I picked up Victor Frankl’s fantastic book again the other night. He wrote about surviving Auschwitz, and said, “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances…”
I like to remember that.
It’s true that PTSD symptoms, like flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, can undermine that freedom, but for the most part—I do have the freedom to choose.
I remember being involuntarily committed after an accidental overdose in my early 30’s. I was only in the hospital for eleven days, but, man, they were the longest eleven days of my life. It was terrifying to have my freedom taken away and my future held in the hands of strangers. I was in a state of fight-or-flight the entire time.
Despair led to the accidental overdose. My depression had gotten worse and worse the previous year, so eventually my therapist recommended I see a psychiatrist for additional meds. He gave me a prescription for something that knocked me out. (I can’t remember the name of the drug.)
Every time I woke up and remembered who I was, I sank further into despair and took more of the meds to knock myself out again. I wasn’t trying to overdose. I just inadvertently took a toxic amount over the course of five days, went into a blackout and the next thing I knew, I woke up in the ER, where, after they emptied my stomach, I was promptly committed.
When I got out of the hospital, I thought, I cannot afford the luxury of a negative thought. One lousy thought will lead to another and another and eventually I’ll feel so bad, I’ll somehow find drugs to kill the feeling and that could send me to the hospital or the grave. I don’t ever want to go to the hospital again and I’m not ready for the grave.
It was hard at first. I was used to living within a negative stream of consciousness.
I had no hopes or dreams for the future, so I didn’t spend time thinking about how to achieve goals or fantasizing about how great my life would be someday.
The past was a swamp, so I didn’t dare move in that direction.
I had no choice but to live in the present. But how was I going to do that?
It helped to get a job. (I wasn’t working.) That focused my mind for eight hours a day, but still left the hours before and after, not to mention lunch.
I didn’t know how else to fill my mind, except to narrate what I was experiencing in the moment.
For example, I’d think:
I’m now walking to the bathroom to take a shower.
The floor feels slightly slanted.
I’m shutting the bathroom door.
I’m turning on the water.
The warm water feels nice.
The sunlight is bright coming through the window.
I’m putting shampoo in my hair.
It smells good.
And so on.
It felt mentally weird and clumsy and took a lot of effort, but as the days and weeks passed by, I became better at it and ultimately it became effortless.
When a negative thought came through, I’d shout, “No!” in my head. And change the subject.
Over time, I discovered that blocking destructive negative thoughts and focusing on neutral or pleasant subjects gave me a tremendous sense of power and wellbeing. I no longer felt at the mercy of my regrets and resentments or fears of the future.
The year that followed ended up being the best year of my life.
I don’t know if it was coincidental or as a result of changing the way I thought, but I quit my crummy, low-paying job and broke up the dysfunctional relationship I was in. I moved into a cute little studio and got a great job that started my career. I became reacquainted with a couple old friends and we had a lot of fun doing all sorts of things. For the first time, I felt like I had a life—a normal, fun life like young people are supposed to have.
Unfortunately, my revolutionary way of thinking and being died a slow death as I found myself in another bad relationship (don’t date your boss!) and I slowly but surely got addicted to painkillers.
I picked up Victor Frankl’s book because I knew he wrote about the freedom to choose and I need to be reminded of that, especially when I’m tired and stressed. I’m still feeling the loss of my husband and though sadness and grief are natural, I have to be careful and remember it’s still my choice what I choose to dwell on and how I fill my days.
I had few options when I was little and in a bad situation. But I’m not little anymore and I have options now. To a great extent, I have the freedom to choose how I’ll live inside my head and in the world.
I’ve been waking up feeling pretty down lately, so today, for the first time, I got up early to explore my new neighborhood on foot. It was a gorgeous, sunny morning in the low 80’s. I plugged in my Dr. Dre Beats, hit a playlist with a fast beat and did my walk/run/sprints. The fresh air and music kicked in the endorphins as I focused on the gorgeous landscape and the tiny butterflies that weaved in and out as I ran down the road.