When You Are So Far Down You Can See No Way Out
The survival tool for everyone from soldiers to single moms
I sat on my couch alone, sobbing. I felt depleted. Defeated. Broken.
I couldn’t do it anymore. I just couldn’t.
Reaching out for help, I texted my friend John. He called, and as soon as heard the tone of my voice, he dropped everything and drove to my house to sit with me.
He stayed with me from 10 pm to midnight — a sign of a true friend if ever there was one.
At first, John just listened patiently while I said over and over, I can’t do this. I can’t do this.
And he would reply calmly, over and over, but you are doing it. You’re doing it.
I didn’t understand. But by the end of his two hour visit, I would.
That night my friend John would give me the best advice of my life.
First, though, he would listen patiently while I explained how how I — always so tough and independent — had fallen so far and gotten so stuck.
A couple of years earlier, my mother, my best friend, had died suddenly within 24 hours of deciding to stop her cancer treatment.
She had put me in charge of helping her end her life. I did my best to be present with her as she passed. But as I sat with her dead body and said goodbye, a part of me died with her.
The following year had been a nightmare. As co-executors of my mother’s estate, my estranged brother and I fought so much we ended up in court.
All the while, I was working full time and raising my son alone with no family to help me. I was so overwhelmed I had episodes of burnout where my body simply gave out on me.
Now, sitting on my couch with my friend John that night, having told my story, I reiterated that I had nothing left. I couldn’t live without my mother. I couldn’t raise my son alone. I didn’t have it in me to keep myself from crumbling again under the weight of overwhelming grief on top of relentless single-mom stress, both of which were situations with no end in sight.
John just nodded.
Then he told me about a mental tool that kept him going through unbearable situations.
He first used this tool to survive a series of abusive foster homes growing up.
He used it again to get through Basic Training when he entered the Air Force at 16 years old and was assigned to lead a group of 52 men.
And this tool would save him, yet again, while serving in Desert Storm.
This is the tool:
Do not think about the future. Do not think about the past.
One day at a time; one hour at a time; one minute at a time.
No future. No past. Only now.
That’s how you survive when you can’t control your situation and it feels unsurvivable.
It’s the same tool Vietnam War vet Jim Stockdale used to survive his 8 year imprisonment while fellow prisoners hoped for a future date when they’d be released, only to die from disappointment.
That’s when I got what John had been trying to tell me; When you get overwhelmed by the feeling that you can’t do it, remind yourself that at this very second, you are doing it.
Does this sound like pseudo-spiritual, self-help gobbledygook?
This is a life saving tool for people who are in situations they literally fear they may not survive.
Prisoners with life sentences.
Domestic abuse survivors.
And yes, soldiers and grieving single moms.
I will never claim that my struggles are remotely on par with what men and women go through in the military. That is impossible to imagine.
What I can say is that when my friend John told me his story, it was the first time that I felt truly understood since my life went on a downward spiral into its darkest moments.
I felt that he was not just sympathizing with what it feels like to be in over your head, fearful of your level of responsibility and in terror of crumbling under the weight of your circumstances.
He was empathizing.
As soon as I took in that empathy, I felt the panic lift, realizing that if he could survive, so could I.
And now, when I pass strangers on the street, I think, Is this man a war veteran? Did this woman lose a child? Does this person have a chronic illness?
I’ll never know.
We have no idea what others are going through, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.
What we do know is that many of us, at one point or another, will feel so desperate that we will need to take life second by second.
I have a new level of empathy than before my talk with John. A new sense of connectedness with friends and strangers.
We all have our own struggles, and they are all different, but we are all in this life together.
We are never truly alone.
And we can do it.