My name is Danielle. On the outside I'm a writer, teacher, editor, and follower of yoga. On the inside I'm a soul exactly like every other, working toward freedom. // firstname.lastname@example.org
old dan yeller
Yoga, meditation, writing, psychology, love. Sharing my safe space with you.
my very own Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club
Sometimes I come to my blog page because my brain is over-firing and having to put letters in order, and seeing the result of black on white, brings me back to myself.
There is a great segment of This American Life, The Hostess with the Toastess, which profiles the owner of The Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club in San Fransisco. Giulietta Carrelli has schizoaffective disorder, and has crafted her life around things that “bring her back.” She often has episodes of feeling outside of herself, finding herself lost without any idea how to get home. Things that bring her back include the freezing water of China Beach, and the fact that the whole neighborhood knows who she is - she wears the same outfit daily and is covered in tattoos. If she’s lost people can direct her back home, or to her cafe.
Here is a woman who has designed her life to keep herself afloat.
Two nights ago, I drove over a median and ran up a huge bill. After the practical questions were answered all the other questions, from the depth of my fear well, were tapped and for the next two days, I was flooded. I didn’t move from the couch on the first day.
But at the same time, I close off, so while my brain is flooding, I’ve dammed my body. That’s what anxiety is, for me.
What’s gotten in the way of designing my life to keep myself afloat: not admitting that I needed help to stay afloat; not admitting that at times, my body could be awfully weighty.
The first step is admitting you have a problem.
When I admit I have a problem I’m met with all sorts of responses. There’s sympathy, the “Oh, you poor thing.” There’s empathy, the “I’m going to hold your hand through this.” There’s rejection. Connection. Judgement. Acceptance.
I’ve done the “not me.” A friend at Yogaville slipped into a manic phase, and after she was taken to the hospital, the group of women on the floor - including me - decided to burn some sage. Another girl suggested a ceremony to clear the air of her old bedroom. The episode was surprising and traumatic for some of us. Watching our friend’s face and eyes change, hearing her tell of how she was “sent here to clean us up” - it was difficult. But weeks later it would still come up: Remember when she (fill in the blank)? And how she…? The way she looked when she told everyone she…?
How I had rejected her. Not on the outside. On the outside I was understanding, curious, kind - got to keep up appearances. But I wanted that room clean. I helped fold her clothes and put them into boxes. I told friends back home about my friend who changed overnight and how it scared me.
Soon I realized that distancing myself from her was an effort to distance myself from the parts of myself I couldn’t stand to look at.
When I admit I have a problem, sometimes people say, “I worry about you.” I want to put this out there: that’s one of the least effective things you can possibly say - or do. I suggest we remove it from our vocabulary. Instead, how about, “How can I help?” Most of the time, when someone asks me that, I say, “You already are.”
If someone insists on giving you sympathy (“not me,” or “I worry about you”) instead of empathy (“me too,” or “how can I help?”), it’s because (s)he can’t meet you where you are. Even if you wish above all wishes that (s)he could, right now, it’s not possible. Because to be empathetic, we need to accept the other person fully. And to accept another person fully, we need to acknowledge and accept all the parts of ourselves fully.
Sometimes my mom reads my posts and tells me she worries about me. But, you know something? This blog has brought me back to myself on more occasions than I can count. The very act of sharing myself makes me better. I know that’s the same for other people who blog. If you read this, you’re joining a support group I accidentally started five years ago. Welcome.
When the depression hits, we know it. For me, it looks like watching my third Netflix movie in a row, frozen in bed, my feet spazzing out under the covers. They want so desperately to get me vertical, but the rest of my body and mind prefer to lay like a fetus, a kidney - a non-adult piece of a human. And I’m wondering if 8:00 is an okay time to go to sleep, because even when I’m hoping to be swallowed up by the great sea of nothingness, I’m still very much aware of the social norm of appropriate bed time.
But what is not obvious to me, when depression hits, is what the heck got me here. I’ve had a handful of severe episodes in my life. Maybe two handfuls. I can list them on my fingers and tell you why they happened. After the fact, I gather up clues and put together a story. I’m a mood detective. I can unearth my monocle and tell a very neat, logical story about how I got into, and out of, all my episodes of anxiety/depression. Depranxion. Pranx for short - cause when you’re in the midst of depranxion, your mind’s playing some tricky-ass pranx.
