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Charlotte Force / Staff Illustrator


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If you know me, you know that I have spent the past two weeks grappling with a particularly bad bout of depression. The constant feelings of defeat and lack of motivation have been so overwhelming and so crippling that they have driven me to the edge of sanity, and I was so desperate that I did the unthinkable: I called my mother.

My mother is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and runs her own clinic in California, where she specializes in practices such as acupuncture and herbology. When I called her to confess that I had been grappling with my mental health and wanted to do something about it, she insisted that I go see an acupuncturist, take the herbal yinqiao pills she had mailed me, and get more sleep.

That conversation haunted me. Though I had long since realized that my mother was of a generation and culture that had very little dialogue surrounding mental health, I could not help but feel painfully invalidated by her suggestions. I flew into a rage, hung up the phone, and spent the rest of the day emotionally tormented by the fact that my own mother had suggested that my depression—something I was experiencing so tangibly and so acutely—could be remedied by acupuncture—a practice I secretly considered pseudo-effective, mostly placebo, and one of those things you did if you also drank cold pressed juices and enrolled in “mindfulness” classes. In my mental filing cabinet of things that were “real” vs. “not real,” it was placed in the latter.

Fueled by a desire to speak to someone who would treat my depression as something “real” and offer me “real” suggestions, I spoke to a psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services. The session went well, and as I grabbed my coat after my hour was up, she said: “Oh, one more thing. Have you heard of Headspace?" I blinked. “The meditation app?” I asked. “Yes,” she responded.

I had heard of Headspace. The second I started seeing its advertisements all over my social media feeds (perhaps the FBI agent monitoring me through my laptop camera senses that I’ve been tense lately), I deemed it a gimmick, and filed it into my “not real” cabinet. Hearing a licensed doctor of the mind suggest that downloading a literal iPhone application could alleviate my despair sounded like a rejected Black Mirror pitch. I ignored her suggestion.

Later that day, I attended a yoga class with my good friend. It was my second time ever doing yoga, and I recalled finding the first time surprisingly relaxing. Unsure of whether that relaxation and clarity was due to the yoga or the influence of a particular substance I had indulged in prior, I gave it another shot. Around three-quarters of the way into the session, when my fellow yogis and I were bent in the pigeon position, the instructor deviated from his clichéd affirmations to deliver a personal anecdote. He explained to us a multitude of sentiments: that he found the pigeon pose to be “particularly cathartic,” that it allowed him to “let go of the past,” and that for two entire years, he could not do the pigeon pose without crying. Immediately, I found his commentary humorous, if not a little ludicrous. His emotional baggage was overcome when he bent his body a certain way? Straight away, I labeled it “not real,” and shuffled out of yoga, emotional baggage—and blindness toward my own hypocrisy—very much intact.

Despite the prior confidence (read: hubris) I had in my mental filing system, being recommended Headspace by a psychologist and pigeon pose by a licensed yoga instructor within the same 12 hours forced me to reconsider my methods. My quickness in dismissing certain practices as “not real” was certainly derivative of a stalwart conviction in the “realness” of my own mental illness. Growing up in an immigrant household forced me to develop a defensiveness in regard to my struggles. Though I have seen my own difficulties with mental health reflected in my mother, her invalidation of those difficulties has come in different forms. She would either outright refuse to acknowledge them or exhibit a propensity to frame them as an obstacle which can either be overcome or succumbed to—the latter being a sign of weakness and incompetence.

My insistence on mentally categorizing things into the “real/not real” binary is also influenced by a greater cultural tendency to do the same. We hold all truths to be self-evident, as long as we consider them self-evidently inherent, uncontrived, and biologically dictated. This holds particularly true when engaging with such intangible concepts as sexual orientation, gender identity, and mental health. The decades-long search for a “gay gene” demonstrates this, as does the tendency for “coming out” narratives to be shaped around the childhood moment an individual “knew” they were “different.” The discourse around mental health has taken on a similarly biological bent; and while this shift has done wonders to validate the 25 percent of Americans who suffer from disorders of the mind, it is worth noting that this validation necessarily followed such a shift in discourse.

Though I am no expert in mental illness, I am willing to posit that its primary sphere of influence is our thoughts and emotions. Given the highly personal and irrational nature of those things, only granting them validation via a uniform standard of “realness” is inherently limiting. Such a standard perpetuates a lack of faith in the root symptom of mental illness—our thoughts and feelings. Was not my myopic conviction in the concreteness and absoluteness of my own mental health struggles the very thing that led me to invalidate my yoga teacher’s? And is it not my mother’s culturally imposed, almost reflexive desire to sweep mental health under the rug—hers or mine—that led to my devastation in the first place?

Staying in pigeon pose was not particularly spiritually transformative for me. Receiving acupuncture treatments from my mother was relaxing only because of the heat lamps that warmed me the entire time. I am still very much looking for the thing that offers me a modicum of genuine reprieve from the overwhelming negativity that anxiety and depression often impart on me. Though I am still empty-handed in my search, the very fact that I am allowing my search to precede my conclusions is no small feat. The very act of prioritizing finding something that works for me—in whatever bizarre and seemingly arbitrary form it may take—over my obsession with maintaining the “realness” of my suffering is a small victory in and of itself. When I find that thing, I am going to take it and run for the hills with it. In the meantime, I’m going to keep looking. I’m going to keep on doing the pigeon pose, keep on seeing my therapist, maybe dabble in some breathing exercises. Hell, I might even fuck around and download Headspace.

Arielle Isack is a sophomore in GS majoring in American Studies. She wants to know if you have tried Headspace and how that worked out for you. She promises she won’t judge. Let her know at aai2123@columbia.edu. Not a Relationship Girl runs alternate Fridays.

To reply to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

depression mental illness yoga relaxation
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