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Three years: part two
time to get back on track
This is Part 2 of my three-year story. You can read Part 1 here.
I want to say a quick thank you to everyone who responded after I shared Part 1. It was the most nervous I’ve ever been publishing something on the Internet. But the resonant support eventually made it the most rewarding.
In Part 1, I began to describe the wheels coming off of my life: first, in the separation from my wife and the experience of severe burnout as a cofounder, and later moving into darker landscapes where my energy for life dries up and I start struggling with depressive symptoms.
This culminates in taking a month off of work, where we pick things up.
Escape to the country
It’s now 6 months since the separation. We’re in the Third Lockdown, the final boss of Covid. Long gone are the sunshine and birdsong. Christmas was stunted, lots of people are dying and many more are struggling. The end still feels so far away.
Although I have some temporary respite from work, my mind is still an all-day anxiety machine. I go back into therapy for support. We talk about how I’m a good receptacle for things; how I have the endurance to stick out the hard times. But there is a cost: as my internal energy wanes, other parts of me fill with resentment and rage. Facing this anger has been a nagging motif throughout therapy.
During my month off, I decide I need to get out of the house. It’s where I work, where I’ve been holed up throughout Covid, and I want to escape.
I book an Airbnb. (I promise this series is not sponsored by Airbnb). At this point, it is technically not legal to do this, but it’s starting to feel like the consequences of staying put would be worse. I find somewhere contact-free, out in the country.
After a vigilante drive across the Cotswolds, I arrive. It’s a newly-renovated, open plan milk barn, covered in pictures of dopey cows with scruffy haircuts. Winter sunlight spills through the patio doors, up the walls and through the wooden beams. It has a bath, a log burner and is also home to a scattered family of milk urns. As you open the front door there is a horse staring back at you. It’s magnificent.
The village is also beautiful and being somewhere different is a welcome tonic. After settling, I have a call with some friends and tell them I’m off work and feeling low. They’re struggling too—lockdown is wearing everyone thin.
My plan for the week is to rest, read and meditate. I manage to meditate three times a day and it brings some clarity and connection. I summon the energy for one 20-minute run but it’s a slog and I don’t feel good afterwards.
The writing lifeline
There have been times when for me the act of writing has been a little act of faith, a spit in the eye of despair… Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.
—Stephen King, On Writing
As often happens when I have time and space to myself, I begin to write. It’s not a novel or a blog post, but the continuing articulation of a Big Picture that has been gestating in me for at least 2 decades, hand-in-hand with the applied philosophy necessary to flourish within it. Each note I create threads back into the 2 or 3 books worth of notes I already have on my laptop.
Writing is the final stage of this holistic drive, an alchemy of psyche and paper to render visible an image from ethereal thoughts. It is my way of making sense and putting things in their place; a conversation with the world around me that begets belonging and—amidst the deafening noise of life—fosters a remembrance of what is most important.
I start tentatively but I’m quickly pulsing with energy. It’s dense and exciting. I realise that writing is the only activity left standing that gives me energy; a mirage of hope in a desert of depression.
I remember how important it is for me to be writing each day, and I resolve to continue when I get home.
Back to work
Back from the barn, I stand in the park and smell the unmistakable scent of Spring. We’re transitioning out of lockdown. It’s finally happening. I can hear people on all sides of me, laughing and playing. It’s a religious experience after a long winter.
With the rest and the Sun, some energy has returned. Writing is fuelling me again and I return to work with optimism.
But there is no gentle way back into work. I take off each Wednesday for the first 2 weeks, but this very sensible intervention quickly crumbles under a surge of meetings.
After a month, my fragile Spring energy scatters and I start to feel as bad as before. I'm confused—how can this be happening after I’ve had a month off? What is the matter with me?
Determined to see it through, I enter a ghostly phase where I see my symptoms worsening and yet don’t really care. Each week, I calmly keep tally and decide how to move forward. It may require being drunk or smoking or some other means of numbing and I will feel awful, but it will be enough to reach the respite of the weekend.
I am trading in chunks of myself, a depressive horcrux that is splitting me apart to maintain a semblance of operational efficiency. I keep pushing for a few more weeks until The Thoughts start again (see Part 1). At first, I see them in the same detached way, but they quickly overrun me and I am shaken and scared.
