Once Upon a Mind
Happy New Year everyone. For many people, today represents fresh beginnings and doing things differently. You may have even created a list of resolutions. But are any of the items on it purely internal in their execution? Do they involve thinking in a novel way? This month I want to focus on that exact subject. Specifically, the way we react to thoughts and the stories we tell ourselves about memories.
A few years ago, I was at a fundraising dinner seated next to a Vietnam veteran who self-admittedly suffered from severe PTSD. While discussing his condition, he said to me, “that stuff never goes away.” My response wasn’t what you might expect. I stated that while his recollections of certain events won’t disappear, the narratives he had constructed about them (including “that stuff never goes away”) absolutely could. I told him he was wrong… This may seem like a harsh declaration to make to someone with PTSD. But speaking as one of the afflicted, I assert that it’s a valuable lesson.
To start, it’s critical to understand that regardless of the circumstances a person has endured in the past, the only thing that remains after the fact are mental representations (and often not very accurate ones) of what transpired, assuming there are no persistent physical injuries.1 And we wouldn’t run into problems if we simply noticed memories without reacting to them. But often we don’t do this. Instead, we pass judgment. How do I feel about this memory? Is it a good or bad? Next, we search for meaning. Why did this happen? What does it say about me? Ultimately, we build stories. If done around a traumatic event, this can lead to serious issues.
The following is a chronicle of how I started spinning self-destructive tales. How doing so led to an anxiety disorder, debilitating physical symptoms, and a complete mental collapse. It’s deeply personal and something I’ve never relayed to anyone. But I have the feeling others might relate (at least conceptually) to what I’m about to share. And hopefully I can help some of you steer clear of going down this same path, or change course if you are already on it.
Over 15 years ago I made some professional errors. I won’t go into specific details as to what happened as I don’t believe in publicly recounting war stories. And that part really doesn’t matter. It’s the way I reacted that does. Basically, I felt like I let my teammates down. And mentally I struggled getting past this feeling. I found myself replaying scenarios over and over in my mind, wishing I had somehow acted differently.
Of course, humans err all the time and we learn to reconcile and live with mistakes. Occasionally however, we falter in a way that eats at us. Maybe we miss the game-winning shot. Or we act dishonestly to someone we respect. Whatever the case may be, this transgression of ability, effort, or character is something we can’t seem to let go. That’s where I found myself. And it’s when the narrative started to form. The initial interpretations and adjudications. Things like:
You are a failure.
You are an embarrassment.
This went on for awhile. I spent years telling myself these things repeatedly on a daily basis. But the process can snowball, as it did for me. Eventually I started thinking about all my friends and teammates who had died in the line of duty - amazing men, the finest warriors on the planet. It didn’t seem fair that I was alive, and they weren’t, especially given the internal dialogue I had uttered for so long. Slowly, these new thoughts worked their way into the narrative as it evolved and morphed:
Those guys were better men than you.
You should be dead, not them.
As time went on, I became convinced that something in fact must be killing me - cancer or another fatal condition. You may be reading this and thinking that’s completely irrational. And it is. But back then I really believed this conclusion. After all, having mental problems means you are not thinking well by definition. So to me it all made perfect sense. It felt like cosmic, karmic justice.
However, this theory needed evidence. And at some point I went looking for it. I started noticing any tiny feeling I had somewhere in my body - a tingle here, a small stabbing pain there - things that happen all the time and most people simply dismiss as nothing. Because usually they are. For me, these sensations became justification for a fatal diagnosis, a forecast of imminent death. My attention was constantly turned inward, obsessively body scanning.
And as much as I felt like this imagined crippling disease was something I deserved, I was terrified of it. I went to the doctor and asked about the strange symptoms I was having. I begged him to run various tests on me. Every result came back as normal and yet I increasingly became more afraid. My condition had now transformed to include omnipresent paralyzing anxiety and panic attacks. I began having chest pains. My jaw would go numb. I’d be dizzy all the time. And my fears of these sensations only exacerbated things - a never-ending loop of exploration, fixation, apprehension, and intensification. The cycle went on ad infinitum with my fight or flight response on overdrive.
