Unrestrained by Demons

It’s been quite a year. Can you relate? I’m not speaking of 2016 (although…my heavens, 2016 has been filled with revelations and reckoning), but rather the last 12, 13, 14 months themselves. The last…long while. So much self-reflection and quite painful investigation into the what’s and why’s of this life.

It can get heavy. Being an emotional being can at times be draining, can leave us feeling depleted and weepy. The lows can get as low as they get high. It can become incredibly daunting to process the ups and downs of life, to navigate one’s own emotional liberation, while still going out everyday and operating as a functioning member of society. That sounds dramatic, but do you ever feel as though the sheer weight of processing your own grievances feels like a full-time endeavor? One you want to just commit yourself to for a week (or five), in solitude, surrounded by healing, supportive space and silence? It’s so challenging to sort through our thoughts when we’re burdened by the need to simultaneously work, maintain relationships, construct the outward appearance of having it all together (not that we’re meant to pretend that our suffering doesn’t exist, but most days no matter how lost in our heads we want to get, we still have to be adults and live our lives). This is reality, despite the suffocating moments of fear and anxiety that visit us all, from time to time.

It can be really tempting to live a life shut off from that emotional processing. Because it’s just hard. The idea of avoiding all that mess can seem easier. Sometimes denial can look, from afar, like such a cozy alternative; not having to feel our feelings, not being blindsided and ambushed by the underbelly of what it means to be an emotional creature in this huge, undulating universe.

But I would never again choose that alternative. I’ve lived in it before; the stuffy, damp, darkly shrouded realm of denial. It’s isolated. It’s claustrophobic. It actually doesn’t feel safe at all. If you’ve ever been there, you probably know that it feels like laying in a dark room with a heavy box on your chest. Even though the box may be like Pandora’s, filled with a whole mess of stuff, it can be far more productive, albeit terrifying, to throw open the windows and start sorting through the aching feelings and thoughts that lay locked up and waiting for our attention.

This stuff – the wading through the suffering, I mean – is, as I view it, the price we pay for being alive.

I’m currently reading (slowly, savoring) my favorite author, Elizabeth Gilbert’s, newest book Big Magic. Liz’s prose slay me. She is, as I say, one of those authors that “makes you feel so much more comfortable with being alive.” Because, let’s be honest, the human condition can feel really intense, lonely, daunting, and uncomfortable at times. Liz reminds us that fear (insert: trepidation, personal demons, struggles – all manifestations of fear) is always with us. She suggests that we be inclined to accept and embrace our fear. Invite it along on the journey we are taking with creativity (insert: love, joy, adventure, abundance – all manifestations of creative living). Her brilliant concept is that, on this road trip of life, we are driving, creativity gets the front seat, and fear gets the backseat. Fear is welcome to come along (because we don’t actually have any choice in the matter, do we?), and it is allowed to speak up, but it does not get to decide where we’re going. It does not get to lay its hands on the map, or even fiddle with the radio station (Liz, seriously, is my greatest inspiration as a writer – this stuff comes from the creative depths of her imagination – what a vision! – get thee to a bookstore and buy yourself Big Magic).

What a notion, right? I feel, and I’m speaking for myself here, that the overwhelming urge is to banish fear, and all its expressions, from my life. I have been standing outside the car, arms crossed, brow furrowed, tapping my toe impatiently waiting for fear to unbuckle, get out of my backseat, and let me get on with my journey.

I might as well turn my distressed gaze upward and start looking for pigs flying.

I’m not proposing, nor is my great hero Elizabeth Gilbert, that we should be super comfortable with the idea of carrying fear around in our back pockets. It’s uncomfortable; it’s supposed to be. But this is the non-negotioable byproduct of having been gifted the most exquisite opportunity of creative living (which we all have been gifted, by being born as human beings with opposable thumbs and incredible cognitive function and hearts so gloriously capable of being wrecked by love that they could just swallow up the whole world with their power for adoration).

