Saved By A Mental Breakdown

My throat suddenly clenched closed, it was hard to breathe, the first thought was that I was having a panic attack. I was no stranger to the sudden strike of impending doom or a ferocious wave of a death mongering adrenaline. But never a clenched throat. I struggled to swallow, I checked my pulse, I planted my feet on the ground, I went through the checklist the psychiatrist had once given me. “Alright panic if you’re here, then bring it on, I am ready.” I had learned early in my formative years of getting sober that fighting the wave of impending doom only gives it more steam. So there I was, ready, surrendered to the terror, letting it have its way. The next day at the doctor’s provided little relief, “…Well, sir, I think it might just be anxiety, go home and get some rest, maybe stick with liquids for now.” That evening the anxiety turned into what felt like a total collapse of my psyche, it was hard to focus, hard to breathe, I became trapped in a thought that I couldn’t shake. I pulled off the freeway. “Am I supposed to keep myself breathing or is my breathing on autopilot?” Suddenly I was hyperventilating, I had just made it into my garage and closed the door, the confusion and fear were unbearable. An all-engulfing flame of terror had overwhelmed me, it would soon incinerate the life I was desperately holding onto. 

To back up, a few weeks earlier I had just finished a year-long journey through the St. Ignatius spiritual exercises. A deep contemplative imaginative meditation on the life of Christ, forty minutes of silence every day. A recommendation from a dear friend after I expressed a feeling of being overworked, numb and distant from God. During the last session with my spiritual director, a wonderfully intuitive woman, she warned me that in my mediations she noticed I was never going to the cross with Jesus but instead watching it from afar, as a kind of bystander. She advised me to be careful on the other side of the work we had done because it was not finished. She spoke frankly, “It’s interesting how much you avoided the cross, be careful this coming year…”. I understood there was some death or surrender I was consciously or unconsciously avoiding but figured because I had worked the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous, surrendered a whole bunch of power over there, I was surrendered enough. It was during this year of spiritual exercises my prolific career as a director also hit a slump, I lost several jobs in a row, my wife had gone to get her masters degree, and I was suddenly alone with myself and my pain. Hindsight I think that repressed fear or whatever that darkness was that grabbed ahold of my throat that day and sent me on a tailspin, I think somehow it had been suppressed my entire life. Busyness, distraction, over-eating, drinking, you name it helped fend it off for a season but it was always there lurking. 

But back to the everlasting panic attack. It was after a week of not being able to eat, sweating profusely at night, and feeling like real death was upon me, my wife God bless her, had had enough. I finally called my spiritual director who was also a psychiatrist. I remember it as clear as day: “…We can get you on medication if it becomes unbearable but I recommend staying the course.” That simple, as if she knew something I didn’t. It was after that I would face the collapse of my mind and journey into the darkest night of my soul. The agony and terror were inarticulable. I finally understood why some men take their own lives. I held onto my sponsor in AA, I would lay on his couch often barely able to keep my head up as he took me back through the 12 steps. The more I worked with him the more I realized how truly un-surrendered my life was. It was clear I had somehow white-knuckled my way through early sobriety, eventually taking all of my self-reliance and willpower back. It would be over four months later that the horror of this prolonged panic finally subsided. I was forty pounds lighter, laying on my back in our backyard looking up at the sky. I told God that I give up. I said it with the core of my being like a dying person’s last breath. “Into your hands, I commit my spirit,” I remember my sense of smell coming back, my ears kind of opening, I tasted what someone was cooking in the distance. I cried, I wasn’t afraid and I wasn’t numb. Later that day I waited to surprise my wife on the USC campus, I was perched up high on a grass hill. As I overlooked the body of students I felt a sort of weightlessness as if I was one with the grass and trees. I was translucent, the students were a part of me and I was part of them. I knew it deeply. It all sounds airy-fairy now but there was a golden hue to everything as if I was seeing another dimension, another kingdom. The moment felt like grace or a gift on the other side of a kind of ego death.  As much as I tried to hold onto the feeling into the night it disappeared like a gentle breeze. I missed it. It was heavenly and I felt free for the first time in my life, I knew I would never be the same after that. Some friends since have tried to explain similar experiences through the use of DMT, ayahuasca, or kundalini exercises, but it never really sounds the same. The boy that finally died on that cross was dead. That death has given the words of that murderous Apostle Paul to the church of Galatians a new meaning: “It is no longer I who live…”