Baptism by fire: How I dealt with acute sadness
Updated: Sep 9
March 1, 2019
I like to describe myself as a writer, musician, entrepreneur and kind human being (in increasing order of importance). Past eighteen months of my life have been extremely difficult and this is an account of how I’ve dealt with it. Here it goes…
I started building my startup in the freshman year of college. By the time we were graduating, we had a multi-crore business and hopes of breaking every ceiling as we touched it. We were encouraged by reputed publications like Economic Times, Yourstory, to name a few. And quite honestly, we felt we were bulletproof. In our minds, we were prepared to overcome every obstacle and become the next big success story. We did a lot of good things and this state of euphoric struggle continued for two years…before we crashed.
Is this for real?
Everything went wrong in 2018 and before we knew it, we had sunk 40 Lakhs of our profits in three failed products while our core business gasped for breath. Slowly and painfully, we were seeing everything wither in front of us. My co-founder and I were giving farewell parties to our team mates every week, and the cakes didn’t taste good anymore. Our team was like my baby and on our good days, we were invincible. But good days were gone and I had to watch everyone go, one by one. There was little I could do about it. People want to be inside a rocketship, not a sinking ship. It was business.
“So…you’ll go as well? Anything we could do to change your mind?”
“Ah. No, man. I need to figure stuff out for sometime”
“Sure, I understand. We’ll call you when we’re back in black”
“Sounds good! Hope that happens soon. I wish it does”
And we both share an awkward, fake laugh before the final goodbye.
How can this be real?
This went on for over sixteen months and by all means, we should have been done and dusted. Over a year of continuous beating should have trashed us. But somehow, we survived. We got a project to float our boat towards the fag end of the year and also won an award (with some fund) to pursue what would be our fourth moon-shot. The story keeps developing itself, just as it should.
We’re lucky to be alive.
What we had imagined was that we’ll be a multi million dollar company by now. What we had accomplished was bare survival after severe loss of capital, hopes and ambitions. It wasn’t ideal, but there were two facets which were still beautiful — my family and the relationship with my special lady. I was glad about that. On the eve of 2019, the latter died as well.
“I know you’ve been lying to me,’’ I said after sharing my last letter of compassion with her.
“What?” she replied, caught by surprise.
“Why did you have to lie to me!” I shrieked as hard as I could.
“I got bored, Nishant” she finally conceded.
“Oh my god…”
And that’s how it ended. Our long term relationship was gone, like it never happened. Is this for real?
Losing in business is a virtual certainty which I was always pretty realistic about. I was sad that I had lost so much after tasting the first flavours of success, but it was okay. I was sad that we stopped growing like many of our friends. But that was okay, too. We were lucky to have survived and we realized it. We could make up for all the losses and dream even bigger. It’s all a part of the game.
“But what the hell happened here? This didn’t have to fall apart!”
I screeched, whenever I thought about it. There are a million things I could have done better, and I so wished that I could turn back the clock and do something about it. I couldn’t have let this happen. While I realized that it wasn’t completely my fault, would I just blame her and forget about it?
Is this for real?
What followed were terrible days of gloom where I’d sleep for two hours and cry for ten. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than what had happened. Over twenty such days had gone by and I was completely useless and not getting better. In fact, I was falling deeper with every passing day. Folks at the office were supportive, but it was clear that they weren’t liking the state I was in. Times were hard, and though they were apparently getting better, we all needed to step up our game. And what was I doing? Pulling everyone back with my melancholy and infinite sadness. I was comatose, and the clock was ticking.
“It can’t go on like this. If I spend more sulking, our company’s fucked” I told my co-founder.
“That’s true, bhai. This is not good at all” he said with due respect and sympathy. (He left in a couple of months, too).
Folks at home couldn’t help much either. Everyone empathized, but who raised a lover boy in distress?
“It’s like I carved out a special space in my heart, which turned into a black hole”, I told my father.
“Enough with the gloom!” he replied.
