In Memory of Keith Hartwig

January 8, 2018, 8:55am: “Oh no! I hope this is the right phone number. I think it is you, Co. Anyway, listen, I wanted to see how you’re doing, and yeah…life is fun, ain’t it, at times? But you are too talented, you have so much going for you, and c’mon. You gotta kick ass. You, out of anyone, could kick ass. That’d be you. You’re a smart, talented, pretty lady. Anyway, I just want to tell you that I love you, and you’re always my biggest fan. I think you’re just so gifted, and I’m not just saying this, you have so much talent, you do, and um—I might have a little more. I’m Keith. *laughs* It don’t get better than that. Anyway, I love you, kid, and I’ll talk to you soon, and I just hope you’re doing well. And I love the fact that you’re, you know, doing what you gotta to do and all that. Alright? I love you, kid, hang in there, be tough, be strong—well, that’s what they told me too, but I’m there, and I ain’t being strong. So you gotta hang in there with me, kid, alright? I love you to death, Co. Hang in there. Love you. Bye.”

—Keith’s voicemail to me, the first of three.

***

Content warning: anorexia, suicide.

I am six years old. I don’t need glasses yet. It’s Thanksgiving. I still like holidays, not because they are vacations but because of the natural novelty of them. I sit on my twin bed and wait for my family to arrive, peering out of my window that looks down on the street. Earlier than called for, I see my uncle’s pickup truck roll by and park by the mailbox. I run outside barefoot.

“Hey, kid!” my uncle Keith says with a toothy grin. He has a styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and greets me with the other. He has Timberland boots on (before they were considered fashionable) and cargo pants. He is the coolest person in the world. He lights a Marlboro and tells me to sit on the small retaining wall off of the side of the porch to shield me from the smoke. He tells me funny stories about nothing. Every time he goes out to smoke, I follow him. He tells me that I don’t have to follow him out. I tell him that I want to follow him out. He lets me.

I am fourteen years old. I have short hair, braces, glasses, and a horrendous level of insecurity corresponding to my awkward adolescence. Dad tells me Uncle Keith is coming to live with us for a while. I do not know why this is, but I do not ask questions. He sleeps in the loft upstairs. I like having him around.

“What did you do today?” my mom asks me and my younger brother at dinner.

“Not much. I just did some homework, then I wrote a song,” I reply.

“You wrote a song?!” Keith says. “Can we hear it?”

My insecurity flashes across my entire being, but somehow I end up bringing out my guitar and singing a tune called “Breathless” in the living room to my family. Keith cries. It is then that I realize that I can actually sing, after years of people telling me that I was tone-deaf.

Keith goes back to live in New Jersey on June 3, the day before my fifteenth birthday. It isn’t a memorable birthday at all.

I am twenty years old. It is a Tuesday that happens to be Valentine’s Day. It is my brother’s birthday. Two days pass. During a lecture, I receive a text, “I’m so sorry about your uncle” without knowing which uncle or what happened, but I know it is Keith and I know it is self-inflicted, now aware that the reason that he lived with us when I was fourteen was because of a suicide attempt. I am old enough to know that history repeats itself. I exit the classroom and go home. Keith is in the hospital. I cannot process this loss until he comes home to us in May. He is on crutches and has a scar across the top of his head like headphones. I give him my room at my parents’ house. I spend more time at my apartment near the university. He still wears Timberlands. He is still cool as hell. We sit outside in the backyard. We watch the birds and the sky’s gradient fade into different versions of itself. I tell him about school, friends, music, dates.

“Do you love him?” Keith asks me after I’ve told him about a date with someone I have been seeing for a while.

“I think so.”

Keith smiles. He has a preoccupation with love. He especially likes the songs I write during this time.

I am twenty-one years old. After six months and their challenges, fights, and outbursts, my parents and Keith have decided that it is time for him to move back to New Jersey. My dad says goodbye at the airport. It is Thanksgiving, but I do not run outside barefoot. We are a family of four again, but almost three. I do not eat Thanksgiving dinner beyond vegetables. By the beginning of January, I begin an outpatient treatment program at a hospital in Berkeley. Keith calls me the morning of orientation and leaves a voicemail to tell me that he is happy that I am going. I do not return the call. He calls again on January 10, twice. By then, I have already quit the program. I don’t return those calls either.

