44. Facing (Down?) The Darkness

20 Dec 2017

Therapy today. I almost couldn’t get up in time, seeing that today’s session was a morning session. I had to cab from home to a bus stop down the line where I could catch the bus to the hospital. A very friendly cab driver drove me past the bus, and to the next stop. I’m sorry I could only tip him 80 cents as a thank you.

I managed to rest on the bus and prepare for today’s session. I was a little nervous because I know what work remains is harder work than I’ve ever done before. The good thing is that I know the work has to be done in therapy itself. The bad thing is that it can get intense. I’ll give you an example.

Imagine the worst grief you can feel. Now sit with that grief and ask the grief, what it’s grieving for. What the pain is about. And as you sit with it, you continue to feel it, and mesh with it and get involved in it. It’s a very very painful experience that isn’t just about acknowledging the emotion, but being fully and experientally involved. Being present with it, and allowing the self to be enmeshed in it.

But no matter how I felt about it, nothing prepared me for what I had to face today.

I have a darkness in me. All of us have it, to some extent, but mine, I’ve known for a long time. I always don’t let myself dwell in, or on it. I don’t allow myself access to it much. It’s the darkness that’s familiar when my thoughts go dark and when I’m thinking of suicide. It’s the darkness that threatens to consume and envelop. It’s a darkness that chills me, that laughs when I leave because it knows I’ll come back to it. It’s a pleasurable darkness, even as it’s a terrible one. It repels and attracts. I fear it, yet I yearn for it.

The depression has brought it to the fore at times. Yesterday, I had some time and chance for introspection. I accessed that darkness again, and I fought against its pull. I was better at staying out of it, or so I felt.

Today, during therapy, my therapist asked me how I’ve been. I told her the honest truth – that my inner critic is more silent, but that I’m more aware of myself and how I feel about myself.

I’m disappointed and sad.

I’m disappointed that I’m not working. I’m disappointed that the year is ending, and all I can say is that I’m an able-bodied person who’s broken inside. I’m disappointed when I see the photos of others going on holidays, and I’m stuck at home. I’m disappointed that I can’t provide this sort of life for my kids. I’m disappointed that I’m not able to smile in photos with them, because I still find little to smile about. I’m disappointed that I fell prey to depression. I’m sad at all this. It was meant to be a year of growth, but it became a year of pain. I’m sad about it. I’m disappointed in myself.

This year sucks. This is meant to be a time of reflection before God, and before God, I say, this year sucks. I’m a humbug if I “focus on the positives” and see how “good” my life is. No, the reality is that my life as it is, currently sucks. It sucks to have depression. It sucks to applaud myself for eating properly. It sucks that normal functions of life are now not normal.

But then, you see, the reality is not just that.

The reality is more balanced and nuanced. I’m broken, but I’m healing. I’m working hard for my recovery, but I can see God’s hand and grace in every step of the way – our finances are covered, and we are surrounded by love and encouragement. The full reality of my life is one of grace and care even within pain and turmoil. That is what keeps me from despair, or bitterness. I told my therapist that I don’t allow myself to be bitter. After some talking, it’s more accurate instead to say that even though depression sucks, there’s not much to be bitter about. Just like putting in effort to get well – the paradox is that I mustn’t push too hard. I’m learning to look at life in a more balanced way, pitting truth against truth, rather than half-truths and shoulds against shoulds and musts.

My therapist is glad that I’m growing to be able to simply accept that I’m feeling disappointed and/or sad. Rather than to simply hide my emotions, or to deny them or bury them by being positive. She says that it’s more healthy especially for me, since I need to learn to acknowledge rather than deny emotions that I think are not valid. So with a healthy and valid outlook on how my condition is, I’m better equipped to continue facing up to my inner fears and self, and heal.

So when I told her about the darkness… she asked me if I was OK to face the darkness.

I was scared. Imagine your deepest darkness. It’s a part of you that you don’t want to acknowledge. It’s a part that you wish didn’t exist. It’s been a trash ball of everything that you know you shouldn’t do and feel. I don’t know how else to express it. It’s that, and much more. It’s my inner darkness, and it’s me, as much as I don’t like to access it. It’s the part that wonders how flying through the air feels, how easy it would be to take that leap. It’s the darkness that wants to do its worst for me. It’s the darkness that makes me wonder how I’d react, say, to the death of someone close.

I agreed.

The therapist knew that I was scared as I told her so. Our communication is open during such sessions. One of my friends in depression says that one good thing about me is that I hold an open mind to my healing processes, and I agree. I don’t know how to do this at all! My therapist got me to visualise the darkness. I prayed. Then I did.

It appeared as a dark whirlpool. I didn’t dare to close in at first, but my therapist coaxed me closer. Rainbow splashes of anger were lapping around the surface of the pool, as it swirled. It was chaotic, wild. It drew me in much as I feared, and I feared being drawn in. But my therapist coaxed me a step or two closer. It didn’t change at all. It remained pretty much the same way, a dark blot on the landscape of my mind.

