Much like a wild animal, I am resilient—I have become accustomed to carving out an existence in the cruelest and most unforgiving places, and more often than not, that unforgiving space exists within the perilous terrain of my mind. I didn’t so much grow up, as evolve. I was raised in a house where mental illness and violence were always present, yet not in plain view. Like the small tangled clumps of dust and hair nestled behind the mahogany furniture, the violence became dislodged with the slightest jarring or unseen wind.
Those who know my story, see the vestiges of the physical and sexual violence that has reverberated throughout my life. But what they don’t see is my constant longing to return to those dark cavernous thickets of my mind—the aching aloneness that for far too long has become my solace, my way to silence all the intolerant whispering that feeds my fear—an incessant self-directed loathing of “You’re not good enough” … “If only they knew”…
I am that wounded animal that has nursed itself back to form. I too am returning from the brambles and underbrush, and back to life. Still, something rages on inside me, as I am torn between seeking the uncertainty of community, or defaulting to my self-imposed isolation. But I know that’s just my illness talking… the remnants of my PTSD, waiting to be ensnared and unraveled, like the errant strands on the sleeve of your favorite threadbare shirt.
I am reminded by something the Quaker scholar, Parker Palmer wrote. He was recalling how during a prolonged bout with incapacitating depression, he felt as though his intellect, ego, and emotions were dead. Yet, throughout that darkness, the rumblings of his soul continued to survive, like the faint embers of a fire. And it is in our darkest moments, and amongst these flickering embers, that we catch a glimpse of that undying spirit inside of us. The trick to bringing this spirit back to life is in allowing it space and time to nurture itself back to wholeness. And like a timid animal waiting to reemerge, the more we rustle and thrash through the forest, the farther it recedes into solitude.
A few years ago, I disclosed to my wife that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse—a secret I thought I would harbor in my soul until the day I died. What is someone to do when the person they so dearly love shares such searing pain with them? I can tell you what my wife, Mary-Anne didn’t do… She didn’t press me for more details, and more importantly, she didn’t try to fix me, or soothe me. What she did do is sit with me in that moment of pain, and in that moment of released shame. And then in the months that followed, together as a couple we learned the difference between being there for someone and being there with someone. So often we want to take away the pain of those we love; however, deep down the thing we all want is for someone else to be present with us in our discomfort.
I think Parker Palmer describes this ability to ‘be with another’ so eloquently: “People who know how to sit quietly… and wait for the shy soul to show up… not pushy, but patient; they are not confrontational but compassionate; they are filled not with expectations and demands but with abiding faith in the reality of the inner teacher and in each person’s capacity to learn from it.”
I invite you to observe that wounded animal in you—notice where it crawls away in isolation. Search for the lessons in those darkest moments, and most of all, if you are summoned into someone else’s wilderness, be present and gentle as you wait for that timid soul to reemerge.