After sharing an article recently on Facebook which recounted one person’s experience with mental illness, the response I received was enthusiastic enough that I felt compelled to write an essay that I’ve been meaning to get around to for some time.
Like many others, I have struggled with bouts of depression and mild anxiety throughout my life, going all the way back to childhood. For the most part this hasn’t been any worse than merely “having the blues” or “being in a funk”.
But once, in the summer of (I think) 2010, I was hit with something more powerful and vastly more sinister.
To this day it is the closest I have ever come to losing the struggle and simply giving up.
Anyone who has gone through a similar experience and confided in another has probably received well-intentioned but completely useless advice. The parent, teacher, sibling, or significant other says “your life is fine, you want for nothing, and your future is bright; what on Earth could you have to be sad about?”
It becomes starkly obvious in those moments that these people simply don’t know what they’re talking about. The depression that seized me in those gentle summer months was so far beyond “being sad” that I simply don’t have the words to describe it.
I will try, nonetheless.
Sometimes cracks appear when the tectonic plates of a mind shift in the wrong way and a menagerie of hateful beasts emerges to wrend the world asunder. Few will ever know what it’s like to have their brains descend into a state of ceaseless, shattering terror; few will ever feel like children lost on a battlefield, trying to navigate by the lurid glow of a bonfire of misery burning as far as the eye can see.
A grinning skull hung over every moment of every day, and followed me into my dreams at night. I distinctly recall sitting on a couch one day, watching the sun filtering through the leaves of a tree, and deciding that my one and only task would be to not kill myself.
This was, to put it mildly, unpleasant.
I am living proof that survival is possible, and one of my motivations in writing this essay is the fact that reading about the experiences of other people is one of the things that saw me through. Knowing that I was not insane and was not a bad person was just barely enough to hold me together.
Though I can’t call this experience a blessing, it did teach me a few things.
For one, I’m capable of an empathy towards the psychotic, schizophrenic, and deranged that I doubt many other people can feel because I’ve seen a glimmer of what their minds must be like. I am also better prepared to counsel the bereaved and depressed because I know how hollow the words “cheer up” can be.
Further, as I didn’t have access to a therapist or analogous support structures, I was forced to invent a number of techniques for controlling my mood and my attention. It was during this time that I first kept what is sometimes called a “gratitude journal”.
Simply trying to notice that your life isn’t so bad doesn’t help much, but making a repeated effort at feeling grateful for specific people or experiences, if sustained long enough, can begin to lift one from the darkness.
The most intractable problem during this episode was these short little nightmare scenarios that kept repeating themselves in my head. After a while I realized that just trying to shut them down with brute force didn’t work very well, so instead I began to redirect them in funny or harmless directions.
To provide an example: let’s say my day is punctuated by brief panic attacks which are accompanied by a detailed, graphic scenario in which my entire family dies in a horrific car crash.
When this first happened it was just unusual and a little unsettling. Now weeks have gone by, I’m losing sleep, and I’m beginning to question my sanity because I feel like I can’t control my own thoughts.
Then I do something like this: I see my family in the car, they lose control, the crash happens, and it’s awful. But slowly my viewpoint begins to pan back, and I notice cameras and mics set up along the periphery. After a moment or two my family begin to open their eyes, and some stage techs approach the car to fiddle with various props.
The car crash was a scene in a movie; not only has no one died, but they’re all eating snacks between takes, with the bloody makeup still on.
This might sound kind of silly, but that’s the point. The key to halting these looping nightmares is not to try and tackle them head on, but instead to continuously re-contextualize them until they are robbed of their power. Grinning skulls are fearsome in the dark, but they’re much less scary if they’re wearing bright pink makeup.
So that covers gratitude and redirecting attention. After I started seeing good results I also resumed meditating, usually in the mornings or whenever my emotional state was getting really bad. I caution against starting out with this, unless you’re an experienced meditator, because in rare cases meditation can actually worsen your symptoms.
In conjunction meditation, gratitude, and attentional control were enough to eventually allow my to repair myself. I have little doubt that if you have access to drugs and qualified psychiatric help you’ll do even better.
Beyond what I’ve just discussed, on a bigger scale, this experience also taught me a lot about the value of a life, and the importance of happiness.
My interest in religion has a lot of anthropological and psychological overtones, but part of it also stems from a once-desperate need to change the texture of my subjective experience. Religions, and in particular their respective mystical strains, have gone a long way in developing techniques for cultivating positive emotional states.
It’s possible to have a purely theoretical interest in these things, of course, but having felt the psychological pendulum swing toward hell, one tends to be motivated to understand how other humans deliberately bring it back the other way.
Like your body, your mind is an ongoing project, and if you’re unhappy with part of it you don’t have to accept it as a given. Changing your mind is, in almost every way, harder than changing your body. But it’s worth making the attempt, through meditation, through journaling, through spending time with those less fortunate than you are, or whatever.
I had to almost die in order to understand that. I don’t recommend you wait that long.