“Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. So you mustn’t be frightened, if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must think that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
There were a few days last summer where my inner life was a grim experience. Due to a mix of health-related circumstances, a discovery of mold in my home, and my 19-year-old feline companion who was at the end of her furry-long life, I had more than a few superbly crummy days. My sense of the reality of my very good life was very, very slippery. I couldn’t feel the good things under my feet and around me. My mood was sour and my mind was turning terrible thoughts like critical incantations that caused me physical pain. I was irritable, thin-skinned, and on the brink of tears 24/7. “Under-resourced,” you could say.
While my external life was A-Ok, on the inside, all of the good-feeling chemicals had seemingly left my body–at least, that’s what it felt like. I was left with a swirling vortex of negativity, odd somatic tension, thoughts that were convinced I was a complete failure in life, should quit my job, and that I was no fun to be around. I don’t consider myself to be a dark-moody person, so not being able to find the light switch in this dark inner world was new to me.
Luckily, I wasn’t entirely alone on the farmstead that week. My aunt was visiting. At dinner on the worst day, I took the risk to share all that my thoughts were telling me and what I was feeling, and I watched her head shake.
“You are none of those things,” she said reassuringly. “And, I know when you feel like that, you just feel like that until it passes.”
Talking about all that I was feeling helped. It gave me a bit of a lifeline to the shore of reality, and away from all that I was feeling and the thought-stories running through me.
The pit of despair is a tough and tricky place. It feels awful AND the trick is to be with all of the feelings and not believe all the thought-ticker-tape. In their most recent book, Big Feelings: How to Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay, Liz Fosslein and Mollie West write: “…despair involves feeling depressed and anxious, but piling on feeling hopeless, lonely, unloved, helpless, and sorry for yourself pushes you into the intensity of despair.”
In the pits of despair, the only thing to do is to get through the day in whatever way feels most comfortable, supportive, and kind to yourself. When you pass through despair, you may discover parts of yourself that you hadn’t known before.
In his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, author Parker Palmer, no stranger to the depths and cycles of depression, writes:
“Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”
It’s hard to reach out and connect to folks when you’re in the pit of despair–when your inner world feels shattered, scattered, and overwhelming, and when you’re out of capacity. When you’re fumbling around in the dark, trying to find a way out.
In this episode, Mollie opens up about a dark period of her life when she had thoughts of ending it. (Content warning: we talk about suicide thoughts in this episode.) She also defines despair for us and helps us understand how in all of its facets, it is not simply depression. Together we talk about ways to resource yourself if you find yourself there, and how to be with someone who is in despair in a supportive, empathetic way. Most importantly, we encourage you to talk about it to a good ear in your life–dear friend, partner, coach, or therapist.