"Warning: this post discusses depression, sexual assault and eating disorders. If those are challenging topics for you, please consider skipping to another post.”
Note - this submission has been edited in collaboration with our Clinical Advisory Board.
I have been hyper aware of my mental health for as long as I can remember. I was diagnosed with depression before entering kindergarten and have, over the course of my life, cycled through a long list of other diagnoses. It’s hard for a person that young to understand or answer accurately the questions being posed by doctors. It’s hard for a person that young to understand the label being put on them. It’s hard for a person that young to grasp the weight of that label — All I knew was that my parents were worried. And their worry paired with my frequent doctors visits meant that something was wrong and I shouldn’t talk about it.
When I left home for college, I made the decision to stop taking the medication I was on. Over the years, I had tried every cocktail of antidepressants and antipsychotics on the market. None worked as far as I was concerned, but my psychiatrist’s definition of “working” was much different than mine and I didn’t have health insurance that would provide access to talk therapy. I was there [in college] month after month, alive, still mostly able to go to school, to dance, and to function as a member of my family. For my psychiatrist, that meant the pills were working. Having had labels put upon me and prescriptions written for me for nearly thirteen years without my being asked what I wanted or felt I needed, I could care less what he thought.
I decided I would go to college without medication, a risky decision, but one that my parents supported.
That time was not without its struggles. I was sexually assaulted my junior year, and felt a deep depression crack open inside me. After spending some amount of time in denial, I finally reached out to a therapist on my college campus who I saw weekly throughout my senior year. Upon graduating and moving to New York City, I connected with a new therapist.
Therapy is one of the most important practices in my life. I do not blame anyone for the mental health treatment I received in my youth. I understand how much fear was surrounding every decision my parents and doctors made and I know that they acted out of love. But what I have come to realize is that those experiences were a trauma of their own. Year after year, in doctor’s office after doctor’s office, I wasn’t asked how I felt or what I needed. I was silenced and made to feel like my body and my health were not in my control.
In therapy, I am heard. I am in control. I am given the space to speak about how I feel, the tools to learn how to self-regulate, and the ability to identify when I need the support of a psychiatrist. It is far from easy to confront those painful years, the pain and trauma of my assault, and the many failed strategies for survival I developed, like isolating myself and self-regulating with a restrict and binge cycle of disordered eating. But I have been empowered by therapy to know that my body and my mental and physical health are in my hands. That feeling of control, in a life so often defined by emotions and moods that felt out of my control, has been life changing.
What have you experienced/what are you experiencing?
I have experienced bipolar depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and binge eating disorder. Bipolar depression and PTSD still affect my life, and I am in recovery from my eating disorder. I don’t know that I will ever be able to say that my life is absent of mental health issues, but the tools that I have to manage those conditions get stronger every day.
How has this impacted your life? How about your career?
My being identified as mentally ill at a very young age had an alienating effect on me and made socializing challenging for many years. The waves of depression meant that I have gone through periods where I withdraw from the people around me, and the anxiety I experienced as a result of PTSD meant that many situations became triggering. Thankfully, I’ve learned how to respond to those triggers and have worked to make distressing memories feel less and less distressing over time.
Dance was always an outlet for me. When I was dancing, I didn’t feel flawed in the ways doctors identified me as flawed. Dance has always been a way of feeling connected to and in control of my body, so it has only helped me to have dance a constant in my life. In recent years I have begun choreographing work that deals more specifically with my experiences of sexual assault and of depression, and it has been transformative to channel those experiences into form and into movement.
How have you managed it? How are you managing it?
In the past, medication was a big part of my life. Currently, I am unmedicated and receive the support of a therapist who I see weekly.*
What would you tell your past self considering the experiences you’ve gained?
I would tell my past self to listen to her gut-- she is smarter than she realizes.
What would you like to tell to fellow dancers who might relate to your situation/story?
I would tell another dancer that they should not feel ashamed to seek help. As performers and as athletes we are used to pursuing a kind of perfection. Do not let that pursuit stand in the way of your getting the help you need.
Have you always been open speaking out on this issue? What has kept you from opening up about it in the past?
In my adult life I have been open about my mental health struggles. It wasn’t until I felt in control of the situation myself that I was able to share with others about it. It isn’t something that I tell everyone about, but I know how much it helped me to know that I was not alone in what I was going through, so I see my sharing as a way to send someone else that very important message.
Why do you think there is still stigma surrounding the issue in our society/dance community?
I think that there is a stigma around mental health because mental health is misunderstood. So much of what people who suffer from mental illnesses experience is as a result of traumatic circumstances and lack of access to proper care. But until we live in a society where profits aren’t valued over people, healthcare is seen as the right that it should be, and the most vulnerable of people are protected, there will continue to be a stigma around mental health. Our society would rather view people as broken and disposable than capable of healing. In the arts especially, there is an odd fetishization of mental illness and the trope of the mentally ill genius. This cliche only causes harm. It does not serve you or your art to avoid treatment.
What have you learned throughout your journey?
I have learned that I am always strong enough for what I’m about to be handed. I have learned that, as Adrienne Maree Brown says, “nothing blooms 365 days of the year”-- I need my rest, I need my time away, I need my time in the dark and in the dirt before I make it to see the sun. I have learned that nothing about who you are is set in stone. I have learned the power that art-making can have. And I have learned how a support system can be. My community has saved me time and time again.
* Editors note: As a clinician, I think it is important to make clear that not everyone can stop taking their medications. I’d like to add a disclaimer to not do so without consulting a psychiatrist or other prescriber.