Finally, after years of this narrative gradually metastasizing, to include its physical side effects, I had a mental breakdown. I came home from work one night and just couldn’t deal with it anymore. My body was racked by frightening symptoms, and I thought I was dying. My mind was shattered, and I couldn’t think straight. I was so scared. I got to my front steps and fell down sobbing. My oldest son who wasn’t even four at the time walked up behind me and just stood there confused and incredulous, trying to process why his father was crying on the ground in front of the house. He looked up and down the street, then back at me before saying, “daddy there are no monsters out here.” All the mind of a child could fathom was that I was afraid of chthonic beasts roaming our neighborhood. And he was right about the demons, just not about their location. I looked back at him through tears, pointed to my head and said, “no son, the monsters are in here.”
Recounting the details of that evening still gets me choked up. And all of this was only the beginning of what would become a decade-long saga. There’s actually a lot more to it. But remember, my focus here is how it started - with a story! No one did anything to me. It was 100% self-inflicted. I took a simple memory of an incident that no one else dwelled on or cared about and contorted it into some Stygian Greek tragedy where the hero must die.
I’ll go into some of the rest of this tale in future articles to the extent that doing so can help others. But for now, I want to give some insight on how I slowly navigated my way out of this mess (for the most part). As always, my intent isn’t to make you feel sorry for me. It’s to provide lessons learned that are actionable for anyone who might be dealing with something similar.
It started in 2018 when I was introduced to a therapy called EMDR, a non-invasive treatment for PTSD whereby a therapist has you recall certain memories and then talks you through them while you are exposed to pulsing sounds (and sometimes lights) that coincide with vibrations from paddles you hold in your hands. Basically, the counselor asks you how want to feel about these memories, in comparison to how you do feel about them. I don’t know how this works physiologically, but practically it helped me realize one simple truth - that I could tell a new story. This is not an advertisement for this treatment as a cure for PTSD or a panacea against unwanted memories. But EMDR did teach me that the memories themselves were not the problem. It was how I interpreted them. It was the narrative I was telling myself about them. The recollections are still there; they just don’t bother me the way they used to.
Of course, there are other ways to do the same thing. Right around this same time I also started a meditation practice. The point of such a routine is to simply treat your thoughts as what they are – thoughts. To notice them instead of identifying with them. To let them arise and fall away without judgment or fear. In addition, I found many of the techniques detailed in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)2 to be extremely helpful.
Unfortunately overcoming the physical symptoms that can come along with this kind of condition is a tougher challenge. My experience was that even after I understood what was happening, the somatic side effects didn’t disappear on their own. I still struggle with them. That said, I’ve found various neural reprogramming systems somewhat helpful. These include the Linden Method, DNRS, and the Gupta Program.
In closing let me say that everybody is guilty of this kind of behavior to some extent. Even if you don’t grapple with memories, you most assuredly manipulate them into stories. If this has become a problem for you, don’t expect things to change overnight. But realize they can change if you are sedulous in your efforts to do so. And it starts with you simply realizing what’s going on. By beginning to pay attention to the narrative you attach to memories. Whatever tales you tell yourself, know that you can alter them. Your own internal show has an audience of one. In many cases he or she isn’t enjoying it. And for good reason. In 2022, maybe it’s time to rewrite the script.
“Don’t tell me what new thing you’re doing. Tell me what you’ve stopped doing.”
- Peter Drucker
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist. None of the opinions expressed here are intended to diagnose or treat any condition or disease. If you are suffering from a mental or physical disorder or illness, please seek medical attention from a licensed professional. Also note that I have no official affiliation with any of the programs or products listed above.
If this is of interest, start with the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.