Into the Abyss

Every so often, my brain decides to take me on a trip to hell. Life is fine and everything is going smoothly when, without warning, a rupture happens deep beneath the surface of my psyche, and I plummet into the abyss. The trigger can be anything: a stressful day at work, or unexpected news, or an overwhelming work load. The collapse is swift and astonishing.

That’s what happened to me two weeks ago. A general rule of thumb I follow when writing about mental health is to write from my scars, not open wounds. I’m dangerously close to breaking that maxim in this post, so I will do my best to not share specifics. But I think it’s important to share these experiences, not only for my own sanity, but also for others. Maybe it will help others understand the existential terror of living with a precarious mind, and to feel greater empathy for the many among us who don’t have the resources to heal.

How do I describe what happened? I recently listened to a podcast in which an author shared the incandescent, indescribable beauty of a psychedelic trip on mushrooms. This author — a man who’s profession is words — struggled with finding any words to describe the sheer magnitude, awe, and beauty of the experience.

A freefall into the abyss of depression and anxiety feels like the inverse of that blissful, mystical experience. The abyss, like the euphoric psychedelic trip, feels truer than truth and more real than reality. The vastness of the terror and depth of the despair defy words entirely. The profundity of the darkness cannot be articulated, but only known. The loneliness is absolute, the despair so intense that it makes everything around me physically appear ugly, gaunt, and void of color. Every thought hurts, and seemed distorted.

And then there’s the physicality of it. My arms felt like they were on fire, my heart was racing, my skin tingling. And yet, I was so exhausted. It was like being injected with hundreds of milligrams of caffeine and being forced to run a marathon simultaneously.

At the lowest point over the weekend, I was in such physical anguish, and such horrible despair, that I thought it would never end. The darkness became so total that I couldn’t imagine feeling any other way.

Weirdly, one of the most painful parts of the experience is how embarrassing it is. I’m normally articulate, thoughtful, in control of my own faculties, and incredibly well organized. I’m usually on time, efficient, and dedicated to mastery.

Then, all of a sudden, friends and work colleagues see me weep uncontrollably for no apparent reason. They see me shake, struggle to put words together, and completely lose control of my own mind and body. I feel like I’m reduced to a child. It’s mortifyingly embarrassing, as if I had soiled my pants in public.

The fact of the matter is that, after all these years of living with precarious mental health, I am still humiliated by it. How can I not be? No one likes to feel that naked. But I also think this is probably because I’m a man who still struggles with vulnerability when I most need to be vulnerable. I’d rather have teeth extracted without anesthetic than let colleagues and friends see me weep, shake, or fall to pieces. Fortunately, a handful friends — including my own partner — were unflinchingly unashamed of my collapse. They held me, talked me through the darkness, and calmly bore witness to my collapse.

I can’t help but wonder how differently this past week would have gone if I’d simply let myself be vulnerable with people who love me, if I’d simply let myself cry and be my full catastrophic self in the presence of others. Resistance to emotion — even big, terrifying emotions — can create a friction that worsens everything. I already know this — that the only way out is through, that resistance is futile, that you can’t get rid of the Babadook — but I was apparently due for a relearning.

Inevitably, I emerge, as I am doing now. It takes several days to feel like myself again, and I’m still not completely out of the woods. I still feel fragile and vaguely anxious, like the fresh glue that’s holding me together is still setting.

 Strangely, my predominant emotion is gratitude. I’m grateful that I now experience a plummet into the abyss once a year, if that, instead of several times a month, which is what it used to be. I’m grateful for the tools I’ve developed, like meditation, exercise, and CBT. Most of all, I’m grateful to my community, who are comfortable with seeing me at my lowest and most broken.

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