Mapping the Cave

So much has been said on the topic of transition, of sitting with discomfort in growth the way the caterpillar turns into sludgy goo inside the cocoon before being reborn with wings. To that I will add the many metaphors for my own recent mental state: the phoenix, once again in her ashes; the sensation of walking along the edge of a cliff; the feeling of falling, again and again, backward into the cave.

A friend wrote, “You have people who are gripping a rope that’s attached to you at the mouth of that cave,” and, even through the fog of what depression does to my brain, I could sense the truth in those words, feel the tug at my center and the pulse of those on the other side of the rope.

For weeks, it has dimly occurred to me that I need to write, now more than ever, every single day, to document this place at the bottom of the plummet so that I can make a map out of here. But the weight of the pen has been too heavy.

I can say that it has felt like a stasis in time that only applies to me – as though I am frozen and desperately trying to fast-forward while the entire world marches torturously along without me. I can say that my days have consisted primarily of sleep, with echoes of my own suggestions sometimes playing out in begrudging hikes, walks, a yoga class, an outing with a friend. I can say I’ve taken care of my child and kept my home from falling entirely into disrepair; laundry is done and meals are made. But there has been little else.

My mind when it gets loud is at war with itself. One on side of the battlefield is the Ambitious Ego, the moral one, the one who has only Highest Expectations. She shouts things like “time is running out! You need to get off your butt and make things happen. Change your mindset! Go outside, grab a summit or two. This is ridiculous – we aren’t doing this again,” while her reflection, the Grieving Girl, whispers, “It’s too sad, too heavy. It’s already too late; nothing matters. It’s okay to crumble. It’s okay to sleep another day. Just rest and resign yourself.”

There are other forces at play, too, like my usually clear grasp of the future path, my crystalline understanding of the way forward, distorting into a chaos monster. Like my own intuition becoming my enemy. And the not-yet-vanquished Traumatized Child chanting poverty mentality victimhood poison like an undercurrent of psychobabble, “you’re going to end up just like your mother, a lonely dead addict,” and “you’re a failure; nobody wants you, you’re a terrible person who has pushed everyone in your life away; you aren’t special, nobody cares what you have to say; give up your daydreams before you find yourself living on the street.”

Spirit is there, too, with gentleness and reassurances, omens and messages of hope. Spirit is strong, and she’s getting me through with the gifts of basic functionality, caring friends, and a lifetime of fully developed, habitual healthy practices to fall back on.

I knew I had to write because I knew I’d survive it like I always do, because of everything I’ve learned and done until this point. Even when I’m running full speed in the opposite direction of my highest self and best coping mechanisms, I already know how I’ll find my way back. It’s an inevitability at this point, and the steps are always the same. With grim amusement, it occurred to me that I desperately needed my own Magical Yoga, and that documenting the journey from the middle of the muck would prove invaluable later on.

I need to share the map so we stop losing people to the goddamned cave.

Yesterday, on January 17, 2023, my mother Shelly would have turned 65 years old. She’s been dead for more than 21 years, though, and as all that math hit me, I had the urge to chuckle. Shelly was never going to be an old lady; it was unimaginable. The shell of a human I knew was a dangerous, addicted mother who died in her forties and left me an orphan. I am certain her death was fated. I predicted it within weeks. But I wonder now if the prediction was intuition or observation, an early understanding of the nature of the cave. We lost Shelly to her own darkness, and that doesn’t seem as condemnable to me today as it did when I was fifteen. The cave has its own gravity, I’m finding.

So we need ropes, maps, lanterns. We need spiritual muscle memory of the way out, which, thanks to my own many brutal attempts, I now have.

Everyone assumes the caterpillar makes it; that’s the way the metaphors are written. But a very important book called Hope for the Flowers tells a story of endless towers of caterpillars collapsing on themselves for want of reaching an imaginary peak, of thousands of caterpillars climbing all over each other to nowhere, for nothing. An abyss of directionless, hopeless, flightless creatures. Except for Yellow. She was different. She knew something was wrong with the way things were going, something was off about the abyss – and she got off that tower and found her way to a twig and built herself a dark and scary cocoon . . . and she did make it. Then, what did she do with her wings? She used them to fly back to the others and show them the way out of the dark.

But enough with the caterpillar metaphors.

I feel tender, still very much bleeding and weak, like a freshly born fawn in a Mary Oliver poem. Wobbling across the field under a dark sky, clouds clearing between storms, just enough starlight shines so that I can see a bit of a path – and it begins, as it always does, with my pen.

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