“What is your greatest achievement?”
This was the question I was asked in group therapy a few weeks ago.
I responded, “I answered the call to heal emotionally, and I came out the other side of the journey transformed.”
Unlike the answers I would previously give, my greatest achievement wasn’t professional or financial. It also didn’t have anything to do with the marathons and ultra marathons I used to run. Those are things that I used to think were my greatest feats. I would humble brag about them to act as if I didn’t want recognition for them. But I did.
Yet I had changed. Those things seemed trivial now. They were faded relics born of insecurity. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate my material achievements and that they were wasted space in a life poorly lived. However, compared to the journey of digging into one’s mind, answering the call to heal from emotional wounds, and breaking free of subconscious patterns of self-destruction and self-hate, they pose no competition. Material achievements don’t belong in the same category as emotional and spiritual achievements. They exist in a class of their own.
What do you find more impressive? A billionaire or a Buddha?
I know my answer.
A Conceptual Model of Healing
My journey of emotional healing began when I was 27. That’s when I had my first of many crises. It wasn’t until December of 2021 that I arrived on the other side of the process at the age of 39, feeling reborn into someone else.
Inspired by the question in group therapy, I decided to put pen to paper and retrospectively document how it all unfolded, taking note of its distinct stages, and this is what I came up with.
This is when things fall apart. It’s what we colloquially refer to as “rock bottom.” Sometimes, a crisis arises happen suddenly without provocation. In other cases, it’s the outcome of a gradual unwinding over years or decades. Feelings of hopelessness, fear, rage and a total loss of control are common during a crisis. Rational thinking shuts down as fight or flight takes center stage, furthering the feeling of being out of control. At this point, the plane either takes a nose dive into the ground, or the pilot manages to pull off a touch landing, using rock bottom to propel itself upward into flight.
When in a state of crisis, all you want is to be out of it. Driven by an instinct to survive, most of us seek an island to swim to – something that gives us safety and allows us to reground ourselves, settle the mind and nervous system, and get back to feeling somewhat “normal” again. It may take weeks or months to re-establish a sense of normal and to feel in control again. Sometimes an equilibrium is reached by extracting yourself from a harmful environment (e.g., away from the hands of an abusive partner) or through the assistance of medication and talk therapy, which was the case for me.
Once equilibrium has been reached, the mind can begin working toward understanding the circumstances and factors that led to the crisis. Healing beyond equilibrium can only take place once equilibrium has been established. This stage is defined by the accumulation of intellectual knowledge of how your life experiences, family history, biology, and past and present circumstances contributed to your crisis. Armed with intellectual insights, your healing accelerates.
With an intellectual understanding of ourselves, our inner examination intensifies. We are simultaneously the person looking through the microscope and the object being observed under the microscope. This observation and awareness allow us to intercept self-destructive patterns, train ourselves to break free from them, and steadily condition ourselves towards a new set of behaviors that better serve us.
Our self-observation narrows in on a few key insights. We identify the experiences, beliefs, and conditions that shape how we feel inside, and that’s when we’re confronted with the opportunity to confront those sinister influences. We realize that the obstacle is the way. We must encounter our demons if we hope to free ourselves from their subconscious control over us. Realizing that confrontation is the only way, the battle with our demons begins.
We have succeeded in the battle with our demons. We’re exhausted but ready to transcend the limitations of our past and present conditions. A part of you is sad because it feels like the “old you” has died. You wonder if it was worth it because you weren’t unphased by the ordeal. However, what remains is the real you buried under a life’s worth of trauma, programming, and conditioning, but it’s a skin you’re not yet familiar with. What you know for sure is that it is inconceivable to return to where you came from. You must march forward into the uncertain future.
Although the battle is over, rebuilding must follow. But before you can rebuild, you must burn down what remains of your old life. Remember, the old you died in battle. The life you used to live was a shrine to the old you. Your career, where you live, your romantic partner, friendships, habits and hobbies, and even your own family must be considered for destruction. It sounds sacrosanct, but that’s only to those who haven’t answered the call to confront their demons. To those that have transcended from the ashes of their old ways, they know that incineration is the only way forward. It is what makes room for rebirth.
