STORIES & STORYTELLERS PRESENTED BY TORCHLIGHT SYSTEM
#2: LIFE BEYOND LABELS
By Nadia Gilani
Eating disorders, alcoholism, BDP - or something else? In this story of trouble, insight, and progress, labels never delivered answers but practice, self-enquiry and yoga did…
An old memory surfaced the other day while I was teaching a yoga class to migrant women. We were practising Ashtanga – a method unfortunately often described as “rigid” and “strict” by people who’ve forgotten or don’t realise it’s arguably the most influential on modern forms of yoga. Without Ashtanga, for example, there would be no Vinyasa Flow. I enjoy teaching community classes like this and taking the practice to people who wouldn’t otherwise have the access or financial means for it.
After teaching classes in yoga studios and leisure centres, it’s harder work in some ways but it’s also the best work, and hands-down the most rewarding for the soul. I’m never hugely fussed about participants’ alignment, or whether the moon might be in Scorpio, and we never do anything Instagram-worthy either. Just plain old poses as they were intended to be – breathing and moving to a pacey rhythm.
I leave inspired by how the women go with me, with every gentle push I give, hijabs off, salwar kameez billowing around their legs. Some of them remind me of my late grandmother – the fierce matriarch of my own immigrant family, a widowed mother-of-six who lived with mental illness, which I didn’t understand for most of my childhood. Despite knowing very little about the women in class all of this makes me feel closer to them. We chat, and goodwill vibes flow towards everyone.
Walking back to the station, I weaved through the east London streets near where I grew up, and where as a teenager I hung out at the flower market, went to yoga classes and years later, as an adult, I returned drinking very miserably. I walked past a convenience store, and remembered the impossibility I’d felt in sheepishly buying a couple of cans of Stella there, convinced that the Bengali shopkeepers would see the Muslim in me.
* * *
My mum took me to my first yoga class when I was 16. I was mildly anorexic at the time. I say mildly because I wasn’t ever medically considered to be dangerously underweight or even diagnosed as having the illness. I didn’t think I had it either but I wasn’t eating much, I was lying about what I’d not eaten and was permanently hungry. The lowest weight I ever got to was just under eight stone (I'm 5’6”). So even though I was a little underweight and my BMI was too low, a GP told my mother there wasn’t anything wrong with me.
I was drawn to the darker sides of life and was probably reading too much Sylvia Plath, and mum despatched me to yoga in an attempt to lighten me up, but also because she believed in it. The practice had worked for her.
The class was an hour in a YMCA gym devoid of mood lighting. We wore tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts, there wasn’t any incense, I can’t remember much about the poses but I didn’t sweat like I do on my mat these days. That’s my very un-vivid memory of the whole thing, but mum said I looked completely serene afterwards. I felt quite floaty, some kind of psychic change had definitely taken place that I became intrigued by, so we went back every week for a long time.
Years later I was working night shifts as a reporter at a news website which killed my practice off completely. When I look back at all the times I let the practice fall away, the darkness just got bigger, murkier and the only times I got out of the gutter were when I managed to drag some kind of practice back. I was drinking too much to live any kind of best life, and when you don’t have to get up early and can’t sleep at night, you’ve created the perfect conditions to swig more.
My shifts were usually from 5pm until 2 or 3am. I’d get a taxi home where I’d drink a pre-planned, stored-in-the-bedroom bottle of wine (problems such as these must be hidden in wardrobes, away from flatmates). Sometimes I’d get a couple of Stellas and drink them in the cab as a warmup for the bottle at home. Go to bed at 4ish. Get up at 11am. Hungover. Maybe eat something. Possibly throw up (some of us never completely recover). Go back to work. Repeat for almost a year. There was one freak week where I had to do the 1am-9am shift. My mum rang me every night that week at midnight in the taxi into work just so I had a human person who loved me to connect with.
* * *
I spent a great deal of my youth in search of an illness, which in itself sounds like something’s amiss. Healthy people don’t think this way, but in my experience crisis can be the best time for growth. Hitting rock bottom, getting a diagnosis, and acknowledging that things can’t go on in the same way – this is the best chance a person may have of getting better. An honest admission is a sign of success, not failure. It’s saying, “yes this is how things are, and now I must work out how to live differently.”
