8 Things Hitting Rock Bottom Taught MeAfter taking care of my brother as he wasted away and died from AIDs, the end of my 18 year marriage to my high school sweetheart in an ugly parting that made Divorce Court look civil, and years of wrong turns, things not working out, and being flat-out disappointed with life, I tried to kill myself in June of 2007, by swallowing handful after handful of pills. Because I was found too late for my stomach to be pumped, the pills went all of the way through my body wreaking destruction.

While I did survive (obviously), I woke up after a week in a coma with an acquired brain injury to a very different world. Initially, I was seriously mentally impaired. Right after the attempt, just living an ordinary life, doing the things people normally do everyday without a second thought: emptying the dishwasher, making a meal, having a conversation, paying the bills, using the computer, were frustratingly difficult challenges.

Putting thoughts into words was a painstakingly slow process which required intentional mental effort. When I did talk, it sounded like my mouth was wired shut and crammed full of marbles. Besides barely being able to speak, I couldn’t coordinate the acts of breathing and swallowing anymore. My hands shook constantly and had no fine motor control, and I couldn’t retrieve words, remember the date, my sons’ ages, or that I’d gotten divorced.

My ex-husband sued me for custody of our two sons, won, and immediately moved out-of-state with them. And I thought things were bad before?

With determination, hard work, and discipline every day, for years, accompanied by lots of reading, self-examination, doing things differently, and the miracle of neuroplasticity, I slowly emerged from the mess I’d created, like a phoenix. The old me really did cease to exist (she disappeared along with brain connections) and from the ashes, a new me emerged – stronger, happier, and mentally and physically healthier than ever.

The brain injury forced me to make the hard changes that I could have chosen to make under less duress earlier in my life. Believe me, it would have been much easier, but I was the kind that had to be hit over the head with a crisis before I changed my ways for the better. Not anymore.

With the brain injury, I had to focus on myself and put all of my energy into my physical and mental rehabilitation and improvement. I absolutely had to in order to recover. While, in retrospect, I wouldn’t choose this for myself under any circumstances, ever again, the injury and the changes it necessitated have proven to be blessings for me. I’m a much better, healthier and happier person because of them.

Friedrich Neitche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”  Sure is true in this case. I’ll tell you a few things I learned along the way:

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

At first, I was painfully embarrassed and ashamed to admit to anyone that I had tried to kill myself, had my children taken away, and had mental health issues. But during the first year after it all happened, I began to realize that my self-inflicted shame was like a dagger I was plunging into my own heart. If I talked about these gasp-worthy events openly and refused to take on any shame associated with them, there was none for me. The shame only existed if I imposed it on myself. The same holds true in any situation. Eleanor was right.

In uncertainty lies all possibility. ~ Debbie Hampton (me)

The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. I’ve learned not to judge anything as good or bad when it presents itself, even if it’s completely different from what I expected (and it usually is.) We can’t begin to know if  circumstances are “good” or “bad” when they show up. Our thinking about any situation makes it so. The “is” is what we think it is: good or bad.  A break up is painful, but it may also lead to finding the one. Being laid off is scary as hell, but it can prompt someone to find a new career which they’re passionate about and much happier in. You just never know. Stay open to possibilities.

You may have been given a cactus, but you don’t have to sit on it. ~Joyce Meyer

OK, life handed me a whole cactus garden, but I was the one who kept plopping my behind on it. Every time I wallowed in self-pity; every time I tortured myself with painful memories; every time I knee-jerk reacted to my ex’s antics, I was taking a running jump and landing right on the cactus thorns. I was doing it to myself! I’ve learned that my experience of anything is determined not by the actual circumstances, but by my behavior and thoughts while going through the situation. Most of the pain and anguish I feel is caused by my struggle against “what is.” Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, advises us to “lean into” painful situations and see what they have to teach us.

The only difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is how you use them. ~ American Proverb

I’ve found that almost every situation, no matter how dismal it may seem initially, can be made instantly better by working with my perspective, and I do this by asking myself one little question. “How can I make this work for me?” This simple question changes my perspective from that of being a victim who is helplessly at the mercy of seemingly senseless, random circumstances to a conscious person who engages my power and chooses how to take what’s in front of me and work with it for my best. It’s a much better use of my energy and time to direct my actions in this way than freaking out, getting panicked, and reacting. Those patterns only led to making bigger messes and the suicide attempt.