After the incineration of the old parts of you comes the ambiguous valley between two mountains. You’ve climbed and come down the first mountain. You survived a confrontation with the beast at the root of your subconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Now comes the grey. It’s neither bright and sunny nor dark and stormy. It’s somewhere in between, and it’s unclear what direction to head next. Still, the journey must continue. But where? To discover your new direction, you must surrender to the wind, feel where it blows you, and examine your prior footsteps. Not to trace them back and bail on the journey before it’s complete, but to see if they contain clues as to where you should go.
That’s when it hits you. You’ve already survived the battle with your demons. You’ve shown that you can conquer anything. With this newfound wisdom and courage, you decide to pick your own path. To hell with trying to find the footsteps of those that came before you. You decide to launch out into the void and create your own path. You’ve studied the prior steps you took. You’ve paid attention to the direction in which the wind blows. You’ve taken account of the journey you’ve been through and what it’s revealed to you. There’s nothing else to do but pick a direction and go. So, you do. No map. No guide. Just you and a path of your own choosing.
Before long, the first mountain is a distant memory. You recall the demons you had to slay, but you now view the battle differently. It wasn’t a treacherous experience you wish to forget or avoid in the future. Instead, you thank the universe for giving you the chance to answer the call to battle your demons and shed the phony visage of your prior life. Each step along your new path takes you closer and closer to escaping the grey valley between two mountains. On one hand, you’re driven forward by fear of going back to the way things were. On the other, you’re drawn forward by the vision of a new future. And one day, a beam of light breaks through. One beam becomes a blue sky. No more questions. No more doubts. No more demons to slay. No more searching. Only the sort of contentedness that can be obtained through the journey you’ve finished. You’ve arrived at what you’ve been seeking.
My Personal Journey
The voyage of personal transformation often begins when everything falls apart. It doesn’t have to be that way. But that was the case for me.
It was early 2010. I was working at Twitter at the time. Other than the day-to-day stress of startup life, things were good.
Then I heard some news that startled me. A co-worker of mine had lost her fiance to suicide. It shocked all of us that knew him. He was a stud. He was a stellar athlete, a young executive at a multi-billion dollar startup, kind, humble, handsome, and liked by many. Yet he took his life. It was baffling.
I recall a feeling of uneasiness for the rest of the day. It was hard for me to focus. I felt hazy and somewhat blank. Yet I continued on with my daily routine. But over the next few days, the feeling of discomfort escalated.
A few days later, I was standing near the train tracks on my way to work when my mood shifted from uneasy to awful. I began to have sudden and intense mental visualizations of the people around me falling on the tracks in front of the train. I cringed at the thoughts, but they continued to flood in. I had no control over them. Horrible images would pop up in my head, terrify me, and disappear a moment later.
I was horrified and confused. I thought to myself, “Why am I thinking this!? I don’t want that to happen. Why won’t these thoughts get out of my head!?”
They continued when I was on the train. Feeling disturbed, I sat in the back corner of one of the train cars and stared out the window in a liminal stage, between confusion and panic. And then it got worse.
The train was whizzing by homes and apartment buildings parallel to the tracks. As I gazed off into the suburban sprawl, the sudden and intrusive mental images kicked in again. I pictured people burning alive in the homes I saw through the train windows. I cringed and shook my head to erase the horrible images. Panic set in.
I arrived in San Francisco and walked to my office. In shock, I sat down at my desk and tried to act like everything was ok. But by 10 am, I could no longer maintain a calm facade. Emotionally, I was overwhelmed. I had no clue what was going on. I felt completely out of control. A new thought entered my mind as quickly and disruptively as the others.
I remember thinking to myself:
“Oh no! I’m losing my mind. The mental illness that took my mom’s life was handed down to me. It’s genetic. This is how I die. I’m going to go crazy like she did and kill myself.”
That’s when complete panic set in. I could feel myself on the verge of erupting in tears. I crammed it down long enough to grab my laptop and walk out of the office without saying a thing to my coworkers. I darted straight for the train to head home. It was the only place that sounded safe.
I grabbed an inconspicuous seat in the back of the train, pulled the hood of my sweater over my head, buried my face in the corner of the window so as to hide, and then I sobbed while doing my best to keep my distress from being noticed by others.
