There is what I call the traditional, Dwayne-Johnson-ish kind of strength – the “I got this,” “pain can’t stop me,” “just keep going” kind of resolve.
I tapped into my reserve of this kind of strength in Spain.
I constantly redirected negative intrusive thoughts, telling myself that they were just stories in my head. I ordered myself over and over again to concentrate on the ground beneath me, the beautiful landscape in front of me, to get back to the moment. The louder and more pervasive the thoughts, the more miles I walked, some days trekking 35 miles with a 15-pound pack. I was determined to prove to myself that I was made of titanium and nothing, absolutely nothing, could get in my way – the least of which being some bad thoughts.
Some of my Dwayne-Johnson-ish strength on the trail has served me well. The recollection of my sheer tenacity on the path, the memory of relentlessly redirecting painful thoughts on the Spanish roads has provided me a sense of resilience that has helped me meet the challenges of the last few days.
But much of it was pride, one of the seven deadly sins which can be dangerous, and even life-threatening.
Strength is attending to pain, nursing it so as to not make it worse.
Pride is blasting through it, telling yourself you’re too big to feel pain.
My ruminations only intensified when I arrived home. I imagined myself on the trails again, redirecting them as I trekked the path. Three days after I returned, I was trying to walk the perimeter of the campus of the United States Naval Academy, as I do so often. However, I found it impossible to walk 50 feet without keeling over in pain, letting out a deep wail from my gut. I tried to swim, but the same thing happened. I’d have to stop in the middle of the lane, gasping for air because I was crying so hard. I tried to sit in a chair and write, but instead I fell to the floor in child’s pose, begging God for the strength to get me through the hour.
I knew this wasn’t about being strong and pushing through.
Dwayne Johnson could only get me so far.
The kind of strength I needed was the humility to ask for help, to recognize that as much as I try to manage my mood disorder through diet, exercise, therapy, redirecting thoughts, self-compassion exercises, meditation, that sometimes my efforts alone are not enough. I had to swallow the hard reality that I am living with a life-threatening illness that can wreak havoc if I’m not paying attention, getting the proper care, and being gentle to myself.
What’s even more difficult than redirecting 50 ruminations a minute while climbing a mountain, it turns out, is stopping to attend to the pain. The most courageous act, I learned, doesn’t look like strength at all. It’s surrendering your control and putting your trust in the hands of professionals, even when doing so scares the living bejeezus out of you.
Last Friday I admitted myself into Johns Hopkins inpatient psychiatric unit, where I got well 13 years ago. Tomorrow I start electroconvulsive therapy. I have researched ECT enough to know that it’s the single most effective treatment for severe depression, and also the quickest. I’m aware of the risks associated with it, and it wasn’t without careful deliberation that I decided to try it. However, I have not been fully well for several years now. I have struggled much in that time, especially in the last year. I want to give myself and my family a chance for a full remission.
Therefore I decided to relinquish my Dwayne-Johnson-ish attitude and give some of the best psychiatrists in the world a chance to treat me with the most effective treatments available.
It was time to tap a different kind of strength.