We all have our “things” that hold us back. We all have our demons. But we are worthy of living lives unrestrained by demons. If we can, collectively, stop waiting for the demons to release us, for fear to get out of the car, and just realize this uncooperative passenger is going to endlessly serve as a beacon of where we don’t wish to go (because, at its root, fear is a mechanism of self-preservation, sounding off when danger might be present), we can see its purpose. We are high-functioning human beings with the discerning power to notice when we are being chased by a lion and fear should get to use its lung power with all its might, for good rather than evil…and when faith, love, intuition, and creativity are being drowned by the drunken, garbled hollering of our backseat fear (who somehow seems to have climbed onto the dashboard and got its sticky hands on a microphone).

We have the capacity to take a step back, look at our lives, and see where we’re being pinned (or, sometimes, glued) to a spot we no longer wish to be. We have the power to investigate why we’re immobilized. We have the capability to change that.

I have a tendency of getting stuck in a rut. I am fearful of change, and the unknown brings me great anxiety. A life of ritual and routine has brought me great comfort. My chest grows a bit tight at the image of jet-setting wanderlusts, living out of suitcases and going where the wind blows. No, no, I’ll wait patiently for my niiiiiiice, detailed itinerary please.  But that’s just me. And a huge part of this presses is in getting to know ourselves, and embracing our quirks and tendencies. Learning, through trial and error, where to push our boundaries and where to respect our needs. I went heaving and hyperventilating into a 3-month study abroad venture overseas back in 2009. I literally fought for breath and sucked on tears as I wrestled with the militant French operator and a dinky little calling card in a Parisian phone booth, begging my mom to come and visit because WHO DECIDED IT WAS OKAY TO PUT AN OCEAN BETWEEN US FOR A QUARTER OF A YEAR and I hadn’t slept in 36 hours and HOW DID I GET TO FRANCE?

By the end of my trip I was seriously devoted to finding a way (ANY way) to stay in Italy, cash in my plane ticket, and preserve the little world I had created with my friends in this foreign land where everything exotic had become familiar and reality was suspended in favor of 20 year old, wide-eyed, first-time independence.

…didn’t see that coming.

What made it so wonderful and tolerable was that, after the initial shock and severe discomfort of having no familiarity, no routine, and no way of predicting what was ahead…I reestablished all of those things that kept my needs met. I made routines. I settled into my Florentine flat, put my belongings in their new places, found a local market, carved new neural pathways in my brain, got to know my surroundings, created nourishing relationships, and set up a daily routine. All while testing my boundaries.

I did return home as planned, fortunately, but I do think back regularly and fondly on my time living Europe as an experience I’m so deeply grateful I had. It showed me I am capable of wrestling fear to the ground and making a run for it.

Letting go of control and powering through the impending horror such an act produces makes for a sweet, intoxicating exhale; like a flood of dopamine, or (on some much smaller level) the ecstatic amnesia a new mother experiences, forgetting the pain and agony of birth upon beholding their precious infant.

It is so tempting to stay on the shore where everything is safe and protected. But, the reality is that we only perceive this space to be safe and protected. It’s a deeply seductive act, for many of us, to try and preserve a sense of stability and safety by putting on our control freak panties and hyper-managing every aspect of our lives. This doesn’t make us safe. This sacrifices sanity for perceived safety. Not even real safety. Just our carefully constructed belief patter of “if I do this, and this, and this, everything will stay okay. I will be safe.” That is a very sad and disappointing way to live each day, I think.

I’m not saying we all need to turn our lives upside down, or go jump on a plane and live in Europe for 3 months in order to experience life from a place of love and creativity rather than fear (though maybe the thought makes your heart skip a beat and, actually, is just the type of experience you do need). For many of us, though, the healing medicine can be found on a much smaller scale. It can be accessed in our day-to-day lives. It might just mean doing things differently today than you did yesterday (that is often a big enough shake up for me, honestly, as a diligent creature of habit). It also doesn’t mean things have to be different every single day, because ritual and routine are beautiful and holy, just so long as they don’t come from a place of fear and seal every crack in the structure where love and creativity might try to seep in and stir things up.