Three weeks later, I am Keith’s profile picture on Facebook. In that moment, I know. The photo is a close crop of me at a healthy weight, posted while I am going through intervention-esque treatment for anorexia. He captions it, “My gorgeous niece Cori Hartwig!” I comment and tell him that I love him. He replies, “You’re The Best Co! I Love You! Hope Everything’s going Great over there!” This is our last exchange.

Consumed with my own disappearance, I forget that other people have the ability to disappear as well. By the time I overcome my state of being snow-blind from the flurry of doctors and hospitals and skin and bones, he is lost to me.

I am twenty-one years old. History repeats itself. It is immortalized in police reports, filled and unused prescriptions, receipt paper, license plate numbers, anonymous news headlines, security footage in retail stores. We piece together timelines and stories. There is no note.

Hang in there, be tough, be strong—well, that’s what they told me too, but I’m there, and I ain’t being strong.

There is no note, but there are voicemails and calls left unreturned.

I am twenty-two years old. There is a spider on my wall. I watch it crawl like I watch the memories from the Pennsylvania split-level, from downtown Pleasanton at the coffeehouse (now closed), from our walk to the middle school, from the backyard, from the Pacifica shore, from the boat on Lake Del Valle two birthdays ago. I watch it crawl. It is two in the morning and my eyes grow heavy with sleep, my vision cloudy like cigarette smoke on the porch. I wish there was an easy way to tie everything up, to package it gracefully, to set it aside, and to indulge in these memories without feeling the grit and friction of grief against my consciousness. I wish there was an easy way to know that a soul is okay, an easy way to show a spirit a new song you’ve written, an easy way to share one last conversation, an easy way to return one last phone call, an easy way to turn back time and take away their pain before it could cause collateral suffering to those in their wake, an easy way to bring their presence back to you—even for a split second. Until then, I pray. I pray, I pray, I pray, and I remember.

keithsquirrel.JPG

Rest in peace Keith Hartwig

07/02/1968—02/28/2018

Redefining Recovery

Content warning: eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS).

Last Valentine’s Day, I sat alone in the waiting room of the eating disorder wing in UCSF’s children’s hospital—crying mid-morning on a Wednesday. It was about three weeks since my anorexia-induced heart scare. The sense of my own inescapable mortality hovered like fruit flies over browning bananas forgotten on a kitchen counter.

“Cori?” a nurse called me back down a fluorescent white corridor. I followed her into a sterile room decorated for someone at least a decade to a decade and a half younger than me—Curious George stickers on the walls. The nurse instructed for me to take off my shoes and leave them with my bag in the room while we went into the hall to measure my height for the third week in a row as if they expected it to change. She noted it onto a clipboard and motioned for me to come into another horribly lit room.

I took off my clothes (down to my bare ass) behind a curtain, as she instructed, and put on the hospital gown. Knowing the routine, I stepped backwards onto the scale and the nurse scribbled down my weight without informing me of my progress towards weight restoration. I redressed and made my way back to the room with my belongings.

“The doctor will be right with you,” the nurse said, after taking further vitals. She shut the door.

I laid on the lined table, thin paper crinkling beneath my still thinning hair—the long, lean light bulbs stinging my eyes. My skin still didn’t feel like mine. My clothes were beginning to fit differently. Under the instruction of professionals, my parents removed the scale from my apartment. All of my control was surrendered to further my life.

Curious George, that sick, happy creature, mocked me with balloons and joy and livelihood as I laid on the table, seemingly ready for dissection. Over the past few weeks, I had been struggling with the aggressive recovery meal-plan that forced me to eat essentially six meals a day (three regularly portioned meals, three Cheesecake Factory portioned meals) even though I had been starving myself for the past five months. My psychotherapist and I asked the doctors to adjust the meal-plan so I would gain approximately half a pound to a pound a week (instead of UCSF’s intended one to two pounds a week) because of the psychological implications of my body dysmorphia. The doctors did not listen, despite my requests backed by another mental healthcare professional. Over the course of my pseudo-recovery, I gained on average four pounds a week without any adjustment in my meal-plan, and I even received criticism from a doctor telling me that the rate in which my recovery was happening was “not fast enough” and that I “really needed to adhere to the meal-plan as directed.” This encouraged behaviors that led to me developing bulimia, which I had never struggled with before my weight restoration. Every night I curled up to a heating pad over a bloated belly, struggling with a compulsion to rid my body of the pain of its own nourishment. A lump in my throat. Crying into a damp pillow. Food up to the vocal cords. And there those sick stickers were, plastered on the walls with their monkeyish pleasantry despite the fact that I had been crying the night before, and the night before that, and the night before that, and even in the waiting room fifteen minutes prior. How dare they remind me of living when I had been in the process of dying!

