The Labyrinth of Self-Compassion: A Personal Reflection

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

When David Foster Wallace wrote about the “psychotically depressed” person, he made it clear that such an emotionally tumultuous state of existence had nothing to do with whether or not “life's assets and debits squared,” that hopelessness comes not from whether we’re allowed the privilege of getting what we want in life but from being swallowed up by some larger force that makes everything we thought we knew unrecognizable.

Wallace, the author known well for his depression and eventual death by suicide, equated the choice of killing oneself to standing at a window at the edge of a burning building deciding whether or not to submit to the smoke, or to jump.

His thoughts on the matter rang loudly in my ear as I, at 21, stood at the literal window of my college dorm room feeling as though I was metaphorically choking on the smoke he described. If I was now so broken, which I believed I was, and this was how my existence would feel from now on, I simply had to choose.

Five days prior to that moment, I began hiding out in my dorm room. I was overcome with emotions so intense they knocked my nervous system offline. In hindsight, I compared my anesthetized state of being to the nerve damage one might sustain from a 3rd degree burn. The world, and the life I’d built within in, was suddenly filled with monsters lurking behind every corner. Facing it seemed futile; I neither had the energy nor the desire to fight for what was mine. I become dissociated from myself and faded away into a pit of abusive self-talk and neglect.

Using words to describe depression never really seems to do the trick. So I’ll paint the picture of how it looked instead. I spent 5 days pacing the floors, standing awkwardly still in dissociative states, lying atop piles of dirty clothes that I couldn’t bring myself to collect from my bed and place in my hamper. I didn’t eat. I only slept to the accompaniment of heavy metal blasting in my ears through my professional grade headphones so as to silence the layers of ruminating thoughts and self-hatred that spiraled in my mind for days on end. “Shut up!” I’d scream at myself while tapping my temple with a closed fist. I couldn’t understand how my mind could even be so active when my body felt like it was bleeding out.

“Call the counseling center,” I’d demand of myself. Only to be met with another voice, a cruel one that said “no, counseling is for people with actual problems. You’re just a failure who doesn’t deserve help.” I had always been the person in my social circles who provided the advice. I was the listener, the non-judgmental friend you could spill your deepest, darkest thoughts to. And I wondered why I could be so helpful to others, but couldn’t take care of myself.

I couldn’t let anyone else help me either. My depression, while I have since, a decade later, come to discover actually has good intentions, is akin to an abusive partner who doesn’t want anyone from the outside to penetrate the seal of isolation. For if someone else would have seen my 5-day-long passive attempt at dying, they would have tried to bring me into their reality without understanding mine. They would have tried to fact-check me instead of understanding how righteous my self-hating mind was. They would have wanted me to get help that I felt nowhere near worthy of. They would have wanted to save me when I simply deserved to die.

That’s the depressive mind. It isolates you and makes you the villain of your own tale. Every misstep, every mistake, every failure, dead-end, and even every success becomes evidence of your own vile infliction on the world. And so to keep me isolated, even while utterly dissociated, my ego worked strategically to ensure no one came close. I IM’ed my friends just enough information to keep them from looking for me. I schemed only to slink down the hall to the bathroom in the middle of the night when I was sure not to run into another soul. I was being held captive by an emotional illness who managed to recruit my ego to execute its missions.

As the days went on and I avoided – or really even forgot about – work, school, and my responsibilities at the school radio station, the pain and hatred I held toward myself faded to nothingness. Somehow, this was worse.

The numbness became so intense it took on a sensation, like the booming silence of a peaceful snow storm that is so silent, it somehow has a sound. And the only desire left in my bones was to die.

So I stood at the window of my dorm room and overlooked the sea of trees that, up until that point, had always filled me with joy. From the moment I moved into that room, I fell in love with those trees. I decorated my room as to frame the window like an art piece that I hardly ever took my eyes off. And yet there, in that moment, looking over them, I felt nothing.

I stood at that window for a length of time I have no concept of, knowing it was my last attempt at living. I felt a ticking clock. Five days of fading away meant I only had a small amount of time remaining before I ceased to exist entirely. So I stared at the trees and begged them to mean something to me again, for if they didn’t, I would be done. “Please make me feel something again,” I sighed. “Please. I’ll take sadness or anger or grief, just please give me a feeling again.”

And somehow, like a movie, the next thing I remember was sitting at my desk with a ringing phone to my ear. I don’t remember dialing, I don’t even remember walking to my desk, but there I was, about to face my first human voice in almost an entire week. “Saltzman Counseling Center, how can I help you?” a warm and kind voice answered. “I think I need to talk to someone,” I said, matter-of-factly with no frills or conversational prowess. “Okay hold on just a moment, okay? Don’t go anywhere.” She placed me on hold and the flood gates opened. My throat contracted, my chest caved in, every emotion accessible to the human condition came rushing through my nervous system and I began to sob. “We have an opening in an hour – do you think you can make it?” I couldn’t handle how kind she was to me. I’d convinced myself I didn’t deserve it, but my god did I crave it so deeply.

