Ok. This is going to be a bit more personal, but I think it’s a story worth telling. Bear with me, please.
This time last year I was freaking out basically constantly. I was alternating between debilitating panic attacks and major depressive episodes where I couldn’t get out of bed. I was starting to miss days at work because I couldn’t handle real life. I had to have regularly scheduled talks with my employer about my mental state, which were terrifying and humbling. At one point I found myself on the phone with the Suicide Prevention Hotline just to speak confidentially and see what they would say. I had to admit to myself and to others that I was experiencing mental health issues and I needed help.
I had recently been through some major life changes (some but not nearly all of which I talk about in my first blog post: Change and the Beginning of a Journey). These times of massive personal upheaval come around for everyone once in a while and the human brain often has trouble adjusting. There are lots of things that can trigger these kinds of issues, and everyone who goes through something traumatic will react differently. As many people as there are in the world, that’s how many different reactions are possible.
Just admitting you’re having an issue in the first place is difficult. Nobody wants to admit that their brain– the epicenter of your autonomy, the place where all your thoughts and personality come from!– might be broken and self-destructive in some way. In my opinion, there’s no feeling worse than feeling like you’re not in control of yourself.
I hit a point where I knew something was wrong, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
I’m the kind of guy who sometimes over-fixes things. For example, when I get a headache I usually try to head it off by taking ibuprofen, drinking a full glass of water, and having a cup of tea or coffee as soon as I feel it coming. So I dealt with my mental health the same way. I threw everything I could think of at it. I got a therapist. I started devouring self-help books and podcasts and TED talks. I started meditating and exercising more. I talked with my mom on the phone for hours. I started calling her my second therapist. All of these things were helpful in various ways, but I still felt stuck.
Then I made a crucial decision. I decided to quit my job and go traveling the world. Some people accused me of running from my problems, but I think that the difference between running from something and running to something else is non-existent. Everyone is constantly both running away from something and running to something else.
Here’s what I was hoping would happen. I knew that what I was having trouble with was major change, and I needed to be prepared to deal with that. For me, traveling alone was going to be boot camp for constant change. I would be moving cities every week or two, embracing something new and saying goodbye to the relationships with people and places I had built in the previous town and having to start over constantly. In a strange sort of way, I needed to practice saying goodbye.
People get really trapped by their comfort zones. I think it’s the number one thing that holds people back from pursuing what they really want. There’s a fear of the unfamiliar. I determined that traveling would be a good way to put myself in unfamiliar situations, both practically and socially. I wanted to always be living just a step outside of my comfort zone. I was overdue to really embrace the feeling of discovery.
Now I’m home after four months on the road, and it’s time to check in with myself. Did it work? Did all the wandering about and forcing myself to talk to strangers make a difference? How would I describe my mental state?
I’m not going to say I’m perfect. I’m not. I have good days and bad, just like anyone else. What I can say is that the goal of accepting change as a universal truth is a lot closer to reality. I accept loss and impermanence as simple statement of truth and it bothers me a lot less than it used to. In fact, it makes the present moment even more potent and powerful. Trying to maintain the current state of affairs forever is a losing battle. It’s rooted in fear of loss. I don’t want to live in fear. I have goals and ambitions, but I’m determined to accept change and ride the wave wherever it takes me.
It might go well. I might achieve all the goals I set out for myself. On the other hand, I might go bankrupt, or lose my health, or get utterly decimated by the love of my life. And it will suck, but life will go on. I’ll have new opportunities and a brand new set of circumstances. I’ll be fine, independent of any particular outcome. My challenges have made me stronger and better able to tackle the challenges of the future. Pain is temporary. Strength can be cultivated. The obstacle is the way.
Think of your brain as a dense corn field with a path down the middle. You might be predisposed to walk down the well worn path, even if it takes you someplace you don’t want to be. To get to the other side, you’ll have to cut a new path. It won’t be easy at first. You’ll have to push your way through and at first it won’t even look like a path. You might not even make it to the other side the first few times you try, but the more you tread through and knock down the corn in your way, the more you create a favorable pathway. And the more time you spend on your new pathway, the more the old one will grow over. Brains work in this way. You have to actively work at creating a new default state of mind.
Am I exactly where I want to be? Not exactly, no. I’ve still got work to do. But overall, I’m pretty good. I’m in a hell of a lot better place than I was a year ago because I’m determined to keep working on cutting new pathways for myself.
Mental health is a serious issue. I won’t pretend to be an expert. I’m just a guy who has struggled with depression and anxiety in my own ways and felt like talking about it. If you need professional help, please talk to a professional. But if you need a friend and few encouraging words, let me know.