50 minutes later, I made my way off the train and started my walk home. The images of people dying around me, of myself falling in front of the train, of me dying from the mental illness that took my mom continued rapid-fire within the hornet's nest that was now my brain.
Driven by fear, I had one redeeming thought: “I need help, or I’m going to die.”
That’s how things started for me. An unexpected message about a coworker’s partner dying from suicide instigated a rapid downward spiral of my own. It had poked the bear that had been resting for nearly two decades in the recesses of my mind. The deeply held fears and trauma associated with my mom’s death had been stirred up. It was my time to face them after nearly two decades of psychological containment.
That’s when I first connected with my therapist. Compelled by crisis, I answered the call to start my healing process.
“A healthy man wants a thousand things, a sick man only wants one.” – Confucius.
When in the midst of my crisis, all I wanted was for the horrible feelings and alarming thoughts to go away. I didn’t give a damn about anything else. How could I? My brain felt hijacked.
Any competent mental health professional will want the same thing for their patients. They know that healing can only begin once a patient is stabilized. That’s what the equilibrium stage of the journey is about – finding your way back to an acceptable emotional range. Once back to a relative equilibrium, the rest can follow.
Reestablishing equilibrium can be done in a variety of ways. For some folks, it involves a few rounds of talk therapy coupled with some CBT techniques, and stability can be regained.
In my case, I would eventually learn (more on this shortly) that I was dealing with a fundamental nervous system dysfunction. My amygdala (the brain's alarm center) had been switched “on”, and was stuck. I couldn’t find the “off” button.
To switch my nervous system off required the assistance of medication. At first, I was deeply against it. Mostly because I recall the litany of pills that my mom was on. It looked like she had a tackle box and was ready to go fishing but instead of it being filled with lures and bait, it was filled with multiple psychiatric medications. It freaked me the hell out to consider that I may need to take as many pills as she did. That was part of my trauma. I had been scarred by her mental illness when I was a child that I was thrown into panic by anything that invoked those memories.
Still, I was a mess. I could be sitting in front of a pristine pond in a picturesque park on a perfect day. Yet, my heart was pounding, breathing was elevated, and appalling thoughts accompanied by sharp imagery bounced around in my head. There was a clear disconnect between the rational thinking part of my brain and the instinctive fear center.
I eventually cratered and moved past my pill fear and began taking medication. The constant panic I felt was simply too much. I’m thankful that it drove me to accept the necessary intervention of psychiatric medication. My excellent therapist helped guide me past my stigma-riddled perspective.
“Andy, it may just be the case that your nervous system needs its daily vitamin.”
I gradually accepted that pills weren’t for those destined for a miserable fate. My daily “vitamins” helped elevate my serotonin levels. They shut off the fight or flight response, which helped reduce the nightmares, panic attacks, and day-to-day internal feelings of dread that had become commonplace.
I also exercised like a maniac. I had gotten into MMA training, so the gym turned into a daily sanctuary. Whatever excess panic my medication didn’t take care of, I took out on the heavy bag.
Over the course of 3 years, I slowly found my way back to equilibrium. I punctuated this leg of the journey with a trek in the Himalayas, which I described in this post about life lessons learned at 15,000 feet.
That’s when I decided it was time to dig into my past and develop a full understanding of my suffering.
But at least I finally understood what was going on! I could put words to it.
The defining characteristic of the Understanding stage is the basic ability to assign words (and sometimes clinical diagnoses) to how one feels inside. I was able to switch from “I don’t know why I feel awful, and I’m terrified” to “Ohhhh, ok, that makes sense. It’s still scary. But now I can put my finger on it.”
That began the shift from thinking I was doomed to understanding that I was dealing with something that had a root cause and could be treated. Maybe not cured, but it could be managed, and my life could become manageable again.
An intellectual understanding itself provided a smidge of symptom relief. My OCD latched on to the fear that I was destined for the grave and elevated my panic. But the insight that I wasn’t the only one to deal with what I was facing and that there were treatment methods that could help me manage my conditions brought the volume down some. I was happy with that.