On the other hand, Yoga teaches us to let go of stories. They’re not real. Stories are dreams that maintain the illusion that we’re separate individuals, and not part of a shared, grand picture (of love, of consciousness, of energy, whatever you want to call it, depending on where you fall on the conservative/woo-woo spectrum). “Let go of the story,” meditation instructors will say. “Stay with the sensation.”
Ram Dass talks about the heavy strain of the stories we tell ourselves, our identities. Of the end of an LSD trip, he writes, “I recall starting to ‘come down’ and this huge red wave rolled in across the room. … It was all my identities, all rolling in over me. I remember holding up my hand and saying, ‘NO, NO, I don’t want to go back.’ It was like this heavy burden I was going to take on myself.”
I believe that stories can be a burden and a salvation. A burden because they limit us, and a salvation because sometimes, telling our stories are the best way to let them go.
So I’ve been doing this investigation from my bed. (And from my yoga mat, my therapist’s office, my friends’ couches.) Because when I don’t know where my depression comes from, my brain becomes a presidential candidate at a debate answering a left-field question she never saw coming: I don’t know the answer but I’ll say something loudly! And confidently. And extreme! This is the best, worst, most conclusive evidence you’ve ever heard in all your life. It’s 100% true, too, because there shall be no grey area in our country. (But brain, you are a grey area!) What does my brain say when it doesn’t know why it’s depressed? “We’re broken. We’re f*cked. The damage is done; we’re irreparable. We’re weak, incapable of living in the world.”
This is my huge red wave. It threatens to pull me under. Just reading this, I feel the morbid tug. But at the same time, in excavating my depression and piecing together my story, I’ve named my demon. I’ve given it a body and a face. And I’ve ushered it out into the world - permanently, thanks to the Internet, where it can’t hide.
Back to my investigation. At this point, feel free to stop reading if depression/anxiety doesn’t affect you or someone you love. Of course, keep reading if you want to learn more about it.
I recently discovered the Black Dog Institute, which offers a new (to me) lens from which to view depression and bipolar disorder. They break depression down into four different sub-types. Mine falls under the “non-melancholic” type, which is another way of saying it’s a combo of situation + personality type. “Melancholic” type refers to a depression that’s biologically based, and responds well to medication, and not so well to talk therapy. Only 10% of depressed people fall under that category.
Certain personality traits can make us more susceptible to depression. I think we intuitively know this. If you tend to be a worrier, for instance, you know there’s a link between anxiety and depression. But if you take their temperament and personality questionnaire, you’ll learn about some personality traits you may not have discerned before. For instance, “rejection sensitivity.”
Reading through my results, it was easy to see that the perfect storm of the circumstances I’ve created in this past year + my personality traits = depression.
Ah, stories. I’m crafting a story just for you, dear depression. When it’s done I’ll sit back and tell it calmly. Then I’ll let go the string and watch it drift off with the next great wind.
This week, two of my students wrote about mental illness. Ashley wrote about OCD and anxiety, and Matt wrote about the depression that hit after starting high school. Another student, Leana, wrote about being ultra-sensitive to the point where she cries when strangers cry. Three other students, all recent immigrants, wrote about how they feel invisible, excluded, and powerless in Southampton.
So we discussed the power of writing about hardship. Risking cheesiness, I told them that I believe writing is magical. By sharing his story about loneliness, Matt will save his lonely readers.
"How?" he asked, looking downward.
"Have you ever felt like you’re the only one who feels this bad?"
"If your reader felt that way too, now he knows he’s not alone."
My feedback for each essay was nearly identical: “You’re brave to share this, and the world needs to hear your story.”
And from this class, I realized I have not been practicing what I preach. I haven’t been writing about my hardships. I’ve been scared of them, ashamed. I leave the party early. Say, “I’m in transition mode,” with a wink and a smile. Give quick, snappy hugs when I want oh so much to curl on a friend’s lap like a pet and have my forehead stroked.
A few months ago I cleared this blog’s archive. I’m five years older than I was when I started Old Dan Yeller, and I wanted the blog to grow with me. So from now on, I had decided, I would post uplifting things. I’d promote happiness and living in the moment. I’d write from the part of me that recognizes we are all the same - from the soul.
I’d been transformed. Yoga ashrams will do that to you.
