The Day Everything Changed
During the summer of 2014 I was going through a terrible crisis of identity. My life was a shambling mess of a thing, and I was actively hiding from it; doing my best to distract myself from the day-in, day-out dramas of my own inner conflict. For years, I’d been lying and exaggerating, manipulative and controlling, selfish and self-centered. I put myself first in all things – and made sure everyone around me knew just how important, and intelligent I was. If you didn’t do things my way, then you were a complete idiot – and there was no getting around how right I was about everything. And if you didn’t agree, or you had thoughts of your own, then I’d respond with anger and vengeance – in a very subtle and passively aggressive way – chances are, you would never know what hit you.
Meanwhile, on the inside, I was terrified of everything and everyone. I had no idea of who I really was – I was so busy trying to protect layer upon layer of massive denial that I didn’t have time to be me. Instead, I watched TV, played video games, and disappeared into the world of tabletop roleplaying. There was so much guilt and shame in my life; so many reasons to hate myself – I had absolutely no interest in being with myself – everything I did was about escaping me; about taking my mind off of what I was hiding from. I had no friends, was completely disconnected from my family, and used my romantic relationships as my only anchor in the world – but still kept even those at an incredible distance from myself.
I’d been living in Seattle for several years – since leaving the Air Force in 2000. I’d tried Buddhism out for about a year or so in 2004, visited with a couple of mental health professionals, taken antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications, tried different diet and exercise regimens, become vegan, and attempted a host of other things; all in an effort to ‘figure out what was wrong with me’ and ‘find some semblance of peace’. Nothing really worked. At best, I was told I was suffering from ‘perfectionism’ – at worst, I was told nothing at all. No one seemed to have an answer for me – no one seemed to have the solution that I was looking for. And so I remained caught up in a world of self-limiting defeatism that, outwardly looked like it was working, but inwardly was eating me alive.
Coming up on the summer of 2014, I was living with a longtime girlfriend who I’d been with for about 6 years. She and I had a tenuous relationship at best. We spent most of our time in our home offices on opposite ends of the house. We ran errands and did a few chores together, and we slept together at night. But outside of a few general conversations about her work and about mine, we didn’t really have much to say to one another. We were roommates who shared a bed. She was obviously unhappy with me – but she endured, I think, in the hope that one day I’d turn things around and grow up. And she was dealing with her own psychological angst and issues. As with most couples, we were getting exactly what we needed from each other, even if it was largely unhealthy.
It was during the August/September timeframe that I really started to notice just how dark my inner world had become and how miserable I really was. I owned my own information security consulting firm at the time and had just wrapped up a huge contract. There was money in the bank and all of my bills were paid in full, so, as I often did, I decided to stop working for a while. I would sit in my office at home and play games – games that were meant to include social interaction – but I just played them by myself. Sometimes I would play so late into the night that I wouldn’t go to bed. Instead, I’d just crawl into my office recliner as the sun was coming up – moments before my girlfriend would be getting up – and pretended to be asleep.
When I wasn’t playing games, I was watching TV. And I was watching some really dark television programs. It was actually the television programs that started to clue me in on just how lost I’d become and how much I was hurting on the inside. I was actually enjoying them. Not just their entertainment value, but their darkness in general. I found myself deeply disturbed by this revelation and something inside me began to ask, ‘is this really who you want to be?’. So, in September, I began to look more closely at my behavior – at both my internal and external patterns of thought and expression. Having studied psychology quite extensively, I pulled out my copy of the DSM-V and started flipping through symptoms. After looking at every diagnostic profile, my eye settled on narcissism – a trait quite common in our modern western society.
I really had no idea what that meant, but it was clear to me that this was the most detailed explanation of what I was experiencing, so I started to research narcissism. I was horrified by what I found! The narcissist was, by all accounts, an unfeeling, uncaring, monster; completely incapable of human connection and completely incurable. I died a little bit inside as I was reading up on what I was and felt something stirring inside me that could only be described as hopelessness. But at the same time, I was absolutely determined not to be the monster. It may even have been the narcissist inside me that cried out ‘I will prove them all wrong’. Whatever it was, I decided then and there that I would do whatever it took to get better.
Several things happened all at once. I located a psychologist in the area who had experiencing treating people with narcissism. I found a book on neuroplasticity and our innate ability to heal our brains. And I started to pay very careful attention to my thoughts. I remembered some of the breathing techniques that I’d learned during my stint with Buddhism and began to practice them – but not actively, which was quite interesting. The breathing technique just sort of came forward on its own – and it was very different than it had been when I was practicing it before. Instead of meditating on the cushion, I would just find myself doing things around the house and in my life, watching my breath move in and out at the tip of the nose. It just felt natural.
