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Working On Headstands, With a Long Way to Go

Kayla's adult life has been defined by a long list of ever changing symptomology. She's chosen to look inward in order to find answers.

Written by Kayla Chobotiuk

Working On Headstands, With a Long Way to Go

01 Kayla has lived with various forms of anxiety and depression for much of her life.

02 For a long time, medical diagnoses served as a form of validation for her. She became obsessed with looking up criteria for conditions and self-diagnosing. Now, she's chosen to focus on her most present symptoms at any given moment in time.

03 In recent years, she's leaned into yoga and meditation as a form of self-discovery and a way of managing her emotions. While she still has a long way to go, she can feel herself making progress. Kayla can be reached via IG @kaylachobotiuk

About a year ago I started doing yoga. 

A few days later I tried my first guided meditation. For decades prior, I existed in a depressed and anxious state, desperate for something to relieve the emotional pain I was experiencing. Up until then, my attempt at healing was accompanied by a rotating cast of well intentioned doctors asking the wrong questions, adding to my laundry list of diagnoses and prescribing a cocktail of psychotropic drugs, which put simply, work by uplifting and stabilizing your mood but bypass and mask the underlying causes — a band-aid solution to a lasting and complex problem.

I went seeking an alternative. “Small goals, small victories” was the advice I received from a young doctor who supported my decision to recover on my own terms. I didn’t know it then but my commitment to incorporate these small practices into my life would be pivotal to revising long held beliefs of myself and of mental illness.

At first my body was stiff, I was unable to touch my toes and everything felt awkward. 

Early on, I made excuses and skipped a lot of days, but persisted when I felt up to it. That seems to be the key to habit building while depressed: be kind to yourself when you miss a day, and celebrate when you succeed. 

After a while, getting out the yoga mat became less of a chore and something I looked forward to. I felt my anhedonia dimming; my interests came back and new ones arose; my obsession with books, hiking and biking and being outdoors, discovering new music and dancing — I finally had the desire to do things other than binge watch Friends. I noticed small progress in my yoga practise, the alignment of my body parts, once random and unintentional, started to naturally fall into the correct position and make sense. 

In the beginning when I meditated, the practise felt futile. But within a few months, I began to understand its power. I could feel my breath flow in and out of my body; I could feel my chest rising and belly expanding. For a few short moments at a time, before getting pulled away again to a thought, I could enter a space of stillness and present awareness. These practises gradually began to transform my perception of self, which I had lost connection to, or perhaps a self I had never been connected to at all. 

Be kind to yourself when you miss a day, and celebrate when you succeed.

Somewhere during this early period of change, a friend shared a podcast interview with Dr. Gabor Maté as a guest, which changed my entire view of my life with mental illness thus far.

Maté’s work is all about recovery from trauma, mental illness and addiction. He explains that traumatic events expand beyond the commonly understood causes like abuse or witnessing a horrific event, like war. Events from childhood like divorce, persistent fighting, living in a chaotic household environment, a parent’s own suffering (untreated mental illness or addiction), among other things can be considered traumatic and may subject someone to a multitude of emotional issues throughout a person's life. (For more examples I recommend looking up the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACES). 

Maté argues that what happens when you experience a trauma, in any form, is that you begin to get disconnected from your emotions and your body and it’s difficult to be in the present moment. Your perception of self becomes distorted. This continues to show up in your life way after childhood has ended. 

“And so, the issue is not just to recognize what happened 10, 15, 30, however many years ago,” he explains in the interview, “but to recognize their manifestations in the present moment and transcend them.” 

“And how do you do that?” He adds, “By reconnecting with yourself, by restoring the connection with your body, primarily, and with your emotions that you lost. And once you do, when you’ve found these things again, then, you have what we call recovery.”

“Because what does it mean to recover something? It means to find it again. So, what is it that people find when they recover? They find themselves. And the loss of self is the essence of trauma. So, the real purpose of addiction treatment, mental health treatment, any kind of healing is reconnection.”

I’d like to describe two very different scenes. 

The first details a recent week when I was overcome with euphoria. I sent text messages to friends telling them how joyful and free and vibrant life felt these days. I wrote a journal entry describing how I had it all figured out, how after years of trying to heal myself, I had managed to transcend my moodiness, my chronic anxious state, my melancholy, my symptoms, my illness, whatever it was. 

I felt enlightened. I existed on another plane, beyond the troubles of life, of anxiety, of isolation, of family dysfunction, of heartbreak, of trauma, of pressure for success, of expectations, of how am I going to pay rent this month, of inequality and injustice, of climate crises, of world pandemics, of a collective future that has never been more uncertain. Of course, none of the circumstances changed, but I woke up one morning and was suddenly unbothered by it all.

I went for long walks with my dog and smiled at strangers. I stopped to smell flowers. I did my work happily, and without difficulty concentrating. I connected with friends. I listened to music while making dinner and danced alone in my kitchen. I choreographed a modern dance routine (I’ve never tried modern dance in my life) and surely looked ridiculous but felt a joyfulness in this new manner of self expression. My life took on a new sense of purpose and meaning and direction. I floated through the day with ease. All the time worry free and present and filled with a child-like wonder about the world and my place in it. 