Coming back to New York from Yogaville was more of a culture shock than when I had returned from half a year out of the country. I was used to waking at 4:45 and working for a “boss” who, on our first day of housekeeping service, said, “It’s cool if you’re late. You were probably having a conversation you needed to have. It’s your journey, guys. I’m just here to witness it.” JP helped me with some big fears that came up when I meditated. He eventually left his position as manager because it really cramped his practice of living in the moment.
Back in New York I had chants stuck in my head. I walked around the bar barefoot. I missed the shit out of Dale, and Leigh-Mae and Sarah, who all decided to stay longer.
After a month at Yogaville, my heart was wide open, and the fear that had run my life since I was twenty had mostly vanished. Love won out.
And I loved two men whole-heartedly after that. Even my relationship fears were tempered.
Then, this Fall, the anxiety came back. Slowly, sneakily, unnoticed until the panic attacks started - resulting in my status quo being lowered to “Nose above water? Successful day.” And that’s where I’m writing from today.
And if I’m not writing from here, I’m not being completely honest. I’m protecting myself from being vulnerable. And when you leave aspects of yourself in the dark, they fester and grow. See Brene Brown’s research on shame. (The #1 ingredient necessary for shame to thrive: secrecy.)
I still believe that writing - and all art, really - should ultimately lift us up. Lord knows we could always use a lift. But we have to lift ourselves first, and the only way out is through.
* Title borrows from Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom lyrics.
"Stories can also function as Trojan Horses. The audience accepts the story because, for a human, a good story always seems like a gift. But the story is actually just a delivery system for the teller’s agenda. A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind."
I’ve heard many talks on meditation, and this is one of my favorites. Mingyur Rinpoche, with adorable miming and a sweet sense of humor, explains that meditation is neither pushing away your thoughts, nor saying to them, “Yes, sir!”
He dispels the common misconception that meditation is “sit still, think of nothing, block all thoughts and emotions” or that it’s “blissing out: peeeeaace, openness, mmmm.”
Mingyur Rinpoche explains that we either hate or love our thoughts - we push them away or we follow them to the moon, or down to the ditches. When we push away, they push back. When we follow, we become their slave.
And meditation, he teaches, is about a third option: making friends with the mind. Find common ground, give it some work to do (if the mind doesn’t have a job to do, it’ll make on up for itself), and be forgiving.
"Everyone needs a platform of self-worth from which to see change. And what I think shame does, is sticks us in a hole that’s so deep and so dark that we can’t see out. And we can’t see that we are capapable of being anything, or doing anything, beyond being stuck in this very dark, deep place."
Brene Brown, Men, Women and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough.
Today, I would be in Tennessee. The owner of the car I was going to drive to California had a change of heart and is moving back to Virginia, so instead, I’m at Yogaville with all the momentum and snack bars of someone who was planning to drive across the country.
Instead of being on the road yesterday morning, I went over to one of the teacher’s houses to sit in his living room to attend what he calls the Church of Now. A young woman who’s giving a talk this week opened up the discussion with the topic of her research: how every emotional boils down to love or fear. Another woman brought up vulnerability, and Brene Brown, whose TED Talks I’ve seen and linked to before.
As I was leaving I bent down to kiss the dog, who had put her sweet muzzle all over my face a few minutes earlier, but this time she turned her head and snapped. I pulled back, and she missed. The family apologized, put her outside, and explained she’d never done that before. I walked home on the dirt path, crying.
It’s been a long time since a dog’s bit me, or tried. But there’s a lot of emotion around it. My sister had to give up a dog that attacked me when we lived together, and we went a while without speaking - she, because she blamed me for losing her dog; I, because I blamed her for blaming me. Before that, a couple of dogs that my parents fostered had attacked me. My dad, a well-versed dog trainer, would say, “You’re afraid, and they can sense that. Be strong.” By the time I’d heard that, my brain was itself well-versed in hearing what it wanted to, and I interpreted that as, “You’re weak, and you deserve to be attacked.”
It’s no wonder I spent most of yesterday in a deep, dark place.
During last week’s staff silent retreat, at one of the lectures, I scribbled “If god takes something away, it’s only because there’s something better coming.” (Still not comfortable with the word “god,” when I write that I translate it as “If something doesn’t work out, something else will, and you’ll make something good out of it, because that’s what living is about. And who knows whether there’s not some purpose behind it all? You don’t know anything for sure.) The lecturer said, “That thing doesn’t always look better, and it might not be right away. But it’s coming.”
