I was having trouble living.
As a psychologist, these were not the first words I had hoped to write in a self-help book, but I need to cut to the chase.
As a young child, adolescent, and man, I have been, at various points in my life completely lost as to what to do, overwhelmed with fear and burdened with sadness. I used to keep all such thoughts and feelings completely secret. I had thought such experiences marked me as permanently faulty: an outcast and an outsider. As I matured both personally and professionally, sitting in small quiet rooms working with clients experiencing similar moments, I learned that such experiences are inevitable aspects of any life. More importantly however, I learned that such experiences which at their worst have the capacity to capsize our lives, can also be opportunities to find it. It may not be the life you thought you were going to have, nor the life which you or others thought you should have. It is however, as Campbell has said ‘the life that is waiting for us.’ Without Joseph Campbell’s and Christopher Vogler’s articulation of the Hero’s Journey, (I’ll explain who these men are and what a Hero Journey is in just a minute) I would still be running in ever exhausting circles complaining about the injustice of it all. With the Hero’s Journey, I found a mudmap for navigating my life, traversing it in a manner true to who I really am. It meant I had to stop pleasing people. I had to start being responsible. It meant I had to stop playing it safe.
In short, it was a ticket to feeling fully alive.
Trouble living as an adolescent
In my late teens I was terrified that I would kill myself. I remember standing behind the white sliding door of my bedroom, terrified of going to the kitchen, grabbing a knife and harming myself. I didn’t want to do it. I was simply terrified that the thought had occurred to me. I would think what kind of crazy person has these thoughts? I had barely started studying psychology. Were these racing thoughts the beginning of schizophrenia? Was I manic? My conclusion? I must be crazy. These were awful experiences, nights standing alone behind that white sliding door, heart racing, thoughts racing, body agitated, making sure no one could hear or see me. I would eventually put myself to bed, still terrified that I must be mad, wait for the agitation of the anxiety to wain and eventually drift off to sleep.
As I look back now, I realise I was simply scared of an intrusive thought. At the time I was terrified someone, anyone would see my ‘craziness.’ My strategy was to be the most ‘normal’ eighteen year old ever. I would wear surfing t-shirts. I would drink at the pub with mates and spend weekends at the beach chasing girls.
I worked ceaselessly on creating this impression. I smiled almost all the time. I never complained. I did more than what was asked and avoided any slight that might cause friction. I kept busy and was exceedingly obedient. My success rate at being ‘normal’ and hiding my ‘crazy’ was good except I was incredibly lonely and highly anxious most of the time.
I don’t remember when these night-time fear episodes disappeared but they did. Being normal took up most of my time. I lived the life that I thought I should have, that others expected me to have. I believed, if I just stuck at it long enough, hard enough, then happiness would eventually arrive.
Happiness did arrive, lots of it, but it had nothing to do with living the life that I or others thought I should have. There was, as Campbell had said, another life waiting.
Trouble living as a young man
Jump ahead seven or eight years. I was back from two years in the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa and the United States. I came home to no job, little money and a growing unease about my sexuality. I had broken with being ‘normal’ whist in the USA and had sex with a man in San Francisco. When I say we had sex, I mean we had kissed and touched. It seems lame now in terms of sexual behaviour but at the time it was an Everest-like event for me.
I came home to realise that I could not put the genie back in the bottle. What I thought would be ‘an experiment’ turned out to be a reluctance to go back into a closet of my own making. Remember, this was Brisbane Australia 1986. Homosexuality was criminal behaviour, punishable with jail.
The pervading culture considered homosexual men as mentally ill, pedophiles, an insult to Christianity and destroyers of the family. Homosexual men had been bashed by local youth and by police. The ‘gay plague’ was only recently renamed AIDS and there were suggestions to isolate gay men on islands or imprison them to stop the virus. There were those who thought AIDS could be acquired via toilet seats.
As difficult as this is to believe now, there was no general use of the word ‘gay.’ There was only poofters, faggots, deviants and perverts. There were no gay clubs (as far I knew). There were no ‘out and proud’ artists, academics, musicians, scientists, writers, doctors, performers, politicians or sportspeople. There were no gay characters on television or in film. There was no gay literature, magazines or journals. There was no internet. I was ‘it’; the only gay in the village.