Someone close to me dealt with a deeply troubling mental health issue not long ago. It had been on its way for several months. For a while we talked around the “thing” without giving it a name, but given my penchant for metaphors, it became clear that the car had run out of petrol, its wheels had fallen off and there was no way of getting moving. This person had broken down. Giving "it" a name is the start to taking steps towards self-inquiry, making changes and healing.
The difference with my past is that for over a decade I felt like I might have been teetering on the edge of some kind of breakdown but never quite had it. These days I frequently get nervous and anxious with low moods and feelings of doom for no explicable reason, but my wheels have never quite come off completely, and it took a long time before I found a rescue team. So my big question has been, “how bad does it have to get before you can say you’ve got a mental health ‘thing’?”
After all, self-destruction came easily to me and relatively early in life, when I started starving a bit in secondary school, or throwing dinner away. I’d have two Weetabix with water for breakfast and try to survive on fruit the rest of the day. At home I’d pick at dinner, line my lap with kitchen paper and slide the contents of my plate onto that – then into the bin when my mum wasn’t looking. Anorexia was once said to be the biggest killer of all the psychiatric disorders. But if mental illness is invisible, if you’re not life-threateningly unwell, does it mean you don’t have it? If you’re not thin enough does it mean you’re doing OK?
Back then I was pushed to gain weight, the pendulum swung the other way and I ate resentfully and in secret. Packets of biscuits, bowls of cereal and slices of bread would disappear into my bedroom, stomach and down the toilet. It became a daily ritual, hour-long secret binges led to bending over the loo purging. At home, in plastic bags, at other people’s houses, public toilets, on trains, the park, compulsively, shamefully and entirely uncontrollably for about 13 years. It’s easier to be sick when you’re full, and when you vomit more than seven times a day, you get hooked on feeling empty and the dizziness becomes a high. I did aerobics and strong yoga classes obsessively, and walked everywhere. Bulimia is messy business and leaves permanent scars. It destroys your teeth and they fall out or crumble. And dentists are expensive, but not enough to make you stop.
I knew what I was doing was odd, but I didn’t want an eating disorder. I was mentally ill but I refused to accept it: I wasn’t thin enough. I wasn’t diagnosed so none of my behaviours had names – at least not any that were given to me to own and recover from. This suited me, because I didn’t want anorexia, bulimia or later alcoholism to be part of my story. But they are.
I was an awkward child, but also relatively popular, and later at secondary school I became a worrier but I always knew that I was loved, so there’s no reason why I turned out how I have. Still, there’s heavy shame that goes with not having anything to pin self-loathing on, and shame is a giant brick wall between staying ill and getting better. Eventually I got referred to an eating disorders unit and was advised to try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It didn’t last. The first therapist thought I had a handle on it and let me go. Another said she couldn’t work with me because I failed to do the homework.
In my mid-twenties when I’d reached the point I couldn’t keep an apple down without needing to purge, I found a recovery program for people with various food issues: starving, vomiting, bingeing, over-exercising. I tried several groups with different interpretations of the programme and met lots of lovely people but nobody who did exactly as I did.
But I wouldn’t stop being sick. Or quit drinking, which hadn’t yet emerged as a problem in itself, but created confusion around what I’d eaten, and guaranteed me running to the bathroom. I kept getting dumped by “sponsors” who were trying their best to stay abstinent. I owe them all a Step Nine apology.
* * *
It’s hard to say what worked in the end. With food I'd heard that three meals a day and two snacks worked, alongside following a traffic light system of foods. Red: dangerous binge potential; amber: sometimes okay; and green: always fine. These suggestions were filtered down by people who had come out of rehabilitation centres. I still loosely follow these benchmarks, though more liberally than I ever thought I would. I’ve not had a slice of cake, biscuit or entire chocolate bar (maybe the odd unmemorable bite, in attempts to seem normal) since.