Later, I asked my therapist what recovery looked like. She spoke of intuitive eating, body acceptance, self-love, eating without guilt, yada yada yada. I knew that.

“I’m sick, but I’m not an idiot,” I wanted to say. I didn’t.

Beyond weight restoration, I had no concept of what recovery looked like in reality, but I knew that this was not it. With the newfound bulimia (which felt like anorexia’s long-lost uglier sister), I knew that on the surface I looked healthier, but I was actually unhealthier, or maybe equally just as unhealthy. Every time I skipped a meal or purged or had a low-calorie food and passed it off as the regular calorie version I plunged into a senseless pit of guilt that overwhelmed every ounce of my being. I wanted to be better in the depths of my soul, but I did not know how, and I was tallying every mistake I made like a prisoner counting the days on the wall of his cell.

It was then that I realized that everyone around me had it completely wrong.

It was not about my weight, the numbers that corresponded to my body or medications, it was not about charts, putting labels to moods and feelings—it wasn’t about any of that at all.

In the urgency of treatment, everyone had forgotten that I was a human. Instead, anorexic had been scribed on my forehead, and I had been treated with the most prescribed, unpersonalized care that fit that brand of illness. They had sent me off with a healthier number but not a healthier mindset and pushed me off assuming I’d go floating away into the sunset like the end of Grease, when in reality, I felt like they had tied me down to a coal mining cart, pushed me down a darkened railway, and called the depths “recovery.”

With the distance between the present me and the me crying in the waiting room of the hospital, I’ve found that the failures of my so-called recovery are not on me as much as they are on the “perfect recovery” narrative. As much as I would love intuitive eating, self-love, eating without guilt, and body acceptance, I have been struggling with these issues since I was six years old—compulsively riding my bike around the block trying to burn off the one-hundred calories of the Oreo Thins or Cheez-Its in my lunchbox at school, packaged in conveniently marketed “100-Calorie-Packs.” How do you unlearn behaviors that grew with you like an identical twin?

Currently, our recovery narrative sets us up for failure. Instead of openly discussing relapses, comorbidity, concurrent treatment options, alternative treatment options, we focus on why we are not adhering to the linear, upward, positive recovery path. The narrative intoxicates us, creating imaginary sharp lines between wins and losses, and magnifying every blip in the process to leave us discouraged and ultimately more prone to give up completely.

The mental health professionals I have worked with have been trained to insist that full, long-term recovery is so possible and so accessible that my natural ups-and-downs in the process feel like personal failures. If they insist that it is so possible, then why can’t I achieve it?

Mental illnesses are chronic illnesses. Inherently, you do not recover from a chronic illness. If you told someone with diabetes or Hashimoto’s disease or epilepsy to do one phase of treatment and then recover fully, you’d be seen as a complete ignoramus. So why aren’t our mental healthcare professionals treating mental illnesses as chronic illnesses that need continual monitoring, management, and attention?

A year later, I am still struggling with eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and other mental illnesses. While I am grateful for the treatment that saved my life, I recognize its shortcomings in its perpetuation of the perfect recovery narrative that is completely incompatible with any chronic illness narrative. At a professional level, we have to make changes in treating mental illnesses by not portraying mental illness recovery, but by portraying sustainable mental health management. Management is not linear, clean, or perfect, but a process that you must go through with honesty, vulnerability, and strength, and professionals must respect patients’ humanity and dignity beyond the pathology of diagnoses. Without an empathetic, personalized, and realistic model, we continue to set ourselves up for so-called failure, when in reality, we need to be set up to forgive ourselves and better ourselves for an overall healthier future.

