How To Survive Hell
It was my first semester of my first year at University. I was leaving to write my final exam for Chemistry (my most dreaded course), and the snow was swirling around the buildings in downtown Toronto. Instead of walking 45 min to get to the convention centre where my exam would be, I decided to try and take the subway to “make my life easier”. Unfortunately, I arrived in a subway station that connected to a vast world of underground walkways and stores. I was completely confident in my knowledge of the streets above, but underground I was lost. I walked around desperately trying to get to the surface just to see where I was. When I finally did, I realized that I had almost walked half way back to my house! And I now had 15 min before my exam would start.
RUN! I skidded around icy sidewalks like a cat on wood floors. Shaking with hurry (and cold) each time I had to stop for a light. And then I could finally see the CN tower looming above me with hands on her hips asking why I was so late. The massive building near her base was where my school sent us to write our exams. And mine was in the second basement. I raced down the stairs trying to unravel my sticky, sweaty face from my scarf. And then I wooshed in the door just as it was closing, like the greedy cold winter breezes that preyed on the cracks in my window. What a scene it was that met me! Thousands of students sat lined in perfectly spaced rows. The room was a giant cement box that could easily hold two full sized ice rinks. And it was deafeningly quiet compared to the roar of the streets I had just rushed from. As I walked between the desks to the very last row where my seat waited, the anticipation grew. There were faces of friends in these crowds, but the doom of what lay ahead had twisted their eyes into unrecognizable shapes of worry, stone still faces of determination, or worse: a smile (what did they know that I didn’t?!).
I reached my seat in time, but the relief was short lived. This exam was worth 50% of my entire grade, and I had had no time to prepare myself before diving into its pages. But it wasn’t quite hell until I heard my first sniffle. Because of my run in the winter cold, followed by my nervous sit in a freezing cement room buried so far underground…I was now getting sick. For three hours I had the most uncontrollable runny nose I have encountered. By the end, my pages and sleeves were soaked. My entire body felt like a sore, oozing mass of cold goo. After all of that, my most formidable foe turned out to be my nose.
So, I would say that I have experienced hell. Whether it be self inflicted (through school, or various psychedelic experiences), or if it be accidentally brought upon (through living situations, or mental health episodes), I would certainly say that hell exists and does not wait till you die.
But it’s not so bad! I can say that now because I have found ways to be genuinely alright with anything that happens. I find that meditation, art, exercise, and socializing have been incredible at keeping me out of hell. But when I am in it, sometimes there are other things that help. Hopefully these will transfer to help you in your hell too…
1. Realize the comedy of your life. If you can find a way to laugh at yourself and the situation, then you will be cleared from terror. Not all hells can easily be laughed at, but if you are able to humble yourself enough (and to realize what you and others look like in that moment) then there is usually a smile to be had. This is why funny friends are of such a high value! They remind us to stop taking ourselves seriously! And it allowed me – during the exam I described above – to relax into a snotty smile for what I looked like.
2. Use your body to learn the truth of your present reality. Feel the air whisper over your nose and fill into your belly. Notice where you feel your stress and anxiety in your body, and remind yourself that your sensations of it, are the only parts of your hell that actually exist. Place your hand on where it aches, imagining that you have fingers of cool aloe to soothe your burn. I have found that anytime I write an exam and get lost in hell, I can easily escape by just looking up and around the room. By noticing what I see, hear, and feel.
3. Look to others in order to connect with a peace you may have forgotten. Do not isolate yourself in your pain. I may only know the truths about my own experience, but as long as I’m out here I can promise you that at least one person feels it too. I have also seen the demons and heard the voices. And I’ve found that that is enough. If you have mental illness (or even not) please remember that yes, we feel it too! The practical way to experience this can be to simply look someone in the eyes, or if you are lucky, to have a hand to reach for and hold. These act like ropes down a well to lift you out of a dark pit.
4. Leave notes for yourself. I always live in rooms that are covered in paintings and pictures – knowing that when I need it, one of them will reach out and remind me of the sunshine I’ve felt. The problem with hell is that you forget that it has ever been any different, and you believe that it will never end. Depending on the power of your moods, your thinking process may be so changed that it feels impossible to remember any different. Keep trying. Leave yourself notes in any way that you can. Find (or make) something that gives you joy, and place it where you can always see it. I have taped to my window a piece of tracing paper on which I have glued some pressed maple leaves. I once wrote a “prayer” for myself on it. Things like “May I go forward without a heart of longing… Give me the patience of the green that leaves the seed… May I live a life of early, solitary mornings, and may moments of loss be met with love and gratitude.” This caught my eye one night and talked me down from a literal ledge.
Now I can laugh at myself enough to see that not everyone enjoys poetry and pressed flowers. This is why it is important to leave notes for yourself from yourself. You know the language that you use. Take the time to hang out with only you, and decide what it is that keeps you happy, and what it is you would wish for yourself. It is often easier to do this if we imagine we were one of our dearest friends – what advice would you tell them?
In controlling our experience of life, we find a way to control our lives. Like the monks who found peace on fire, we can reach a point where we are “invincible”. Since most people say that happiness is the ultimate goal, I strongly hope that we can work to develop ways to internally reach it regardless of status, or specific circumstance. And I am so grateful to all of the hells that I experience for giving me a detailed education on the varying levels of pain that can be felt, so that these too can be brought to a space of humour and ease.