This is a repost from my newsletter called so many words, which you can subscribe to here.
When I was 25 years old, I worked at a dumb job for a dumb company and sat on a voluntary committee that picked one book every month to “spotlight”. There was no theme and no rhyme or reason behind which books were put forth for our consideration, but I took it all very seriously because it was one of the first times in my life that I felt my adult opinion had value. Each month I would read roughly five books and weigh in on which ones I liked and why; which ones spoke to me and for which reasons.
Though I look back on that experience now and roll my eyes, there is a passage from one of those books that still sits with me. In the scene, the protagonist is suddenly overcome with an intrusive thought he cannot shake: I have been lonely all my life.
Over the course of an evening, he walks around the city and is pummelled by this thought over and over. It interrupts him any time he tries to come up with proof to counter it. He cannot outrun it. He knows it’s ridiculous, and intellectually, he knows it’s not an absolute truth, but he can’t stop repeating it to himself. I have been lonely all my life. I have been lonely all my life.
I was similarly overcome and subsequently chased by a thought like this a few weeks ago, several days into a personal crisis of sorts: this is the apex of despair.
It first popped into my head on a very bad night. Overcome with feelings of hurt and longing and defeat, I sat on a rock in a park near my home after the sun set and chain-smoked three cigarettes, eyes closed tightly. This is the apex of despair. This. Is the apex. Of despair. I was so keenly aware of how ridiculous the thought was, but I could not get it out of my head. It felt like my entire being was undergoing a factory reset, and the buffering message being tapped out again and again was constant and unrelenting. This is the apex of despair. This is the apex of despair.
It was not the first time in my life that I had been overcome with a thought like this, and it wasn’t even close to the strongest that I’d felt this particular way, but it still felt like a needle piercing the softest and most vulnerable part of my soul, the part I was furious at myself for having exposed several days prior.
The apex of despair. The apex of DESPAIR! What a histrionic concept! And over a breakup, of all things. As if loving someone who did not love me back was the most painful thing I had ever experienced. As if I was entitled to feel even a fraction of this feeling simply for having to end a romance I could not even in good faith call a relationship in the midst of a year marked by extraordinary, unfathomable, collective loss and grief and chaos and death — real, actual death.
The thing is though, when you find yourself knee deep in a matter of personal heartbreak and butthurt, your internal dialogue will run rampant in a tunnel of its own making, both shielded from and impervious to whatever larger backdrop it’s set against.
Left to their own devices, the worst parts of myself will throw together scaffolding as quickly as they can and get to work building an efficient but ultimately pointlessly stupid little transportation system from my brain to my heart, and the only thing that will fit inside that tunnel is the same thought, looping its way through, over and over, until it’s etched into my veins. This is the apex of despair. THIS IS THE APEX OF DESPAIR!
I have learned over the years that when I find myself in places like this, all I can do is just stay put atop that lonely and prickly little precipice until I find myself sliding down the other side. I stopped trying to “feel better” several breakups ago. Heartbreak is not something you can push down and it’s not a feeling you can rationalize your way out of (and if you’re ever in a position where you feel like you are doing either of those things successfully, I implore you to wait a few months and see what kind of feelings come erupting out of you when you’re least expecting it). It doesn’t work.
When I feel this way, I just have to give in and let myself feel it with whatever intensity my body, brain, and soul have allotted, until things start to shift. And they always do shift.
I listened to a podcast episode recently about the concept of “wintering”, or being in an emotional state that feels like winter — cold, lonely, hopeless, and frustratingly stagnant. The interviewee wrote a whole book about it, and about the lessons that can be learned from existing in this state. She argued that living through times like this, while difficult, can also give you an opportunity to do truly transformative work. It’s an opportunity to compare the life you have to the life you want, and an opportunity to find your own way out of it.
She provided some coping strategies, too. She said that it can help to focus on the subtle shifts around oneself — the way the air quality changes every day, the slow but inevitable progression of the season. She recommended going for a walk every evening and quite literally saying hello to the moon, a tip I found both silly and endearing.
The other day I woke up far earlier than I had any right to for no reason, and after lying in bed for a while, I decided to get up and go for a walk. I left my apartment building at 7 am and actually gasped when I looked up at the sky. The sun was starting to rise in the east, but the moon was still out and shining so, so brightly, low and large in the sky. I said a silent hello to it and started walking. It was early enough that I felt like I was the only person awake, and I was grateful for the silence and the solitude. With every step I took, the sun got a little higher and the moon faded a little more. By the time I finished my walk, it was just a normal day, bathed in ordinary daylight.
I got home and started getting some work done and listening to music, feeling the functional parts of myself come online. Over the course of the morning I talked to a few friends and thought about how lucky I am to have the kind of friends who will text me to check in every day until I say I’m feeling okay, and then text me again every day after that, because there’s other stuff to talk about, too. There always is.
Every day that I’m alive and living my life in the way that I want to live it, I’m opening myself up to the possibility of disappointment, heartbreak, despair. This is the nature of being alive. If I think of my life as a line graph, though (I’ve been looking at a lot of those lately), it looks much more interesting the older I get. The highs are higher and the lows are lower, and the cost of deciding that I deserve happiness and love and connection is that sometimes, things go sideways and I find myself once again at that dreaded apex. But I never stay there, and every time I visit it, I feel like I have more resources, more wisdom, more faith in the belief that this is a detour and not a destiny.
I know that I’ll find myself at that apex again many times over, and I know that at times it will feel more pronounced, more prolonged, more hopeless. For now, though, I can already feel myself starting to slide down the other side, and I can’t help but be excited about what might be waiting for me there.