Instead of leaving for California, I entered a shame spiral. A friend tried to console me and my mind turned something she said around, and when we left for lunch I was now, on top of the shame, afraid of other people not liking me. Then later, I called my mom and left that conversation feeling like I lacked understanding from the person from whom I most wanted it. There was no winning. I slept and woke badly, served breakfast badly, went and took a bath and listened to the Brene Brown audiobook that I bought last night.
Here’s something important I’m still learning. From the deep, dark hole, which I’ve fallen into before, a few things happened. My friend poked her head in and did all the consoling she could from the earth above me, but she’s not trained to jump into holes and rescue the captive. I called out to my mom and she worried so much about me being in a deep, dark hole, and told me how much she didn’t like that I was in there. Then she said she doesn’t know that hole herself, so she can’t tell me too much about how to get out. The important thing is, I kept looking for someone who did know what the hole was, and how to help me get myself out.
I have so many resources at Yogaville, and so many books, to learn about loving-kindness, and letting go of attachments, and surrendering to the forces of nature. But from that deep, dark hole, I can’t absorb anything. In that hole my mind is too busy berating me to hear anything else. All I can focus on is listening to that voice, deconstructing it, noting the patterns and eventually working to correct them. It’s very much back to basics, one day at a time, recovery mode. And that’s where I am today, instead of ripping through the plains and mountains of the United States.
"Working rightly, the brain is the highest form of “instinctual wisdom.” Thus it should work like the homing instinct of pigeons and the formation of the fetus in the womb — without verbalizing the process or knowing “how” it does it. The self-conscious brain, like the self-conscious heart, is a disorder, and manifests itself in the acute feeling of separation between “I” and my experience. The brain can only assume its proper behavior when consciousness is doing what it is designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it."
Matthew, JR’s brother from out of town, is back for the holidays. He’s my father’s age. I don’t know much about him, just that when he’s here, he voluntarily wipes dishes, sometimes at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I wonder what kind of penance he’s paying in there. Whenever I see him he gives a solid hug, kisses me on the cheek, and says, “You’re magical.”
Joe came into the basement classroom after the New Year’s Eve party and wrestled my roommate. They pinned each other and grunted and bit, and I watched from the wall. When they finished, he sat on the floor with his legs crossed and said, “I thought about coming into the kitchen today and telling you that I hated you.”
"Me?" I asked. I hadn’t spoken much with Joe since he’d gotten here.
"Yeah. I thought about it but I didn’t do it. Obviously."
His hips were lifted and he was balancing on his hands. He arms shook and his lips quivered.
I crawled on the carpet a little closer, to face him. “Okay,” I said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
"I think it’s because I gave you that story, and it wasn’t a story at all, it’s exactly how I think, and now you know all this stuff about me and I know nothing about you, and you just sit there. And when I sat across from you at the table yesterday, I hated you."
My roommate, not looking up from her sketchbook, asked, “But why do you hate her?” and he looked over at her, maybe for confidence, or camaraderie, and continued.
I was tired. My stomach turned as I sat across from him, my heart facing his, my eyes meeting his. I told him why he hasn’t connected with me: because I haven’t let him. He wrote a beautiful story about visiting an old friend at an all-girls school, and the way his character looked at women scared me. I didn’t say that since I read it I’ve noticed him with women, and I see the flicker of interest in his eyes with nearly everyone, and a wildness there I’ve either never seen, or have seen and forgotten.
"I’m surprised you took that so well," he said. "I know you like that conscious communication thing."
I followed his eyes to where my roommate sat drawing.
"Right," I said. "Zane’s not a fan of it."
He sat next to me for a while, and I offered to show him some of my writing soon, if that might close the vulnerability gap. When I left for bed I hugged everyone goodnight, him included.
"I’m a human," I said. "I need love. I need to feel accepted and safe and loved."
Who knows who I was speaking to.
His face changed and there was an opening, but on the staircase I closed it up because I don’t want to let the animal in or out.
This morning Matthew hugged me hello and held my face and said, “You’re in a good place, I can tell.”
There are two conflicting philosophies about how to move in water.
The first: Go with the flow. Relax, float downstream. It’s not meant to be a struggle.
The second: Fight the current. Be a salmon.
