Dying to Live
 

Sitting on the cold, hard, sterile floor, back against the wall of the psychiatric emergency room of Brackenridge Hospital in downtown Austin, I had only one question. How did I get here? I mean, I know how I physically arrived despite being half comatose from a few too many sleeping pills. From what I can remember, paramedics bust into my apartment completely uninvited, entered my bedroom, shook me awake and demanded I answer a few questions. Apparently they didn’t like my answers. From what I can recall, I was lifted from my bed, placed in a wheelchair, awkwardly carried down the stairs of my apartment and transported into a medical vehicle. The next thing I remember, I was in a hospital bed. I should’ve known better to be more specific when I asked the Universe for a man to carry me out of bed in my camisole. Note to self – I would like to be fully conscious when a man sweeps me in his arms and leads me out of, or into, my bed.

Photography by Katherine Squier

Photography by Katherine Squier

They had no right to barge in. No right to dictate I live. It was my life. I should be allowed to decide whether or not it continued. I was pissed. I was hurt. I was sad. And I was still slightly drugged. How had it gotten this far?

Before I could answer that question, I realized I had a more pressing concern. How the hell was I going to get out of this antiseptic, dispassionate, sterile room with fluorescent lights and cold air blowing above me?  In my version of hell there are no burning flames and hot searing pitchforks. In my version of hell, I am sitting on a block of ice, naked, forced to drink ice water. I hate the cold. And I most definitely am not a fan of bad lighting. I felt like screaming. I felt like I was, indeed, crazy. At the same time I knew I didn’t belong there.

Truth was, all I wanted was a hug, a warm safe space and someone to tell me I was okay. In one of my most vulnerable moments, I wanted to be assured that my brokenness only meant I was human.

Unfortunately, the psych ward of a hospital is not the place you go for warm and fuzzy or compassion. To those nurses and psychiatric evaluators I was a box to be checked – something to be figured out, a monkey in a cage to be ogled and studied.

So I did what I’ve been doing my whole life - I lied. Have you thought about harming yourself before? No. Do you feel like you want to harm yourself now? No. They danced around the word suicide like a stripper around a pole. There is nothing I despise worse than bullshit and they were full of it.  

With the help of a friend who assured them I would spend the night at his home, I convinced those doctors I was not an immediate danger to myself or others and they sent me on my way with an inappropriate dosage of Prozac, unguided as a rudderless ship. I wasn’t so convinced myself, but there was no way I was spending another moment in that joint. It took me about a week to regain any enthusiasm for life or desire to understand what had happened. Once I did, there was no doubt in my mind that this was my proverbial wake up call. I could no longer lie to myself. Despite my best efforts I could no longer ignore depression or continue to ride its turbulent wave.  It was difficult to acknowledge that I suffered from depression, especially when many times I couldn’t quite pinpoint why it appeared. I never wanted to use ‘depressed’ as an identifying characteristic like female, or blonde or green eyes. These are obvious traits. Depression is often anything but obvious and not something I was keen to add to my CV. Admitting I was ‘depressed’ made me feel like a victim. I seemed to be able to find solutions to every challenge in my life. Why not this? Yet if I couldn’t call it out or name it, how in the hell would I understand it, much less heal it?

Photography by Cig Harvey

Photography by Cig Harvey

Besides, who was I to bitch and moan? By all outward appearances and societal standards, I lived a successful, happy life. And to a large extent, this was true. My adult years have been full of adventure, traveling when I pleased, seeing places that most only dream of. I’ve toured temples and shrines in India, hiked the highest peaks in Colorado and swam in the seas hugging Africa and Bali. I built a name for myself in the fitness and yoga industries and have appeared on DVDs covers and in some of the most popular health and wellness magazines. I seemed to have my shit together. I smiled in all my pictures. By all accounts, my life resembled a greatest hits album on Facebook. Thus, I dismissed years of underlying malaise, rationalizing that I simply tolerated and fought through more sadness than the average person. Or that I was sensitive - more susceptible to emotion – mine and other’s. It seemed even in my happiest moments, depression was always there, lurking just beneath the surface, ready to rear its ugly head and make a mockery of my picture perfect life.

In my earlier years, my demons arose from the conflict between my outer and inner worlds. Despite my successes, I longed to know a world beyond what I could see and measure with my eyes; and one in which my happiness was not predicated on the size of my bank account or my waist. I wrestled between the life I thought I should have and the one I so desperately wanted for the longest time, and there was no resolution. I simply vacillated between the two, doing my best to navigate the murky waters of both, praying for a map to guide me in the right direction.

