By Jen Pastiloff
I just got back from leading a beautiful retreat for Mother’s Day. I feel hung over today. From love. Is that even a thing? It is now. I’m in bed trying to process it all. One of my favorite writers came, Christa Parravani, who is a dear friend. She wrote the book Her. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend it highly. I also partnered with Christy Turlington Burns’ Every Mother Counts and gave away a free spot. It was a remarkable and heart-mending weekend. It is truly a great honor to support Every Mother Counts.
At one point, we were talking about depression and I mentioned an essay I had written last year on my own depression and how I had gone off of my anti-depressants. I said to the group, “I wrote this essay about going off my meds. I’m back on now and I haven’t written about it because it’s no one’s business.” It’s not. I am not ashamed of it but it’s not my job to alert the media of everything. So I said that and then decided that maybe I should make a video about it. Who knew my videos were going to be such a thing. Must be the high production value. (Not.)
So I had a beautiful lunch and went out to sit in the cacti and I couldn’t do it. My hands were shaking and I started to sweat. I started and stopped it five times. I couldn’t do it.
I never get scared to make videos or write. Except when I do. And when I do, it’s usually something that I have to do.
Like I always say, I am afraid I a lot. But I do it anyway. I buy my fear a cup of coffee (or wine) and show it how it’s done.
I thought that making a video about being back on my anti-depressants was like a who the f*ck cares? kind of thing. I mean, I am not curing cancer or saving babies. Who cares that I take meds? But after I shared that I was back on and I was not ashamed five people in five minutes came up to me to thank me.
I had hired a sound therapist to give a sound concert for the people at my retreat with Tibetan singing bowls and a gong. Her name is Fawntice Finesse and she’s magic. For real. Anyway. We went into the yoga studio for the concert. Everyone was lying on their mats with their eyes covered and their socks and I shot up. I knew I had to make the video. I quietly stepped over all the bodies as the sun was setting and, with still shaking arms, made the video below.
I am not ashamed of being on anti-depressants. This is not to create a debate about whether you should or should not be on meds. This is not to discuss which meds I am on or how many milligrams. This is to create an honest discussion about depression, about how it does not define us, about how we must do what it takes to get out of bed. How it does not define us. Just like if you have cancer, you are not your cancer. You are not your job. You are not your depression.
I remember when that essay of mine went viral. I made the mistake of reading a few comments before I realized I was never to do that again. Maybe you should reconsider leading “inspirational” retreats, lady? Maybe you should stop taking people’s money? Maybe you should do more yoga?
I never call my retreats inspirational just like I never call myself an inspiration. If someone says that about me, well, I have no say in that. I do my best to share about my own journey and to have a sense of humor. And to love. That’s it.
My workshops are not woo-woo although Kaisa McDonnall Coppola, from my Mother’s Day Retreat said this, “Loved loved loved the retreat. I can’t imagine how you even describe your retreats other than kumbaya-badassness-where we get to say ‘fuck’ out loud and in our journals. Thank you, Jen…you are sending out ripples of coolness all over the world.”
We do (a little) yoga, we share, we listen, we let the snot fly, we sing, we pay attention. I am certainly not preaching “Positive thinking.”
But there was a little part of me that was afraid that I was shooting myself in the foot by talking so openly about this stuff. I realized, however, that this was precisely why I had to share. I want to take the stigma away from this. I am not encouraging you to walk down the street vomiting your secrets or over-sharing. But I realize there is so much shame and misunderstanding surrounding mental health and depression that perhaps I would be doing a great disservice if I wasn’t forthcoming. After all, I am not ashamed, so why not speak of it?
I have been depressed since I can remember. Then my dad died and that nearly took the life out of me. I left NYU with one year left after being a scholar because of my severe depression and anorexia. And yet, I never did a damn thing about it. When I finally had another breakdown years later at the restaurant I had been working at for thirteen years, I finally went on anti-depressants.
And they saved my fucking life.
Did they make me “happy?”
But they threw down a rope into the well I had been stuck in and I began to climb out, little by little. And my life changed. And I didn’t want to die anymore.
Cut to about a year and a half or two years ago. My life was “amazing” by any standards. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get pregnant but I knew I couldn’t with the particular meds I was taking so I began to ween off because hey, my life was amazing and I maybe wanted to have a baby. Maybe.
The truth: It was terrible being off. My life was amazing amazing amazing just look at her amazing life and yet, I couldn’t even get out of bed to brush my teeth. But still, I stayed off. I weened off slowly.