Still, I lapsed into mini-crises several times over the next 3 years as the panic attacks and fearful thoughts continued their assault. After all, I wasn’t only dealing with cognitive distortions that I could talk myself through with CBT techniques. I had an alarm system that was hardwired to “on.” That’s where the medication came in. Though not a complete remedy, the pills helped.
I spent several months developing a deeper understanding. I read the academic literature on my conditions. I tested medications and doses to see what worked. With the guidance of my therapist, I dove into my childhood experiences to understand how they contributed to how I was wired. We analyzed my patterns of thought and behaviors to connect the dots between my past experiences and present condition.
At one point, I went to a psychiatric center where we wired my brain up, and I could see digital graphs and charts expressing the abnormal function in certain parts of my mind. The prefrontal cortex appeared quite busy relative to what one might expect when looking at someone without OCD. Things began to make sense. For much of my life, I walked around thinking that what I experienced day-to-day was “normal”. It turned out it wasn’t.
I was able to then look back at my behaviors early in life and understand them in a new light.
For example, roughly between ages 5-10, I would do something my brothers and my dad called “thumping.” Every night, I would repetitively bang my head against my pillow until I fell asleep. I would lay on my stomach, raise my head up a few inches, and then thump my head back down on the pillow at a perfectly even cadence of about once every 1-2 seconds. I would bang my head until I fell asleep.
I later learned that it’s called rhythmic movement disorder and might be comorbidly attached to anxiety disorders. There’s still a lot of uncertainty and incomplete research on the subject, so it’s fair to say there is some speculation on my part. But seeing how anxiety is my bread and butter, it added up. It was a self-soothing mechanism to try and reduce my anxiety stemming from some of the harrowing experiences I had as a child.
I also used our rocking chair in the living room so much that I wore it out. I would rock for hours. My brother bought me a new one for my birthday as a teenager. I broke that one as well.
Once, I was driving with my dad to a soccer game with one of my teammates, and I was banging my head repeatedly against my car seat. I was 12 at the time. My teammate said, “Dude, what are you doing?!” with a confused laugh. I didn’t realize how abnormal that must have appeared to another kid my age. He was sitting in the back seat quietly while I was in the front seat, smacking my head against the headrest. Weird.
I continued developing my understanding since I found relief the more I built an intellectual grasp of my condition. It was messy and emotionally challenging. At times it was a slog. I felt like an archaeologist delicately sweeping away layers of topsoil so as to unearth what was underneath with great care. Digging deeply with reckless abandon runs the risk of re-traumatizing oneself, hence the thoughtful approach.
Still, I was improving as each month went by. I had calmed my mind enough to do the work that led to a deeper understanding. And with that knowledge, I could move forward with the self-awareness necessary for an enduring type of healing.
With a sound intellectual foundation of my thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and biology in hand, I entered a new phase of healing. Now, I could recognize the destructive patterns and thoughts as they happen and intervene with various techniques that I learned to stave off downward spirals.
That’s what the awareness stage is about. It’s when you’re both the observer and the observed. This may sound familiar to any of you who have studied Eastern traditions that speak of mind awareness. It’s where I found that Eastern philosophy meets Western pragmatism, modern knowledge meets ancient wisdom, and my pursuit of psychological wellness started to creep into spirituality.
“Western Science is approaching a paradigm shift of unprecedented proportions, one that will change our concepts of reality and of human nature, bridge the gap between ancient wisdom and modern science, and reconcile the differences between Eastern spirituality and Western pragmatism.”
For me, the awareness stage was a period of many mini awakenings. It was a time in which I started to poke holes in my rigid rationality.
At one moment, I spoke with my therapist about a CBT technique to coach myself through an obsessive-compulsive loop. The next moment I was reading Eckhart Tolle and contemplating the role of suffering as an essential element of awakening.
Side note: you’ll enjoy this video. Give it a watch.
I continued on for a few years with a primary focus on maintaining control of my symptoms and applying Eastern and Western tools for awareness so that I could intervene on my own behalf.
Eventually, I hit a plateau. My situation had improved noticeably. Still, I felt as though I was playing wack-a-mole. One behavior or thought pattern would pop up, I’d smack it down, and another would pop up in its place. Frustrating.
That’s when I decided, along with the encouragement of my amazing therapist, to dive into the underlying traumas that had contributed to the many dysfunctions I was facing.
