• Dom Catto

My Mental Health Journey

The very first time I consciously remember feeling anxious was when I was 17 years old in Std 9. I was getting constant migraines because of my eyes and feeling anxious that I couldn’t learn properly, was in pain and was going to fail my end of year exams.

I went to see my GP and he prescribed Zoloft without much explanation or information on anxiety and depression. I took the pills, got my eyes sorted out and I was okay, for a while. The GP didn’t advise how long I should stay on the pills and didn’t tell me that I had to stay on the pills for a certain amount of time and when I was ready to come off do so under the guidance of the doctor. So, when I started to feel better, I stopped taking the pills. Again, I was okay, for a while.

The thing with anxiety is it is so bloody sneaky. It creeps up on you bit by bit and convinces you that it's way of thinking is healthy, normal and acceptable. Until one day you realise that you feel like you’ve totally lost your mind and you have no idea how to function as a human being.

My next run-in with anxiety was a much deeper and scarier experience. It was, in fact, totally life-changing. I was now in University studying a Bcom Sports Management and really not enjoying it. I hadn’t made many friends at varsity because I never went to lectures and taught myself at home using the lecture notes and textbooks. I was doing really well academically, passing all my exams well but I was hating it. I was a typical student at that time, drinking and partying all the time, eating McDonald’s and generally not looking after myself or my body. I had zero boundaries, zero self-love and started feeling that old sensation of anxiety and depression creeping up. The more I felt it, the more I drank. Turned out that path was miserable, lonely and absolutely unhealthy.

I was in the worst state I had ever been. I had horrible insomnia, cried continuously and depressive thoughts beating me up non-stop, especially at 3 am when everyone else was sound asleep. The insomnia and crying I could maybe cope with but the feeling of being completely numb, not caring at all and thinking seriously abusive thoughts about myself at the same time as caring too much, over-analyzing every thought and word and not feeling worthy enough to reach out felt near impossible. My father, who had been practising Yoga for 6 months, suggested I go with him,to try it out and to make me stop crying for an hour. I agreed because I mean, how much worse could life possibly get, let’s give this a try.

I stood on a borrowed Yoga mat for the first time and by the time I had finished my first sun salutation my mind was blown and I was hooked. The breathing, the moving, the being present, the not thinking about anything else, the sweat beginning on my brow. All of this bundled together gave me my first life-changing epiphany and I could not get enough. After that first class ending with a delicious savasana and an unbelievable meditation, I hounded my Yoga teacher for more info. How can I do this more, how can I learn more, how can I teach this, how can I feel like this all the time and how can I get other people to feel like this? This stuff will change the damn world. She gave me info on a teacher training but the requirements were a minimum of 2 years practice. I spoke with my parents, dropped out of university, bought a good quality Yoga mat and started practising Yoga at least 7 times a week. I was 100% dedicated and utterly besotted. I knew I had found my life calling and there was no stopping me.

Because I was so focused and working on myself on the mat every day, the anxiety slunk back into the shadows and the depression lifted. Yoga has magic properties that help you deal with your “stuff” without you actually having to talk about it or confront it. Yoga helps you to get in touch with your body, go into the depths of yourself and let go of all the unresolved emotional issues sitting in your body. It gets you breathing and moving and shifting stuck energy. It brings you into community with like-minded, supportive humans. It is pure magic. BUT unfortunately, Yoga by itself is not a long term cure for anxiety and depression.

For a good few years, I was happy, healthy and strong. I was learning Yoga every day and learning to become a Yoga teacher. I was connecting with myself and with others and finding my purpose on this planet. However, I still had no boundaries, was a self-deprecating fixer and the Universe still had many lessons to teach me. I moved from one long-term unhealthy relationship, to another, where I was in an abusive, manipulative and terrifying relationship. (Read more about that here)

The culmination of this relationship was me, living in Mozambique, having panic attacks every day, drowning in anxiety and feeling as if I had completely lost my mind. The human I was in a relationship with at the time used every tactic you’ve heard of to break me down. Humiliation, gas-lighting, slut-shaming, the threat of suicide, the threat of killing my dogs, the threat of having my family murdered...anything and everything harmful, abusive and manipulative you can think of was viciously spewed at me constantly. On top of all of this, I refused to tell my family and friends what was going on for fear of judgement, fear that they were right and I was wrong, fear that I had totally fucked up my life. The absolute guilt and unworthiness ate away at my insides. I had been convinced that this is what I deserved.

Eventually, my situation came to light and my super-hero parents did everything in their power to get me out of there. My dad flew to Mozambique, packed up all my shit and drove me and my dogs home. My mom nursed me back to health with her unconditional love, support and home-cooked meals. They were both there for my every moment, through the panic attacks, the tears, the self-loathing, the indecision, the fear and the recovery. Alley and Jojo, I cannot thank you enough in this lifetime for being the most incredible parents and humans that you are. You have literally saved my life, countless times, and I would not be the strong, brave, remarkable woman I am today without you. Thank you, a million times over.

