There was a time in my life when I believed everything happened for a reason. I still appreciate and ascribe to something I heard Steve Jobs say in a speech, that the dots of your life choices and happenings connect in hindsight. But this is different to the idea that everything happens for a reason.
When The Secret came out, I eagerly bought into the idea of the power of manifestation. Just THINK your way to positivity and abundance and the fulfilling of all your dreams! (Sometimes I really do wish I could go back in time and smack my naive self upside the head.)
It was easy to take this on as my life view when things were going pretty well. As a yoga teacher, I was kind of sheltered in my day to day life in this happy-happy spiritual world. The people I interacted with pretty much had the shared intent of cultivating good things — things like peace, release, calm, and connectedness. Even if someone was going through a rough time, they weren’t coming to my yoga class to harp on it, but rather, they were coming to let it go in some way.
Careerwise, I experienced a fortunate flow of work from early on. I had an overly full schedule in LA, I was offered a full time position at a studio in Hong Kong, I signed with Nike as their Global Yoga Ambassador, and I built a full teaching schedule once I moved to London as well. I worked hard, but I also felt very lucky. I used to think that perhaps I had been a really good person in a past life, that perhaps I was living this life with good karma.
Being Nike’s Global Yoga Ambassador has been a magical dream come true from the very beginning. It’s how I met my husband and why I had to refill my passport pages multiple times. But I was so focused on my work life that I didn’t even know there was so much of my deep internal soulscape that I had not even begun to process.
I was of course always sad about my mom not being well, but I hadn’t known life any other way. It was simply my reality that I had a mentally ill, suicidal mother. I thought I had dealt with it, as evidenced by my ability to be pretty “normal.” I made a living, I had friends and relationships, I exercised, and I had a spiritual practice. “I’m so well-rounded and emotionally balanced,” I genuinely believed.
I even went so far as to philosophically distance myself from my mom’s illness by telling myself that she was living her karma. It was not on me to fix her or to sacrifice my wellbeing in any way. In fact, she in her right mind would want her children to live fully, happily, and healthily.
I took on the identity of a strong person, who, despite having had an unstable childhood, was well-adjusted and thriving. I knew everyone had their own painful experiences and dysfunctional families. I wasn’t going to drown myself in mine.
This was the mindset that misguided me to send my mom bulk jars of cashews (low niacin might be responsible for depression) and to remind her about starving children (just choose to focus on how lucky you are and you’ll snap out of depression).
Again, I wish I could go back in time and shake some sense into myself, but, I didn’t know any better.
It’s so much easier to tell yourself that everything happens for a reason. It makes things less scary. It fools you into thinking there must be a solution to all problems and therefore you have control over your life circumstances.
I think for many things in life, for a lot of the smaller or more arbitrary things, this can be true. Something kind of bad or kind of difficult happens, but when you think about it in hindsight, you can derive some sense or meaning from the experience. The reason you got that parking ticket was to teach you to be more cognizant of time. The reason you stubbed your toe was to give you an opportunity to practice non-reactivity. The reason your ex dumped you was to free you to meet your soulmate.
But there are many instances where this saying does not apply.
There is no reason that one baby is born totally healthy, and another is stillborn.
There is no reason that one mother has a complication-free home birth, and another experiences a traumatic birth.
There is no reason for untimely deaths, mental illness, disease, catastrophes, or freak accidents.
Sometimes shit just happens and it is not fair.
When my mom was in a coma following a suicide attempt, I was in shock. I didn’t understand it as such at the time. I thought that I was handling it well. Calm and collected in the face of something incredibly scary. I told close friends about it. Most did not know what to say, and it was uncomfortable. I found myself apologizing to them for putting them in the uncomfortable position of hearing my uncomfortable news.
Some people said inexplicable things to me, such as, “Don’t let people start to judge you because of what your mom has done. This doesn’t change who you are.”
And, “Wow, now that I’m a mother I could never imagine trying to commit suicide. How could I do that to my kids?”
Once she came out of the coma, forever changed by traumatic brain injury, people again said things only made me feel worse.
“Your mom looks great! You can’t tell anything happened!”
“At least she survived! You’re so lucky!”
