Part 1 - NATS in the Cornfield
The wisest person I know is my younger sister, Nic. She seems to move in harmony with life’s energy, bobbing along with the calm self-assurance and radiance of a nodding sunflower.
By trade, she’s an integrative psychotherapist, and a few years ago, during a conversation about unhealthy cognitive patterns, she offered me an idea I’ll never forget. She explained to me how the mind is like a cornfield. Our bad thinking habits are like pathways through the corn. The more a path is walked and re-walked (perhaps every day, for years and years), the more the path becomes irrefutably established. This thoroughfare can become so imposing that it dominates the landscape, and demands we continue to walk it, as if it is the only path we can choose. But it isn’t.
Choosing to walk a new path can be a considerable challenge but it can be done; the well-worn routes of old can be forgotten. With time, a once resolutely barren thoroughfare, forged by decades of weary trudging, can be left behind where it will, with time, be once again claimed by the golden wheat.
All we need to do is make the decision to take a different path.
I understood my sister’s metaphor - it appealed to me. But I only understood it on an intellectual level. Learning what it actually meant, on an emotional and spiritual level, would happen years later.
For a very long time - a lifetime in fact - I had been stubborn-footedly marching down the wrong paths in my mind, certain that everyone else, the world, and life in general were the problem - and not me. These kinds of path end only in dark places. And I was beginning to feel that darkness - the kind of darkness from which one might not return - closing in.
Problem drinking has for a long time been a persistent and heavily troublesome feature of my 'wrong path' and recently it became the proverbial camel's spine-breaking straw for me. I'd put away a skinful of beer and several Jäger-bombs; I'd had a harrowing encounter with a staggeringly beautiful stripper with a soft-like-silk lisp (more on this in a future post, but she may very well have been an angel, or at least, some kind of divine intervention). The familiarly miserable 3am walk home had been severely worsened by a biblically brutal, freezing cold hailstorm that had relentlessly lashed me like a sinner, all the way home. It was yet another lowest-low, another rock bottom.
And it was time for change.
I made a number of decisions after that night: I was done with toxic choices; I was done with emotional turmoil; and I was done with the miserable, long over-trudged paths of old.
I put a plan in place.
Ten days later, I had beaten depression.
This is the story of how.
It’s almost 2022 and we live in a consumerist, capitalism-driven society that conditions us to bottle up and ignore our emotions; only ‘good’ emotions are allowed. We are often subconsciously and inadvertently guided towards the wrong paths by our ‘bad’ feelings: anger, resentment, perfectionism, shame and fear. To declare, ‘I might be on the wrong path, I might need to change,’ is to acknowledge the presence of one of these forbidden 'feels' that our 21st Century world would have us believe are ugly, taboo, and signs of individual weakness. My issue was that if I didn’t make a pretty much immediate change then my bad path was soon going to lead me to full blown alcoholism, a psych ward, a prison cell, or some ghastly combination thereof - all in a furious napalm-like tornado of DEFCON-4-level self-destruct. Bottling up my ‘bad’ emotions and pretending they weren’t there by trying to brave-face it just wasn’t an option any longer. So I did the opposite. I declared, ‘I’m human. This is who I am.’ It was my first step towards self-acceptance; it meant eschewing the opinions of others - even if it might mean that others would laugh at me (and spoiler alert - they didn’t).
The first step I took ‘post awakening’ was to rigorously and precisely map the very nature of the toxic highways and malevolent byways I had, over the years, embedded into my cognitive cornfield. I needed to know exactly what kind of pathway I no longer wanted to follow. If I was to avoid stumbling back onto these routes of maladapted thinking patterns in future, I needed to know their shape, their features, their DNA. So, I started keeping track of my thoughts. Meticulously.
For anyone with a working knowledge of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the idea of ‘NATS’ might be familiar. For those that don’t, NATS are short for ‘negative automatic thoughts’. They are the pervasive ideas, voices, and thoughts that leap out of our subconscious, every day, and distract us - or worse - profoundly knock us off course. We all experience NATS, and for most, they come and go without much of a fuss. But for many of us, the frequency, veracity, and plain callousness of these subconscious brain farts can be debilitating: we might start listening to them; we might start believing that they are true. We might not be able to let them go. If this happens, and continues to happen, for any extended length of time, then one's mental health will begin to suffer - there is no doubt about it.
In the cornfields of the mind, it’s guaranteed: NATS are the architects of treacherous paths.
