There’s No “I” In Crisis?

What I found out when I lost myself completely

Not long after my 23rd birthday, my life fell apart — for no particular reason.

I woke up one morning like any other, and I didn’t really exist anymore. The world was there, but I wasn’t. As my eyes adjusted to the morning light of my girlfriend’s poky little bedroom, I had a strong sensation that something at the centre of my being had disappeared, that everything had changed in some Very Important Way. I couldn’t shake this feeling for weeks. The abstract nature of the problem only made it more urgent, and totally bewildering.

Imagine trying to explain this to your friends and family — particularly when, thanks to a cultural heritage of kiwi understatement, you present as completely fine and normal.

‘Mum, the thing is, I’m pretty sure I don’t exist anymore.’
‘You might just be hungry, I’ll make you some lunch.’

Helpfully, there were other symptoms that drew a little more attention. The episodic breaks from reality, in particular.

About a month after that weird first morning, I was driving home from playing a show in a neighbouring town, and the world started to tilt. I pulled over, got out of the car, and looked up at a sky shimmering in its own undying presence. Both time and space forgot themselves, the world spiralling endlessly into itself on a kerb five k’s out of Hamilton.

Getting back into the car was a challenge. I had my keys in one hand, my phone in the other. I knew one of these objects would unlock the car, but I had no idea which. I eventually managed to text my bandmate to circle back and pick me up. He was remarkably unfazed. Again, that kiwi understatement.

These episodes would happen every few weeks, some more harrowing than others. There was one particularly public occurrence on a ferry ride with my parents, after seeing a trippy Christopher Nolan film that apparently sparked something deep within me. I was terrified that when the ferry reached our destination, we’d actually be right back where we got on. My dad’s response to this was fair enough: ‘that’s ok, we’ll just get another ferry’. I had no way to explain to him the real shape of my terror. I wasn’t afraid of ending up at the wrong destination, I was afraid of what that would mean. That the world was incoherent. Or worse, that I was simply no longer capable of making sense of things.

I remember him asking my mum with some urgency, ‘do you have his pills?’, and thinking: oh shit, I’m that guy.

The keys or the phone, the departure point or the destination. My world was beset with what was essentially a problem of grammar. The order of things matters just as much as the content. When the sentence loses all shape, what happens to the subject?

I was losing myself, completely. As the months ticked on, there were many things I couldn’t do the way I used to. It seemed that every day, one more thing was now outside my rapidly shrinking comfort zone. Going to the supermarket. Driving above 80kph. Driving anywhere at all. These all filled me with anxiety, not to mention worry about what would happen if I had another episode while doing them. And worst of all, I had no idea why any of this was happening in the first place.

This was ten years ago. It remains the most profound, life-changing period of my life — not because of the experiences themselves, fascinating as they are in retrospect, but because of what I did to make sense of them.

During this time, I saw a number of experts and healers. I didn’t just want a cure, I wanted to understand what was going on. I wanted to find meaning in my crisis.

Two experts stand out in particular. The first, a psychiatrist, who gave me the medical view. It’s brain damage, plain and simple, and ‘it’s probably irreversible’. I remember that last part well — how casual he seemed for a man handing out a life sentence.

The second was an energy healer, who gave me a very different frame of reference: spiritual awakening. ‘You’re an Indigo Child, and you’re here to save the planet.’ Ok then. Can I start by saving me?

In time, I didn’t hold on to either of these views. To use a popular phrase from the mental health profession, neither was particularly ‘evidence-based’, since I’d had two brain scans that had shown no anomalies, and since, well, ten years on I still haven’t saved the planet. (The energy healer’s credibility dropped to zero a few months later when my girlfriend and I, who the healer had pronounced life-long soul-mates, duly broke up.)

While the energy healer gave me a short-lived thrill, the psychiatrist’s verdict made me feel exactly as hopeless as you might think, for a very long time.

Psychiatrists have a tough gig. You go to them at your absolute worst, desperate for something they almost definitely can’t give you: answers. Answers to the biggest questions our little minds can dream up. What do these experiences mean? And why are they happening to me?

You ask them for meaning, but they can only give you explanations. Mechanics. Theories about chemical imbalances or internal switches getting stuck. This can help sometimes. It just didn’t work for me.

I’d tried a range of pills to get my old self back — old school anti-anxiety meds, antidepressants, low-dose antipsychotics, even anti-seizure medication. I tried ‘anti’ anything. There were some benefits, and a lot of drawbacks.

One day I realised something. I wasn’t just swallowing a pill, I was swallowing a whole way of seeing myself. Every time I’d take a pill to quash my anxiety, or limit one of my episodes, I was sending myself a loud and clear message: these experiences are bad, they need to be suppressed.

But what if they weren’t all bad? What if they were fundamentally neutral?

Throughout all this chaos, all the things I had to stop doing because they filled me with dread, there was one thing I could still do: go on stage and perform. Now, this was before I joined a band that actually had people turn up to their shows, so these weren’t massive crowds I was playing to. Still I kept waiting for the day that this clearly stressful activity was too much for me to handle. Thankfully, that day never came. In fact, the stage was my refuge, it was the one place I didn’t feel totally weird and freaked out. But why?

One night, after a particularly good show at the now-defunct Kings Arms in Auckland, I had an epiphany. It’s not that I don’t feel weird and freaked out when I’m on stage, it’s that when you’re on stage you’re supposed to feel that way. We just have a different name for it. As performers, we call it nervous energy, and it has a purpose: to give you the energy to get up and entertain a room of strangers. Crucially, it also has a pay-off. You walk off stage, and you feel amazing. The more nervous you were before the show, the better you’ll feel after. It’s an act of personal alchemy, and it’s awesome.

That was the night I stopped taking my medications, and embarked on an experiment. Each day, I would try one thing outside my comfort zone. And most importantly, I wouldn’t just ‘get through it’, white-knuckling my way through the inevitable waves of panic and weirdness. Instead, I would approach it like a performance — allowing the feelings to overtake me as they would, and using that energy to do something uncomfortable.

On day one I went to the dreaded supermarket. I imagined the whole thing was a performance. I felt fucking awful, the entire time. But when I got home, I set my bags down, and experienced what I can only describe as joy, welling up from my heart, bringing tears to my eyes. An encouraging start.

Ten months later I jumped out of a plane. (With a parachute.) This time what followed were months of a gorgeous, background euphoria, and an ongoing epiphany about how I wanted to approach this whole ‘being alive’ thing.

I have come to believe that our comfort zones are ever-changing. They will never stay fixed, so each day you have a choice: will today be a day your comfort zone gets bigger, or smaller?

There was a time not long ago when I saw this whole thing as my origin story — that one time that I figured everything out. A friend of mine calls this ‘recovery porn’, those stories of overcoming crisis that — inspiring as they are — also contain a seed of the same old message I had to reject in the first place. For me, distress is something I need to experience, rather than suppress. Likewise, you can’t get rid of distress once and for all, however triumphant your story of growth.

Lately I’ve been experiencing a few curve balls to my mental wellbeing. Nothing on the scale of my twenty-fourth year, but a few throwbacks, and a few new things. It’s a reminder that distressing experiences are woven into the threads of life, and even my way of making sense of them can’t stay static. This much I can handle — at the very least it lets me know that I, almost certainly, do exist.

If you’re interested in more on the topic of big, uncomfortable feelings. Check out my new project here.