My prayers were answered when I found my teacher in the Fall of 2011. It seemed I would find exactly what I was seeking under his direction studying yoga, Tantra and meditation. I was a diligent student for the next five years. I attended every training and workshop. I learned techniques that helped me fulfill my deepest spiritual longings while simultaneously teaching me how to navigate the everyday challenges of the material world. I committed myself to yoga, meditation, and self-inquiry practices. I wrote in my journals non-stop. I actually became a seeker of darkness, looking for it in the hidden nooks and crannies of my consciousness so that I could understand it and extricate it from my life. Despite the ebbs and flows of life, I began to feel more stable, more confident. I began to recognize how my habitual thoughts of fear and negativity created a life of discontent and I was committed to changing them. I also began to develop and nurture deep meaningful friendships that would support me in my times of sorrow. All of these things helped me take ownership of my life. I no longer felt like a slave to my emotions and sensed I was moving in a positive direction.

Photography by Cig Harvey

Photography by Cig Harvey

Yet toward the end of 2015, I began to feel a large swell of discontent. My job as the Wellness Director of a resort and spa in Austin, TX was unfulfilling and I was living in a city where I never did quite find my groove. In February of 2016, I quit my job and boarded a one-way flight to India for a sadhana immersion with my teachers, unsure where exactly I would go after that or when I would return. I had no idea what was next and, like anyone with a pulse, I felt fear over leaping into the unknown. But I did know without a shadow of a doubt that I was making the right decision. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like I was running away from something, but running towards something.

During my travels throughout Asia, I learned more about myself with every stamp of my passport. I began to get clearer on what I wanted, the woman I wanted to be, and the life I envisioned for myself. I knew I had to write the book that had been brewing inside of me for years. After I returned to the States, I retreated to the mountains of Colorado to do just that. My summer was filled with meaningful work, time in nature, fresh food and visits with family. I was finding balance. I was content and at peace. And I almost convinced myself I had seen the last of sadness sans reason. I felt joy - a deep internal joy that was present regardless of what I did for a living, what I looked like, or whether or not I would ever press into handstand in the middle of the room.

Despite all of my strides forward, depression had been patiently waiting in the wings, ready to make its grand entry and take down the house. One evening I was exhausted from one too many hikes and quite possibly, a lack of adequate oxygen. I had gone for a particularly long stretch staring into a computer screen, isolated from much contact with the outside world. My defenses were down and feelings of anxiety and restlessness began to overshadow the peace I had found in the mountains. I was blowing through much of my savings and worries about what I would do for work and how I would support myself became overwhelming. I feared the risk of switching careers and expressing my truth. All the courage and confidence I seemed to have cultivated during my solo travels disappeared in an instant. It felt safer to crawl back into the shadows then make any attempt to forge ahead into the light.

Often times, my longing for spiritual fulfillment would draw me to a persuasive pull of death. I would teeter to the edge of a mountain and contemplate taking a step off. I often wondered about slipping to the bottom of the ocean without surfacing. Or glance down from a Manhattan high rise, wondering if I’d have the guts to leap off. I never saw it as an exit strategy. More as an entry point into an existence I longed to experience beyond this life I was living. But never, until this night, did I actually think about heading to the kitchen to pick up a knife and slit my wrists.

Photography by Cig Harvey

Photography by Cig Harvey

Instead, I picked up my Kindle, hoping to alleviate my restlessness with some reading. I had been studying a book on the Goddesses and immediately opened to a page on Kali. There she was. Staring me in the face - the slayer of ego, the liberator of the soul. In that moment, I had a choice. I could either fight her or succumb to her fierceness and allow her to dismember me limb by egoic limb. Eventually, I lay down the book and begged her to descend and crush me.

Almost out of nowhere, I began to sob uncontrollably. I felt myself being dissected. Goodbye ego. The tears were so strong I felt my entire body twitch and shake with anger and fear. I welcomed it, invited the ugly, cajoled it even. Let her rip. As she continued to pulverize me, I found a willingness to sit in it as long as I needed until she was finished. Eventually, the tears stopped and I slipped into a void of blackness. There was nothing. Not even a memory of it. Just dark. Everything was gone. Thought, reason, color, shapes, senses. It felt like I had left.

I’m not sure how long this lasted. It may have been 2 minutes. It may have been 20 seconds. I had gone somewhere. And then I came back. And I wasn’t afraid: Of losing everything. Of having everything. Of failure. Of success. Of getting fat. Of being thin. Of saying what’s on my mind or choosing to stay silent. Of judgment. Of praise. Of not having friends. Of being idolized. 

Photography by Ellen Kooi

Photography by Ellen Kooi

I didn’t want to know death. I wanted to know my soul. I had a deep desire to experience my SELF minus the limitations of my physical body. What it felt like to abide in nothingness. To rest peacefully in the void. Once I did, I realized I had nothing to fear. I got a glimpse of what I truly was – that blackness, that nothingness - everything else is just for show. The money, the career, the body, the friends, the relationships, all of it – whether you have it or not, it doesn’t change that, eventually, it will all go black. We will all die. And it could happen sooner than later. We never know.

I awoke the next morning feeling freer and clearer than ever before. I sensed that despite all its ups and downs, failure and success, darkness and light, life is inherently beautiful and worth pursuing. I knew something had changed when a few days later I went for a hike and stood dangerously close to the edge of a cliff. For the first time in my life, I had no desire to jump.