The first time I was supposed to see the psychologist, I bailed. I was simply too afraid and hadn’t worked up enough courage yet. A week later, I tried again. I remember sitting in that chair, in an almost statuesque form, unmoving and unflinching, filled with a terrible dread. It was like an hour-long panic attack, but I refused to get up and leave. I absolutely had to get better. So, for the first time in my entire life, I threw off every shackle and dropped every guard. Through a rain of tears, I opened up about everything and didn’t hold anything back. Absolutely nothing was left on the table. I answered every question, admitted to every falsehood, revealed every secret. I felt completely open in that moment – and it was the most freeing experience I’d ever had.
Suddenly my world began to open up in a brand-new way. I dove into reading books about narcissism, neuroscience, and the healing power of the mind. I also started to practice what I called ‘radical self-honesty’ within my own inner world; examining the content of every thought that came through my mind and asking myself where the thought was coming from. I started to look at how I was behaving and what I was doing from the position of an observer studying – almost scientifically – the inner workings of my own mind. I took stock of the masks I was wearing, and, no matter how painful it was, I started to ask myself who I was behind each mask. Within the space of about a month, I began to experience myself in a radically different way.
At that point I had already started writing, openly, about my experiences. I was participating in a chat forum for people suffering from narcissism and was documenting my entire journey on a website that I’d set up called ‘thehealingnarcissit’. I wanted to have a way of sharing my journey of inner exploration with others who were suffering in the same way I was, even if I didn’t know where that journey was going to lead. More than anything though, I wanted to offer hope. It was quite clear to me that all of the literature on narcissism was written in a manner that almost assured healing would be impossible – and yet that was not what my study of neuroscience was telling me. It’s also not what my experience was telling me. It began to feel as though the label was a self-fulfilling trap.
As this process continued, I began to have these moments of insight and clarity that were deeply profound, each one lifechanging in its own small way. I called it ‘the popcorn popper’ and every day I was seeing new kernels blossoming into form. And then came the day when I finally faced the childhood trauma that started it all. I called my mother and spoke with her, at length, about my life, my suffering, and what I’d been going through for all these years; and I asked her what happened. You see, when I was about 7 years old, my father was in the navy and we were living at the naval base in Cuba. My parents divorced and we moved to Florida to live with my aunt. It was just me and my little brother, thrown into the turmoil of parental discord – with no control over anything that was happening.
One day, we were heading to New Jersey to visit my grandparents – a day I remember vividly. We spent a week or two there and had a good time being together as a family. Then, when it came time to leave, my little eight-year-old heart was shattered. My mother kneeled down in front of me and told me that I wasn’t going home. That she was taking my brother back with her to Florida, but I’d be staying with my grandparents in New Jersey. And then she left. So here I was, eight years old – I’d just lost my father and now my mother had given up on me to. No one wanted me. No one loved me. I was stuck with my grandparents and my other aunt – and as much as they tried, there was nothing they could do to put humpty dumpty back together again.
I lived in New Jersey for a year. By the time my mom had me come back home again, the damage was done. What I began to refer to as ‘the oldest wound’ had been opened and become infected. As I spoke to my mother, at the age of 42, about this experience, she was completely devastated. For her, it will forever be the greatest mistake of her life – but there, in that moment, in our sharing, we began a process of healing that nothing else could have touched. She told me that none of it had anything to do with me – told me how much she had loved me; how dear I was to her and how hard it had been to leave me behind. She admitted to her own reasons for doing so – and she set the record straight on everything that I’d been holding onto for all those years.
When people talk about catharsis, I understand what that word means now. In that one conversation, 35 years of darkness began to fall away. And something new opened up in me – a new kind of willingness and understanding – a new call for love within myself – something completely different from anything I had ever experienced before. In the days that followed, the popcorn popper went into overdrive, until it finally exploded. There were a number of other things happening in my life at the time, and healing was coming from every possible direction, but that one phone call got right to the root of everything – to the sense of abandonment that became me insecurity and my unworthiness – that became my entire inner world and all of my protective mechanisms.
