For those who don’t know, this blog was conceived during a period of great stress and unhappiness in my life, a period from which I have thankfully escaped since Express Elevator to Hell’s “debut” in January, 2013. I have touched on these circumstances in blog posts and pages here and there, some of which remain while others have since been deleted due to either poor writing or irrelevance; at the time, Express Elevator to Hell (EEH) was an attempt at hybridizing both my emotional angst and my passion for filmmaking, the formation of a type of public journal that simultaneously allowed me to practice my writing and understanding of movies while also excreting some of the five pounds of shit out of the four pound bag that was my twenty-something persona. In more ways than one, I owe much personal and emotional development to this site, its usefulness in getting my head screwed on straight being on par with help from family, friends, and significant others from 2010 till now.
Like I said, though, that period of emotional crisis is over. Stopping the desire to kill myself was the “easy” part; now, comes life.
Rather than divulge all the gory details of those quasi-formative years — which I’ve covered before, anyway — I wanted to write a sort of retrospective or roll call of the lessons I’ve learned in my day-to-day life since the inception of EEH. I also wanted to write this roll call of life experiences in a way that wasn’t a meticulous how-to-survive-depression-and/or-other-emotional-breakdowns, nor was so broad and vague as to come across like a sermon. In the spirit of much of what I’ve learned in the past five years, I decided to write a blog-retrospective that is a compromise between ranting and preaching. What follow are seven lessons I’ve learned that either (A) helped me recover after hitting rock bottom or (B) have since helped me achieve and maintain a level of equilibrium, dealing with the ordinary ups and downs of everyday life.
1.) Don’t kill yourself & Don’t (physically) Hurt Other People & Don’t Break Other People’s Stuff: What I like to call my “emergency rulebook” for surviving most any extreme situation, emotional breakdown, rock bottom impact, or midlife crisis is this three-for-one rule. This rule is arranged in descending order of importance, and while obviously I never broke the first rule, I can’t say I always obeyed the latter two. The important thing to remember in your worst moments, however, is that if you can avoid these legal and/or lethal pitfalls, most any emotional breakdown, no matter how embarrassing, is not going to haunt you or others for the rest of your life. That’s not to say life isn’t worth living if you get into a fistfight with your brother or break your girlfriend’s laptop, but the cliched yet critical lesson to remember is that, no matter how emotionally compromised you may become, you are always held responsible for your actions. Try not to learn that the hard way, as I did.
2.) Guns Up: That being said, if you’re going to lash out (verbally or nonviolently) at others who you feel mistreated you, you may as well go all the way. The applicability of this rule, like the rest of these rules, is contextual of course; but I’ve found it’s often better to cut out the passive-aggressive undertones of most toxic social interactions and rip off the band-aide, so to speak. People seem to respond better to rants, being chewed out, or you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit exclamations the less apologetic and more blunt you act when you finally do explode.
To be clear, this is a break-the-glass-in-case-of-emergency option to prevent violent altercations or the prolonging of a destructive social or professional situation, and may result in one burning bridges that can’t be rebuilt. That’s still preferable to failing any part of Lesson #1, and offers some pushback against bullies, antagonists, and other assorted assholes.
3.) You are your last, best (and sometimes, only) line of defense: I call this lesson “necessary selfishness.” Being selfish is often and appropriately labeled as a negative trait, but there are numerous instances throughout life where it is not only a helpful but vital mindset. In toxic relationships (romantic or otherwise), when being taken advantage of by employers or superiors, or under the thumb of well meaning but overbearing parents, you must look out for yourself; your interests should come first in these situations, and without any caveats
Authors like Mark Manson argue we should become more comfortable with admitting how ignorant we are, not to mention that some of the most despicable miscreants are the most at peace with their negative behavior, but I’ll push back by saying most of us non-sociopaths need to go easier on ourselves; by extension, we should realize that we are the sole individual who will always have our best interests at heart, even if we don’t always execute perfect actions to that effect. Some times — maybe even many times — we should trust our instincts about ourselves, if nothing else.
4.) The Power of Observation: In contrast to Lesson #2, a tutorial I’ve taken from the work of Robin Williams is to recognize the power in listening, or more broadly the power of observing others passively with the concerted effort to understand them. This is a relaxation of responsibility, on the one hand, allowing others to lead in conversation or action, and on the other allows for opportunity to learn from others by empathizing with them.
This is a reminder how powerful the “strong, silent” archetype can be, the allure of quiet confidence, and more importantly allows us the opportunity to observe the world around us with greater objectivity. With this objectivity, we may learn to hone our reactions to people and situations better, particularly negative ones.
5.) Contentment through Stability: I’m not a fan of most “self-help” books, seminars, or documentaries, so depending on your level of cynicism, this post may or may not feel hypocritical. That being said, one of the few I’ve enjoyed and found useful was a brief collection of “happiness tips” titled Walking on Sunshine, by English blogger and author, Rachel Kelly, which inspired this writing to a large extent. One of Kelly’s wiser observations can be found in the book’s opening pages, where she realizes how happiness/contentment/ satisfaction-with-life-in-general is not a tangible, direct emotional status so much as it is a byproduct of various behavioral and psychological habits.