I was well aware that negative automatic thoughts were having an increasingly deleterious effect on my well-being. For several weeks, I had been in a deeply depressive rut. My drinking was spiralling out of control. I’d had to take a couple of days off work just to keep my head above the steadily rising dark waters of panic. The almost constant, spikily screeching voices of self-loathing rang in my ears like tinnitus. I was well aware of the damaging nature of what was happening in my head but the issue was, I didn’t know what to do about it.
So I became militant. I opted for an absolute zero tolerance approach: I would confront and challenge my NATS. Like the Eye of Sauron, I turned my focus onto every NAT that popped into my head: I see you.
Whenever a nasty thought, acidic idea or spiteful image entered my grey matter, I recorded it. Every single ‘bad’ thought or feeling. On my walk to work, if I cursed the cold - another wet misery of a walk for me, eh?! - I paused and wrote it in to the notes on my phone. If my jealousy manifested in the whiny slagging off of a Porsche driver - I’ll never own a car like that! - I wrote it down. Every time a derogatory, belittling, nasty thought about someone or something sprang from my subconscious, I caught it and I jotted it down. At work, I kept a post-it note in my pocket to record what was happening in my mind. For this to work, I thought, being rigorous is crucial.
What I discovered, after 24 hours of this process, was shocking. Not only were my NATS running absolute riot - occurring almost non-stop during my waking hours - but the level of unprovoked spite and vitriol they carried was truly alarming. I had always thought of myself as a decent guy; and yet what was running on auto-pilot in my head, like a piece of malicious malware, were the rantings of an absolutely truly awful arsehole. Realising this proved to be half the battle: I knew right away that this cruel inner aspect of myself, this Mr. Hyde of my subconscious, was not part of who I wanted to be nor was it part of who I wanted to become. This was a callous, cowardly bi-product formed from years of not taking a robust enough approach to my own cognitive processes and faculties; this was the result of letting myself sleepwalk onto and a very long way along ever darkening paths.
This realisation was a crossroads too, a make or break moment. My inner Mr. Hyde tried to use the revelation against me. An old, horridly familiar depressive voice spoke of my grim epiphany: So, now you must surely see how pathetic you are, the voice told me, what more proof of your fundamental unworthiness do you need? You’re just full to the brim with bitterness and spite; and you didn’t even know it was there. But now you do. You’re overflowing with meanness and toxicity. So, why not just give up?
Whereas, in the past, this voice of depression had often seemed compellingly convincing, now, it just didn’t wash. Yes, I’d identified an abundance of horrible NATS that I found repulsive, but I’d done so because of the decisive, determined actions I had taken. Actions that I was proud of. These actions were me fighting back, reclaiming control. The depressive voice offered only the weight of thoughts, and thoughts weigh nothing. It is our actions that define us. My inner Mr. Hyde hissed and slinked lopsidedly into some dark recess of my mind.
Another powerfully damaging force is shame.
Shame would have us deny that we have ugly thoughts, that we simply do not think unpleasant things. But NATS are human. To deny their existence is to deny our true nature, which puts us at odds with ourselves. To deny that we have ‘bad’ thoughts would be to bend the knee to shame. And I’m totally done with shame too. So, I embraced my NATS; in doing so, they became that much easier to let them go.
If I had truly embraced my NATS, I’d be able to share them, right?
Absolutely! Cast your eyes over these belters, and be warned, they don’t make for particularly jolly reading.
48 Hours of Luke's NATS:
“It’s raining. As if I aren’t miserable enough - it’s like the universe wants to piss on me.”
“I wonder when even the smallest, tiniest single thing might go my way. Never - that’s when."
“Who is this ringing me now? Why don’t they just fuck off and leave me alone?”
[To myself]: “You drank too much again and ruined a good evening. It’s all your own fault. You did this to yourself. You deserve to feel like your brain is trying to break out of your skull. Pathetic.”
“For fuck’s sake: teenagers.”
“Why shouldn’t I just punch my boss right in his saggy-eyed face?”
[To myself]: “You’re broke, and yet here you are buying snacks. You’re a useless shit.”
“This roll of toilet paper is near the end. For fuck’s sake. What’s the fucking point?"
“That little pipsqueak supervisor won’t fucking dare say a thing to me.”
[Towards a pupil who’s pen had run out]: “What a stupid trivial bastard problem."
[Towards a pupil who had fallen and banged a knee]: “Serves you right for running around like a dick.”
