Updated: Jun 19, 2020
By Yuliana Kim-Grant
Most people close to me know that I suffer from depression, which was postpartum gone unchecked and untreated. Most may not know that I was hospitalized for it at the end of 2012. My first novel had been published in 2011, which should have been a time of incredible highs since the publication was the culmination of many years of hard work. As much as I wanted to enjoy that year of traveling and talking about my book, each trip and each group I faced became more and more challenging. More important, life in general just got a tiny bit harder each and every day. Up to that point, I had refused medication, which in hindsight seems so silly. At the time, no one, not my therapist or any psychiatrist, could reassure me that the medication wouldn’t affect my work as a writer. I was afraid of becoming emotionally flattened, life seen and experienced through the prism of numbness. When I think about this rationale now, it seems like the protestations of a very misguided person. Personally, I also fought against becoming the much-dreaded cliché —another writer suffering from depression.
My family and friends, obviously shocked by the dramatic events resulting in me spending time in a psychiatric ward, would ask gingerly what it felt like when my depression was full blown. In the intervening years, I’ve had time to think about how I should have answered this question. When my depression was getting the better of me, everything required a herculean effort, and I mean everything. Even the act of getting out of bed, getting dressed, and interacting with the world took effort. My whole life felt as if I were trying to run underwater to do anything, even the most mundane task. The best way to describe how all this felt is picturing a swan or a duck gliding across the water, appearing so effortless. Yet underwater their webbed feet would be peddling furiously to propel them forward. I wish I could point to one precipitous event that triggered my hospitalization. Instead, it was an accumulation of the usual challenges of being an adult—managing family, career, and finances. As traumatic as it was to end up in the hospital, a tiny part of me felt a sense of relief. I no longer had to pretend I was the picture of a happy, perfect life. The hospital psychiatrist told my family I was exceptionally high functioning. My days in the hospital went by in a haze, a real-life incarnation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I couldn’t have imagined the hard work it would take to put myself back together and eventually accept my disease, which occurred outside the metaphorical padded walls of the hospital.
I had taken my first yoga class in 1993 in L.A. and barely survived the ninety minutes. Yes, classes were ninety minutes without the distraction of music or the comfort of a/c. It took me many years to commit to a practice, struggling with my ego as I struggled in the practice. All I can say is, thank goodness I had matured enough to commit to a practice. It was coming back to the mat that kept me from falling apart completely and ending up back in the hospital. The very first class I walked into I was hyperconscious that everyone could tell I had just been released from a psychiatric hospital. I remember placing my mat in the back of the room, far away from any prying eyes. For the first time, I no longer cared whether my downward dog looked good; instead, I just wanted to feel better by moving and breathing. As I took my first down dog, the part of me that had held hard to fence off my trauma and grief seemed to break open. Tears flowed down my face as I held this pose that used to be about something so different. I was able to get through that first class not blubbering the entire hour. I wish I could say that was the last class when I cried during my down dog. I now know this pose, which is a mild inversion, aids in the down regulation of the nervous system and relieving stress.
During the days, weeks, and months of that first year after my release, my time on the mat was when I figured out how to face the world with the trauma of my hospitalization. It was being on the mat that I started not just to acknowledge my depression but to accept it, though complete acceptance is still an ongoing, living experience. It was being on the mat that helped me accept my mental illness without letting illness define me as a person. It was on the mat that I tried to make sense of this new reality. More important, it was on the mat that I was able to start the process of forgiving myself for it all. I can’t say much of it was fun, but it was what kept me going.
During the two years after my hospitalization, I couldn’t help but notice how much my practice was as necessary as the medication, as necessary as my psychiatrist whom I saw frequently, and as necessary as my therapist whom I saw twice a week. Perhaps that was what led me to enroll in the initial 200-hour teacher training. It certainly was not because I wanted to become a yoga teacher, but instead my curiosity about how this practice was having such an impact on my recovery got the better of me, which led me to that first training. Five years later I am teaching nearly full time and I finished therapeutics training, now a certified yoga therapist under IAYT. It is my hope to use therapeutic yoga to help others suffering from mood disorders and mental illness. I have also finished a second novel, proving to myself that medication would not affect me from writing any differently or writing altogether.
When I look back over the past five years and to where my life is today, “surreal” is the word that comes to mind first. If a fortuneteller had described my life as it currently is, I would have thought these predictions were the manipulations of a charlatan of the highest order. As a yoga teacher, my intention in each class or with each client is to provide a space to find solace, healing, and ultimately feel better about themselves. If this story were a Hollywood production, I would write that my depression is miraculously cured, no longer requiring medication, and that I have beaten my own disease. Since my life is far from a Hollywood movie, I can say that as much as I personally struggle with the idea of taking my medication, I still take it. As much as I have forgiven myself about it all, I am still working on accepting the reality of this disease as likely lifelong and the potential of taking medication being lifelong as well. My practice is even more important today, but for slightly different reasons. The mat still offers me a space to continue to work through all that I have been through, to work on the self-acceptance of my disease and medication, and for self-care. But now the mat enables me to show up for my family, my students, my friends, and my work as a writer. It also offers me space where the past no longer dominates the story, where the future no longer fills me with anxiety, and where my drishti is focused on the here and now.
Yuliana is a yoga teacher, author, wife, and mother. Find out more about her at https://www.yulianakimgrant.com.
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