My Great Wake-Up Call
Five years ago, my father fell into a deep bout of depression. Twelve months later his depression culminated in suicide. I'm careful not to say he "committed" suicide, because it was clear to me, having spent his final year on this earth close by his side, that he was no longer in the driver's seat. His mind had been hijacked by a disease that ultimately drove him to that fatal decision.
Dad and I were best friends. I knew him. His motivations, tendencies, dreams, desires. From my vantage point, there was a stark contrast between the man and the disease. I watched as his thoughts spiraled downward, twisting and turning his perpetually optimistic worldview into a pigeonholed perspective, forecasting financial ruin and the loss of a family that loved him so dearly. No matter that the very same family stood by his side, pleading for him to hear our words and feel our support.
The doctors didn't have any answers and didn't offer much support either. The pills gave fleeting relief, but ultimately didn't work and, at times, exacerbated his condition. We were hopeless, helpless. Over the course of 12 months his hair turned gray, he lost well over 100 pounds, his generous spirit and joyful nature became obstructed by obsessive thinking patterns fueled by years of repressed negative emotions. My dad literally worried himself to death.
This was the great wake-up call of my life.
I myself had battled with depression and anxiety. From high school and into my 30's, my life was defined by my mental illness—though I didn't know it at the time. Social anxiety kept me boxed in, fearful and far from living out any of my hopes and dreams. I self-medicated regularly, convinced it was my only option.
I saw my dad's brain churn out incessant thought cycles that would start with some small root in reality and spiral downward to a place devoid of all reason. Following his suicide, I was able to recognize similar behavior in myself. I understood that given a certain confluence of events, my brain could easily follow the same downward trajectory.
Something miraculous happened at my Dad's funeral... a beautiful bit of serendipity introduced me to the practice of meditation. With the tragic lesson that my father afforded me as my fuel, I began to meditate twice daily. I had horrible posture and a brain that worked overtime firing in all directions; I had an emotional undercurrent that could only be described as anxious or depressive or masked, depending upon the hour of the day. I had no mentors, nor an understanding of what I was doing; but I meditated nonetheless. Sitting upright was a lost cause, so I laid flat on my back on the ground with headphones on, listening to a form of meditation music called brainwave entrainment. Nothing about my approach was traditional or "right," but my intention was earnest—I wanted to heal.
For the first few months, meditation was a truly frustrating process, but over the course of the first year my meditations became the best part of my day. Over time, the mindfulness I cultivated during my meditation sessions began to creep into my everyday life. Previously I could only gain "perspective" on things with the passing of time... so for example, I'd get angry, I'd think angry thoughts, I'd scream angry screams and then a few hours or even days would pass and I'd notice how overly angry I had been.
After two years of meditation I started to notice this kind of stuff in real time, in the moment, as opposed to hours or days later. The more I noticed this process, the less and less anger would control me. And the same was true for all my negative emotions. With time, my experience of anger became less angry. My experience of fear became less fearful. My experience of depression became less depressive. My experience of anxiety became less anxious.
As I entered my third year of meditation, I recognized that it not only had helped me helped me cope with my anxiety and depression, but I had sincerely begun to heal. I no longer self-medicated in any way. I didn't "quit" anything, my "needs" simply fell away.
I'd been a singer-songwriter for nearly 10 years at this point. Performing with my band Big Infinite was the only thing I'd ever done in contrast to my social anxiety, but it was a painful process. I thought about quitting before and during every single show and only made it through gigs with clonazepam and whiskey in my system. Even still, the experience of playing a show was, at its best, uncomfortable. But no longer. After three years of meditation, I didn't need anything in my system. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed what I loved to do. I played music for people with joy in my heart, rather than a paralyzing fear of judgement in my head.
Meditation trains you to reside in the present moment. You learn to be here and now, rather than lost in any variety of destinations that your thoughts can carry you to. The realization starts to set in that you are not your thoughts, nor are you your emotions, but rather you are the canvas on which those thoughts and emotions are painted. Simply sit back and witness. Meditation results in a peace that passes all intellectual understanding.
As it stands now I have been meditating nearly four years. My headspace is a calm, peaceful place to reside. My heart runs the show. Depression and anxiety, as I used to know them, are no longer a part of my life. I experience sincere joy while playing music for people, I give guided meditations for groups, I do public speaking engagements about mental health and meditation, I perform improv comedy.... I am free. Living a life that was forever foreign to me, a life that existed only on the other side of a wall built of fear, anxiety and depression. All because I started meditating.
Thank you, Dad, for your love. In life and in death, you have taught me so very much.
My dad's passing was a tragedy, but it was not in vain. Through the Ed Lally Foundation, my family and I raise awareness for mental illness and promote mental health through meditation, yoga, artistic self-expression, improv comedy and more... anything and everything that teaches you to be in the present moment, where true healing can occur.