[To myself]: “This feeling of emptiness is because you have no value.”
“She can’t spell ‘business’ and yet she owns a Range Rover. Typical. Fucking stupid clown world.”
“I wish he’d shut the fuck up."
“I wish she’d shut the fuck up.”
“I wish I’d shut the fuck up.”
“Todd? What a stupid fucking name.”
[Towards my phone]: “Stupid dickhead.”
[Towards a random stranger]: “He’s a knobhead.”
[Towards a shopkeeper]: “She’s a twat.”
[Towards a group of children playing in the park]: “Bastards.”
[To myself]: “You’re shit at your job. You’re going to get fired."
[To myself]: “I wonder what it's like in prison / on a psych ward. Don't worry - you'll find out soon enough, you nutcase.”
“Useless. Fucking useless people - everywhere.”
“That child has got pen on her hand. Fucking gross.”
“I might put the radio on for 5 minutes and listen to some fucking idiots moaning.”
[Towards my phone]: “Bellend.”
[Towards my shoe laces]: “Why aren’t you untying with an effortless ease? For fuck’s sake. What’s the point?”
“The bruise on my palm / ache in my wrist / soreness in my throat / twinge in my anus / lump on my lip / mild sense of dizziness / light fatigue / scratch on my calf…
… is definitely cancer. I’m going to die. For fuck’s sake.”
If you happen to have had any toxic mind flatulence of a similarly unnecessarily illogical and spiteful nature, then please let me know, because in sharing, we can overcome!
Learning that this was the kind of inner soundtrack underpinning everything I did, and had done for years, was a staggering wake up call. It shocked my like a crushed-ice enema. Holding onto this amount of such caustic cognitive venom and wondering why you’re depressed, unfulfilled and riddled with anxiety is like carrying a gargantuan boulder on your back, everywhere you go, and then wondering why you’re tired. Once the shock of my mental stocktake had subsided I found a certain stoic sense of determination: this part of me is going to change and become something much more wholesome.
I needed to vaccinate myself against my NATS. I wanted to intercept every one of them, then gently - without judgement - let them go. In the head space that would be left behind, I would plant the seeds of joy and self-assurance. I accomplished this by mentally chanting positive affirmations, over and over to myself, until they stuck. I began with some basic 'I am...' affirmations (because this journey had only just begun, and baby-steps is always the way). I dug out the weeds of my NATS and fed the soil of my brain a healthy, well-balanced diet of positivity:
I am a kind person.
I am a highly-capable person.
I am a resilient individual.
And, most importantly:
I am worthy.
It was overwhelming at first, and mentally draining - this kind of work is never easy: you gotta want it. You gotta fight for it. Dealing with the nastiness of each incoming NAT, accepting it and then letting it go, and then mentally chanting an affirmation to replace it with was a little overwhelming. At times even dizzying. But starting anything completely alien and different takes effort. And soon (sooner than I thought it would take) the process began to make me feel, well… good. After a while, I started to feel more kind and capable. I felt more resilient, as if I was better prepared to overcome daily difficulties and frustrations. And, for the first time in Lord knows how long, I felt a glimmer of self-worth - and that is a buzz worth fighting for!
On the second day, the reprogramming was becoming more natural and, as my mood lifted, I found myself breaking out in to random smiles now and again; feeling a little more kind, a little more resilient, is a great feeling, as it turns out. And when colleagues or passersby picked up on my positivity and smiled back (yeah - people will still smile at one another, if given the chance!), I sensed a delicate feedback loop of optimism forming between me and the world around. This was very new. I was able to be more observant of the world and other people. I was able to feel gratitude towards a vast multitude of things that I had for so long overlooked or took for granted. The rainy walk home felt invigorating and uplifting. I could now appreciate that top-end Porsche the way a gallery-goer might appreciate a work of art.
And my mind was so much quieter.
On the third day, I didn’t have a single NAT to record in my phone or on my dog-eared post-it note. They had all but vanished - in three days. Any distant NAT-based rumblings failed to stick and rapidly faded.
In the cornfields of my mind, I found myself standing stock still. Then, after a slow, deep breath, I turned ninety degrees and was now considering the towering sheaths of golden corn in front of me, stretching towards the shining horizon: the possibility of new paths. The possibility of new ways of thinking.
New ways of living.
It felt good.
(10 Days to Defeat Depression, part 2 - coming soon!)