Inner peace and inner turmoil
From the outside, internationally renowned yoga instructor Michael Stone was the picture of health and wellness. Privately, he grappled with bipolar disorder and eventually fell victim to the overdose crisis, writes Andrea Woo
It came slowly at first, more a feeling of uneasiness than outright panic. There had been a volley of phone calls cut short – she was just putting lunch out, he was stepping into a business – but then he stopped answering altogether. Carina Stone called her husband again; no answer. She sent him an e-mail; no reply. She worried.
Michael Stone had left shortly after dawn, slipping out of their Pender Island, B.C., home as the family slept. He had had trouble sleeping again, he told his wife in a phone call after she awoke, and decided to get a head start on the day's errands.
He would do some banking, get a haircut and pick up some brochures he had printed to advertise his yoga and meditation teachings, he told her.
"Call me today and check in on me," Mr. Stone said before hanging up. "I'm not 100 per cent."
Hours passed and dusk approached. Ms. Stone could not get hold of her husband. They usually talked throughout the day, every day, even when apart.
"At that point I was very worried," Ms. Stone said. "I went outside and just started watering all the plants … I had to distract myself. I just had this really bad gut feeling."
Police found Mr. Stone unresponsive in downtown Victoria around midnight, the victim of an apparent drug overdose. He showed no signs of brain function upon arrival at the hospital and was taken off life support two days later. He was 42.
A preliminary toxicology test suggested he had ingested illicit drugs including fentanyl.
The death came as a shock to followers of Mr. Stone, who had dedicated his life to Buddhism and yoga, absorbing their lessons and becoming an internationally renowned author and teacher of the practices. Publicly, he appeared the picture of health and wellness; privately, he grappled with bipolar disorder, which in recent years had begun to consume him.
Mr. Stone was not known to use illicit drugs and, since his death, his loved ones can only speculate on why he did that night: He had spoken of wanting to self-medicate to calm his racing mind, and bipolar disorder is also linked to impulsiveness.
Had Mr. Stone made the same decision years ago, the outcome could have been different. In the past five years, the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl has fuelled a dramatic surge in overdose deaths. In B.C., it was detected in around 4 per cent of such deaths in 2012 compared with 83 per cent in 2017.
His death is yet another in the devastating, far-reaching impact of Canada's overdose crisis.
Conversations with Uncle Ian
Michael Jason Stone was born in Toronto in 1974, to an architect and a schoolteacher, the oldest of three siblings.
Ms. Stone described her husband as a man who was always curious about the world. Even as a small child, he grasped at big concepts: Why are we here? What is our purpose?
"He was puzzled by the world and puzzled by how people lived, seemingly blindly, and not awake to their inner lives," Ms. Stone said in an interview at their Pender Island home, in B.C.'s southern Gulf Islands.
As she speaks, their two young boys, Olin and Hudson, play on the hardwood floor beside her. Her black shirt hugs the small bump of their third child, due by year's end.
A central figure in Michael's adolescence was his uncle Ian, a freewheeling soul who used LSD, listened to Beatles records and devoured philosophy texts. After a psychotic break at 16, Ian was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized at a facility in Toronto, where Michael would visit him every week.
Michael Stone would recall those formative visits as an adult, some 30 years later, in various publications. "I felt most normal and safe when I was with my uncle," he wrote on his website. "The conversations I had with my uncle seemed deeper, more mysterious and more important than anything I was learning at home, at school, or even at the synagogue."
After his uncle's death, when Mr. Stone was in his 20s, he studied yoga, Buddhism and psychotherapy. He began teaching yoga and, in 2003, opened the Centre of Gravity studio, which combined yoga and meditation practice, out of a renovated garage in downtown Toronto.
Former students speak highly of his ability to teach not only forms and poses, but how to tap into the mind and body's inner processes. He also had a sense of humour that softened the edges of the usually serious practices, they said.
David Rendall remembered the Tuesday night classes as warm and welcoming, and Mr. Stone as approachable and attentive. "When you spoke with him, you had this sense that you were invited," Mr. Rendall said in a phone interview from Toronto. "He would be present with you. He was curious and interested and would ask questions."