I got back to Johannesburg and immediately went to see our family psychiatrist. She is such an amazing human being who taught me to start walking again. She gave my the tools to start to heal myself, to start to build myself up again. She prescribed Serdep, adco-alzam and adco-zolpidem to help me through the most difficult situation of my life. She also introduced me to boundaries, saying NO and understanding what is my responsibility to take care of and what is NOT; what I have control over. She taught me to look at my stuff and not accept anyone else's stuff as my own. My doctor suggested that I stay on the meds for at least two years, at the time I agreed and started putting my life back together.

About 6 months later I had worked through so much of my stuff, started practising and teaching again, had taken an amazing trip to Cape Town, where I decided I wanted to relocate to and booked a 6 week trip to India. I was feeling strong and balanced and the anxiety and insomnia were at bay once again. During my Yoga Therapy course in India, we were asked to participate in a “Master Cleanse”. This is a gut cleanse where you drink salt water and cleanse your entire digestive system from top to bottom (under supervision, of course). I spoke with my teacher and he said that to do the master cleanse you can’t be on medication. At that time, I thought I was better. I had been a stable person in an unstable environment, the meds had done their job and I was healed. So, I used the month before the master cleanse to wean myself off the meds. (Looking back now, I feel so naive and stupid for doing that). I did the master cleanse and finished my Yoga Therapy course, off the meds and feeling happy and well-balanced.

I moved to Cape Town straight after that, moved in with two of my best friends and started a brand new life. I was living in Seapoint, teaching at Air Yoga in Woodstock, doing massage and having the time of my life learning and falling in love with this amazing new city. After a year, my roommates and I decided to find our own houses (they were a married couple) and I went off and found my very first home, all by myself. I was happy and proud and living the most wonderful life. But, I could feel that old, now familiar sensation of anxiety creeping back up on me. I would live my happy life outside but then lock myself in my house on weekends, drinking wine and crying. One afternoon, I had a total light bulb moment.

"I recognise this. I know this feeling. And I also know what to do to help myself."

I immediately found a psychologist and a psychiatrist and got back onto the meds. This time I was 100% committed to doing this the right way.

At this time, I had experienced more heartbreak with regards to not having boundaries and lost a whole group of my very “best” friends. It was then that I made the decision to really put myself first, to set iron-clad boundaries, to ensure I hold healthy friendships, to invite radical self-acceptance in and commit to unconditional self-love. That was 4 years ago. Now, with the help and support of my psychiatrist, psychologist and my nutritional scientist, I am at the stage where we are SLOWLY weaning me off the meds. We started the decrease about 7 months ago and have steadily, in 3 month periods, dropped my meds by 25mg each time. I am now on 25mg for the next month and a half and then I will be totally off the meds. I will be keeping a VERY close eye on myself and on my old friend anxiety trying to creep her way back in. But it took me four years of continuous, constant work. Of looking at myself so intimately and deeply. Of going into my dark, twisty, shadowy places and sitting there, talking to those creatures, accepting them and allowing them to be. Of reaching into the depths of myself, of the lessons sitting there yearning to be learned. I am in no way perfect or healed or complete. This journey to mental wellness is an every day, every moment, every thought process. But I have realised that I am the most important person in my life and I am committed to treating myself with love, kindness and compassion, I am willing to learn the hard lessons put in front of me and I am 100% willing to do the work, every damn day.

With the help of meds, doctors, my parents, my husband, my friends and family, my support groups, Yoga, therapy, self-help books, meditations, boundaries, self-acceptance, self-love and SO MUCH MORE, I am now at a place in my life where I am at peace, I am content and I am happy. I do the work, I look for the lessons and I watch myself all the time. I set those boundaries for myself and for others. I know what is my stuff and what is other people's stuff. I don’t take things personally and I try to be as kind as I possibly can be to every single being. This works for me. A different path may work for someones else, but one thing is certain to walk boldly toward mental well being, you need to do the work every day.

I’m sitting here now, in the present moment writing this in tears. With my hands on my heart, telling myself how brave and strong I was through all that. How I’m so sorry I put that girl through those experiences. How all the versions of me forgive, love and accept each other. I wouldn’t be here without each girl’s strength and will and determination to get out and be well. I am so grateful to her, every single day, for putting one foot in front of the other. There is nothing in my heart right now but love, forgiveness and pride for the past versions of myself as well as this present version.

I am so grateful now to these ex-partners, ex-friends and anxiety itself for being my greatest teachers, for giving me the lessons I needed to become the human I am today. I don’t necessarily want to ever see any of them again but I’m grateful that they have all been part of my journey.

If you are going through a tough time, whatever it may be, please know I am always here to help, support and hold space. I can relate and I can empathise. I can give you the contacts of the people who helped me and I can be your friend.

Reach out, there is always help, if you're willing to ask for it.

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