I began with EMDR. If you consider yourself hyper-rational, it sounds a bit woo-woo at first. Personally, I was very skeptical when my therapist first described how it worked. Yet I had answered the call to heal, so I was willing to give it a shot.
Here’s a quick primer on EMDR for those that are interested.
One traumatic memory was seeing my mom in the hospital after she attempted suicide. My father woke my brothers and me up late at night and said, “Boys, get dressed quick. We need to go.”
About 20 minutes later, we arrived at a hospital. I must have been about 7 years old. I can’t recall exactly. We entered the hospital and made our way to a room-lined corridor. There was a commotion in one of the rooms. I managed to peek inside, and that’s when I saw my mom being restrained by several doctors. They were pumping her stomach from the pills she had taken. She was fighting and screaming. The last thing I recall was making eye contact with her and witnessing the horror and pain on her face. Everything after that is a blank. I don’t remember shit. I’m sure my mind said, “Nope, that’s too much. You’re not ready for this.” It shut down.
In my first EMDR experience, I revisited that memory. It was necessary. It was painful. And it was transformational. I was able to reinterpret that memory and put a twist on it. This time, I imagined myself walking into the hospital room, and my mom peacefully lying in bed. Instead of her fighting doctors trying to save her life from taking too many pills, I imagined her resting peacefully while in her final moments dying from cancer, and I was there to hold her hand and say goodbye.
What that did for me was help me to understand her illness in a new light. What if she had died from cancer? And what if I was able to say my last goodbyes that night instead of shutting down in terror? It also helped sever the negative emotions still attached to that memory.
That’s what I was able to do during that EMDR session. Little Andy sat by her, held her hand, and told her I loved her and that it would be ok to let go and find her peace.
And with that, so did I.
The memory of that night still evokes some emotion. The difference now is that the memory no longer provokes fear, panic, and despair.
Leading up to my EMDR sessions, there was a three-year period in which I couldn’t say the word “mom” or hear or read the word “suicide” without having a panic attack. Now, that memory elicits feelings of acceptance, compassion, love, and release. It’s not that I don’t miss her. I still do. I wish I had the chance to still be with her and to know her as an adult might know their parents. But that’s not the case, and I’m at more peace with it, and with that specific memory than I would have been had I not had several sessions of EMDR.
Exposure Therapy and Psychedelics
I turned to two additional tools to confront other traumatic memories.
One was exposure therapy. The concept is simple. If you expose yourself repeatedly to something that used to frighten you, it eventually loses its power over you.
First, I wrote down a list of everything I could identify that would trigger my trauma responses. Second, I ordered the list from least panic-inducing to most panic-inducing. Third, I would expose myself to each of those situations over and over again until the panic responses began to subside.
For example, if you’re afraid of spiders, one thing you can do is place a spider in your hand every day until you’re no longer fearful of it. It doesn’t sound fun. Well, it isn’t. But it works.
In my case, I began by intentionally isolating myself to train my mind to be less afraid of abandonment. I had (and still have) abandonment fears. For about two years after my mom died, I was incapable of spending the night at friends’ houses. I would try but get sick from panic and have to call my dad to pick me up. I would also feel sick to my stomach from panic while on the school bus on my way to elementary school. Primitive parts of my mind couldn’t stand to be separated from my dad.
One by one, I worked through my list of panic producers. My exposure therapy culminated in me sitting with my therapist and reading through the police report from the night my mom died. I still have it in a folder at home in a nightstand next to my bed.
Empowered by my breakthroughs with EMDR and exposure therapy, I continued battling my inner demons. That’s when I turned to psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy to reexperience, reprocess, and free myself from the emotional attachments I had to other traumatic memories.
I took what is referred to as a heroic dose of psilocybin.
It brought me back to a day that was very hard on me. I was about 8 or 9, I think. Again, my memory is fuzzy, so I can’t pinpoint a specific age. That day, I was locked in the bedroom by myself when Child Protective Services arrived and did a safety check on me. Similar to my EMDR sessions, I relived the memory (though much more vividly than memory recall during EMDR) and was able to reconceptualize the traumatic memory in a way that gave me acceptance of what happened to me.
