It was four years ago this very weekend that my world as I knew it, hoped for it, and was comfortable in, exploded around me. The remaining structures would all crumble in very short due course. Life was stripped bare.
There are far worse tragedies in this world, and far less. But that is irrelevant. What matters is it was mine. If you’ve been through crisis and personal tragedy, you know. Everyone’s experience is both unique and identical, simultaneously. We know the depth of emotion, the mental anguish, the physical effects; we know the cycles, the processes, what helps, what exacerbates. We know the nightmares. But we don’t know each other’s monsters. The nightmares come, and we all know that – but everyone’s nightmare is unique to them. Their own personal monsters and demons. I believe everyone is creative in their own way; but even those who believe they are not the creative types are surprised by what their imagination concocts in these circumstances.
And when you think you’ve vanquished those demons, they find a crack in the surface, and materialize, often out of seemingly nothing. Nasty and persistent buggers.
So it happened last night, four years after the weekend that sent me into shock for months and sent my reality into an alternate universe, a twisted Twilight Zone. But sometimes, demons are our friends, and our friends transform into something less amiable. So it was with this demon. While I am still grappling with it, I’m not trying to kill it. I won’t kill it. It serves a purpose. Funny, how they often do, if we stop strangling them long enough to allow them to tell us their mission.
But let me back up for a moment, from cryptic metaphors, and try to make some sense of this, in the same way you try to make sense of a dream. A wise counselor encouraged me to face “it” – to go through it. Don’t go around, or over, or under, but through. The only way is to face the emotions, the fears, the nightmares, the uncertainty. The crisis in identity, in faith, in self. Any other way, and it may seem easier, but the trouble has just been camouflaged, and will come back much uglier. Bitter, rotting in the soil, poisoning it. Or deal with it, do it “right” and compost that shit; let it nurture something new, something green, something alive and beautiful. (And you thought I was done with metaphors!)
I knew she was right, but it is far easier said than done. At first I felt paralyzed. And then I started to run. I felt like the girl in the horror movie, running for her life. At first, everything is stacked against her. Every tree is throwing up roots to trip, reaching out branches to ensnare. It’s pitch black, you’re running blind, and you know you have to face whatever is behind you – there is no way out. There is no magic portal to transport you elsewhere.
So why run?
Because you’re buying time. Trying to think, trying to come up with something that will save you, some plan, some as-yet-undiscovered superpower.
And at some point, you are exhausted and fall, and whatever is behind you is suddenly there; or, you find that stupid bravery that makes you stop, turn and face it before you’re completely spent.
There isn’t exactly a good way and a bad way. Just the inevitable one. You will face it.
And I did. What’s hard to explain is this: there isn’t one monster. There are many. Lots. Tons. Herds. Flocks. Sometimes they let you rest, sometimes they hunt, sometimes they merely pop up to startle you, scare you, remind you they are there, and disappear again. Celebrate the victories, but don’t be surprised when a new one appears. Life is neither always good nor always bad, and through these crises, both good and bad will appear, disappear, and reappear. It’s never really over. You just get better at it. And you know you’re through it when those monsters no longer startle or frighten, but instead are benevolent, rarely surfacing, and when they do, they are plodding and toothless, and you recall how they once were, and the power they held, and marvel at how time does change things. And that you change things.
I fought the ones that needed fighting, made peace with those that needed acknowledgement to be satisfied, and a few became friends, companions, and as life would have it, weren’t so scary after all. (It reminds me of the scene in “Men in Black,” where Will Smith is recruited and everyone is shooting at the target range. He sees the alien with a tissue – allergies or something – but shoots the little girl, as she’s suspicious for being in that neighborhood with that book at night. It’s a lot like that. You have to learn to recognize the true threats, and not just run from everything that, at first glance, looks scary.)
That same wise counselor also suggested I visualize what was happening – not the monsters part, but the journey part. (Though I can see the benefit in visualizing the monsters – far easier to vanquish what you can see versus what you cannot.) Tolkien came close with Mordor. Close, but not quite – life still manages to outdo Mordor. But visualization helped. The idea that this was a long haul, not a quick fix. That a heart needing mending, a soul needing tending, and a life that needed reassembling was not a weekend project. Nor a Pinterest one – I couldn’t compare it to others and try to make it look the same. The process may be similar – or may not be – but the outcome is always different. There isn’t a do-it-yourself kit – there are the usual recommendations, which are really helpful, especially when you’re at a total loss as to how to handle a moment – but at times, these instructions seem to be in a different language altogether. It is best to make as much sense of them as possible, take what’s useful, toss what isn’t, use the tools provided, and then go about creating whatever life will look like from scratch, following your own intuition – which, by the way, also needs its pieces picked up and put together before you can begin. Create something new – mimicking won’t cut it. Copies always turn out as poor imitations of the real thing – have you seen the “Pinterest Fail” threads? The point is, it has to be authentic and genuine, and copying someone else is never really you, and therefore, will never work.
