Today’s article arrives with some trepidation…
There are many new things I’ve experienced and learned about in recent years, ‘The Abyss’ being one of them. I don’t mean the classic James Cameron flick but rather the place in ourselves, in our own minds where we get lost.
Ironically perhaps, that reference didn’t come across my path until I was out of it. Probably for good reason. I imagine giving it a name like that when you’re in it may well be a path to a more permanent state of institutionalised madness and would be a far greater challenge to come back from.
Whilst I don’t believe it’s a widespread phenomena, purely based on my almost 40 years on earth with no personal experience of it, I do believe it’s something we all have the capacity for and a lot of us actually do end up there for one reason or another at some point in our lives.
I’m sure we all have our own version of what it looks like, feels like. Or perhaps we don’t, perhaps we don’t all want to know, aren’t sure how to talk about or rationalise it, which is why I guess I’m raising the question ‘What is it?’. Because ultimately it’s that sense that we’re alone behind it, which ain’t cool. None of us are alone.
So I figure by sharing my version of it, raising awareness of it is the right thing to do. Perhaps it’ll remind someone they’re not alone, give them something to relate too. Help in some way. Being able to relate to others is what helps in terms of feeling like it isn’t just us spinning around on this massive rock, which is crucial in times of crisis. It’s what connects us, shared ideas and feelings. To know it’s not just us is often the life line we need.
But where to begin? In laymen’s terms I guess – the root of or pathway to ‘The Abyss’ (for me) was loneliness in response to trauma. Using that logic, the closest reference I can currently find in ‘The science’ suggests that the part of the brain affected is known as the ‘default network’. Sounds pretty terrifying – ‘default’ – which actually makes a lot of sense, it certainly felt that way to me.
Even more terrifying is that the health burden of loneliness has been closely linked to morbidity, hypertension, immune system dysfunction and an increased risk of suicide. As well as obesity, smoking, poorer general physical/mental health, anxiety, depression, higher susceptibility to psychiatric disorders, cognitive decline and dementia…the list goes on.
Fuck me. All the more reason to spread love and give out some hugs people. Go, do it, dooo it noooow! Be a friend to someone, you never know what may be going on inside.
As scary as the potential consequences are, there is hope for us all, because my ‘default’ wasn’t the abyss before – and most importantly isn’t now. It was just a place I found myself in for a momentary couple years. A place my brain decided to imagine and create in response to trauma. A place I opened up, got lost in and so equally a place I could free myself from.
Before I heard the term ‘Abyss’ in this context from professional psychologists and therapists far wiser and familiar with it than me, I first pictured it and described it to myself as ‘darkness’. A dark cloak of mist almost. Something that crept up slowly and before I knew it had smothered me in its suffocating grasp. It was heavy. Reeeally fucking heavy.
Later, as the rather theatrical and creative side of my imagination was replaced with a more logical perspective, I felt it as a vast expanse of nothingness. A long flat plain with a tiny me stood there in what I assumed was the middle. Distance and nothingness as far as I could feel in every direction. Much like I feel when I try and contemplate the universe. ‘Aaaargggh, where does it end!?!!’ (so much for the removal of drama right?).
The weird part was, there were times I was aware and could see myself. Mini-me so to speak, stood down there, confused, sullen and alone. I recognised I was in two places at once. I was there and I was above looking down. It was like that in real life too, when other people were around even. Sounds mental right? Course it does, it does to me and I was there.
For a while you’re just lost, your reality is blurred, everything is all mangled up like a bad car wreck. You know it’s a car but it looks fuck-all like one other than the instantly recognisable wing mirror clinging on for dear life, hanging limply from what used to be the beautiful 66’ Shelby Mustang it was once part of. Your mind is that car and your touch with reality, the real you, is the wing mirror.
You’re acutely aware of your dilemma but at the same time you’re oblivious. Just trying to survive. You do register moments of clarity. I reckon the guy above was me in reality dishing those moments out, observing myself in ‘The Abyss’, in that expansive mindiverse not really knowing where to go, what to do or how to get out.
That guy up top also felt confused and helpless. He could see and feel the distress of mini-me but also knew it was all actually okay but didn’t know how to tell mini-me that, how to help him navigate his way out. The mini-me would hear a voice out there in the darkness and knew it was a helpful one. Problem was, he could never quite get close enough to hear it clearly. Try as he might.
I should point out - I’m fully aware that talking about one’s self in so many perspectives is a little nuts. But honestly, it’s the best I’ve got.
It becomes a vicious cycle. Day in, day out. In hindsight I believe it is best described as detachment, perhaps disassociation from self and the world around us. You’re here but you’re not here. You can’t always rationalise it. You dip in and out of logic, of consciousness, of your physical body. One moment you’ve got it down, you’re present, you’re feeling, thinking and living as you, the next you realise you’re actually faffing about in the darkness, being bombarded by thoughts and feelings you can never quite make out or conclude much sense from. A dull ache of confusion.
The instinct is to ignore them, even though you know it won’t make them go away. That voice I mentioned, it is helpful, it’s the real you after all. But there are also unhelpful ones, lots of them. It’s still your voice, your mind, but it’s speaking for others. Saying what others have said and what you imagine they have/would say. ‘Demons’ perhaps? They say we create our own demons, having experienced The Abyss I have to agree. There’s always a trigger, something that lead us there, but the demons themselves are ours. They are the voices of trauma.