Something else happened during that session that caught my attention. I was sobbing, and while wiping my tears away, I noticed that they didn’t seem like “normal” tears. These tears were much more viscous. Almost syrupy. I could feel the stickiness of them between my fingertips.
A few days after my heroic dose of psilocybin, I researched the neurochemical role of tears to see if I was imagining things or if there was something to be said of the gooey nature of my heroic dose tears.
“Studies of the various kinds of tears have found that emotional tears contain higher levels of stress hormones than do basal (aka lubricating) or reflex tears (the ones that form when you get something in your eye). Emotional tears also contain more mood-regulating manganese than the other types.”
It was clear to me — although anecdotal — that I let something go that day that had been stored in my body for over two decades. It flowed out of my eyes. A liquid concoction of pain that I no longer held inside of me. It was a beautifully painful experience that shifted the course of my life. I wouldn’t be writing essays on mental health had I not experimented with high doses of psychedelics for emotional healing.
All that said, if you find yourself being called to face your greatest fears, my advice is simple:
Don’t do it alone. The peace you seek is on the other side of a challenging journey. You have it in you to survive it. And when you do, you’ll forever be changed. The old you will die. What remains is what you’ve been seeking.
“Only you can take inner freedom away from yourself, or give it to yourself. Nobody else can.” - Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul
Choosing to confront your demons is a gift you give yourself. It is the doorway to a new life. Having given yourself this gift, no part of you wants to go back to how things were. You’ve transcended the limitations imposed by your subconscious.
In my case, I saw that I wasn’t responsible for my mom’s illness, her sadness, and her eventual death. I carried a sense of responsibility for her death for a long time. It wasn’t a conscious thought process. I didn’t walk around thinking that. Still, that was clearly how I felt deep inside. And it showed in my everyday experiences.
Now, it was time for me to let that all go. It felt like I was in a small life raft, pushed offshore. Yet I wasn’t afraid. It was time to let go of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that had controlled me subconsciously for decades.
In 1519, Spanish Captain Hernán Cortés landed on the shores of the new world and gave the order to “burn the boats.” There was no turning back. The only path forward was to explore new lands.
It was my time to burn the boats. It was time to burn it all down so as to never return from where I came. And that’s what I did.
At this point in my journey, I could see the fingerprints of my subconscious mind on every part of my life. My relationships, career choices, where I lived, how I spent my free time, and my world views were all tainted by it.
It’s not that I viewed my life as one misdirected mistake. My subconscious did what it thought was necessary to keep me safe and alive.
It was acting out of fear. I was afraid that I would be hurt and abandoned and that I wasn’t lovable unless I achieved greatness. Consequently, it drove me to excellence in all aspects of my life. I could have easily turned to drugs to numb the pain rooted in my trauma and early life conditioning. Thankfully, my mind latched onto things deemed positive within our culture – good grades, sports, and professional success.
Still, I felt compelled to act in the opposite direction I had been going in.
In the words of Robert Frost:
“I shall be telling this with a sigh. Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
I first set fire to my career. I quit my job and walked away from my peak salary.
Next, I burned down the place I called home. I left Silicon Valley after building my career and social network there.
Then it came time to torch empty relationships. I emptied my address book. I stopped responding to messages from those that weren’t on the same path as me.
I had been conditioned to accept societal norms - I gladly let them all smolder. There was no use in discussions on politics, society, the economy, etc. It was all faddish and unnecessary distractions from what was True, which is all I cared about by this point. You won’t find the Truth in those discussions and in the people that enmesh themselves in them.
I ran amuck with a flamethrower to everything I had known. And it felt fucking great.
With each fire I lit, I felt lighter. Years of stuff initially constructed to protect me, but no longer served me, were reduced to ashes.
It was a spring cleaning of a different sort.
I finally broke free.
What followed was a valley between two mountains. One was behind me. Another was ahead of me. The problem was, I had no fucking idea where the next one was or what it looked like.
This is known as the liminal space.
Caught in this purgatory, I knew who I was not but hadn’t yet figured out who I wanted to be. Was I no one? Should I be no one or take on a new identity of my choosing?
This is the crux of the liminal challenge. It’s a battle fought on two fronts.