Cross-addiction is common. Some of us have addictive personalities, and put one thing down and pick up another, and so it went for me. As trips to the bathroom waned, visits to the alcohol shelves increased because booze is a wonderful painkiller. I drank in the evenings initially, and only red wine, but a single nightly bottle of Cab Sav turned into three and swiftly resulted in drinking whatever was within reach, hard, fast, and heavily.
I had a brief relationship with someone who liked the occasional single malt and that’s when I first properly considered alcohol might not be serving me. I wasn’t meant to be a drinker: I was brought up Muslim and although those teachings fell away from my life, it never quite felt right that I was the drunkest person I knew. Whisky knocked me sideways within minutes, changed my personality and rewired my brain towards deadlier thoughts.
One night while living in a basement flat adjacent to a train station, I was sitting on the floor in my underwear surrounded by bottles and crying into a keyboard, writing an email to a decades-sober friend who might talk some sense to me. I was contemplating methods– I’d had several episodes like this, which felt like a mild form of psychosis. Brief states of losing the mind – being unable to make sense of it, or in control of what was going on inside it. I don’t think I wanted to die, I just didn’t know how to live. My friend told me to get help.
The next day I pulled a sickie and apparently still drunk, cycled up to a community alcohol and drug centre. I waited for four hours before they saw me and took blood tests but found no alcohol in my system. I obviously metabolised it very quickly and since I didn’t drink all day, I probably didn’t have a problem. If an alcoholic needs permission to continue drinking, that is surely it.
* * *
It wasn’t until seven years later I managed to stop drinking. But before that and in my quest to find an identity and hopefully someone who might tell me what was wrong with me I joined online groups for people troubled by their drinking. But everyone seemed to recoil at the “A”(lcoholic) word and lots of them wanted to cut down which, in my view, rarely works if you’re as serious about drinking as I was. Then I dived into one of the alcohol recovery fellowships.
It was a comfort being with other people who know the dis-ease that leads to powerless excessive drinking. It’s also the best place to meet ex-drinkers for whom abstaining is the norm. You make friends with others like yourself. But nobody there wants to tell you you’re an alcoholic either: you must decide. I liked the community, but didn’t stay because the principles failed to make me not want to drink. I did learn a lot of helpful things there though. The biggest was that people, places and things (also known as “triggers”) change, feelings pass, and that “service” (helping others) keeps you sober.
And while I related to many of the heartbreaking war-stories, my own tales didn’t compare. I’d been riddled with food problems for so long I felt I’d missed out on having a decent period of hedonism as a student. What I’ve since learned however, is that it doesn’t matter what you drink or how much. It comes down to how you drink, why you drink and what it does to you when you do. I didn't ever drink for taste, I used it as an anaesthetic, which is why it’s a giant pain when you find out how much getting sober hurts. The process makes you angsty, and can give the shakes, lights get brighter, noises sound louder, it can be hell on earth – but it’s honest.
The first three months are brutal and the rest of the first year is the hardest because you have to get through all the firsts that a year might spring upon you. Things like people dying (I didn’t have to deal with this until my second year) and losing a job (I got made redundant three months into the first year). After year one, the gaps between desires to drink get bigger, but they can crop up, and always, always when you never expect.
* * *
So I didn’t have one rock bottom, I had dozens. I’d been trying to stop for years already and only managed a single day before returning to the off-licence. I didn’t even choose to stop. My heartbroken mum saw me. There was no way back. I sought help from a different community team through my early white-knuckle months, and that’s thanks to an alcohol worker who was non-judgemental, the first person in three decades of self-destruction who took me seriously.
I turned up in an apologetic heap of “sorry to trouble you, I’m probably not as bad as everyone else”. But she and a counsellor saw me through my first crucial months where you strip things back to basics and get to the flesh and bones of fears and feelings, when you face them, stare them down, deal with them and ultimately let them go.
At one appointment, my alcohol worker showed me a note on my medical records from when I would have been aged 21 which said that I had “emotionally unstable personality disorder” – now called Borderline Personality Disorder (I like the old name better). I immediately felt a mix of panic and relief. She told me not to worry about it, but there was the diagnosis I had been looking for. The frame by which to navigate the world and explain the insanity of previous years.
