Music My Medicine, Yoga My Therapy #OKNotToBeOK

Mental health issues were never unusual to me. In fact, they were pretty normal and still are. When I was seven or eight my cousin attempted suicide and I walked in on her crushing pills into the bathroom carpet. I didn’t know exactly what was happening but I alerted my parents by saying she was “crushing chalk.” I never saw my laid-back dad move out of that bed and into the bathroom quicker in my life.

At age seven my beloved granddad died of lung cancer, which seemed to be the catalyst for evidence that mental health challenges were in my genetics. My uncle, who I believe was and is still suffering from severe grief, was later diagnosed as schizophrenic. He takes medication and gets regular injections. God only knows what is in them but his mood and demeanour is different every time I see him. Before my granddad passed away he was so cool. One of my fondest memories with him was when I was about six and he took my cousin Latoya and I to the arcades for the day. Now, 20 years later, he’s void of emotion, is stick thin, can barely hold a conversation, when he does talk he often doesn’t make sense, or he simply misses his dad. But, he’s my uncle and I’m not throwing him away.

Some of the family say the weed he smoked in his 20’s did it and, although I believe it had an influence, I also think that grief can be misunderstood and serve as a trigger. Mental health is also something we just don’t talk about or acknowledge in the black and African community. According to Black Mental Health UK, black and ethnic minorities disproportionately have unmet needs, are often not referred for psychotherapy, are more often diagnosed as schizophrenic and given high doses of medication.

My mum suffered from depression and severe anxiety for as long as I can remember. My parents had an awful relationship and this has damaging effects. For years she would have episodes of eating very little and be very emotional, or emotion-less. She suffered from frequent migraines, light-headedness, panic attacks and nausea. I didn’t know what it really was, though. I was happy and content growing up and did well in my studies. She always put her best foot forward and was and still is, a Superwoman.

When I was a teenager mild depression and anxiety visited me for the first time. The stress of my parents divorce at the age of 17 and the tension in the house almost drove me insane. I was a very sensitive child, (I still am, but that’s Pisces for ya) I was very close to my mum (and still am) and the arguments between my parents left me irritable, jumpy and feeling sick and on edge all the time.

In my second year of college I was put on a small dose of anti-depressants that restored my lost appetite but I had lost half a stone that was obvious on my already slim frame. At times people thought I was moody but I was just angry and over it.

I remember driving home from college with the boys one Friday, full of anxiety anticipating the mood at home, and I heard Mobb Deep “Survival Of The Fittest” and “Quiet Storm” for the first time. Those dark beats vibrated through every cell in my body and matched how I felt inside. This music made me feel something. Rather than over-thinking and trying to figure out what I thought I was feeling, I could listen to some music that helped to explain. It was like medicine, hitting the spot.

“We livin’ this til the day that we die / Survival of the fit, only the strong survive”

I started dabbling in yoga as something to do as a form of exercise, which seemed to help ease some tension. I’d even do yoga to Mobb Deep, and anything with that ’90s/early 2000’s New York Hip-Hop sound that I fell in love with.

My mum and I moved house in 2005 and I picked yoga back up after leaving my job at BBC Radio 1Xtra in 2010. Although I was working with my favourite type of music doing a wicked job, I was always tired and I’m someone who needs my sleep. I had a fragile immune system and no tolerance for stress. I had started working in a job that was much more laid back – I could read and write, both of which I loved – and more importantly I could sleep!

My mum seemed happier and brighter since being out of the family house. Her faith grew stronger and so did mine. I realised how many tablets she took – anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. I knew this cocktail of drugs couldn’t be good. She would still have headaches, become tired easily and started suffering from episodes of slurred speech on and off that would last a few hours at a time. She was given MRI scans, blood tests, echo scans and referred to a neurologist. All results came back with all clear and her brain was healthy. I knew something had to cause it and found out during my regular Google searches that anxiety manifests is unusual ways, including slurred speech and a few others she complained of.

Yoga was making me feel good and I wanted to feel that way more often. It was like therapy, alleviating anxiety and tiredness by stretching the stale stress and tension out. I was able to make space in my body and in my mind. This encouraged me to want to take control of my health, and I began seeking out knowledge on natural alternatives to medication and how your emotions and environment can shape your overall wellbeing.

Half way through that year, my world imploded. My mum was diagnosed with very early stages of breast cancer and I then realised how much stress can take its toll. A routine mammogram had detected two pieces of tissue in her right breast, nine mm’s apart, that had started to become calcified (turning hard which becomes the lump we’re told to feel for). She had no symptoms and there is no history of breast cancer in my family.

The day I found out, I remember having that familiar feeling of anxiety creeping again – but I wasn’t going to let my mind, let my body get sick again. I wasn’t going to let anxiety engulf me and put me off the food that I love so much. That night I listened to Mobb Deep’s “Where Ya Heart At” on repeat.

She took it like a warrior, so I had to too – she wasn’t going out like that. More than anything it served as a wake up call for us both. We moved quickly through the procedure with the knowing that it could have been worse. It’s amazing the things we can do when we know we have no other choice. By God’s grace she didn’t need any medication, chemo or radiotherapy. Finding out about how I could continue to help myself, my mum, and especially women and young people became a mission that I accepted. I had realised my calling.

Although dealing with my mum’s poor health was stressful at times, especially being her only child, she has an amazing doctor, I have great friends and cousins that are more like siblings and we have a hugely supportive family (she has nine brothers and sisters!). Yoga had given me the tools of balance to navigate through with clarity and compassion. I was able to listen to my body and stayed sane so I could keep creating, stay up and not give up.

