“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” ― Madeleine L’Engle
When I was forty-nine, I burned-out. My psychiatrist told me they used to call that a nervous breakdown. I guess “burnout” became a less offensive term.
The meds I’d been on all my life stopped working. My physical health deteriorated. I could barely get two hours of sleep a night over the course of a year. When I did sleep, I threw up when I woke. Conversations were increasingly embarrassing because I couldn’t bring my thoughts to conclusion. I’d stop halfway through sentences, forgetting what I began to say. I had great difficult focusing at work. I began experiencing periods of lost time. At night, I hallucinated and/or saw terrifying apparitions or entities in my apartment. This kicked up my PTSD symptoms exponentially. I became so paralyzed with fear, I stopped going to work and sat frozen on my couch in front of the TV day after day, chain smoking, my eyes darting between the TV screen and the door, only budging if I absolutely had to. I ordered in when I ran out of food. I was no longer “safe”. Not at work, not on the street, not in my apartment. Not anywhere.
Reality long-denied came hurtling into consciousness after decades of dissociation and numbness. So much of what I always believed to be true proved to be false.
Darkness flooded in.
When I woke in the morning, I felt an immediate visceral drop as if I were in an elevator falling twenty floors. It felt like a black hood was over my brain. My despair was so great, I was terrified I’d lose my mind. I was hospitalized involuntarily decades before. I never, ever wanted to be in that situation again.
When I started pulling out of the burnout and could focus again, I looked to books for help as I had so often in the past. I searched for memoirs of people who’d suffered trauma and come out whole. How did they survive? What got them through? Did despair follow them the rest of their lives? If they believed in God before their trauma, did that change after?
The first book I picked up was Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. He said having a powerful reason to live helped concentration camp prisoners survive psychologically, and that the one thing the Nazis could never take from them was their mental life, their attitude towards their circumstances.
From a PTSD point of view, I’d like to add that sometimes certain inmates—referred to as musselmann—seemed to collapse instead of freeze (out of the trauma responses of fight, flight, freeze or collapse.) It wasn’t that they were simply resigned to their fate, they were somehow already gone, unresponsive, the living dead. Starvation, dehumanization and so many other factors, no doubt, contributed to their state of affliction. In these particular cases, I’m not sure these people had the ability to maintain their state of mind anymore. But this is pure conjecture on my part.
That book was so helpful to me that I went on to read thirty-eight memoirs of Holocaust survivors. My experiences as a child and difficulties in adulthood receded into the background as I became intensely aware of the suffering of others, past and present.
My favorite of all the Holocaust memoirs were those by Primo Levi. His Survival in Auschwitz (aka If This is a Man) and The Reawakening (aka The Truce) were written simply and beautifully with the precise dispassion of the scientist he was. After the war, when he returned home to Italy and fell in love, I was so happy. He found joy again! How I cried.
I knew if Primo Levi could find joy again, I could, too.
Of course, given the human condition, Primo Levi’s life did not necessarily continue on a course ever upward, but he published many more wonderful books and helped so many people.
Sometimes it gets so dark.
Especially at night.
I’m not doing a Vegas joke there, but that’s a good one.
Seriously, though, I really do tend to despair more at three or four in the morning as opposed to nine a.m. When it’s dark outside and inside, I turn to my Kindle and pull up a memoir.
Memoirs of trauma and healing help me. Well, actually the people who write these books help me.
There is no doubt terrible things happen in the world. But if we survive and find a way to evolve and heal, then we can help others do the same and by so doing—make light out of the darkness.
Speaking of darkness and light, this morning I woke up and heard a voice softly singing “This Little Light of Mine” in the kitchen — although no one was there but my planties.
Then I noticed how straight and tall Basie stood. I moved in closer and realized it was she who was singing! She’d always been so shy. I wondered what on earth brought about such a change?
When I moved in closer still, I understood. Can you see the basil seedling coming out of the dirt? I plopped seeds in there a couple weeks ago. It’s so cool how they know not to go downward, but up, up, up out of the darkness and into the light.
Hello little basil seedling! Welcome to the world!