More to the point, Kelly writes how she often feels happy as a function of feeling calm, which speaks to the deleterious effects of needless stress and anxiety. I am not arguing for an avoidance of stressful situations, of course, but a refusal to succumb to suffocating anxiety when there is no point to it. Academic tests, housing situations, dating obligations et al. are meant to develop and/or test your life, not turn it into a veritable hell. Whenever I feel anxious about a given situation or dilemma, which is often (that much has not changed), I mentally “coach” myself to chill the fuck out as much as possible.
6.) The belonging you seek is not behind you; it is ahead: What is more difficult than stopping oneself from trying to “quit” life is teaching oneself to embrace life, specifically the future. I don’t advocate disrespecting the influence of the past, nor the necessity of living in the moment; but quite frankly, I now look to the future with cautious optimism not because I want to, but because I have to. If I am not at least interested in what comes around the next corner, my energy and lust for life drains from one week to the next.
Given my recent history, mixed self-confidence, and plentiful guilt over the past 8 years, I relate to Daisy Ridley’s Rey in The Force Awakens (2015), the film from which Lesson #6 is taken. A pivotal sequence in that film sees Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata advise Rey to stop waiting for the return of her family with the heartbreaking line, “Dear child, I see your eyes; you already know the truth … Whomever you’re waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.”
Whether you interpret this as a longing for a family member long gone, a friendship gone sour, or a former lover, this phrase hits you like the brutally honest sledgehammer that it is. This transience of the past and importance of realizing we never know what’s in our future is critical to self-actualization. Our lives are always progressing whether we realize it or not, and yet we cannot achieve that future belonging until we let go of our past demons. Acknowledge them, learn from them, apologize for them if you must — and then turn away from them at last. You do not belong with them anymore.
(7.) The Repercussions of Mortality: This final lesson is best summarized by the video below, which describes the dominant theme of Game of Thrones (2011-present). I place this lesson last because it was the final major concept I learned over these past 5-8 years of introspection, and it has coincided with the rise of one of the most popular television series of all time. To quote Jim Anesta and Will Schoder (Time Code 10:16):
What I find especially compelling about the series’ use of death is the way in which it spins the story, how it impacts the characters who are still alive. Take, for example, Jon Snow’s death and resurrection. As Kit Harrington points out, the experience completely alters the character’s outlook on the world: “That cuts right to our deepest fear, that there’s nothing after death. Jon’s never been afraid of death, and that’s made him a strong and honorable person. He realizes something about his life now — he has to live it, because that’s all there is. He’s been over the line, and there’s nothing there. That changes him; it literally puts the fear of God into him. He’s seen oblivion, and that’s got to change someone in the most fundamental way there is.”
Similar changes can be seen in Jaime Lannister and Sandor Clegane. While neither die, both go through near death experiences and are reborn. In the first season, Jaime tells Tyrion in regard to the recently paralyzed Bran: “Even if the boy lives, he’ll be a cripple, grotesque. Give me a good, clean death any day.” Tyrion’s response is: “Speaking for the grotesques, I’d have to disagree. Death is so final, where as life… ah, life is so full of possibilities.” When Jaime becomes crippled himself, his eyes are opened to Tyrion’s perspective, along with a hundred others he’d blinded himself to at the start of the series.
This is where Game of Thrones’ meditation on death is at its best; it’s not so much in the actual, dramatic moments of death, but in the ways it affects those nearly killed or left behind. It’s in the mourning, the self-reflection, and the emotional feelings that follow the death — much like how the death of a loved one or near-death experience would change us in our world. Indeed, our world is filled with iPhones and guns, and theirs is filled with ravens and swords, but much like these characters, we all have the same struggle in making things right before our mortality catches up with us. And though most of us experience death through a phone call or over the course of a slow deterioration at a hospital bed rather than in a dramatic fashion, the passing of someone near to us always brings us closer to a more authentic self.
Much like these characters, we are born into particular social backgrounds that dictate particular ways of looking at the world. Many of us suffer from old prejudices we had no part in creating. Over the course of our lives we regret the many times we placed greater value in our work than our families and friends, but death acts as this constant reminder of the limitations we face with the time we are given, no matter our circumstances. It tears away these superficialities, and it forces us to reflect on the decisions we’ve made and the ones we will make in the future.
In short, it took years of wanting to end my life for me to appreciate the value of life. I still have much to learn, but hope these lessons can help others going through the same or similarly difficult emotional experiences. The overarching theme here, I believe, is that these periods of emotional suffering, whatever their flavor, help us to become more complete human beings. I have profound regrets from these past few years, but I have learned to live with them, and am grateful for the personal growth I have experienced as a result. Moreover, I am immensely thankful to all those who helped me learn these lessons and achieve that growth, without whom I may well have perished. Thank you.
And thanks for reading