I saw an excellent psychiatrist for an assessment who told me it’s not a condition that usually reveals itself until a person’s in their thirties, as a response to difficult life events. But I’d read up on all the symptoms: strong emotions you struggle to cope with, problems with feeling isolated or abandoned, misuse of alcohol or drugs, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, coping with stress – I was sure I had it. I needed it.
Bemused, he said he couldn’t diagnose me in two hours. “But am I mad?” I wanted to know. He laughed, and said I wasn’t but that I had a vivid imagination, complex thought patterns and high emotional needs. That’s all I got. I knew most of that already. I still don’t know what makes my brain work so fast or over-analytically, so that I’m thinking about several things at the same time. Maybe some of us have this in common, perhaps it’s what makes us head towards breakdown. There’s so much data to sort through every minute, like having too many tabs open on your screen – the computer’s going to crash.
This psychiatrist referred me for Mentalisation Based Therapy, which is specifically designed for people with BPD. I didn’t finish the course of sessions, but did find out there that I wasn’t very experienced with understanding my own feelings – something I thought I was exceptionally great at since I feel things so deeply. However, making sense of them is another thing I’ve come to learn. This coupled with being annoying company when drunk explained why relationships didn’t always last.
* * *
A year of sobriety later and something must have shifted because it didn’t matter anymore. I’d spent so long being jealous maybe, or feeling left out that I wasn’t ill enough to be given pills, or a condition or forced into rehab. It didn't matter. What I do know since I stopped drinking, three years ago, is that I get easily stimulated and hyper sometimes. If I spend more than two hours in a noisy space, I feel pretty drained, yet high-energy experiences are what I’m frequently attracted to.
Balance isn’t my natural thing, I’m drawn to edge, flying too close to the sun. It takes huge effort for me to slow down, but I enjoy the quietness of being still more than I used to, I crave it even, because it’s necessary. I have a tendency to become consumed by things, I plunge into projects (as I did with food and booze) and can think of little else properly until they’re over. I’m prone to overdoing it, pushing things too far and sometimes that just means drinking too much coffee, listening to frenzied music when already feeling wired and staying up too late. I need these things too. I might have an addictive personality or I might just be made this way.
Truth is, I don’t know whether having a diagnosed mental illness would help deal with any of it better so I’ve mostly given up searching for one. Self-inquiry by whatever means, knowing how you tick and working with that, seems to be the solution. And that’s where practicing yoga comes in handy. The practice only really had a chance to come into its own when I stopped drinking.
Staying connected is important too. It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that the people I feel closest too at this stage in my life have also been hit by the Black Dog at points in their lives and still are. I like that. Being "mad" is our "normal". So we check in, and laugh through it, often. We're not always honest, we still find it hard to talk about stuff. Sometimes I hide away and avoid them but we know each other is there and that we all get "it". It makes sense that when we spend so much time on our own in despair, we might as well get better together.
The future has a giant question mark over it, but I’m less scared of it than I used to be. I might or might not have BPD or be a recovering alcoholic, bulimic or anorexic, I may or may not be a particularly good yoga teacher either, but I know where I’ve come from and where I’m standing and every inch of sweat and tears it took to get here. There’s probably more to come.
That’ll do for now.
* * *
Nadia Gilani is a writer and yoga teacher based in London. @theyogadissident
Photos: Joe Bromfield
STORY #1: COUNTDOWN TO BREAKDOWN
By Zaren C
One man tells story of the breakdown he suffered, the winding path to get there,
and what helped him begin the process of recovery
A few people have asked how my breakdown happened, did I see it coming, what did it feel like? I’ve often used an analogy of an old, trusty laptop finally breaking down to describe it as close as I can to how it was. It's 2018 as I write this, but around six to seven years ago was when the countdown began. I was standing in the sun on the balcony at work, looking down and tried to decide if, by jumping, I’d die or just break something. I wasn’t sure it was high enough. That was the first suicidal thought I could remember when my psychologist, in the clinic I was admitted to in 2017, asked me if I’ve had suicidal thoughts or attempts. It turns out that mentally healthy people don’t have these kind of thoughts. These thoughts increased in number over the years but I wasn’t opening up to anyone about them. I kept dismissing them as “normal”, not stopping to think that there could be something more to them.
