• Kristen Jensen

Mental Illness Sucks (The Life Out of You)

CW: abuse, sexual abuse, self-harm

Fair warning: This story is kind of a bummer, but it has a happy ending. It made me sad just writing it, even though I have done a lot of healing and therapy around these circumstances (I just want to swoop in and give past me a big hug). I wanted to create a shared understanding of the darkness that I came from, and how I live my life these days so that I can continue walking away from that darkness, in hopes that it would inspire someone who may be ready to make that shift for themselves. Even though our individual experiences might be different, I hope that we can connect on one thing: mental illness sucks! Whether it quietly hums in the background slowly feeding off our energy or it’s the more in your face, life disrupting kind, I truly believe that no one is “broken”, and that there is a happy ending available to all who want it. The tough thing is that the illness tells us these things – that we are broken, that there is no redemption, that we’ll never actually feel truly happy again. Mental illness tricks us into thinking these things are true. It copies voices and circumstances from our past, warping them in a way that makes it seem like they’re our own thoughts or present circumstances. When we adopt the false beliefs, we don’t go looking for help. The illness gets to live on, our mind thinks it’s ensuring our survival. I hope my story helps people looking for a new way, or at least offers a bit of normalcy around talking about mental illness.

. . .

Anxiety has been a part of my life for a long time. I’m not sure if one event caused it or if it was a series of events. Growing up, I lived with my mother, who was an emotionally abusive alcoholic. My parents divorced when I was three, and I got to see my Dad every other weekend. My stepdad was generally kind of a creep and would grab my ass time to time when I hugged him, but I never had one “big thing” that I can remember. I know it sounds weird, but even in those circumstances, I never felt particularly unsafe. I remember not liking to be home and some explosive fights with my mom when she had been drinking, but I generally had a warm bed to sleep on, a roof over my head, and food in the pantry. But, that’s the thing about mental illness – it can be brought on by something giant and lifechanging, or something that most people consider a “normal” part of life. It is indiscriminatory in who it affects and manifests itself in different ways.

I went into the military looking for an escape from my turbulent household. 9/11 had happened about a year before I enlisted, and I honestly felt a strong urge to help my country. However, I wasn’t prepared for the mental conditioning that accompanied boot camp. It takes a fair amount of psychological training and restructuring of social norms to convince a person that they’re a killing machine. The Marine Corps likes to think of it as tearing you down and building you back up as a Marine. The thing was, beneath the talkative goofiness that the drill instructors were attempting to strip, I had a solid layer of fear. I started having small panic attacks at night (the long days filled with training kept my mind off of it during the day). I didn’t understand what they were, I just figured that the stress of the training was getting to me. I hid what was happening from the drill instructors and my platoon mates.

It got worse after graduation, when I didn’t have 15 hours of intensive training a day to distract me. The small panic attacks turned into big panic attacks – full-blown, hyperventilating, crying and screaming panic attacks. I remember feeling so trapped. The leadership in my unit saw what was happening but ignored it. They told me to ‘suck it up’ and accused me of faking it. I didn’t want to be discharged, and deemed a ‘failure’, but I also felt terrified of staying in the Marine Corps. I felt like there were no good options. I started cutting on my arms when it seemed like the anxiety was going to consume me. The brief sharp pain from the cut and the throbbing ache I felt afterwards was a welcome distraction at the time but didn’t provide lasting relief. One day, an attack came on in a public area, and a sergeant came over to see if I needed help. He saw the cuts on my arms, and immediately called an ambulance.

I spent the next two weeks in the psychiatric ward of the nearest Naval hospital. I was put on a daily heavy dose of clonazepam and a couple other medications that I don’t remember. The medication, therapy, and regular meditation helped me to start feeling human again. I received an “Other Than Honorable” discharge from the Marines shortly after I got out of the hospital (because good Marines don’t cut on themselves – I received the military equivalent of a misdemeanor for “destruction of military property”). Feeling a combination of relief, defeat, shame, and utter emptiness, I flew home.