I decide not to gamble anymore.
On a humid June afternoon, four Old Fashioneds into the day, I resign. I tell both of my cofounders and then lie down in a field, with the dog running riot, floating on an intoxicating and very intoxicated freedom.
I hate that I couldn’t make it work but I am consoled by friends and family telling me it was the right call.
I still have a transition period to complete, so work continues to dominate my life for another month, but with the new sweetness of a definite end.
One day stands out. In the morning, I see my ex. She puts her cards on the table and tells me we should give it another go. I am surprised and impressed by her determination. My reaction is much less determined; silence and feeling like I’d been hit by the same separation train accelerating in reverse.
An hour later, I start telling the team leads I had hired and mentored that I am leaving Almanac. I am dreading these calls and feel ashamed of my decision.
Drained from the conversations of the day, I try to get some time to reflect in the evening. Instead, my estate agent calls to tell me that the landlord needs my house back. I have to find somewhere else to live. This is not great news to receive at any time, least of all when you’ve just quit your job.
At first, I laugh at the absurdity of the day and then I cry a lot.
At the end of June, I finish at Almanac and use the final paycheck to book a 2 week holiday in a spa hotel in Croatia. I’ve not had more than a week off since being at Almanac. It feels indulgent to me but everyone frenetically nods when I tell them what I’m planning.
The day before I fly to Dubrovnik, my ex and I agree to give it another shot. Despite my initial surprise, it has been on the cards. Through the distance, we’ve grown close again, and we’re both haunted by the fear that we might have given up too soon.
Arrivals and departures
It seems clear to me that Dubrovnik will never materialise. I have a deeply-instilled sense that nothing positive can happen and Covid conditions are morphing every week.
But I get on the plane and I arrive. Better still, Croatia is an Amber country, so the town is quieter than usual. Apparently in peak season, two ferries arrive each morning, carrying 6000+ visitors. There are no ferries when I’m there. I get to explore the Old Town in relative peace.
A few days in, work reappears as Almanac lands a $34m Series A, literally a month or so after I leave. As a non-trivial shareholder, I have to agree to some terms. I traipse back tipsy from the beach to pretend-squiggle some DocuSigns.
The heat, beauty and time away are just what I need, but my mind is still spinning out. A journal from the trip reads:
saw how much my days were being dominated by “should”s, judgements and expectations… again. Feeling forced, rushed and overwhelmed… about what I should read, write, who I should become… on holiday in a 5 star spa resort! all this anxiety to meet a standard that literally doesn’t exist, to try and lift the ocean from its bed.
On top of this, I feel very lonely. It doesn’t feel acute, but rather something that has chronically built up over the last year. I’m shy and struggle to speak to people I want to speak to.
After returning home I get another call telling me that I do not need to move out of the house anymore. Ok.
A few weeks later, I’m in the south of France with my ex. It’s our getting back together holiday. It is not successful. We argue over something small and the chasm re-opens, absorbing all light and promise. Shortly afterwards, the relationship falls apart; the necklace can’t be re-attached.
At the same time, I’m taking part in an online meditation retreat, the fifth I’ve done with my friend Alan. The day we break up is the same day we start a contemplative practice called the Beloved. The wound re-opens.
Back on track
As the suffocating pressure of work recedes, a viral loop starts working through my head: I must get back on track.
I’ve lost too much: my wife, our marriage, our home, my running and now my job and company. The tally keeps running through my head and I feel a searing sense of deficiency.
I think back to where I was a couple of years ago and have a vision. I am climbing the Podium of Life. I have been moving upwards for some time. Finally, my foot quivers over the top step. As I lean forward I’m hit backwards by something travelling fast. I land at the bottom, winded and confused. Everyone else in the world sails by, onwards and upwards, leaving me behind.
I feel insecure in a way I never have before. I’m still dependent on nicotine. I’m still unfit and overweight and I can’t turn anything around. Why can’t I make at least one thing work? I need to get back on track. There’s still time.
My perfectionism violently resurfaces to answer my needs. Last time wasn’t good enough, and I need something, anything, that will be better: a perfect room in my house, a perfect outfit, a perfect watch, a perfect writing project, a perfect job, a perfect spiritual practice.