I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become. ~ Carl Jung

Everything in your life is a reflection of the thoughts you think, the choices you make, and your actions and words. Those seemingly insignificant, small, in-the-moment decisions that you make every day about how you spend your time, the company you keep, what you put in your mouth, and what comes out of your mouth all add up to make your reality. Even though things may not be great, I can make them better or worse with my actions. The choices I make today are creating my reality and building my tomorrow.

You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. ~ Marcus Aerelius

I can never control anything that goes on around me. That was a hard one to learn. The only thing I ever have control of is myself. (That was even harder!) But learning to respond rather than knee-jerk react, which has taken years, has made a huge positive difference in my life. I used to be highly reactive which could make a bad situation, or even a good situation, worse really quickly and lead to damaging consequences. I read an article that said that the difference between responding and reacting was about ten seconds. For me, it can be much longer and, I still don’t get it right sometimes. Learning to be non reactive is a continual challenge, but it does get easier the more you override the reptilian brain and engage your responsive brain.

What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be. ~ Anonymous

I’ve come to realize that there is no “should be.”  There is only what is. I can alleviate almost all pain and suffering by getting rid of the “shoulds” and consciously being accepting and open to whatever unfolds. Many philosophies teach and I’ve found that emotional torment and suffering comes from our attachment to our thoughts about what happens, not what actually happens. Pain originates in the space between our thoughts and reality.

So many times, circumstances, which I pegged to be undesirable at first, turned out to be just fine, when all was said and done. (Great even!) From experience, I’ve learned not to even begin to presume that I know what’s “best” in any situation. What we like, want, and think we need isn’t always going to provide growth or even get us to our goal, oftentimes. By trying to force a certain outcome, I limit other possibilities which could be awesome and bring what I was seeking in the first place.

Life gets infinitely easier when I remain open without expectations.

Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. ~ Ekhart Tolle

It’s my job to find the good in any situation that shows up for me. Good is always present somewhere in the picture. If I look for the good, I’ll find it. By taking this attitude, things always turn out good because “good” is defined by me. Your brain is wired to automatically look for and hang onto the bad. You have to make an effort to notice and remember the good.

Good facts are around us all every moment of every day. Even “bad” things often contain seeds for good experiences. You have to intentionally look for the good in the bad. What lessons did you learn?  Are you stronger for having had the experience? What did you gain?

As I was slogging through the mess I’d made of my life, my mantra was, “When you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.” I like up!

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joe_king/

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  • Sandra Pawula

    You’ve gained so much wisdom through this challenging path, Debbie. I like this in particular: “How can I make this work for me?” That immediately brings a different perspective. Thanks for having the courage to recover and to share your story.

    • Thanks, Sandra. I graduated from the school of hard knocks – the best kind of learning – and am a much better person for it. That question works for me every time.

  • Once again, I see many similarities in our paths Debbie. My version of “How can I make this work for me?” is “What’s great about this?” Like you said, there’s a positive side to anything if we look for it.

    I also agree that expectations (all the “should’s”) are the root of all evil and negative emotions. We can’t be open to the positive if we’re so locked in our thoughts of what should be. That’s also why I have a problem with most types of goal setting. The goal is an expectation and, if we don’t meet the expectation, we beat ourselves up without acknowledging the positive that occurred along the way.

    Another benefit of hitting rock bottom (other than “there’s nowhere to go but up”) is that, going forward, when things don’t go right or we don’t know what decisions to make, I like to ask myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” The “worst” in just about any situation is something I’ve already lived through and grown stronger from and wasn’t as bad as my monkey mind’s fear made it out to be.

    This is a great post that pulls together all the best lessons we can learn from turning our lives around!

    • Paige, I like your question too. I will add it to my list. Like you, I don’t believe in setting specific goals. I think their limiting and are expectations which only lead to disappointment. Also, focusing on one goal may blind you to other wonderful opportunities which arise along the way. I prefer to hold loose, broad, long term obljectives and let the details take shape as I go. Works for me!

  • Jessica Sweet

    Debbie this is such a powerful post! Thank you so much for your vulnerability and for sharing your hard won lessons with us!

  • You’re truly a phenomenal woman, Debbie!

