LIFE BEYOND LABELS
Eating disorders, alcoholism, BPD - or something else? In this story of trouble, insight, and progress, labels never delivered answers but practice, self-enquiry and yoga did.
By Nadia Gilani
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.
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Nadia Gilani is a writer and yoga teacher based in London. @theyogadissident
Photos: Joe Bromfield