WHAT WE KNOW
“If you can take anything out of this, let it be that you start to speak about feelings, thoughts or problems. Find a way to communicate them. Even if it’s sending people texts, it’s a start“
– Zaren C
I’ve often felt like a loner, the spare wheel, the odd one out, but in truth, I was always able to make friends, seemed well-liked and was generally comfortable in the company of others. I don’t think I ever felt truly lonely as there were always people around me, especially being married with two kids, there is little time to be alone. But, in the six months prior to June 30, 2017, this changed… although I can only see it now. I was completely unable to interact with anyone. Sure, I could manage a simple “hello” and a short, superficial chat about the weather, but that was about it.
Work had become impossible. Too afraid to pick up the phone to speak to people, I became hard to reach. I avoided meetings where possible and at those I did attend I’d barely speak. Questions became impossible to answer, decisions impossible to make. So much so that the toilet cubicles at home and work became my sanctuary. I began to spend so much time hiding in them in the month preceding my breakdown, that I considered hanging an “Außer Betrieb” or Out Of Order sign (I live in Berlin) on one at work to ensure I’d have a retreat. And It wasn’t only at work: at home I was barely speaking, unable to communicate more than the basic level required to bark orders at the kids.
Thing is, I didn’t notice this withdrawal and neither, it seems, did my colleagues and friends – mainly, it seems, due to my ability to wear a mask of “happiness”. “How are you?” they’d ask. “Fine, a little tired but ok, good, you?” my preferred response.
It turned out that I’ve been using that response for a significant part of my life.
* * *
I was never one for going to bed early, but I’d always get at least six hours of sleep a night. It seemed enough. I used to be able to get up in the mornings, of my own accord, too. But in those days, I couldn’t get up. Not just that one day of the week where no one wants to get up, but every day. I’d be awake, usually from the time that I needed to be up by, but I didn’t have the strength to lift up my duvet and stand up. No joke. That duvet was the heaviest f***ing thing I have ever had to lift and I just couldn’t.
Not even the screams of “Zaren, get up!” from the other room from my wife and children could encourage me. They just seemed to make the duvet heavier. If I could have stayed in bed all day, forever, I would have. No idea how I got out most mornings: rolled out the side, I think, on to my knees like I was crawling through a trench on my way to a battlefront.
After a day on that battlefront, sleeping became more of an issue. When I finally managed to pull myself away from the black mirror in my hand, I’d lie in bed hoping for someone to find the switch for that radio, the one that’s constantly on, filling the head that should be sleeping with thoughts. Who the f*** leaves a radio on, buzzing away with random thoughts when they’re trying to go to sleep? Oh, where’s the radio you say? In my head? That would explain it. Where’s the switch? There isn’t one? You mean, I need to pull the plug to get it to go out? In the months before June 30, 2017, it seemed as though I was carrying that radio around with me, always, just turned up as loud as it would go through noise-cancelling headphones, making sure I was the only one who could hear it so as not to share it with the world.
As June approached, I’m pretty sure I’d lost the ability to remember anything. I’d have conversations at work that I thought I’d had already, or that I hadn’t had but should have had. Still I wore the mask, but now it was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the friendly British gentlemen act I’d maintained for so long. I pity my assistant at work. Years ago I was renowned for my patience, now… not so much. “Why haven’t you done that?” “You didn’t tell me to.” “Sure I did, last week” (didn’t I?). Instead of confronting this issue head-on, it was off to the sanctuary of my toilet cubicle.
You might be wondering why I’ve not mentioned home so much. Well, thing is, as I’ve now discovered, for various depression-related reasons, I’ve not been in the best of moods at home for around 10 years, except for flashes every now and then. Didn’t realise that I was such a grump/dick/strain, until my stay at the clinic. But it was at work where things were becoming most noticeable, and now I was starting to see it.
