I had just posted my last piece on the 7 reasons you don’t reach your potential when my friend George hit me up asking if I had ever written about anxiety. Personally, I like to write about what I know best and stick to my comfort zone which is the personal development stuff. But there is the saying that if you can design one thing, you can design anything. So, I’m going to see if that also applies to writing.
I approach matters of mental health with great care. As someone who has had his own fair share to deal with, I understand that it is a triggering and fragile thing to discuss. It is great that lately as a collective, we are recognizing mental health issues as valid conditions and not just sweeping it under the rug or being oblivious like previous generations. At the same time, it is not an exact science, it is a very subjective experience, so these are murky waters.
It is only recently, like 4 months ago, that I started to realize that perhaps I actually am a lot more anxious than I realize. I have always had a low level of anxiety going on. I just never called it that. I just bookmarked it as fear, but this low-level feeling of tension always exists. It rears up its head when I have to do something new, when I sit in the car with a mentor or someone that I look up to. It rises when I have to go out into the world and interact with people. It rises when I get phone calls. It builds when I need to do something important. It flares up when I have to go out to an event or a party. It is my faithful companion. Sure you could call it nervous excitement, but sometimes it never really leaves, there is easy to constantly worry about anything and everything.
But life and growth require that you move forward. They require that you try new things, that you stretch yourself out of your comfort zone. Because otherwise, you would remain stuck. So, I’ve always viewed this anxiety as fear, and fear as something to be embraced and overcome. One of my favorite quotes is the Latin phrase ‘nihil timendum est’. It means ‘nothing is frightening’. Recently, I’ve come to meditate on fear as a specter, a ghost. There is even the acronym F.E.A.R. meaning ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. Fear is just a projection of our subconscious mind unto the screen of life. If it is a matter of projection, perception and interpretation, then perhaps it can be influenced or even controlled.
When my friend asked me about anxiety, he framed it in a specific way. As young men (and everyone really) trying to come up in the world, it is difficult and we are prone to anxiety, whether we talk about it or not. In the prevailing social narrative, as men, we are supposed to have our shit together. It is said the only time a black man is truly loved is for his money. Which means if you don’t have money or means, then you are useless. Now that isn’t completely accurate, because there are a lot of broke men who are loved and supported by their women, but there is still a truth to it. Life is real, and you have to be able to shoulder the burdens.
So, the anxiety mounts, coming into your own as an adult. Figuring out your career, figuring out relationships, paying bills, getting married, raising children. All very real, very weighty things. At the same time, the whole world around us looks and feels like it is going to hell in a handbasket. In Africa, we face hundreds of years of exploitation from outside forces and broken promises and dashed hopes from our own leaders. There is conflict worldwide at every turn, even the empires and structures we used to look towards for stability or a sense of aspiration are all crumbling. Everything is falling apart, the ground beneath our feet seeming to give way. With so much going on, the mounting anxiety is understandable.
I read a copy of the New Internationalist the other night, and it was back to back full of bad news. Printed across its pages was one crisis or the other, from the underdevelopment and exploitation of Africa, to the piling plastic and electronic waste from our consumerist capitalist society, even to the damage of the inner psyche of the average person, we are faced with the most pressing challenges of our species and we are woefully unequipped to deal with them. It gets so overwhelming, it is easy to look out for the check-out button, both literally and metaphorically.
How do we cope?
If you are religious, you hold on to the hope of a life beyond this one, sure that this will pass away and a utopia will ensure. Otherwise you can cope with various philosophical or political responses – nihilism – eat, drink and be merry today because tomorrow we die, resistance – we can change this, we just need to change our prevailing systems, radicalism – let’s just burn everything down, anarchy – let’s descend into chaos and let everyone be responsible for themselves.
I don’t have the answers fam, I’m just as overwhelmed as you. But I’ll share how I think and approach it. It might not work for everyone, but it works for me.
