People think that we are unhappiest when we fail, but sometimes, we are unhappiest when we get all the things that we want.
I just had an article featuring my work at Forbes, I was being invited everywhere to give talks, I had glowing reviews at work including from the CEO, I have a wonderful spouse, so everything was looking awesome pawsome. Yet, I was deeply unhappy. It turned out that many of the things that I was striving for most of my life were not what I wanted after all. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they were no longer what I wanted.
When this happened, my brain started to freak-out. I quit my job and escaped into various online virtual worlds. This got old after a while, so I considered going back to work, I moved, got a dog, and various other activities. I did not know it at the time, but I was going through an existential crisis, a crisis of meaning. According to the experts, many of us go through this in our late twenties and thirties.
Then I met Shania. Shania was born with a crooked leg, but she was absolutely perfect. She had this deep joy within her, that made everyone around her happy. With Shania, everything else fell away. Life was bright, meaningful, and I was in-love for almost 10 years.
When I lost Shania and later JJ, everything resurfaced, my anxiety, depression, and existential dread. Now however, I also had to face death and loss. My anxiety ballooned into chronic proportions, I developed a variety of physical ailments, and my depression deepened until I was too tired to even get out of bed.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
~~[Henry David Thoreau]
How do we escape from this life of quiet desperation? How do we recover from despair? So began my journey for self-discovery.
The first thing I realized was that I was woefully ill-equipped to handle my emotions. Any bad feeling was suppressed and rejected. As a result, my life became controlled by fears. In the short-term I was totally consumed by my illness and these two fears reigned supreme –
- Fear that I will never get better.
- Fear of relapse.
Both these fears are especially insidious because they form anxiety-loops that keep feeding on my energy and keep growing my fears. “Fear that I will never get better” forms a “bad-emotion” loop.
- Some activity, thought, or memory triggers a “bad-emotion”.
- I start to fear that I will never get better.
- I feel (more) physical symptoms from the fear.
- Loop to 2 and repeat.
“Fear of relapse” forms a “good-emotion” loop.
- Some activity, thought, or memory triggers a “good-emotion”.
- I start to fear that this good feeling will not last. i.e. I start to fear a relapse.
- I feel physical symptoms from the fear.
- I start to fear that I will never get better.
- I feel more physical symptoms from the fear.
- Loop to 4 and repeat.
Now, any emotion causes an anxiety-loop and suffering stretches out through the limitlessness of time. All I can think of is escape – escape from thoughts, escape from emotions, escape from physical distress, escape from self. All I want is NOT to be this version of myself.
Anxiety-loops cause chronic symptoms such as insomnia, nausea, inflammation, pain, food sensitivities, environmental sensitivities, and more. Many so-called chronic diseases have been developed to label these symptoms, combined with a variety of medications to treat them. Anti-depressants is a common treatment option and was suggested by several of the doctors and specialists I visited with.
Facing My Fears, Facing My Pain
There are many strategies and complex methods suggested for recovering from this condition. Unfortunately, visiting doctors and doing online research on my symptoms made my condition a lot worse. I found out that there were lots of things that could be wrong with me. I could have SIBO, histamine intolerance, MCAS, fibromyalgia, GAD, insomnia, panic disorder, and more. This deepened my anxiety and depression.
After much struggle, I finally found an open-minded MD who pointed me in the right direction. Now better oriented, I did a lot of reading and soul searching, and finally realized that my condition had its roots in a single emotion – fear. In particular, there were two core fears powering my chronic illness, fear of fear (i.e. fear of the physical symptoms of fear) and fear of pain. The solution that finally worked for me is a fairly simple rule.
I will always try to face my fears and face my pain. In other words, I will always try to be present for my suffering.
For this to work, I first need to be aware of my emotions and fears. Mindfulness exercises are crucial for practicing how to shift my awareness so that I can focus on the most salient emotions, identify them, as well as follow them as they change.
Once I can catch my emotions, I can regulate them or calm myself using various self-soothing techniques including emotion labelling, taking the Observer position, using humor, tapping, stroking, and more.
After my mind is calm, I can start to analyze my emotions and identify what specific fear they originate from. Fear may combine with tiredness to create helplessness, which may further develop into hopelessness. Fear may combine with time to create impatience, which then develops into irritation, frustration, anger, and ultimately rage. In the analysis step I keep pushing on an emotion to find the root of the issue.