Over the past three years, I’d heard from other depression sufferers what they had been going through, that therapy helped, and so on. But I wasn’t depressed though, I didn’t need help (or so I thought). I couldn’t ask for help even if I wanted to. I’d tried a few times to find a therapist, which is hard to do (the first step is, of course, admitting you need help). Every now and then – okay, twice in a two-year period – I'd managed to find the courage and energy to pick up a phone and call a list of therapists. Why was I so nervous? Why was this so hard to do? How heavy is that phone?! Great, so that’s four voicemails left. I’m sure they’ll call me back, there’s no need to call them again and again. I feel better already. A year later, no answer, but it's okay. I don’t need help. Or so I thought.
* * *
The two weeks before my breakdown were quite, quite surreal. It was like I was heading towards a final day, by when everything needed to be done, handed over, sorted out. I’d been involving myself in too much extracurricular stuff: work, DJing, event management, work for my daughter’s school, helping friends with stuff; all distractions from the issue at hand and now I had to get out of them, fast. Within a week I’d told everyone I wasn’t able to help them anymore. I wasn’t totally sure why, but it felt as though I couldn’t do it anymore.
I don’t remember why exactly, but I certainly don’t remember it being an admission to myself that I was sick and needed help, although on a subconscious level that must have been what it was.
As Friday 30 June, 2017 approached, the pace increased. It didn’t help that my assistant was having her last day at work that week and handover was being done to me, unbeknown to anyone that it was a total waste of time. I was cracking and now my wife could see it too. By now I’d seen a private therapist for a session, but that was just to say Hi, my name is Zaren. My wife encouraged me to visit a local psychologist's practice on the Tuesday. I said I would (outwardly expressing some form of stability). Despite me walking in there and telling them that I can’t cope with life any longer, they turned me away. I called in sick to work. I made it in on Wednesday, but my wife suggested we visit a day-care centre on their information day. So I left at lunch, went to their info day, expressed my interest at coming there six to eight weeks from now and feeling better (mask on), went home. That week, I had one important appointment left – the test to get my German citizenship.
Thursday afternoon, 5pm. I made it into work, the test place was just down the road. I struggled through work, made it to sit the test, popped back to the office then went home… aaaaaand break.
I remember very little about Thursday, other than at one point I could no longer comprehend what my wife was saying to me. I demanded that she write what she was saying down to me in an email so that I could see it. Then, laying down on the bed, a conversation across the room felt like a screaming in my ear. I don’t remember getting back up that night. My wife organised me a couple of addresses to try for a therapist in the morning.
* * *
Friday June 30 2017: unable to cope anymore I drove in search of therapist No.1 on the list. Hidden somewhere behind some other buildings, I finally found it. “Closed until July XX”. That was pretty much the final straw. Thankfully, my wife had written down a second address, this one a short drive back into town. Upon arriving at the residential street which was home to the second therapist, it appeared that there were no parking spaces. Yet another boundary between me and help. I continued to look, albeit driving twice the speed limit, thrashing up and down the street like a madman.
That’s when the unbeknown actions of my friend Kevin saved me. In his “Torchlight” book, he’d written about landing at St. Hedwigs Hospital in Mitte on the day of his breakdown. I’d bought the publication not two weeks earlier. I only managed to read a few pages, but I’d seen the name and now it was in my head. Somehow I managed to put the address in my navigation and drove the 20 minutes to the hospital. To this day, I still have no recollection of that drive, none at all. All I remember was standing in the reception and uttering the words “Ich kann nicht mehr [I can’t anymore]".
If you can take anything out of this, let it be that you start to speak about feelings, thoughts or problems. Find a way to communicate them. Even if it’s sending people texts, it’s a start.
What I’m left with now is the same laptop I started with, but the hard drive is virtually blank, save for a few images, a handful of documents and a smattering of memories. Some of the programs still work, but run a lot slower than before. So:
Talk with someone before your hard drive fails.