I would get hundreds of emails a day (yes, a day), and lead retreats and I had a great husband and yet.
I felt flat and like a nothing person.
All the amazingness does not matter when you have something chemically awry in your brain or you are dealing with depression. I don’t need to remind any of us of Robin Williams, do I?
I finally was completely weened off (I went very slowly as I couldn’t afford to go through any serious withdrawal.) The minute I was 100% clear of my meds, we tried to get pregnant. Once.
And it worked.
It was an emotional roller coaster, to say the least, and then, the pregnancy ended up being ectopic.
Here I am, off my meds. Pregnant and then no longer pregnant. I am slowly slipping father and farther drown the rabbit hole. Then, I break my foot.
You would have thought I was dying. It affected me so profoundly and I fell into possibly the darkest place I have ever been in.
I wrote this the day after my foot broke:
The night before, a few people had written and said things about how this foot breakage was a gift bla bla and yes, I agree, but hold on- not yet. Come on- it is a lie to have something happen and immediately see the gift in it. Oh, my foot broke? Yay. Here is a learning opportunity. Here is my yoga. Here is a gift. Bullshit.
Would I get there? Yes. (God, I hope so.) But I’d be damned if I would lie about how I was feeling. So I went and taught my workshop and did my best to have a sense of humor. I was more grounded than usual because I had to be- I literally couldn’t move. I had to be carried down to the yoga studio. I was sad and also tired, having been up all night, so my energy was razor focused. I was present.
I keep hearing this concept called spiritual bypassing. What I am taking it to mean is that people think that because they do yoga or meditate or simply are “spiritual” that they get to bypass what they are really feeling. I would not do this.
There is no bypass.
There is only entering the pain and being with the pain and then healing, but to be clear, I don’t think healing means the pain ever goes away 100%. Even if it means it’s just the memory of the pain. There’s no bypass. I wanted to throw my fucking crutches at the wall.
Telling the truth is important to me.
Last month when I was in Dallas, my friend and I stumbled upon a man giving free advice in the park near her house. He had a little homemade sign that said free advice and an American flag and another sign that said Kindness Matters. There were chairs set up in a circle for people to come and sit and listen to free advice and a stuffed dog keeping guard. The first day I walked by and saw him I sat down. There was a boy there, about nineteen years old, who said his girlfriend had cheated on him with his best friend. He’d started to cry. Big fat teardrops fell onto his thick thighs and I remember feeling like a voyeur because he was in so much pain and here I was, a stranger. I hugged him before I walked away and told him to take care of his heart.
The next day when we went back (I couldn’t get enough of free advice man), a different group of people were there. Rod, that was Free Advice’s name, kept putting his hand on the leg of his partner. He was talking about love and beauty. He had his hand on her leg and said something like, “And if she ran way and married my best friend, it would be interesting to see what in love looked like under those circumstances, but I bet ya, on an old nickel” (he had a thing for old nickels and his grandmother) “that I wouldn’t fall out of love.”
I remember this clearly because it was astounding what he was suggesting. To love unconditionally. I wanted to hear more. I told him it was hard to accept that. He pointed to his partner or wife or whoever she was to him and said, “She is more beautiful than betrayal.”
He said that he didn’t know if that was always true, for everybody, and I appreciated that honesty.
Then he said this, and I have to write this down because here I am, with a broken foot, writing a book called Beauty Hunting. He said, “I’m not sure what love is. I know what beauty is. Beauty makes me love. It just happens. Like dominoes fall.
Then he points to everyone in the circle and says, “You, You, You, and You are incarnate beauty. I don’t believe this. That is my direct experience.”
He goes on to talk about what would happen if his lady betrayed him. “If she betrays me, I’m not capable of treating her any worse than crazy Eddie, the head of the youth gang that bushwhacked me one day. I am captured by beauty.”
By this point, I had looked at my friend and whispered, “Where the fuck are we?”
He continued on, “If she stabbed me in the back, it would be at least as beautiful as a supernova. As a star exploding!”
He told us all sitting around on those plastic chairs that he didn’t talk like this a lot. And this is the part that made me realize he wasn’t totally full of shit- he said, “This, what I am talking about, would not be good advice for that 19 year old kid last night.”
He said, “I can’t afford the risk of betrayal to cause me to take my eyes off beauty.”
My friend who has also broken her foot and struggled with anorexia texted me yesterday that the inner torture of a break cannot be comprehended.
