Don’t be afraid of the light (3 tactical steps for improving your mental health)
Here is a piece I wrote which was originally printed in Transition Magazine – a publication by Canadian Mental Health Association Saskatchewan Division. I hope you enjoy.
Don’t be Afraid of the Light
Do you have any fears?
Are you scared of anything so much that it makes you want to run as fast as you can in the other direction?
Maybe, for you, that fear is spiders. Or maybe it’s public speaking, or blood, or heights. And maybe those fears are reasonable because you associate them with something terrible.
So then I have to ask, what if your biggest fear was life itself?
A Craving for the Dark
For as long as I can remember, I’ve said my prayers before bed. “Dear God, please bless everyone in the world with a long, happy, healthy, and beautiful life,” I’d say, because that’s what I wanted for the people of the world. Like many young people, I hoped for happiness, smiles, and peace for absolutely everyone.
But unlike many young people, I also hoped for an end. So, for as long as I can remember, each night after praying for nothing but the best for the world, I concluded with, “… and dear God, please bless me with cancer or some kind of illness so I can just die.”
Selfish, I know. But I was scared.
I was scared of each day of my life because I assumed each would go badly.
I was frightened of each waking moment because I presumed it would be filled with pain. Why was that? I had no idea. I had lots of friends, a loving family, I did well in school and in athletics. My world seemed to be full of light, yet the pain in my heart and the darkness in my soul seemed to grow. I spent my childhood struggling to find a will to live. And every time I thought things were improving, the darkness crept back in.
By the time I reached eighth grade I got used to being sad all the time. Sadness oddly felt good, and since being sad was so easy and felt so awesome, I embraced it. I embraced the darkness and as a result my mind went even darker with each passing day.
When I began high school, I decided to start planning – instead of just praying for – an end to my mental suffering. That way, the world could go on a whole lot better without me and I would no longer have to be scared of the world. But then my plans were halted due to an unexpected event.
My Prayers Were Nearly Answered …
Not even on month after I started planning my end, on January 10th 2008 just three months after my 14th birthday, I had a real life-threatening emergency. An arteriovenous malformation (or AVM for short) ruptured in my cerebellum and caused a hemorrhagic stroke. This called for emergency brain surgery and the doctors did not think I was going to make the night. Long story short, I did make the night and woke up a few days later ready to rehabilitate as if my major brain injury was just a small cut on my knee.
Fast forward 9 years and it seemed like I made a full recovery from my brain injury. I had endured and graduated both high school and university. From the outside looking in, I seemed like a normal young adult; some might say this life-threatening event allowed me to love the light of life. But when I personally reflected on who I became after my brain injury, things did not seem normal, nor did a love for the light exist. I constantly noticed small deficits in my cognition caused by my brain injury, and after 9 years those small deficits turned into huge burdens. Those burdens which I began to carry, combined with my negative and dark thoughts led me to hit my rock-bottom all over again.
A Blessing in Disguise
“Why was I still living?” I asked myself. For as long as I can remember, all I ever asked for was to die, and there I was at age 23… still living. The way I saw it, I had two options left in life: end it all or make it all better.
Let’s look at option 1 (end it all). Well back in 2008, my life nearly ended, and it turns out, my friends and family weren’t happy with that. So if I chose that route now, it would make them unhappy a second time around. Now let’s look at option 2 (make it all better). Hmmm… that would certainly make me happy. And if I was happy, then the people around me would be happy too. And hey, if they were happy, they’d probably make the people around them happy as well. And it’s very likely that that ripple effect pattern would continue. So, then my options started to morph into: option 1 (make no one happy) and option 2 (fill myself and the world with happiness).
The answer got clearer.
If I could figure out how to transition from rock-bottom moment to breakthrough, I could make my world and the world of many others, better. And once I figured out the recipe for that rock-bottom to breakthrough transition (let’s call it the R2B Transition), I could share it with the world.
Be Brave in the Face of Darkness
It turns out there are 3 steps to the R2B Transition, but if we’re going to get specific here (which we obviously are) there are 2 pre-steps, 3 main steps, and 1 post-step. That said, the R2B Transition is a 6-step process.