Mindfulness helps. Which is really just the practice of being aware. If you are aware that you are being anxious, then you can resolve it. But it starts with recognizing that it is happening. When I realized how anxious I got around people I looked up to, I started consciously breathing deeper and deliberately relaxing into the present, into their presence and bringing forth my true self – as a human being, with personality, and ideas and a point of view. Basically, acknowledging that I am valid, and I don’t need to pander to be accepted by anyone.
Meditation helps too, and it ties in well with mindfulness. Taking the time out to reconnect with yourself, to deepen your inner reserves, to increase awareness give you more control in your day to day life. You can lengthen the time between occurrence and reaction and fill the space in between with impartial observation. Once you master the discipline of perception you can react or act accordingly.
In stoic philosophy, we are encouraged to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. That also means a radical acceptance of what is. Amor Fati – love what it, as if you wanted what happened to happen. Even if it is failure, even if it is destruction. Once you can accept it, then you can deal with it. Too much psychic energy is spent resisting what is and wishing for something else, instead of dealing with what is and transforming that to what you want, if possible. So sure, things are hard, I am anxious, accept the fact, embrace and then decide what to do.
We are also encouraged to focus on what is within our locus of control. You can’t control everything, not the decisions of other people, not the things happening halfway across the world. You can’t even control what will happen to you in the next 5 minutes. But you can control the meaning you give to it, and you can control your reaction and your action to it.
Cultivate an inner citadel. In a world of chaos, it is imperative to have a space within that you can retreat to, a place to drop anchor. It is a place cultivated in meditation, in prayer and in contemplation of the transcendent. It helps you understand that everything physical will pass away, but that you, your consciousness, your soul is more than just what you see. And you can root yourself in that awareness and draw strength, even in the most-dire of straights.
All these tactics help to deepen our resolve, our reserves and manage anxiety. To be calm when needed and to arouse passion when needed, so that we are not overrun and overwhelmed but with emotional discipline, we have what it takes to meet our challenges.
Burnout is one of the most insidious and pernicious things that can happen to a creative. Most times, you don’t even see it coming. Especially if you are someone like me. Always eager to put body mind and soul on the line for the sake of design. Piling on work unscrupulously, systematically going against everything I have been writing about – essentialism and all that.
Sometimes I do it for the sheer masochistic pleasure, I like being busy, being caught up in many things at the same time. It does something for me. I also like being able to do the impossible, being able to pull rabbits out of hats. But at some point, it catches up. Usually around June, the halfway mark of the year. This is a pattern now, it’s not the first time I’ve complained about burn out in June. Maybe it being Gemini season also brings some complication to the table.
It starts with the irritation, the annoyance, the loss of perspective. For a time, I forget why I do what I do. I start to hate design. I start to lose interest in doing my best, I just want to do enough to get by. But in all that I still push, still winging, still pulling rabbits out of hats. Until I can’t. I’m talented, I’m experienced. I make it look easy, but it’s not.
Then the more serious symptoms show up. It gets harder and harder to get out of bed. It gets even harder staying awake. The smallest tasks drain all my energy. Doing the dishes, cleaning, making food, replying emails for 15 mins can send me back to bed for the rest of the day. I wake up and sit by my desk and look down into the creative well, and nothing. No spark of genius rises up to greet me. It is then I know I am utterly screwed. I have worked myself past the point of no return. There is nothing I can do but shut down.
So, shut down I have, I write this from an undisclosed location, stealing some time away from the world. For the first time in days, I feel a little bit clear. I reach down to the well, and there is something there, a bit of water, a bit of magical creative energy.
I broke my streak. I didn’t blog last week. I am hoping to be able to write two posts back to back this evening to make up for that. I really didn’t know what to write about last week. And I was exhausted and overwhelmed, it was hard to even marshal the strength to put two sentences together in any cohesive way.
I was going to write about the dip.
The Dip is a concept articulated by Seth Godin in his book by the same name. The Dip is that long chasm and space between the moment of excitement when you embark on a new journey/goal and the actual moment of fulfilment. It is easy to start, it is much harder to continue when you are smack in the middle and the initial rush has worn off and all you are left with is the freaking tedium of the grind.