Carina Lof had taken Mr. Stone's class in Toronto for slightly more than a year in 2010, when the two realized they were developing feelings for each other. But it wasn't the right time: she was focused on her studies as a chiropractic intern and he had just recently separated from his partner. As well, the student-teacher dynamic felt inappropriate. Months passed but the energy lingered.
She had already decided to drop the class when he invited her to dinner. "There are six reasons why we should not have a relationship," Mr. Stone began. "He got to number six and I kissed him," Ms. Stone said with a laugh. "That was it."
The following years brought two children, a move to Pender Island and a marriage.
An 'underlying instability'
Ms. Stone first noticed what she describes as an "underlying instability" in her partner in 2012, a couple of years into their relationship. The two had just bought a home in Toronto that required a near-total renovation and the stress of it all had begun to exacerbate a pattern of high energy and apparent depression that Ms. Stone only understood in hindsight.
Mr. Stone became consumed with the project, fussing over minute details. After a few sleepless nights, he crashed and remained in bed for several days. His insomnia became more frequent.
"I began to see that he was very sensitive to normal stressors," Ms. Stone said. "Things that might not bother a neurotypical person, like an itchy sweater, could lead to imbalance."
Mr. Stone was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2015. The disorder is characterized by extreme shifts in mood and energy levels, as well as periods of wellness. Symptoms of depression can include overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, sadness and withdrawal from others, while symptoms of mania can include an excessively elevated mood, racing thoughts and impulsiveness.
More than 2 per cent of the population will have bipolar disorder at some point in their lives and about 1 per cent will have experienced it in the past year, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
It's also is the mental illness most strongly associated with substance use issues, though researchers are unsure which triggers or predisposes patients to the other, or whether both arise from a "common mechanism."
Mr. Stone's episodes of depression lasted anywhere from two to six weeks. His manic episodes were trickier, manifesting in ways the Stones didn't always or immediately recognize as mania. Sometimes it boosted creativity and output. Other times he was irritable and made insensitive comments.
About once a year, Mr. Stone would experience a short psychotic break. Sometimes he spoke of hearing things that were far away and having visions he knew didn't exist. He would become calm and inward-focused, sometimes appearing physically ill. He needed lots of sleep.
"That was always a reminder of the severity of the illness," Ms. Stone said.
While Mr. Stone understood he was living with a mental-health condition, he did not accept it for some time. To accept a diagnosis and professional or pharmacological help would be to pathologize himself, he felt.
But by 2015, as his condition worsened, he began taking medications. The Stones told a small network of friends and family members about the disorder and they were on call whenever they were needed.
'Chemical change in my brain'
Around that time, a suicide in the meditation community on nearby Salt Spring Island spurred Mr. Stone to make his first public acknowledgment of his own mental illness in a letter to his followers.
"You'd think that given all this inner work, an incredible network of support, strong friendships, a loving partner and kids and, lastly, a life dedicated to embodying the dharma … that I'd be immune to extreme mental states," Mr. Stone wrote.
"It can be hard to admit even to ourselves that there are times when the stability of awareness that we discover in [meditation] just isn't there. When this started happening I'd say my practice needs to get deeper. But the truth is, there was a chemical change in my brain."
The following spring, Mr. Stone received a short e-mail from Mr. Rendall, his former student in Toronto. Mr. Rendall had been struggling with his own bipolar disorder and – without knowing they shared a diagnosis – sought advice on zen practice in self care.
Mr. Stone replied within a couple of hours, sharing, to Mr. Rendall's surprise, that he struggled with the disorder as well. He encouraged his former student to have a team consisting of a psychiatrist, therapist and supportive friends, and emphasized the importance of medications, which would help stabilize him enough to do zen practices.
Mr. Stone wanted to speak about his diagnosis even more widely, but he worried about the implications of such a revelation to practitioners who often looked to him for strength and guidance. Despite his success, he was cognizant of the stigma still associated with mental illness.
"There was the question of how to reveal his instability to people who need him to be stable," Ms. Stone said.
At some of his last international talks before his death, he began sharing that he had depression – a disorder he felt more comfortable speaking about. At a conference in California this past June, he mused about dropping a box of his medications down on the podium – six types in all, to treat his mania, anxiety and insomnia – and telling the crowd: "This is where I am."
