This story is a year in the making. There are a handful of reasons why I wanted to wait a year, but I know that if I wait any longer, the impact of what I write (and my memory of it) would be diminished.
In late November 2017, my body shaking, I looked out at the person across from me, with tears streaming down my eyes, and I heard her say:
“You are a suicide risk, and you need to take this seriously.”
It all started the first week of September 2017. I began to feel separated from my own emotions. It was like watching my own life — not out of body, but being in my own body, watching my life play out in front of me, but without any actual care or connection to what was happening. I watched dispassionately as I displayed emotions, but did not care about them or actually feel them. Vonnegut’s Timequake (not a favorite of mine) came to mind: In the novel, a “time quake” causes the entire world to live one year on auto-pilot, replaying the last year of their lives, helpless to change anything, but conscious of everything happening. Let’s call my experience a “brain-quake”, where time moved forward but I didn’t feel like I was actually involved.
A week later I flew to my company’s annual customer conference, where I met with customers, did the usual thing I do at these sort of events: instill confidence in others about the future. That week and the next two months, I often felt like a complete fake — I believed what I was saying, but I didn’t feel anything. Later, I learned that this was likely what clinically is called “disassociation”, defined as a mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity. Yep, that’s pretty spot on.
Living in a disassociated state is not fun. Being around people magnifies your feeling that something is wrong, you big faker. Being alone, you don’t have to confront the disconnect — you can just be numb. Quickly, you begin to isolate yourself. You stop reaching out to friends, you start declining social engagements, you stop doing anything that actually matters, other than what you have to. I’ve always been able to submerge myself in work, and sure enough, I could bury myself deeply in my job. I could bury myself in something I’m good at and where I have control.
A couple of weeks later, a phone call from someone I cared deeply about, came when I was at work. I knew what the call was likely about. We’d be trying a long distance relationship, and I’d become more and more distant. Even during the time we’d had together during my latest visit to California, I wasn’t present — one step or often more steps removed from her. In kind and compassionate words, she explained what she needed in a relationship, and that this just wasn’t it. A big part of me was devastated — but a larger part of me was already numb. And I completely understood: who would want to be with someone who can’t connect emotionally at all?
In October, I had a trip planned up the eastern coast of Australia, to look at places I might eventually live. I rented a camper van to experiment with what life was like sleeping on the road. Every morning, I would wake up, and swim in the ocean, somewhere between two and three kilometers. The water got warmer as I drove North. I settled into a BJR-typical routine: a quick breakfast, an incredible ocean swim, then a second breakfast, and back in the van, on my way to some new part of Oz. Those mornings were amazing.
Evenings were not good. I remember the feeling of severe detachment, wondering when I might be myself again. I walked along the beach, the dark waves blurring into the darker horizon. I climbed into my cocoon on four wheels and shut out the world.
The last night of the trip, I got a bone chill from a final ocean frolic, and then I didn’t sleep, and awoke with a sinus infection, putting me even further off balance. But on the drive home, I listened to the audiobook of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step: Just breathe, and smile. It made a huge difference on the drive back home. Lots of breathing. Lots of smiling. I felt like reconnection was so close. But my first interaction with another human being told me just the opposite.
I knew I needed to talk to someone. Friends were starting to notice that I wasn’t myself. Colleagues could tell my usual energy level was a notch lower. I reached out to a therapist who had served as my marriage counselor, and she had started a new practice and was now seeing individuals. I felt both wary and desperate for answers.
The day of the appointment came, and a battle began inside me. Half of me wanted so desperately to get to the appointment, and the other half wanted to avoid the session at all possible costs. I overcame the paralysis, got behind the wheel, and did my version of “driving meditation” (eyes open, only focus is the road) to make sure that I got their safely.
I had written a couple of pages of notes about how I was feeling, because I didn’t want to back off and make light of what was going on. I wanted to make sure the raw stuff came out, that I couldn’t filter.