The old you (i.e., the ego) cleverly seeks new ways to coax you back into old habits. It wants to be fed. It lashes out when it is not. Meanwhile, the new you hasn’t yet appeared. The valley turns dark and lonely. Nothing is familiar. Driven by a feeling of detachment from all that was familiar, a part of you desperately wants to turn around. But that’s not an option. Once you take the red pill and see just how far down the rabbit hole goes, there’s no turning back.
You’re stuck between a past that wants to re-consume you and a future that doesn’t exist.
I spent one and a half years in this dreaded valley. I was angry and depressed through most of it. Unable to trust my own thoughts, still conditioned by decades of old patterns, the only option was to sit and wait until the patterns began to weaken. I had to let a few seasons pass by and let the wind cover the tracks behind me. So, I sat and waited until I could no longer see my old steps and wished nightly that a new path would reveal itself.
I turned down mega job offers without any real consideration. I settled into a new home in a blue-collar community far away from the Silicon Valley, which had been my home for 13 years. My phone went quiet as prior relationships faded. I closed off to the constant nonsense in the news. I found no reason to engage in worldly matters like politics. What was the point? It was all fake bullshit anyhow. Not in the Donald Trump “fake news” sense, though he was accidentally right. But in the sense that I had first awoken to the falseness within myself, which led me to see the falseness of everything around me.
It turned out that Plato had it right with his Allegory of the Cave. It was true then and remains true today.
My old life continued to fade. I wondered for months if I would keep any of it. And, if so, which parts would I save before setting a final fire to the remaining scraps.
Which direction did I want to head in? Who did I want to become? Or was “becoming someone else” also a trap – another cleverly disguised cave of illusion?
I thought about these questions but found no answers. Turning to my intellect, which I had done for much of my life, was fruitless. It heightened my confusion. One day, I stumbled upon an interview with a psychologist and spiritual teacher. In the interview, he discussed how to navigate liminal spaces.
During the interview, he provided a modest suggestion, “Say ‘yes’ to whatever opportunities or suggestions the universe puts in front of you. See where that takes you.” I thought, “Sure, I can do that.” After all, I had quit my job, so I had the space to meander.
Within a day, I received an email about an opportunity to head to Peru and sit in an Ayahuasca ceremony with military veterans battling PTSD. I had been spending time informally with a non-profit that helps military veterans with trauma called the Heroic Hearts Project. I gladly said “yes” and signed up to participate.
The next day an old friend of mine sent me a text out of the blue, asking if I would like to join for an adventure. Within 24 hours I booked my flight to Tanzania to hike Mount Kilimanjaro later in the year.
Game on, universe.
Two months passed and I found myself in the Amazon with a group of military veterans, ready to drink the powerful jungle medicine to help heal from our trauma.
I drank a double dose of the powerful brew on the first night. What followed was 36 sleepless hours full of purging that culminated in one profound lesson.
I had to surrender. I was not in control. I was never in control of my life in the way my ego convinced me to believe. The only way I would gracefully make it through my ceremony was to let go and let it run its course. So I did.
A few days later, I was recovering when it all came together.
Like the Allegory of the Cave, I was living under a powerful illusory spell. Like the Ayahuasca ceremony, the only way I could gracefully make it through life was to let go. That meant no more thinking my way through it. My intellect wasn’t the answer. It always came up with solutions that fed my ego, which was my false self.
To find my way out of the valley, I had to surrender to the clues embedded around me that had been with me all along but that I egoically ignored. It was time to stop thinking my way toward my next destination. Instead, I would need to lay back and let the river take me downstream. No more fighting the current. Full surrender was required.
A week after that, I was scaling up Mount Kilimanjaro alongside my friend. I had been up big mountains before in the Himalayas and other parts of the world, but Kilimanjaro wrecked me.
Truthfully, we went up the mountain about twice as fast as we should have, and we were taking the hardest route up it. Nonetheless, that’s what we signed up for, so there we were, altitude sick and going on 2hrs of sleep while on our way towards the summit. It was zero degrees, and we were exposed on a naked ridgeline, lurching our way up that big bastard.
