Sometimes life hands you a box of darkness. Here’s something I know to be true: the fastest way for you to find your way back to the light is to look for the gift in that box, even if that gift happens to be the size of a pinprick and heavily camouflaged and takes some serious excavating to find.
THE BOXES OF DARKNESS
It all started with BOX NO. 1:
My dad passed away with many things between us left unsaid. Not long afterward, while I was still grieving, I moved to a new state some 450 miles from anyone I knew. Ten days later, with nearly all our belongings still in boxes, my husband got life-threateningly ill. He was unwell for nearly ten months. So for all those months, I worked 16-to-20-hour days, taking care of everything. I didn’t know anyone nearby. I didn’t have time to build relationships. I was sad and stressed and exhausted and burned out and overwhelmed. I often sat in the corner after the kids were in bed and cried. I put on a cheerful front and mostly kept my feelings to myself. I kept plowing forward.
Not all too long after that, I got BOX NO. 2:
I sent a manuscript I’d spent about five years working on to a person whose opinion I respected. I was expectant and exhilarated and trying my best to shove my self-doubt back into the shadowy, cobwebbed, damp corner where it likes to hide, waiting for me to wander too close so it can strike. Long story short, this person shredded my work with comments and suggestions then sent it back. That person’s verdict: 2% good; 98% bad. (Sigh, this is not an exaggeration.) I wasn’t prepared for the depth and breadth of everything that seemed to be wrong with the work. The self-doubt reared its head, gnashed its teeth, made this gleeful high-pitched squeal, and came flying at me hard. I put the work in a drawer and left it there.
A short time later came BOX NO. 3:
Someone I loved deeply and trusted implicitly lied to me. Not some small white fib but a real whopper. A lie so big you could call it a scheme, which was what my best friend did when I told her. A lie said as this person looked me in the eyes. Repeatedly. Convincingly. And then, as these things usually go, I found out the truth quite by accident with all the force of a Louisville slugger to the skull. I slumped back in a stuffed chair, holding my head in my hands, trying to catch my breath. I didn’t move for nearly an hour. And then, when I finally managed to get going, I wandered around shocked and pained and duped and betrayed and shattered.
Then, sadly, I gave BOX NO. 4 to myself:
I turned all that sadness and exhaustion and anger and disillusionment and frustration and loss and sense of betrayal on myself. How could you let that happen? How could you be so stupid? How could you not see that coming? And then, to make matters worse, I dredged up my history, dragging it into the present moment, tearing myself down even more: this kind of thing always happens to me just like [this-or-that-or-the-other-time-before] because I’m not worthy, I’m nobody, I’m nothing, I don’t matter.
The turning on myself led to BOX NO. 5:
Depression. I felt (I imagine) much like I was being buried alive in an avalanche. Dark. Cold. Confined. Pressed. Suffocated. Disoriented. Windowless and lightless and seemingly exitless. You can’t see. You can’t help but take sputtering gasps of air. You can’t stop the melancholy from swamping you. There’s a kind of panic at first, seeing yourself sliding further and further, and you try to make it stop, but you don’t have the right gear, or any gear for that matter, nothing to anchor you at all. I tried to dig myself out. I did. But I couldn’t tell which way was up, which way would lead me out, which way would have any effect at all. Then the panic turns into full-blown fear. You’re never going to get out. It’s always going to be like this. You’ll never be yourself again, ever. And then you’re digging, raw and wild, your fingers numb and your muscles aching, but no matter how hard you work, you reach nothing but more snow and more snow and more snow. It plugs your eyes and ears and nose and mouth. It packs itself against you. And then, you realize that there’s no point anymore. That no matter how hard you try, you can’t even make a dent. That there’s no escape. And so you lay back and curl into a fetal position and wait for it to be over. God, just let it (your situation, your helplessness, your life) be over soon. That’s what depression did to me.
A side note:
What I realized later is that each of those boxes triggered an avalanche. No. 1 was medium-sized, survivable. No. 2 was smaller, also survivable, but it hit just as I was digging my way out, seeing a tiny sliver of light, I’m almost there, and wham! I’m buried again. And then on the heels of that, when I was still reeling from the predicament I found myself in, boxes No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 hit in quick succession and just up and dumped the rest of the mountain on top of me. My point is this: often depression happens because of a culmination of events in your life. And you’re one person; you can only handle so much. It’s okay if you couldn’t handle all that you thought you could. Hear me: there’s no shame it that at all. None whatsoever. Not even a little bit. So tell someone you trust and ask for help. Take medicine if you need to. I promise you it’s not always going to be like this. I promise you better days are coming. Help speed them along: look for the gift(s) in your darkness.
