The Elephant and the Seesaw
Picture a younger version of yourself on one end of a seesaw. Now pretend there is a baby elephant on the other side. Let’s assume you are about the same size (you guessed it, the seesaw represents your state of mental health). The seesaw can go back and forth because you are relatively balanced. As you grew, so did the elephant, and things were pretty equal for some time, for 25 years to be exact. And then WHAM! The elephant hits a growth spurt and overnight, you’re stuck at the top of the seesaw with this giant elephant weighing the other side down, totally out of balance.
This is what happened to me. Well, metaphorically, anyway. I was 25, had graduated from a top tier university, had a great job, was married, and happy. Then all of a sudden, things flipped. It seemed to happen overnight. I’m sure it was gradual, but I wasn’t able to see it at the time. I was overcome by debilitating anxiety. The kind which doesn’t allow you to sleep, makes you obsessively clean and organize, withdraw from social situations. You get the picture. Then came the panic attacks. I had no clue what caused them, all I knew is that when they came on, I was immobilized, curled up in a ball, every muscle in my body clenched, sweating, unable to breathe. It got to a point where this was a weekly, sometimes daily event. This went on for about two years.
Now add major depression. I was traveling for work at the time (every week) and I would become so overwhelmed, I would leave days before I was supposed to, in order to race home. I would use any means necessary, planes, trains, and automobiles (that’s right, I once rented a car and drove over eight hours because there wasn’t a convenient flight). I wouldn’t tell my boss, and when I got home, I would hide in my bed, unwilling to eat or shower, for days. This, coupled with severe suicidal ideation, is scary. There wasn’t a hole deep enough or dark enough for me to crawl into.
Out of Balance
All this time, I had been on top of this seesaw, hoping the elephant on the other side would magically shrink so that we could regain balance. Everyone’s elephant is different, and it’s about finding a balance that works for you. My elephant was enormous, and I refused to admit it. Now, since the elephant isn’t going to magically shrink, every engineer knows there are two options to regain balance: push the elephant closer to the center, or add more weight to your side. My wife helped me do both, by calling and setting up appointments for me to seek professional help.
Moving an elephant is no easy task, It takes a tremendous amount of hard work, perseverance, and willingness. This can come in the form of therapy (CBT, DBT, psychotherapy, …), journaling, mindfulness, eating right, sleeping enough, and regularly exercising. All of these can help you nudge him closer to the center, but if you don’t consistently put in the effort, he’ll slip backwards. I’ve done all of the above. I went through a year of DBT, I regularly see a therapist, I write, take time for myself, eat right, sleep enough, and, well, I don’t exercise like I should, if I’m being honest. But I’m putting in the work, and inch by inch, I’m making progress.
Adding weight to my side of the seesaw isn’t an overnight process either. Through professionally guided medication management, we try and find what works just right. I’ve tried dozens of combinations of SSRIs, SNRIs, mood stabilizers, benzos, the list goes on. I’m years into this journey and we still haven’t found the right combination at the right dosages, but we’re getting closer. I’m starting to see movement, and that is encouraging.
Now some people decide that one approach or the other works just fine for them. Which is cool. Again, no two elephants are the same. For me, it takes a combination of the two and I continue to put in the effort to find that balance. I’ve been in a deep state of depression for over two years (not on-and-off for two years, consistently for two years), and I haven’t found total reprieve, but I know I’m getting closer.
So what do I want you to take away from this?
- Elephants can be heavy. But they aren’t all the same. Everyone’s elephant is a bit different.
- What works for one person may not work for another. You have to find what works for you. Don’t let anyone convince you there is a magic bullet out there.
- You have to put in the work. You cannot rely on the passage of time to save you. Work needs to be put in, in order to find, and maintain, your balance.
So if you’re struggling with your own elephant out there, just know that you aren’t alone. Every day I fight off horrific thoughts and urges to give up. And some days I don’t win. But I keep trying. I keep fighting for one more inch. And soon, I know I’ll find my balance.