My therapist, let’s call her “M”, could tell I was in rough shape. I was visibly shaking as I tried to explain myself. I started to read what I had written. It talked about the disconnection, the isolation, the numbness. And then, half way down the page, were words I could not believe I had written:
“I think about drowning myself.”
While Fight Club is still my favorite movie of all time, I never wanted to live it out myself. Having a suppressed ‘second life’ may look cool, but it’s not. I began to see the last two months differently. The ocean in the morning was life bringing. The ocean in the evening had a darker message, holding out a cold hand and inviting me in for a final swim.
Just three weeks before, I had written a short story about a terminally ill protagonist, who wades into the ocean, zips us his wetsuit, and swims towards the horizon with no intent to ever return. Other things began to click into place as I looked back at the last three months — I’d refused to even acknowledge how bad things were, even though in my heart I feel like I knew it the whole time.
M helped me understand how serious it was. She was amazingly compassionate, but also clear about what I needed to do, and what help I needed. She made me take the pledge that before I hurt myself I would call someone. None of it seemed real in some ways — and before things got better, they got worse.
With some friends, I could now be open about what was happening with me, now that I knew it. With others, I couldn’t find the words. But I began to feel like I was at least connected to what was happening, that I was involved, that I was no longer isolating myself.
Lesson #1: I needed to talk to someone much much earlier and not wait so long.
The next three weeks were a struggle. At a friend’s annual Thanksgiving party (for ex-pats in Australia), I watched myself as I became more and more annoyed with the new couple next to me, eventually getting up and leaving the dinner half way through because I didn’t like the person I who seemed to be in control of me.
I checked in daily with a friend (let’s call her “L”), to be accountable to someone about my state of mind.
On a tough day, where I had dealt with a few rough truths about myself in therapy, I wasn’t in a good place, and decided I just needed to push myself to let all of the emotions out. Bad idea.
I quickly began to spiral. L checked in, and I was honest that I wasn’t in a good place. Like the amazing friend that she has been time and time again, L said she was coming to see me. I fled. I started hiking back in the woods and trails behind my apartment. I don’t remember a lot of what happened that night, but what I do remember was scary. I was hysterical, scared, angry. I found myself staring 100s of feet down a cliff, looking at the rocks and the ocean below me. I don’t know why I turned around, and kept walking, but I did. L talked me into coming back to my apartment. Hours later, I was finally calm, thanks to L’s persistence.
I had made the fatal mistake of not reaching out early enough — by the time I had told L, I was not in a good place, it was too late. I was already spiraling out of control.
Lesson #2: As soon as I feel anything that negative, I need to call someone immediately, and it has a positive effect even before that person answers. Just taking action or even thinking about taking action often solves the immediate problem.
The path back
After that night, things changed quickly. I rallied my friends around me, and began to be more aggressive about reacting to anything funky going on. Within two weeks I felt more like myself than I had in months, and within a month I could say I ‘was back.’ While you’re never quite the same again, I’m very lucky that this was an acute incident and not a chronic state of being. There are many, many people who suffer every day. If you’d like some insight into the brutality that anxiety can create, read First, We Make the Beast Beautiful (it’s also useful if you suffer from anxiety or just need to peek inside the mind of someone else who struggles daily)
Part of my challenge was that this whole thing didn’t make sense. I protested that, “everything in my life is great!” and that “I don’t deserve help” because my life was so amazing. I had decided months before that I was going to leave the tech industry in the next year. It was a goal I’d had for over 20 years, and I had made it! I was an Australian citizen, and falling deeper in love with my home country every single day. I had plans to see South America, get better at Spanish — to really start on The Next Chapter of my life.
M’s working theory (and in some ways, it doesn’t matter as much why for this blog post) is that while rationally, I was more excited about the future than ever, my identity & subconscious were completely freaking out in this sudden shift from a goal drive, overly planned, compulsive existence to one where there was no pressure or purpose to life.
