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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What do we learn at the bottom of the pit?

I descended into dark places recently and it has been one of the scariest experiences in my life thus far. As difficult as it is to write some of this, I would like to share it because I might possibly help someone else who is going through something painful and they see no way out.  I want to show them that there is a way out and there is a proper way of handling a terrifying situation.

Ultimately, I do not know how I managed to descend this far but I imagine it started with the initial panic attack which happened recently (about two weeks ago). After that particular incident, I was optimistic and every day I was feeling better and better. Then, I realized that I was not through the ordeal just yet and there was more to come. For those who don't know, a panic attack involves symptoms such as an increased heart rate, a sense of doom and dread, severe anxiety, a fight or flight response, and other symptoms. One key symptom that is very difficult to describe is what's called a "detached sense of reality." Imagine you know exactly where you are and what time it is and other details about your immediate environment and your life. However, something... something doesn't feel quite right. You feel as if you are outside your own body and you aren't a unified whole. You are a collection of parts.  There is a lack of continuity from one instance to the next.  This is the symptom I started to experience throughout the day and it started to cause immense anxiety because I was unable to be properly immersed in my environment and with the people in it. I also started to sleep only 2-3 hours a night instead of my usual 7-8 hours. Additionally, I could barely eat. The insomnia and hunger made the situation that much worse.

Unfortunately, these feelings took a turn for the worse. I started experiencing even darker thoughts and I was unable to experience any joy or happiness. The usual activities and things that would make me happy completely failed to make a difference. For instance, I was unable to smile or laugh at a picture of a puppy tumbling down the stairs.  In the past, I would have the widest grin on my face at such a sight. I was barely able to force a smile in the mornings when greeting a coworker. During conversations, people would be concerned and ask what was wrong. I was able to communicate and function and I looked relatively fine on the surface but underneath I was in a dark place and I was unable to connect with the world around me. I was unable to experience positive emotions or extract any joy out of situations that would usually make me happy.  Perhaps the most terrifying part during all this was the incredibly strong and disturbing illusion that these feelings were never going to go away and I was going to be forced to live such a detached and joyless life forever. Logic, my ever-comforting source of solace, kept failing me. I felt absolutely hopeless and was fighting a losing battle against my own mind. Once these fatalistic and catastrophic feelings started to take hold, I was on my way to the lowest point possible and started experiencing thoughts of death and suicide.  I was unable to stop thoughts such as "there is no joy, what's the point of living?" and "why are you even alive?" Perhaps the most paralyzing thought of all was "why don't you kill yourself?" It hurts me to even write these out but I can't deny that these thoughts haunted me.

Thankfully, I was never in any real danger and there was no real risk of me acting on these thoughts but since I had never had such ideas in my life, I was in a state of complete shock, mental paralysis, and defeat. I had absolutely no idea what to do. I had never experienced anything this dark and morbid. During one of the lowest points, I ran down the stairs while at work and I called the suicide help hotline to have someone, anyone, to hear me and tell me it's alright. The act of actually conveying these thoughts out loud to someone and being able to cry provided a deep sense of relief. This is when I realized I needed help and I could not take on this battle alone. I started to reach out to friends and coworkers. I am grateful that each and every one of them came through and talked to me and supported me. I am not religious but I feel blessed to have caring people in my life. This is when I learned my greatest lesson that I hope others will take to heart as well. During your darkest times, you cannot get out on your own. You need friends. You need family. You need someone to talk to. If you feel isolated and have absolutely no one, call a hotline or any other free service. The simple act of connecting with another human being, even a stranger, during such a vulnerable time is absolutely therapeutic even if you don't immediately realize or feel the effects. Your mind is a dangerous animal and it can make you believe that the situation is not going to get better and you will be stuck in pain forever. During these dark times, you will lose your ability to defend against such catastrophic thoughts and logic will very likely fail you and it will feel like your mind is divided and fighting against itself in some kind of internal mental civil war. You need allies. Sharing the dark thoughts and not feeling like you're alone in fighting them is absolutely essential. Do not take on the struggle alone and do not feel that you are "weak" for needing help. All of us need help at one point or another and that's absolutely ok. This is the other lesson I learned from this experience. It's alright to be vulnerable and let your heart out and allow people to be there for you. Often times, you are doing them a favor by allowing them to support you. You are not being a burden. It feels good to help someone in need, especially someone in immense need.

I would like to end on a positive note and with some words of wisdom. Treat your brain and your mind like you would treat any other muscle. If you lift too many weights or jog for too many miles, your body can fail you and you need a break. If you break an arm, you need a cast and other kinds of treatments to fix the issue. Your mind can suffer the same way. The way it gets "hurt" and pushed to exhaustion is through stress. Do NOT underestimate the effects of stressful events. If you deal with several major disappointments in a short period of time, this is most likely going to have some kind of effect on your mind and it's going to manifest itself in various ways after you surpass a certain tolerance level of mental threshold. What's essential to note here is that you will not consciously be aware of when this threshold is actually surpassed. For me, it seemed to show itself in the form of a panic attack and through the emotions and feelings I described above. For you, it might be other symptoms. Each person is affected by different events and to varying degrees and often times we aren't even aware of what can actually hurt us significantly. Don't think you are "above" being hurt by what you think is a minor setback. Logically, something might seem insignificant on the surface, but your mind and subconscious thought processes could still have a strong reaction.

At the end of it all, when nothing seems to help and everything seems hopeless, never forget that the people in your life can help and allow you to start climbing from the pit you fell in. All of us need help sometimes. Let them be there for you. A loving and long hug from your mother or your friend can mean a world of difference. Whatever you ultimately decide to do, never EVER isolate yourself and keep your feelings to yourself. You are not alone and you should not allow yourself to feel alone.

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