By Jen Harris
CW: C-PTSD, trauma
What happens when you “walk through something” in life? When people speak of being glad to be “on the other side” of that time of sorrow, grief, suffering; what do they mean?
I have always wondered what they mean, especially when I witness firsthand (and am totally freaked out by) their inner glow. A healed person, a person who has done the work possesses an uncontainable, undeniable, light. A light they seemingly acquired on this journey they’re illustrating but…wait. What?
What do you mean, the only way out is through?
Yeats said, “If suffering brings wisdom, I would wish to be less wise.”
Now that, I get. Yes. Let’s avoid, shall we? Let’s erupt and dismantle and ruin everything time and time again for years because the comfort of knowing the way that story ends is substantially less terrifying than this Wild West of Self Exploration.
For the light bearers, it’s different. These journeymen expect an arrival. To them, it makes sense. This is what they were trying to do all along. They went about, fumbling across dark terrain until they reached a precipice. This could have taken years. You as an outsider probably didn’t notice their trekking. Before now, they were just like you, and me, in process. But, at some point, they found curtains and pulled them back for the first time in a lifetime. They found matches and lit the pilot lights. The flickering exhale, the coughing dust, a revival began with the first measure of light and from there, it spread rapidly, illuminating a deeply personal inner kingdom. When I encounter people for the first time after this transformation, it strikes me like a flash bulb to the retina, I see something brilliant and radiating in place of the relatable human I once knew, and I am shocked.
When you’re miserable together, there’s a dingy haze in the air. No one’s really sure how long it’s been like this, feels pretty normal now, but some people remember that it wasn’t always this way and they go searching for answers.
This past fall the sky rained hot ash in Eugene, Oregon for 11 days, and while walking to the grocery store across the street, I began to sob at the idea that I may never see the sky again. I imagine this is what it’s like to realize that you cannot wait for the miracles of rain or death in your own personal journey. You must move. You must change. You must seek sustenance, fertile soil, higher ground, cleaner air, quieter relationships, gentler cities. You must.
When a healed person shows you it’s possible to live a more whole experience, it only makes sense to stumble, to back down, dumbfounded and fearful. Imagine seeing a UFO. The unexpected is shocking, disruptive.
In the past, when a friend or stranger would begin to tell me about their healing journey, I would dissociate almost immediately. It is a coping mechanism for the high probability that they’re going to mention something really triggering. I dissociated as a precaution to what I understood as imminent danger. My body knew how to body without me present. I would slip out the back. Sometimes, all I needed was the space of a two-top, an arm’s length + a cup of coffee and I would be fine. Dissociated Lite. Other times, I left the room entirely. Jaw-locked, ears taut, eyelashes draped across swollen cheeks, a slight nod in my neck and a vocal acknowledgement in my throat—There, there we are. This is what an engaged person looks like, right? spirit me would say, backing away slowly, leaving the coffin of my flesh on autopilot.
I hear a lot of healing journeys because I invite people to share them by way of my work. My work is to perform the deeply personal truths I publish as a way to let light in on my own suffering. It doesn’t mean I was ready for other people’s truths but again, it comes with the territory. Innumerable times when someone would begin to tell me their darkest moment before the dawn, I would leave. There are so many people’s names I don’t know to this day, because that’s how quickly I checked out. I could hear the haunting gallop of an intolerable violation approaching and I needed to protect myself. From what? From being dragged back into my own history and from the fear that I may never reach the precipice. What if there is no edge for me? No end to my suffering? What if I am doomed to roam a dark universe all alone?
The battle-weary are not back from war yet.
That is the difference between those who have seen the light and those who haven’t. When you are in the trenches, you cannot imagine your sweetheart waiting there for you on the pier as you drop anchor. You cannot fathom there could be any sweetheart or pier or ship or captain or ocean or surviving. You cannot imagine. You can only be in the trenches.
Trauma therapy is the process of easing into no man’s land, praying that the war will be over by the time you reach enemy territory. You feel stupid for putting yourself in the crossfire. It feels dangerous and counterintuitive. But something is calling you: a dinner bell, the smell of a fresh baked pie, your bed. You must keep going. You are constantly in fear, which is no different from the trenches but at least there’s movement. At least you are trying in the direction of something. Now there’s hope. Hope is the warm velvet of the musty curtains. Hope is the mixture of friction and ignition.
Hope is Light.
This could take years.
Many of us have to take not just one, but many journeys.
If you’re reading this and you’re being hard on yourself about still being in the trenches. Stop. You are allowed to rest when you are exhausted. You will rise again. You will keep going. You will find your way through, out, up. Up. Up. You can do this. You will make it.
It’s not that you’re doing it wrong, it’s just this hard.
Poet Jen Harris (she/her) is a creative entrepreneur & performance artist. Her ongoing community projects include The Writing Workshop KC & Kansas City Poetry Slam. Featured on NPR, TEDx, Button Poetry, Write About Now Poetry & Netflix Queer Eye, Harris is the author of 3 books of poetry, confessional assortments of her queer life in America.