An Abyss Within My Soul
I have lived with major depressive disorder for as long as I can remember. Like Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT, it would emerge, without warning, from the depths of my consciousness and wreak havoc on my life. Eventually, I’d always prevail against the invisible demon and it would sink back into the recesses of my brain, where it would inevitably emerge again.
A traumatic formative experience left me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at a young age. This condition only heightened the intensity of depression’s gut-wrenching anxiety and lengthened the episodes of catatonic stupor. PTSD is like a supplement to depression that widens the polarity of consciousness; it makes the mood swings more pronounced and intense.
Every year, the black wave came over me, but I was always able to weather the storm and fight against the current. I thought I’d figured out how to stay above water and not drown. I thought I’d experienced the worst that my depression could muster. Sometimes, hubris clouds the mind when life is good. Unfortunately, one year brought a confluence of events that broke me.
The depression surfaced like normal: out of thin air. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. If life were pleasant and laid back, I could’ve pushed through. But, life wasn’t as simple this time. My job was challenging in an infinite number of ways. Twelve hour days and weekends meant late nights and early mornings; sleep was optional. However, what truly made it insufferable was the plight of my love. A person that I loved dearly was in the midst of dealing with the consequences of sexual trauma and was contemplating suicide. Giving in to my worst codependent impulses, I took it upon myself to pull them out of their abyss, all while I was sinking deeper into my own. The perfect storm was too great for me to weather. I went on medical leave and sought treatment.
I spent several weeks in an inpatient treatment facility. Ever fiber of my being didn’t want to be there, but my physician urged me to suck it up and take care of business. The first week was miserable. I shared a room with several other people. Some were fighting addiction, while others were battling schizophrenia. I felt like I was in prison. Every activity was regimented and the all of the day’s events unfolded according to a strict schedule. I couldn’t leave when I wanted to and I couldn’t eat when I wanted to.
The second week started and I began to feel acclimated and, reluctantly, took my head out of my ass. It’s cliche to say that one needs to hit bottom before they can fix their problem, but that’s what happened to me. I had an insatiable drive to succeed for as long as I could remember, up to that point. I always needed to prove myself. I always thought that it was a symptom of determination and a healthy work ethic. In treatment, I learned that I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
My hyperbolic need for success wasn’t a measure of ambition, it was a side-effect of an intelligent person without a sense of self-worth or a shred of self-esteem. I didn’t believe that I was intrinsically valuable, therefore I felt the need to prove myself with everything that I did. I was a competitive athlete in high school. Before every event, I would get so nervous that I would vomit. It was such a common ritual that my teammates thought it was a bad omen if I didn’t throw. The reason for my hyper anxiety was the imminent judgment of my worth as a person that was about to happen. If I wasn’t first, I was last. My high performance in academic and professional life made this mindset last for a while, because it drove me to success, to self-validation. But that outlook on life isn’t sustainable and while I was in treatment, I shed that burden, and discovered what genuine self-worth felt like.
The epiphany that I was intrinsically valuable as a human being didn’t fall out the sky and hit me. It was a process of discovery. I listened to the struggles of others and learned from their experiences and coping mechanisms. I worked with my therapist. I meditated and searched my soul, inside and out, to discover what was really beneath the facade of accomplishment and success. There was a scared, worthless little boy in the nuclear layers of my psyche. He thought that he was going to hell because he wasn’t good enough. I was able to nurture that little boy, whom didn’t receive nurturing when he needed it. Now, I’m a man, confident in his self-evident value as a person.
I was shocked by how much I had changed in the short time I spent in treatment; others were too. My parents felt that my personality had changed. My friends said that I was a different person, purged of the neuroticism that powered my productivity, but cemented my misery. I felt at peace. I returned to professional life, as if I’d pressed pause and then hit resume awhile later. Everything was right where I’d left it. The revelations about myself that I garnered during my time made me pursue a career shift. Enlightened by my new insights, I felt compelled to pursue what fed my passions, both creatively and intellectually.
A mental breakdown is a life or death situation. I am truly blessed that I had access to the resources that I did, because I don’t know if I would have made it without the care that I received. I won’t sit here and tell anyone how to remedy themselves of a psychotic breakdown, because I’m not qualified to do so. Perhaps the only thing that I can offer are cheap cliches. Nevertheless, they are my truth and I feel compelled to share them on the off-chance that someone suffering might find comfort in them.
While I have no magical panacea to the woes of mental illness, I have a philosophical foundation that opens the door to the blessings of suffering. The First Truth of Buddhism is that all life is suffering, misery and pain. This is a good baseline and it’s an eloquent way of summarizing how I looked at the world when I started to change my outlook, away from despair. Everyone suffers. Everyone fails. Everyone falls short of their ideal existence. Everyone has at least one existential crisis.
Accepting that life is suffering takes the sting out of failure and makes our missteps seem inevitable. The breakdown allows us to deal with them now, rather than later. If we accept that life is suffering, we become more resilient against whatever challenge that life throws at us. If we stumble, so be it. There are other challenges to conquer. By accepting the constant of suffering, we are freed from the unrealistic expectations of perfection. We acknowledge that failure is a part of life and that failure has nothing to do with our value.
There is only one person that can determine someone’s self-worth, and it’s that person. The acceptance of suffering won’t provide someone with self-esteem or self-worth based on their initial, ignorant expectations and philosophy of self-validation. But, it will unleash the blessings of suffering, which provide them the comfort of knowing that their happiness has nothing to do with their accomplishments, or anything else external. The blessings of suffering guide a person to seek happiness from within themselves. That is where the wellspring of true happiness flows from.