As I've mentioned here before, I recently finished a 60-Day Bikram Yoga challenge. Now that it's over, I could describe how the challenge pushed my body and mind to extremes I've never encountered. I could detail how it left me stronger, calmer, more confident in my abilities to set goals and meet them. And it would all be the truth, but it wouldn't be the whole truth. You see, the whole story is the one that scares me to share as it's the most personal account I've ever related on this blog. Yet it's also the one that most bears telling for its testament to the transformative power of any formidable journey. It begins not in March with the start of the challenge, but rather last December when I did something incredibly foolish: I stopped taking Prozac without medical guidance. Cold turkey.
I’d been on antidepressants since college and had recently received my doctor's clearance to taper off. However when the chaos of the holiday season caused me to forget my dose for a week, I reasoned, ‘I’m already in withdrawal, so I might as well just push through.” What I failed to take into account is the fact that Prozac has a long half life; it stays in your system for a while after you stop taking it, so you don't immediately feel the effects.
Before the end of January I'd realized the consequences of my ill-advised decision. My usually sound sleep habits were in shambles. My moods roller-coastered from sullen to anxious to irritable and back again. My weight ballooned seemingly overnight, and most disconcertingly, I stopped menstruating. I chalked it all up to quitting Prozac and did my best to stay patient. Surely I'd be in the clear soon!
Then the panic attacks began. By early March they were occurring with tidal regularity, tossing waves of despair over me every day at 1 pm. I'd collape on the sofa, incapacitated by sobs I couldn’t explain even to myself let alone to my family and friends. My productivity plummeted, I was exhausted all the time, I’d gained even more weight, and my menstrual cycle was still AWOL. Yet I was determined to stay off antidepressants. After a decade on medication, I wanted to experience life without it.
March also marked the start of the 60-Day Bikram challenge. I instinctively latched onto it like a drowning sailor to driftwood. Every afternoon when a panic attack arose, I coached myself through it with the mantra, ‘You don’t have to do anything but survive this and go to yoga.’ Getting to class and focusing on what my body could do provided a welcome distraction from all the ways it was betraying me. Moreover, the structure and familiarity of the Bikram sequence—26 asanas and 2 breathing exercises—gave me a sense of stability when my emotional and physical existence was spinning into a terrifying unknown. My yoga mat was the one place I felt safe.
Spring progressed. Life revolved around doing yoga, completing what little work I could manage, walking the dog, and doing more yoga. As the end of the challenge neared, a glimmer of light appeared in my tunnel. The panic attacks ebbed. My moods leveled out. The weight began to creep off—and what’s more, I minded it (slightly) less because Bikram made me feel strong no matter what the scale read. In the penultimate week, my period returned after a five month hiatus. When I finished on Day 60, tears of gratitude and accomplishment merged with the beads of sweat on my face.
While I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the physical detox and meditative benefits of Bikram decreased the duration of my symptoms, I have no concrete evidence to confirm as much. What I do know is that yoga was a sustaining force during this extraordinarily difficult time. I can only imagine how agonizing, even dangerous, the withdrawal experience would have been without it. And today as I continue to weather the ups and downs, I return to the words of my favorite instructor—words that carried me through the overwhelming heat, humidity, and exertion of 60 Bikram classes in 60 days: "Be still. Keep your eyes open. Breathe. This will pass."
P.S. I cannot emphasize it enough: DO NOT discountinue medication of any kind without supervision from qualified professionals. I'm extraordinarily fortunate that my withdrawal, though difficult, did not have dire consequences for myself and others. As well, I'm incredibly thankful to my loved ones for supporting me through the process, and to Bikram Yoga Pasadena for providing such a welcoming and encouraging community. Images courtesy of Emily Johnston's Instagram.