Maybe it means starting a creative project or finishing a degree. Maybe it’s finding the courage to use some of that built up PTO and taking a trip. Maybe it’s climbing out of the unemployment shame and getting excited about a new career. Maybe it means going to a yoga class for the first time or revisiting a forgotten passion for hiking. Maybe it means going out to eat, or maybe it means staying in and preparing a favorite recipe. It could mean asking for help. It could be breaking a pattern of isolation and going out with friends, for an introvert. It could be a day or night of self-care and indulgent alone time at home, for an extrovert. Perhaps it’s looking at your body in the mirror and not breaking your gaze until you are able to see yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you unconditionally. Maybe it’s a commitment to a new routine, or maybe it’s the courage to break out of a rut. Maybe it’s the act of daring greatly enough to build an avenue between the two.

Whatever it is, whatever your sweet, pulsing heart knows in its very depths is an act of great courage…that is the first step in your journey. We all have demons (not a one of us is immune, no matter how “perfect” someone else’s existence and “put together” life may seem…they too struggle, I promise).

We all experience loss, fatigue, sadness, anxiety, depression, negative self-talk, FEAR. We are all united in this human condition, no matter what ways our fear and creativity display themselves. We may look different, but we are not. We are all the same. We are all paddling our little boats furiously towards freedom and love. But perhaps, in a joint effort of all the eyes reading this, we together can start to see our fear as something new. Rather than a block of darkness, threatening to sink our boat, we can view our fear as something useful. As a necessary component on our journey, an irreplaceable cog in our wheel of healing. A threatening shadow of heaviness to keep the brilliant light from blinding our eyes; a little hunk of pressure providing just enough weight to slow our speed, so that we don’t race feverishly past all the opportunities to pause, and be shattered by the staggering beauty of how very far we’ve already come.



Echo of a Soul

I saw an echo of a soul today. Sweet features shadowed by protruding facial bones, skeleton jutting forward as if in protection of skin. I’d rather think of her as an echo of a soul than a walking skeleton, but either way that’s what she was. She smiled and the skin creased and folded, nervously, as were her eyes. “Please pack them light,” I saw her mouth to the bagger, “I’m so sorry…” she smiled broadly and her skin curtsied into folds. She looked ten years younger a few months ago. I knew from five yards away why she needed the bags light; not so the handles wouldn’t break but so that they wouldn’t break her.

I knew she couldn’t see me but that I should mask my expression incase she somehow did. So I let the horror etch the inside of me instead of across my facial features. Tears threatened the thresholds of my eyes and I said no, no you can’t come out, not here. Not where she can see you. Not where you could cause her any more pain than she’s already in.
Her sweater hung loose on her frame, successfully masking the emaciation beneath it. But the frailty that was exposed gave her away, it screamed of sorrow and control and a deep, pitch black pit of hell that had shackled her to the bottom. I know this because it’s the very same pit of hell whose shackles I escaped years ago. Six years ago. Six years feel like sixty seconds when you see a face like hers. I never got that bad, I didn’t get even close to that bad and I’m so grateful for the human buoys that tugged with all their might to break me from the fetters that bound me.

My stare was guarded. I didn’t gawk, but I didn’t take my eyes from her either. I searched her for a clue, I wanted so badly to leave my register, leave my customer and their groceries because they were healthy and whole and they didn’t need me. I wanted so badly to close the distance of those five yards and take her feeble hands in mine and say, “Are you okay? You’re not okay. Come with me. I will help you. I love you. You’re not alone.”
I know one cannot say that to someone with this disease. I know one cannot tell an anorexic they’re not okay. She’s not told me she’s anorexic, in fact she’s never told me anything at all, I don’t believe she’s ever come through my line. But I know. It’s like a cutter seeing scars on a strangers wrist; they just know. One just knows. I just know.

I feel so sick not being able to help her. I feel so scared that she won’t wake up tomorrow. She is a walking structure of bones, the anatomy of her face literally visible from beneath her skin, her fingers crumpling beneath the weight of skin, legs like forearms in a denim veil.

What does she do with the food she buys? Is she shopping for others? I used to. Is she eating only some of it, in itsy bitsy portions each day, the same food day after day after day? I used to. Is she unaware how terrifyingly thin she looks? I was. Is she blinded to the fact that she’s fifteen pounds past the need for hospitalization?