But back to the visualization. I cognitively knew this wouldn’t be quick and easy, that there would be times where I would feel like I was slipping and sliding back the direction I came, losing ground, regressing. We like to think life is linear – it isn’t. And even the “bad” moments and days – hell, weeks and months – serve their purpose. What matters is how we deal with them. Throw our hands up, thinking that it should be linear and we’re failing at life, or recognize that there is an ebb-and-flow, a two-steps-forward, one-step-back. (Hint: the latter is far more useful.) I visualized it. I enjoy a good hike, and I put this visualization in terms I could understand. I came to see perceived backsliding as switchbacks. You’re climbing a mountain. You don’t go straight up – you won’t make it above treeline. Instead, the trail is made up of switchbacks. Sometimes, these are close together. You’re working hard, you’re moving forward, but goddammit, it feels like you’ve moved only five feet further up that mountain and seeing the exact same terrain you were ages ago. And its frustrating and exhausting and depleting.
What you realize in that moment is you’re still moving upwards. It’s simply that the trail is that difficult; those switchbacks are needed.
What I also realized was this: I’m not afraid of the dark.
I was, at first. And it was dark, blinding darkness. You can’t assign a color to it – it was the total absence of color, of light. You cannot see a thing. It’s the void.
And when you start to move, at first, there is nothingness. You have no idea which way to go – it’s all the same, yet somehow, you don’t think it is. The direction matters. But you don’t know any more than that.
With time, the ground hardened beneath my feet. Surer ground, but more trip hazards, Stumbling over those roots, and in time, branches snagging at clothes. The world started to materialize, but it was unfamiliar, threatening, and terrifying.
I learned to breathe. Because when it feels like you’re tripping and getting tangled up and you just want to move faster, to get out of it, and the faster you move, the worse it gets, and panic sets in… that’s when you need to remind yourself to breathe. To stop. To calm yourself, your heart, your mind. Breathe. Then slowly disentangle yourself, bit by bit, until you can move forward.
I was blessed – I had others who brought me light. It wasn’t too long in that void, in that blackness, when I saw pinpricks of light ahead, like twinkling stars. I knew they were there, and when I needed them, I would find them closer. I began to trust my intuition enough to recognize a path, one that felt right, and I took it. It wasn’t the sunniest, brightest one – that seemed false and somehow more threatening, ingenuine promises that would exact an awful price later.
*$%&!^ intuition led me straight into Mordor.
But it was okay – those shimmering lights gave me comfort that help would be there. I wasn’t completely alone. I alone could walk the path, but I may have some company when I needed it. There would be crossroads and other paths may merge with mine. And some things, I’d just have to face alone. You do it, or you don’t. But if you want to get through the nightmares, it’s best to do it, when you can. This is where knowing you can’t versus fearing you can’t are two different things; we can handle far more than we think we can. We’re just usually terrified at having to actually do so.
And sure enough, the starlight illuminated all sorts of beings. Ethereal ones, who would cast light on the trail when I felt particularly lost, my own spirit guiding me back. Others had more form, my own particular angels, who in a dire moment would appear and walk a few steps, carrying the burden for a bit, until my strength and senses returned. More solid forms, in familiar shapes of friends, new and old, who appeared to offer to rest, refreshment, companionship, as needed.
I found a few friends from my old life did not appear in this new world. But I also discovered how many wonderful beings occupied this new reality. Those I am fortunate to call friends, allies, confidants to this day, and who I hold with so much love for what they gave me along that path, speaking to who they are as people and their generous, loving, kindred spirits.
And what they continue to give me.
You see, the path continues. There is no “end.” It’s cliché, but it’s true: it isn’t about the destination – it’s about the journey.
And if we take the step, find the path, continue on, it has everything – joy and pain, love and heartbreak, laughter and tears, adventure and lazy afternoons in the sun. It’s all of it, everything. And yes, it feels masochistic at times. We could avoid the painful parts, but then, we wouldn’t be moving. We’d be staying in that same spot, and never see the rest. Call it courage or curiosity, wise or foolish. It’s likely a combination of all four. We move because we are human.
And because its worth it.
With curiosity and courage,