A few hundred feet from the summit, I decided to surrender. I’d never bailed on reaching the summit before. It was a first, yet I was delightfully accepting of it. Sure, I had altitude illness, so I had rational reasons for stopping. Yet that’s not really why I stopped.
I bowed out of the bid for the summit because I didn’t care to reach for the summit anymore. A younger, more deluded version of myself wouldn’t have stopped because I would have cared too much about what others thought of me. I would have felt like a failure and worried that others would see me as weak. Truthfully, I was climbing mountains for others just as much as I was climbing them for myself. But that part of me was dead. I burned it down a few months prior.
I turned to my mountain guide, raised a stiff, flat hand up to my throat, and dragged it horizontally across my neck, giving the universal sign that transcends all languages:
I made my way back home to California after back-to-back surrenders. The jungle and the mountain had served their purpose.
My mind continued to do its best to fuck things up by throwing out all sorts of new ideas about what I should do next. Still, I knew better at this point. The way out of the valley between two mountains was through surrender. Like an animal tracker, my job was to observe the signals around me and trust my instincts.
Boyd Varty, the author of the book The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life, puts it perfectly:
“You can’t think your way to a calling. Finding what is uniquely yours requires more than rationality. You have to learn how your body speaks. You have to learn how you know what you know. You have to follow the inner tracks of your feelings, sensations, and instincts, the integrity and truth that are deeper than ideas about what you should do. You have to learn to follow a deeper, wiser, wilder place within yourself.”
Surrender not only connects you with the signals around you, but it connects you with an inner intelligence that isn’t of the mind.
Each morning I made my way to a local coffee shop where I liked to read and connect with a few locals with whom I’d become friends. By now, I had stopped trying to solve the riddle of my future, who I was, and what I would do next. Rather, I preferred to be nobody. I enjoy that aspect of the small farming community I was now a part of. No one cared about my fancy job titles or the startups I had been a part of. I found that I enjoyed not caring either.
Then the universe spoke again. And I was ready to respond.
A talented startup founder I helped support reached out to me over email. He asked to chat, so we hopped on the phone. Within the first few minutes, he revealed that he had suffered major setbacks in his personal life and that he could use an understanding ear to lean on. We spent an hour talking about what he was going through, and I offered a few suggestions based on my own healing journey. We bonded in a way we hadn’t before.
A few days later, I found myself in intimate conversations with a few family members. My father even shared with me that my opening up to him about my mental health struggles and what I learned throughout the journey had been helpful to him. It seemed like my healing was bleeding over to others.
Then, back at the coffee shop a few days later, a friend from high school called me. We had only spoken twice in the 20 years since graduating, and that call was one of them. Again, I found myself deep in conversation talking about the difficulties of life and how to manage our minds and emotions through their ups and downs.
Repeatedly and without provocation on my part, I stumbled into discussions with people about what they were going through, often in very dark times, and I found myself enlivened by the connection. They seemed to provoke a deeper, wiser, wilder place within me, as Boyd Varty described.
Life was suddenly unfolding for me when I stopped trying to “figure it all out” at an intellectual level. The difficult early years of my childhood. The loss of my mother when I was ten. My grandmother that had a Masters in Journalism and used it to nitpick my writing when I was in elementary school. The three years I spent as a teaching assistant in college that honed my ability to teach. My emotional breakdown in my late 20s and my ongoing struggles with mental illness. The jungle medicine. The African mountain. And a sudden and involuntary drive to tell my story through writing. It all collided at once.
I received a call to action. I answered the call. I went through hell. I survived the encounter with my demons. I surrendered to the will of the universe and it gracefully blessed me with the clarity to know what was next. It was time to tell my story and help others as they bravely toe the line at the starting point of their journey.
I had arrived. It was time to write.
Tools for your Healing Journey
If you’re feeling the call to begin your own journey of healing, it’s helpful to know what tools you have at your disposal.
When I first started my journey I was only vaguely aware of one tool — therapy. The rest I had to discover on my own. To make things a bit easier for those of you reading this, I’ve put together a list of tools you can turn to.
You can pick and choose the tools that appeal to you. In general, I suggest that people begin with finding a quality therapist, but add on other tools on top of that to assemble what you might call your own “wellness toolkit.”
Without delay, here is the list of Tools for Healing. I wish you well on your journey.