/ 18 April 2024

It’s easy to reach rock Botton

Therapeutic Journey
A Therapeutic Journey is written by Alain De Botton.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this life is that the only certainty in it — our death — is itself a mystery. We know we are going to die, but we don’t actually know what that means.

We struggle to accept that fact; death happens to other people, not us. We know that our bodies die, because we see the dead bodies of animals, and, more rarely, humans, but the irrefutable end of our self, of our identity, is on many levels ungraspable. 

Death makes a mockery of life, in the sense that all our strivings, plans and achievements are absolutely nullified by it. In contradiction, this gives life purpose because it makes it finite, so we are pressed to do what we consider most important in a limited time frame; if it were infinite, we could get around to doing these things tomorrow, forever. Not doing these significant things can create existential guilt. 

Finally, we are the only species — aside perhaps from whales that beach themselves — that sometimes choose death, if life feels intolerable. 

All of these have bearing on the tale that follows. It’s a story about how a friend of mine and I, like millions of others these days, nearly lost our ability to cope with life, commonly referred to as “sanity”. 

I will also be referencing a book that is “about getting unwell and losing hope, but also about rediscovering connection”, timeously handed to me by a close companion — and it helped me do exactly that in my hour of need.

Early last year I found myself sitting on a mattress on the floor of a back room, holding the hand of a friend who had just tried to kill himself. He lost his job a couple of years before and had gotten deeper and deeper into debt, drifting away from people and happiness, which eventually led to his suicide attempt (he is still with us, in case you are wondering, and is better but still in a somewhat fragile state). 

I felt profoundly helpless: it is very hard to know what to say in such a situation, so I settled for just being there for him as much as 

I could, before the medics took him to hospital.

Not long after that I felt my own world come apart. I’m still unsure about the cause: it could have been any one of a number of factors, or all of them combined. “Sanity” is a magical dance, a harmonious combination of thoughts that keep us functioning, which we are by and large unaware of until it disappears. 

In A Therapeutic Journey: Lessons from the School of Life, (Penguin, 2023) Swiss-born English author and philosopher Alain de Botton reminds us that the healthy mind is above all an editor: it constantly ensures that what is crossing your mind is relevant to your life situation. If, for instance, you’re thinking about your job situation while delivering a speech, you are likely to lose your train of thought. A man who chases two rabbits catches neither. 

As I became filled with anxiety and despair, this editing function began to misfire, and thoughts about the future overwhelmed my ability to live in the present. The ability to derive joy from what I was doing or experiencing shrivelled away, and that great mental replenisher called sleep became more and more elusive, so much so that, despite being exhausted, I started to dread going to that place of usually welcome respite: my bed. 

Life is not a problem to be solved; it’s a process that one flows along with. But once you stop taking action on things and instead fixate upon the necessity of doing them — then realise that nothing you need to do is actually happening — it’s easy to become filled with self-loathing and disgust. 

And once you lose love for yourself, why would you take proper care of yourself? It’s a negative spiral that one can easily fall into.

It soon becomes compounded by guilt: you know you are letting yourself and others down. But this paralysis of the will, of the ability to act decisively, is extremely difficult for those close to you, who haven’t experienced it, to understand. They’re often thinking, “come on man, why can’t you just get your act together”? De Botton points out that there’s nothing more that the mentally ill would like to do than execute meaningful and constructive action — but they simply can’t. 

What was really terrifying was how quickly this whole process unfolded. Within a matter of weeks I became close to dysfunctional, from happy to seriously contemplating ending it all. For the most part, I’d always kept my shit together. It’s deeply unsettling to find that your greatest tool in negotiating life is not firing on all its cylinders.

My friend who attempted suicide chose to keep his mental distress mostly to himself, relating it mainly to his therapist, thus depriving himself of the help that we all need as we begin to lose our bearings. In his suicide note, which he shared later, it was clear that he had pretended to many people dear to him that everything was okay, in the process spinning a web of lies that further obscured the paths to healing.

I was luckier: I had a job, a supportive partner and friends. I chose to reach out for help: I let them know I was in trouble. Some of them were there for me. With my close companion’s help, I was able to access, at a very reasonable rate, an art therapist. Drawing my demons and angels stimulated the recall of my dreams, and this helped me to get a clearer picture of the process I was undergoing. Just talking to supportive people, and knowing they were there, helped immensely. 

One of the most useful lessons that stuck from therapy is asking myself about any recurring thought, “how does this serve me?” because beating myself up repeatedly for my perceived failures was something that kept happening, pretty much all the time.

What made the biggest difference, though, was getting some pills that allowed me to sleep properly. The same friend who shared A Therapeutic Journey also introduced me to a very rare commodity: a doctor who actually cared, who listened for hours to my predicament, and who changed my first prescription when it wasn’t working. I’ve never been fond of scientists, but this time round, the tiny round tablets from the white coats saved my bacon. Fortified by about eight hours of shut-eye, I can now face most days head-on — and even crack a smile occasionally. 

De Botton is helping me to deal with life in edible chunks, to realise that it’s fine to stay at home and do a bit of gardening, to complete menial tasks and congratulate myself on doing them, to distract my mind from constantly trying to fix itself. 

I’m shifting the goalposts, learning how to change my own narrative and enter into a new relationship with myself: in particular, I’m learning to be kind to myself. It’s easier said than done. 

De Botton says that just as we all get physically sick, many of us become mentally ill, to some degree or another, at some point in our lives. It’s perfectly normal. 

Unfortunately, there’s far more stigma around mental illness, not just out there in society, but also in your own mind.  “We immediately open the door to someone on crutches,” he writes; in dealing with mental illness, “we should be as careful with ourselves as we might be if we were recovering from a cancer or lung operation.”

There’s a very useful section towards the end of his book which deals with recovery, where you realise that from now on, you have to live the rest of your life never knowing when you could fall off the edge again. It may never be “business as usual” again. One has to be vigilant, but at least I now have an idea of what the warning signs are. They are never far away. 

Next comes a tricky stage, when, between bouts of wobbling, you finally start finding your feet again. Here, you have to mix getting off your own back with gently kicking your own bottom. Stimulation and challenges are no longer terrifying; they gradually become necessary. 

Mental illness is a very humbling experience. Once you have stumbled and fallen, you may look around and realise there are many others who are struggling to cope. Most of us are light years away from that media-driven image of “success”; beneath the social mask, we’re emotionally limping along, and barely holding each other up. 

Keep your eyes peeled for friends and family who are not waving but drowning. And, if you feel the fabric of your life is fraying, please, reach out: we may die alone, but we’re in this life with eight billion others.