Emerging from the Abyss
by Kevin Mercurio
I am not sure who this letter is aimed towards. Originally, it was going to be for someone very close to me; someone I’ve kept near and dear to my heart. But igniting this free-writing project has made me think that this may be relevant to the masses.
It’s also interesting how I continuously return and update this website as if there is the presence of some sort of following, when the only eyes that have viewed this page are myself and one other person. Its initial purpose for the last several months was to provide me a platform of communication such that I could share my thoughts and emotions of the world in an indirect manner. This communication was meant to aid my understanding of my deepest impressions about society and the world through storytelling. It allowed me to explore my mind while I exhausted myself physically within two jobs and struggled emotionally to keep a loving relationship.
Let’s start from the beginning with some imagery: the point when I stepped off the boat and teetered towards the edge of the abyss. In essence, typical modern life that is defined by society (and parents) leads you down a well-structured path: pre-school, kindergarten, elementary, middle, high, post-secondary, graduate studies, career, marriage, residence, kids and retirement. And you EXPECT to move in this trajectory despite the fact that this is not at all what life really is. It does not prepare you for the true experience of life: your integration into a society built upon the foundation of rules and restrictions. At least not for me, a person who evidently loves to learn.
But I digress. It was the end of my last year in university and everything was going very well. Large ongoing projects were wrapping up. My honours project on biofilm-specific antibiotic resistance was difficult but repetitive. Exams were a feat of regurgitated memorization, as they usually are. Posters were being designed; seminars were being devised; campus volunteer work was being fulfilled.
I had been dating a beautiful, independent, optimistic girl. She was, and still is, someone with outstanding, unique spirit. Someone who I thought was a lot like me, but was actually much more than that. She was someone who I wanted to be. Someone who thought critically about her experiences, and did not shy away to delve into real world issues. Someone who treated others equally with respect, and valued her time spent with family and friends. She was a friend who loved me for being, well, me.
I had been applying to universities left, right and centre, eagerly awaiting a response. This is likely when I took my first step towards my mental breakdown. With no replies, I was becoming depressed. After many years of work, to potentially lead to a dead end? Some would say, “Don’t worry, there’s always more time.” But this was a devastating blow to my self-confidence; the way I thought of the structure of ordered, educational milestones, and when they should be achieved. It’s dangerous thinking, and I cannot be the only one living with this impression.
That was the first stress. Other stresses involved family and employment issues. Both my parents work at a retirement home that requires a lot of hard physical labour and patience with the residents. My mother was forced to retire early due to a terrible workplace accident in which her femur bone broke. It’s been said that breaking your femur bone is one of the worst pains one can ever experience. Seven years later, she returns to work in order to pay the bills. My father needed surgery for his trigger hand and was on leave for nine months. My brother, an aspiring actor, had many of his own debts to pay while working part-time. As for myself, I had continued my honours project at the university at minimum wage for the summer. Financially, it was a disaster.
We all did our part in chipping in, while also trying to think positively and enjoy our social lives. Since my girlfriend lived close to the university, I was able to spend more time with her. We would go for walks or runs around the neighbourhood, hike and swim in Gatineau Park, but mainly just converse between each other. There was always something to talk about. What I failed to do, as I have failed to do my whole life, was communicate personal issues in a way that invites others closer to me.
Vulnerability is something I cannot stand, and this is likely due to past experiences I had in my youth. As much as I think bullying is an inevitable experience that most will have based on the hierarchy of individuals within groups and the human mind, it really shapes the person you become. I never had many people in my life who I would consider a close friend, and when I did, they would either move far away (ex. Lebanon, Vancouver) or it would be at the point of transition from one level of schooling to another. Therefore, I learned to keep most of my thoughts inside; stand by and absorb the negativity I had to endure. It was necessary in order to survive in a culture hidden behind the veil that what happens in the classroom is what is happening outside the classroom.
But I digress. The point at which I dove straight into the abyss was after my placement at the university. Since I was not accepted into a graduate program, I decided it would be best to get employed and start paying off my student debt, while also providing some funds for the family. I accepted having two jobs: one part-time job at a department store and another full-time job at a government agency. Excluding holidays, I chose this path: to work 7 days a week, sometimes working a double shift. Intuitively, it sounds like a terrible idea and makes it obvious as to what would have caused my mind to snap. I do not know how to elaborate on my mood at the time, but it was completely overrun with determination. As if I had done it before; I somehow KNEW that I could work full-time days and part-time nights, with occasional nights off for social life and catching up on sleep. Again, I had failed to understand the strength of my own mind in handling all the different things going on: school, work, family and my relationship. All required valued time with individuals who I loved and loved me, and needed me to be there both physically and mentally.
