Standing in my mother’s kitchen, I felt a totally irrational fear taking control of my nerves. It was the realization that I might not have the mental capacity to drive my car home that night. My mind and my body had hit bottom. The twin devils of depression and anxiety that I’d been experiencing for weeks — now had me full in its grips.
My next panicked thought was wondering how I could continue teaching at Arizona State for the next six weeks? If I couldn’t drive 20 minutes home, how would I make the 45-minute trek to campus and function in front of 100 students? Pacing the kitchen, I called my teaching mentor at ASU, Jack Crittenden, and asked him what happens when a professor can’t finish a semester?
I knew how hard it was hard for my Mom to hear my fear. What I was describing was not far off from what’s known as “nervous breakdown.” Observing this fact, as it’s happening to you, is surreal. While you have an awareness that none of it makes any sense — you still feel powerless to reprogram your mind.
Jack listened patiently as I described my dilemma. Then he said: “My, God, Michael. You must be terrified.” My friend could hear it. And he was right.
I did end up driving my car home that night. I was shaky, but I knew I just had to do it.
I also ended up finishing the semester. Each class session was mentally and physically exhausting, and there were times when I thought I would literally collapse. But being with those young people; talking to them and listening to them, was the first time I realized the full power of connection.
During those brutally painful months of depression, at the age of 51, I let my mother take care of me. We connected in a wholly different way, and we became closer.
My friend Laurie would push me to climb out of my bedroom dungeon and meet her for a meditation class and a slice of pizza. I didn’t want to, but as soon as I was out of my pit and amongst people, the hurt would start to ease a bit.
My cousin Dana flew out from Chicago for a week. She pushed me to get my affairs in order. She cooked — and made me eat when I had no appetite. She set me straight on some of the nonsensical self-loathing I had going on. Most of all, she was there.
Human connection, be it in the form of love, friendship, collegiality — or talking to a stranger at a bus stop — feeds and fuels our souls.
When another dark time enveloped me a few years later, a newer friend of mine named Tracy nursed my frantic psyche over a phone line from Scotland. We spoke for hour after hour, and when I wondered aloud why she was doing this, Tracy said:
“This is how it works. So many of us have been through it. And then when we get to help someone else, that’s part of our purpose.”
To me, that sense of “purpose” is the second essential key to navigating this oft-confusing earth journey. Author and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl distilled it best in Man’s Search For Meaning:
“Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater.”
Purpose is the launching pad to fulfillment. It is the reason we pop off the pillow in the morning.
After going through that second episode, one of my newfound purposes was to publish a second book: Write Or Die. And after it was released, I heard from lots of readers who identified with the more personal parts.
One woman reached out and asked if I would talk to a father whose daughter had recently tried to take her life. I was on the phone with each of them that night. We became fast friends and have been talking ever since. She faced all of her pain head-on, and she is well on her way to regaining her strength and sense of purpose.
In a long card my new friend sent me, she included this sentence: “I only hope that I can touch someone’s life the way you have touched mine.”
She will. That’s the whole point.
To be clear, the right medications and the right therapist can make a huge difference for anyone battling mental health issues. Trust me.
But I have zero doubt that the gifts we receive from human connection and living our purpose have the power to sustain us. And more often than not, that connection with others — who’re all confronting struggles of their own — is our purpose.
We are here for each other.