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  • Writer's picturewendybrd

Embracing Darkness, by Wendy Peterman, PhD

Under the closed canopy of a mature forest, very little light reaches the forest floor. In a very dense forest, it can even seem like night. In this quiet darkness, old trees die, rot and slowly decay under two-foot blankets of needles, dropped in annual cycles of shedding excess foliage. The moist mass of forest detritus is home to millipedes feeding on dead leaves, while their smaller relatives, the centipedes feast on nearly every other critter in the soil. The darkness is the place where deep, secret processes of the soil food web transform dead plant matter into energy to fuel an invisible ecosystem, more complex than the most populated human city. As night falls, bats emerge from cool, rocky caves, owls awaken from high branches and coyotes scurry in small packs, all following their instincts as nocturnal predators to fill their roles high on the food chain.

On our farmstead in Northern California, the night was breathtaking. My Astro-Physics teacher once told me that the night sky in San Diego on any given night shows 4,000 stars, but on our land in Northern California with no light pollution we clearly saw the Milky Way, like a wide, white smear of whipped cream across the black sky, surrounded by glittering diamonds on a black velvet dress. Being at a high point in the landscape, we could see in all directions, and it felt like we were part of the night, engulfed by the stars. Regardless of the time of year, it seemed like the second the sun went below the mountains, it turned bone-chilling cold.

We had a pile of pea-gravel in the driveway, intended someday to cover the dirt, but mostly remaining a pile. In the summer, the four of us would lie on the pile, our feet at the base, our heads together around the pointy top, gazing at the millions of stars overhead. My dad would tell us the constellations and the planets, and I would feel their magic and light all the way in my soul. When I was a teenager, we had foreign exchange students who were terrified of that obsidian sky with its millions of lights that could be seen burning with multiple colors and that thick, diffuse swath of Milky Way. They were afraid it was going to swallow them into itself. I felt like I was already part of it. Years later, when it was time for my parents to sell the land and make their way north, I stood and looked at that sky and said goodbye, with a strange mixture of acceptance and disbelief that I would probably never see that exact sky again.

In the cycles of day and night, there are huge lessons. During the day, when the sun is shining on our side of the world, the rest of those glorious stars are hidden. We see the objects of our life, clearly illuminated, and take comfort in the clarity provided by that brightness. As the sun sets, and twilight creates murky shadows, we retreat to the safety of our homes, and in the night, we rest. If, however, we step out into the darkness, we can see those thousands of lights, extending for millions of light-years in every direction that would be invisible without the background of intense darkness.

Although I was given plenty of darkness as a child, I was encouraged to only be light. Granted, I had a lot of natural light, and people are often so needing someone to lift their spirits, especially if their own inner darkness feels unbearable, so I don’t blame them for wanting a spot of brightness in their lives. Contrary to popular belief, however, avoiding darkness and wishing for constant daylight isn’t healthy for us. It doesn’t give our psyches the chance to see into our depths, contemplate the cosmos, rest, and process the detritus within our subconscious minds. It blinds us to the reality that life is hard for everyone in its way, and our emotions are there to give us important information and signals about the choices we should make to be healthy and whole.

Much of my youth and early adulthood was spent masking discomfort and suffering. For people with a lot of sensory issues, and high social sensitivity, this is a common trait. My primary self became perennially positive and cheery, and the “weak” selves of depression, anxiety, and grief were hidden from view. During my time of deepest despondency in my early twenties, when I cared little whether I lived or died, I received the gift of an unexpected pregnancy. I was a single, small-business owner with nothing to my name but a worthless old car and a wad of recycled clothes. I was so shocked when I saw the positive results on the test that I fell on the floor laughing. What I felt when I stood up though was life. Energy was rushing from every part of me to my very center, industriously building another life. I vowed at that moment to do whatever it took to get healthy, physically, mentally, and spiritually to be a guide and protector to this spirit that would come into the world through me.

Of course, my child has been as much a guide and protector of my spirit as I ever have been of hers. I have always been a very deep sleeper and dreamer of vivid, compelling dreams from which I draw insight and inspiration. Late in my pregnancy, I began to be visited by an old woman in my dreams. She had a round, pale face, clear blue eyes full of wisdom, and long, straight white hair. She would knock on the door of my cabin in the woods each night when I fell asleep, and I would let her in to sit at my table, drinking tea and having deep conversations about life. I sat in awe and admiration of her and felt profoundly reassured by her calm, warm, confident demeanor, as I recognized her as the ancient soul of my daughter, waiting to be born into the world once again. After my daughter was born, the old woman never visited me, and I watched her struggle in the fragile little body of a newborn, so sure and aware of how to operate in the world, yet unable to make the tiny body do her bidding.

I was determined to stay alive to be with my daughter, and I was determined not to let her be harmed. I thought that the best way to do this was to get and stay positive by finding ways to constantly transform darkness into light. I steeped myself in books, ideas, movies, and helpful quotes about how to be happy. I hid in the garage on my “worry stool” when I felt anxious and only told my daughter happy stories of forests, creeks, stars, my sister, and my best friend, Lizzy, without ever telling her the hard stuff that also made me who I was.

Sometimes, it was difficult, because she was always asking for stories of my childhood, and sometimes, I would just wearily tell her I was running out of nice ones to share. When I experienced great losses or disappointments, I cried alone in the shower or on my morning walks along the river. I thought this made me look strong, positive, consistent, and solid to my child. It really made me unaware that to her, I appeared either overly emotional or emotionally unavailable, and not much in between. I saw myself as capable, responsible, self-sacrificing, and always caring for her. She saw me as weak, irresponsible, selfish, and always in need of caring. The truth is, I was both, my strengths and my weaknesses as all organic systems are. I felt empowered by my strengths, and I was incredibly hard on myself about my weaknesses.