This was evident in all listed above, especially my relationship. I was so tired most of the time, that in a sense, put myself on autopilot. It was a success story whenever my girlfriend was able to interpret any of the feelings I displayed other than exhaustion and frustration. Our dates would consist of dinners where I try and explain that I am always tired and fighting the urge to close my eyes at the orchestra. What’s shocking was that I interpreted this as boredom rather than what it really was: burnout. And this is well after how, only during the relationship, I was able to develop into a considerate, caring partner. How was someone able to stick by me? Yet, she did anyway.
But why did I act in this way? Rationally, anyone from the outside-in would notice that having two jobs is not sustainable. No individual is really meant to have more than one. I was at a crossroad that gave me the opportunity to truly change. But it was as if I unintentionally retracted back into how I dealt with most of my problems and kept everything to myself. But it was worse than that, because I even tried sharing these thoughts with her. And as I complained about my own problems, I refused to comfort her for her own bouts of personal conflict, even when it included things about us, like how she did not feel integrated with my family and friends, her career path and our future together. Instead of comfort and positivity, I provided criticism, anger and sometimes nothing at all. I broke up with her on Valentine’s Day, which really does not mean much to two people who care little for consumer holidays (I got her a crock pot/pressure cooker for Christmas, how fucking romantic is that?).
With all that said and done, what really brought me back to reality was the aftermath. Not only was there no positive change, but I felt significantly worse than I did. I paid off my student debt in four months. I landed some interviews for graduate schools locally and within Ontario. I was able to travel for work to cities I never would have been able to visit. I was able to provide money to help my family pay off a lot of their debt and monthly bills. I finally got a professor to accept me into their lab for a Master’s program. And yet I still feel miserable. I feel empty. I feel like something significant in my life was ripped away from me, by my own hands. I love her and miss her immensely.
It was at this point of feeling immeasurable emptiness that I hit rock bottom. No longer did things make me happy. I was extremely depressed; drank almost every day and contemplated smoking again (as I did last time I felt isolated). I even contemplated suicide, but not that I would do it to myself but how I can understand how people, with what seem like petty issues to most, see that reacting to certain circumstances is a combination of genetics and past experiences that led you to feel a certain way towards different situations. Though we cannot understand it at a personal level, we can certainly understand it at a general level. But how does one stop oneself from venturing even deeper, passed rock bottom to accepting that life is more miserable than the unknown?
I think the answer to that question varies among individuals. After many long walks I’ve had by myself, I rephrased the question to, “What am I afraid of that keeps me from enjoying life?” Spiders, for one. But being open, being able to express how I am feeling to someone I love, being vulnerable towards someone, trust; these are things in which I have found most difficult to do. Trusting others is important, but after living 22 years sharing your innermost feelings to no one other than yourself, it’s a drastic change. As inhuman as this entire soliloquy sounds, these ideas and emotions are new to someone like myself; someone who doesn't enjoy solitude but accepts it, who strives to be independent not due to valuing self-sufficiency but to reduce any burden on others; who desires social connection but is too pedantic and cautious to establish one easily.
It isn’t until recently that I was able to open up to others in my life outside of my now ex-girlfriend. And they’ve all listened and comforted me with their positivity. What’s interesting after doing this was that, after sharing something private and personal about myself, they were willing to share something private and personal about theirselves. This showed me that despite how alone I feel with my own problems, so do most other people. This act of sharing keeps people sane; positive that there is another person out there willing to listen and honestly care.
It has been close to three months since the breakup. Long walks have been a major stepping stone out of the bottom of the abyss; providing myself the time to rationalize what had occurred and the magnitude of the consequences. As of recently, I decided to take some time off work and enjoy the peaceful outdoors; trekking through the Canadian Rockies. I put down the flask and am working towards getting rid of other negative addictions that have haunted my life until now.
My most valuable takeaway from this experience was more so to change my expectations of what life really is. It is not a structured pathway lived and devised by others but an interconnected web of people in situations that help you grow into the future you. Achieving financial stability and an educational degree is great, but experiencing love and trust with another person is something truly remarkable. You don’t have to be in a classroom to listen and learn.
Today, I continue to emerge from the abyss.
"When we meet real tragedy in life, one can react in two ways - either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength."
- Dalai Lama