Mental health is something most people don’t talk about openly, and middle age is a particularly vulnerable time with the rate of suicide being the highest during this time.
Although the increase in numbers suggests a situation aggravated by the modern stresses of an economic system based on objectification, of an always on digital life and always sharing persona, the struggle with mental health is not new. Dante, the medieval poet, for example, begins his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, this way:
The mid point of life leaves many in a dark place, one where old compasses no longer work, and a sense of confusion and darkness sets in. I write these words from personal experience.
Four years ago I found myself very much like Dante in a dark forest. I could not tell which way to turn, what path to take; my body felt like an unreliable vehicle.
I was teaching three summer classes in six weeks–morning and evening, each class session 3 hours and 30 minutes long; I had over 75 students to teach and their papers to read. In years past I had been able to do this without much trouble, but this time was different. Past trauma, deep losses, twenty odd years of non-stop teaching seven or eight classes each major term undid me.
And as someone makes a wrong turn into oncoming traffic, I crashed. Piercing headaches combined with some very powerful anxiety and panic attacks forced me to pay attention to my body and realize that I was taking it for granted. Although I ran, worked out regularly, and ate well, none of this prevented two visits to the emergency room believing I was having a heart attack, and daily episodes where I noticed my fingers going numb, my vision becoming tunnel like, and my breath shortening and becoming faster.
Without much warning, or without me noticing that there were warning bells, my nervous system shut me down. For a good six months, I entered a dark space that made me question who I was, what I was doing, and whether or not the effort going into being myself made any sense. My personal life took a dive. The major roles of my life suddenly became clear that they were roles. I was not any one of them. Teacher. Son. Father. Husband. Lover.
It was during this time that I deepened my yoga practice. I could not get myself out of the house for classes and signed up for Ekhart Yoga, an online studio that became my lifeline. I practiced twice a day, and over a period of weeks and eventually months, I became more at ease and the panic and anxiety subsided but did not stop.
The experience rattled and opened me in ways that I am still exploring. Something profound shifted which had more to do with my own sense of who I am. This became crystal clear for me while waiting for some tests at the hospital and having to put on a hospital gown. There was a mirror in the changing room and for a couple of minutes, I froze in front of my own image and unexpectedly noticed that there was more than one me. The one staring at the image and the one who was the essence of the image or the mystery within the image or the witness of the image were not exactly the same.
This was a moment of disassociation that bewildered me but surprisingly brought me tremendous peace. In the quiet of the changing room, I knew in a wordless way I was not my thoughts, feelings, nor my body. The contradiction or confusion from this insight opened my awareness and gave me a sense of someone or something beyond my identity that was not necessarily within but which allowed the body, feelings, and thoughts to manifest. The experience provided a new compass.
More than a who, I realized there was a what and that that something or someone was no different than the something or someone that allows my wife, kids, students, or anyone or anything on the cosmos to manifest their bodies, thoughts, or feelings.
I felt a tremendous rush of equanimity wash over me in that moment. Even as I was about to go through medical tests that I worried might not bring good news, I gave myself completely to that observer, knowing that he/she/it has always been present, has never been threatened, and is complete and perfect.
I had read in the Christian scriptures about the peace that is beyond understanding. That is what I sensed. I did not think. I did not move. I just was. I could say with Juliana of Norwich, the English mystic and writer of Revelations of Divine Love,
All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
What happened in that moment was a sense of joy and release as I went through my tests. But the moment was just that. As I went home, I was surprised, that instead of feeling back to normal, the daily panic attacks that left me rattled and confused, were still there. My experience was only a signpost I could use as I navigated the rough waters. It was not the vehicle nor the destination itself.
All along I was still teaching my classes and at times even within my teaching I would feel the wave of panic engulf me. Initially, I would feel terror as the room would close up. Thankfully, the semester ended and I was able to retreat back to my house where with much tenderness and love, my family cared for me. I shared with them what was going on as much as I had words to describe. My daughter and wife would sit with me at night and hold my hand. They would not say much; they knew words would not help. They loved me unconditionally.
Although the panic episodes continued, I began to relax as I trusted my body a little more. Knowing I was not in danger of a heart attack helped. Through my daily yoga practice, I began reframing and sensing that what I was experiencing was not a negative experience but an invitation to befriend the body without judgment, to let go of past hurts, slow down, and savor each moment more. The panic became a feedback loop.
Learning to slow down the breath, to even it out, and to notice it became my go to practice. And eventually the breath became the thread that lead me out of the dark forest. During this time, I was reminded of another ancient text, the story of Jacob wrestling the mysterious man. It taught me that to make it to the other side, there is a letting go that too often comes with an encounter with the mirror. No one makes it to the other side without vulnerability and being touched in an often painful way.
Overtime, I have become friendlier with my panic episodes and realize that they are there somehow as welcomed guests, leading me to the unfamiliar. As I write this paragraph more than four years later, these guests seem to have taken residence within. They don’t need to get my attention as much these days, but I’m aware that they are with me, whispering ever so lovingly to remember what I am, to let go of all that is not me, and surrender to the spaciousness of being nobody, nothing, and everything.
If you have read this far and find yourself camped out like Jacob or me next to the stream anxiously awaiting yourself/brother, take heed, and develop deep faith in yourself. Although I did not seek professional help, sometimes this is a necessary and important step in becoming better acquainted. Seek community and find and develop an embodiment practice that allows you to settle into your body, awaken your senses and remind you that you are not what you think you are. You are more than enough.
*I can be reached at 305. 403. 9542.