The Dip is when you start off the year with the goal of blogging consistently, at least once a week for the whole year, and then you run into June feeling like you have run out of things to say.
There are two things to do in the dip. You can push through, or you can quit. And both are valid decisions. Winners know when to quit. In fact, winners are better at quitting than most people. The key is quitting the right things. The Dip provides you with the opportunity to really consider what you are doing and gauge its importance. Are you quitting because this thing is hard, or are you quitting because this thing was a mistake? And that is the kind of thing you have to wrestle with for yourself.
The Dip offers the opportunity to take a step back and catch our breath and gather our strength. The Dip is important because it separates the ‘men’ from the ‘boys’. It is the winnowing process that only leaves the truly committed and truly worthy standing. The Dip kills the competition and builds a moat of safety around what you do. If you use it well.
“Never quit something with great long-term potential just because you can’t deal with the stress of the moment” – Seth Godin (The Dip)
So, I’m in a Dip right now. I know I want to keep writing, I know I want to keep creating. I feel like I should shake things up a bit, change the format, maybe write about other things. For a while, I have been feeling a bit over the whole personal development thing. Not personal development as a whole, just my consumption of content has sort of slowed. I feel more concerned with doing and action over contemplation and philosophizing. But that’s how I feel today, I know that can easily swing right back tomorrow.
But I’m in my Dip. I am resting, I am reconnecting. I turn 30 in a few days. It is a sacred week. I’m doing some reflecting over the past decade and looking towards the next. It will come to me, I’ll figure out what to do.
There’s an amazing analogy I read yesterday over at Farnam Street. It’s so good, I’ll just paste it here verbatim.
Imagine sitting on a commuter train and your stop is near the end of the line. If you were certain that you were on the right track, you wouldn’t get off simply because the train stopped from time to time. You know that stops are part of the journey. You can learn a lot from them, and eventually the train will start moving again. Yet when it comes to the goals that are most important to us in life, we tend to jump tracks the second we stop perceiving forward momentum. We’re choosing the illusion of progress over what really matters.
It is okay to be still, it’s part of the process of moving forward. I feel like I’m in a stop phase right now. A lot of my actions and planning over the past 18 months lead to this month. I’m still, waiting for the verdict, knowing that from this point, everything will probably change, things will fall off, things will be added, but whatever happens, I look forward to it because I’m pointed in the right direction. It’s just a matter of being patient. Stops are just as valid as frantic motion. Savor being still.
I woke up this morning to a tweet from Kay, which sent me to this link. A link about how depression may be an evolutionary trait. It’s quite fascinating, and in case you don’t have the time to read the actual link now, it essentially says that the genes that are involved in depression are also involved in infection fighting. Therefore the symptoms exhibited in depression such as low interest in activity, social avoidance, laying low, doing nothing, reduced motor and cognitive speeds actually divert the bulk of your available energy to strengthening your immune system. Fascinating read…thanks Kay.
While I kept scrolling down past the article, a thought occurred to me, “wait, I am more happier now than I’ve ever been, and I’ve been consistently happy over the past year. So why am I happier now, and how does that connect with this new theory of depression/infection warfare?”
Then I saw a it. A link to an article with the title Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why your Brain Cares how You Cope. I read it, and while I read it, my mind spiraled into all sorts of ideas and thoughts, and I felt like sharing them would be helpful to someone out there.
From 2007 up until 2009, I frequently battled depression. And I can confidently attribute that to my experience at varsity during that period. I was engaged in study and doing as I was expected by society at large and all. But I was also beginning to ask myself a lot of questions about life and myself and what I really wanted to do with my life. It’s quite a long story and I have a post for that coming up some time. Long story condensed to one line. I was studying, it wasn’t making sense, not because it was hard per se (even though admittedly my mindset and thinking skills were not suitable for the kind of work at hand), but because it made no long term sense to my life and there were a host of underlying unconscious thought and emotional patterns within me that were self-sabotaging in nature.
