Episode 23: The Space Between Breaths

Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.

Let’s get naked about mental health!

I wasn’t planning on doing another episode this year as I was supposed to be on my way to or settling in Rochester, Minnesota, but I am still stranded in Tijuana. As I was sitting here, waiting, a title popped into my mind. Things typically start with that. Things are a bit scattered with everything packed, but I’m going to try and plow my way through and maybe make some sense.

The space between breaths brought a memory of a stupid little kid. Everybody told me I couldn’t breathe under water, but how do you know if you don’t try?

It didn’t work out well to say the least, but, in retrospect, it wasn’t nearly as bad as when I stuck my finger into the empty lightbulb socket to see how that worked.

We really don’t know anything until we try. Until we start talking. Until we start listening. Until we understand. A lot of the time, and the most difficult thing I think, is knowing what we don’t know.

In business, I say it is important to know what we do know but more important to know what we don’t. I think life is the same. Mental wellness especially so.

I’m stuck in the space between breaths, still stranded, with everything packed. My lungs burn at times. And that is what it was like when I wanted to commit suicide. The first time, I didn’t know to come up for air. The second time, I didn’t want to come up for air.

Before getting into the episode, the important stuff: I just want to remind everybody that I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or any kind of professional with an –ist at the end of their title. I am just a guy who has been there.

If you are in crisis, or know somebody who is, I implore you to reach out to a professional. In the United States, there is now a national hotline you can call or text. 988.

I’ll repeat that because it bears repeating. If you or someone you know is in crisis, I implore you to reach out to a professional. Dialing or texting 988 in the US will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.

Now, let’s get into the episode.

Yeah, that was stupid. I sucked in as much water as I possibly could. Aye, I was young and Aquaman was my favorite cartoon character. If he could do it, maybe I could? I sputtered to the surface coughing and choking where I was scooped out by an adult who knew better.

I was stuck in the space between breaths the first time I wanted to commit suicide. A timeless moment that I discuss in previous episodes, with my lungs burning, my skin on fire, my brain ablaze with pain, and I did not know to come up for air and just breathe.

The second time, I knew to come out for air, but I didn’t want to. The effort was too much. I was too exhausted and just wanted to drift into nothingness.

Both time share similarities. A major one is loss of perspective. My world compressed into a timeless moment of pain and agony. Another similarity was loneliness, a deep, dark loneliness that could not be touched by the huge circle of friends and family who surrounded me.

One of my favorite personal quotes is: “Perspective: use it or lose it.”

It connects directly with another quote I ran across recently by Irish author Brendan Behan. “At the innermost core of loneliness is a deep and powerful yearning for one’s lost self.”

They both connect with a post I recently saw on LinkedIn by Mark Carolan. He posted about a book he recommends, Man’s Search for Reason by Viktor Frankl. Frankl relates his experience of his time in Auschwitz. It is about finding meaning.

Meaning is what I lost. It is what I found again. It is what makes this experience in Tijuana so different than all of my other experiences.

My situation still sucks. It sucks a little bit more each day I am stranded here. It is probably the worst one I have been in. I thought I had been in bad situations before, but then I broke my ankle in a foreign country with no money. The experience really forces perspective on you, whether you want it or not. Instead of being pushed deeper and sucking in water, I was pushed to the surface of a different kind of reality. I sucked in air and knew that I had to learn patience to get through this. It became about that space between breaths.

I have been pulled back under constantly the last few months. I guess that the stories of “why” are unimportant. The direct “whys” lead to bitterness and anger, and the last thing I want to do is start sounding like Yoda.

Depression, anger leads to.

I am trying to get at the “whys” behind the “whys” and that is a tougher proposition.

Imagine you are struggling, drowning, breaking the surface to gasp in a lungful of air. Standing just beyond reach is a yoga instructor saying, “now remember to breathe with the belly, in through the nose…”

Yeah, screw you.

But that’s what it can be like. In that space between breaths, you need to remember how to breathe, the mechanics of breathing.

“Like a leaf on the wind,” keeps popping into my mind for some reason so I am writing it down. That’s an awesome scene in the movie Firefly.

That’s something else that just struck me today from Facebook. Dori Holt, author and group moderator of Voices Unearthed, for parents of children who stutter, wrote something about how talking for a person who stutters can be like driving an icy road. The more you try to force it, the harder it becomes.

It is what I was taught and taught my daughter. If you start going into a slide, you never fight the slide, as counterintuitive as it may be. You go with the slide, thereby regaining control.

I really have no idea what any of this has to do with anything. It almost makes sense in my head. Aye, like I said, I’m just waiting. It is the space between breaths.

I do know that I felt at my absolute best when I was on the road to suicide. I had a plan in place, a great plan, and was having one last hurrah before finding a nice, quiet place to end my life. Check out the movie Scent of a Woman if you haven’t seen it already.