Mental Health and Social Media Panel at Stanford University (Transcription)

Note: This is a transcription of the presentation given on February 1, 2019 at Stanford University on the Mental Health and Social Media Panel/Discussion.

My name is Cori Amato Hartwig, also known as @manicpixiememequeen on Instagram. I make memes about lighthearted topics like mental illness, the patriarchy, capitalism, relationship issues, and the increasingly complicated navigation of modern society. I started the account in March of 2017. At the time, I was a junior at San Francisco State, and I had just been through a yearlong rollercoaster ride of trial-and-error psychiatric treatment in an attempt to find a medication that worked for me, and the month before starting the account, my uncle attempted suicide. Sitting in my bed sporting my new trademarked Mental Breakdown Haircut, I created a new Instagram profile called @manicpixiememequeen, partially out of boredom and partially out of my desperation to channel my personal turmoil into something that felt productive.

Originally, the account was anonymous and existed more as a “finsta” rather than a cohesive meme account, but as the account became popular and went viral, I took ownership of the account and I personally came into the character of @manicpixiememequeen as a public persona. Over time, I wove a narrative around my own mental health issues and personal life through creating memes, and I shared my content with an audience who shockingly, understood my narrative in their own personal ways.

Currently, I have over 97,000 followers on Instagram, which is absolutely wild. Clearly, I’m not the only person in the world struggling with mental health issues or having some difficulty navigating our weird and absurd world. While my brain loves to tell me that no one else really understands and then I perceive isolation, the evidence against this is in the numbers—my audience, the engagement on the posts, the hundreds of messages I receive from people across the globe telling me that they relate so much to my page and they’re grateful for the content I make.

@manicpixiememequeen subverts the mainstream Instagram narrative. On our personal Instagram accounts, we curate the perfect pictures with perfect captions, highlight our most impressive achievements, share our most FOMO-inducing adventures on our stories, post pictures with the right filter at the right angle at the right moment. We present very tactfully constructed versions of ourselves; these illusions are just as hyperbolic as the persona of @manicpixiememequeen. It’s just swung the other way. Instead of presenting myself as perfect, happy, and successful, I present myself as a chronically neurotic, anxious, and unhappy character. In turn, people relate to the point that they feel comfortable enough to openly discuss aspects of society or their life that aren't so perfect or picturesque, and they have the opportunity to connect with others on my page who are going through similar issues.

Ironically, social media was intended to connect us and then it brought about this pervading sense of isolation, toxic comparison, and competition. But as I’ve seen with my experiences running @manicpixiememequeen, there’s plenty of opportunity to use social media for authentic community and connection. I can actually witness it in the comment sections on my posts—people relating to each other and reaching out, asking questions about mental health management that they may not have had the opportunity or the confidence to ask if the post didn’t make them understood or safe enough to do so.

Last September, I was interviewed for NYLON Magazine about the benefits of mental illness memes and the effects of social media on mental health. The journalist asked me multiple times if I thought mental illness memes were actually detrimental, and I consistently wrote back saying no. If anything, using humor as a vehicle is helping generate some conversation and awareness. Then I made the comment that what actually is detrimental is silence and stigma surrounding mental illness and the widespread lack of access to comprehensive and affordable mental healthcare. Unsurprisingly, that comment was not included in the published interview.

Overall, social media can and does have effects on mental health. However, we have to consider the ways in which we’re using social media, interacting with others, and understanding the messages that we’re being presented with. As we grow increasingly digital, media literacy needs to be prioritized as something we teach people, especially young people during their formative years. We need to make sure that everyone understands that the images and content you see online is no accident. It did not come from a vacuum. Digital media is constructed, purposeful, and generally trying to sell you something that you don’t need. Most of us were thrown into the digital age without a roadmap for understanding or even the concept of media literacy, and I think if we were given more tools to understand at an earlier age, we’d see less of those negative effects that Baby Boomers love to read about, ironically, on websites constructing their own content and media.

Fordham University Mental Health Speak Out Speech (Transcription)

Note: This is a transcription of the speech given on September 20, 2018 at Fordham University.

Thanks for coming out tonight to Fordham’s Psych Club’s first ever Mental Health Speak Out and Open Mic Night. I’m super stoked to be here and help be apart of providing a safe space for people to talk about their mental health experiences, raise awareness, and break down stigma.