The second half of 2009 saw me in some of my worst bouts of depression, which had me in bed often and not able to do any work (an extreme case of deep procrastination). At the end of 2009, things broke apart for me, and I began what some people call the Fool’s Journey. I spent about a month mostly by myself in SA, not going home for Christmas and took that time to think about life. It was during this time I bumped into one of the fundamental and useful techniques for dealing with life. Meditation.
It happened by accident. I was feeling particularly distraught and agitated, which is a state that is reinforced and exacerbated by the mind running amok from one problem to another. On impulse, I switched off the light and sat down on the floor in the dark, and began to observe my thoughts, sift through them and sort them out. I experienced and immersed myself among all the thoughts that worried me, and I resolved almost all of them. I gained insight; I knew what options to take and how to handle things. And when I was done, I felt calm, quiet at peace. A state that had eluded me no matter who I talked to or how much I prayed or went to church. And I know that last sentence would be controversial to some, but that’s how it was for me.
And I realized the answers I seek are within me. There is a part of me, that has a direct link to all that is, and the cosmos beyond, there is a part of me with a direct link to God, and if I go there, I’ll find what I seek.
And since then, as I’ve lived, made choices, made decisions, worked and played. It has been in the context and against a backdrop of meditation in various forms. The kind I mentioned above is something I felt instinctively to do. The main point here is not the ‘meditation’ per se, but the state it fosters or supposed to foster if you do it right, a focus on the present and an increased awareness, of self and of the environment. The more you are focused on the now and being in the now, the more energy you have to create your experience in the now. The more aware of yourself and the many emotional and thought patterns that run below the surface, the better you can deal with, resolve and choose more empowering thoughts and emotions. The more in tune with your self you are, the easier it is make inspired life choices, do what you really want and in the process be happier and at peace.
And at the end this is what we seek, a sense of being able to cope and handle whatever life throws at us.
I learnt about this time last year that I choose depression a lot. Sometimes I truly get depressed for no reason (I had my last episode last week for 2 days) but then it had become really engrained in my psyche and sense of identity. I made it a part of me; I loved the idea of the angst-ridden artist. I thought it was cool (such adolescent tendencies shakes head). But once I realized it, I started consciously choosing happiness. I would not have come to this realization if I didn’t have a certain level of self-awareness. Now, when I have a negative emotion or a strong disturbing emotion, I allow it to be, I experience it, I resolve it, I move on. I am able to experience the nowness of the feeling and then move on from it, I don’t keep rehearsing or playing it over and over again in my mind. If I can’t control the outcome of a thing, I put it away from my mind; all I focus on is what can I do. If I make a mistake, I let it go quickly, I focus on what I can learn and what I can do right now. If someone is mad at me, I feel the twinge of guilt, or sadness, or pain for a little while, then I let it go. I understand now that what determines my inner state is what I focus on.
I’m not perfect at this, but I’ve learnt a lot.
Jesus said things like, “Don’t worry about tomorrow and it’s troubles because today has enough of its own”. That’s a call to the now.
What I’ve just described may seem strange to some people, but it comes much easier to understand and practice once you realize that the tangible world we are immersed in, does not really exist (quantum physics and all that) and all the emotional reaction we have to things comes from what we overlay the blank canvas of life with. We interpret events, we give meaning to things and happenings, we are wrapped up in our egos and selves and see things as perpetual threats to us. This experience of being trapped n immersed in this unreal reality sends our minds into all kinds of spirals and loops causing stress, agitation and depression. By waking up to it and being aware of it, you can rise to a level above it, a place of constant peace, unconditional love and creative power.
Between July 2009 and December 2010, I thought about dying a lot. At least twice a day, every day the thought would cross my mind that I should die. I wanted to die. Dealing with life was difficult at the time. Life was kinda fucked up…in good ways, and bad ways. I hated school and wasn’t trying to go back to finish, I decided to focus on being a designer and just figure things out as they came along. My girlfriend and I were breaking up and making up every few days. I wasn’t feeling God either, I was a mess, I was breaking down. I had such intense emotional reactions to everything. No one could really help, I mean no one was in my specific shoes. All anyone I managed to speak to could do was give cliché advice or stare at me blankly, or tell me to push through the pain. Whatever.
