Writing about my mother makes me nervous. Talking about my mother used to make me nervous, until I felt compelled to talk about her during one of my classes on Mother's Day two years ago. From that moment on, I realized that I had to tell people about my mother because her story is one of bravery and triumph, but it is not an easy story to tell. It is a story of extreme highs and overwhelming lows, unconditional love, and overcoming one of life's most misunderstood challenges: mental illness.
When I was growing up, I learned quickly that not many people feel comfortable talking about mental illness; I realized that being open and honest about having a mother with bipolar disorder was going to be a challenge, and there weren't many people who were able to help or even understand what we were going through. On good days, my relationship with my mother was great! She came to my swim meets, cheered for me at soccer practice, and made "giant pancake" for breakfast (a family favorite). Her highs included frivolous shopping adventures and dance parties in the living room. By contrast, her lows swallowed her whole in a cloud of hopelessness. In many ways, some of the tactics I used as a child to help my mom navigate through her saddest moments are the same techniques I use to coach my classes today... Seeing my mother go through these highs and lows always baffled me, and I had no idea if there was anyone else that I knew who was experiencing the same thing.
I didn't know because no one talked about it, but in order to paint an accurate picture of who my mother is, and why she is such an inspiration, I have to talk about it.
My mother is BEAUTIFUL. Sometimes it takes a moment of weakness to realize how strong we really are, and this is evident in my mother's smile. After seeing her struggle, today her smile radiates with genuine happiness and joy in a way that I always prayed for when she was sad. I'll never forget when we were on a family rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, and we were about to go through the most dangerous rapid on the Colorado River, "Crystal Rapid." I was expecting a complete meltdown from her. She had been worried about the rapids since we first started planning the excursion (if we even mentioned the word "rapid" my dad and I would hear her scream from across the house "IT'S TOO DANGEROUS, WE'RE NOT GOING!"), and now we were at the pinnacle of them all. We hunkered down as we approached a thirty foot wall of water before we were completely submerged and came out the other side drenched and relieved. I immediately looked to the back of the boat to check on my mom. Instead of panic, I saw pure, unadulterated joy. Her smile, her laugh, her spirit—all of it was so perfect and beautiful. Those are the moments that we live for as human beings, but we especially celebrate when they come from someone who has had to fight to get happy for so many years. In that moment it didn't matter that my mother had been sick, all that mattered was that she was there, smiling and laughing after going though one of the most death-defying experiences life can offer...
My mother is STRONG. Throughout all of the ups and downs with her career and personal relationships, my mother persevered even when the chemical imbalance in her brain tried to prevent her from doing so. She was relentlessly determined to get better and never let a setback defeat her. I always had a hard time understanding why my mom had to go back to the hospital after being released not too long before. At an early age I began distrusting doctors altogether and questioning their motives. Why can't they do their job and fix her already? I didn't know who to blame so it was the easiest answer, but my mother was much stronger than I. She didn't waste time blaming others for her condition, she put the work in, did her research and tried as many different methods as she could. She had her moments of weakness, as any of us would, but she reached out for help when she needed it and pushed herself until she found what worked for her. Her quality of life today is a direct result of how much work she put into getting herself well.
My mother is an INSPIRATION. I am often asked what inspires me and the answer is always my mother. I saw her take control of her life when that was the hardest thing for her to do, and she did it all while providing me with a life filled with unconditional love. She reminds me that we are not a victim to the circumstances of our life unless that is the way we choose to see it. Love can motivate us to fight when we feel like giving up, and happiness is something that we have to find for ourselves.
For those who suffer from mental illness, the support they receive from their loved ones and their community is the catalyst for their survival. I was lucky to have such a supportive family who worked together to get through the worst of it, but I know there are many people out there who don't feel comfortable talking about their experiences and I am hoping we can change that.
After the few classes in which I have openly talked about my mother and her mental illness, the response from riders was overwhelming. Stories of family members who are self-medicating, suffering from suicidal depression, and friends who don't know how to help each other; there is a clear need for support but no one seems to know where to go or who they can safely talk to without feeling judged. If my story can help others feel like they aren't so alone, that their experiences are more understandable then they might think, then that is how I plan to start and I am hoping that I can get you to join me.
If you know someone who suffers from mental illness, talk to them and show them that you care. Don't judge them, listen to them. Show some compassion and some empathy if you don't understand, because they might not understand what they're going through either. It is no one's fault, but it is our responsibility to create a world where having mental illness doesn't force anyone to live in fear of embracing their truth. I've seen how love can help pull someone through the darkest times in their life, and I choose to believe that we can create a more open and honest dialogue about the challenges we face.
How has mental illness impacted your life? Do you know of a charity or organization that is helping to bring mental illness into open, honest discussions? Where do you go for mental/emotional support? Please share your story, leave a comment and check out my SoulCycle schedule in San Francisco this week!