I have struggled with my mental health, off and on I guess you could say, for my entire life. Well, since I was about 9 anyway, and especially since 15. My life has, for the most part, been an fairly lonely journey. Even surrounded by people, with friends, romantic partners, the whole nine yards, I’ve lived inside an inner void. I am by no means unique in this respect; I suspect far more of us are inwardly cloistered despite seeming outwardly engaged.
If you’d met me at many points in my life, you wouldn’t likely have known this. Sure, maybe I smoked a bit more weed than the average person, but it’s not like I didn’t work, didn’t have friends, didn’t have relationships, didn’t stay in shape. I got educated, got a good job, married, had kids, was a good father, had great friendships. I set goals, and at least a decent chunk of the time, met them. From the outside, you very likely would not have guessed at my inner world.
When I was about 30, I started to really take control of my wellness. Or so I thought. I read, voraciously, about Buddhism, meditation, mindfulness (before most of society had ever heard the word), emotions, child development, attachment, security, trauma. Although I was, technically, getting a Ph.D. studying the psychology of racism, at least as much of the time, I was educating myself in the inner dynamics of personal wellness, and the outer dynamics of societal collapse through the lens of complex dynamic systems.
And I was practicing. I learned a respectable proportion of the seemingly endless list of self-help techniques out there. I put many of them into practice. Breathing techniques. Emotional grounding. Goal setting and structuring. Time management. Self-compassion. Positive thinking. Cognitive reframing. Autobiographical work. Journaling. Exercise. Meditation of several different forms. Sensory enhancement (which is awesome, I have to say, probably the single most “bang for your buck” thing I’ve ever cultivated as an ability.) Becoming more authentic and self-aligned. And always, reading, learning, learning, learning.
And therapy. I saw my first therapist at 22. I’ve seen (I think), 9 different ones in total. To be honest, much of it seemed pretty useless. I have some deep critiques of the way therapy is often practiced. It’s a mess. Their knowledge is, far too often, scattered and superficial. I’m sure they can complete a chart about symptoms and likely diagnoses. I’m sure they can theorize reasonably well about one’s childhood and the consequences. I’m sure they are generally good at providing insight. But “healing”? No, our therapy-world is all-too-often terrible at that.
This is not a critique of individual therapists, most of whom, I’m sure, are well-meaning and work hard, and many of whom are deeply insightful, grounded and highly skilled. The right therapist-client relationship CAN be truly transformative, life-altering, even life-saving. No doubt about it. And I am deeply grateful to a couple of therapists in particular, whose kindness, toughness and brilliance have made HUGE differences to my life. But the field as a whole deserves a massive overhaul, and this has been true since at least the 1960s, when the treatment of “disorders” started intensely down the Aristotelian rabbit-hole of focusing on symptoms and diagnostic categories. But….that’ll have to be put aside for a different blog post….
Anyway, I tried. And with only one exception, I would at least say that therapy wasn’t harmful. No, make that two exceptions; I forgot about the therapist I saw as a child. (So yes, my second therapist was at age 22, I guess is the truth…) In any case, on the whole, therapy was somewhat useful. It did give me insights about myself, and taught me some practical skills. And it was just nice to have someone to talk to, who seemed to listen and care. That feels pretty good.
Overall, as years passed and I worked (sporadically and imperfectly, to be sure) on my wellness, it seemed to be paying off. Kind of. I felt increasingly self-attuned, centred, motivated, and like I “knew who I really was.” I got better, slowly, at articulating my needs and standing up for myself. I got control of most of my addictive tendencies, at least enough that they were quietly in the background instead of dominating my days. I got considerably better at identifying and challenging and reframing my negative thought-patterns. I got marginally better at having compassion for myself, although I admit, that has been a struggle.
I felt I had gleaned enough knowledge to teach a course on wellness, so in 2002 when I was hired by the University of Toronto, I created a new course, “Positive Psychology”. It quickly became a huge hit, one of the most sought-after courses in the university.
And you know, I was actually pleased with myself for my approach to that course. I definitely can say I didn’t fall into the trap of thinking of myself as some kind of guru, or someone who had all the answers. I didn’t pretend to be healthier than I was. And I didn’t talk out of my ass about things I didn’t have any experience with. I spoke from the heart. I shared my vulnerability and fucked-ness, to some degree at least. I connected with people, in class, in office hours, on walks, in parks, over coffees and lunches. For many years, I listened, shared, connected, empathized-with, helped and was helped by my students. It was, without a doubt, the most rewarding thing I’ve done with my life, aside from being a father.