My name is Cori Amato Hartwig and I’m a writer, musician, editor, and mental health activist. Along with my impressive resume of being an unemployed recent grad—I run the weirdly viral mental illness meme account on Instagram, @manicpixiememequeen. I started the account started in March 2017 after I had the worst manic episode of my life to date, and I was overwhelmed pretty much every aspect of my life. So naturally, I started making memes and posting them for strangers on the Internet to see. Originally, it was just a place for me to shout my feelings and experiences into a void, but the account started gaining traction, and then I realized: “Holy shit. Other people get this too. It’s not just me.” And now the account has 70,000 followers or something absurd. My previously perceived sense of isolation because of my mental illness has completely dissolved in this community built around finding solace in humor and through sharing my experiences openly.

Recently, I was featured in NYLON Magazine; they wanted to interview me about mental illness memes and their potential benefits and pitfalls, and to me, I really could not name a pitfall. The interviewer asked me if memes are “normalizing the negative behaviors and mindsets that come along with having a mental illness,” and I told her that memes are not the problem. Silence is the problem. Silence is not strength and it never will be. Silence is poison. We need to normalize mental illness and the experiences that come along with it. We also need to normalize treatment for mental illness.

Of course, that part of the interview was not published—along with comments I made about the accessibility of treatment and healthcare for mental illnesses.

The day that I sent that interview off to NYLON, Lizz contacted me on Instagram asking if I would come to Fordham and be a guest speaker. Honestly, I am totally honored that she’d even extend the invitation. Then I realized that this is so much bigger than just me making memes about mental illness. It’s not about the memes at all, actually. It’s simply about having a public platform—whether that be comedy, writing, music, or art—it’s about having a public platform to safely express and share experiences and create a dialogue, because the mainstream media isn’t doing it. So it falls on us to start talking and keep talking.

We’re all here tonight despite the stigma, despite the guilt, despite the lack of dialogue, despite the pain—despite it all, we are here tonight.

Unfortunately, there are people who are not here tonight.

In January, I was in the hospital at risk for a cardiac arrest due to anorexia. Luckily I had access to professional care, even though my parents had to pay up the ass in copays and medical bills in order to save my life. Without them and without treatment, I would be dead, and I would not be here tonight.

A month after my own brush with death relating to mental illness, my uncle killed himself. It was not his first attempt, and Keith was not my first uncle lost to suicide. In June 2014, right after I graduated high school, my uncle Todd took his own life.

My family is incredibly open and we’re all clearly afflicted by mental health issues to some degree or another. We have bipolar, depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, eating disorders. We’re like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in the form of a family. Growing up in this large, vocal, and mentally ill family helped me realize where the shame part of mental illness fits in. The answer is it doesn’t. I’ve excluded shame from my personal narrative; I refuse to carry it. I have enough shit to carry otherwise. But we’re subjected to silence so frequently that we start thinking that we should be hiding and that we should be quiet and that we should carry shame.

So tonight, we’re going to do the opposite of that. We are not going hide, we’re not going to be quiet, and tonight—there is no shame in this room. We’re going to leave the stigma at the door, and we’re going to have the most fun and supportive session of group therapy that you’ve ever been to.

If you feel safe and able to do so, share your story, share your experiences, share your art. Tonight this space is ours, and I want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and no one feels pressured. So, whether you are here because you want to share or if you’re here just to listen, all I ask is that we keep this space respectful, unassuming, compassionate, and supportive. I also want to make sure that what is shared here is respected with the confidentiality that everyone deserves.

On Life-Path Reevaluation: Flowers Grow in Shit and Dirt

On Valentine’s Day of 2018, I had a doctor’s appointment with the eating disorder specialists at UCSF. It wasn’t my first visit to these doctors; it was my third week of an intensive, ultra-monitored recovery program. I had been forced to start it in late January, after I went for a routine physical, and my primary care doctor found that I was at risk for cardiac arrest due to a relapse of my anorexia. 