  • Lea

    Hi Debbie,

    Thanks for sharing your story with us. I admire you ability to just lay it out there and the growth you’ve shown from being in a place where you can talk about the wisdom gained from it.

    I like how you included quotes for each thing. Great connection.

    It’s always great when you can learn from tough situations. I always try to look for the lesson when I’m challenged.

    ~Lea

    • Lea,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I have to admit that at first, me being so honest was a result of the brain injury. My brain did not know the social norms. I look back now and think, “I told THAT?!” However, if others can learn from my journey, then I’m fine with it. I am what I am. There’s a freedom in not trying to hide my past or pretend I’m anything else.

      All the best to you!

  • flower

    I wrote this at around 1pm today: Found your website online when i questioned whether the challenges i have been through in the last few years will actually benefit me in anyway in my life, or whether i had suffered unneccesarily… I agree that alot of the pain was self-inflicted for me too.. I had very high expectations of myself, which i couldn’t live up to, and i eventually collapsed under the pressure… not just the pressure i was placing on myself, i i usually rise up to the challenge and see it as a way of self-developing, however, the additional pressures from family expectations, boyfriend expectations, friend expectations, all added to my destruction… When i hit rock bottom (which was a very dark lonely and frightening place) i knew i had to do something.. I started reading self-help books.. I came across the 7 habits of highly effective people, in which one statement stood out for me. Between stimulus and response, there is a space, and within that space you have a choice. A choice. A choice. I had a choice? This possibility never truly occured to me. For a long time, i was merely reacting to my situation, fulfilling the needs and wants of others… The conscious awareness of having a choice was empowering.. I am still exercising this power.. I am consciously trying to live a life true to me.. i am considering and respecting my wants and needs for the very first time. I think that as females (society dependent) we have a tendency to cater to all of those around us and value others more than ourselves.. This only made me unhappy, and i did not get the appreciation i was almost expecting, for such a sacrificial act. I have to do whats best for me, what works for me… Its a shame that we live in such a fear based, insecure society.. I want to see more empowerment, less judgement, more confident and honest people, living the lives they want, without fear or shame. Shame was another thing i stuggled with, as i carried values which did not coincide with societies or those around me. Women are almost expected to act in certain ways. Even if not explicitly, the implicit consequences of certain lifestyles can still be detrimental, so we have to hide many parts of our being and wanting in order not to be ridiculed. I have thankfully accepted those parts of myself and i am working on empowering myself from the inside out. This is the only way i can be happy.
    I trod on the seemingly safe and mass approved road for far too long, and it only made me lose myself and live a meaningless, fruitless, dissatisfying, lonely, dishonest life. In being my true self, i hope to create a life which is rich, meaningful and satisfying to me. It doesn’t have to be admired or approved by others, who are mostly very quick to judge as it is, but now i value my internal experience much more.

