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How yoga helped a woman cope with mental health issues

'I woke up wanting to die every single day'

Treating a psychological condition is not just about prescribing pills. The medical profession “prefers to use the biopsychosocial approach”. Photo: Shutterstock

Treating a psychological condition is not just about prescribing pills. The medical profession “prefers to use the biopsychosocial approach”. Photo: Shutterstock

As Malta witnesses an increased drive towards mental health awareness, with the need for improved psychiatric services recently flagged by the medical sector, stories emerge highlighting not only the problems that patients face but also the success stories that offer inspiration.

Janet Vella’s story is one of the latter. When Janet, 44, casually accepted her friend’s suggestion to follow a yoga workout, little did she imagine that the seemingly simple routine would open the door to a new life.

Janet, a dance instructor by profession, remembers she had been visiting a friend in the UK when her eureka moment hit. The survivor of multiple suicide attempts, and still plagued by chronic anxiety and depression, she was staying for a short while in London to recoup her energies.

“I was going stir crazy at my friend’s apartment. Up till then, dance had been my only mental release, the one thing that put a barrier between me and my demons. But a very difficult childbirth which led to physical repercussions meant I could not dance for a very long while. My mental health was deteriorating fast,” the woman says.

Trying to take her mind off things through physical movement, Janet worked her way through what she describes as a basic yoga session. The rest, she says, is history.

“It may seem like a cliché, but that is how I embarked on a new lease of life. I have had mental health troubles since a very young age – my world collapsed when I turned 11 and my parents started a war with each other. From that day on, my life was a series of suicide attempts and self-destruction, until now.”

‘I lost my spirit’

Janet traces her earliest troubles back to her relationship with her father, who she says suffered from a personality disorder that went undetected for a long while.

Describing her home life, she adds that it was not unusual for her father to pretend that she “did not exist” for the slightest transgression. “I remember one particular occasion when I slammed the door after an unremarkable teenage tantrum. He did not speak to me, or acknowledge my presence, for the next six months.”

My world collapsed when I turned 11 and my parents started a war with each other

Such recurring incidents, she believes, destroyed her ability to cope. Her father’s mental condition gradually deterioriated – she mentions incidents of tapped phones and extreme paranoia – until finally he was officially diagnosed.

“If I had known earlier, I would have been able to help him. But as it was, the damage was done. During my parents’ separation I was regularly used as court bait, and from being a lively and probably somewhat naughty child, I lost my spirit.”

Janet describes waking up every single day wanting to die. Chillingly, she adds that there was nothing dramatic about it – she simply knew as fact that she did not want to live and spent most of her time planning ways in which to achieve this.

Things came to a head when Janet felt so overwhelmed that she asked to be taken out of school; eventually, her mother took her to the family GP.

“When he asked me about my thoughts, I made the mistake of mentioning that I wanted to die. This must have rung all his alarm bells and he immediately put me on strong antidepressants. Bear in mind that I was a teenager and this was not a mental care medical specialist – this was a general practitioner.”

Read: 'You carry this label stating you are mental, not human'

‘Zombified’

The medication successfully stopped her from wanting to take her own life, but it also stopped her from functioning and feeling like a normal person. “I was zombified. After a couple of years on this medication I just did not want to see any more pills.

“I stopped all my medication abruptly. I didn’t want to feel numb anymore.”

But the lack of numbness left an opening for all the negative feelings to come rushing back, and thus began Janet’s rollercoaster relationship with antidepressants.

“I would take them sporadically. Basically, when my crying bouts got too bad, I’d go back to taking pills. One particular day – I remember it was a Sunday, as these were my deadliest, loneliest days, with no school to attend and no one around – my mother left to visit some relatives and I decided that enough was enough.”

The easiest way out, she thought, was to overdose on the pills that had been made so easily available to her. However, like so many others, she was unsuccessful. This was not to be the last attempt.

As she bluntly states on her online blog, “When you emerge from a suicide attempt, your first thought is f***, I’m still here.”

This wish to leave a life that she couldn’t understand was to be an overwhelming motivator, spurring a number of similar failed attempts for many years to come.

“When I wasn’t trying to kill myself, I was pursuing destructive relationships.

“With each man, I was trying to find my father. And with each failed relationship, I would want to kill myself again. I had no coping skills at all.”

Read: ‘One in four affected by mental health issues’

Spiritual path

With hindsight, she adds that she should not have been in a relationship in the first place, not when she hadn’t yet found what she refers to as her “spiritual path”.

And then she gave birth to her son, Jules – an eagerly awaited, much-wanted child who she immediately loved to bits. Even here, depression threatened to take over, but  her son’s birth turned out to be the catalyst she needed to mend her body and start her on her path to healing.

