An island in the storm of life

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We asked you to share a significant challenge : This is an empowering story of Dr. Adriana Bankston who has not only shared her challenge but also provided also some helpful resources for the audience.

Finding an island 

My challenge comes from navigating both personal and career transitions at the same time over the past year. Here I detail the personal side. I have struggled with anxiety during this time, and likely also depression, even though I didn’t know how to label the experience. Mostly, due to a lot of life changes all at once, I became extremely overwhelmed and my life was on autopilot for about a year. I don’t know how I was living my life during this time. I felt as if I was in a fog, and my life was full of chaos, and generally out of balance. I was stretched really thin and eventually hit rock bottom. 

But let me step back and explain how this felt. Having everything thrown at you all at once in life feels like you are trying to swim in an ocean with big waves and just keep your head above the water. After a while, you become really exhausted and may even feel like drowning. Obstacles coming at you in this state of chaos may seem larger than they are, and your cognitive abilities are diminished when both physically and emotionally exhausted from merely trying to survive. I did not focus much on self-care, which hurt several aspects of my life. For a long  time, I felt unworthy of any love and compassion towards myself, which led to my lack of opening up to seek help, and that made bottling up emotions become worse. In this constant state of stress, I forgot what it really meant to live life to the fullest. In rare moments when I was able to catch my breath and come above the water, I felt like I was handed a raft, providing temporary relief until the next wave of the storm came over me again, and again, and again, almost every day for 6 months. 

During this time, I met someone who was an island for me, providing a safe and comfortable space to rest from the storm. This person was warm and caring when I needed it most, and taught me a lot of things about life during the short time we’ve known each other. Unfortunately, the emotional turmoil that I was experiencing eventually drove him out of my life. I hurt him a lot, and it makes me beyond sad. I had a very difficult battle to fight – while feeling like a burden to him, I was also drowning and searching for a lifeline which he provided. I eventually lost this battle. After a while, I could no longer rely on my own strength and leaned too much on him. I knew the right thing to do, but my brain couldn’t do it. That caused me a lot of internal conflicts and pain.  

For about 6 months, I was in a daily state of high stress and emotional exhaustion, eventually also causing my self-worth to spiral down to zero. I felt like the lowest person on Earth, and I didn’t even recognize myself and what I was doing to him. Eventually, I decided that I could no longer put him through that. That was my rock bottom moment. The way I treated him caused me a great deal of guilt. Losing this friendship is still one of the worst things that happened last year as a consequence of the state I was in. I’m now trying to forgive myself, which is one of the hardest things a human being has to do. It’s not often that we meet people whom we are afraid to lose, so why do we act in ways leading to exactly that? I can’t describe the pain this has caused me and how much I cried over it. 

Discovering the painful truth

As I read this post again a few months later, I blamed myself for a lot of things, as I realized how wrong I had been. A lot of this could have been avoided if I hadn’t been overthinking things and overreacting to normal situations. Depression and anxiety (or some form of both) really suck. They make you say and do things you don’t mean, and things that aren’t you. Things that will make you look back and think “did I really just do that?”. I single-handedly drove this friendship down the drain because of what was going on in my brain and making problems bigger than they were. Eventually this led to a never ending chain of negative events, and I was stuck in something I couldn’t escape. I knew it had to end, because that way of living was no longer working for me, and it was also unfair to expose him do that anymore. 

The really sad part is that he actually cared for me and genuinely wanted to encourage me, but  I did not see any of that since I was already in a very negative state. I decided that I didn’t deserve that kind of caring and that surely this person would soon see through me. So for his sake, I took matters into my own hands and decided to stop this cycle, in a less than graceful manner, being at a peak level of anxiety and stress by that point. I had to come up with something that would stop this from his end. The other sad thing is that I really wanted just the opposite.

A reflective look back made me realize why this happened:

  1. I never slowed down to assess the situation.
  2. I talked too much and never listened. 
  3. I wasn’t ready to stand alone. 
  4. I didn’t feel worthy to focus on myself.

If I had any insight whatsoever into myself, I would have realized these things sooner and acted on them. I now know that I had been a complete fool. So what did I learn? If you focus too much on what’s in your head without checking that against reality, you will eventually end up hurting a lot and losing a valuable friendship, possibly for no real reason. And that is truly tragic.

Choosing to be thankful

I’m grateful that he was in my life even for a short time, and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He encouraged me to be the best that I can be, and to rely on myself because I was worth it. But did I see any of that? Nope. I was living in my own world, or in my own brain rather, and was out of touch with what was actually going on in reality. I lost something really precious due to my own flawed thoughts and assumptions- a friendship that I can never recover now, but which has shaped my entire life from this point on. I know that he would say not to focus on this. But I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t put my thoughts down on paper, because he really had such an impact on me. I suppose I wouldn’t bother to tell the world about it if this friendship hadn’t meant a lot to me, although I blame myself every day for not knowing how to treasure it in the way that I should have when I still had it. 