Entering into the first couple of weeks in October, I was a changed man. I started to challenge myself to rise to every occasion – and to let go of my old patterns of thought and behavior. On 13 October of 2014, I was bringing that newfound sense of intensity to a couple of important chores that needed to be done around the house. There was a floor transition that needed to be installed in the entryway of the house, and there was some work that needed to be done to readjust a doorframe in the bathroom. No matter what, I was going to get these two tasks completed while my girlfriend was at work. I started to work on the floor transition – it was difficult work – and historically, when I encountered ‘difficult work’, I would just quit and go watch TV or play video games; but not this time.
The floor transition needed to be installed in concrete, which was quite challenging. I did everything I could, tried every trick I could imagine, watched a lot of YouTube segments, and yet nothing worked. I was getting angry with the project – feeling a familiar sense of rage rising up within me. It was a telltale sign of my old emotional content. If there was something I couldn’t do, or something that made me feel ‘lesser’ I’d skip right past angry and into an earthshattering rage. The reason I often quit doing things that were difficult was in an effort avoid this rage, because it was not something I wanted to experience. It was easier to give up than to feel things. But this time was different, because, somehow, I was experiencing this rage at a distance, mindfully; a mindful bodily rage.
And so, there I was, doing my best to complete a project that was obviously beyond my skill, but unwilling to give up until it became clear that there really wasn’t any way for me to finish the install on my own. I needed help, which of course just made things worse – but I wasn’t really concerned about it – I just needed to do what I needed to do. And so, I switched to the door frame. It had shifted out of alignment and needed to be reset. Continuing to be with my mindful bodily rage, I began to take everything apart and engage in the adjustment process. As I was trying to shift the frame into its final position, it cracked. My rage doubled – and yet it did not consume me. I calmly assessed the situation and determined that we’d need to replace the frame. But my rage was right there – being witnessed.
With both projects ending in failure, and this intense, mindful, bodily rage burning on the inside, I decided that I needed to find a way to deal with it directly. I tried a couple of things, but they didn’t work out, so I went to the bookstore to get a book on rage. It was quite common for me to buy a book on any topic that interested me or was troubling me, but as I was walking into the bookstore, seething with rage, my only hope was that no one would talk to me – I wanted to be able to hold on just long enough to get out of there without losing myself to the monster. Luckily, I did find a book on rage, but then remembered that a friend had recently recommended ‘The Work’ from Byron Katie, so I found an audio CD of hers called ‘Your Inner Awakening’.
I made it out of the store and back to my car. I was still completely caught in my mindful rage, but I’d completed my goal. I put the CD in and started driving around. As I listened to Byron Katie talk about her own life before her ‘Inner Awakening’, I heard her talking about my life. What she was describing was exactly what I’d been experiencing – albeit hers had its own unique flavor – but it tasted the same. All of the pain and anguish, the self-loathing, the shame and guilt, the inner and outer struggle – it was all right there. As I drove around, I felt like I’d found kinship with someone who knew what it felt like to be me – and I was listening intently to what she was saying. All I remember now, is that I was turning the corner, a block from home, as she was talking about her family’s problem with socks.
By the time I walked in the door of our home, my rage had subsided – replaced by sheer exhaustion. All told, I had spent a full six hours in a state of mindful bodily rage that was on the verge of consuming me at any moment. So, I went outside, into the back yard, and sat down under our small covered porch. Without thinking about it, I closed my eyes and settled into a state of deep absorptive meditation. Suddenly, everything inside of me fell away. There were no thoughts, no sense of identity, no sense of self. There was simply awareness – and awareness of awareness. My mind was completely empty – my inner and outer worlds had both disappeared – the ‘me’ was gone – there was only this awareness – and me, as awareness, aware of awareness. That’s all there was – awareness, aware of itself, as awareness.
I have never been the same since that moment. That was the end of everything and the beginning of something completely new. Who I had spent my life as, suddenly and irrevocably, died in that moment. Something wondrous was reborn in its place. It was an experience of such incredible and profound intensity that it will be with me for the rest of my days. It was my initial opening into what would become my life – the first real and tangible step into Self-realization; something I knew nothing about at the time. I was not a spiritual person and spirituality had not really been of any interest to me. In fact, I joke, to this day, that I was both an atheist and an asshole. So imagine my surprise when I found out just how wrong I really was!
—Bradley Bemis is an Orlando-based spiritual teacher of non-duality and Self-realization, an inner presence coach and guide, and is currently working toward his Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. He offers a combination of public discourses and private sessions for those who are interested in exploring the enlightened insights of nondual wisdom. Learn more at awakeningintolife.com.