“When my son was about seven years old I realised I was not giving him the best life. I asked his father to take him with him to the UK, explaining that I believed he would fare better. After that, I decided to leave Malta for a short span. I guess life had to break me up before I woke up,” she remembers.

This was eight years ago, and Janet’s attempt to escape the life she did not want led her to London and her first DIY yoga session and, eventually, a wider spectrum of healing techniques and a permanent move to India. “When I announced I was going to India, everyone thought I was crazy, but I knew exactly what I wanted. I spent a month there and did not want to leave. A series of toing and froing between Malta, my son in the UK, and India followed, until eventually it was Jules himself who begged me to move there. He had accompanied me on one of my visits and I guess he could see that India was what my soul needed.”

Before making the definitive move, Janet visited her father, who at that stage was living in a home.

“I said my goodbyes then. He died two weeks after I landed in India. Not a surprise to me, as I had sort of felt that he was getting ready to let go.”

What about her mother?

“I love her tremendously, even though her character was not strong enough to protect me, to come between me and my father at his worst,” Janet tells me.

Back on track

India opened up a whole new world for Janet, although even here she describes her expectations as “arrogant”.

“I honestly thought I’d get to India, stop taking meds and everything would be fine as though by magic. That my problems would disappear. It was nothing like that. It was a tough journey. I had to rediscover my spirit, focus on yoga and that’s when I also discovered the benefits of writing as therapy.”

Today, Janet is completely free of antidepressants and relies on what she describes as a concoction of unconventional methods, mindfulness being one of them, and a specific regime to keep her life on track.

Since relocating, she has published her autobiography, Walking in Socks, where she shares the painful journey that led her to leave a familiar life, and her teenage son, behind her.

I devised my own system of bringing myself back, and news of my story must have spread

Now her second book is in its final stages, and by the end of the year she expects to publish I Am Woman, which she describes as a one-of-a-kind self-love guide wherein she shares the steps in her healing.

In the meantime, she has also continued offering an online support system tailored to women dealing with their own mental demons – whether they be depression, anxiety, trauma or the effects of rape. She has also trained in Rapid Transformational Therapy (RTT), a technique that was created by British therapist Marisa Peer.

I ask her whether there is a specific reason that she limits her clientele to women. “I have seen some male clients in the past, but I’ll be blunt – I’m more comfortable working closely with women. We really are goddesses,” she tells me unabashedly.

“I literally devised my own system of bringing myself back, and news of my story must have spread, because people started contacting me for help. I am one of the lucky ones, I’m still alive. I want to help impart this path to others who may need it.”

Now Janet is giving structure to this help through a series of online and personal support mechanisms like RTT sessions, mentoring, e-mails and a digital mind and body workout course.

 “Yoga is my antidepressant, as part of wider routine of healing techniques,” she concludes.

The medical perspective

Psychiatrist Anton Grech says nowadays treating a psychological condition is not just about prescribing pills, with the medical profession preferring to use the biopsychosocial approach.

“You need to treat all aspects of a person. In this case, ‘bio’ refers to the medication part, ‘psycho’ to the psychological counselling part, while the ‘social’ aspect is self-explanatory and takes into account the personal circumstances of the patient,” Dr Grech says.

Some conditions, however, are genetic and this is when medication tends to be necessary. But even here, he says, the ‘psycho’ and ‘social’ parts of the treatment remain just as pivotal.

Unlike treating more physical conditions, treating mental health is not an exact formula

“Practising mindfulness is extremely important in all cases. Focusing on your here and now has been proven to be an effective tool in counteracting mental problems,” he states.

But he stresses that not everyone can do it without medicine.

“The medicine is not necessarily the cure. Sometimes, it is used as a temporary solution to stem symptoms like anxiety while the actual condition is treated holistically,” Dr Grech continues.

Dr Grech also cautions against stopping medication unilaterally and abruptly, adding that one of the most common causes of admission to mental hospitals is the abrupt discontinuation of medication.

So what should a mental health patient who feels they are not thriving on the prescribed medication do?

“Unlike the treatment for more physical conditions, treating mental health is not an exact formula. If a patient is not happy, they need to go back to their doctor so that a better solution may be found,” Dr Grech explains.

He also believes that patients should not shy away from getting a second opinion.

“The area can be quite subjective, however one thing is sure – adding mindfulness to the regime is a benefit.”

Where to get help

Suicide helpline: 179

Crisis Resolution Malta – 9933 9966 – is a private network that also offers support through a network of professionals.

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