I didn’t want to become a victim of health problems caused by lifestyles not beneficial to your wellness. Because of the general societal taboo of mental health issues, the first go to is medication without addressing the problem at its root. Medication that, more often than not, has horrible side effects.

This is despite the countless pieces of evidence showing that poor emotional and mental health – that can’t solely be remedied by pills – contributes to many causes of death. These can range from suicides to heart attacks and addiction, and chronic diseases like cancer, obesity and diabetes. This is becoming increasingly common in our modern society and, despite their well-documented benefits on your quality of life, holistic support and therapy like meditation and yoga, is rarely offered as an option.

According to mental heath charity Mind, 14.5% of black Caribbean women in the UK have a mixed anxiety and depressive disorder in comparison to 13.7% of white women in the UK.

Researchers have found that three sessions of yoga a week, can battle depression as it boosts levels of GABA in the brain, which is essential for a clear and relaxed mind. The chemical is essential to the function of the brain and central nervous system and helps to promote a sense of calm within the body.

Low GABA levels are associated with depression and other anxiety disorders. The mind-body connection that you facilitate through a yoga practice, lowers stress hormones and gives you a dose of serotonin. Yoga improves strength, endurance, balance and flexibility in your body and mind. For that time, things don’t seem that bad.

In 2011 we went to New York for Thanksgiving and I officially gave up meat. This made me feel brighter and more energised. We invested more in precautionary herbal remedies like teas and tonics. Yoga was steadily helping me find peace by allowing me to concentrate, and getting me out of my head by calming my mind through linking movement with my breath.

This holistic way of life became my everyday. I listened to my body, my moods had stopped fluctuating, I was holding my weight, I stopped getting tonsillitis every six weeks and with time the anxiety dissolved and everything lifted. Things stopped being a struggle and life began to flow with ease. I felt stronger and generally happier and the aesthetic changes have been a pleasant surprise.

After the surgery and the subsequent all-clear (praise god) my mum is actively paying attention to taking care of her health through regularly practicing yoga. The change has been amazing to see. She’s happy and social, eats well, rarely has headaches, her blood pressure has levelled out and she’s full of energy and life. Sometimes, she does too much but when I remember how she used to be, I have to leave her to it. She has the odd bouts of anxiety and headaches, but she listens to her body and now has the capacity to manage it. Her slurred speech disappeared. She is less dependant on medication and is now weaning herself off. We’ve both come so far and I’m blessed and eternally thankful.

me & mom dukes, NYC, december 2012
me & mom dukes, NYC, december 2012

A materialised example of her progression was her reaction when someone drove into the side of her car recently. She told me, “Before I’d have had sweaty palms, my heart would have been racing, I’d feel sick but I was so calm. I just breathed.”

If you feel the headache tablets, anti-depressants or sleeping tablets aren’t working or are giving you uncomfortable side effects, try something new or complement them with a therapeutic, natural alternative. Yoga is one. There’s a type for everyone; from Vinyasa flow to Hatha and Afrikan yoga. Put on some music and work through whatever is going on. Let it out, let it go and leave it on the mat.

You don’t have to bend like a pretzel or move like a ballerina, you just need a willingness to try and the ability to breathe. There’s no competition, you can follow online videos or DVDs at home or you can go to a yoga class, meet people and not do it alone. Allowing yourself some time on the mat to breathe and release has the ability to translate into your life off the mat.

Five tips for a holistic approach to your health:

• Breathe

As long as you’re alive, your breath is one thing you always have. It’s calming and it’s free! It’s the thing we take for granted every day while we worry, moan and waste negative emotion on things that are, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant.

• Stretch, get active, do something

Do some yoga, run, do something to get your blood pumping and avert the focus into your body. Stimulate and inspire your mind with some good reading, some good conversation, or both. Meditate, talk, dance, pray, cook, laugh, write, create, listen to music. Allow yourself to enjoy life, however you can.

• Take time and have faith

If you’re sick you can’t function to your best. Listen to your body and slow down. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You haven’t done that bad, things are not that bad and you don’t have to do everything now. Don’t try to race or judge yourself. Listen to your body, your instincts, and be grateful for all that you have. Affirm your greatness! Try your best to only think and speak positive, loving thoughts and words towards yourself and others.

• Feel, don’t resist

We all experience uncomfortable situations that bring up uncomfortable feelings. This is part of the human experience. “This too shall pass,” literally, so allow yourself to let in whatever may come and let it pass, into the past. What you resist persists because you’re trying so hard to stop the feeling. Don’t give it that energy, let it come, let it go and come to the present moment, now. That way you can make whatever decision you need to make from a place of calm, rather than mania.

• Eat and drink healing foods

What you consume consumes you – it’s entirely your choice to make sure it’s going to serve you well and replenish you. Fruit and veg, nuts and seeds and meals full of vitamins and minerals with a decent amount of protein (there are lots of plant based protein foods that don’t include meat) and carbs will boost your immunity and vitality. Processed foods, a lot of red meat, white foods (including sugar, a lot of salt and dairy) will clog you up, leaving you sluggish and susceptible to colds, viruses and headaches. Keep hydrated and alert with herbal teas, juices and supplements. Eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty – simple things we can neglect to do.

Mental and physical health is interlinked and the underlying affect of stress, anxiety and depression can ricochet into every part of your life. I launched meditate and medicate to share the healing and holistic ways we can improve and sustain our health, that have transformational results that will last.

Just ask my mum.

Me & Mom Dukes, NYC, December 2012
Me & Mom Dukes, NYC, December 2012