Concurrently, I start to get a sense of being “passed it” which will intensify over the next few months. My age suddenly turns into a pervasive worry. I forget everything I have achieved until now. I also begin to reminisce about how “everything was so good before”.
When things fall apart
This is a time of deep rumination. I want to understand why this is happening and why I can't move on. What am I missing? How do I solve it?
Three women arrive in my life to offer a helping hand.
The first is my therapist. Not for the first time, she helps me loosen my grip on binary thinking: of deciding I must do one thing or the other right now when neither is viable. She points to the self-inflicted fatigue that comes from trying to make these impossible calls. Again and again, she gently leads me away from my internal analysis and points to the resentment simmering just below the rational. I find it difficult to recognise this anger, and when I do I can't help but recoil from the sudden inferno.
The second woman is Pema Chödrön. I’d heard her book, When Things Fall Apart, recommended many times. I mentally bookmarked it for a future crisis. Her style is direct, whilst not shying away from the deep contemplative insight that she’s cultivated as a Buddhist nun.
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
It was the message I needed to hear, answering all of my questions by not answering any of them at all. It pulls me out of personal analysis and puts me face-to-face with the immediacy of things falling apart. This impersonal recognition allows a deeply personal grieving.
Anger and Liz
I am starting to feel more again. Only as my emotions return do I realise that I haven’t felt much of anything besides empty exhaustion for some time.
I am sad. But much more than that, I am still angry.
This is frustrating. Horrible things had happened but I wasn’t having the teary releases I wanted. Instead, I am congested and full of rage.
Much to my surprise, the third woman to come to my aid is, author of Eat, Pray, Love. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’d never been called to read Eat, Pray, Love but I had watched Glibert’s fantastic TED talk, entitled Your Elusive Creative Genius.
Like so many interesting people, she arrives in my world via Tim Ferriss. The Tim Ferriss Show is my all-time favourite podcast. I’ve been spoiled by his original questions, his vulnerability in conversation and his prudent departure from overworn controversies, such that I often feel short-changed when listening to anyone else interviewing.
I put the podcast on whilst driving and I’m taken in by the discussion of the Alpha Wolf, a Moth story Gilbert had told a year before. (If you have not heard this story, bookmark it and go listen to it later: it is an astonishing, funny and heartbreaking tale.) As the conversation turned to anger, my ears pricked up:
Elizabeth Gilbert: And, I just spun in rage for months… It was incredibly painful. And then finally, I remember one of my final pieces of rage was, I’m enraged at my rage because it’s interfering with my grieving. Because I had some sort of idea that my grieving would be this sort of poetic, beautiful, weepy, softwood experience.
Tim Ferriss: Minor key music or candlelight….
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, exactly. And instead it was like Sid and Nancy. It was just like… violent anger toward everybody and everything. And when I had that thought, I was given the grace of an answer, and the thought I had was, “I need this anger to go so that I can grieve.”
And then the answer came: “This is your grief, and grief is the most uncomfortable experience you’ll ever have in your life. And for you, Liz, the most uncomfortable thing you can ever feel is anger toward anybody, even a teeny tiny bit. So, why wouldn’t you think that your grief would come as the most battering emotion that could possibly happen to you?”
I’m really comfortable being sad. I can do minor key, rainy day, sweet sadness. I can’t handle anger. And so, of course, it came as anger, and it had to in order for me to feel the magnitude of the loss. It had to be something that was bigger than I could hold. And that’s what grief is.
Her words land like missiles, piercing my defences as I drive down a dual carriageway. I have a breakdown in the car. (Why does this always happen in the car?) I have never heard anyone talk about grief in this way.
I feel validated in my basic experience of rage and drop my expectations of sorrowful, sweet smiles and easy, wet eyes. With that, the doors further open to sit with this loss, eye-to-eye.
Since then, I have had an extremely fond place in my heart for Liz (I call her Liz as we’re friends now, she just doesn’t know it yet.) I enjoyed her book on the creative process: Big Magic. For the third or fourth time, it reminds me that I should be writing.
Towards the end of 2021, therapy wraps up. I feel like several things have shifted internally and the depression has lifted.
In my last session, I exclaim that Depressed Dan and happy Dan feel completely different… like they’re two different people.
My therapist reminds me that they’re the same person.
If you enjoyed this post, the concluding Part 3 of this story is now live: