Several years ago, I was driving with my wife to the southwest of England for a holiday. After about thirty miles on the highway we pulled into a service station for petrol; on the way back to the car my knees buckled beneath me and… the best way I can put it is my whole personality–the thing that enabled me to function in the world, the part that we all take for granted–just stopped working. As you can imagine, this sudden loss of identity was accompanied by tremendous anxiety. Naturally, this made people around me uncomfortable. Families were becoming upset; people were staring at this grown man, collapsed on the ground, sobbing.
This is how the breakdown finally struck, but four months earlier there had been warning signs foreshadowing its arrival. I had been booked to give a talk to teachers and librarians to promote my children’s books. My career was in a good place. I’d sold millions of books and had even won a BAFTA for an animation based on one of my characters. I was used to playing the role of best-selling author and giving these presentations to large audiences. However, just before I began, I started to feel strange; my hands became cold and my heart started racing. It was as if something in me didn’t want to be where I was, giving that talk, because I didn’t have the ability to fulfill that role. My mind said, ‘Come on–just get on with it, you’ve done this hundreds of times before.’ Somehow, I managed to pull myself together enough to give the talk, but I was left severely shaken.
I had seen the holiday as a chance to get some much-needed relaxation which hopefully would put right whatever was wrong with me. Now, at the service station, that feeling of inner-collapse had returned but this time there was no coming back from it. Willpower was useless–I couldn’t pull myself together.
Paramedics were called. They didn’t know what to do with me except take me to the hospital to be checked out. The doctor there was the same: I think because I didn’t have any serious physical problems he thought I was wasting his time with some kind of panic attack. He gave me a tranquiliser which just about allowed me, with my wife’s help, to get home on the train. We arrived in a state of shock: we were supposed to be on holiday. What had just happened? What was going to happen now?
Identity, Reality and My Creative Illness
My life was put on pause. Without that centre–that part of me through which I interacted in the world–functioning as normal, it was almost impossible for me to operate. In the safety of my home I could still function, but to a much lesser degree. I had no appetite and was losing a lot of weight; my heart was palpitating and making sleep difficult. I felt this terrible fear for no apparent reason. Also, I became very sensitive to stimuli–I couldn’t even watch TV because it overloaded my senses. Silence was the only thing I could deal with; the world of man, of thought and busyness was beyond my capacity. I used to see people through my window, waiting at the bus stop, going to work and think: ‘I used to be able to do that.’ It was as if I’d forgotten how to be me. At least, the me I’d been living for forty-odd years.
I was referred to a psychologist. I asked her: ‘Am I going mad?’ She told me I wasn’t. ‘What happens now?’ I asked, ‘Can you help me?’ She said that she couldn’t make the breakdown go away; the only thing I could do was wait for it to pass. So that’s what I did. My life changed dramatically from being active in the world to becoming a virtual recluse waiting for ‘normal life’ to resume. It never did, but in the tortured years that followed, my house became a chrysalis in which something new was born.
All the Lights Went Out, Except One
A turning point came when I discovered a passage in a book about Carl Jung in which he talks about going through his own breakdown; he called it a ‘creative illness.’ The idea that the illness I was in the grip of could be creative opened something in me. I started to have a different relationship to this thing that had brought my life to its knees; I began to have a deep respect for it. I saw it as a powerful, awe-inspiring teacher that could teach me things which no other experience could because no other experience was so radical.
Obviously, in order to learn, one must be conscious and willing to receive the lessons; and this is the attitude I brought to the breakdown. We’re programmed to pull away from pain, and that actually has the effect of adding more tension and making things worse. Because my personality was no longer in control, it wasn’t able to repress painful emotions from my past which had previously been buried in the subconscious. These terrible, dark, lost feelings were my lessons. The psychological pain kept me focussed sharply in each moment, just as when you cut your finger, it draws your attention to it. However bad the intensity of the pain, I never went unconscious; I was always there, watching this breakdown unfold. Like a detective, I followed the clues, I investigated every memory and emotion and made meticulous notes on my discoveries. I saw my personality, its games and strategies–its whole story was revealed to me.
In the Arms of Infinity
One evening, the psychological suffering I’d been stricken with for eight months intensified. I went to bed drained. I was so sick of being tortured and cut down by this breakdown, I think in my desperation and exhaustion I somehow let go and entered it even more fully. This triggered some sort of primal-scream release, and then, in the middle of all that terrible, writhing emotion… it stopped. The personality and all its suffering were simply unhooked. All that was left was stillness.
When I came downstairs the next morning my wife asked: ‘What happened last night? The whole house feels like it’s full of light.’ I told her: ‘I don’t know, I went to bed in torment and somehow found myself in the arms of infinity’. I wrote a poem to try and capture what I’d experienced.
In the Arms of Infinity
Like a flash of lightning illuminating a dark night.
The story of ‘you,’
With its history of beliefs and emotions,
And its future of desire and hope –
Dissolves in the arms of infinity.
Outside of the mind and its perception of time,
Free from the stranglehold of contraction,
It’s found that there’s no separation from love.
Each touch, each smell and sound,
Each breath, thought and feeling
Is known as love happening within, through and around
What has been lived as ‘you.’
In the timeless experience of love
The chasing after desires
And the distraction from suffering
Suddenly become redundant.
Now there’s nothing to fight for,
Nothing to escape,
Nowhere to go.
Meaning is now found in the simple joy
Of being planted in the centre of the mystery of life.
To experience this mystery,
Through the form of this apparent ‘you,’
Is all that Oneness wants to do.
That pronounced awakening didn’t last, but it taught me the vital lesson: I am not the personality. I knew this because I had spent the whole night beyond its reaches. There’s a quote from Albert Camus that reflects what happened to me:
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
An Invincible Summer
It took many more years of willingness and self-inquiry to permanently find that ‘invincible summer.’ The breakdown was the doorway that eventually led to it. The breakdown taught me to question a very basic assumption. We think we are our personalities; this is how our society and families programme us to be. We’re so used to living with this identification that we can’t see how it is actually the cause of our suffering. We come into this life in a natural state, we are taught to leave behind that unbounded state of being and to reside in this finite idea of who we are. How that happens, and what it means to live a life beyond personality has been a subject I’ve been sharing in books and videos ever since I woke up in that ‘invincible summer.’
I know what happened to me was extreme, and everyone has their own ‘depth of winter’–whether it be in the form of depression, anxiety, lack of self-love, etc. What I learned after my own ‘depth of winter’ is that because I was truly willing to inquire into it, the breakdown lead to a transformational breakthrough. That most difficult of my life experiences guided me towards my very own life-changing ‘invincible summer.’
We are moved by stories of courage and the willingness to burn in the flames of egoic illusion and to come through the grasp of conditioned-self into the loving arms of the true-self. Please let us know in the comments below how this story resonated and inspired you.
All tender and fierce determination to you.
Much love Team UPLIFT