When you’re caught in a rip current, you don’t swim against the current toward shore because you’ll exhaust yourself and risk drowning. Instead you float with the current and once you’re released, head back to shore. Or, you can swim parallel to the shore until you’ve escaped the current.
Salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs, and then, moments later, die.
It seems obvious that, given a choice, you would lean into whatever life gives you. But for a long time, I’ve viewed my brain’s patterns as a whirlpool, and I imagined myself walking against the current until I’ve neutralized it, even spun it in the other direction. Times like that, you’d want to fight the current.
But then, because I want to get this metaphor right, I think of the mind as a river instead. If it’s a river, you can’t reverse the current - you can swim against it and waste a ton of energy and then float, or you can float in the first place and save yourself the trouble.
How would you correct old habits if they are the river current instead of a whirlpool?
I guess that at some point, as your back scrapes against rocks, then hits a calm patch; as you hate the rocks and love the calm; get angry with yourself for not escaping the rocks, get proud of yourself for hitting a calm patch that had nothing to do with you, was not your victory so much as it is the river’s; at some point you let go of all the thoughts and feelings you have about the river. You haven’t reversed the current. You accept the current, and while your body floats along at the whim of the river, you are free.
Even if 1 million people walked upstream, and dammed up the current, the moment we rested, the water would flow from high to low again, downstream.
And yet, I still think there’s a time to fight. To break old habits and build new neural connections, which takes a lot of energy, sometimes.
Some days a land metaphor works better. If thought patterns are train tracks, you do your best to cover up the old ones that head to Self-Hateville, and dig new ones to take you to Self-Acceptanceberg.
Both places are actually the same, though, aren’t they? It’s just that in Self-Hateville you’re wearing a steel coat of armor and in Self-Acceptanceberg you’re naked.
The digging is really about learning how to get naked, then, isn’t it?
The Power of Empathy, narrated by Dr. Brene Brown.
On empathy vs. sympathy. On the power of just being there, offering an ear, space, and a hug.
It’s easy to forget how to do this when most of us have been trained to give advice, and to make our upset friends happy again. But we don’t need to fix or advise. We need to join our friends in their scary, dark places, hold their hands, and say, “I’m here with you.”
"Life evolved or was created. Cells trembled, and divided, and gasped and found dry land. Soon they grew legs, and fins, and hands, and antenna, and mouths, and ears, and wings, and eyes. Eyes that opened wide to take all of it in, the creeping, growing, soaring, swimming, crawling, stampeding universe.
Eyes opened and closed and opened again. We called it blinking. Above us shown a star that we called the sun. And we called the ground the earth. So we named everything including ourselves. We were man and woman and when we got lonely we figured out a way to make more of us. We called it sex, and most people enjoyed it. We fell in love. We talked about god and banged stones together, made sparks and called them fire. We got warmer and the food got better.”
"As long as you have certain desires about how it ought to be, you can’t see how it is."
Once a week, the interns at Yogaville get together for a sharing circle. This week, someone brought up age. Over the last month, I’ve seen a few old loves make big moves toward settling down, and this feeling was arising in me - one I couldn’t name. It wasn’t jealousy, exactly, or sadness, or anger. There was a little bit of fear. I took walks. So at yesterday’s meeting when the heavy, jeweled talking stick came my way I discovered what the feeling was, almost in the same way you tell a story: you don’t really know what you want to tell, but there is a force driving you toward telling something.
Mindy, one of the cooks, said, “I’ve trained myself not to say ‘should’ or ‘if only.’ I counted a lot of shoulds in what you just said.”
I am afraid I might not be fit for a partnership. I’m afraid that by the time I’m ready for a family, I won’t be able to make one. Half of me wants a partner and the other half deeply, primally, does not want one. I feel like I should know why that is. That I should be able to work through it.
It feels like I should do a lot of things that I am not doing. That dialogue runs on and on, quiet elevator music, and it isn’t until someone points it out that you notice it’s playing - and then it’s pretty funny. This music has no substance. Someone thought it was better than silence, didn’t they? No, better the silence. That way you can hear the woman next to you chew her cashews, and you can ask for one, and she’ll give you a handful.
So how is it?
I am a creature that loves sweet food, starts things it doesn’t finish, gets a deep joy from sharing its feelings with others, and does not yet want a family or a partner. I am trying to be quiet around that - not accompany it with judgement or ought-to elevator music. This is how it is (today).