Winter is always quite a difficult time for me. I’m the kind of a person who runs on solar power, and the short, dark, gloomy days in Poland at this time of year don’t give me enough of it. Last year I went to Thailand and India as a means of prevention and had the most productive January in my life. This year, stuck between house renovation and wedding planning, I stayed at home and found myself overwhelmed and tired for apparently no reason, like it always starts.
This time, it started right after I returned from the Apotheosis retreat, all pumped up and ready to challenge the world. Sliding into a very low energy state just two days after coming back made me feel like I somehow failed the test. I felt compelled to prove to my fiancé that Apotheosis served me well, that I’m a better person now, and that the money and time I took away from other urgent matters were actually worth spending. It would have probably been easier to convince him if I wasn’t so sad, complaining, and staying in bed for so long.
At first I thought I was grumpy because of house renovation. Totally understandable, as our apartment was a total mess. We had no kitchen or office furniture, kinda crucial things while working from home, and all our stuff was either tucked away in some random places, or stuck in the summer house. Our car broke down and we didn’t know how long it would take to get a replacement. I tried to stay as productive as I could, working from the couch and washing dishes in the bathtub, but the utter chaos felt very overwhelming.
But then we got at least an improvised desk, an improvised kitchen counter, and a fully functional dishwasher. Suddenly the place became quite liveable. But my mood kept swinging up and down, and up and down, and the intensity of emotions raised, if anything else. I thought I’d get more peaceful with time, but I was getting more and more blown away into very intense states.
I really wish someone had told me this when I first started meditation
There’s a million articles online about how meditation will give you a peace of mind. And this is true, in a very real sense. When the natural state of mind is hopping from one random thought to another, being able to catch a pause between them is a very comforting feeling. It teaches you to stop identifying with your thoughts so much, and to consciously pause even while you’re no longer meditating.
There is, however, one thing they don’t tell you. As the mind gains more and more space and clarity through meditation practice, it slowly gets filled in with long-forgotten thoughts and emotions kept deep in the unconscious. Most of them are ugly, nasty, usually hurt a lot, and can sometimes make the whole world appear utterly hopeless. As I progressed in self-awareness month after month after month, I began to see more of such thoughts and feelings rather than less. Even more surprisingly, they seem to intensify as I gain awareness.
They say you become more calm as you practice meditation. What they don’t say it’s the calm of a lone sailor in the middle of a thunderstorm. You know there’s nothing you can do about the storming rage around you, and there’s nowhere to run from it, so you look around shyly, hoping that it will pass.
This doesn’t seem like much, but it’s been huge progress already
Whenever I feel confused and overwhelmed, I like to keep things in perspective. And the truth is, this is the best confused and overwhelmed state than I have ever been in. Staying present and sorta-self-compassionate in the middle of an emotional turmoil is the single most healthy response I ever managed to achieve.
It’s been worse. Much worse.
I never really talked about this publicly because it’s painful, and embarrassing, and super crazy scary. Only a few years ago I got to believe that people might genuinely like me. I didn’t want to ruin this by saying something that will make everyone think I’m too toxic and emotionally unstable to be a sort of a person they want in their lives.
But if I changed so much over the last few years, perhaps someone reading this and feeling like their world is ending might find some hope, courage and strength for themselves in my story. Let’s start at the very beginning…
I was raised as a prodigy kid.
My parents always told me that I was so smart, and worked hard to prepare me for every single math, science or spelling contest that was out there. Victories were celebrated, losses—not so much. In result I’ve built a sense of self-worth based on winning whatever tournament I entered and getting always the best grades at school.
As I found out in many unpleasant ways, this isn’t a recipe to become popular among the peer group. All the kids wanted to hang out with other kids who were fun to play with rather than someone who needed to prove at every step how much smarter she is. I would say they’re not smart enough for me but inside crave acceptance. I had my brothers so I wasn’t completely lonely, but I didn’t belong.
Through middle and high school I realised that’s not how you make friends. In result, I made some very desperate attempts to become one of the cool kids so that they would like me. As you can guess, there’s nothing remotely as uncool as a desperate attempt to appear cool, and for the most time I would be lonely, miserable, and stuck in quite toxic patterns.
And then I moved out of my hometown to study computer science. By the sole virtue of being among the 10% of our faculty who happened to be female, I would suddenly go from a punk outcast to someone who was more popular than I could ever dream of. There were visitors knocking at my college dorm room all day and night long. I had finally moved far away from my parents, whom I believed to be the main cause of all of my problems, and could finally start living on my own terms.
For a month or two I thought I was on top of the world.
Then suddenly I realised, university was HARD. I was very invested in my smart kid identity, and suddenly I wasn’t the smart kid anymore. I was surrounded by people much smarter than me, who were much better prepared to learn stuff that’s difficult, challenging and uncomfortable.
I’d never got a chance to really learn how to learn before, cause so far I had my parents who were pushing me to win, and then was kinda carried over by the momentum through high school. Not knowing how to learn, I gave up on algebra, calculus, and a few other classes way faster than I’d like to admit. I would strike the pose of someone who is too cool and too busy partying to worry about grades.
If you’re a girl in a tech college dorm, being too busy partying is actually very easy to achieve. Whenever you’re in need of a party, there will always be one around. If everything in you screams that you’re a failure, spending some good time with others is a great way not to think about that. It’s even easier to forget if you’re also very drunk.
