I have returned as a presenter at The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency Alternatives Conference in Memphis, TN. I led an evening caucus, taught a morning Restorative yoga, nidra and meditation class and led a ninety-minute workshop introducing Yoga therapy to participants at the conference (see the presentation on my blog page on my website http://www.brookewestyoga.com). Some of you know that I led a successful GoFundMe campaign to attend this conference, as all presenters had to pay their way. Many of you contributed in some way. Thank you so much! This experience forever changed me.
This was a come-as-you-are, ego-lite group. I was amazed at the inclusiveness and low-key attitude of this powerful group: peer specialists from around the country, peers in positions of leadership in governmental agencies; sophisticated languaging to identify oneself as a peer in recovery but keeping it vague enough so as to not devalue oneself or pigeonhole anyone as diagnosed a certain way.
It was a true rainbow gathering there: many LBGTQ, the physically disabled, children, adults and seniors, conservatively dresed, military dress uniforms, tie-dyed t-shirts. Creativity and tolerance identified this group. Many came in groups from their peer agencies, where peers are in positions of leadership (like the Executive Directors of statewide mental health service agencies) including Peerlink and Mental Health America of Oregon, agencies from LA, Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, Alabama. I learned that California is about twenty years behind the national peer movement and that California legislation is seemingly stuck to create a Peer Specialist standard in California, though the evidence shows that peer support is extraordinarily effective in recovery for substance abuse and mental distress ( – not mental illness – please note the new and modern sophistication of my languaging ; ).
I met activists who slept in Gov. Jerry Brown’s office for 30 days to bring awareness to mental health, people who fought for and won the recognition of invisible disabilities to be included in the American Disabilities Act. I learned about the Murphy legislation which would allow families to institutionalize family members and force them to take medication without their consent, and the other Murphy legislation which is more humane. Confusing. Important.
My awareness was raised and I had to ask myself questions about my own judgements around medication compliance and the choice to not take psychiatric medications. There is a movement of people supporting others to come off of medications. I admit, that scares me a little, and also only seems fair to be able to choose. I have been on both sides of this. I have come to my own conclusions for myself and realize that I cannot necessarily make these decisions for others with integrity.
I also came face to face with my own internalized stigma, and the grief and severe trauma that I have left unprocessed from my experiences in a County psychiatric facility and jail – places you would never want to go, unwillingly – and in society with a label that marks me as someone to fear or shrink away from. I came home last week and cried for two days.
People came to me in droves after my presentation: peers; beautiful women; young, handsome, articulate men; activists; disabled people wanting and needing to move safely, with laundry lists of medical considerations and complaints that they cannot find a good teacher for themself; people from Puerto Rico, impressed with my delivery of Yoga and explanation that Yoga is not a religion, that Yoga is not anti-Christian. One woman, who was not even in my Yoga therapy for Anxiety Relief presentation, came up to me the next morning and said, “Brooke, you are sitting on a gold mine.”
I also reunited with a friend from Grass Valley whom I knew at SPIRIT Peer Empowerment Center, where I developed a Yoga program in their day center in 2013.
I had felt quite lonely for the first days at the conference. People in recovery are generally not the most outgoing bunch. We have experienced too much rejection. By the end of the conference, however, I had made friends and professional connections with people from the eastern seaboard, Minnesota, northern California, New York, Tennessee… I was invited to be on the planning committee for next year’s conference on the west coast… I was invited to teach yoga in Oregon in March at a gathering called PeerPocalypse (not sure about the details of that one but it is funded by the profits from this conference)… Never have I been around a group of people whose spiritual connection was their driving force, above all else. Not even at Ananda, I dare to say. When there is nothing left – no health, no love, no acceptance, no understanding – Spirit is all that is left, and it is reliable if you choose faith.
Not one mile from The National Civil Rights Museum, this conference brought to the table the conversation of a common experience that people have had: seeking refuge at ashrams and spiritual centers and retreats, only to be turned away because of behavioral issues. Several people had much grief and disappointment over this issue.
More training is needed for individuals and organizations to remain inclusive to all people seeking support during a spiritual emergence, in spiritual emergency and for our community members experiencing mental distress.
We are at the beginning of nervous system dysfunction, post-Industrial Revolution. Artificial lighting, travel, processed foods – none of these were meant for us as an animal species. We cannot endure these artifices without repercussion. The epidemics and crises of our time may be direct effects of our quickly developing society. Our nerves may be shorting out because of lifestyle aggravations and we may be exhibiting distress due to the derangement of our lifestyles.
As a representative of the healing journey and of the level of recovery that Yoga can offer, as a Yoga therapist and as a peer in recovery, it is a blessing and responsibility that I do not take casually to bridge marginalized change agents with established service agencies to expand healing and understanding. As I heard one person say, “If you have a brain, you have ‘mental health’ issues.” Mental health advocacy may be the final frontier in civil rights. Who among us is not touched by these issues?
Let us continue the conversation in unity.
Ask me about jail later.