GIFT NO. 1:
You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anybody else. This one is non-negotiable. If you don’t put yourself at the top of your to-do list, meeting at a minimum your own basic needs, you will end up a burned-out husk of who you once were in no time at all. You are allowed and need to have boundaries. You are allowed and need to say no. You are worth admitting that you just can’t do it all. You are worth whatever it takes to get help. Time to rest and relax and rejuvenate are not nice ideas; they are vital requirements. Finding something (a hobby, a career, a lifestyle) that makes you come alive and doing it is imperative to your well-being. I know people need you. But you need you too. So make yourself number one on your list of priorities. If you need permission to do that, I hereby give it to you.
GIFT NO. 2:
You have to be true to yourself and the vision you hold, first and foremost. After I had some distance and time to look at those comments, it occurred to me that almost everything wrong with the work had its origins in one single thing: me trying to please someone else by pretending to be someone else. Here’s the thing I came to fully understand: presenting a façade as the real you will never make you happy, will never fulfill you, will never give you the meaning/success/acceptance/love/insert-whatever-it-is-for-you that you’re so desperately searching for. The only thing that will give you all of those things is honoring yourself by staying true to who you are, respecting yourself enough to present the real you to the world, and letting go of the expectations of others. And as for the work, well, the good news is that the bones are still there, which means I can build a new work, one based solely on my own vision, around them.
GIFT NO. 3:
You determine what you want for your life, make goals based on those wants then reach them solely for you, and be positive that whatever you choose to pursue deeply matters to you. People are fallible. Sometimes they steal your joy, stab you where it hurts the most, push your most painful buttons, don’t love you back. There are two perils if your motivation is someone else: 1. you are confined by their wants/needs/wishes/fears/limitations/and-on-the-list-goes, and 2. if/when the relationship crashes and burns, you and your goals will go down in flames along with it. You will end up feeling rudderless and adrift, bitter and resentful, angry and likely suckered (but I did all this for you!). You will also feel like you’ve wasted your time, which can easily have you stabbing your finger at them in blame, and that (I can tell you without a doubt) will stick you fast and keep you stuck for as long as that finger is jabbed in someone else’s direction. The only way to get your power back is to take it back. So take it back.
GIFT NO. 4:
You don’t ever ~ hear me: ever ~ turn on yourself, no matter what happens. You are with you 24/7. You, yourself, are the closest and best friend you’ll ever have. So you take responsibility for your own life and how you treat yourself in the good times and the bad. You make sure the blame lands squarely on the person to whom it belongs (whether that’s you *sigh, because sometimes it is* or someone else). You don’t cause other people’s bad behavior. You don’t need to make excuses for it. You don’t need to take the blame for it. The only thing you need to do is enforce your own boundaries and defend yourself. Stand up and roar, refuse to take any blame that doesn’t belong to you, then get the heck out of there. No matter how hard you try, there is just no getting away from yourself. So choose to befriend yourself and have your own back always.
GIFT NO. 5:
You have to save your own life. It’s the only one you can save anyway. And you’re worth the effort, whatever it takes, to save it. I know sometimes we wait around hoping someone will come swooping in and fix everything (yes, sigh, my hand is raised). But, in the end and no matter how many people are physically around you, there’s just no one coming to fix your life. Nobody. Not a single soul. There’s just you. The good news is that you’re strong and courageous and tenacious and more than capable of handling anything that gets thrown at you. You know how I know? Because you’re still here, reading this, and you didn’t give up when it would’ve been so much easier to do so. So it’s time to take some action. Answer these: what is/was happening in your life when you’re at your happiest? What makes/used to make you feel alive? If you weren’t afraid, what would you be doing with your life? What do you, and you alone, really want (and don’t worry about the how of getting it right now, just answer the question: what do I really want?) Then get busy creating a life around your own answers.
Have you ever been given a box of darkness? If so, what was the gift inside it?