I can't come back to life!

I've been through hell and close to dying, and now I'm stuck


Cary Tennis
July 28, 2010 4:30AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I came pretty darn close to dying, and now I can't seem to come back to life.

Five years ago, I founded a not-for-profit that had been my dream for nearly a decade. At first, I was exhilarated. This was my baby, as I called it, and it felt that way — like not just a professional project, but a deeply creative one.

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Given the amount of time, energy and education I had invested in this line of work, it is still hard for me to understand how and why I flamed out as dramatically as I did. After a long stretch of fairly intense organizational development, I began seriously questioning the value of the work I was doing. And despite having worked in the field for some time, I found the role of executive director deeply draining; it was the sort of never-ending stream of tasks that have driven postal workers, well, postal.

Within months of this crisis of confidence, both my performance and I were being skewered at a board meeting. This confrontation was led by someone I had previously considered a close colleague, which felt like a huge betrayal — partly because I was myopic and panicked, partly because there was real and unexpected aggressiveness in her approach. In hindsight, I couldn't confront the fact that I didn't have the full skill set needed for that role, which paralyzed me and exasperated the board. Rather than sticking with it and seeing the project through to the next level (whether that included me or not), I spent the next two months hyperventilating and puking and trying to get done what was in front of me that day. And then I couldn't take it anymore. I unraveled, gave up — submitted my resignation and departed a month later.

It felt like the end of my life. I'd been a single 30-something organized around her career; suddenly that axis had disintegrated, and I felt myself wobbling off into space. Since then I've pieced together meaningless consulting work that paid the bills; fended off relatives who asked, "What happened?" with that excruciating mix of bafflement and pity; cringed when I couldn't answer them; had distracting and tacky flings that reflected my total lack of romantic self-confidence; gained a bunch of weight; withdrew from friends; started to drink when I never had before (infrequently, but it feels addictive and medicating when I do).

Finally, when I started putting my affairs in order and got a big dose of something bad abroad, an aggressive hospitalization for severe depression and a subsequent visit from my heroic mum helped me start to turn some kind of corner. The problem is, I got just well enough not to put the needle in my arm, but nowhere near well enough to handle the big work of rebuilding a life.

I have a job that supports and doesn't ask too terribly much of me, and beyond that, I do virtually nothing else. It's not just that I'm immobilized; countless things require my attention, and I don't care. Here are some of the things I think are wrong with me, variously and multiply: I am pathologically lazy, have reached critical mass on my lifetime stress level, need more structure, need to forcibly propel myself out to do things if necessary, can only be saved by Jesus at this point, would feel much better if I hit the gym, should lose weight so I have a shot at a boyfriend, need to look at the fact that I don't care that much about getting a boyfriend, wonder if I really ought to go to some kind of rehab, think I am irredeemably and utterly fucked.

The years before the job were hard too, very hard for as long as I can remember. I've been in an obscene amount of therapy, and no one seems to know what's wrong with me. What is wrong with me? I don't recognize myself now, without ambition or vision or faith or belief in life's possibilities. I'm getting more bitter as the months grind on, I can feel it, and look on the outside like the person I am — someone who has given up on life and herself. My heart feels dead, a carbonized lump where a red beating thing used to be. If purgatory exists, this must be it: I'm not dead yet, but sure as shit not living, and likely in fact on my way out the door.

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So, Cary, please help. What is wrong? And please don't say I'm simply depressed; drugs and therapy have done little, if nothing. I'm life-sick, soul-sick, tired beyond belief. What do I do when I don't have enough juice left to start over? This is such a relentlessly "anyone can bounce back" sort of culture that when I say what I fear most — that I can't, in fact, bounce back — I'm just screaming into the wind.

So I'm turning to the only person I know who might have something to say about soul-sickness and a punishing, nearly complete erosion of will. Cary, what to do with such a big hot mess?

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Half-Dead

Dear Half-Dead,

Call me sick, but I like you like this: "without ambition or vision or faith or belief in life's possibilities." To me it seems very close to spiritual surrender. Accept the exhaustion for now. Accept the absence of these things you held so dear. This is what happens to world beaters when the world beats us back. We have to hibernate and let go of all our splendid ambitions and plans. This is what happens after betrayal. This is what happens after Icarus crashes. This is how we heal; we lie low and lick our wounds.

