I wish I could tell you about the day I woke up and realized that I was no longer in control of my own life. The writer in me wants to tell you that story in the same way you would encounter it in a novel, with me huddled in my bed as a clap of thunder rattled the windows, followed by a lightning bolt arcing through the sky—and me—as the realization struck that fear was now my mistress.
But life is so rarely like books; it lacks their efficiency and clarity, and that is not how I came to know that fear ruled me. No, my fear came at me like Carl Sandburg’s fog, on little cat feet, swiftly yet slyly, and by the time I realized it had me in its grasp, I was already fully caught.
* * *
All my life I have been driven to excel and to succeed. We’re all familiar with the concept of a “Type A” personality, but in my case, I was more of a “Type A+”. What can I say—even in that, I had to be exceptional. For twenty years, I took on challenges and crushed them beneath my heel as I vaulted triumphantly from one success to the next. Not once did the thought ever cross my mind that I could founder, for I was unstoppable, the world was my oyster, and failure was simply not an option.
Then I went to graduate school and my world crumbled. Or to be more precise, I did.
During my time in graduate school, I had the misfortune of working under an advisor who systematically undermined my sense of self-worth and competence; he stripped away my entire identity, only to replace it with wild-eyed, desperate fear. I worked with this person for FOUR years as he determinedly chipped away at the bedrock of my confidence, until I slowly slipped away into a gloomy sea of despair.
These days, I think it has become somewhat trendy for people to dabble in depression, perhaps in a bid for attention, or so they can make some claim on something that they think makes them special or interesting or deep. This was not that. This was not me feeling like I was in a funk, or needing to up my intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, or simply wanting to play sad songs on an endless loop while I lay on my bed and wept. I won’t dwell on it, but this was a very dark time, one in which, amongst other things, I was physically incapable of getting out of bed for days at a time and steadily retreated from the world. The belief that I was helpless and worthless dragged me down deeper and deeper. My fear metastasized until I was quite literally afraid of life. First my fear paralyzed me so that I could no longer keep from drowning, but ultimately it began to consume me so that I no longer wanted to.
Thanks to Tony, I got help. Initially, I balked at talking to a psychiatrist, terrified I would be told I was defective and broken, but eventually my need to not feel so goddamn awful every second of the day prevailed and I made an appointment and was swiftly diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety, and a dash of post-traumatic-stress-disorder just to keep things interesting. Like I said—when I do something, I give it my all.
The various medications I wound up on helped kickstart my brain and recalibrate it, but it wasn’t until I started talking to a therapist that things really started to get better. As my energy began to return, so did a maelstrom of emotions, the ones I had managed to deaden myself against for so long. We take our feelings for granted, but honestly, after having been without them for so long, I had to learn how to feel again. So many feelings that had been repressed began to bubble up, but the one that came back with the most ferocity was anger. I was angry at my advisor for everything he had done to me, everything he had ripped from me. But I was also furious at myself for having let him do it. I realized that in my darkest moments, I hadn’t given up on myself because in truth, by that point, I had already given myself away.
My therapist pointed out to me that anger is a secondary emotion, one that hinders us and masks something deeper and more primal. Was mine due to sadness, guilt, disappointment, shame, or something else entirely? Corny as it may sound, I had to do a lot of soul-searching to find the answer, and even then, it wasn’t pretty. Certainly all of those things contributed to my rage, but digging all the way down, I found that the root of it all was fear. I was scared because I had lost the one thing I thought would always be mine: me. I didn’t know who I was anymore and I didn’t know if I’d be able to find my way back to myself.
* * *
I may not remember the exact moment when I realized that fear had taken my life from me, but I can tell you about the moment when the tides began to turn: after nearly two years of intense emotionally draining work in order to get myself back to feeling halfway like the Steph I had loved and lost, I acknowledged that although I had made good progress crawling out of my pit, I was struggling again. Knowing that I had hit a wall in terms of what I could do on my own, I went back to therapy, this time with a new therapist.
And my world shifted on its axis once more.
In my first session with Heather, I told her about the feelings I was struggling with, how overwhelmed I felt most of the time, by my own thoughts, mostly, which had this nasty habit of keeping me up late into the night as they rolled around my brain like marbles spilled from a jar. I told her that I knew all about cognitive-behavioral therapy, that I had read the books and done my homework, and even though I could recognize objectively that there were flaws in my thinking and outlook, my heart and mind were at war, because deep down, there was this part of me that just didn’t truly believe that the lousy things I believed and felt about myself were really untrue.
I finished spilling my guts and then waited for Heather to say something. She sat in quiet contemplation for a moment, before exhaling deeply and remarking that it sounded like I carried a lot with me, that it must be exhausting to deal with all that every second of the day. She asked me if I would be willing to try some things that were different from the techniques I had worked on before, and when I nodded, she said she wanted to see whether the practice of mindfulness meditation would bring me any relief.
I admit, I was dubious. Meditation seemed like new-age mumbo jumbo. But I had been wary about therapy in the first place only to find it really helpful, and I decided to give it a try because I truly had nothing to lose.
At its very core, mindfulness meditation focuses on being present in the moment. It requires that you take the time to sit with yourself, and, without judgment, acknowledge your thoughts and feelings. And then you must let them go.