And then it unravelled. And then collapsed entirely. The causes are many and complex, and the story is messy and involves some seriously unethical behaviour on the part of several people in positions of power at the University of Toronto. I may tell that story someday, but I am not sure at this point of the legal consequences of doing so. So, we’ll leave that aside, for now.
What is important here, is to acknowledge that I absolutely fell apart. The past 6 years have been…..weird. I definitely hit bottom, maybe 3 years ago I guess I would say. And I don’t mean, “I got depressed”. I did get depressed, sure. But I mean, I got depressed, struggled, struggled, struggled to keep it together, but slowly watched everything I had built and accomplished with my life, fall apart; my mind slowed down to the point I felt I had lost 80 IQ points. Everything was dull and out of focus. Bland, to the point of being revolting. I felt like I imagine someone with anorexia might feel once they get to the point that food tastes disgusting and starvation actually feels better. I stopped functioning, near-completely. There’s a complex interaction here with my parenting role, and again, I’ll leave that aside for now because I think it is truly profound and worth exploring carefully. But for the most part, I became about as functional as I imagine an addict living on the street would be, and I had about as much hope for my future. I stopped caring, completely, about myself. I stopped trying, eventually. I just, stopped.
Finally, my sister let herself into my apartment one day when I wasn’t responding to any overtures anymore, found me in the bathtub where I spent a good proportion of my time, and poured her energy, and money, into my life to get me enough out of the hole I was in that I could see the possibility of one day reclaiming my life. And she set me on the road to getting help.
And I did get help. And slowly, started to put the pieces of myself back together. Right now, I feel like I’m duct-taped and crazy-glued back together enough that once again, I can look people in the eye, hold conversations, have a relationship where I advocate for myself at least some of the time. I am setting goals again, working towards them in fits and starts, and taking care of my health.
This experience has been….many things. Humbling for sure. One thing about hitting bottom is that, eventually there’s nothing left for you to focus on except pain. And that is strangely liberating. When you sit in your own self-conflagration for long enough, it burns away resistances and fears in you. It doesn’t exactly build courage, but it does at least partially start to release you from the fear of change. Cuz if you’re really at the bottom, then the only thing further down, is death. And despite what I can convince myself of in the worst moments, when it comes right down to it, I know I don’t want to die.
My sister coming in that day may have saved my life. She certainly changed it, for the much-much-better. Seeing the love in someone else’s eyes when you only hold hate for yourself, is…..powerful. In the moment, you can’t even comprehend it, can’t take it in. You just numbly nod, say words, get up and do what you’re told. It doesn’t register that someone cares. Not at first. But over time, it sinks in, like a sponge getting wettened from a slowly drip-drip-dripping faucet.
I started to realize, no, FEEL, that other people cared too. My other family members. My friends. My former students, many of whom reached out over the years.
I’d like to say that things turned around after that, I got back on my feet, back on the horse I’d fallen off of, so to speak, and like a valiant warrior I rode back into the battle. Everyone wants to believe they’re a hero, right?
But the reality is not nearly as dramatic as that. A few years into healing, I am still fractionally functioning (although the numerator of that fraction IS getting bigger, and the denominator, smaller). I still, too often, have guilt/shame surges so strong they can drive me to self-harm. Socially withdrawing and isolating myself is still a far slipperier slope than reaching out and trusting people. It’s still usually easier for me to believe that disappearing from people’s lives is actually doing them a favour. So I oscillate. Periods of connection, then withdrawal. Then…..time passes. Then, connection again. Then withdrawal.
Over time, I can see progress in that the connection times are becoming longer and more stable, and the withdrawing times shorter and less destructive. This is progress, and although it would be easy to critique this and be like “what the hell is wrong with you?” (a now 40-year echo of an abusive caregiver’s voice that still resounds surprisingly loudly in my inner recesses), I can now separate myself from that voice, because I know that yes, I am on the path out of darkness. And THAT, in and of itself, is victory.
It doesn’t matter where you are or where you’ve been, in the sense that there is no value in judging yourself for that. It matters where you are heading, what direction you are pointing yourself in. If you’re pointing yourself towards wellness, honesty, healing, growth, then you deserve an inner standing ovation. Well done, hero-in-training! Well done.