I took a Lyft to UCSF from my South San Francisco apartment, somewhat embarrassed to tell the driver that my drop-off was the hospital. I stepped out of the car, walked into the lobby, and took the elevator up to the second floor. Looking up into the mirrored ceiling of the elevator, I saw my drawn face, the circles under my sinking eyes, and I remembered when I was allowed to take the stairs up to the second floor of buildings, instead of being forced by a group of doctors to take the elevator because my heart had grown so weak. A short elevator ride, but by the time the doors opened and spat me out, I started crying, thinking to myself: How did I get here? 

A brief moment of clarity—crying in an elevator of a hospital. 

I thought about the progression from the previous July to that February: how many times a day I’d weigh myself; how many times I’d debate eating a piece of dry toast; how many times I’d measure out carrots by the gram; how many times I’d pinched my arms, legs, and stomach during a lecture, eventually tuning out the professor because I had been thinking about how much I regretted that half-portion of low-fat vegetable soup three nights before. 

Who am I, when did I lose sight of who am I, and how did this happen?

During recovery, I dove into my art to attempt to rid myself of the deep-seated pain in my gut (both emotional and physical pain)—writing songs, personal essays, fiction, prose poems—and I remembered that this is what I live for. I do not live to look beautiful. (And I do not live to look sick). I do not live to count calories. I do not live to obsess over being in control. I do not live to stand and shrink until I disappear while everyone watches. 

I do not live to stand and shrink until I disappear while everyone watches. 

Silence, shrinking, fragility, conformity, fear—these are things I openly reject. And as I created my art and shared with my peers, regaining that sense of intrinsic purpose, I realized that the life I was living was a life that was inherently intertwined with values that I reject. In turn, my very actions were contradictory to everything about my identity. Then, over the course of the past six months, came an equally difficult and equally easy reevaluation that inspired me to begin writing a memoir, share my mental health journey with others, get in touch with my spiritual side, and move back to the east coast to pursue my passions and be with my family. 

Growth often comes from pain. Flowers grow in shit and dirt. Reevaluation of your actions and the life that you are living is necessary for growth. 

Remember your passions. Keep a list of them. What grounds you? What makes you feel intrinsically motivated (try not to consider money, fame, recognition, etc.)? What makes you feel like you put meaning into your life and into others’ lives? These passions can be as “small” as writing letters to your loved ones, or as big as fighting for universal accessibility for people with disabilities. 

From that list, look at what you value. Is it justice, family, spirituality, honesty, communication? Values are completely based on the individual and nearly limitless. Write this list below the list of your passions. 

Now, take a look at these lists collectively. Why are you passionate about painting? Why are you passionate about gardening? Why are you passionate about education? Why do you value family? Why do you value authenticity? These answers are your intentions. 

This next step is often the hardest and the most painful, but remember the physical growing pains you felt in your shins during middle school. The same thing happens mentally and emotionally when you reevaluate. Think about the life you are currently living. Where are you passions and values in your life right now? Are they fully apparent, sort of hinted at, or have they shrunken down and disappeared completely? Are you intentionally living your life? 

Upon those answers, you can make informed decisions to make changes that you need in order to feel fulfilled and avoid mental/emotional/physical/spiritual exhaustion. With this exercise, you can restore your sense of agency and can feel grounded and validated in any further actions you make to keep you on your true, meaningful life-path. 


To request a topic or ask a question for me to write about in a blog post, please comment or contact me via coriamatohartwig.com/contact!

No, I Don’t Want to Go to Yoga: The Problem with Mental Health Advice from Neurotypicals

My mother, a neurotypical, swears by her weekly yin yoga classes to preserve her sanity. She drives to the yoga studio, a cute remodeled two-story home on a sweet little side-street downtown, and climbs a flight of stairs to an airy room with large wood-paneled floors and flow-y white curtains that Stevie Nicks would alter into a dress during the Belladonna era. She comes home weekly smiling, claiming she feels like she “just got a massage—so relaxed!” 

After months of constant “Try Yoga” propaganda from my mother and my brother (another neurotypical who is a proponent of daily meditation), I acquiesced and joined my mother for an hour long yoga class. 

I arrived, sat down in a circle with a bunch of white people who chanted words in a language I was willing to bet they could not identify, and realized–I am having a panic attack at yoga. 