I constantly wanted to scream, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!” but I also wanted to quickly get out of feeling bad and back to feeling good. So I focused on the fact that, with her brain damage, she was no longer addicted to medicine or suicidal. Perhaps everything was happening for a reason after all.
Fast forward four years to the traumatic birth of my son, R, and the darkness of postpartum depression. My mind was spiraling with self-defeating questions: Why couldn’t I give birth naturally? Why did R have to be poisoned with antibiotics from birth? Why wasn’t I producing enough milk? Why didn’t I feel happy?
Because I must not deserve good things, I thought. Because everything happens for a reason, right?
When I tried to talk to people about how I felt, I often ended up feeling worse.
“I hate that I needed an emergency c-section!” was met with, “At least your baby was delivered safely.”
“I was so scared when we didn’t know if our baby was going to be okay!” was met with, “At least he’s healthy now.”
“I feel like my life is over!” was met with, “Having my children gave me a brand new lease on life!”
“I feel depressed!” was met with, “Having children cured me of my depression.”
“I can’t stand the relentless redundancy of motherhood!” was met with, “This is life with children, you’d better get used to it.”
“I don’t feel right!” was met with, “It’s just baby blues / hormones / sleep deprivation, it’ll pass.”
“I am miserable!” was met with, “What do you have to be miserable about? You have everything you could ever need or want.”
These responses continually deflated me, and left me wondering why I couldn’t just psych myself out of this funk. The problem was, unless someone had been through mental illness or grieving great loss themselves, it was very unlikely they were going to know what to say that would be helpful. They may have been well-intentioned, but they were misguided.
The more my pain was not heard or validated, the greater it became until it exploded into panic disorder, anxiety disorder, insomnia, and PTSD. My usual coping habits of denial, compartmentalizing, and telling myself I was fine when I was not were no longer working. Even my beloved yoga and meditation practice became an unsafe place where I became more agitated and more afraid.
For me, healing began with therapy because my therapist listened and taught me to listen to myself. He stopped me from invalidating my own feelings. He helped me unearth and start to release the buried pain and fear surrounding my sick mother. My panic attacks made me feel like I had to shed my own skin and run for my life. What I needed to do — slowly and with support — was to look within and be brave enough to see truthfully.
I released myself from the idea that I deserved the bad things that I had experienced. Although I find it hard to totally stop comparing myself to others, I started to see that just because that mother did not experience postpartum depression did not mean that she deserved good things and I did not. I unstuck myself from the debilitating and frankly false idea that everything happened for a reason.
All that said, I do see a silver lining in the hardships of my life. I know I am better able to understand others going through pain. I know I will never invalidate their pain by feeding them a cliched saying. I have more compassion and empathy and strength than I did before. I am not afraid to hear about your grief or difficulties. I am willing to stand with you and hold space for you.
I think with some forethought, we can all truly support each other. We can all do better. I came across an article that pointed out the fallacy of everyone’s well-meaning posts for depressed or suicidal people to “call help hotlines!”, saying that this was missing the mark. This was how I felt as well, seeing the big responses after the tragic and public suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. We can all do more than direct someone to a hotline.
How To Help
For starters, the following might be helpful to consider:
What Not To Say
You have so much to be grateful for.
You can have anything that you want.
You can do anything you want.
What do you have to be sad about?
You and your family are all healthy. (Mental illness means lack of health.)
You just have to focus on the positives.
There is so much suffering in the world — you are one of the lucky ones.
Snap out of it.
You’re being unreasonable.
You’re being overly emotional.
Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Well, everything happens for a reason…
What To Say
First, reach out and check in. Be open-ended. How are you doing?
Then, LISTEN. Without judgment. Without trying to fix.
You don’t deserve that.
That sounds so scary.
That sounds so tough.
It’s not normal that you are going through this.
It’s not okay that you had to go through that.
Would it help if I…[offer a specific suggestion, i.e. “went to the grocery store with you?”]
Would you like to go with me…[on a walk?]
Do you think it might be helpful to try…[therapy. medication. acupuncture…?]
I am not sure what to say but I am here.
I am thinking of you.
I am rooting for you.
I am sending you love.
It’s so brave of you to take this on.
I am always here, anytime.
You will never be bothering or burdening me.
It will be okay.
You are not alone.
Check in again.