After a couple months, I would start missing classes. I never made this decision consciously, but since I wasn’t the smart kid anymore, what was the point for me to do more than the minimum? Not all classes were mandatory, and we had a whole complicated handbook passed over by previous generations of students that explained what was the minimum viable input that would get us promotion. I got pretty efficient at navigating this whole complex system to make sure I only contribute as much as I absolutely have to. Being fired wasn’t an option, cause then I’d have to start repaying my student loan.
By adult standards, my friends and I might be considered to have had an alcohol problem. To us, this was more or less regular tech college dorm life. At its most intense, we could start partying on a Thursday and finish it on a Tuesday night. We could wake up hungover or still drunk, then keep on drinking for the rest of the day.
But getting drunk will keep you from thinking you’re a failure only for as long as you’re drunk. And as much as we tried it, it’s not possible to stay drunk forever. After every high there was and equal low, when I would stay in bed all day, hungover, and wishing to die.
Somehow the physical pain of hangover was easier to bear than the emotional pain of feeling worthless. At least I had a real, physical reason to feel shitty, and no space left to think much about other ones.
By adult standards I might have had an alcohol problem, but that was just a symptom of other problems that I had. No one gets shitfaced drunk because it is fun. I did it because I was running away from myself. Without alcohol, I kept running away from myself in many other ways too.
While I wasn’t partying, my mind was busy keeping up with a million distractions at any given time. I spent thousands of hours on online forums, humour portals, even on gossip sites. As long as there was something to stuff my head with, I could keep the dark, depressive thoughts in the corners and pretend they were not there. But eventually, it all kept crawling back.
I remember one night I spent reading some random shit on the internet until early morning hours. I woke up around noon, not very impressive, but also not hopelessly bad. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the first one in a few weeks. I thought I’d go for a walk in the park, buy some groceries, cook something nice, then go to the afternoon class at 4pm.
Then I sat down at my computer… and remained there, sucked into an endless vortex of random distractions. Before I knew it, it was six already, the sun was setting down over the park, and I realised I hadn’t eaten anything at all the whole day. I watched that magnificent sunset from the height of eleventh floor of my dorm room window feeling like my life was ending. Nevermind the classes, I couldn’t force myself to go for a fucking walk or to eat something—anything—at all. I didn’t just fail as a student, I failed as a human being. I failed at life.
The next time I visited my parents, I shyly told them that maybe, just maybe, I ought to see a psychologist. They said I’d better go to a Catholic priest and confess.
I didn’t have the strength and courage to go see a psychologist on my own.
Three consecutive Catholic priests I confessed to over the next year literally shouted at me for what my life has become. I knew I was a failure before I spoke to them. I didn’t need to go through all of this to remind myself again.
I never came back to speak to another one.
I was on my own, confused, miserable, and overwhelmed with life.
I never used the word depression to describe the state I was in.
I kept reading about how people exaggerate and say they’re depressed whenever they’re feeling down, and how a real depression is when you want to kill yourself. I didn’t want to kill myself, I wanted to party a lot, and have a lot of friends, and be loved and accepted. It only just so happened I couldn’t get to leave my dorm room on most days.
I thought this was because I failed at life. I thought I had no one else to blame but myself, and if I tried harder, I’d be healthy, happy, and loved. I thought I was a failure because I didn’t try hard enough.
It’s hard for me to tell how exactly I crawled out of this hole. It was a very long process, spawned across many years. In very many ways I am still crawling out.
But one thing I know, even when I was a sad little ball of misery, there were always people who saw potential in me. A boyfriend who made me believe that I am worthy of love. Friends from an online forum with whom I made some much needed money while changing people’s lives. A team lead who gave me promotion despite me never completing the required degree, then told everyone I’ll get that degree. I had no choice but to prove myself worthy of his trust.
And even though I would still get caught in mindless distractions, and in very many ways I still am, from one day to another I got to perceive myself less and less as a failure.
It’s a process. Even these days I sometimes get caught in self-flagellation for things on my todo list that I keep putting off, or not replying to some of my friends for ages. Whenever this happens, it’s good to remind myself that there were days when I didn’t even manage to get out of bed, or eat, or leave house. And somehow, I survived. And somehow, I am so much better now, even when things are tough.
It’s good to remind myself that my worth does not depend on how much I can accomplish in a certain day.
I don’t need to be perfect to be worthy of love.
I don’t need to party every night to be worthy of friendship.
I don’t need to pretend someone I am not to be worthy of acceptance.
I don’t need to win every competition to be worthy of admiration.
I don’t even need to enter any competition, cause the best games in life are not zero sum.
If you feel like you failed at life, look around.
You survived. With all these bullshit thought patterns in your head that would turn every life into hell, you survived. Someone has made you believe that you are not worthy of life and love, and you believed them, but still, you survived. I am very proud of you, because I know how much it takes.
No matter how hopeless things seem at the moment, there is always hope. There will be always someone to help you if you reach out to them. Keep reaching out, and remember, you are not alone. Someone has made you believe a lot of bullshit at some point, but you have the power in you to get rid of it, one baby step at a time. Keep going, my dear. Keep going.