As a high profile endurance athlete and as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault, I live a very public, and at times, messy life. Over the past few years, I’ve written extensively about, and on many occasions have spoken candidly of my struggles with addiction, mental health issues, and sexual violence. With over half a million readers/subscribers, my blog, Breathe Through This, has been the primary forum for this discussion.
From all the messages and comments I receive, what strikes me most is how many of us feel that we live on the ‘margins’ of society, moreover, how desperate we are to find the resilience inside that gives us the strength and courage to keep moving forward despite what lies at our feet. I find it even more surprising when people tell me they see that resilience in me, when truth be told, I feel somewhat of a fraud because to me, all I’ve done is to literally hang on for dear life.
I have grown to believe that the greatest antidote to fear is honesty, and it’s with this in mind, that I share the following with you. For the past few months, I’ve engaged in a convoluted relationship with time. It all started out rather innocent. I would be sitting on the subway or in a coffee shop, when suddenly I would awaken back into the moment and have absolutely no idea how I got there, or what I was doing even 5 minutes before.
At first, I simply dismissed these incidents as my being preoccupied or distracted, but as they became more and more frequent, they became of greater concern. The closest I can come to describing this feeling is to compare it to the blackouts I experienced when my alcoholism was at its worst. Hours were once again slipping away from me, and I had absolutely no idea how to account for that lost time. The one saving grace in all this has been that, unlike the black holes of alcoholism, I was not awakening from these time voids with an impending feeling of doom, or a deep sense of remorse. But I assure you, it’s equally terrifying to feel that your mind is fracturing before your eyes.
Despite knowing about my brain’s ability to shield me from past trauma, it wasn’t until last week that I found the courage to speak with my doctor, and later my wife, about my experiences with ‘losing time’. I should also mention that I am currently seeing a psychiatrist at a PTSD clinic here in Toronto who is helping me navigate my way through some the more tenacious residual effects of trauma. As a consequence of having to nurture resiliency for so many years, I have become increasingly aware of the convoluted and ingenious ways my mind has adapted to the repercussions of surviving trauma.
Truth be told, I’m absolutely terrified of being locked up in a psych ward, so you can probably imagine what was going through my mind as I witnessed my relationship with time becoming more and more distorted. Once again, it was my choice to abandon fear for truth that proved to be my way out of isolation and trepidation. My doctor assured me that what I was experiencing was a condition known as “disassociation”—something that is extremely common in people working through complex PTSD. Terrifying though it may seem, by creating the sensation that the current situation is unreal, and temporarily depersonalizing us from our body in an almost dream-like state, our brain is merely enacting yet another ingenious coping mechanism to create the ‘safe space’ necessary for it to adequately process unresolved past trauma.
Whenever I ‘come to’ from one of these episodes, it’s as though I’m just like Hansel and Gretel and I have awoken in a fairytale—I vainly search for the breadcrumbs in order to find my way back. I’m reminded of a quote by the writer Caroline Myss: “The journey of life is the unification of fragmentation. Fragments are units of power that are out of control. We make agreements to come and collect ourselves.”
When you think about it, that’s a perfect metaphor for how we go about living our lives—tripping, pirouetting, and stumbling upon those fragments we discover along the way that make us whole. I now trust that ‘healing’ has less to do with repair, and everything to do with the ‘return’ to self and to community. It’s a conscious decision to move from the place where your wounds define you towards a place where those same wounds begin to guide you.
No matter what you may be struggling with in your life at the moment, chances are the solution will not be found in isolation, but in connection. The South African word ‘ubuntu’, which loosely translated means “I am, because of you”, speaks to the heart of our interconnectedness, and suggests that everything we go through in life, once shared, serves as a lesson or opportunity for the entire community’s growth. Healing lies within a community, and that healing starts with a conversation.
At its truest essence, healing is not the absence of pain, but rather, the faith to give oneself the permission to unravel into the messiness of life—its glories, sorrows, and heartaches. In the words of Caroline Myss, you achieve the greatest peace by learning “how to endure and transcend when unreasonable events come your way.” In essence, “learning to defy gravity in your world.”