A big part of venturing out of this expanse was about recognising that and finding that singular voice amidst all the others. Separating myself from the hurtful shit. That singular voice is us, our inner child if you like, trying to help us, the version of us from before all the shit happened. The you above looking down is your present self, you in reality. The two of them together are helping you find your way. Guiding you out. That was my take anyway.
As I faced stuff and attempted to heal on the outside, without really feeling like I was, the expanse became smaller and smaller on the inside. I began finding the edge and random stuff within it. I began spending more time in the present reality rather than deep within my own mind.
Randomly, an old empty movie theatre is one of my most vivid dream memories I have from this time. Real life was playing on the screen as I sat alone in a comfy red velvet chair. Slap bang in the middle of rows and rows of other empty red velvet chairs. If I hovered close enough I could tell the other me was rooted in that chair, stuck, unable to move (likely because I was laying in bed in the real world). Sometimes I was able to glimpse what was actually happening on the screen, gleam some clue as to what was going on. Other times it was just background noise. In that theatre there was a fight going on. The me in the chair was oblivious to the me looking down, he seemed completely disinterested, content and comfortable in that fucking prison of a chair. But me up top was screaming desperately, trying to get him to see, to notice, to understand what was happening, realise where he was and to just get up, walk up to the screen and walk through it back into reality.
Clearly this was dreamland, a strange subconscious interpretation of feeling the way I did in real life. Which is ultimately where a lot of our interaction with The Abyss occurs. When our waking brain rests and our subconscious brain comes out to play.
You see, it’s that bit that messes with ya most. It’s all those conscious thoughts and feelings we deal with and often bat away in our day to day that stack up and get stored in the subconscious. It’s all that being unloaded and dealt with as we sleep. A time when we actually feel safe and a bit of respite from the exhaustion of day to day managing. The conscious me was resting, unaware, off-guard and had no control over how to process any of it. Because the processing didn’t take place upstairs when I was me, the pain was often too much, so it built up and mingled with demon dust of new and old. Misfiled like a shockingly disorganised desktop (or crumpled into a barely recognisable car wreck).
Thing is, upstairs, I usually do process and rationalise. My approach to life problems is to not avoid but rather challenge, understand and resolve. To communicate. Observe and process, especially painful shit, because I know not doing so causes more pain. But I’d chosen to do differently this time around, out of love and the desire to protect others. I stopped being true to myself. It made life easier on the outside for a while but worse on the inside. The trauma I was carrying for others attached to my own and thus created this fucked up nonsense I’m describing. I became detached from my own reality, from myself. It was a challenging experience that changed me in many ways, but I actually regret nothing. I’m grateful for it.
There is no one way to leave The Abyss. For me, it was all about being present as much as possible in the day to day, focussing on me, being responsible for me but detaching myself and my responsibility for what wasn’t mine to take so personally. I did things that were good for me. Learning, research, counselling – ways of better understanding self and what I was experiencing and why. Hobbies, talking, sharing. Reaching out and spending more time with friends and family, and in fact strangers I’d met who could relate. It was a balance between switching-off but not avoiding, still taking conscious moments to process rather than burying things and leaving it for my useless fucking subconscious brain to deal with. Essentially getting back to the guy I was before, only stronger and wiser.
The brain is supposed to do that when we’re asleep, process all the trillions of minute interactions and experiences we have with the outside world. If it didn’t we couldn’t handle being alive. The brain is a complex, beautiful and powerful thing, yet it doesn’t always handle the big stuff well during its rest time. We kinda need to do that when we’re conscious as best we can, use its full potential. Its full power, when we’re switched on and able to.
The Abyss is certainly somewhere I will never go back to, ever. For any reason. Something I’ve heard many people say who have been there. That means looking after ourselves. However we see fit. At first that isn’t always easy or healthy for ourselves or those around us, but it’s something we need to go through - guard whilst we heal. It's about surviving before we can thrive again.
That in itself is a steep learning-curve once you’re out of it. Because there’s still the matter of some left over processing. Understanding, healing and letting go of everything that happened whilst we were there. Silencing those voices, rediscovering who we are, reconnecting that inner child with the version of us in the here and now.
As time passes, we realise we’ve stepped out of The Abyss and are releasing the weight that we’ve been carrying. Unburdening, reflecting, embracing what we’ve achieved, where we’ve been, letting go and being grateful for pretty much everything.
You kinda go through this period of figuring out who you are again as the confusion clears, dotting i’s and crossing t’s, making a deliberate choice to recognise, feel and share in good stuff as you do so. Because that’s what matters most – goodness. Love. Happiness. Friendship. People. Smiles. Laughter. Living. It’s as though we’re reaffirming our sense of self, how we want to live, who we want to be and how we can make the world a better place. Some of that’s about helping others, there’s a definite pull towards selflessness, but also, we feel a pull toward ourselves. To keep us from ever finding ourselves back there.
That aftermath can be a strange feeling too, something we’re cautious of still, it’s as though we’ve been living in a cave for years and are not used to the light outside in the real world yet. All I can say to that is put on some shades and be grateful for that light. Walk out with determination, you’ve come this far, why not?
When feeling the weight of life, be kind to yourself. Always. In each and every moment. It’s okay to feel that way. Hold on to that deepest version of yourself, that voice within as tight as you can. It’s reminding you that life, love, self, joy, hope…it’s all there within.