Pre-step 1: belief. Without believing you can give yourself a good life and without believing you can make your existence meaningful, you’ll never be able to take the remaining steps in the R2B Transition. Having a belief is going to give you enough confidence to at least start trying to give yourself a good life (even if you don’t know how to do that yet).
That brings me to pre-step 2: recognition. You have to recognize that life won’t always be good, but you’ll always be able to derive meaning from life experiences. It’s not exactly true that life gets better, but it is true that you get a Hell of a lot better at dealing with it. Recognize that you are going to experience tough times and get hurt feelings for the rest of your life. But, if you move through the remainder of the R2B Transition, you will learn to be resilient to tough times.
Main Step 1: Self-Care. This step is all about learning to calm your anxiety, mitigate your stress, and balance your energies. Self-care tools include yoga, meditation, mindfulness, engaging in activities like colouring or painting, taking a bath, reading, or anything else that helps you chill-out and relax. The more self-care tools you add to your toolbelt, the easier it will be for you to relax in the midst of stressful situations.
Main Step 2: Self-Development. Now that you’re relaxed and taking care of your body and soul, you’re ready to push a little harder. Learning new tools to improve your skills and gain new skills will allow you to step-out of your comfort zone and seriously start developing yourself.
Step 3: Self-Discipline. Now that you’re even stronger, it’s time to start doing things simply because you know you should. For example, you choose to not eat ice cream because you know you should be eating healthy. Or, you choose to workout because you know you should be keeping a healthy level of physical fitness. When you do things that are hard simply because you know you should do them, you are building mental fortitude. But just like everything else in your life, the three steps in the R2B Transition requires balance. So, in order to prevent burn-out while in the Self-Discipline step, you have to engage in Self-Care. And in order to keep yourself productive and not become lazy in the Self-Care step, you need to engage in Self-Development. And in order to improve a particular skill instead of becoming a jack of all trades in the Self-Development step, you need to engage in Self-Discipline. You can see those three main steps act as a loop; and I’ve coined that loop the personal growth loop. I believe that moving through that loop within the R2B Transition is necessary for living a healthy, balanced, and optimized life. And once you’ve gone through that loop at least once, you’re ready to complete the entire R2B Transition…
Post-Step 1: Teach. Teach what you’ve learned to others; help others grow just as you have. As you teach, love for life and light spreads like a ripple effect.
After you transition, you’ll end up realizing that your life got better because you made it better; you created your own light in the world, and you’ll eventually start to crave it.
A New Craving for the Light
I made the transition. I created my own light.
Now, each morning I decide to put an exorbitant amount of work into being brave enough to face the light; and even braver to make it brighter.
I also realize that being fearless is not the same thing as being brave. There’s still a fear of life – a small one that lingers in my mind. A fear that something will go wrong, a fear that a friend might hurt me, a fear that a family member might die, a fear that I’ll lose my job, etc.. But now I know how to be brave – I know the self-care tools necessary to prevent burn-out and feelings of loneliness, I know the challenging self-development tools necessary to make incremental improvements, and I know that self-discipline is necessary because personal growth means embracing change.
The truth is, I still have suicidal thoughts. They occur much less frequently, but they do still occur. In fact, I might have those thoughts occur for the rest of my life and hey, you might have them too. The difference is that I now know how to be resilient to those thoughts so that I can get them out of my head quicker than they entered. You see, life doesn’t get better because bad things stop happening; it gets better because you get better at dealing with bad things.
Here’s little a secret I learned about living life: your rock-bottom moment is actually meant to lead you to your breakthrough. You were built to endure tough times and put in the hard work to make your own transition; and when you do make that transition from rock-bottom to breakthrough, everything in between becomes meaningful.
I still say my prayers every night before bed. “Dear God, please bless everyone around the world with a long, happy, healthy, and beautiful life. And most importantly, please bless them with the belief that they can create meaning in their lives.” After 23 years living, I didn’t think I could create meaning in my life, until I finally did it. And now that I know I can, I promise from the absolute bottom of my heart, you can create it too. Believe in yourself, follow the R2B Transition, and don’t be afraid of the light.
This piece was originally published in the Fall 2020 Edition of CHMA’s Transition Magazine
*Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional. Any information and content on my website is not a substitute for professional health advice.