    I write this at 11pm today: Whilst stepping out the shower, i thought of you and the message i didn’t post earlier, hoping that it would still be on the window, which it was (thank you people who make these things).
    I cannot fathom the incredible achievement you have made, with sheer effort and determination, amongst many other human qualities and virtues. You are an incredible example, of what could be accomplished, and i thank you for sharing your story. I also would like to express that I feel that you could also be immensely fortunate, as sometimes in life, despite our greatest efforts, the physical realm does not respond to our will and force.
    I also feel very sorry, I am sorry that you had to hit rock bottom, and such a difficult rock-bottom, to learn such valuable lessons. I am sorry you did not have the necessary safety nets there to catch you when you fell. Or maybe you did and you did not want them… Could you share some more about what exactly led to the events? I would really appreciate this… I feel i had to travel a similar path, although not as great as yours, in order to change. once i had lost everything that i never knew i had before, meaning, health, happiness, success, did i realise that i had to get it back. That i had to change. That i had to relieve the pressures i was placing upon myself. That i had to seek help from others, and accept that i needed help. That i have to make things easier for myself. That I do not know everything (although i know a lot, much more than most in certain areas but clearly not in others), that i am the same as everyone else, that i can fail too and that i have needs and wants, which if gone unfulfilled, makes me very unhappy, that i needed to regain the power over myself and my life… I had let another rule me for too long, thinking that if someone loved me so much, they would make me happy… As the quote goes, “your happiness is too important to place in someone elses hands”. In the end, I realised, that only I can make myself the happiest i can be. Other people can add to my happiness, but i can make myself as happy as i want. I do not have to limit myself. I can generate my own self-worth. I can treat myself with the most compassion and kindness as i like, at any time, whenever i need it… I do not depend and rely on another to satisfy my needs… I can govern my own brain. I can understand myself, as well as possible, and work with my brain to create the most fulfulling, positive and beautiful life i can envision… No one else can do this… Only i have access to my mind… Only i can envision my life, the way i want it to unravel.. Can another really create the world i want? They can try their best to understand what i want, what i think, what i feel and try to create that for me… However, who in the right sane mind would spend their life creating a world for another? My ex boyfriend got as close to this as you could get. He was in everyone elses eyes but mine, the most perfect boyfriend. He would go out of his way to please me and make me happy. He would try to understand me to the extent that nobody ever has. he would listen to me, and he would know me very well. However, when i stated that i no longer wanted to be with him, he used this knowledge of my brain, my needs, my wants, my aspirations, to his advantage… He wanted to be with me.. and he was very smart, with insufficient moral awareness.. So equipt with thorough knowledge of me, he would use it to keep me.. to temporarily act like he had what i wanted.. but acting is not sustainable… We can only be ourselves… In the end, i realised that he didnt know me very well at all.. That he only knew what i told him, and ontop of that, his knowledge of me was morphed by his wants, needs, preconceptions, ideas, concerns and expectations. therefore, he really was no contender in this game. I soon caught up, by concentrating on myself, and at the right time, when the iron was hot, I stroke, and I left. I was strong enough to leave, but not strong enough to do it on my own. Thankfully, there was another guy, who was extremely kind & understanding and who i had immense chemistry with. IT made it very much easier, and harder for my ex-husband to fight against. 8 months on, I am not with him. I do think of him, however, I know i need to work on me. I am still at the beginning. days can be hard, but im still going. For the first time, i felt like quitting, a few months ago. I wanted to leave my old life behind and start something new. However, my old life had things that i had worked very hard to get, and things that i had valued very highly at one point, like the caring profession i entered. I have had to rekindle my interest in this. I am still unsure. Possibly because my dream was tainted and torn apart by him, who was also in the same profession but way ahead. I have to reenvision why i wanted to do this. I have to reenvision my life. I have to keep creating, keep developing, keep pursuing, keep exploring, keep growing.. The only way is up, up and away… When we do fall, which we inevitably will (but hopefully not hard 🙂 ), as this is life and we do not have a road map, we do not have a guarantee on life.. If anything, we must create the guarantee ourselves, and be strong enough to provide this and make space for this… a mental, spiritual and emotional haven…We must keep an open mind, learn from others, share with others, in order to guide each other… we must be true to ourselves, really understand ourselves, pay attention to ourselves, appreciate ourselves, love ourselves… It all starts with you. we are each mini-worlds… your brain is a world… explore every recess within your own mind, in awe and fascination.. give yourself space and time… look after yourself… protect yourself… nurture yourself… support yourself… create yourself… release yourself… help yourself… respect yourself… honor yourself… appreciate yourself… give to yourself… you are so very precious, you haven’t the slightest idea.. You are so delicate, so lovable, so beautiful, so kind, so pure, so honest, so amazing 🙂 (my current man called me this, in bed- it helps when you have others calling you nice things… it helps you develop your own inner voice), you are so innocent, you are so interesting :). These are the few things i thought up for myself.. I invite you to meditate on what positive qualities and virtues you possess.. acknowledge, appreciate and let them grow… Then make space for others.. You are an experiment! your very own biological-spiritual experiment.. Go all out!!.. but be kind.. and patient.. and safe.. and many many other things before you start experimenting.. This exercise was my first, and it was completely spontaneous… It felt very refreshing to speak in positive ways about myself and to acknowledge the goodness in me, without self-denial, guild or shame… I invite you to do the same… We all have beautiful qualities, that we can appreciate firstly within ourselves and then in one another, to enable it to flourish…
    Love to the spiritual community (inclusive of all living things).. xxxxxxxxxx

    • Hooray! Good for you! I too didn’t realize I had a choice until after my suicide attempt in my 40s. Better late than never. Utilizing this choice and consciously acting and thinking has changed my life for the better. Glad you discovered it too. It works and can do the same for anyone!

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