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I believe that we reach such dark, low points for a reason; I believe that a few times in our lives we are lowered into the pit in a strangling, confining basket without instructions or a cellphone, and we are supposed to stay there down in the pit until someone comes and lifts us out. (Perhaps that's the meaning of your Jesus image: a figure of rescue.) If we struggle, it only makes it worse. If we escape prematurely, then we are reborn prematurely: We emerge still unprepared. So stay down there. Stay until you are ready.

I like the nastiness of you. I like that you can rail at yourself and call yourself "pathologically lazy" — which of course is a big fat lie but it has vitality in it, it has anger and a will to prevail and to speak harsh, unvarnished truth. There is a spirit of rebellion and fire in that paragraph. But there is also this harsh taskmistress turned against herself, which is, I believe, the source of the hell you're in. This nasty you is killing the other you, the one who is injured. So it's a paradox; it's our censorious society introjected.

It's fine if you can just lie low and recover. But you have this bitch yelling at you that you're no good, that you're a lazy crybaby. She's the one to watch out for. She's the murderous social voice.

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Yes, I know it sucks. But it touches something deep and very familiar in me. It feels extremely right, this situation of yours, extremely right and not something to be cured as much as cherished as a little death: a little soul-withdrawing or hibernation. And indeed I cheer you on because from my point of view you are on the right journey. Your big problem is that you are not being allowed to simply convalesce; the crazy rules we live by say you should immediately resume the sick and raving lunacy we call normal life.

Don't believe it. Don't go back to "normal life" until you are ready! "Normal life" is bad enough when you're healthy; when you're weak and still recovering, it's murder!

I can almost hear the many voices who will say I've done you a disservice by congratulating you for your torpor, admiring your pain, and cheering you on in your maladjusted malingering. But you have already presented yourself to the diagnostic wizards and they have thrown up their hands. (I will take note of one thing in the practical realm: You are obviously of the personality type that must create new things and wilts under routine; keep this in mind as you eventually turn to new world-beating challenges. Stay away from executive positions that require daily maintenance tasks; find a way to create things and then move on. Have others handle the repetitive details.) But I'm no doctor. So I fall back on my strange, untutored, savage ways and say, If this is where you are, then this is where you belong. And if you do not understand it, then you are not supposed to understand it.

Besides, the quest for "understanding" is what has exhausted you; our need for "understanding" is our disease of faithlessness. "Understanding" is our defense against being and knowing. "Understanding" is an intellectual purgatory prior to immersion in the fires of experience. Our need for "understanding" is our need for fairy tales, because what is true is beyond our understanding. We need half-true stories to put us to sleep at night. The stories that salve our terror cannot possibly be true. If they were true they would be terrifying! To the extent that our stories are comforting, they must be untrue. Naturally you cry out for a fiction to believe in, and so naturally what I give you is a diverting song and dance about a reality that we cannot understand.

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What is the solution?

Simply be with this experience. Stop struggling to understand it. Let waiting be your form of understanding.

That you do not understand this is precisely the point; you will. But for now of course you struggle against it. Of course you do; so do we all; we struggle, naturally, because we are not ready.

Ready for what? Ready for raw confrontation with the mystery of existence.

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You are not ready, but you are getting ready to be ready. It is starting to dawn on you that you must surrender to experience prior to understanding. I don't know why or how, but I see plainly what is before me: You are in a place and the only thing to do is stop denying you are in this place, and stop counting the hours until you can be out of this place, and stop complaining and itching and calling for a taxi.

Wait. "A lively, understandable spirit once entertained you. Wait. It will come again."

For now, your job is to stay in this low dark place of resting until you are lifted out of it.

When rescue comes, you won't recognize it. Months later, you will realize you've already been rescued but won't remember precisely how or when. You will look up from what you are reading and notice that the wind has died down. You will notice that you don't feel quite so insane. You will already have changed. The moment of your rescue will have passed without much notice.

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Cary Tennis

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