Attending yoga felt like going to the dentist. I stared up at the blank white ceiling, unsure of what to do with my eyes (I become anxious when I close them in public), and I imagined the ceiling cracking from the ceiling, falling on me, thus killing me. A man with a bun strolled around the circle, playing a cover of an Ed Sheeran song on an acoustic guitar. I fantasized about an unfortunate, untimely death throughout the class. 

I couldn’t do some of the moves. Uncoordinated and in a panic, I squinted at the teacher in the middle of the circle, moving gracefully, and too quickly for me to imitate. I knew that the poses would be difficult for me—it was my first class after all—but once the teacher came up to me and touched me without permission (a total of three times), I realized once and for all that maybe yoga wasn’t for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the state of my body, my fat legs, my unshaved armpits. I couldn’t close my eyes. The teacher put an aromatherapy sack of some bead-shaped foam on my eyes. Claustrophobic, I fantasized about my death again. 

I struggle with a multitude of mental illnesses, including but not limited to bipolar disorder ii, generalized anxiety disorder, anorexia, and borderline personality disorder. Sometimes I feel like I am the personification of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I have gone to therapy for over half a decade with three separate therapists, tried EMDR therapy for my phobias and anxiety, tried SSRIs and mood-stabilizers and beta-blockers and benzodiazepines, received treatment from a specialized hospital for eating disorders (where I experienced a gross level of misogyny and stigma in the professional medical field firsthand)–and I am still mentally ill.

I don’t expect to be cured. Like any chronic illness, it’s about management and coping. 

Professional mental health treatment feels like a shot in the dark. The patient—basically a guinea pig—tries nearly any method suggested by their medical professional to feel better, frequently resulting in the patient feeling disappointed and exhausted from the lengthy trial-and-error process. The management of any chronic illness is a long journey. It is difficult to feel better. Sometimes I wake up and I’m not in the mood to interact with other people or even go outside—let alone go to a yoga class (where I’m touched without consent and forced to close my eyes and feel insecure about my body, its shape, and its movements).

The problem does not lie in the suggestion of yoga itself. It lies in the way that yoga, meditation, and other zen-like activities are suggested by neurotypicals who do not acknowledge other options for people who struggle with mental health, like therapy or psychiatry. These forms of mental illness management are rarely suggested by people who do not personally experience mental illnesses themselves. 

Why don’t neurotypicals recommend therapy or psychiatry, but recommend yoga, mediation, exercise, fermented foods, taking allergy tests, cutting out gluten, cutting out diary, cutting out red meat, etc., etc.? Why don’t we talk about receiving professional help for mental illness? 

When someone suggests yoga, meditation, changing diet, etc., it reduces the mental illness into a brief mood of sadness, a fleeting feeling of worry, a moment of insecurity. My mental illnesses are more than just feeling “unhappy” or “worried” or “insecure.” They’re overwhelming, chronic, systemic states of being—often with mental, emotional, and physical symptoms—that make me feel like I’m actually dying. Chest tightening, shortness of breath, heaviness of limbs, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, muscle tension and discomfort, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite—these symptoms have to be managed, and it takes much more than yoga classes to do so. 

Maybe we’re talking about yoga because we’re uncomfortable talking about mental health. But our discomfort is destructive. Because we’re not talking about professional help and/or medical help, many people feel ashamed to receive it or even ask for it. Some people don’t even know their options, as so many healthcare programs in the United States do not cover therapy, psychiatry, etc. 

This past winter, I looked for months to find a program to get into for my eating disorder. I looked throughout the entire Bay Area (an extremely populated and relatively wealthy area) for outpatient programs, medical specialists, nutritionists, specialized therapists, and specialized psychiatrists. Programs were either not covered by insurance, or there were waitlists, or I had to travel over an hour to get to the program. Eventually, I gave up, and a few weeks after giving up on the search, my heart rate hit a dangerously low level that required medical monitoring, which opened the door for me to receive help. 

But does it have to get to a life-threatening level before help becomes accessible? 

Neurotypicals—if you want to be an ally and a mental health advocate, stop talking about yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. As positive as your intentions are, it’s more than yoga. Start talking about professional and medical help, accessibility, affordability, and better healthcare. Start having conversations that make some people uncomfortable. Vote for government officials that support more comprehensive, more affordable, and more accessible healthcare that encompasses mental health. It’s more than yoga. Start advocating.