist. He asked about my drinking behaviors. Coffee, I told him, in the morning. Just 8 cups or so. Oh, and wine, come evening. Just 5 glasses or so. He asked, so basically, you’re giving your body uppers all day and then switching to downers at night? Don’t you think that’s a little confusing for your body? Yeah, I guess so.
Do you smoke? He asked. A little, I replied. Just 15 cigarettes a day or so. He quizzed me: You realize that smoking robs your body of oxygen, right? Your body has to struggle every day to get the air it needs to function. Maybe that’s why you’re so tired. I knew that of course, but I didn’t like it.
So he put me on mood stabilizers. Well, let’s be fair, I willingly took mood stabilizers based on his professional recommendation. Makes sense though, right? No problem keeping with the cigarettes, coffee, and alcohol, so long as I had pills to stabilize my mind and mood. Because mental health issues are simply to do with brain dysfunction, aren’t they? Lifestyle habits don’t play any part. And since mental illness is also genetic, maybe it had to do with my family’s history. If I wasn’t careful, I would soon join that dark world of depression, anxiety, anorexia, or alcoholism.
I needed pills to help me.
At the time I had what I now recognize as a panic attack. I was in grad school for early childhood studies, and the central question of my research examined teachers’ perspectives of disability and inclusion in education. I was exploring both sides of a dichotomy positioning disability as an inherent and individual disadvantage or a social creation, which is kind of like the nature/nurture debate. For example, a disability, such as deafness, is either viewed as a problem with the functioning of the ears or it is created by social attitudes and structure, such that society is not arranged to accommodate a range of abilities. In the former view (also called the medical model of disability) there is always a point of reference that is “normal” (someone with perfect hearing). The latter view was a bit of a leap for me conceptually, but it essentially sees ability as a broad spectrum of capability.
My bias was the social model of disability because I tend to have an idealistic worldview, but also because it’s what I wanted to be true in my personal situation if we classify mental health issues as disabilities. In my own life, my depression, bipolar, anxiety, mania, or whatever labels different doctors gave me was inherently mine. I couldn’t blame society for my reckless restlessness (I challenge you to say that fast 10 times) with life any more than I can blame the sun for a sunburn. But damn, I wanted to. Psychological pain is uncomfortable so to blame someone or something else for it helps to relieve that discomfort, and absolves any personal responsibility.
This newfound way of thinking about disability as a socially-constructed issue deconstructed my old beliefs about how life is supposed to go. There was no normal; it was just a matter of perspective. I found myself standing in a mess of various contradicting concepts, ideas, and beliefs, scattered around me, like the wreckage of a hurricane. What was I supposed to do now that I knew certain things? Now that my belief system lay in ruins? I couldn’t unlearn things.
Knowledge that is inconvenient to your life is a bit like a face tattoo. You can choose to ignore it, but it’ll still be there every day.
As much as sitting in a chair for 12+ hours every day for a year altered the structure of my pelvis to the point where I actually grew hips (and consequently, an ass), my brain underwent a profound shift. Suddenly, I had an intense need to explain my life to myself and I couldn’t. It didn’t make sense.
I didn’t want to take drugs to be happy. The pills didn’t do that anyway, they kind of flatlined my mood so I felt neither happy nor sad. A neutral and tragic way to live. I was also not going to toss myself into a raging river at 33 years old, or at any age for that matter. So no pills and no early checkout. I was also unwilling to accept alcoholism or inner turmoil for the rest of my life. Based on my family history, my fear that my brain might eventually kill me was increasing.
Something had to change.
So I changed everything. I re-jigged my external environment as an attempt at inner, lasting happiness. I changed the outside to affect the inside. (Read about what I changed in my introductory journal). Doesn’t make much sense, does it? I stripped back all the layers of my external life until there was nothing left but me–and a few books. And after 26 countries, a broken marriage, tired feet, and a lot of time, I discovered that the common denominator of all my problems was me.
