“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know” ~Pema Chödrön
We are all works in progress.
We all have skeletons in our closets that we may wish to never come out. We have all made mistakes. We will all make mistakes in future. We all have our scars.
None of us are close to reaching that mythical ‘perfect’ status. Never will be.
None of us should consider ourselves fully evolved. Not even close. There will always be space for improving an area of our lives.
Truth be told, most of us are a contradictory mix of elements that make us, us. Life is not all black or white. There are many shades of grey in between.
Being human isn’t always simple, tidy, or pretty. Being human involves trying to adapt to the ups, the downs, the challenges, the heartache, the struggles, the loss. We are given no manual on how to live our precious lives. No hacks or shortcuts will help us through some of the tough times.
Breakdown or Breakthrough? Personal Challenges and Scars of Battle
I want to share a story here that I have not shared elsewhere in writing.
Over the course of a few months, at the end of 2021 and into early 2022, I had what can rightfully be described as a full-blown breakdown.
Over this period, I was cloaked in a blanket of darkness, seemingly of my own making.
The breakdown had me in a sleep-deprived, paranoid state where I started to have auditory hallucinations (i.e., hearing voices). At certain points I convinced myself I was tapped into some paranormal world and able to communicate through my mind with others that were trying to harm me and my loved ones.
I was normally a considered and pretty thoughtful person, but my mind had started to work against me.
This is the first, and hopefully last, time anything like this has happened to me. I have had no such experiences like this in the past, not even close.
Scariest of all, at the time, to me at least, this experience seemed to come as a total bolt from the blue.
In retrospect, however, the signs something was coming were there. I just failed to see them or heed their warning in real time.
I was burnt out emotionally and physically. I had been running on cortisol and stress for too long, and my body had enough. My subconscious had enough. So they started to shut down on me in the most unexpected and alarming of ways.
Subsequent internal work I have done also indicates that I had tried to repress emotions, including anger and sadness, without fully dealing with them. Some of these feelings had festered for a long time, so they came back to me to let me know they were not quite done with me.
Dealing with Pressure
Writing is a passion for me, but it only pays some of my bills. My other career is acting as an independent consultant to organizations that need help delivering and simplifying projects and increasing performance in existing teams.
This work is often high-pressured and time-bound. Alongside this, I can also put myself under pressure even if my clients do not. Doing my job well is important to me, but sometimes my own expectations of what I can do can bite back at me.
For a series of many months before the mental health episode, I had been pushing hard, without letting up. Running toward a finish line that kept moving.
I had started to hold tension in my body (chest tight, shoulders hunched, breath shallow). My body was giving me clear signs it was not happy, but still I pushed through.
My energy was not where it should be. A general sense of fatigue and tiredness followed me, however early I went to bed. My enthusiasm for things I normally enjoyed started to wane. I became more agitated, irritable, and quick to blow my fuse.
I was feeling like I needed a break. Not just wanting one but really feeling I needed one. A long break, at that.
These signs were all there. What did I do? I tried to push through them, push harder. I tried to repress them, believing I could just tough them out. Drink more coffee. Push. Meet the next deadline. Push. The team needs me. Push. The client needs me. Push.
Rather than acknowledging my body and mind were telling me they needed deep rest, not just the weekend off, I pushed on. And I paid a heavy price. But I was lucky because it could have been heavier. For other people it is heavier if they are unable to escape this cycle.
Coming Out the Other Side
Where am I now?
I am pleased to say I got that rest I needed (I took three months off to travel). I sought professional help in the guise of a therapist (not something I ever thought I would need) and other healthcare professionals.
I leaned on my wife and family for support rather than believing I had to do this all alone. I shared my struggle with friends.
I doubled down on my efforts to take my self-care practices seriously. I introduced new self-care techniques into my life (breathing techniques, formal meditation, as well as walking meditations). I now make this time a priority in my life.
I took, and continue to take, a hard look at my life to shed what was not serving me in a positive way. Peeling back layers of conditioning. Trying to understand myself more fully. Trying to identify and acknowledge triggers more acutely so I could explore what they might be telling me.
I now feel more energized. I got my spark back. I get excited about the things that used to excite me again, like music, writing, exercising, being in nature, and taking long walks.
In short, I feel like me again.
While I do not want to be defined by that singular experience, I also do not want to forget the lessons it holds. I want the experience to make me stronger, not break me. Part of that means accepting that this did happen to me. And it could happen to any of us. How I respond is now up to me. And I am determined to respond in a positive fashion by making changes that will serve me in future.
I was lucky. Others are not so fortunate.
Making Our Way in Life
The inconvenient truth is that life is struggle. Life can be hard. We will all face significant challenges. None of us can escape that.
Yours will be different than mine, but you will face your own demons at times.
So what can we do?
We can do our best to put one foot in front of the other and make progress—understanding that sometimes that progress will be slow, sometimes the steps forward will be small, sometimes we will also feel stuck. Sometimes just not losing ground is the win we need most.
We can try to learn lessons from the past but commit to the now. Focusing on developing and supporting our future selves. Focusing on being true to ourselves.
We can celebrate our successes, large and small.
We can be grateful for all we have.
We can live a life of contribution, finding small ways to be of service to the world around us in our own unique way. We can find purpose and value in our days.
We can invest in our own development so we have the necessary internal tools to support us in living our best lives. We can adopt practices that support us living this type of life.
We can take our self-care seriously. Planning and making time for techniques that serve us. We can commit to protecting this time as the valuable investment it is, understanding that, to help and show up for others, we must first show up for ourselves.
We can lean on others when we need to. Not seeing this as a weakness to be avoided but as a necessary component of the human condition. We can lean into our ‘tribe.’
We can continue to learn and be curious about our own emotional state and feelings, asking ourselves questions: Why do we feel a certain way? What are our emotions telling us? Is this just a passing feeling or is it really trying to tell us something or protect us in some way?
We can get to know ourselves on a deeper level.
We can embrace the light, share our light, and be a light for others.
We can love and live the best way we know how.
We can try to make peace with the fact that to struggle is to be human. The journey isn’t easy for any of us, but there is much reward and joy to be found along the way.