“Yes,” I answered, signing myself up for therapy without even realizing it.

When I hung up, I slowly scanned my room for any clothes that seemed remotely clean. I shoved my unshowered body into them, threw my greasy hair in a ponytail, and squirmed down to my car. I didn’t want to risk running into someone.

When I arrived for my appointment, likely early on account of having no context of what day or time it was, I filled out some paperwork. Of course, not knowing then what I know now, I lied about the questions about suicidal thoughts out of fear they’d institutionalize me.

And when a kind lady named Colby came out to get me from the waiting room, my mind took a snapshot of her, sensing, hoping the next 50 minutes would alter everything that came next.

After Colby reviewed my paperwork and delivered her spiel about informed consent,

she asked me why I’d come. Once again, the flood gates opened and I couldn’t squeak out any words in between the sobbing. I remember the way she scrunched up her lips as if to really empathize with how much I was suffering. No one had ever seen me in so much pain before. That made me feel less alone.

To help contain me, Colby would sometimes finish the sentences I wasn’t able to find the words for. I was shocked to hear the darkest echoes of my mind out loud. And even more shocked to realize it was okay to be thinking those thoughts, but that I also deserved to be kinder to myself.

I left that session with relief. Relief that maybe I could survive after all, and that survival didn’t need to be some desperate attempt to stay alive but actually something pleasant. When I returned to my dorm room, I sat down at my laptop and saw a series of tabs open on the screen. I was so confused. I remembered how lost in the abyss I was when I last sat at my desk just a few hours prior, not even remembering how I got there. But seeing the tabs open on my screen was evidence of the series of logical steps I have no recollection of taking to locate the phone number to the student counseling center. Had I blacked out during that period of time? How could I have been so severely dissociated with still a functioning enough ego to pull this off? I didn’t know, it didn’t matter, somehow I’d survive the ordeal and now had a therapist to help me navigate what would come next.

Several years after that, I sat in a different therapist’s office giving some brief overview of that experience. His name was Brian. “Who was it?” he asked. “What part of you was it that begged for the trees to mean something to you again?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “It was just some flicker left in me. A dying pilot light in an otherwise dark and cold room. The last remaining piece of me that desperately needed me to come back to myself.”

He wanted to know more, but didn’t press. He simply said “well I hope we get to know who that was because we’re going to need that part of you. We’re going to want to strengthen it and feed it and keep it around.

And then about one year after that conversation, I found myself standing inside the house of, what I was pretty convinced was, a cult. The historic building was nearly regal, the security tight, the offerings free, and everyone inside was suspiciously nice. These are the red flags of a cult as I know them and it wasn’t until I was behind closed doors that I realized how little I knew about this place.

In the white Renaissance mansion I stood awkwardly, giving a strange man my name. “Come with me into the main dining hall for a group meditation,” he said. “Sure, but I was really just interested in exploring the labyrinth in the garden” I replied with some semblance of caution. I’ve never been one to turn down a free opportunity to meditate, but the way in which I was being corralled into a strange corner room was off-putting.

“Yes, you may explore the labyrinth after the meditation and after you receive a tour of the grounds from one of our members.”

It seemed a little controlling but I admit, I really was intrigued by their labyrinth which I found out through a quick Google search was open to the public during certain hours of the day for spiritual meandering. When I signed up online, all they required of me was my name and some ballpark of a time that I might arrive. It was just the degree of disclosure and commitment I’m comfortable with and no cult vibes had yet been felt.

Walking a labyrinth has long intrigued me, mostly because it’s always sounded quite absurd and dizzying. I understand its intention - a meditation in motion that invites your inner experience to match your outer one. Walking the spiral path toward its narrow center is meant to mirror a state of inward awareness; following the trail back to its outer rim mirrors returning back to the outside world. But while that seems to make some kind of sense, walking the path of a circular spiral laid out on the ground seemed more like a means to achieve motion sickness than inner peace. And I wanted to find out for myself.

But first, involuntary meditation.

I walked into the main dining room as I was told, suspicious and looking for some new friends I could make eyes at in the event things went south. The room was elegant, the ceilings tall, the furniture mahogany. A gentleman entered the room, he had silver hair and a short but stern stature. He had the energy and physical composure of someone who does yoga and meditates often.

He asked us to close our eyes. I did. Except that I kept one metaphorical eye open for the sake of safety. Of course the objective of meditating is to quiet the ego, but the ego must first feel safe and I wasn’t so sure. I kept thinking what a perfect scheme; lure in the spiritually curious with a labyrinth, force them first into a meditation to insert the subliminal messaging.

As he moved about the room guiding our journey, I tracked his voice. I’d tense up when he got closer to me but would open one eye to check on him when I felt him further away. Nothing about his approach seemed sinister and I slowly started to lean into my breath.

And now I want you to imagine someone you feel unconditional love for.

This seems safe, I think.