Is this for real?
I couldn’t have waited for me to get okay with time. I asked my friends who faced similar situations and they all said it took them a long time to get okay. But what if I didn’t have a lot of time? Time was of greatest essence to us as recovering entrepreneurs. We needed to start shooting and that right soon. I needed to heal quickly, but what could I do about it?
It’s a course on an ancient technique of meditation. The program involves committing to absolute silence for ten days where you don’t even speak to yourself. You ought to submit your phone, reading/writing material, and anything else that can distract you. When the journey begins, you sleep at 9 PM, wake up at 4, and meditate for 12 hours. That’s Vipassana. It’s intense, but I couldn’t just sulk forever, right? Tough ailments need tough medicines, I never forgot that.
“I think I’ll find myself in this, bhai.” I told my brother. “There’ll be no distractions! If I’m meditating for twelve hours for ten days without speaking a word. Without looking at the screen. It’d mean something!”, I quipped.
“It sounds difficult, bhai”, he said with a deep pause. “It does. But there’ll be no distractions!” my needle was stuck.
And so I went to Vipassana. I submitted my phone, laptop, books, newspapers, writing pad and even the Ruby ring which my mother got me to control my anger. I was there, totally committed to “observe things as they are” and “learning to be in control of my mind” for the next ten days. I had read how deeply Yuval Harari felt changed by Vipassana. Jack Dorsey and other personal heroes of mine had called the practice “a life-changing experience”. One of my mentors had told me that the pain stays, but suffering goes away. That’s what Vipassana teaches you.
Pain stays but suffering goes away? Sounds good. I’m ready.
On the sixth day of the program, I wrote something to our sevak and asked him to deliver this message to my brother. It went like this:
“I guess I just needed to talk and cry it out, bhai. I really hope I don’t kill myself. The thoughts aren’t getting any better”.
“Learning to be in control of my mind” did I say?
Vipassana asks you to observe your bodily sensations. It directs you to observe and experience them, till you realize that every atom of your body forms and dies, every moment. When you actually experience your body’s otherwise unheard and unfelt sensations (vibrations), you realize that you’re made of infinite atoms, all of which are impermanent. Absolutely ephemeral. You’re nothing but a collection of energies which live and die each moment. You’re changing every second. There’s no reason for any craving; no reason for any aversion.
No craving, no aversion. Just observe the sensations, and watch them die. You’re free.
While this is a terrific practice and I love the science behind it. It’s not hard to guess what I was thinking about even while meditating.
“She really did that? And doesn’t even regret it? Am I that easy to let go? Did it ever matter? Did it never matter?”
Is this for real?
I did everything I could to distract myself from those thoughts. But no matter how fast I made my mind run, those thoughts somehow always caught up and burned me to smoke. Every second of my existence was battling those excruciating and graphic visualisations which made me scream my lungs out, but in silence. I slept, only to wake up with the same thoughts the next morning. It was hellfire, and there were no distractions.
Who knew I’d miss the distractions?
Life often gives us two options to face a mess — fight or fly. It’s great news if you can fly away, but the travesty is that the mess often flies faster than you. And what you find yourself into is a prolonged, miserable chase, which makes you feel terribly exhausted even without you moving an inch. The other option is to not try & outrun the mess, but to stand your ground and let it beat you, as hard as it can. And as many times as it wants. Either it kills you, or you get used to the beating and it no longer hurts you. Most people try to outrun the misery by distracting themselves, expecting the misery to run out of gas. It takes time but it works. But I chose to burn myself for these ten days and be done with it. But does it work like that?
By the eighth day, I seemed to have gotten used to the hellfire so much that my mind was busy visualizing the worst moments imaginable, and I wouldn’t react to it. I’d just observe. On the very same day, I convinced myself that I’ll be totally and absolutely liberated if I write a letter to who was once the love of my life. It’d be a beautiful letter which helps her move forward without a trace of sadness. It’d tell her about the good things that happened, and the fact that it’s nobody’s fault that it fell apart. (It was just bad luck). I would even end it with a poem! I’ll be free and so will she. It’ll be perfect.
