The lights splutter to life, faint glimmers of their former selves; the walls etched with old paint lines chipping away offer a fully dilapidated look; dust accumulated in every dirty and dank corner gives the place a terribly dry odor; rusted railings run vertically from ground floor up to the 21st, an old gray slowly wilting away with time; doors and windows sporadically opened at obscene angles, grime running down their once transparent frames. This less-than-romantic description paints the picture of the staircase that saved my life.
The grand opening of the global pandemic that started some time in March of 2020 was unceremoniously wicked. It forced the world into depression and isolation, and death. Slowly, everything began to close down, including any attention to mental health and well-being. People shuttered themselves into their homes, selfishly horded whatever supplies were deemed necessary to outlive the disease, grew virulently vigilant at any and all news sources made public, and called it a day. That was it. We all just had to wait, and fend for ourselves.
I remember the first month of lock-down being somewhat agreeable with me. I had a comfortable home with adequate supplies and a job that secured my income. I was given a chance to minimize my activity, to downsize my workload and spend more time reading books and relaxing at home. It all sounded so dreamy.
But with the lack of physical activity, came worsening physical and mental problems. I turned to food and alcohol as a vehicle to pass the time. I put on weight and slowly shifted my attention away from reading, and onto Youtube and Netflix. A month sizzled by without noticeable signs of change, or life. I began to struggle with panic attacks at all hours of the day. Cabin fever played a role, as did the lack of exercise and attention to health. The attacks hit me while watching television or in the middle of the night, and each bout seemed as furious as the last. Every attack triggered a worsening fear that I was dying, which circled around and fueled the anxiety more. I drank alcohol to ease the tension of the nights, thinking that all I needed was to outlast a few more weeks, or maybe months. But the virus continued its dance with the world.
Then one afternoon, trapped in torpor and lethargy, I decided to break the chain of suppressed angst and depression. I took to the staircase and started walking.
I live in an apartment block that rises to the 21st floor and the staircase sits just outside my front door. This dark, dank vertical corridor had eluded my attention for far too long. With two functioning lifts that operate meters from the staircase, I had perfectly neglected its use ever since. In the heat of lock-downs, the height of which extended itself to restrictions on outdoor exercise, I took to the staircase and began climbing my way to freedom.
The early going was a challenge. I was relatively unfit after months of lying around and living by the code of Netflix. But it slowly became easier. Step after step, floor after floor, I made progress and slowly inched out of the darkness that had become pervasive on my life. Initially, the staircase operated as a single function for me: an arena to exercise. I took to it daily, climbing up and descending down like sport. After weeks, I grew competitive and began timing my laps from top to bottom, driven by adrenaline and a visceral crave to get stronger and faster. It was fun and convenient, and I looked forward to my trips to the staircase. Most importantly, the panic attacks tempered down and nearly subsided completely. The staircase shifted my entire trajectory at that point, drastically turned things around and possibly saved my life.
A year later
More than a year has passed since the opening walk up and down the dust-filled chamber that is the staircase of my apartment block. In that year, restrictions have loosened which have allowed me to return to outdoor activities such as running and cycling. The slight reopening of life has taken me out of the staircase, physically. However, over the year, I have often returned to its dark and desolate interior as a sort of refuge from the real world. A safety exists inside its walls, a nurturing symbolism remains stored in the pith of my being.
A year later, I am stronger physically and mentally. I have maintained a sturdy regiment of exercise and have continued tapering down on alcohol use. Further, I have thoughtfully been able to control the food intake that enters my mouth which has led to my slimming back down to a respectable physical self. I feel healthier now than I did a year ago.
While I continue to use the staircase as a weekly physical activity, it remains an integral piece of my meditative puzzle. I gravitate mentally to the staircase in times of mental crisis. I can nostalgically recall the hundreds of hours spent nurturing my mind while walking up and down its floors, focusing on my breathing and keeping my head-space within the physical confines of that staircase. While it initially served as a physical outlet for exercise, the staircase was later put to use mainly as a meditative space; a controlled environment of safety and comfort where I had experienced success and happiness. I return there once a week to walk and to meditate, keeping all thoughts focused on the space within, resisting the urge to allow wandering ideas to move away and out of the staircase.
What I’ve learned
- I have learned how precarious mental health is. Underlying stress can build tension beneath the surface within one’s knowledge of it, until it reaches a breaking point that yields debilitating effects on an individual.
- I have learned that there is always a place to go to for help; for me, that place was a poorly maintained staircase. Regardless of any personal situation, there is always a place that you can find comfort and relief. Once you find that shelter or refuge, you can use the space to build a physical or mental castle.
- I have learned how powerful a practice mindfulness meditation is, and that it can be harnessed in any situation. In the past year, I have taken every opportunity to meditate as I walked up and down the staircase. I focused on my breath, than on my feet, than on the environment and my body. These simple steps allowed me to be aware and to appreciate all the things that transpire in my body and mind.
- I have learned that consistency is the key to contentment. Happiness takes time; satisfaction requires a strong dosage of persistence. By focusing on one simple activity, over and over, the mind is empowered and at ease.
- I have learned how important it is to find a mental(and physical) anchor around the home. The staircase offered a refuge of comfort, a place to think as well as to exercise. By combining both practices together, I was able to create a super-space for myself which led to immense breakthroughs – both physically and mentally.
It probably sounds a little sensational when I refer to a staircase that saved my life. The reality is circled in truths: I was on a downward trajectory, facing deprecating physical and emotional conditions as the world was gripped with uncertainty and depression. I had little momentum or pride, and a single change of habit helped to cure the despairing trend that was overwhelming my ability to live and be happy. I stutter to think how worse things could have deteriorated, over a year ago. Thankfully, I found a place that I could rely on daily for physical strengthening and mental nourishment. That place is just around the corner; I implore you to have a look around your surrounding to find one just like it.