It seemed my epiphanies were short lived. Not six weeks later, I found myself, yet again, in a puddle on the floor. What the fuck was wrong with me? I didn’t have a good answer, and this time, death seemed even more charming. I slipped into a tub wondering if warm water would alleviate the pain that must come with slitting one’s wrists? Maybe I could ingest mass amounts of alcohol or some other drug and slip away into a quiet coma? Isn’t that how Heath Ledger had done it, albeit accidentally? However, I’ve always been an adamant objector to drugs, so an over the counter option would have been my strongest choice. But it was likely a Nyquil/Aleve cocktail would do little more than leave me with a killer hangover.

Photography by David Maisel

Photography by David Maisel

As much as I claimed it didn’t, something about death indeed scared me. Or maybe it was pain. Despite my ability to tolerate high levels of discomfort, I cringed at the thought of cutting my wrists, especially if I failed. Something kept me from doing it. Maybe, despite feeling completely hopeless, I possessed a sliver of will to figure this out. To understand why sadness kept knocking on my door. So I sat in the tub for over an hour and allowed every sorrow, hurt and disappointment to pour out my eyes and into my bath. Eventually the tears abated and an insight flashed across my mind. What if depression is my soul begging to be heard? Telling me the life I’m living is completely antithetical to its true desires? What if it is my soul’s way of telling me I’m not listening to it?

All of a sudden, everything I worked so hard to achieve meant nothing. More deaths. Goodbye fitness guru girl. Goodbye consummate seeker of wisdom and truth. Goodbye yoga teacher. These roles no longer felt relevant or purposeful. More than ever, I knew what I had been was not what I was to become.

Once again, within a couple of days, I returned from the emotional rubble, unearthing nuggets of wisdom and truth as I emerged. The shedding of unnecessary layers and false identifications left me lighter and more optimistic than ever. I felt ready to move forward and began making plans to return to Los Angeles, a place that always felt like home. I may not have known what was next but at least I’d be where I had a strong network of support and friends.

But somewhere in between where I had been and where I was going, I lost my way yet again. I was back in Austin, and although plans were made for my move, the future seemed too far away. I felt isolated, lonely and again fretful of how I would make it all work. Unlike the preceding episodes, I had no epiphany, no insight into why this might be happening yet again. And I no longer had any desire to try to understand my despair. Despite its many joys and adventures, my life didn’t seem all that wonderful and I couldn’t convince myself that this world would be any worse without me in it. I was tired and I wanted permanent relief. I took a wrong turn back down the road of darkness and this time, I slipped and fell into a spiral of sadness that landed me smack dab in the ER.

In hindsight it’s obvious I lacked clarity in the moment I decided to take a few too many Ambien hoping I’d be sedated enough to give me the courage to do something devastating. I couldn’t perceive the true gift of life. I couldn’t find even a glimmer of the ever-present light of joy I had felt months ago in Colorado. It feels like worlds away from the appreciation I now have for my life. But I am not too distant to forget that the deep despondency I felt in those moments was very, very real. I pray I never experience that again and I will do everything in my power to prevent entering that desperate vortex.

Photography by Cig Harvey

Photography by Cig Harvey

I will call on the deep well of faith and trust I’ve been steadily building since that day, for I now understand it’s fear that sets me off on the slippery slope of stress-anxiety-depression-death. Almost all of my episodes, from the time they began up until that fateful day in the ER, have been precipitated by fear. Fear of how I would support myself. Fear of what’s next. Fear of judgment. Fear of not being liked. Fear of not being fill-in-the-blank enough – talented, perfect, pretty, thin, wealthy, successful, smart, spiritual, whatever.

Until I was on that cold, hard floor with bad lighting I had refused to name depression and ask it why it came. Or accept that it might come back. Now instead of fighting back, I will lay down my weapons and surrender to trust. I will ask for help.

I promise to use the tools I’ve been taught – meditation, yoga, deep relaxation. I will use all the resources I have to pull myself out of a potential depressive episode the moment I sense it lurking around the corner. I will not wait. I know what makes me happy: A hug. Time with friends. Dance class. Nature – hiking or a trip to the ocean. A meal at Café Gratitude and vegan ice cream. Now that I’m back in Los Angeles, I have all of these things right outside my front door and I couldn’t be happier. I’m grateful for every day I have to take advantage of all of it. But I’m not sure how fulfilled I would be by these simple pleasures had I not dove to the depths of darkness.

I can’t say that depression will never make a sneak attack again. But I do know my life is a gift. Maybe I needed to teeter on the edge of its demise to understand that. And I know, unequivocally, I am exactly where I'm supposed to be. I am convinced that every struggle, every step toward death actually brought me closer to life.

Photography by Cig Harvey

Photography by Cig Harvey


Dying to Live

By

Jennifer Galardi


Cover Photography by Cig Harvey