I recently spoke to Maris Degener, star of the Netflix documentary “I Am Maris.” In it, viewers are taken on a journey through the mental health struggles Maris faced and how she found recovery through yoga.
To read more about Maris, check out this article first.
What is it like having your documentary on Netflix? Do you feel like it’s spreading more awareness about mental health?
Before, my sphere of influence was relatively small, California, U.S. and now all of a sudden I’m hearing from people who may not have had exposure to some of the ideas in the film before, or may not have heard about eating disorders at all, or just come from places where they have gone through these struggles but they didn’t have anyone around them in their community talking about them, at least in a positive way. So it’s been mind blowing, it’s been crazy, but it’s been such a positive experience.
How did yoga affect your mental health? Did it help with your anxiety?
Yoga has helped me in a multitude of ways. I think one of the biggest things it gave me was a way to connect to my body in a healthy, productive way that didn’t feel punishing, because the things I had exposed my body to before were very much based around competition, punishment, and achieving a certain kind of body.
I was a competitive swimmer for years and it was all, ‘go until you throw up and then go a little bit more,’ and then try to be the best. There was no talk about listening to your body, or moving intuitively, and so when I went to yoga I kind of went in expecting all this group exercise talk. But, what I got was my teacher saying listen to your body, and creating a very intuitive experience that I had not been exposed to before, so I think it allowed me to have a more positive relationship with my body.
It also helped me to access my emotions in a new way, and part of that processing was the mentorship with my teacher Jenny who introduced me to all the philosophy behind yoga. The physical part of it is just the tiniest sliver of what yoga is, and there’s all these different perspectives that yoga teaches on how to live a healthier more peaceful life.
I really resonated with this concept of non-violence, and I realized that I was being very violent towards my body, and my soul, and my spirit through the way I was eating, the way I was moving, the way I was talking to myself. I had never considered myself a violent person until that point and it was the first time I realized this yoga stuff gets really deep. It’s not just surface level, do a handstand, you’ll figure your life out somehow, there’s actual intentional self-reflection and self-study that comes along with the practice. That gift has been able to carry me not just through the earliest stages of my recovery, but it gave me way to evolve and grow throughout my entire life.
Have your struggles affected how you handle obstacles in your life now? How do you currently handle anxiety?
The really beautiful thing about yoga is that it’s really just a toolbox to cope with life. So, now, when I encounter a stressful period of life I’m able to look at it and understand it in a way that’s actually conducive to developing a self-care plan. But, before I would get stressed and I would look at myself, like, why are you stressed? Just get over it, just move on, or I would just say this is miserable, this is hopeless, time to give up. And what I have now is this box of resources to evaluate a situation and take the time to ask what I need in that moment.
What really resonates with me is the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. He writes this piece about the inner child, and he says when we meet stress, when we meet challenge, that what we should be doing is asking our inner child what it needs, and acting as though there is a crying baby asking for something and it’s our duty to take care of it. That perspective helped me shift away from the idea that prioritizing taking care of myself during stressful times is a selfish act, because it’s not. Yoga has also given me tools like breathing, and moving your body, and resting, and journaling and now I feel well equipped to evaluate a situation and know which tools I need in that moment.
How has the act of writing affected your mental health?
I kind of see my writing in two difference places in life. On the one hand there is always that writing that I’ve done just for my own eyes, like journaling, and trying to find the words that match what I’m feeling, and then there’s also the writing I do publicly, and that I share with the world.
I really zero in on that second form of writing because it’s such a powerful way for me to connect to my voice. Att least, at the beginning of my journey, it was really hard to find the time and the place to talk about everything I was going through. I didn’t want to be a Debbie Downer, and just show up at my friends house and just start pouring my heart out to them, it just wasn’t what I was comfortable with at the time.
So, writing publicly was a way to share without having to do it face to face with people, and it gave me that middle ground to be able to build up the confidence to do that. Now, it’s evolved and become a form of advocacy or activism for me, and it became a way to give a voice to people who are still finding their own voices.
You show a lot of your drawings and paintings in the documentary. How did art and creativity help with your anxiety?
When I was still in the process of untangling what I was going through, art was a way of taking the heavy emotions I felt inside and putting them somewhere outside of my body. That lightness that I got from creating art was invaluable during that time in my life.