I came home to Catholic parents and to an openly hostile antigay culture and community. I feared that I probably had AIDS (which based on my behaviour was impossible) and would be charged for criminal behaviour. I believed that any mention of my sexuality would be followed by complete rejection from my entire extended family and any friends who happened to stumble upon me. It seems laughable now but I was terrified that all the things that I had ever heard about homosexuals would come true (remember, no internet).
I had terrors of myself dressed as a woman, waiting outside a school to prey on young boys. This was all I knew about gay men. I believed this was my future, despite having no inclination to do any of these prescribed behaviours.
In my fear and self-loathing I began to think that perhaps the best thing was to do away with myself. This would protect everyone from the disgusting thing that I was.
There is a disconnect writing about it now all these years later, but I still have an inkling of the terror I felt. At its worst, I stopped eating and sleeping, or rather couldn’t do either due to my high anxiety levels. I didn’t know what to do, only that I was terrified constantly. I was a despicable, sickening thing soon to be discarded by all whom I had ever known. The thought of doing away with myself only added to my terror. There is a certain hopelessness in trying to escape your own torment.
In my vow to never let anyone see my ’crazy’ I continued to suffer alone. Unable to pretend all the time, I withdrew more from social and familial contact. I spent more time in my share-house bedroom, unable to escape myself.
Once again I found myself in a place of trying to conceal my self, only this time I was now ‘sick’ as well as ‘crazy’. If anyone knew what I really was then total rejection would follow. This was the one thing that I desperately wanted to avoid. I must not be rejected.
At one point, after three days without sleep, in a terrified state of tiredness and confusion, I rang a gay and lesbian helpline, itself a terrifying thing to do. For the next hour and a half I spoke with the first openly homosexual man I had ever met. By the end of that hour and a half, I hung up the phone, made myself a meal and went to sleep. It would not be the last of the terror of being discovered for who I really was but a threshold had been crossed. I had done the impossible and broken my silence about my despicable self only to find kindness and acceptance.
A new possibility presented itself. Perhaps I could tolerate complete rejection by everyone I had ever known? Perhaps there was no need to do away with myself? Perhaps I could allow myself to live? This was not turning out to be the life that I thought I was going to have!
Trouble living as an adult
Near the end of 2006 I had just completed my doctorate in psychology, was in a longterm relationship and just about to start my academic career at a prestigious university when my partner announced that he wanted to end our 16-year relationship.
It had been rocky for several years. I had signalled the same idea a few years earlier, telling my partner I needed time out to consider our future. I had returned though and had picked up from where we left off. There was still much to enjoy about the relationship but it had settled into a friendship more than a marriage. Despite our best efforts, that’s where it languished.
In the months following the separation, I was in a lot of pain. Though it had been rocky and difficult for several years, the final severance was a shock. I mean, I’m a psychologist! I had been convinced that I could find the right combination, the right moment, the right key to solve the problem. We would have the kind of relationship I long hoped for.
No such key ever presented itself. The process of separation and starting over as a single man began. In the months that followed my drinking spiralled to a bottle of red a night. I was deep in grief and it felt like a constant weight, unexpectedly overwhelming me at random times throughout the day and night. In the corridors of academia, my office door was my saviour. It was the only solid timber door on a floor of some twenty-plus rooms with glass panels.
It was not unusual for me to be in my office completely distressed, sometimes on the floor, gather myself and my things, give a lecture, go to a meeting and return only to almost immediately fall into distress again. As the days moved into weeks and the weeks into months, I began to doubt that I could deal with the pain for much longer. I knew as a psychologist that the first three months would be the most intense but living through these proved much more difficult than just knowing it.
Despite a lifetime of making sure it would never happen, my ultimate fear had come true. I had been well and truly rejected by the person I loved the most. I had done all that was possible. I had read books, gone to therapy, gone to workshops, talked to supervisors, counsellors, friends, and family, and yet still the thing most feared had happened.
In my grief, I doubted that I would ever feel happy again. It sounds dramatic, but there were moments I doubted that I would ever recover. I was lost, alone and separated from all that was familiar with the demands of a new job, new people, and an ever-expanding workload.
