Recently, I was reflecting on some of the experiences I had during my teacher training. It was what now feels like a million years ago. So much has happened to and around me since then: graduating high school, starting college, the documentary...my life is entirely different. And, in fact, I am an entirely different person than I was when I was in that teacher training program. I was 15-turning-16, navigating recovery muddled with a relapse, and struggling with the most severe case of imposter syndrome I've ever experienced.
When I look back on that time, I feel a deep sense of gratitude and nostalgia. I believe, without a doubt, that were it not for that teacher training I would be nowhere near the person I am today. The passion that guides me throughout this stage of my life would be absent, the love I've found in my heart for myself would not be there, and the voice I cherish so deeply would be lost. But I do have regrets.
I stood in my own way far too often in that stage of my life. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that it was largely my eating disorder standing in my way (although it's oftentimes hard to differentiate between it and myself). I struggled to show up presently, my body was exhausted and it was apparent in my words and actions, and I spent a lot of time racing to the finish line instead of lingering the moment.
But something I was recently reminded of was how scared I was to talk about what I had gone through, and was still going through, in a room full of adults.
I've been called an old soul my entire life, but make no mistakes about it, I was still wildly aware of the fact that I still didn't have a driver's license and half of the group was married with children. The imposter's syndrome whispered in my ear all day long: who are you to think you deserve to be in a teacher training right now? It didn't matter that my mentor had specifically offered this opportunity to me, believing in my ability to handle it and the impact it would have on my life. I struggled to find a similar faith within myself.
What stands out in my mind most, though, are the times that the group dropped their barriers and spoke openly about what they were working through. It was a sacred space, one where my fellow trainers supported one another in opening up about things that are oftentimes too difficult to share with others. Throughout each of these times, I held space for my newfound friends, felt a deep gratitude towards them for trusting me to hold this kind of space for their words and emotions. And yet, I held my tongue.
Frankly, I was afraid that were I to open my mouth and talk about my struggles, I'd be laughed at for being "too young" to even know what struggle is. I worried that I'd sound whiny, or ungrateful, or simply young, dumb, and naive. I knew I was privileged, that I was lucky beyond my wildest dreams to have a place in this training, and I was scared to sound like I didn't recognize that.
It was easier to keep it all inside and just be quiet.
I didn't tell anyone that my anxiety woke me up at three in the morning every day, or that to cope with the nerves I'd end up pacing for hours back and forth in my room before the sun even rose. I didn't tell anyone that old habits had crept back in so slowly I hadn't even noticed them enter the room over the past few months. I didn't tell anyone that there were times when we practiced together that I felt so weak and tired I felt as though I couldn't go on. I didn't tell anyone that the reason I kept feeling sick during our asana was that I was struggling to nourish myself again, struggling to eat again. I didn't tell anyone that the lack of sleep was catching up with me, that I was still figuring out how to talk to the therapist I'd already been seeing for years, that I was struggling.
It was easier to pretend that I was just quiet, when in reality, I felt gagged.
Since then, I've done a lot of healing. And I think much of it has to do with completing the training and really embracing that sense of accomplishment for the first time. I remember leaving that retreat in the very last weekend of it all and thinking, "I'm ready to get better now." I felt ready to do the work, ready to face what I'd been keeping inside for so long. And for maybe the first time ever, I felt as though I had proved to myself that I was actually capable of doing so.
Although my situation's specifics, and the setting of a yoga training itself, are unique, I know that my experience is not solely my own.
I receive many messages and emails from young people, every single day. And oftentimes, it's the same story: they're struggling, they're facing mental illness or some other deep strife, and they feel too scared to speak up about it because they're "too young" to really be hurting.
The older I get (and I'm aware that at 19, I'm not that old), the more I realize that we send this message to young people far too often. Sometimes it's blunt and outright; I can think of more than a few instances where adults would laugh and say, "Oh wait until you're older to complain!" or, "You'll see when your older, this is the best time of your life!"
But more often than not it's subtle and insidious. It's not taking calls for help seriously, dismissing things as them being "so moody lately," or "irresponsible." It's dismissing the emotions young people express as being "overly dramatic," when in reality they just haven't learned how to communicate them calmly yet. It's waiting until they're in high school to address the problems that were sprouting throughout adolescence, because young kids don't have anxiety or depression, right?
To be clear, I'm not calling for a wave of diagnoses at the drop of the hat for every kid who has a bad day. But there's so many times that I see young people have their hardships dismissed when in reality, they should be getting support.
I also get messages from parents, once things get bad enough that they start to seek out help. And the story always goes, "We didn't think anything was really wrong! We thought it was a phase, we thought it was just them being moody."
I think a lot of this comes from comparing our own experiences, as people who have lived longer, to those of young people. We think to ourselves, "Oh, you feel anxious? Well I've lived longer. I've had my heart broken, I've lost my job, I've known what it's like to really struggle."
And we lose what's truly important to hearing these young people: context.
Their lives are shorter, thus far. Everything they've experienced feels so much bigger to them because it takes up a bigger percentage of their lives. The struggle they feel is absolutely, totally, and completely real. Their pain is true pain, and too often we forget that when we were their age, we felt that pain, too. It's just been awhile, we've forgotten a little bit. It doesn't seem so big compared to what we've now experienced, years and even decades later.
There is no need to do what seems to be the norm nowadays: blowing all your emotions into a balloon until you get older, things explode in your face, and then your struggles are valid of seeking support for.
Let's be preventative in supporting young people. Think of it like any physical ailment: why let it fester and linger throughout childhood and face a more difficult recovery in adulthood when it could be addressed years earlier? Why suffer needlessly, just because it's not "bad enough" yet?
I know it's easier to turn away, especially from the parent's perspective. It's hard to admit that a young person you know may not be happy, may even be suffering. That realization is hard to separate from your own role as a parent and the effect you've had on your child. But being dismissive only serves to reify the belief that many children have today:
"If I speak up, I will be shot down."
If you are a young person reading this, speak up. Ask for help. Talk about the pain you feel. If no one else will say it to you, I'll say it to you now: what you're feeling is valid, it is important, and it is worthy of support.
If you are not a young person reading this, listen. Hear the voices ringing out for help. Look out for the signs. Stay educated, aware, and supportive. Be the person you needed years ago, and imagine how much pain you could have avoided later in life had you begun your healing journey as a young person.
This is a team effort. This is a community effort. And it needs to happen now.