A friend recently asked me whether I had considered quitting my meds for anxiety and depression, now that I’m so deep into yoga and meditation. My answer was no. I’ve been on the same combo and dose for 15 years now, and it took me a lifetime to hit on the right cocktail for me. This doesn’t mean I will never quit the meds; maybe I will, maybe I won’t.
But look, I’m close to 56, and have grappled with different manifestations of mental illness from a young age. At 17 or so, I contracted a severe eating disorder that lasted a couple of decades. Throughout my life I’ve had clinical depression at least three times, one of which landed me in the ER, and all episodes lasted close to a year. I’m also familiar with panic attacks, the kind that make you feel like you’re having a stroke, a heart attack or are simply going to die. I have scars on my arms that show how much I hated myself for that. I was what is now known as a “cutter.” This is someone who cuts him or herself with scissors, razor blades, to feel pain and perhaps to call attention to their plight.
If a couple of pills a day stave off the possibility of falling in the grips of crippling depression and anxiety, I will take that! I also take hormones for my text-book-severe menopause symptoms, and have zero shame about it. I’m too old to allow others to dictate how I deal with my own demons. When I was younger, I allowed friends, and sometimes family, to have a say in my recovery from mental illness journey. I let myself believe that “normal” people didn’t need meds. And I let people who I now realize were addicted to alcohol and recreational drugs tell me I should not take prescription medication that helped me feel mentally and emotionally stable. I also quit the medication my brain needs to feel level, and suffered tremendously because of it. And all of this to prove what to whom?
I do feel asana yoga, meditation, yoga Nidra, Ayurveda and Reiki, to name a few disciplines, help me emotionally, physically and mentally. But I also feel that’s not enough for me. I know because I started practising yoga and meditation when I was a kid. I know because for most of my life I’ve pursued alternative treatments to find mental and emotional stability. I know because I’ve been physically active for as long as I can remember, in the pursuit of inner stillness. I know because I’ve been to therapy over and over. Yes, chatting with a therapist, sweating in a warm Vinyasa class or getting into the zone while meditating is absolutely wonderful. But that alone has never been, and perhaps will never be (notice I said perhaps), enough to make me feel as good as I am capable of feeling. I want to be –and finally am- fully functional.
I will always be grateful to that one psychiatrist I visited 15 years ago, who explained to me exactly why taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor along with a mild dose of a benzodiazepine could benefit my particular case. I came to him in tears, feeling defeated, because panic attacks would force me to pull over when driving with my babies in the car. How could I protect my kids if I was constantly living in fear of losing control? No more!
I have a family history of mental illness and my brain chemistry simply needs a little help, he said. That day changed my life. I know it was a fluke, because I had already tried all kinds of meds from a young age as well. From lithium salts (which require frequent bloodwork to make sure your levels of lithium aren’t too high) to speed, I’d been prescribed the gamut of meds for mental illness. But this was it for me. I can’t tell you what may work for you or for your friend. But I do know that some of us, quite honestly, need a little (or a lot) more than yoga for mental health. And I won’t let anyone tell me otherwise. Now I know better.