On my way to the hospital, the only thing I grabbed was literally just my sketchbook and a handful of pencils. I guess on some level in my mind, some sub-conscious level, I knew I needed art to help me get through what I was about to go through and all I did was draw.
You said in the documentary that you grew up in a very competitive town. How did the idea of comparison affect you?
I grew up in a community where the message was, ‘there is one right way to be perfect and if you’re not perfect you’re not good enough.’ I don’t think that was maliciously intentional, I don’t think parents were sitting around trying to figure out how to make their kids perfectionists, but I think it was just the culmination of living in a small town where everybody knew what everybody else was doing. I was a competitive athlete, I was a competitive student, I graduated valedictorian, and I realized that what I was doing was the image of what I thought other people wanted me to be, and it lead to me suppressing a lot of the things that truly made me happy.
I didn’t make art for a period of time in my life because everybody was basically whispering in my ear, telling me you can’t make money off of art, as though that was the only way for it to have a meaningful role in my life, and it changed the avenue of my life in what was not a healthy direction for me.
I ended up having to, throughout this process of recovery, peel back my decisions and ask myself why I was really doing them, and take a cold hard look at what I was doing and why. I think if I hadn’t grown up in that kind of echo chamber of what was the one path to being a successful, happy person, I think I might have had less constraints on myself, I think I would have had more freedom to make my own choices, and that might have given me less stress and anxiety growing up.
In the documentary your parents were featured quite a bit, and your father said you weren’t the type of family to talk about mental health. Has this experience opened up those conversations now?
I now have so much more empathy for my parents and I’m able to put myself in their shoes during that time. This is something they had never encountered before and we grew up in that small town where people didn’t talk about their struggles and so I think they thought they were doing me a favor by just keeping things under wraps, trying to keep a very low profile, and trying not to talk about it too much. I think that was their way of extending compassion to me and unfortunately that just isn’t what works, at least not for me or I think most people. Now, as they’ve seen me go very public, more public than most people will about what they’ve gone through, I think they’ve seen all the power and beauty that came out of it.
My life would be entirely different if I had never talked about what I had gone through publicly, there’s so many opportunities that I never would have had handed to me. I never would have had teacher training, I never would have had the film created, I never would have these kinds of connections that you and I are having in this moment.
I think that because they are able to see that, they now want to encourage that kind of openness. They see that it’s not a negative thing anymore, it’s less scary now, and they’ve seen it play out in this very positive way. I’ve been able to have really candid conversations with them now and I think they’re more open to the idea that honesty and authenticity is really key to a healthy recovery.
How would you describe anxiety to someone who has never experienced it?
I’m gonna forget who said this to me, I think it was a friend. You know that feeling of dread where you’re in the car on the way to work and you realize you forgot to turn the stove off? Imagine that feeling in a low grade all day long or it peaks when you encounter something that is minimally stressful.
That’s at least how I have experienced anxiety, it’s this kind of low grade feeling of dread and feeling like there is something else that I should be attending to right now. But it can manifest in totally different ways, depending on who you are.
Something that really struck me while watching the movie was that photo of you in the hospital bed, when you were covering your face. What do you think now, when you look at it?
I want to go back and whisper in her ear, you have no idea what is going to come out of this experience but in that moment it feels very hopeless. I felt a lack of hope, I felt despair, and I didn’t want to keep going forward, I didn’t want to go on.
Some of the most beautiful things in my life have been directly tied to that experience and had I not gone through that I wouldn’t have the empathy that I now have for people going through similar struggles. I think it really helped me find a calling in life, and a path that now feels so intentional and so purposeful, which is to be a voice to people who are still finding their own voice. I wish I could go back and tell her to hang on, it’s going to get so much better, you have no idea.
Is there anything you would change about the whole experience, if you could?
I don’t think I would change anything. There are definitely singular things I regret, like saying mean things to people I love or I wish I didn’t hurt my body in that way. But if I zoom out and I look at the broader picture, everything in my life has lead to this moment, being surrounded by amazing people, getting to study things that are so fascinating, and getting to travel around the world and meet people who have resonated with my work.
If changing anything in my past risks changing this moment, I don’t want to risk it. I really think it was all worth it, it was all leading up to this.
What do you see for yourself in the future?
It’s funny because I had always looked at the Netflix movie as the final chapter, I thought it would just go up and that would be the end, the film would be done, it was now out there, and I think i’m just now realizing that it’s only the beginning.