If You Find Yourself in Hell, Learn to Tread Fire
In many of my works, I have described the experience of undergoing a depressive episode as living in hell. Hence the title of my memoir is When Going Through Hell Don’t Stop!
I recently read a powerful description of this depressive hell, written by David Foster Wallace, one of the most talented writers of my lifetime. A literary genius who struggled with depression and suicidal ideation, Foster Wallace described the suicidal state as being tapped in a burning high-rise. He writes:
“Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s the terror of the flames.”
The first time I read this, I said to myself, “Wow! What an amazing and accurate description. The suicidal person is stuck between a rock and a hard place.” But upon further thought, I realized that perhaps Foster Wallace was not totally accurate in his comparison. If you are in a burning building, you are going to die no matter what you do. Whether you stay put or jump out, either way your life will end.
However, the suicidal pain that Foster Wallace refers to with his metaphor of the flames, in and of itself, is not fatal. The pain may feel unbearable, but it is not going to kill you. Even though the pain itself cannot kill you, it can become so intense and so unrelenting that death is viewed as the only means of escape.
So what can you do if you are trapped in that burning building? You need to learn to tread fire. What do I mean by treading fire? Just as treading water means keeping your head above water until you can get to shore or be rescued, treading fire means keeping your head above the flames of suicidal pain by finding ways to dial back the pain to make it bearable. Sometimes just a five percent reduction can be enough to catch your breath and live to see another day.
Like anything else, treading fire can be a learned skill. Here’s an example of a technique I used during my episode of agitated depression whenever I would catastrophize about the future during my anxiety attacks. My mind would jump ahead into the future, and see only more suffering without end. “If this is what I have to look forward to,” I would tell myself, “I might as well end my life right now. “
Wherever I noticed that I was catastrophizing, I would say out loud “CANCEL CANCEL”. I would then take a deep breath, feel my feet on the ground, and look around at the objects in my room to ground myself in the present. I would then replace my thoughts of fear with positive self-talk and constructive action. For example, I might replace the statement “I’ll never get better” with “This too shall pass” and then distract myself by calling a friend, taking a brisk walk around the block, or listening to music.
This strategy is one of the ways that I used to tread fire. Other strategies include social support, exercise, prayer, and spirituality, treatments for depression, etc. I’ve created some videos that talk about these strategies; you can link to them below.
Going through a fiery trial can be seen as a process of transformation in which you become a stronger, wiser, and more compassionate person. I am reminded of a verse from the 18th Century Hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”, where author John Rippon refers to dross, the impurities that are separated when a metal such as gold is heated, leaving behind the pure substance.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie
My grace all-sufficient shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
So if you find yourself in a fire of hopelessness and despair, you don’t have to jump to escape the flames. You can find ways to tread fire until the flames subside. Remember, the flames surrounding you are not permanent. If you can reach out for support and hold on, like the Phoenix bird, you will rise from the ashes.