A journey through mental health takes this writer to the highlands of Chiapas, México
In 2005, just after my fifteenth birthday, I was diagnosed with co-occurring Bipolar and Borderline Personality Disorders. I had become very withdrawn and suspicious of everyone around me. I was obsessed with death, and wrote stories that shocked and alarmed my schoolteachers, repeatedly maintaining that I saw animals who were trying to speak to me outside of my windows at night. I remember feeling very small and powerless as—following my diagnosis—all of the adults in my life began to look at and treat me differently, tiptoeing around me like I was a walking suicide bomb. I did not feel heard or seen. In due time, I began to feel hateful towards them all.
One evening, I listened in on a phone conversation between my mother and one of my doctors. “It’s a shame,” he said. “Your daughter has an exceptionally high IQ for her age, but will be defined first and foremost by her tendencies towards manic depression, dissociation, and oppositional defiance.” I hung up and made a wholehearted promise to myself that I would never see that doctor again.
I search for people and places that can contain me, but I almost always return to the wild because nothing holds or supports me quite like earth.
Something had shattered inside of me. I refused to go to school. I tore beautiful paintings off of my parents’ walls and smashed them into the floor. One time, in the throes of a particularly maniacal fit of rage, I purposefully stepped in the glass aftermath and had to be rushed to the ER, where I remember feeling equal parts hysterical and numb as the medical team cut into my foot to remove the shards.
I used my parents’ credit cards and PayPal accounts to purchase designer handbags which I then promptly sold for cocaine money. I had violent outbursts; I was arrested for a physical attack and spent several nights in a juvenile detention center. I ran away with a man twice my age. I was vaguely and blatantly cruel to those I called my friends. I screamed in the morning and cried myself to sleep at night. I was unhinged, I was disappearing.
My parents sought further help and I was unresponsive, taking it upon myself to show them in the worst of ways that I thrilled in being out-of-control, that I even enjoyed wasting their efforts, time, and money on therapy. Feeling helpless and heartbroken, they finally had me escorted to a wilderness intervention program, where I stayed for 89 days before being transferred to a treatment center in the mountains of northern Utah.
I’d been taught from a very young age to respect the great mystery of the natural world–my dad is a botanist and my mom lived with primitive Amazonian tribes for years–but actually being immersed in the wilderness with seven other girls my age was something else. We sat in circle around fire and unknowingly created rituals to transform the weight of what we were carrying, we rubbed each others’ skin with leaves and flowers from the forest and coached each other through pain and heartbreak and trauma. I learned early on about the power and resilience of the female spirit, about the uniquely feminine strength that is to h o l d: emotion, energy, life itself. Being in such intimate proximity to the earth and surrounded by the courage and protection of those girls, I felt viscerally and wildly alive in a new, magnificent way. All that I had experienced and felt within myself, I saw reflected in stories shared under big skies, and in the grand symphony of the natural beauty around me. I was mirrored, and in my reflection, I felt whole.
I vowed to carry this feeling with me to my treatment center in Utah, where I successfully completed my program in record time and was therefore deemed stable and ready to re-enter the “real” world. I remained under control for several years, but when I went to college in Portland, it all came back: the euphoria, the despair, the extremes. The mania, the dissociation. The wanting to leave my body, the longing for erasure.
I felt more alone than ever, and instead of asking for help, I masked it all. My academic performance mirrored my mental and emotional fluctuations; I would surpass a professor’s expectations, or I would stop showing up for class entirely. My inability to hold myself in empathy rebounded outward. I took refuge in disconnect and numbness, and told myself a story in which everyone, including myself, was a character. I oscillated between pouring myself towards my studies, and feeling utterly incapable of anything.
Then, just before I was about to begin my thesis, I found yoga, a practice by which its own Sanskrit definition means to yoke, to unite; a practice with a non-dogmatic heart-philosophy that told me I was already whole. The rhythm of mindful movement and breath helped me clear and create space; I experienced lightness where before there had only been heaviness. I felt expansive, untethered, free. The physicality of the practice became another mirror; I learned in a tangible, concrete way how to call on all the parts of myself, how to move as an integrated being. I met the most brilliant and loving of teachers who took me under her wing, empowered me in my fullness, and even readily shared with me her visionary life’s work when I asked to be her apprentice. I witnessed her magic, her seemingly superpower-like ability to help people of all ages and from all walks of life heal–through injury, trauma, and pain. I observed in wonder and awe as she helped people the same way she had helped me: simply by seeing them, by supporting them as a reflection in their process of discovering their inner medicine.
If we want to move forward, if we want to stop seeing each other in superficially divisive ways, if we want to forgive, if we want to help one another, and if we want to heal, our pain is valuable
I left academia. Yoga, as body-medicine, had helped me tap into something within myself more profound than anything I had ever read or studied in books… the magic and mystery of embodiment, or prana, the energy of aliveness. I became fascinated by the power to heal: by the body’s innate capacity to create healing. I immersed myself in my practice and apprenticeship, and eventually, I began teaching.