"It was something I'd long wished he'd do and I felt proud of him," brother Jayme Stone wrote. "He never did take that step, but I do believe he was getting close to it."
Desperation had 'momentum'
This past spring, Mr. Stone entered what his wife describes as a new and unfamiliar phase of his disorder. New book deals and a baby on the way were exciting but stressful.
The Stones were in touch with their psychiatrist. Mr. Stone stepped up his exercise and self-care. They talked about cutting down on his workload and perhaps downsizing the house.
But Mr. Stone's prescribed medications, while effective in treating his mania, seemed to cloud his thinking. He said what he really wanted was something that would provide him with a deeper comfort, a warmth, a hug – a natural opiate to calm his racing mind. Opium, perhaps, based on what he had heard of it.
If Mr. Stone had ever bought illicit drugs before, Ms. Stone never knew about it. But there was an episode about six weeks prior to his death that she now thinks of, with the glaring clarity of hindsight: He had felt particularly anxious that day and taken two Ativans – a medication he was prescribed, but not at that dosage. He later called Ms. Stone after waking up in his car, his speech sounding off.
She told him to stay where he was, and sent a friend to pick him up.
"It's clear now that his desperation was growing and it scared him," she said, her voice quivering. "And it had a momentum."
Brightness of a flashlight
Michael Stone rose early one morning in mid-July and quietly slipped out of bed – something he sometimes did when he wasn't feeling well. He readied for the day and boarded an early ferry to Victoria, a 45-minute sailing he often took to make appointments with his chiropractor, trainer or herbalist, tacking on other household errands while he was downtown.
Ms. Stone spoke with him on the phone when she awoke. They talked again later that morning, as he was sorting out the day's errands.
When Mr. Stone stopped answering her calls, Ms. Stone began to worry. His phone battery could have died, she told herself, but if so, she knew her husband would have borrowed someone's phone, or used a payphone, to call her. When the scheduled 7:40 p.m. arrival time for the early evening ferry came and went, she called the local terminal: Was the ferry late? Was the sailing full? Should she call police?
The employee – an acquaintance in a small community where everyone knows each other – told Ms. Stone not to worry. The ferry had arrived, but perhaps her husband was on the next sailing. They would page him and look for him in the terminal.
The last ferry of the night arrived two hours later. Mr. Stone was not on that one, either. Ms. Stone called police and filed a missing-persons report. Police classified Mr. Stone as high risk, due to the fact he required medication for his bipolar disorder, and began their search.
Around midnight, the brightness of a flashlight approaching the front door told her that her husband was gone.
Officers located Michael Stone's body shortly before midnight in downtown Victoria. A powdered substance was also found. Initial toxicology tests suggest inconclusively he had ingested opioids, including fentanyl. A final coroner's report will not be ready for several months.
'Yes, but you need a prescription'
Phone records show that on his way into town, Mr. Stone made a minute-long call to a substance use and addictions pharmacy. His wife believes he was attempting to acquire the legal opioid he spoke of.
"Knowing him, he called and probably said, 'I'm seeking something. I don't want something unsafe. Can you help me?'" Ms. Stone said. "And they would have said, 'Yes, but you need a prescription.'"
It's possible Mr. Stone was trying to self-medicate and, when turned away from the pharmacy, sought out the street drug that ultimately killed him. It's possible the impulsiveness of his bipolar disorder compelled him to do so.
In hospital, friends and family gathered at Mr. Stone's bedside. His life was celebrated two weeks later at a beachfront ceremony on Pender Island.
Shame and stigma that cling
In the months since, Mr. Stone's friends and family have begun having the discussions about mental health that he had wanted to initiate for some time.
For Mr. Rendall, the former student, it was publicly acknowledging his own bipolar disorder in the face of shame and stigma that he says still cling "like a thick tar." Talking about his illness with Mr. Stone gave him hope; talking about it with others might give them hope.
"There is a terrible amount of discomfort and suffering in stuff you endure, and try to work with," Mr. Rendall said.
"And it's not just mental, it's also visceral. It can be deeply painful. It can feel so immediate and so close, and it can erase your memory. You can forget your whole life outside of the moment when you're in it."
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