So just a day before leaving the center, I wrote that letter and told myself that the first thing I’ll do as soon as I step out will be to type and send it to her. But did I? No, the letter’s still with me. I didn’t feel the need to send it anymore.
Am I free?
“Hey bhai. I’m out. It was hell. I felt like killing myself. I was literally slapping myself, trying to think of things other than that. While I was there, it felt like the worst decision ever. I burned myself, man!” I told my brother. My first call after getting out was to him.
“So…nothing good to say?” he asked, very curtly.
“There is. While all that seemed like hell, then. I feel good to be out now. Everything seems simpler. It’s like I got accelerated healing, by aggravated suffering. Pretty crazy, right?”
“Baptism by fire, man. It’s called Baptism by fire” he said with content.
Pain stays but suffering goes away. And nothing happens the easy way. Baptism by fire.
When I got out, the world indeed seemed like a much easier, simpler place. I felt good and started working on my company and on music much better than before. My friend asked me to write about my experience and I took up the project with a lot of excitement. Reaching halfway through the story, I found that my mental state had slipped into that bad place again. It happened for a couple of days and I found I had become irregular with mediation.
Consistency. That’s the play.
I’m still not perfect and do feel bad a lot of times. But it’s obvious that I can’t feel amazing all the time. I’m glad to have taken a bold and difficult step to accelerate healing. God knows it could have taken me a long time to reach where I am today. And there’s still a long way to go.
This is real.
Edit: 16th August, 2020
It’s been more than a year and a half since everything happened. My startup (SpotHealth) has pivoted twice to reach its current form (and we’re still a few metaphorical yards away from that “breakthrough”). I’ve released two songs on all streaming platforms (including Spotify), along with six covers of high production value on Youtube. I’ve also read over 30 books since then and started a podcast around reading called I Read This Book. I could have done a lot more, but it’d be fair to say that I’ve tried to keep myself busy.
On the personal front, I’ve met some extremely nice people (absolutely serendipitously) who’ve inspired me to keep at it. For a guy who sincerely believes “hell is other people”, I’m really thankful for the people I’ve met lately. Horrific nightmares used to be very recurrent in my life, but ever since I started noting them down in my “dream diary”, it’s better. Dreams are an extraordinary source of creative energy, and since some time, I’ve been experiencing it first hand. There are many other positives, but what’s also true is that empty moments still exist. And with them they bring some shock, inaction, and a strange version of grief. Sometimes those moments become minutes, minutes become hours, hours become a day. But it usually stops there. In those ‘moments’, I feel like I’m bleeding, but with little to no pain. Soon enough, some or the other activity puts a bandage on the wound and I’m back to being myself.
What I’ve realized is that life will never be the same. And while it sounds depressing, it doesn’t need to be. A fact is that the past is a bridge to nowhere and beyond a few insights, it has nothing to offer. I believe I’ve reached what people call ‘the final stage of grief’ — acceptance. I’ve accepted my personal and professional losses and am trying to build a new life. A life full of exciting entrepreneurial & creative endeavors. And a life without any worries of companionship.
This is real indeed.
Edit: 22nd February, 2021
I'm much better now. Almost perfect, if I can put it like that. A few things still take me back to those thoughts but it's not nearly that intense, or incessant. A small bout of empty sadness, and that's all. Nothing serious. SpotHealth is growing (though still away from that metaphorical breakthrough) and my life as a musician is progressing, to say the least. I have more than 4,000 monthly listeners and one of my songs (Khwaahish) is a moderate indie hit! There are a lot of things which have led to this improved state (like a few of my very special friends) and it's hard to list them here. But I'd like to mention Scott Adams' book (How to fail at anything..) and its amazing approach of "systems based life". It's a simple idea, but definitely helps live a better life. Baptism by fire ends here. Or does it?
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