I’m again crying while writing this. He was someone who quite possibly would have done anything for me if I had asked for it. The kind of friend I had always hoped for. If you find someone like that, don’t let them go. Listen to them and believe them when they tell you what they are really thinking- I didn’t. I drew my own conclusions, and I let anxiety rule my thoughts and reactions. I let depression decide for me that I didn’t deserve him. I valued him, but didn’t show it. Talk is cheap, action is not. Don’t do as I did, because you will regret it. 

Choosing to be thankful is really tough. But I know it’s what he would say to do. No matter what happens in the future, I will forever be thankful for this time. I know that somewhere deep down, I had good intentions and wanted to do the right thing, and that unfortunately was not obvious. I know that he would tell me to be confident, and to focus on myself moving forward. I’m grateful for having met him and for what he taught me through this friendship, including the way I want my life to be in the future. I’m also hoping to pay this forward in my future friendships that I develop. But this one will always be special to me. 

Ending with some positives 

In the spirit of honoring this friendship, I will end with some positives that have resulted from it. To an extent, in addition to all my other personal issues which I didn’t detail here, losing this friendship was also a traumatic experience, and something that I still grieve today. And at the very least for him (and for myself), I’m going to focus on myself from now on, as he had encouraged me to do.

Part of this process of self-discovery has been trying to understand what I went through in the process and why I behaved the way I did towards him. I’ve now become interested in mental health issues. I’m plugged into a community of folks who study and write about mental health topics, or those who have experienced depression and anxiety, as well as authors writing about trauma, and their views on how these issues affect friendships. I have watched YouTube videos on some of these topics (bignoknow, The Anxiety Guy), discovered relevant podcasts (Let’s Talk about Mental Health; The Hilarious World of Depression) and online communities and groups, started journaling about my thoughts and feelings, and chatted with individuals who recommended useful tools such as meditation. I’m no expert at this, but in the short time that I have done it, I found a regular mediation schedule really helpful in getting in touch with myself again (The Mindful Movement; Linda Hall Meditation). After about a year, I’m just now starting to come out of this fog and remember who I used to be, and who I can be again. Meditation allowed me to slow down and reflect, and make decisions more in tune with my own beliefs. 

I’m also enrolled in a mindfulness meditation course (taught by Stan Eisenstein at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington) and have become more interested in how the mind works and how we can improve our mental well-being. I’m fascinated by movies and books with individuals who have undergone and overcome various traumas, and how their brain plasticity changed in the process. This makes sense for a scientist interested in the brain, who now wants to learn more about it from the perspective of the human experience. I don’t know where this direction will lead, but I have a feeling that it could open new doors. For now this is becoming a passion project and an opportunity to learn, but it may expand into something deeper as I continue to explore this area. 

Concluding with the silver lining 

I recently attended a book reading by James Gordon, MD, called The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, where he noted that trauma is a part of life, and that sooner or later, we will all experience it in some form. He also pointed out that trauma offers us the opportunity to really change and grow through that pain, and discover who we are meant to be- and that part of that discovery is being of service to other people. Finally, he indicated that trauma can make you a better person. 

I’d like to think that this experience has helped me become a better person, as I’m striving to turn this situation into something that can help others moving forward in my life. Additionally, well-being and mental health are now topics of high interest to me, which I never would have gotten interested in, if it wasn’t for this friendship. I have met some fascinating people in the mental health field (Global Consortium of Academic Mental Health), and this new direction is giving me purpose as I continue  to learn more. I’m also growing more in a spiritual sense and I almost feel like a new person now. Part of what has facilitated a positive change is also listening to motivational speakers and some positive podcasts (On Purpose With Jay Shetty; Joel Olsteen Miniseries Podcast), as well as my local church community. I’ve now become a much more positive and compassionate person, which perhaps was always there but I had forgotten it under all of this chaos and pain.

In all honesty, it took me a whole year to smile again and to remember what it feels like to be happy. Feelings of depression and anxiety are no joke, and clearly they can affect your entire life, including important friendships. And while these issues may come up again in the future, I’m arming myself with the right tools to fight them, and aiming to use this experience as a platform for what is sure to be a new and exciting journey in my life. 

So I suppose there is a silver lining to this year of pain and chaos, and to this friendship in particular which has played such a large part in this transition point in my life, and will guide my future steps. Going back to the original metaphor, I now understand that instead of using someone else as an island in the storm life, I had to find my own island and be happy on it by myself. This will take a whole new level of strength that I’m working on developing now. 

This post represents the writer’s personal views and not the views of their employer, University of California.

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