Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry, and you cry alone.
For a long time, I couldn’t help thinking that the second part of this saying is far from true. As a society, we seem to love a good moan.
It’s part of our bonding process. I talk about what’s wrong in my life, you sympathize and we have common ground.
Like emotional Lego, common wounds are part of what we use to ‘fit’ together.
We have forums and support groups ostensibly dedicated to helping those with shared afflictions to live more fully, but in reality many end up being places for a good shared cry.
“I’m lost and it feels as if you have stuck a knife in my gut. The pain is so incredibly physical I can barely straighten up and it seems like I have been crying for hours. It’s three in the morning now and there’s no way I’m going to be able to sleep. I have no idea how I’m going to get ready and just go to work in a few hours time, acting as if everything’s normal when my life has just fallen apart.” ~ (Letters to a Lost Lover)
There’s a big gap, though, between the crying we do on a friend’s shoulder or the shared angst of a forum and the deep, soul-level, despair that hits us once or twice during a lifetime, when it feels as if we’re drowning in our own lives.
That kind of drowning is always a solo journey for so many reasons.
Most people will, at some stage or another, go through a dark night of the soul. It’s not an experience that’s reserved for an elite minority. Sometimes it’s prompted from outside—the death or departure of a loved one, serious illness or a substantial change in circumstance.
It can also appear from nowhere, a dark desperation that leaves us barely able to keep our head above water.
Yet keeping our head above water is usually exactly what we try to do. Whether through sheer effort, medication or even therapy, we try to keep going, trying to keep swimming along, just as everyone else appears to be doing.
It’s only if the inner pressure builds to a point where we can no longer keep up the duality that we give ourselves permission to let go of the effort, falling back into the water of our lives to drown or be washed ashore somewhere in the future.
It always seems such an isolated place to find ourselves. It’s not just because there’s still a stigma attached to any kind of mental breakdown that we keep the depth of our desperation to ourselves, although we’re always much quicker to admit to flu, arthritis or gallstones than we are to say that we’ve reached a point in our lives when the idea of going on living holds little appeal. And it’s not only because we don’t want to be seen as having failed at the most basic skill of all—the ability to navigate our way through life. Usually we’d only be too happy to have someone reach out and pull us from the depths of our despair, if that were possible.
Despair takes us deeply into ourselves, and therefore far away from others. It’s a journey inwards, down into the depths of our souls—like Orpheus journeying to the underworld. And our underworld is usually not somewhere we care to spend much time in, apart from the few of us born with a natural fascination for the shadows. It can be scary, full of unfamiliar emotions and urges.
Thoughts of death, murder, suicide can all reside there, alongside feelings of violent rage, pure hatred and utter self-contempt. Even if we get to a place within ourselves where we feel comfortable enough to share these feelings with another, do we even have the language to express them? They are such primitive, instinctive parts of ourselves that it is almost impossible to allow their energy to release through words. They need to be felt and experienced—and that is very much an individual journey.
There are a few things which can make this journey a little easier for ourselves or for a friend.
Knowing we’re not alone is a huge comfort. When we know there’s someone there who can throw us a line if we really need it, it helps to give us a sense that there is a normal world out there which we may eventually return to. Sometimes it can be more practical than that. A friend calling round (with prior notice, of course), can give us the motivation to take a shower and put on fresh clothes, or they may bring a well-needed meal at a time when we’ve been barely eating.
Spending time in nature allows our energy to ground and clear of its own accord, tuning us back into a deeper rhythm that we may have lost touch with – the slow rhythm of mother nature and her cycles, which is so different to the fast pace of modern life. When we fall, we can fall no further than the earth—and willingly allowing her to hold our physical bodies (as our mothers may have held our infant bodies) can bring a deep peace.
Giving physical expression to strong emotions that come up can help to clear them through us, helping us to see more clearly what may lie beneath. Anything from howling, growling and biting (a pillow, foam wedge or something similar) to kicking and punching a mattress, or stomping can all provide a wonderful release. The dark, primitive forces, the repression of which are often at the root of deep despair, need to be acknowledged and expressed. When our energy has to work hard to keep strong forces at bay – like those that are experienced after a loss or severe disappointment – we have very little left for life. Finding a way of accepting and safely releasing those forces can be a turning point from despair back towards hope.
Simplifying our lives when we feel up to it, can also help. When we feel as if we’re drowning, it’s often because life has become too much and we’re no longer able to cope with even the most basic things, like eating and washing. If we consciously pare our lives back to the bare necessities it takes some of the pressure off. And this includes taking time off work. Chances are if we don’t deliberately simplify our lives for a while, nature will find a way of ensuring that we do so that we can deal with the inner processes that are important for our soul’s growth.
More than anything else, giving ourselves permission to drown is perhaps the most important thing we can do.
When we stop fighting with ourselves, beating ourselves up because we can no longer function as we are used to doing, it clears the way for the next stage of our lives. Deep despair signals that deep inner work needs to be done, work which has the potential to raise us to a new level in our lives. It’s a lonely road, but we can make it less lonely by walking it deliberately and embracing the small supports that can help us through.
(Originally published on Elephant Journal, April 2013)