For 10 minutes, Heather and I sat with our eyes closed, simply breathing deeply, attempting to focus only on the movement of air through our bodies. When thoughts entered my mind, I was told to simply acknowledge them, accept them, and then let them go and return my focus to my breath. It sounds so hokey and simple, and yet after just 10 minutes of this, I felt lighter and more focused. With Heather’s guidance, I sought to make mindfulness practice a regular part of my day. Whenever feelings of anxiety began to overwhelm me, or my thinking began to feel scattered and frenetic, I would pause and take the time to slow down and address each thought and feeling in turn.
Despite what you might think, this wasn’t an easy process. Early on, I would say I spent 2 hours a day (in smaller 10 to 15 minute intervals) engaging in mindfulness meditation in a bid to calm my racing mind and rising anxiety levels. Mindfulness was initially quite counterintuitive for me, because I had spent a lot of time ducking unwanted thoughts and nebulous fears, thinking that if I stopped and gave them attention, I would give them a foothold and allow them to flourish. Instead, I forced myself to confront my negative, hurtful, hateful thoughts and taught myself to truly look my deepest fears in the eye and found it had the opposite effect. By acknowledging everything my mind threw at me, neither rejecting or accepting it, but simply recognizing each thought and feeling as simply being a part of me, I found I was better able to leave the unhelpful ones behind. Of course, this was all a process, and it took time to be able to sit with myself without judgment. I learned to forgive myself, to love myself, to treat myself with kindness, and perhaps hardest of all, to believe that I was deserving of this compassion.
Believe me when I say that giving myself over to mindfulness meditation is one of the hardest and scariest—but also best—things I have ever done. It brought me to a new level of awareness and to a place of peace that I don’t think I ever really believed I could find in this lifetime. At a time when I was searching, it helped me realize that I wasn’t really lost, I was just different, changed by what had happened, and it reunited me with myself.
* * *
Telling this story is probably the second scariest thing I’ve ever done, and were it not for Torre’s prompting, I might not have done so. Honestly, very few people—not my closest friends, not even some of my family—know what I went through, not while it was happening, and not even afterwards. The truth is, I wanted to believe that my depression and anxiety was situation-dependent, something triggered by the confluence of unfortunate events that befell me, not something systemic to myself. I wanted to believe this because I treated what happened like a dirty secret, one of which I was deeply ashamed.
I don’t want to be ashamed any longer. I have come to understand that denying the existence of my depression & anxiety doesn’t prevent them from being real. Even if I were so lucky for these things to have been an isolated incident, why should I secret it away in the footnotes of my life? Instead, I’d rather bravely say, “I suffered from this affliction, and yes, there were times when it crippled me and nearly choked the life from me. It almost beat me. But it didn’t.” Is there not some small triumph in that?
Throughout his lifetime, Winston Churchill suffered from clinical depression, which he referred to as his “black dog”. Personally, I’ve come to see mine not as a dog, but as a shadow, one whose location changes as with the position of the sun. Some days I feel it walking beside me, tracking me and matching my stride; on good days, I feel it behind me, giving me space to breathe; and on bad days, I see it looming up in front and know that I may have to walk through it once more. I will not let it define me, but for now, I can at least accept that it is a part of who I have been and who I am today and who I will be tomorrow.
Prior to leaving on our Big Trip, Tony & I had created a list of places we had wanted to visit as well as some core experiences we wanted to have along the way. I had tossed out the notion of attending a meditation retreat, perhaps in Thailand, or maybe even in India, and I put it on my mental list of “things I would like to some day do.”
I never really forgot about it, but when I started looking in earnest into what these retreats involved, I started to get a little gunshy: not only did the shortest ones seem to require a minimum of a 10 day commitment (we hardly ever spend that long anywhere!), but they follow a very regimented routine, involving 4:00 am wake-up calls and only two small meals per day, the last one at noon. Worse yet, Tony & I would have to bunk separately and wouldn’t even be able to speak to one another during the retreat. In fact, we wouldn’t be able to speak to anyone at all! It seemed like so much to ask, and part of me worried that I would sign up only to find I didn’t have the discipline or mental strength necessary to hack it. What if I found that I was actually a failure at the one thing that had brought me so much peace?
Torre’s call to action has proven to be something of a wake up call. She has asked us to reveal a fear and face it. Writing this post likely qualifies, but I want to do one better. The time for fear is over, which is why this winter, with or without Torre’s generous plane ticket, Tony & I will be heading to India (another fear!) and I will spend some time at a meditation center, facing my fear, and myself, once more. I don’t have all the details just yet, but this post is my oath, a promise to you—and to me—that I will do it. I don’t know if I will fail at it or succeed; all I know is that I owe it to myself to try. And so I will.
This post is part of the My Fearful Adventure series, which is celebrating the launch of Torre DeRoche’s debut book Love with a Chance of Drowning, a true adventure story about one girl’s leap into the deep end of her fears.
“Wow, what a book. Exciting. Dramatic. Honest. Torre DeRoche is an author to follow.” Australian Associated Press
“… a story about conquering the fears that keep you from living your dreams.” Nomadicmatt.com
“In her debut, DeRoche has penned such a beautiful, thrilling story you’ll have to remind yourself it’s not fiction.” Courier Mail