She got me to touch it.

I hesitated at first. I was still really scared, and fearful that I would be consumed. I told her so. She gently reminded me that the therapy room was the safest place to have this happen, and that she would be there to help me. That was why I was there. She reassured me, and reminded me that I could stop at any point if I wanted to. That I could step back if I felt this was too much. My inner critic and my stubborn self stepped in at that point. I reached out and touched it in my mind.

I have no words well enough to express what happened. I wonder how it looked like. The session was recorded with my agreement, and a trainee from NUS was sitting in, also with my acquiescence. My eyes were closed, and there was no physical interaction. But in my mind, I reached out, and touched the whirlpool.

I cannot even begin to describe the magnitude of what happened. The pool screamed with rage, and the screaming was overwhelming and deafening. I know tears were dripping from my eyes, as I recoiled, physically as well. I only know that for a long time, I held the contact, even as my therapist was coaxing me to talk, to talk to the darkness, to acknowledge my presence. I tried to explain, but I couldn’t because the screaming was so loud. I let her know that, and she got me to repeat some words of assurance to my darkness, to try to figure out why the anger. What the darkness was angry about. I couldn’t find anything. It was just mindless, screaming anger.

Then came the grief. The anger was bad, and I reeled, but the grief. The grief almost broke me. The whole wave of grief came at once, and I was bent over in seconds, crying without sound, as the grief just swept over me. It came out of my center, out through my heart, washing over my head and my eyes in waves. It swamped me, and my entire upper chest felt like it would break from the amount of grief that I was experiencing. Reliving it in words now is easier. For that moment, I felt like I was about to physically snap in two. Something had to give.

So in my mind, I begged the darkness not to break me. The grief immediately stopped. It snapped back almost audibly. I could breathe, I stopped crying, even as I felt the last vestiges of emotion ebb into nothingness. I was able to talk to my therapist, and told her that I’d asked the darkness not to break me, and it’d listened, and I was still okay. Shaken, quite overwhelmed, but ok.

My therapist closed off the session well. I now face the darkness with compassion and trust, to some extent, since it stopped overwhelming me when I asked it to. I don’t fear it as much, and I’m definitely more able to accept that it’s there. She ensured that I have no suicidal thoughts, and that I remember my emergency plans for safety. She got me to clear up any lingering doubts, and she quietly congratulated me for doing a lot of work this day. I didn’t actually see how much work I’d done, and I asked her. She told me that I’d gathered up the courage to walk up and face, and touch that darkness, and keep holding on even to the point of wanting to break. She said that this was the hardest work I’ve done so far, the most intense of our sessions, and she wanted to know if I was ok.

The strange thing is that I do feel OK. I know that I’m still in the jungle, and that I’m still finding my way out. I’m not sitting still, and waiting for someone to find me. I’m being helped out of the jungle, and by God’s grace, I’ve got excellent social support especially in my wife, and excellent medical and psychotherapy care. My therapist’s approach fits very well with my struggle, and she has been really supportive and encouraging. Facing down the darkness…. I didn’t expect to do that today, but it’s been one of the hardest things to do in my life. I’m glad that my therapist was there with me every step of the way, and I thanked her for it. I’m also glad that I’m meeting my wife in a bit so I can simply just get some hugs and sit in her love for a while.

Where’s God in all this? When I first fell ill, someone asked me why I didn’t choose a Christian counsellor. My description of my darkness must seem spiritual in aspect to some of you. Here’s what I know for sure.

My darkness is my own. It’s me. I’ve always put it away, never faced up to it, and now I’ve the privilege and dubious honour of having to deal with it head on. Not many people will have this privilege. How many people are haunted by themselves and yet not be able to do anything about it? My language and imagination are pretty strong. What about those who can’t visualize their darkness, and where talk therapy like this won’t work?

So God is still in control. I doubt there’s anything spiritual in this, so far, in the sense of a spiritual darkness or spiritual attack. It’s my psyche. I take responsibility for it, and I own the responsibility of facing up to it. But God, in leading me here, will remain with me, propping me up with His love through the people around me, through my stickman comics, through the care of my therapist and doctors. With His help, I will face up to it, and He will give me strength, even when I don’t think I have enough courage or strength to face up to what is coming.

We’ll face the darkness more over the next few therapy sessions. My therapist has warned me not to try this without her guidance, even as I should continue to acknowledge that darkness when I feel it. And above all, I must stay safe.

If ever the darkness drives me into a corner though, this time, I’ll simply ask it to keep me safe. Maybe it’ll listen. Maybe my therapist is right – I have no proof yet – that my darkness simply wants to be heard, acknowledged, and cared for.

But first…. I’ll do some self care. And pray in thanksgiving.

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