I am calm. I have been lying in bed for a week with no guilt so I feel calm. And present. Normally, if I sit around doing nothing I am smothered in guilt, but now, because I know I can’t go anywhere, I’ve succumbed to being still. Does that mean I’m not afraid? No. I am terrified of change almost more than anything in my life and I am afraid of what I can’t control. What is going to happen to my body? What will I be incapable of? What does this break mean? Will I fall into the dark vortex of depression again since I can’t run and that has been one of the things saving me?
I can’t know the answer and I hate that. I want the answer. I want to know things will stay the same. I want sameness, things to count on, consistency, things that don’t break or leave.
Look, I know things could be worse. So I had to cancel Seattle this weekend and two sold out workshops? So? I need to be driven around for 6 weeks? So? I get that so-ness. I am just afraid of who I am and what I will discover when I have to get still.
I have been forced to slow down and I am utterly terrified of what that means.
In Andrew Solomon’s book, The Noonday Demon, there’s a quote by George Brown which says, “Depression is a response to past loss, and anxiety is a response to future loss.” I was terrified of future loss.
Today when I finally went to the orthopedist, the nurse asked me if I am being treated for any medical conditions. I said, “Not really. Just depression.”
She said, “Join the club, sister.”
I’m scared I won’t be able to climb out. I am afraid I am going to get stuck. People say that I should write about it and all I can think of is why anyone would want to hear about me trying to get into the shower to sit on a stepstool my husband has put in there for me to bathe and how I couldn’t figure out how to get in. And because of the crutches, my carpel tunnel is acting up like a motherfucker and my hands have become unusable and I feel broken everywhere. I can’t hear, I can’t use my hands, my foot is broken, and I decide to give up on bathing. I lie, once again, naked on the bathroom floor and think, “It’s beautiful. I think I’ll stay here.” But I’m on Percocet so maybe that isn’t me talking as much as the drugs and fatigue and self-pity because it really isn’t beautiful in my bathroom, especially from the ground. But what is beautiful is surrender.
I think about the drive up to Ojai last week to lead my retreat and how unimpressed I was with my legs. That morning I had worked out and then too. Totally unfazed. I, in no way, stood in awe of my body. I didn’t stand there going, “Oh my God, look at my legs moving. Look at this goddamned miracle of my body.” Why not? Why did it take crawling backwards up my stairs on my ass, or the doctor telling me that I cannot use my right foot or becoming incapacitated to become deeply appreciate of my body all of sudden? I don’t know. The things we take for granted.
Last night I got a response in the mail to my own Rumpus letter in the mail. It took my breath away.
I just went to look for it and realized I had stuck it as a bookmarker in The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which I have been rereading as I write Beauty Hunting.
The back of the envelope said: I’m having second thoughts about sending this. Your letter really helped/inspired me. I carefully tore open the envelope. It was a thick gold inside. There were two rectangle shaped pages inside with neat cursive writing on each. I will change the names.
Dear Jennifer, The thought that came to mind when talking about being brave was about my son, Dan. I questioned that thought immediately because Dan is dead. He hung himself. Suddenly, his act became a clear case of being brave. He was brave to feel the pain of life and brave enough to feel the pain of despair and brave enough to feel the calmness of death not knowing exactly was ahead.
Ps, It is beautiful here and I like it.
I will save that letter. I will think about not knowing exactly is ahead. I am not thinking about death right now. I am thinking about being in my body and how hard that is. But if I sit here and listen long enough I can hear what I haven’t been able to hear with my bad ears and my constant moving and my running. And? What do you hear? You ask. I don’t know yet.
I remember Free Advice Guy’s words and I think: I am more beautiful than this betrayal of my body.
Then finally: Maybe this isn’t a betrayal after all.
A few months after I wrote that I reached into my nightstand drawer where I had a bottle of meds from when I had weened off. I took one after I texted my doctor, “I think I might die if I don’t so something.”
And here I am.
Do I still struggle?
Fuck, yes. Sometimes. But it’s what I need to do. Will I be on them for the rest of my life? Perhaps. Do they help me? Yes.
Am I ashamed? No. Do they define me? No. Does my depression? No. And it shouldn’t for you, either.
I try to lead my example. Sometimes I am an asshole. I am human, what do you want? But i try my damndest.
Someone said I was a wounded healer and I quite like that.
All I know is that I was scared to post the video and within a few hours there were hundreds of comments and they all said thank you in one form or another.
That is incarnate beauty.
At the end of my life, when I ask one final What have I done? let my answer be: I have done love.