I Have A Near Cult-Like Following And Lead Retreats Around The World, And I'm Struggling With Depression

I suffer from anxiety and depression and sometimes even the affirmations I teach don’t help.

Apr 11, 2014 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

I’m tired. I just spent a week leading a retreat with 22 women, and although I mostly love what I do, I found myself this week understanding, for the first time really, what it means to be emotionally exhausted. I’m awake and filled with gratitude, but I’m drained. How long can one person wear so many hats? Yoga teacher, retreat and workshop leader, writer, and lastly, a depressive. 
 
I’ve been off my anti-depressants since last summer. I originally went off because I thought I might want to get pregnant. Also, I wanted to see if I could “make it” without them. My life is different now. But back then, six years ago when I made the decision to go on anti-depressants, I was desperate and depressed. Like crawling on the floor and eating food in your sleep desperate. I’d suffered from anorexia, severe depression and anxiety for a long time, and, was also miserable at my waitressing job (at a restaurant in LA where I stayed for 12 years). 
 
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Me leading a retreat in Topanga Canyon, California. Photo by Jenni Yong.

 
I’ve come a long way since then, which included days when I would read instant messages (they were still so novel back then) all day from my ex-boyfriend that said things like: You just gotta get your shit together. U gotta get out of the restaurant. U gotta make moves. You’ve gotta decide what u want to do with ur life! As if I didn’t know that I was drowning at the restaurant. As if staring in the mirror and picking my face until it bled was what I wanted for myself.
 
By this time last year, the circumstances of my life had changed dramatically, and I thought it was time to see if my depression was “circumstantial” or “chemical” by trying life without the meds.
 
About a year after I had gone on anti-depressants, I quit the restaurant. I started leading inspirational workshops, which quickly turned into sold-out workshops and retreats all over the world. I developed this huge online following. It all happened very quickly -- I went from career waitress to traveling around the world and being on Good Morning America and featured in New York Magazine. And all this success came while I was on meds.
 
I felt like a fraud. I felt like I should be able to use the tools I was teaching in my workshops and not have to be on anti-depressants. So I went off last summer, and about five minutes later got pregnant.
 
The hormones from being pregnant combined with the emotions and brain freak-outs from going off medication made me feel crazy (literally) and scared. The pregnancy ended up being ectopic and yet, through it all, the night of hemorrhaging at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts, where I was the guest speaker, to the day of leading workshops in New York City and teaching classes in Seattle, I kept going. Because people were depending on me. I had to push through. I had to put on a happy face.
 
I’m not sure I can pinpoint the exact moment in time that I first earned the reputation for being “positive” or “inspirational,” but I can tell you that the joke isn’t lost on me -- earlier in my life, if I had a dime for every time someone told me to “smile” or that I seemed depressed or that I seemed miserable or too serious, I would be very, very rich.
 
I think the perception may have something to do with my willingness to be honest, to talk about what lies in the bottom of the closet  or masturbation or sex or how I drink too much wine and yet I’m a yoga teacher. I’ve written about depression before. Apparently enough that two girls on my last retreat said that every time they Googled “articles on depression” my name came up again and again. 
 
These things can be refreshing in a world where the “real” us is often stymied by the illusions we’ve created though social media, or by trying to live up to the expectations of others. I’m not saying that I am a negative person. I actually abhor the words “positive” and “negative” because they mean so little yet carry so much weight. 
 
I’ve carved out a beautiful life and love what I do, but sometimes, especially lately, I feel the old tug of depression, that magnet of sadness which is buried somewhere next to the grief of losing my father at such a young age, but not relegated to that grief. 
 
The sadness can appear out of the blue -- when I'm leading a retreat to Costa Rica, when 100 people email in one day to tell me how “amazing” I am, when everything seems to be on the upswing. And then the blueness comes, and this is why: depression is real and it doesn’t give a damn if you have money or a “following” or a best-selling book or a multi-million dollar film out -- it’ll come for you. 
 
If it’s a thing in your body, as mine is (it’s here in my throat and gives me migraines and makes me hide out in my apartment all day), then you have to deal with it, and not pretend it doesn’t exist by saying affirmations or posting happy quotes on Facebook. I’m not suggesting that anyone should wallow in depression, although one wouldn’t say, “Don’t wallow in your cancer,” but rather, I’m saying, “Let’s talk about it.”
 
Let’s talk about how hard it is to be inspiring when you can’t move, when you want to get down really low to the earth and see if you can hear it hum and when it does, you want to stay there -- all flat like that, pressed to the floor. 
 
Let’s talk about the dichotomy that is having people ask you endlessly how to get over their own depression and sadness when you yourself haven’t brushed your teeth that day. And I know if you are reading this, you might wonder why the hell doesn’t she just go back on meds and shut up? The answer is: I might. 
 
I also might try to write it out. 
 
Because truthfully, I feel way more emotionally tentative now than I was when I was on them. I am not saying that people should stop taking their medication if they need it, because lord knows there are people who cannot exist a day off medication, literally. Not a day. And a lot of my days off them are good. I think it’s important to understand that the things we often believe about the people we admire are illusions, that behind the closed doors of the people we look up to, they may be silently weeping into a coffee mug as we pine away over their “perfect life.”
 
I use affirmations at times but when they are BS, you can smell it a mile away. You can chant and sing "I am not desperate" or "I am not depressed," but the truth stinks. 
 
I used to write things down in my journal when I was at the height of my eating disorder like: I will be good! I am happy! Tomorrow I will not eat! I will stop picking my face! I will utilize/manage my time better. I am a writer! I can do this! Jenny Jen, You are Great! Today is going to be a great day! No more negativity!
 
I didn't especially believe any these affirmations, except the writer one and even that I’ve spent my whole life running from. I finally stopped picking my face (except under extreme stress when I still succumb), but the things I would bossily tell myself I was, or would do or become, became limp things I’d shove under the bed with the chocolate chip banana muffins I ate in my sleep. I literally begged my dead father in these journals for help. I was that desperate.
 
Yet I kept writing these lists of affirmations every day: I am grateful for my talent! I am a good person! I teach this stuff in my Manifestation Yoga workshops, all this stuff about believing in yourself and who you are in the world, who you’re surrounding yourself with, what inspires you, how all of that creates the life we want for ourselves. And it does.
 
But affirmations do not work all the time. I suffer from anxiety and depression and sometimes all the affirmations in the world don’t help. I still say to myself, in the morning while I am half-asleep, before I have even lurched one foot over the bed: I am safe, I am safe, I am loved, I am loved, I can do this, I can do this. 
 
It’s complicated, the circuitry of the brain and the things we are hard-wired to believe. I know we have the power to change our thoughts but when we are that low to the earth, skimming for love by any means available, when we are literally jonesing for something that is dead (as I was with my father), well, you can affirm all you want but nothing will change. 
 
The fact is that I am struggling. It’s real. It’s in my body from lord knows when, perhaps from my ancestors, perhaps I carried it down from my Romanian grandmother or my Native American great-great grandfather, or perhaps when my father died in the night it left something broken inside of me. 
 
I don’t know. But in my mind I keep hearing Ovid’s quote: “Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.” And I keep thinking that instead of hiding who I am, I should share it because maybe my pain will somehow be useful.