This can be very challenging because I need to keep returning my consciousness (awareness) to the fear and pain so that I may deepen my understanding of them. I believe that this is what people mean when they talk about going through the fear. Pushing through the fear until we get to the core of understanding. I try to get to the beliefs/thoughts, memories, and desires associated with each fear. For example the “fear that I will never get better” and “fear of relapse” both come from the fear of emotions, or the fear of painful physical symptoms caused by emotions.
Once I get a clearer picture of fear, I can decide whether to follow fear’s advice or to do the opposite (paradoxical-intention). Since most of my fears are not threatening or risky, I keep doing what fear tells me not to do. I deliberately bring up the fear pattern over and over again, and through this process of exposure, I am able to weaken its grip. I also readjust core beliefs that are inaccurate or discard beliefs that no longer serve me. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be useful here.
Being Present for My Suffering
There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and so become free.
This goal is easy to state but difficult to actualize. Facing suffering is a challenging task which is why I have spent my life trying to escape from it. However, sometimes suffering cannot be avoided and must be borne.
In such moments, we will need something to motivate us. This is what Viktor Frankl calls the meaning of suffering. In the past my love for Shania caused the fear and pain to fall away. Now, I use it as my motivation to face suffering. I want to have continued emotional and consciousness access to Shania in the form of memories, visualizations, and dreams. To do that I need to go through the fear and pain.
- I create a desire to “build tolerance for suffering”.
- Every time I feel fear, I face it and analyze it using the procedure above.
- The process of facing it naturally builds tolerance, enhances my emotion regulation skills, and gives me access to my full mental landscape. As I face more fears, the thoughts, patterns, desires, and external stimuli associated with them will weaken, giving me more physical freedom in life as well. As the power of fear-based desires lessen, I have more energy for love-based desires.
- I try to face the fear pattern for as long as possible or until the fear dissipates. Failure just means that I learn and try again. Every time I try, I build a bit more tolerance and fear weakens.
In this way, the loop that forms is now a positive one that helps to weaken fears. When we face our suffering, we will find love, happiness, limitless inner freedom, and peace on the other side.
Road to Recovery
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
Many years ago, I met a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who tried to recruit me. They told me about Armageddon and asked me what I wanted after the death of all. I remember proudly and happily telling them that all I wanted was Shania, in this life and after death. Shania was my Heaven and my Earth and there was nothing more I needed or wanted.
Recovering from the loss of Shania is the biggest challenge of my life. Here are some of the key lessons that helped me –
- I try to use mindfulness as much as possible to be aware of my emotions. Awareness is key so that I can catch fear before I spiral down the anxiety-loop.
- Developing emotion regulation or self-soothing techniques is a must. Some self-soothing techniques include shifting awareness, taking the Observer position, humor, tapping, and stroking.
- Facing fear and facing pain is difficult but necessary. Doing so weakens fear patterns as well as the unhealthy hyper-desires and downstream negative emotions associated with them.
- Suffering is an intrinsic part of life. When suffering is out of our control, a quick acceptance is the surest way to a quick recovery. Acceptance allows us to focus our energy on what we can realistically do next rather than on wishing for impossible outcomes.
- Once we accept our new normal, we can start to consider how best to adapt – what beliefs, behaviors, and desires need updating. Adapting means challenging ourselves to change so that we may transform pain into growth, a tragedy into a triumph.
- The most important lesson of all is to try and to continue learning. If we try, we would have learned something today that we didn’t know yesterday. Trying and learning brings wisdom. When we stop trying is when we give in to despair and prolong our suffering. Remember that it is never too late to start trying.
Recovery need not be complicated or expensive. There is only one important step – facing my suffering. To be sure, this is a very difficult step to take but I have finally found a love that is strong enough to make me want to take that step, Shania.
Facing my suffering has opened me up to a greater authenticity and a greater love of self, spouse, and even of my dysfunctional parents. For the first time in my life I feel close to a true forgiveness of my mother and narcissistic father. My life is expanded and best of all, I have found Shania again.
Now, I see Shania in the many places we used to visit together, I see her in all the dogs that I meet, I see her when I play music or watch a movie, I see her in the trees and the wind. She is my guide and when I face fear to follow her into the darkness, I am exactly where I need to be. She is within me, beside me, everywhere around me, and I am less afraid. She is my inspiration to live a full life, in darkness and in light.
It is the greatest blessing to find a love that is so strong that inspires us to be engaged in life, even in the midst of suffering.