The more busy and chaotic daily life is, the more we crave moments of stillness and quiet. However brief they are, in whatever way they come, and no matter how adrenaline-addicted you think you are, everyone needs space to breathe. In the last few posts, I’ve often explained how I craved those moments. With the combination of a toxic workplace and my own anxiety, not feeling like I ever had space to stop and get my bearings took a serious toll on my mental health and made a bad situation worse.
Fortunately, it’s possible to create those moments for ourselves and it’s worth the effort to try. After all, the more stillness and composure you can create for yourself, the more you exude it for other people. Even with my anxiety, learning to meditate has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. If other people I work with ever told me they appreciate my competence, patience, and ability to keep my cool in a crisis, it’s because I learned to slow myself down. You can too.
CW: Talk about suicide, suicidal ideation, and depression.
Eight months ago, alone at work with a heavy to-do list and late in the afternoon, I wanted to end my life.
I was beyond exhausted and frustrated. It was shortly after Passover and I felt lonely, lost, and hopeless. I felt like my career was at a dead end, and I was burning myself out in an increasingly thankless, stressful, and miserable job for no gain. I was drinking too much. I was taking too much caffeine. My relationships with my family were suffering. I felt resentful of everything and everyone.
All my coping mechanisms that had carried me through so much- meditation, exercise, reading, even writing- were failing me. I was sore and exhausted and bored with exercise. My meditation was rote routine and fruitless. Reading was still good, but I had lost the ability to calm down enough to read a paperback. Audiobooks were just entertaining noise in my ears. I was always stressed about the next shift, the next week, the next month, and what new nightmares would be coming down the chute that I would- inevitably- have to handle.
I never had a plan for how I would off myself, but I did debate how to take care of Emily beforehand. How could I quietly empty my bank account into hers to cover as many expenses as possible? How could I redirect bills? Farther and farther, deeper and deeper as I stared into an abyss of tart shells and almond paste.
Then I thought “What the actual fuck am I doing? This is fucked up. I need to pull out of this fast. I need to put something else in my brain.” Fortunately, I had just finished downloading a new Raymond Chandler mystery novel on Libby. I plugged in headphones and finished my shift to the sound of Phillip Marlowe getting his ass kicked by Los Angeles mobsters.
The nadir of my mental health at that point took about ten minutes. I have been an EMT. I have been in car accidents, lost patients, been actively threatened and assaulted by patients, tended to grotesquely injured people, some of whom didn’t survive.
This was the most scared I have ever been in my professional life… and it was because my mind, body, and heart just couldn’t take it anymore.
Therapy has a bit of a misnomer in people’s minds. We tend to go to therapists and psychologists looking for “cures.” That’s how it works with other health fields, right? If I have a toothache and go to the dentist, I expect the dentist to drill, clean, fill, or whatever else is needed so that I no longer have a toothache at the end.
Therapists don’t work like that though. There is no “curing” mental illness. Instead, care and therapy is directed toward pathology- figuring out how and why a person becomes ill- and managing it to make the experience of that illness less disruptive to daily life. Medication and psychopharmacology is one option where the illness is severe enough that the pathology indicates a chemical imbalance in the brain. “Talk therapy,” what most of us think of when it comes to sitting down with a psychologist, is more like giving people the tools they need in order to piece together their own problems.
Therapists act more like a trail guide than a doctor, giving us the tools and advice we need to face our challenges- but we still need to face them ourselves. Carl Jung called two parts of this practice “Light” and “Shadow work-” and just like skipping Leg Day at the gym, you don’t want to skip on the Shadow work.
Until about 5AM this morning, this week’s blog post was going to be about something completely different. I was going to write about taste, snobbishness, and keeping it in check.
But last night, Em and I decided to go to our first movie in a theater in over a year. It was a toss-up between Black Widow and Roadrunner, and Em decided she could see Black Widow another time. She wanted to see Roadrunner with me. We were both glad for that because in the back of the Laurelhurst Theater, over pizza, popcorn, and spilled beer, we both cried our eyes out.
I came home with mixed emotions and tried to write that blog post about snobbishness… but as of 5 am, aware of the discourse and controversies surrounding the movie, I knew I need to write this all out while it was still fresh in my mind. One of the problems with being a writer is that words vanish from your mind faster than feelings in your heart, so here we go.
One last story from my beloved doomed bastard of a hero, Uncle Tony.
When I woke up, I couldn’t tell where the nightmare stopped and reality began. It was all the same.
Imagine having a radio in your head, cranked up to full blast, and the stations changing every few seconds. Wave after crashing wave of gibberish, so loud in your mind you can barely think to breathe. Your heart pounds through your chest, oxygen seems to stop working, and it’s all you can do to stop from screaming because you can’t get enough air in to make a sound.
Even when it finally stopped, I didn’t know how to roll over and explain it to Emily, who had just gotten in to bed beside me. Any words I wanted to say felt like they first had to come down a long tunnel to get to my brain and then out of my mouth. At 35 years old, I buried my face in my wife’s shoulder and sobbed until the words finally arrived.
“I’ve never been so terrified in my life. I couldn’t make my brain stop. It felt like I was losing my mind.” Emily reached over and held me. “You’re fine. It was an anxiety attack. I know how those feel.”