How can one negative feeling send a whole day into disarray? Why do feelings like worthlessness seem to snowball? How do I stop this?
I can’t tell you when it’s going to happen, only that it will: At some point this winter, I’m going to be walking along totally fine, confidently putting one foot in front of the other, when that foot inevitably lands on slick ice.
What was once a lovely winter walk will end up a rumination of the sky as I lie on my back, feeling sorry for myself and my adult body, which is no longer used to falling. The older I get, the less I care if someone saw the fall, and the longer I stay on the ground, thinking about how it happened and taking a mental inventory of my body parts.
Just as I’m certain I will lose this annual battle with gravity, I know I’ll slip as easily and naturally into depression and anxiety, or a discomfiting rootless feeling. And once I start slipping, it’s almost impossible for me to stop my fall down what I call The Spiral.
Spirals in general are rad — they represent a dynamic life, one in which you are always rotating around the same core issues, but from a new perspective each time, even if that perspective is only new because you’re a year removed from it or you live somewhere different.
But in context of The Spiral, it’s more like an emotional, vertical corkscrew covered in ice, on which you only seem to pick up speed. The goal in dealing with The Spiral is to feel like you’ve got a couple of arresting axes that could stop your glissade to doom – but sometimes it’s difficult to even realize you’re sliding before it’s too late.
If I am able to stanch a negative feeling before it hits The Spiral and loops ever downward, I won’t end up sliding. Recognizing where it all begins and nipping it in the bud is tough, but it’s also where I can do the most for myself. If I’m particularly strong that day, or the stars are aligning or all the cows are facing east in the fields or whatever, sometimes I can get there.
But largely, I sputter and fall down The Spiral’s icy slide. With work in therapy and time devoted to trying to understand it, I’ve come up with a couple ways to keep from looping all the way to the bottom. But before I can stop the fall, it has to begin.
As best I can tell, The Spiral starts like this: Something upsets me.
“Wait,” you’re thinking, “that’s all? Just something upsetting you?”
I’m hit by the feeling, a negative one like worthlessness, and it starts to snowball. Before long, feeling worthless about, say, a piece of writing I’m not proud of morphs into feeling worthless in general, about everything.
“You’re garbage because you’re upset about literally nothing,” The Spiral taunts as I slide down. “What’s even the matter? You feel worthless because…what? That’s right, your inherent worthlessness, you pathetic lump.”
Sometimes I end up at this point by surprise, like one lovely fall evening after work, where I had been in a fine mood when I left. I don’t remember now what started it, but 15 minutes after I got home, I was on my back porch, holding back tears, wondering what was wrong with me. Surely it must be something, and something serious, for me to feel so absolutely terrible about myself.
It was so quick, this fall. It took driving across my small town to my house, about a seven-minute commute in traffic, for me to start spiraling. I sat on the back porch convinced I was no longer worth my job or whatever triggered the fall, but also not worth anything else in my life.
My wife found me there, and sat with me to talk, which brings me to Self-Arrest Axe No. 1: When spiraling, it can be helpful to verbalize what’s happening in your head, or to write it down. Either way gives it a new presence in your life, and can help provide perspective.
For example, that evening on the porch, I word-vomited all over my wife about my spiral, about how worthless I felt, about how she deserved someone better, someone who isn’t awful like me. She listened, then told me the truth of the situation, which was that I wasn’t seeing everything clearly, that I am so worthy of all this life has to offer, that she loves me.
Did that fix the problem? No, and initially it made me feel worse for feeling so bad. But soon after, because I’ve been here so many times, I made the decision to believe her. She tells me the truth, and I trust her, so I decide with intention to listen to her instead of that nasty voice in my head. We are not always reliable narrators of our own stories in times like this.
Writing also helps me connect dots; if I can’t talk to someone, I take a pen and paper and write out what I know to be concrete truths: I am alive. I am breathing. I have a great partner. My dogs are idiots but in a great way. Yes, I felt badly about that one thing, so I write out why it made me feel that way, then make myself list the worst possible scenarios and outcomes.
Usually, I end up with a list that starts with an incident like “She said it sounded like I didn’t read the article when I TOTALLY read the article!” and ends with “You lose all your friends and die alone.”
My rational mind can still seem to grip onto the idea that this flowchart doesn’t quite add up, and I can start developing a better sense of perspective on the actual problem instead of the noise around it.
For another Self-Arrest Axe, I’ve developed a system with friends who suffer from similar slides. When I’m falling, I rarely want to talk about it, but also desire the comfort of other people wondering and caring about me.
For these cases, my friends and I have selected our own emojis to symbolize when we’re going through The Spiral’s icy shit. I send the volcano to one of my friends without any context, and they respond with gentle reinforcement that The Spiral is lying to me, that I’m a good person, that I’m not everything I’m worried about.
To be sure, it’s hard to hear “You’ve stopped moving! Just stand up!” when you are damn sure you’re sliding at Mach 1 speeds down the corkscrew. But those texts from people who know how this feels, or a list of concrete truths, or words from someone you trust provide handholds to slow yourself down.
Because really, The Spiral is just the frigid home to our emotional ghosts, the ones that have made us feel so terribly they’ve scarred their likenesses to the walls of our psyches. They remind us, every time we experience something remotely similar, how awful this has made us feel, how brutalizing emotions can be. That’s how these ghosts haunt us.
But what happens when I don’t stop myself on the way down, when I hit the bottom alone and scared?
Much flailing used to occur, but now I go still. I know from previous experience that making decisions in this place is a terrible idea, and that punishing myself, either physically or emotionally, won’t get me back up to the top.
I wait as I ride out the negative feelings, those nightmarish specters so starved for attention. When I feel the urge to hurt myself or otherwise be mean to myself for being in this state, I get extra gentle instead. I continue this until The Spiral finally lets me go, because – and this is important – it always will. It may take days, or weeks (been there), but it doesn’t last forever. That’s the Emergency Self-Arrest Axe I use on particularly steep slides, one that doesn’t stop me, but slows me just enough to breathe.
I don’t trick myself into thinking I have all the answers, and I fall down that damn Spiral a lot. But not as much as I used to, and not for as long. I don’t lose days to it anymore, just hours. My hope is that one day, I will be able to see I’m at the top with my toes jutting out over the edge, and I won’t even need the axes – instead of giving into gravity, I’ll put my foot down on dry ground and walk the other way.