As much as we struggle with the uncomfortable truth of it, life is a mixture of the rough and the smooth, the beautiful and the terrible.
About 18 years ago, I found myself in the middle of my first long period of depression. I was a few months out of school. The end of school also brought with it the separation of my family as I knew it at home and the course I had enrolled in turned out to be the wrong choice. I had enrolled in a Science degree and only had Biology behind me. I hadn’t done Maths, Physics, or Chemistry at school. I was you might say, in a world of pain!
Actually, that was literally true. Knowing what I was up against, I enrolled in bridging courses at uni before the semester began, but then I discovered my sciatic nerve. One day at the supermarket I collapsed in pain while picking up a can of tomatoes. You get the gist. Not fun. That was the end of the bridging course. Three months later I got up from my last Chemistry lecture and didn’t come back.
Leaving uni, I had to face pain of a different kind. I’d gone from being one of the most awarded students at school to virtually nil in a flash. Not knowing what I was going to do, I become increasingly miserable and depressed. I made money washing cars, which I enjoyed, but that was it. At some point within this I stumbled upon an interview with the late Joseph Campbell. It was his work on the hero that had inspired the original Star Wars films along with countless others that had and continue to offer powerful messages of hope. This was the message of the hero, and from this point I knew that this was the only way to live.
The point of my own quest was to achieve self-mastery. My ideas about what this meant came from various cultural traditions from early Christianity and Zen Buddhism, to the great epics of the Vedic and Classical traditions of Greece and Rome.
Now I have to say, self-mastery is a great goal for someone with unrelenting standards, especially the way I understood it. For about 17 and a half of these past 18 years I interpreted self-mastery to mean that I had to be perfect. Picture the ideal image of a Zen monk, always cool, calm, and collected, never ruffled, never down, never afraid, smiling calmly in the face of life’s battles.
Looking back on this now it’s clear not just how absurd this was but how unreasonable. It was also actually very cruel.
Why cruel? Well, because it meant that pretty much whenever things got tough, if I didn’t conform with my own internal image of Mr. Perfect Me then I would come down on myself like the proverbial ton of bricks… and surprise, surprise I would end up shutting myself away ashamed of how poorly I was managing my life. The result was that I would repeatedly and for long periods dig myself even deeper into dark and lonely pits of despair and shame.
Through these years I had practically zero awareness of mental health, especially understanding where I was concerned. Added to this was the fact that for much of this time there was still significant stigma surrounding this, there still is for many, so the last thing I wanted to do was to recognise that I might actually be suffering from treatable mental health problems like anxiety and depression. This situation went on for about 16 years.
It was only four years ago that a doctor suggested just in passing that I might be suffering from an anxiety disorder. I had actually gone to him for help in dealing with a chronic spasmodic movement in my shoulders that I’d already had for eight years. While this is much less of an issue now, this used to cause a great amount of pain and mental distress, and would often impact on my ability to do things like carry shopping, drive or just even read a book in comfort. It had started toward the end of my Honours year, a very intense time.
Within a couple of months I had started a course of CBT and was taking some mild serotonin stimulants. This lasted for about six months. As I’ve written about before, CBT is great and there are plenty of links on recent posts including Coping with Anxiety and Dealing with Criticism, as well as links on the side bar for you to check out.
Not long after that I started working with a couple of life coaches and having regular chiropractic care, before starting Network Care (an offshoot of chiropractic) with the great Dr Ari Diskin in Melbourne. I had the great fortune to be joined in this journey by my wife Ophelia and together we started to make literally hundreds of changes to our lives over a couple of years, from things like cutting back on sugars and caffeine, to doing more exercise, changing our financial strategies, and learning how to deal with trauma. The results have been tremendous. But of course, life keeps moving along, and as it did it kept throwing up challenges all around, including deaths and major illnesses involving my closest friends and relatives.
Last year during another particularly difficult patch, the hardest and scariest yet, I sought help again and decided to do another round of CBT. Actually asking for help in the midst of a destructive period of depression is the hardest thing to do, and the reason for this is simple. When you hate yourself the last thing you want to do is help your self because you don’t feel like you’re worth it. Breaking this pattern is the first step in the recovery journey and I can vividly remember the sense of relief I felt when I made this choice. After Ophelia, the first person I spoke to was Ari.
Again, this proved to be a great decision, and working with Ari and my psychologist, by reaching out to friends and family, and employing all the best strategies that had worked for me (including the simplest things like taking my shoes off and lying on the grass under the warm sun), I was able to develop the extra level of awareness and the strategies necessary to see me through the end of my PhD and to help me support my mother through her cancer.
These challenges continue and even get more complex but they are always mingled amidst periods of great joy and celebration, now especially that we are looking forward to the birth of our first child. I still get anxious, angry, afraid, depressed, sad, sometimes even more intensely. Does this mean that I’ve failed or that the strategies I’ve used, the hours of therapy, the thousands of dollars invested in our wellness have been wasted? Not at all, because something has really changed. The time that I remain in these states has reduced dramatically so that usually within either minutes or hours at most I have regained my sense of balance and happiness and I’m able to function in the way that I need to for those who need me. One strategy of mine that is crucial in the difficult moments is to simply accept that I am experiencing that, rather than fight or judge myself because I am feel sad, fearful etc.. That simple act of acknowledging the emotion has an extraordinary effect. In that moment, I don’t need to understand why it is that I feel that way, the simple fact is that I do, and that’s ok.
What has also changed is that my understanding of self-mastery no longer requires that I don’t have bad times, just that I learn and get better at moving through them in such as way as to create the least possible harm for myself and those around me. It’s about moving through life rather than struggling against it. This is about cultivating a strong and resilient inner core. It’s a core that is informed by a way of seeing life that does not view life’s troubles as unwelcome imperfections that need to be avoided, fixed or eradicated. It doesn’t expect things to be smooth indefinitely with the resolution of whatever challenge we’re faced with right now. It’s a world view that accepts these imperfections as integral to the very nature of existence itself.
Photo credit: Ophelia Keys, sunset at Arthur’s Creek. Victoria Australia.