Letting Go of Ambition #2

Bottoming out

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Hello friends and welcome back Life Reimagined, a weekly elixir designed to make you feel good and live better.

I’ve been away for two weeks tending to family matters, but am back to the usual programming this week!

If you’re new here or missed the last newsletter, I’m releasing a new essay, Letting Go of Ambition, in three parts. This week, I’m excited to share Part 2 of the essay, which you can find below.

In case you missed Part 1 or need a refresher, you can read it here.

Letting Go of Ambition #2

After the busted surf session, I was stuck in a groove of misery, lacking the insight, energy, or confidence to find my way out. Depression, I realized, was not a problem I could solve with my mind alone. That’s because my mind was the source of the problem. Instead of offering solutions, it whispered a terrifying suggestion: you can end this.

Losing control of my mind and will to live was terrifying, like being trapped in a car with no brakes on a twisting mountain road. If I was going to stop the car safely, I needed to tap into the part of me that recoiled at the word suicide being etched in my gravestone.

From living through my mom’s descent into the darkness, I knew that suicide was a selfish act. When you end your life, it’s the ones you love who pay the price. They’re left with the burden of grief, unanswerable questions, and guilt while you rest peacefully in the grave.

I didn’t want my friends and family to pay that price, but I also wondered if I had a choice. Both my mom and grandfather had committed suicide. Was I destined to follow the same path?

If anything was clear, it was that I needed a hard reset. My usual coping techniques like surfing, exercise, journaling, and meditation were not enough. I needed to find something potent enough to pull me out of this groove.

Having watched my mom battle depression for 10 years, I was deeply skeptical of the traditional solutions offered by the mental health system — pharmacological interventions, past-focused therapy, electroshock treatments, and psych wards. While these interventions worked for some people, they accelerated my mom’s demise. I couldn’t risk having a similar experience.

Unconventional healing modalities held more appeal. A friend had recently found his way out of a similar rut with a few months of ketamine therapy. While I thought ketamine was likely to help, the high cost of treatment and my lack of a stable income made this path unfeasible.

As I grappled with the pros and cons of various paths forward, I realized that I would never escape this rut by continuing my same routine in Southern California. What I needed was a change of scenery, a reminder that joy, beauty, and meaning were still possible.

I told Steph that I wanted to take a trip to see if it would help restore my sense of self. We decided that Bali was a good place to go. It was far away, fun, and perhaps the medicine I needed.

Bottoming Out

Traveling 8,700 miles across the globe was not the miraculous remedy I had hoped it would be. That first week in Bali, I remained the same lost, exhausted, and frustrated person I had been in Encinitas. Apparently, Confucius was right: Wherever you go, there you are.

At this point though, I was used to my depressed state. It seemed like the new normal, and so what if it continued for a few more weeks or months?

This line of thinking would have been fine if I had been the only person on the trip. But Steph was in Bali too, and she wanted to have an enjoyable reunion with the place she used to call home.

For as much as she wanted me to get better, her patience with my negative state was waning. I understood where she was coming from. Not only had I been a downer at home, but I was now the type of travel companion that I would advise people to avoid at all costs.

Still, I had no idea how to get better and felt like my biggest supporter was abandoning me when I needed her the most.

We decided to travel north to stay at a resort in the jungle. Perhaps a few days outside the busyness of Canggu may bring us together. But that first night, we got into a shouting match that made me think that there was a good chance that I would lose myself and my partner to this depression.

I went to breakfast alone the next morning, hoping that the sunshine and plate of tropical fruit would wash away the tension from the previous night. As I was about to leave, I was relieved to see Steph arrive. We were supposed to tour the organic coffee plantation on the property, and I wasn’t sure if she would join me.

The tour featured a bubbly Balinese guide who led us through lush, jungle-like fields as he discussed the origins and operations of the plantation. On our walk to the roasting facility where we would sample the local coffee, we strolled into a small, open-aired room.

Two women with grey hair and deep wrinkles sat on the floor in front of a wooden table, their nimble fingers sifting through thousands of coffee beans with surprising speed. I asked the guide what they were doing. He explained that all exported coffee beans needed to look perfect. Otherwise, foreign buyers (like me) would not be satisfied. 

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The women were examining each bean and sorting them into two piles: those that were good enough for foreigners and those that would go to locals who weren’t so concerned about the shape of their beans.

While Steph and the rest of the group moved on to the coffee tasting, I felt compelled to stay behind and watch the women work. Despite their tedious task and buzzing flies, subtle smiles graced their sun-worn faces. One of the women looked up at me and beamed, making me feel welcome in a place where I was nothing but a gawking intruder.

I thought about all of the lattes I had consumed so mindlessly over the years. Never once had I paused to think about everything that had to happen for me to enjoy my morning coffee. And now the truth was here in front of me: every single bean I had consumed had been hand-sorted by people like these women, who likely earned less in a year than I did on my best days.

As I watched their hands move effortlessly through the never-ending pile of beans, I sighed and felt the tension in my neck release. The room brightened, and a small smile washed over my face. For the first time in months, the darkness that had engulfed me began to dissipate.

I thought about how lucky I was to be born where I was, to have received a good education, and to be able to do work that mattered to me. I thought about the book, my white whale, and how it hadn’t unfolded as I had hoped. It suddenly seemed silly how much pressure I had put on myself and how miserable I had become in failing to meet my arbitrary expectations.

Buddhist Pema Chodron says, “The most difficiult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” 

Is that what was happening to me? Did all of my misery stem from some unnecessary story I created about how my life and the world should be? And could I simply revise that story and move on with my life?

I waved goodbye to the two women and headed to the coffee tasting, feeling a glimmer of hope about the future. My self-loathing still had a strong grip on me, but the pressure had decreased just enough so that I could start breathing again.

And as hope-infused oxygen began to enter my lungs, I knew the worst part of this depression was over. I had no idea what would happen with the book or my life, but I at least felt like everything would eventually be okay. The task was now to find a way to hold on to that feeling.

That's all for now. Don’t forget to tune in for Part 3 next Sunday!

— Cal

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