Unconditional love was never more clear to me than with my dog, Lacey, whom I pictured right away. She’d died a few years back but she was and remains the easiest trigger for all the warm and fuzzies associated with unconditional love. As a dog, she didn’t come with the baggage of ongoing and compounding trauma that commonly plagues human friendships. As my closest friend, she knew all my secrets and never held them against me. There’s no “but wait what about that one horrible time…” when it comes to me, Lacey, and unconditional love.

Now take that feeling of unconditional love as it swells in your body, and turn it toward yourself.

This made the meditation come to a halt with a record scratch in my mind. What would that even look like? How could I apply those Lacey warm and fuzzies to myself? I’m not worthy of that. It feels weird to give myself that. I know so many terrible things about myself. Besides what would I do with all the extra energy of I wasn’t beating myself up day after day? I couldn’t even fathom self-love. My whole mind faded to black. Like speaking Russian or solving a Rubik’s cube, I had no concept of how to even begin.

But as the internal inquiry persisted, I sunk back down into the meditation, forgetting all about the possible cult threats, and even without the labyrinth’s help yet, I spiraled inward. And what I found was a little creature swimming about in my psyche. She was vibrant and colorful, faceless, but her body indicated pure bliss. Her energy read “there are no problems here, no problems at all.” She was mermaid like but full of life and abundance and calm. She felt so familiar to me, and yet I’d never consciously knew her before. She was beautiful, both in the way she flowed through me without worry and the way she continued to love me even when I tried to out-smart her with ego-driven things worth worrying about.

“I’m kind of sucking at life right now. I’m out of work and have no money – still love me?” I asked her in my mind.

“Yep, money is an illusion.”

“What if I don’t find a job and lose my apartment?”

“Being homeless doesn’t mean I won’t love you. Things will work themselves out.”

“What if they don’t?”

“They will. Maybe not the way you think they should, but they will. Nothing is wrong. Keep breathing.”

“What if whatever will fix this doesn’t happen fast enough?”

“Whatever happens, whenever it happens, it doesn’t mean you’re bad or wrong or unworthy of love.”

If my catastrophizing was rain, she was the waterproof umbrella letting every drop roll right off her. I liked that I could suddenly tap into that narrative in my mind. Thirty years of doubt and fear surely was getting old.

Talking to her transported me back to Brian’s office when he asked me about the part of myself that had managed to keep me alive.

It was her.

She was the spark.

She was the one who begged the trees to bring me back to life because my depression buried her too deep; she was the dying pilot light in an otherwise dark and cold room.

I’d finally met her.

And there, in that so-perfect-it’s-creepy dining room during a meditation I started out refusing to melt into, I began to cry with gratitude.

It was the best gift I’d ever received, to meet her, to know her, to feel her unconditional love for me. And to finally, after 11 years, thank her for saving my life.

I did eventually get to take that meaningful insight out to the labyrinth, but as I suspected, I just felt dizzy as I followed the curves laid out on the ground trying to place one foot in front of the other. I walked it twice, just to be sure I wasn’t doing it wrong, but instead of a walking meditation, I just kept thinking “don’t fall over, don’t fall over, don’t fall over.”

Naturally my inner monologue would be one of criticism and expected failure. Even the fact that I walked the labyrinth twice to make up for any wrongdoings I may have committed the first time is a reflection of why it was so difficult for me to access self-love during the meditation. It’s a complicated, confusing, spiraling maze toward self-compassion and it was only when I showed up to walk that maze that I found the guide I’ve been needing to help me walk it.

This story isn’t meant to have a happy ending, per se. At least not the kind of ending that says “and then all of her problems vanished forever.” Depression still lives and breathes in me. It makes getting out of bed a herculean task more days than I’d care to admit. But I’m in conversation with it now. I’ve grown to understand it a bit more. And even more than that, I’ve grown to love it. Because I learned that it only had my best intentions in mind. It was a means of protecting me once upon a time, but it became too big and powerful and lost its purpose. It became this 80-pound dog that wants to sit on my lap and love me and protect me, it just has no idea it’s hurting me, digging it’s bones into my thighs and cutting off my air supply. So I just have to remind it to back off sometimes, and remind myself I’m more powerful that it. It isn’t easy, it’s like walking a labyrinth every day of my life, trying not to trip over my own feet, avoiding dizziness on the path to meaning, and hoping for some real resolution some day and trying to love myself in the process. But even though I get motion sickness more often than not, it’s a labyrinth I’m happy to still get the chance to walk.

When I got home from walking the labyrinth that day, I rushed to put her on paper, to take the image of her from my mind and turn it into something I could understand a little more. And I wept having come face to face with the part of me that was responsible for me still being here. It was like meeting the paramedic that saved your life after an accident, only the one that saved my life was a part of me, and she’s always been with me, I just never knew she was there until that day.

Feed the Feminine Podcast

Hear a reading of this essay on episode 9 of the Feed the Feminine podcast.

In that episode, I reference a podcast episode of a friend of mine that partially inspired this episode. You can listen to that episode (#14) of The Pulse.