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The Phoenix Effect: Finding the Beauty in Rockbottom

Nobody wants to crash and burn. We don't design our lives around the possibility of the type of ruin that leaves us quivering in the foetal position. Even the most paranoid and pessimistic types rarely create a realistic contingency for outright despair. Yet hitting rockbottom at least once in life is not uncommon, so what happens when we get there without a plan?

Photo by Gaston Roulstone on Unsplash

Being an optimist is a double-edged sword. It helps you to see the good in most situations - and people - which can have mixed outcomes. But I wouldn't change this about myself for the world. Because optimism is our last defence when faced with rockbottom.


When circumstance has reduced you to a point from which it feels impossible to recover, hopelessness can grip. It's the place where power-talks stop working and where exercise, fresh air and healthy food no longer appeal. When you're in this place, you only have two options. Either give up, or embrace the pain that will make you stronger.


The latter is the ultimate form of optimism. It requires a type of inner faith. I find comfort by the notion that things happen for a reason; fate, if you like - those moments when the timing of events beyond our control seem undeniable... far too coincidental to be left to chance. But no matter how much I believe this during my most 'faithful' moments, I would be lying if I said my optimism doesn't waver.


At my weakest, my ultimate fear is that life is as flippant as the roll of a dice; that our paths and purposes are as random and meaningless as we are. This is the fear that hits me during my version of rockbottom. From conversations I've shared with others, this is not uncommon, and from my religious friends, I hear it is similar to losing sight of god.


So, you're there in thick panic, struck down because everything has gone wrong. And you don't have god to guide you, because that's not your thing. The motivational voice inside you and that of your friends is now mute. What the hell do you do?


You become a phoenix. That's what. You find and embrace the beauty of rockbottom. The mythological phoenix burns to ashes, then reemerges with a renewed youth and strength, enabling it to live on; hence the saying, 'to rise from the ashes'. Obviously I'm not suggesting anyone sets fire to themselves (disclaimer alert), but the point here is that it's ok to hit rockbottom, to be entirely burnt out, because after that, in the words of Yazz, the only way is up.


If you can remember this, then in a bizarre way you can actually feel something quite cathartic amidst all that pain. The keyword being to feel. Numbing the pain prolongs it, as does blocking it out. But embracing the feeling of rockbottom is where the magic happens.


It's a rare gem; a dark-golden opportunity to meet your most broken self among the ashes of a life that has burnt down around you and not killed you. Unless you're a professional athlete or somebody who puts themselves through similarly tough hobbies or careers, when else do you get the opportunity to distort and break, reform, and rise stronger and wiser than ever before?


Don't get me wrong, the idea of this rejuvenation does not bring much comfort during the process. Nobody ever wants to experience a breaking-point like this and the old saying, 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger', is literally the last thing anyone wants to hear during a crisis. But once you're acquainted with your inner phoenix, it's great to know he or she exists, should you ever need to meet again in the future.


But how do you actually do this? How on earth do you comfort yourself during the process and how do you rise? How do you find the strength to transform? Rockbottom feels like a siloed, powerless place, but you can comfort yourself by choosing to control the only thing that is still within your control, in fact, the only thing we can ever truly control: How we react.


Circumstances will come and go. They will change shape, sometimes working with you and other times against you. The control-freaks of us will try our hardest to account for every eventuality so that life can be lived painlessly without incident. But this is exhausting and unrealistic.


Consciously deciding how we react to the world around us is pretty much the only thing in life we have absolute power over. And what a power it is! When you embrace this, and utilise it, you discover that strength is an opportunity that's yours for the taking. This is a principle of mindfulness.


Take road rage, for example. When somebody cuts you up in traffic and you immediately react with anger, you are allowing another human who you've never met before, and probably won't ever meet again, to provoke you into acting without thinking in a heartbeat. Is that really all it takes to puppeteer you? Learning to control our reactions, by being more self-aware and mindful of ourselves in relation to the world around us, instead of being reactive creatures, is something we can practise every day.


While straightforward enough when circumstances are positive and life is comfortable, the advantage of practising this prepares us for when the shit hits the fan and feelings of hopelessness creep in - when it's easy to forget that we are still in control of our own internal world. Remembering this during rockbottom is the healthiest exit-strategy we can offer ourselves.


So you remember that you're in control of you, for a start. You take some responsibility for your part in arriving at rockbottom, whether that was due to trusting the wrong people, taking the wrong risks, not looking ahead, whatever it is, there is always scope to learn from how you got here. Therein lies your opportunity to grow.


It's also an opportunity to forgive yourself for being human, and doing what humans do - make mistakes. By forgiving yourself, you're accepting and forgiving your vulnerability, and that means that you have the power to forgive others for theirs. You can let go of any hurt, anger and resentment, by choice. And the minute you do that, those who have hurt you lose all significance. You have immediately grown more powerful. You have immediately grown back your wings.


But you're still hurting, of course. Everything is still dark and scary, and you still feel weak and lost. You may have grown some wings but you sure as hell don't feel strong enough to take off. Now what? Be kind to yourself? Urgh! I loath that statement. I prefer getting tough with yourself.


You are going through a transformation. A brutal one. And one you certainly didn't ask for and probably didn't deserve. Yes, forgive yourself and others for getting you here. Yes, accept your vulnerability. Yes, embrace the pain. Yes, spend however much time you need crying, wallowing, not washing, avoiding people and becoming some hideous angry goblin-child in the making.


But choose to be tough. Choose to not be defeated. Choose to be an optimist. Choose to believe that you are going to come out of this eventually. Choose to believe that your pain is a forward-arrow, not a constant. Choose, because that is within your power, to believe that your future is going to be great. (Does this sound like an excerpt from Trainspotting? I think it does. Sorry not sorry.)


Some days, your belief may waver. Some days, it might be a harder sell than on others. Some days you might just want to curl up, feel sorry for yourself and cry until you can't cry any more. And that's ok. But while you're crying, remember that every tear is part of your process. Just let that shit out.


Your pain is part of your transformation and you're going to be amazing for it. Keep believing this, because an optimistic attitude attracts opportunities. This is the philosophy behind the Law of Attraction.


Believe in you. Believe in your journey and your future. And wait, knowing that any day now you're going to be in the position to open your wings and take off in a way you've never before experienced. This is how you can find the beauty of rockbottom; knowing that the pain and darkness you feel is in fact the process of transformation that's going to enable you to soar.


Nobody said it would be easy, but it is possible to fly again, and you will, when you're ready.


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