My fascination with body-medicine and healing continued to deepen and evolve, and in time, brought me where I am now: the highlands of Chiapas, México. Here, I am working with the indigenous Tzotzil-Tzetzal Maya, and, naturally, I have attached myself to the community’s healers. In traditional indigenous Mayan medicine, there are five specialities: I’lol (pulse reader), K’oponej witz (prayer healer), Tzac’bak (bone healer), Jve’t’ome (midwife), and Ac’vomol (herbalist). Each speciality is unique and requires its own expertise, but at their core, all specialties treat the human as a whole, infinitely-layered, being. The Maya believe that we all contain sacred medicine within us, and that this medicine is also often our poison–our pain, our suffering. But because it is within us, we are meant to develop a relationship with it, we are meant to commune with it. Healing thus becomes an active, lifelong process that we are designed to participate in every single day.
I am aware that indigenous medicine developed because of a relationship to the natural world that is beyond my comprehension, and I am hyper-aware of its appropriation for image and profit. I am also aware that indigenous medicine is the byproduct of hardship and struggle; that it was born of a people who have endured and continue to go through more than I will ever be able to fully understand in this lifetime. I’ve lived a very, very privileged existence. I am a white-passing (my mother is Brazilian) American woman. I’ve had access to the best education and resources available. I was blessed with parents who went out of their way again and again to find me the most outstanding teachers and helpers on this planet. I haven’t spoken openly about my experience with mental illness not because it’s taboo, but because I have felt a great amount of guilt and shame around my pain. Who am I to have felt the way I have felt, acted the way I have acted, when there is such inequality, injustice, and suffering in our world?
If we want to move forward, if we want to stop seeing each other in superficially divisive ways, if we want to forgive, if we want to help one another, and if we want to heal, our pain is valuable. Our pain–no matter the source–is worthy. Measuring and comparing my pain to that of others’ only made me feel more estranged, more alone. Pain is pain: I can’t define it; I simply feel it. I’m not writing this to say I’m now on the other side of mental illness, but I will say I no longer identify with the labels given to me all those years ago. I am a human–more than a diagnosis. I am not and never will be defined by my tendencies–my karmas–but by how I stand on my demons, how I orient myself on this planet, and how I participate in the unfolding of my own story.
I am a human, more than a diagnosis. I have a heart and a soul and a body; I am made of feelings as much as I am breath, tissue, blood, and bone. I’m not writing this to say that I’ve healed, but that every day, for the rest of my life, I’m healing. I believe all emotions have value because they reveal how we can channel our unique constellation of energy to serve. And, I believe that in order to serve–in order to look at what’s not working and challenge it–we have to know who we are, we have to address our wounds, we have to access our inner medicine.
In our modern, rapidly “advancing” time, dissociation is becoming easier and easier; we have estranged ourselves from the natural world, and we are estranging ourselves from each other. If we want to be in the fullness of life and all of its flavors, we cannot exclude our own pain. We need our darkness because through it, we are initiated into a greater understanding of our intrinsic self. We need the earth and its magnificent wilderness because when we are in nature, we remember that we are a part of something so much greater than our limited ways of thinking; that we are not separate, we are not alone.
I dream of a world where we start to see things as connected rather than divided. Where we truly recognize the wisdom of ancient philosophies and the value of primitive practices, where we assimilate these methodologies and therapies into the western medical cannon and integrative medicine is accessible for all. Where the reality contained within us is as valued as the images outside us; where we honor and respect the unseen, the great mystery that makes life magical. I dream of a world where we empower people to reclaim their bodies, their inner medicine; where healing is a practice and a process rather than another system of instant gratification and finite goals.
The highs and lows continue; I feel vast and free and connected, and then suddenly small, like sound and fury, white noise, a shadow of myself. I search for people and places that can contain me, but I almost always return to the wild because nothing holds or supports me quite like earth. I need trees and mountains and rivers and ocean and the sun and the moon and the stars because they teach me, and because I’m not separate, because I’m of the earth and I am a part of this great world and I am not alone.
I am boundlessly grateful for my friends, family, lovers, and teachers who continued (and continue) to believe in me in spite of the moments of madness; who see me as a whole person, and in doing so, remind me to stand on all that I am, because all that I am makes me whole and beautiful and fierce, capable of vulnerability and compassion and love. Thank you – thank you – thank you–I believe in myself.
Our greatest medicine is always within us, but we need each other in order to access it. We heal as reflections. We heal through vulnerability. We heal together.
Janaina Colomba is a dedicated student and yoga teacher inspired by the healing and transformative power of the practice. Her personal mission is to integrate yoga therapies into modern medicine and empower people to reclaim their bodies through mindfulness and movement. Janaina currently lives between Austin, TX and Mexico City and can be found on Instagram. Accompanying Art, Wrestle, 2016 oil on glassine over acrylic, charcoal, watercolor on paper, Livien Yin.