What It’s Like: To Be A Wreck
One stifling Midwestern afternoon last July, I was taking one of my breakdown drives: I couldn’t concentrate on music, podcasts, anything except the pressure cooker teetering atop my slumped shoulders. That air-conditioned bubble was the only place I wanted to be in that state of mind. Where else could I scream myself hoarse like a bottomless tea kettle and be sure that no one else would hear me wail? Once I had worn myself out, I noticed that a car had been tailing me for a few miles; he refused to pass, creeping up closer and closer. Already a tight, hot ball of inwardly-directed anger, I had plenty left over for road rage and was instantly and intensely annoyed by the intrusion — didn’t he know this was my sanctuary? — and squinted into the rear view mirror, determined to figure out why he insisted upon riding my ass so closely in such sparse traffic.
But instead of boiling over, I just broke. I felt my emotional sauna of a head detach from my body, my vise grip on the steering wheel relaxed, my thumbs fell into the 10 and 2 o’clock notches, and my car began to drift to the left. I was still glaring at the driver behind me when I noticed I was no longer within the lane lines, but only just. And then just a little bit more, and then a little bit more, and time seemed to slip away just as languidly. My burning, red eyes fixed on the inexorably advancing chrome grille of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler, entranced by its geometric pattern. I wanted to run my fingers along the shiny silver bars, feel the bubbles in the welded corners, and test their density with my thumbnail. If the driver was honking, I couldn’t hear it.
Somewhere deep down, I unshakably believed that I would survive that collision and I felt compelled to experience it. The impulse was more like pyromania than a sincere wish for self destruction. To me, it didn’t feel like a death wish, it felt vital. I needed to prove to myself that I could endure the highest possible level of excruciating pain. I needed to let loose the ultimate tortured shriek as my body was torn apart and my limbs were mangled so that nothing could ever make me want to scream again. I needed to bear the unbearable with the knowledge that it could not crush me completely.
My attention returned to my body and moved through its parts methodically, starting with my shins and feet, which were closest to the potential point of impact. I became aware of the sensation of clothing on my skin and moved my concentration inward to the bones, imagining what each limb would feel as it shattered. As I continued internally probing my anatomy, testing my hypothetical limit for physical pain, I felt myself use shards of broken ribs to pierce my lungs and I gasped. I caught up with my breath and returned to the present, where split seconds still mattered, and that life-affirming lungful brought purpose back into my limp arms — barely in time for me to veer back into my own lane.
Once I pulled back onto the right side of the road, the whole episode registered immediately as unhealthy, as something I needed help comprehending and preventing. When I tried to puzzle over it alone, I became too preoccupied with finding a rational explanation for what I had felt. My therapist, an invaluable sounding board and guide on my path to healing, helped me drop my obsession with the logical inconsistencies and focus on what it was that I felt during that drive. Her approach was to concentrate on the emotions behind the compulsion and work backwards from there based on facts.
“So,” she asked, “what do we know about you and what’s going on in your life right now?” I had been feeling especially stressed, lonely, and purposeless, but I was deliberately ignoring my depression. I was more terrified by uncertainty than anything else. I worried constantly that the hardships yet to come would blindside me beyond what I could survive.
“This event was a clear, ringing alarm bell. Why was it so important for you to warn yourself right then and there that something wasn’t right?” She explained that this was my way of capturing my own attention, the “engine overheat” warning light flashing on my mental dashboard. If I kept avoiding the truth about my mental state, more malfunctions were sure to follow. I admitted to both of us that I had not been acknowledging the depth of my depression and anxiety, nor had I been actively cultivating inner strength or serenity.
“Survival mechanisms that have helped you cope in the past are failing you now, in the face of more abstract problems.” With the assistance of my therapist’s more objective explanations, I realized that I had become far too adept at sidestepping my mental issues. The exact nature of the problem was finally clear: my incessant worrying had been eroding any confidence in my ability to face life’s surprises, no matter what they may be. We spent several sessions exploring how my inner critic affected my behavioral patterns, identifying exactly where and how I undermine my own self esteem, and training me to slow down my self-perceptions to examine how seemingly uncharacteristic emotional episodes indicate where my depression has been warping my actions and my internal logic.
That day was the most mentally ill I have ever felt in my entire life. I have no desire to return to that state of mind again; I can learn those lessons from the sidewalk instead. I know now that I cannot harbor enemy selves inside of me and expect to function normally. When I neglect my anxiety, it becomes so pressurized that it dominates my consciousness. I respect the power of my emotions too much to ignore what I don’t yet understand about them. In order to face the unknown without letting it numb me into a question mark, too, I practice creating calm. Only then do I not expect and attempt to steel myself for pain.