By this point in my life, however, I was now well and truly equipped with a mudmap to find my way. Thanks to the work of Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, I was able to let go of the life that I thought I was supposed to have and recognise the demise of my longterm relationship as a ‘Call to Adventure’. While such a term sounds like psychological claptrap, I knew that, as much as I had not wanted it to happen, one chapter of my life was finishing, another beginning. I knew what I had to do to make the next chapter happen.
I had to tolerate being lost and confused about my life and view it as just another stage in my own evolution. I knew that my sadness, the overwhelming grief was normal and not to be pathologised by me, doctors, or sedated with prescription medications or bottles of red wine. I knew that starting over was supposed to be an anxiety-provoking task and so my anxiety was to be expected, accepted, and not ‘crazy’, silly or stupid.
I knew that creating the next chapter of my life would involve many tests, trials, and setbacks. I knew that each of these pain-in-the-arse activities would teach me some new skills that I currently lacked, give me valuable experience to create a better life than the one I was leaving behind.
I knew that in establishing this next chapter I would meet new friends, make new enemies, and more than I would want, would be asked to do what appeared to be impossible, onerous, and exhausting. I also knew that after doing it, I would revel in the success of doing it, even if I hadn’t done it well. I knew each test was helping me to learn that I was more capable than I ever thought, more capable than others had given me credit for. Each trial, I knew was making me better equipped to live a life of my own choosing rather than follow a life that others thought I should have, wanted me to have, demanded that I live.
I was ready for the life that had been waiting for me.
Who the hell am I?
I’ve been a psychologist for over 30 years. I started in the area of disability, then moved into child protection. I ran away from full-time psychology to join a circus as well as other theatrical pursuits, all the time obsessed with human behaviour: mine and others. After finally accepting that I was going to starve to death if I didn’t get a proper job, I returned to psychology, continuing to work with the young and the old, the anxious and the depressed, the sober, and the addicted.
This time around however as well as having skills in evidence-based therapies, I also had some skills in structuring stories learned from my playwriting efforts using the work of Joseph Campbell.
Joseph Campbell’s work opened up a different way of viewing life for me. His idea of the monomyth (the idea that all stories are in fact telling us the same story over and over again only in a million-zillion different ways), allowed me to dissect the chaos of my life, to see a purpose in suffering. It took me a while to realise it (initially I simply refused to believe there was only ever one story) but Joseph Campbell’s discovery of monomyth (don’t be put off by this academic term like I first was) gave me a compass to navigate my life.
For the past twenty years or so I’ve played with ways of using my psychology skills with the ideas proposed by Campbell. I’ve come to the conclusion (in a culture that seems obsessed with happiness) that there was a great deal more to life than just being happy. The experience of being ‘fully alive’ is what Campbell taught me, and that is what it’s truly all about. For the past 25 years, I’ve experimented and failed, distilled, and enjoyed melding the latest in evidence-based therapies with Campbell’s insights about living a life full of bliss.
For the first 15 years, I was too embarrassed and scared what the other psychologists would say about my use of the Hero’s Journey (Campbell called the monomyth the Hero’s Journey) to assist clients, but for the past 10 years I’ve suggested to clients the idea that despite whatever catastrophe has left them in chaos, or whatever depths of fear and sadness they may be experiencing, such an awful place may also be the starting point of a new chapter, of living differently, of being ‘fully alive’.
How to use this book
This book is designed for people who are in pain. It’s for those who are lost. It’s for anyone who is either seeking change or being forced to change. It’s for people whose lives no longer fit (you are incredibly busy, working your arse off, running around like crazy to make it work, but the enjoyment factor is low and still descending).
This book is designed for people whose life abruptly changed one day. The marriage you thought was forever turned out to have an end date. The job you loved got snatched away. The health that you took for granted disappeared, or your financial security headed south. An event or series of events has left your life as you knew it in ruins, your nights sleepless, your days lonely, your grief rising.
This book is also designed for people who simply want more life.
It’s designed to help you to use the structure of Hero’s Journey (remember that’s what Joseph Campbell called the monomyth) as a practical mudmap and locate where you are in your own Hero Journey. This book identifies the various stages, what to expect at each stage, what is required of you and most importantly, help you see current dilemmas as part of a larger, life-story. Its aim is to provide a guide to creating a life of bliss.