The second scene unfolds shortly after the first.

Before long, I slipped into a negative headspace accompanied by volatile moods, anxiety, self-doubt, incessant thinking and analyzing to the point of overwhelm so debilitating that all there was to do is sleep in order to make my brain stop spinning. 

I tried to breathe through it but my inhales were shallow and my exhales short and jagged. I slept during the daytime, ignored texts from friends, phone calls from family, and bailed on all the plans I’d made and projects I’d started. When awake, my mind was too scattered and unfocused to do anything productive. I stopped cleaning and left my house in disarray. I questioned my values, my beliefs, my sense of self. I fixated on philosophical and existential questions and worked myself into a frenzy over the meaning of life. “Is this really all there is?” 

I only left the house to walk my dog, and when I did, like a celebrity trying to evade the paparazzi, I’d put on an oversized hoodie and sunglasses and lower my gaze.

Living with such extreme shifts in moods — oscillating between highs and lows that are so closely tied to my perception of self — has certainly made it hard to exist in the world lately, at least by neurotypical standards. But having insight into the life I lived prior to my pivotal plot twist, that decade of chronic depression, signaled a drastic change from where I was to where I am now. Which is to say, I am recovering. 

Before long, I slipped into a negative headspace accompanied by volatile moods, anxiety, self-doubt.

According to the DSM-5, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, my behaviour at many points in my adult life was textbook manic depressive (though I’ve never been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder). 

At other times, I have been the shining example of Major Depressive Disorder. And I’m definitely the poster girl for Generalized and Social Anxiety Disorder. Sprinkle in a few traits of Borderline Personality Disorder to further complicate the tapestry of my psyche.

For a long time medical diagnoses of mental illnesses were a form of validation for me. I was obsessed with looking up symptoms and combinations of symptoms that made up a particular disorder. I self-diagnosed constantly based on how I was feeling on that particular week. I don’t feel like leaving the house today, I must be Agoraphobic. I do not, in fact, have agoraphobia, but belonging to a category where others also belong gave me a sense of comfort. It also reinforced the narrative that “I am mentally ill and I will always be this way.”

I was treated, according to standard psychiatric practises and conventional medicine, with pills that are supposed to ease the symptoms. Pills on pills on pills; a cocktail of psychiatric meds. One to boost serotonin and dopamine production to make you less depressed. One to balance norepinephrine levels to make you less anxious. One to make you feel awake because the other one, while it calms your nerves, makes you fall asleep at work. One for sleeping because the one that helps you stay awake at work makes you stay awake at night too. No longer. 

The reason I leave my official diagnoses and subsequent treatment near the end is because I no longer believe true healing lies just in easing the symptoms (such as hopelessness, lack of self worth, suicidal ideation, etc.) that make up a diagnosis (such as major depressive disorder). 

Of course the ultimate goal of any type of healing is to ease what ails you, conventional medicine works only by masking them, the trauma still lingers underneath. I existed as a tornado of feelings and thoughts and emotions and reactions for so long that I didn’t know the authentic self I was capable of being. I was in there, overmedicated and traumatized, and therefore inaccessible. I needed to uncover the ‘why’. 

Why am I depressed? Why do I have this perpetual negative outlook of myself and the world? Why do I have chronic anxiety? Why are my moods so volatile? Why am I so emotionally reactive? Why do I cling to people for validation and self-worth? Why do I feel so empty? 

To figure this out and eventually stop feeling and living this way, I needed to get to the root cause and then begin the arduous, and perhaps life-long task, of working my way through it.

Today I can almost do the splits, right down the centre.

I cannot only touch my toes, but go further and wrap my arms around my thighs in a giant hug. My downward dog is expertly aligned. I am working on headstands, but I still have a long way to go. 

Gradually, over the course of a year I have become agile, flexible and strong, the poses make sense and I see how they all work together for a full body flow of energy. My yoga practise is progress I can track; I can see it and feel it in my body. Same with my meditation practise. But there are some days I am fully present with my breath, feeling at peace, letting thoughts in and letting them easily slide away. Other days I am completely enmeshed in creations of my mind, in stories of the past and in anxieties of an imagined future. It could take anywhere from a few hours, to a few days or even weeks, to come back to the ease and stillness that following my breathing creates. That’s just the nature of meditation, it has peaks and valleys. 

My recovery is like this too, only I can’t see it so clearly. I know it’s happening and that I’m making progress when I have days or weeks where my mind flows with ease and self-assuredness, as I felt during that week of bliss I described.

I think what made that particular occasion all the more joyful, is that I understood that once I had experienced it, I would be able to again, and maybe for a more sustained time period. Of course it was difficult coming back down, but that is the nature of recovery and all its ups and downs and high and lows; it is not a linear path nor an upward trajectory. Old patterns flare up and fade away, as do symptoms. To recover from mental illness rooted in trauma is to rediscover your true self; to uncover parts of yourself you had been suppressing; to shed long held and negative beliefs about yourself; to gain important insights; to find new and unexpected answers to new and unexpected questions; and to build compassion and resilience in the process. 

I’m not there yet, but if I keep this up I’ll be doing headstands by this time next year. 

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