For the next ten years, I was in and out of therapy, and I think I probably tried every antianxiety and antidepressant on the market. I became a hypochondriac. I had nightmares almost every night that I was trapped – either I was back in the military or I was at my mom’s house, something terrible was about to happen, and I couldn’t escape. I distracted myself with a lot of alcohol and one-night stands. I had some long-term relationships in that time as well, but ultimately, I was always looking for someone to save me. My hypochondria went away, and my mental illness settled into an underlying tone that sullied my life, but at least I was able to function. I developed fibromyalgia about seven years after I got out of the military and felt like my life was essentially over. There was no cure for that, it was something that I had to learn to live with. My doctor recommended yoga as a gentle exercise that could help with the pain.

I started doing yoga at my local gym, and it actually helped. I remember crying at the end of the first few classes because I felt so relieved and so… seen. The gym stopped offering yoga soon after I started, so I moved onto weightlifting, and did yoga as a “backup” form of exercise at home when I was having a fibromyalgia flareup. The exercise helped my body, but I was still living with anxiety and depression. I decided that I would get my bachelor’s degree in the evenings after work because boy, did I love a good distraction. I ended up taking an elective course that was about the history of yoga.

This class reframed my understanding of yoga. As I had experienced it at the gym and through fitness DVDs at home, it was just a gentle form of exercise. I came to understand that it was a way of life and encompassed so much more than a series of poses. At the time, I didn’t have the energy to work, go to school, and start taking yoga classes, so I put it on the backburner as something to research further, after graduation. Graduation came and went, and although I felt like I should’ve been proud of myself, and happy that I did it… I felt nothing. No joy, no relief, just nothing. I was laid off from my job a couple months after graduation because of budget cuts, but I knew that I was easily selected for layoff because I was sick and a weak link.

My “rock bottom” came in January of 2017, shortly after I had been fired from a job that I genuinely enjoyed. I had been in a particularly bad bout of depression and anxiety and was having a hard time sleeping and showing up for work. I was devastated. I spent the first couple weeks sulking, lamenting that no one understood me and that I could never be good enough. But one day it hit me – if I wanted my life to change, I had to change. The mental illness was running my life, making decisions for me. I wanted my power back.

I was fortunate that I didn’t have to go to a job – I had plenty of time every day to focus on myself. I used the skills I had learned from college and turned “getting better” into a research project. Of course, I was still feeling both anxious and detached during this time, but my project was at least a healthy distraction. I read hundreds of online articles and spent a lot of time in my local used bookstore, scouring the self-help section for books that seemed applicable. I also decided to research several religions during this time to see if the methods in different faiths than what I had been brought up with (vaguely Christian) would make a difference. I had decided that I was going to take a scientific approach to my research – I would honestly try the exercises or recommendations that were given, and I would record my results. As you can imagine, some things didn’t make much of a difference, but other things… Really did.

On many of the self-help articles online, and in many of the books, I kept seeing variations on the same recommendation: Yoga, meditation, and mindset. Through applying these, I was able to untangle the inner knots that kept me bound to feeling awful and making bad decisions. I’m going to fast-forward over some parts that happened next. There is a lot to unpack and a lot of healing that is unique to me. However, in that year-long research project, I figured out a way of combining the methods I had learned into a system for healing and growth. The system keeps me focused on the light and continues to guide me away from the darkness.

The thing is, I still feel the darkness at my back. And, I think that’s probably a lifelong thing (maybe it’s not, I’m open to the possibility). But I don’t turn around. I don’t give anxiety or depression my power anymore. I can honestly say, with tears in my eyes as I’m writing this, that I am happy.

. . .

I decided to take Yoga Teacher Training in 2019 because I wanted to deepen my relationship with yoga and learn how to effectively teach others what I had learned. I understand that most people don’t have the opportunity to take extended time off work to upgrade themselves, so I’ve turned my system into a framework for growth, that can be applied across many individual circumstances. I don’t have delusions that my mentorship will help everybody who is living with mental illness or feeling stuck, but I know it will help the people who feel called to it. People who feel ready to make a change and find a different path. In our society, we’ve put a lot of importance on health but not enough on wellness. It is simply not enough to just live – you should thrive.

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