Ryan Berg, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran deployed twice in Iraq. In 2004, he was an infantryman with 2/24 Echo Company, Weapons Platoon, in the Triangle of Death. In 2006, he served in various roles with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and deployed to Fallujah. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and a Master of Arts in leadership studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. He’s married to his wife, Nataly, and lives in the SF Bay Area.
Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.
I’ve traveled to the center of my soul. Doing this has been the single most profoundly difficult, exhaustive, and emotionally arduous inward journey of my entire life. As I write this, my heart feels battered, bruised, its veins are sore, the wound still bleeds through capillary walls — has yet to clot. This is all a welcome change from the deep-water arterial surges of depression, anxiety, and panic that have crashed over me as I lay at the mercy of grief. I understand more fully now why we humans tend to avoid experiencing pain, particularly the soul-shocking fear, anger, and sadness pang waves that begin in the gut, travel up to the brain stem, and settle in for the heavy haul at the core of the amygdala. “Who would pay to feel this way?” I’ve often asked myself rhetorically. It’s difficult, tiring, pulverizing, and requires inconceivable endurance. I’ve taken myself to the inner-most nucleus of my emotional universe: scraping the skull of my psyche with a scalpel. Two years of constant, direct, and intimate facing of my emotional reality, and painstaking examination of influential aspects of my early relationships and cultural identities which have shaped and injured that world. It’s been extremely dark, lonely, scary — at times screechingly loud — and others: frighteningly desolate and quiet. I’ve faced my demons: the mountainous pain that’s been held up in my heart nearly my entire life and embodied and directed my every move, imprisoning me. I’m keenly aware, however, it’s not over, for I’m still alive — a fact I can now feel authentically grateful for. Although, because I chose to make this voyage, I’m now “guided by soul”, and my life is much less dictated by history, circumstances, or past trauma. I’m reclaiming my life, spirit, humanity, and deep hope — which had always been there, faintly pulsing like a distant star, disappearing when faced, peripherally visible — buried and suffocated beneath dense layers of rage, confusion, depression, and heartbreak — beating frantically on my chest to get out.
This journey has been formidable, deeply humbling, and transformational. I’ve had numerous thoughts of suicide throughout, and recently, as I experienced the granular, raw, fibrous, and potent roots of depression, I fantasized of committing a murder-suicide, where I shoot my dogs, wife, and self. As I drifted fully into the thought, my head hung from the edge of my bed, I stared down towards the tan wood floor, and a deep, dark, whole-body misery tingled through me. Instantly, and in order, I saw bullets lodge in each of their skulls. It frightened me. Not only would this act provide me an escape from overwhelmingly difficult feelings, but my immediate loved ones one too, spared from agony caused by my tragic absence. I would be doing them a “favor,” I depravedly reasoned. “What kind of person am I?” I thought as I left the trance. I debated whether to share this with my therapist because I was so embarrassed, yet I did, and it turned out to be the most supportive action I could have taken. The reality is that I had no control over this thought, it simply arrived, and it spoke to the intensity and difficulty of experiencing my feelings. “Thoughts and actions are very different things,” she reminded me. I also told my wife, and while I initially feared her reaction, she listened and understood. I felt seen and accepted, giving shame no place to hide.
Is all of this worth it? Yes. Do the hard feelings actually let up? Yes, in fact, they do. The beauty is that when we sincerely look inward, and feel, we end up coming out the other side, landing in a beautiful prairie of a healing heart; where what once tortured us emotionally and psychically is somehow much smaller and seriously less painful. We gain self-worth, confidence, profound resilience, and increase our capacity for intention — which improves traction and tightens the needles on one’s compass towards goals we’ve always had — yet elusively chased. Nothing in life feels better — this I can assure you. A feeling perhaps inconceivable at present, yet it will not disappoint. We get many of the things we want out of ourselves and life. Direction, clarity, and best of all, we emphatically increase our capacity to receive and give love.
Fortunately, I did not listen to common sentiments consistently expressed in society, like; “It’s easier not to feel. There is no future in the past. Live in the now, you can’t change the past, plus, you aren’t headed that way.” The great benefit of entering the wilderness of the past is that I’ve truly awakened joy, self-acceptance, confidence, and the seeds of resilience have sprouted. I’ve opened my eyes to come out of the nightmare my life has hereto seemed. Rather than killing my whole self, I’ve allowed parts of myself to die. Parts that needed to end in order for others to sprout. By allowing parts of me to shed, fall away, like leaves in autumn, I’m now able to enjoy a fuller, happier existence — evolve, live, love, and lead. Living, I’ve learned, is at once; dying.
Author’s note: Because of the nature and content of this post, if you are alarmed in regards to my mental health, don’t be. I’m doing quite well and in good spirits, am supported by my wife, three dogs, and a gifted psychotherapist.