I wondered about escaping it all, embracing the still nothingness that is death, or at least moving on to whatever comes next after this life. I didn’t just want to die though. I wanted to die violently. I would be walking along the road on a busy day, and I would have the sudden urge to throw myself in front of a speeding car, or bus. In fact, the bigger the vehicle, the better. One night, I slept with a huge kitchen knife beside me on the bed. It was raining hard outside, my roommate was out of town. I felt extremely terrible, such a darkness, such sadness, almost physical agony. I just kept breathing, observing my mind race from thought to thought, clenching and unclenching the handle of the knife. I eventually slept.
I was growing an afro then…
For me, there is a correlation between growing one’s hair as a guy and one’s general emotional state. Obviously it doesn’t work like that for everyone, but for me, it fit. I cut my hair in April, and then I just decided there was no point cutting it again, I just let it grow…until my mum emotionally blackmailed me into getting rid of it in December.
I was watching Lupe Fiasco’s interview with Tavis Smiley about a month ago. I’m a big fan of Lupe as a person (as far as I know him) and of his music. He’s been sporting an afro recently, and on this interview he’s talking about his battle with depression and contemplating suicide during the production of the LASERS album. There is something about going through the darkness. I don’t know if it ever completely leaves though. Sure, you get happy, you laugh and smile…somehow it always lingers though. Looking at Lupe during the interview, he was smiling and everything, but I could see weariness in his eyes so to speak. Maybe it’s just me projecting or whatever. I feel like that a lot. I feel tired.
Something about the fro
But we get through it, things get better. We just need to remember to leave the baggage behind and not carry it along. Every time I thought about dying, I always thought to myself, ‘Oto, you could jump off the 7th floor of this building, but what if you would be missing out on some awesome shit that’s going happen months from now. Don’t you want at least see how it plays out?” And that would always hold me back. I’ve never had the balls the kill myself or maybe I had enough balls not to. Like no matter how crappy things may seem, it’s just life, shit happens, whatever, get over it.
I once read something in the comments section of a blog post by James Altucher. If you ever at the point of suicide, if you are at the brink and you want to end it all, realize that the old you/life you trying to escape from was that crappy, and that needs to die. You can arise from it like a phoenix and reinvent yourself.
Don’t kill yourself, reinvent yourself.
My friends and I refer to it as a weakening of the Force. There comes periods of times where you slip into the dark shadows of discouragement, depression, apathy and fear. Nothing seems worth it, life is dull, creativity is dried up and you feel paralysed. I know how it feels, I have been under that dark cloud for like 7 days now. Call it my dark week..I guess. I couldn’t design anything worthwhile, felt like I was just being a technician and not an artist, no inspiration, just rote design.
Anyway, the clouds are breaking up and I see shafts of light piercing through, as the issues that were stressing resolve themselves. One great help has been a book I picked up recently ‘The Magic of Thinking Big’ by David J Shwartz. I heard of this book before from other books I read, and I only found it a few days ago. It has been a quite perfect antidote to my situation. What you think about becomes your reality. It takes as much energy to think small as it does to think Big, you might as well THINK BIG. Infact, it is easier to think and act big than it is to go small, because most people settle for small anyway, they settle for small in their lives, their work, their projects. Not a lot go for big, a lot less competition on First Avenue.
So Think BIG! Especially if you are going against the grain, risking it all for an idea, for an ideal, for your vision with burnt bridges behind you. Don’t stand at the shore bemoaning the past, look firmly to the future, think Big, take massive action and fly. If you going to fail, at least fail spectacularly…let the world see you burn, make a mark anyway…lol. Cheer up, stretch, think Big and push hard. You got this!
On days like this…
Depression is my constant companion
Wrapping its arms around my heart
Sinking its teeth into my soul
Because walking down the highway
I was tripped by an Aedi*
Broken by Efil*
Possessed by a Maerd*
Led through a bush
Still falling down the rabbit hole
It’s bottom is never known
This is what it feels like to be alone