I felt great. Wonderful! I was free. It was not the space between breaths. I was breathing. I felt utterly calm and relaxed. The anxiety that I had felt? Gone. I’ve always been afraid of flying and the dentist. Phobias. Gone. In the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado, I think I felt silence for the first time in my life.

There is something so damn important in there, something beyond and deeper than not having to worry about anything because I am about to die. The 500lb weight I had carried on my shoulders all of my life was gone. I was lighter and could breathe.

I was no longer living in between breaths.

I had purpose. I had direction. A destination. I was also living a life of service. Without telling anybody my final destination, I took everybody along with me on my journey through social media. All 50 states, close to 40,000 miles, and 152 days, I posted to help others to shake free of the hibernation and trauma caused by Covid.

When the journey was over, and I decided to live, that’s when things got really ugly. I knew it was about to happen though. I was expecting it. I knew that I was not going to kill myself. Wave after wave of depression slammed into me. I just continued to breathe through it, knowing it would pass.

Knowing I had purpose again?

There was no happiness or joy in the decision. I was not expecting either. There was no hope. I wrote that I did not find hope in my journey, but I found pieces to start putting my life back together. An authentic life? A direction to find my lost self?

Just breathe.

There is a lesson to be learned in breaking my ankle. –I really have no idea where that came from.

I was told I did not actually break my ankle in the initial fall. I really did not need to be told that, but I was told anyway. I just sprained it very badly. I broke it doing what I did next.

I had adopted a dog who had been abused, neglected and never been on a leash. I slipped and fell while walking her in an early morning rain. People rushed to help me, but the dog kept all my would-be helpers at bay. They finally tossed me a walking stick.

The pain was excruciating, unlike anything I had ever felt. Add in a terrified puppy who was savagely attacking anything that came close to me, and my thoughts left me. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t process anything resembling logical options. I had one thought in my head. Get home.

I had a walking stick. I had three blocks to go. I had a puppy I needed to get home safely. I got home. It took me over an hour. I was living in between breaths because each breath brought pain.

That’s where I broke my ankle. Somewhere along that three-block walk, hop, crawl, my ankle went from bad sprain to fractured.

Various things in life have taught me to breathe through the pain, endure by keep breathing. By concentrating on the mechanisms of breathing, we can endure and keep going. There is a disconnect with that in the space between breaths. There was a disconnect with that during that walk, hop, crawl. I endured, but I stopped thinking.

I think of tWitch, another seemingly happy person, who had everything, who took their life. We will never know his story, and I would never want to intrude on the family to better understand it. Like with Robin Williams. I can only understand my story, and try to understand it better, try to figure out the things I need to know, and pass on that knowledge to others.

It all makes me think of the space between breaths. Of what it takes to bypass the most basic instinct of any organism to survive. Of either a loneliness that goes so deep that it cannot be touched by all those around us or a greater need to end the burden that we think we are placing on those around us.

I am trying to breathe right now, breathe through this podcast, breathe through the space between breaths.

I am scarred shitless of what comes next. When I can stop breathing in Tijuana and begin breathing on a long road trip that will bring me to Minnesota. I am afraid of those frigid breaths in Rochester where the high next week is 11 degrees. As much as I need to continue my journey, as much as I am desperate to start breathing again at a job and with an ankle that works, I am afraid of that next breath.

Yes, in the space between breaths, I have considered suicide again. There is a painfulness in the space between breaths, but there is also a comfort in it. Opening the door to opportunity also opens the door to stress and anxiety.

They are just passing thoughts, the gnats on a summer evening that I write about. The ones that have no purchase on my reality. They are the thoughts of the path of least resistance.

The last few months, the last couple years, have taught me I need the resistance in my life. There is something about coming up for that lungful of air and the surface of the water has a tension to it. I would use the metaphor of a layer of ice, but I am trying to avoid thoughts of cold. There is purpose breaking through it. There is a step towards an authentic self. That my lost self lies beyond the tension, along the path of more resistance.

It is so easy to get caught up in the comfortable and known, too easy. I watched years and decades pass. Was that the feeling that I got over time, that I moved further and further away from my true self? The path of least resistance led to the most resistance until every day was a struggle.

In the space between breaths, what I did not know makes me ache.

In the space between breaths, I grow more and more tired.

In the space between breaths, I have choices to make.

In the space between breaths, I know that I need to learn more to make better choices.  

In the space between breaths, I struggle, my thoughts scattered, but I choose to move forward with another podcast. Whether I’m walking, hopping, limping or crawling, I’m still moving forward.

Maybe I should have called a cab or an ambulance. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to breathe water. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to figure out what makes the lightbulb go on. Maybe I shouldn’t have given away everything. Maybe I shouldn’t have done a lot of things.

But I am figuring things out. And you have to admit that some of the more stupid stories are entertaining.

And that is the best I have for this episode. I hate writing or saying that. I always hated the John Cougar Mellencamp greatest hits album name, “The Best That I Can Do.” Maybe there is a lesson in that? Let me think about it and get back to you, hopefully, from Minnesota.


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