I first got my period at 14 years old. I was a little late, and remember feeling unaccepted by my peers for my late menstruation and flat chest. But just after I graduated middle school I began to bleed, and in such a cliché-way that marked womanhood, yet also defined a new chapter in my life—something I would grow to identify with for years to come.
Within four months of that first period, I tried drowning myself in my bathtub. I sobbed to my dad about how I just didn’t feel “good enough” when I told him what I tried to do. I didn’t think I was smart or friendly or talented enough. I had lingering insecurities and low self-esteem that latched onto me and dragged me down further and further into this pit of emptiness where life just didn’t feel meaningful anymore.
By January of my freshman year of high school and after my second suicide attempt, I was put on anti-depressants and started seeing a therapist. It was a pill for breakfast and Sunday mornings talking about my feelings and checking in on whether or not I would kill myself that week. After a few months, my dad checked in with me about how I was doing, and honestly I answered I didn’t know. I had started dating a guy who I knew was consistently cheating on me and was only interested in me for hooking up. I had friends who condemned my mild exploration of my sexuality, frankly calling me out as a slut. And while I loved my family so much, my mom had just started menopause so her hormones were raging just as loudly as mine; and my dad’s alcoholism worsened severely and became harder to hide from his teenage daughter. When he asked me how I was doing, I said I didn’t know, but that I didn’t think I felt happy. He asked me if I ever knew what happiness felt like. I could pinpoint a few moments of happiness, like birthdays, amusement parks, and getting a dog, but actually being truly content didn’t feel familiar. I shook my head at him, “No, I don’t know what it means, what it feels like to be happy.”
Throughout all of high school, I went from medication to medication, therapist to therapist, psychologist to psychologist without any real results. I never grew comfortable with each new therapist to gain a sense of trust and really express my true feelings. For me, it was pretending I was okay as to not “alarm” anyone. My parents believed my period was the source of my depression because I was more sensitive during that time. But doctors ignored my parents’ concerns claiming this is just how women are, we are emotional and up-and-down. So I only got worse. I tried self-medicating by taking too much of the recommend dose of pills. I had random spates of uncontrollable shaking for months, and when my eyes were so glossed over and my pupils so dilated that I couldn’t even recognize my reflection in the mirror, my parents called the doctor and I was taken off the anti-depressants. Mental breakdowns were common. Self-destructive behavior was frequent. And shattering self-esteem was inevitable. I talked every Sunday about how I was doing without resolve. I could talk endlessly about being depressed and feeling anxious, but nothing changed after every conversation. I still went home feeling the same as I did an hour before.
At 17 years old, I started practicing yoga. I was always fascinated by the practice and finally got a chance to pursue it as a P.E. requirement in high school. I learned tons of yoga poses and basic pranayama breath, but after taking the class I practiced it sporadically and without much focus. Yoga was introduced to me as a hip, Eastern spirituality tradition packaged as an alternative form of health and exercise in a Westernized setting. By the time I started college I continued yoga, but was actively seeing a therapist on campus. The woman was a graduate student and I felt more like her school assignment than an actual patient. The system only allowed for three months of therapy and then I could choose some very limited options for support groups. After those three months, I finally stopped therapy. Drugs and therapy weren’t working, so I decided to move on and take care of myself on my own. While I did start a vegan diet at this point, I matched the stress from college work with a cigarette habit and copious amounts of vodka on the weekends. The next three years was an unstable whirlwind of insane highs followed by drastic lows.
The summer I came back from studying abroad, I took a different direction with my life. I realized how little it made sense to try so hard to take care of my body by eating right and exercising yet still drinking too much and smoking, so I quit tobacco and dramatically cut back on my alcohol intake. And even more, I recommitted myself to yoga. I joined a yoga studio and went once a week (as much as I could afford). When school started in the fall, I took a class on the texts and traditions of yoga. We learned about the many, different yoga traditions and their main texts along with doing an hour-long asana portion once a week. The renewed introduction to yoga in this more Eastern-centered, philosophical way opened me up to the profound connection inside myself I never knew existed.
While others commented on my changing body from doing yoga almost every day, what was more noticeable to me was the change in my life perspective. When I was upset because my work got rejected by my university’s literary journal, I went to yoga class where a guest monk taught us a meditation on releasing negativity. We thought about that moment of frustration, sadness, and pain, breathed into it and then exhaled with a sigh releasing the negativity, releasing from the hurt and filling ourselves with pure, white energy. I walked out of class with this huge, hopeful grin across my face. With each meditation I learned to become fully integrated into the present, while simultaneously detached from the outside world and my chaotic feelings. Insecurities melted away with each yoga session as I connected back to myself, to the divine energy within myself that is trapped and ready to be unleashed. The tantric idea that the divine presence rested in me fought back against my degrading self-worth and self- respect. Practicing Lion’s breath and other alternative breathing techniques helped release the tension and stress I often felt and brought me closer to a more relaxed mental state and inner peace. With yoga came gratitude, a recognition that life is precious and finite and that I have to give thanks for the beautiful things life does give me and accept what it does not. I’ve learned to take the intention I say before each practice off the mat and spread the inner warmth created across the encounters, struggles, and moments of my everyday life. Yoga gave me what I could never realize on my own: happiness is right in front of me when I look with new eyes.
It is not to say that within the last year I’ve suddenly been magically cured. Nothing is that simple or easy. I think I’ve been gifted with this immense sensitivity that lets me experience the beauty and pain in life at a much more heightened level. It’s wonderful and damaging all at once. I still struggle with self-esteem, I still worry about my future (especially with the new pressures of post-grad life), and I still react with exaggerated negativity when something goes wrong. I recognize some things are better and some things need work, so I check in with my body, mind, and heart each day to help with that, to find the balance necessary to live fully. The process is gradual, but I’m finally starting to see positive results unlike before when my mood constantly cycled up and down. I still ride that emotional rollercoaster, but now with fewer bumps and falls and even greater highs.
Also by Jessica: Gentle Yoga for Neck Pain
More personal essays in Voices: Finding Love at a Vegan Bakery
Photo: Jessica Renae