How Yoga Taught Me To Accept My Son’s Schizophrenia
When my son's diagnosis turned my life upside down, yoga taught me how to hold my balance
I was leading the typical, busy, working-mother lifestyle in Los Angeles when things started to go terribly wrong. What first seemed like normal teenage behavior ended in a schizophrenia diagnosis for my son, Nick. If you know anything about serious mental illness (which I didn’t) a diagnosis brings no closure. There is no clear path to treatment or recovery. It just delivers chaos and fear and helplessness. Feelings that a type A control freak like myself did not know how to handle. I had yet to come up against a problem I couldn’t solve, and I was sure I could somehow “fix” this as well. But schizophrenia is like a tornado that rips through your life, leaving everything in shambles, broken or upside down. There was no fixing it.
After three years of trying to help my son, take care of his sisters, maintain my marriage, and run my business, I was exhausted, angry, and filled with grief. One day I walked by our local, funky yoga center and thought, “That’s what I need.” My hope was that some regular exercise would help my mental state and get me in shape.
I was a shell of my former self as I stood in the back of the light, airy studio and unrolled my weird-smelling mat. Everything I had previously held as true was in question; nothing made sense anymore. But I had a lot of empty space inside, now that my hard-line ideas and opinions had been decimated. I started going three days a week to beginner classes. I worried that I wasn’t getting enough “exercise” but decided to give it a month. One day, I found myself doing a balance pose that had previously been impossible. I swelled with contentment and thought, “I can’t save Nick, but I can do this. Right now, I am balancing on one leg, and that’s not nothing.”
I stopped thinking about it and just stood there.
This wasn’t about exercise.
I started going every day. The girls who taught the poses also brought a lot of theory and philosophy to class — things I had scoffed at most of my life as hippy-dippy nonsense. I began to listen. The concept of surrender was something I’d always associated with failure, giving up. In yoga it is a deliberate act that leads to a higher consciousness. I realized I had been throwing myself against a brick wall for years, trying to change reality. My son has schizophrenia. I could either lead a life bruised from denial or accept that truth and make peace with it. I learned about mindfulness, slowing down, letting go of my death grip on “the result,” and existing in present time.
Going into the practice of yoga in such a depleted state resulted in a shift that never would have been possible in my younger, more confident days. I began to take some of the concepts I was learning on my mat into my approach to Nick. So much of my energy had been focused on finding the answer and returning him to his old self that I spent very little time considering the bigger question.
When we were in the throes of the worst of it, I used to lock myself in the bathroom at night and cry with the shower running, so my daughters wouldn’t hear. One night I walked out and there was my youngest, “What’s wrong, Mom? Why are you crying?” I told her I was crying because I missed Nick. She said, “What do you mean? Nick’s not gone, he’s here.” I looked at her, “I know, but he’s not who he was supposed to be.” She looked at me and said, simply, “Yeah he is. It’s just not what you thought.” I watched her as she walked to her room and wondered what an 11-year-old understood that I don’t.
One day on my mat, in child’s pose, the sweat pooling below my forehead, I remembered that exchange. I sat up and looked at the coin-sized puddle reflecting colorful light from the room. Suddenly I understood the bigger question. Could I apply the concepts of surrender and acceptance as I understood them through yoga to my relationship with my son?
I found myself approaching him in a gentler way. I had more patience. I allowed space for who he was now without clinging to my idea of who he should have been. He began to relax because I wasn’t pushing him. I realized that my drive to “fix him” was sending a constant message that his very existence was somehow broken, wrong. What a terrible message to send your child. I understood that if I could stand with balance, one leg in the air, he could stand beside me, just as he is. And that is fine.
I am not saying that it’s fine with me that he has schizophrenia and I am not going to continue to search for answers. Of course I will. But I will move more carefully, mindfully, through the process. Now I know what an 11-year-old understood that I didn’t. I had to let go of all my notions of how it was supposed to be and allow for what is, to find peace. Nick is my son. He has schizophrenia. We move forward from here.
Miriam Feldman is the author of He Came With It: A Portrait of Motherhood and Madness, as well as an artist, writer, and mental health activist who splits her time between her Los Angeles studio and her farm in rural Washington State. She has been married to her husband Craig O’Rourke, also an artist, for 34 years and they have four adult children. Their 33-year-old son, Nick, has schizophrenia.