I saw her fifteen pounds ago and felt overwhelmingly frightened for her. Today I went into a trance watching her. I heard nothing that was said to me and saw nothing that was in front of me, except that echo of a soul in line at register four. My spirit called out to her please look at me, please read my mind, please know that you can make it if you stop now. PLEASE.

I felt responsible. I don’t know why. I felt this way about another girl, but she’s clearly being treated. I see the torture on her face every time she comes into the store, which is rarely, now that she’s been made to put on weight. She wears sunglasses inside and avoids talking. Her mother comes in, pearls in her ears and bows in her hair, and buys the two crowns of broccoli, the one cucumber slice, the splash of vinegarette, the raw oat cake, and the one oyster mushroom that can’t go in the back with everything else or her “daughter won’t eat it.”

This lady is different. She’s older. Probably in her thirties, which scares me most. I feel fortunate to have been treated as a teenager, I’m blessed that I was still a minor at the worst stage of it. I didn’t have a choice but to stop or be hospitalized. So I chose the ensure. The ensure and the Costco muffins (to think of it still makes me shudder). The girl in the sunglasses is young enough to be swayed, too. I hope she will keep fighting. I hope the torment that I know thrashes on the other side of those black lenses will subside, in time. I hope she keeps the sun on her face.

And I hope for the woman in line at register four that she gets help. I hope she wakes up tomorrow. I hope the Universe sends her my thoughts in some kind of tangible vessel. I hope she realizes she’s worth more. I hope she looks in the mirror and finally sees what she’s become, what she’s losing, what’s beneath it all. I hope she comes through my line, and that I can communicate to her that she hasn’t any time to waste.

She hasn’t any time to waste.

None of us have any time to waste.

How do I help her? Please tell me. I need to help her. I need to help them all…all of the suffering souls who are starving their beautiful bodies into submission. Oh God how do we help them? How do we stop it? I see my face crumpling into tears in the mirror and I remember the folds of her face, the skin that once embraced the full cheeks of a girl now cowering beneath the heavy weight of a disease that is taking her down. She’s not winning. No one wins unless there’s an army.

I’m so Goddamn thankful for my army. Mom. Dad. Claudia. Dr. Hensley. You four saved me. You reached into that pit of black scalding hell and pulled me out, gingerly, careful to ease my fragile frame out from under the chains. You gave me the tools that kept me from falling back in again. How do I pass these tools on to a perfect stranger? Is it my place to cross that line? That line placed between human beings by society? I’d cross them in a heartbeat if I knew it could save her life. I would go out on a limb and assume. Perhaps it’s another disease, it obviously could be, but would that matter? Wouldn’t she be grateful for the extension of pure human love? Maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she’d be offended. Maybe I’d even get in trouble for offending a customer. I don’t care. I wish I’d followed her out today. I wish I’d told her that she doesn’t have to share with me, but that I lived a scary hell of my own and if there’s anything anything anything she could possibly need…I want to help. I am here. I know her, even though I don’t. I want her to know that I know her. I hurt for her. I cry for her, right now, in my home, hours after having seen her. I hear the haunting echo of her soul, and mine answers her cry.

We cannot fight one another’s battles, but we can do everything in our power to serve others; to let others know they are not alone; to reach out to those whose shoes in which we’ve stood. If that’s all we’re here for, it that’s our only purpose, to help the souls whose burdens we too have carried, then we are a beautiful gift to this world. We are a beautiful gift to one another.

Who can you help? I know my answer. I know what I will do. I know I must be fearless in doing so and I know I may never see the woman from register four ever again. I know I may never see the girl in the sunglasses ever again. But I know that I will always assume, with love and kindness, and I will always extend the fiercest love I can convey to a perfect stranger. Because we see the reflection of our own suffering in the soul of another. We can smell the thick stench of the hell in which we’ve been before. It’s our duty to help one another. Not everyone has an army to pull them out. Be their army. Be one another’s army.

I am only one person, but I put up one helluva fight. And I will fight for that echo of a soul everyday. I will fight for them all. Every single day that I’m breathing.