I found that positivity and optimism are very helpful tools for survival. They also can make us blind to our own suffering and the suffering of others, which give us depth and add richness to our connections with ourselves and others. When we turn only toward the safety and clarity of daylight, we miss learning to face the dangers and beauties lurking in the shadows. In my case, I looked to others to complete the half-formed self, inviting people consumed with darkness into my life, which only added more darkness to my unconscious self. A therapist once reflected that it seemed like I used all of these self-help books and positivity theories as a way to put up with more crap from people. It wasn’t until I began to face and probe into my own inner darkness that I really began to see and integrate the whole of my experience into my awareness and to be and embrace my true self.

In learning to sit with discomfort, boredom, anxiety, rage, and even terror, I brought the darkness forward and moved from tolerating to accepting to fully integrating the entire range of emotions available to me for a holistic experience of life in a human body.

Although I have had a meditation and yoga practice, largely guided by Zen Buddhism since the age of nineteen years old, I was fully initiated into what empathic healer Karla McLaren (2010) calls the “third stage” of trauma in my early forties by a series of blows to the head, which resulted in a prolonged concussion condition. In her amazing work “The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You,” (pp. 102-103), a book I wish everyone would read, McLaren compares the experience of trauma to shamanic initiation rituals of indigenous peoples, and says that unless we can go through all three stages, we will continue to creatively, yet unconsciously perpetuate the second stage: facing our death. The final stage: celebration and reintegration doesn't make us forget the trauma or release us into the nirvana of utter bliss and happiness. Instead, it leads us to recognize ourselves as accomplished survivors who use the learning and development of our difficult experiences as a tool to supply wisdom about how to better function in a world full of chaos.

When I was living with a traumatic brain injury, I had to stop everything. The pain consumed my whole awareness and rendered me unable to focus my eyes or remember words. I couldn’t work or take care of anyone, including myself. Some days, simply opening my eyes and staring all day at a shaft of light entering the window was the entirety of awareness and function my brain could provide. For the first month, I relied on a constant stream of mental health-care providers to make sure I ate, bathed, and gave myself a break from anyone or anything that could aggravate my condition by contributing stress to my struggling psyche. I quickly learned to let judgments roll off of me. If someone called me lazy, irresponsible, or selfish, I had to admit that these things were currently true, as I could not be anything other than what I was right then. If I had to ask someone not to contact me during this time, and they became disappointed, hurt, or angry, I had to accept that people are sometimes disappointed, hurt, angry, and may even dislike me.

The nine months of recovery from my concussion were the ultimate lesson in radically accepting and mindfully living with whatever is happening in the current moment because I never knew how my brain would be showing up or what it would be capable of each day. I awoke, I breathed in and breathed out, I performed basic bodily functions. I ate my brain-recovery diet, attended healthcare appointments, and much of the time, I slept.

As time drew on, and I was able to care for my own needs, I spent most of my waking hours walking outside in the sunshine at whatever pace my brain wanted to carry me, stopping whenever it was attracted to flowers, bugs, or plays of light on the ground. I stayed focused on whatever called my attention until my brain was done with whatever experience it wanted to have of that object at that moment.

I thought very little during that time. I felt whatever feelings or sensations came forward without analyzing them or trying to turn them into something else. In every moment, I was fully present with myself and my experience, and I only did what I truly felt drawn to do from a place of being purely in contact with the core essence of my being. I reduced my interactions to my inner circle of trusted family and friends who supported and honored my process and kept me safe in a time of vulnerability.

As time passed, I was able to do more. I wrote a scientific journal article owed to one of my research funders. I could only work on it in the moments when my brain said it was ready and only until it suddenly stopped. Since it only had a limited ability to function, which seemed to appear and disappear at random moments, I couldn’t push it any further or ask it to do more, so over-working wasn’t an option.

I took on a role in a local production of the Vagina Monologues to raise money for the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence (CARDV). The directors insisted on the lines being memorized, a big challenge for me in a good year, so I recorded myself saying the lines and listened to them over and over for three months, through brain recovery and a bout of bronchitis, until I became an adorable British woman with a delightful tale of her first self-induced orgasm, who could tell all the details of her story without reading them from a script.

Another especially healing activity I engaged in deeply was making memory quilts out of clothing for people whose family members had died. Something about the deep understanding of their grief, the honoring of their memories, and the creative blending of their own personalities with the concepts of their loved ones gave me deep satisfaction. It was as if I was processing much of my own grief through telling a story about theirs.

Prolonged concussion conditions tend to take at least nine months to begin to heal, depending on a person’s ability to refrain from agitating their minds by engaging in behaviors or interactions they find stressful. Sometimes, these conditions last for years, and there is no way to predict from the cause of the injury or the health of the person how long it will take for their brain to heal. With stopping nearly every stressful activity, except interacting with my step-children from a former relationship, I began to feel a massive increase in brain activity around the nine-month mark, coincidentally, when I ran out of money.

This is when I went back to my roots. The forest is the world where my entire life, past, present, and future comes together to make sense of the organism that is me. Breathing the fresh air the plants exhale, feeling the ground through my boots as I walk on the soft carpets of moss and decaying materials of the forest floor, and working my aging muscles and joints as I follow elk trails up steep rock faces makes me feel truly alive and reminds me of who I am in this chaotic world. Like my beloved northwest ecosystem, I am a complex being, full of darkness, light, flowing water, micro-organisms, air, fire, and endless cycles of life and death. I am an individual, twisting, growing, struggling, and becoming scarred with the support of my community offering structure, wisdom, and stability as I constantly incorporate the elements of my environment. I am an entity whose very existence in her natural state contributes to the strength and well-being of those closest to her and her community at large.

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