For a long time, I believed that changing my external situation would make me happy. Sounds easy, right? The whole millennium culture relies on this belief. If something doesn’t make us happy, we should ditch it. Well, in some ways it makes sense. No one wants to be stuck in a job she hates or in a relationship with an abusive partner; these are destructive situations. Some external changes are necessary steps toward cultivating a happy life.
But, what I discovered is that when my happiness is dependent on external circumstances, I’m a fairly miserable person.
I don’t have control over events or how people think, behave, speak, or live their lives, only my reactions to them. I was going to be an increasingly unhappy woman if I didn’t start recognizing that I was the one needing to change.
Over three years, a shift happened. I read a lot of self-help books, including narratives of women who had been on a journey of self-transformation (Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Robyn Davidson) and started writing my own stories. I listened to the stories of inspirational women I know who’d conquered alcoholism and even heroine addiction, and are now happy, healthy women. Their real-life stories empowered me to make positive changes.
I started doing yoga. I got myself a motorbike and learned how to drive it.
I began to notice that every time I smoked a cigarette I felt like crap and some ensuing self-judgment would occur. I realized that I didn’t want to feel terrible anymore. My coffee-and-late-afternoon-wine habit was long gone, and I hadn’t taken any mood stabilizers in a very long time.
It wasn’t a change that happened to me; it was a change that occurred inside me once I started to see that I was responsible for my health, happiness, and life. Trust me, at one time, this perspective would have been impossible for me to assume.
But it wasn’t a change without external influence. Yoga and Ayurveda were motivating forces. Through them, I have become way more in tune with my moods, how they affect my physical body, and how the way I treat my physical body affects my mood. It was like the cigarettes I once smoked. The more I smoked, the more I wanted to smoke, the worse I felt, and the more I judged myself. Once I stopped, and my system was clean, I didn’t need them anymore.
I felt better every day.
I no longer judged myself.
I broke the cycle.
I began to understand that my once-diagnosed mania and depression were an inability to accept and respond compassionately to a very vulnerable and needy part of myself. I was unable because I didn’t know how.
Through learning about how different foods affected my body, and that certain Ayurvedic herbs could boost my mood naturally and safely, I developed a better understanding of my mental and physical health and what constitutes good health. I reinstituted a cycle in my life, but a healthy one. Now, I am more stable and feel a greater sense of control over my experience.
Every part of my body is functioning better too, and I’m nearly ten years older than I was when I had that panic attack. My digestion has improved as I learn more about nutrition and the human body. My hair and skin are healthier. With the help of yoga, pranayama, and Ayurvedic herbs, I have more energy throughout the day, and I sleep well every night.
If such a moment of panic arises again and I feel the urge to light a cigarette or get lost in a bottle of whiskey, I know how to manage it in a safe, healthy way. I am strong enough to tackle inevitable challenges and accept new ones that support my expansion.
With the help of Ayurveda, I am learning how to take care of myself in a way that is not only sustainable but regenerative.
Mental health conditions are often overlooked, judged, criticized, stigmatized, or dealt with surreptitiously. They are also a source of shame for many. My story is mild compared to what some people experience. I don’t wish to suggest that mental illness can be attributed to a poor diet or substance use, only that such things may exacerbate it. While I don’t support antidepressant drugs for my own use, I realize that they have helped many people improve their health. Diseases of the mind are complex and as real as cancer or heart disease. They are also severely misunderstood and involve a wide range and combination of variables. Understanding that both biology and environment impact our health is the first step toward improving it.
My great uncle always said, “mind over matter, and if you don’t have a mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Colleen’s interest in Ayurveda grew organically from a curiosity in how to naturally improve her health and energy. During a trip to India in 2017, she became better acquainted with Ayurveda and yoga philosophy and has been studying the ancient wisdom ever since. Her love for nature, travel, and vegetables (ginger and broccoli) inspired her to become more consciously aware of how to improve our lives and eating habits. She’s the author of a self-published collection of personal stories about her experience living in Indonesia. Colleen is a certified teacher of Thai massage and hatha yoga.