And so, my psyche decided to find the biggest spanner, and throw it into the most sensitive part of the emotional works of my brain. But rationally, everything was great. Well, my psyche didn’t care about what I think.
It also seemed like a complete overreaction — if I had something actually bad happen to me, then it’s okay to have these dark thoughts, right? There’s some scale, right — like a wallet full of misery buys you three bags of mental illness, and that’s a fair trade? Or that I didn’t deserve to have help, because my life was basically charmed from my perspective. Well, my psyche didn’t care about what makes sense or seems ‘fair’ to me.
Why I am writing this
Even as open as I often am about the private details of my life (some would say too open), when I began to disassociate, I was stuck.
My biggest surprise in this is how common this type of crisis is. I have spent much of the last six months getting to visit friends and family, and around half of the people I have talked to have dealt with something similar in their own life. And yet we don’t talk about it publicly. Understandable, but dangerous.
Much like I needed to read my own writing and face the facts, I need to remember this story.
But much more important, I need to tell this story.
There’s a lot of bad stigma around mental health — and a lot of people hide their own story because of that stigma, which I can understand. But I’m at a place in life where being open about just about anything can’t hurt me. So I’m lucky to be in a position where I can explain it all, and not care if someone looks down on me as a result. There are much braver souls out there, including Tyler, a former co-worker of mine.
I didn’t want this to be a cry for help — that wasn’t the purpose. But, the point of this is that I should have cried for help a lot earlier. Despite having shared a lot about myself in the past, this post one of the hardest things I’ve written. But it might be the most important one so far. M told me that people need to earn the right to see my vulnerable side — that just exposing it to arbitrarily connect to people is no more genuine than being disconnected.
I’m not writing this for sympathy. Sympathy is also important, but I’m writing it for anyone who might read it and it might help them. There are a lot more of us out there.
More importantly, if you’re reading this, and you need someone to talk to, I’m here.
James was one of my favorite bands in college, and some how in making a Spotify playlist this year I re-listened to one of their hits, “Sit down.” I’d never really paid any attention to the lyrics before. Maybe I previously assumed “Sit down” was just a love song where the first move was to get her seated next to you.
I sing myself to sleep
A song from the darkest hour
Secrets I can’t keep
In sight of the day
Drawn by the undertow
My life is out of control
I believe this wave will bear my weight
So let it flow
Now I’m relieved to hear
That you’ve been to some far out places
It’s hard to carry on
When you feel all alone
Now I’ve swung back down again
And it’s worse than it was before
If I hadn’t seen such riches
I could live with being poor
Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they’re touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me
It’s easy to focus on the painful imagery of the lyrics, but it’s last bit that is the whole point. There’s someone here you can sit next to and just be with.
So, give me a call if you ever need to talk about this stuff. I promise to return the favor.
As with any illness, you should understand it, and learn about it.
I started with Man Up, a three part documentary by an Aussie radio DJ who lost his best mate to suicide. It’s a much bigger problem than I’d ever realized:
And it’s bad in the states as well: U.S. suicide rates rise sharply across the country, new report shows.
I followed up with a documentary on the abnormal shape of masculinity in today’s world, called “The Mask You Live In.” I think it should be required reading for anyone raising boys.
The Mask You Live In - The Representation Project
The Mask You Live In follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America's…
And there are plenty of other great resources out there. And places to get help:
In the states, The National Suicide Hotline is always there.
There is always someone, somewhere, who can help.
So how’s Bryan?
So, how is Bryan now? He’s pretty great. The silver lining here is that now I understand something I didn’t before, and I’m better able to help someone else, or at least just listen and be a better friend.
I don’t mean to be glib here at all. I’d be okay to say “I’m not doing very well,” if that wasn’t the case. And that’s the whole point of this. If you’ve read this far, well, congrats and thanks.
And there’s a whole new continent that’s waiting for me and my bike. I can’t wait. (Okay, maybe that does sound glib. But, sometimes, I’m in a dark mood, and sometimes, I’m glib. And I’m okay with that.)