When I was little, the worst fate I could imagine was to be lost outdoors someplace on a cold, rainy night. It combined everything which discomforted me into a perfect storm of despair. I would glance out the windows during car rides at the nightscape, dimly illuminated at regular intervals by street lamps.
I would feel chilled, and thankful to be inside of a warm dry car instead of out there. On the occasions that I saw homeless men or women wrapped up in sleeping bags under bridges, I felt pity and wanted to help, but also terrified that I could become them. I knew that they were once kids my age who never imagined such a future for themselves.
Probably as a consequence, now and then I’ll have a nightmare where I’m lost on some unfamiliar street on a rainy night. It’s so dark that I can’t see anything but the street, and even then only the patches of it which the street lamps illuminate. The rain is so thick as to obscure the landscape beyond it, if it’s even there.
I’m crying, sometimes naked, stumbling through the darkness in search of shelter. In search of any place warm and dry that I can recover from exposure, and feel some shred of safety and comfort. But there’s just nothing. No matter how I look, I can find no shelter from the rain.
Not even a tree. Nothing but frigid, wet asphalt and street lamps, however far I trudge through the night. When I turn back, there’s just more of it behind me. More and more wet, cold asphalt. More and more street lamps, repeating to infinity in both directions.
This came to perfectly capture the feeling of discomfort and insecurity for me. The opposite of being okay. The fear of literal stranding someplace like this led me to accumulate gear that would make such conditions tolerable like water proofed, heated garments and a backpack with 72 hours of supplies.
But the emotional meaning that the dream represents is not so easily countered with material preparations. It’s how I have felt when betrayed, when abandoned or rejected. It represents an extreme of isolation, of alienation from a world which I sometimes see through a very distorted lens.
It’s an illusion caused by pain. It took me many years to realize that. To realize that when you’re low, you see the world in a distorted way. You don’t realize you’re looking through any lens. It feels like you’re finally seeing things as they truly are, but that’s just part of the illusion.
That’s something useful I learned from inhabiting that space for many years, and something I would like to pass on to others who may be there right now, quietly suffering. The world is not as bleak and hostile as it looks. Emotion colors perception, and we are the easiest ones for ourselves to fool.
It all sort of smears together. Like how raindrops on a car window refract the light coming through them, and if you look really close you can see an inverted, warped view of the scenery outside. Everything kind of blurs into a long, grey smear, no single part of it distinct from the rest.
That state of mind is very much like a waking dream. It’s when the cold, rainy night intrudes into reality. The whole world is against you, hope is folly and there is no future you can envision which you want to be part of. This, too, is illusory. It’s the hardest thing in the world to believe, after something in your life has gone terribly wrong, that the way you see the world isn’t simply a result of that experience.
A waking nightmare. A Hell we are sent to in order to receive punishment. Hell is a state of mind, after all. Only by sticking it out can you eventually see it for the farce that it is. The rain eventually stops. The sun comes up. The clouds part, color returns to your world, the birds sing.
Then, looking back, the way you felt may seem foolish if you’re like me. The overly dramatic wailing of a child who’s fallen off his bicycle and bruised his knee. I often think whatever suffering I have experienced resulted from resisting pain instead of letting it destroy whatever parts of me can’t survive it.
Whatever is left over of course does not resemble who I was before. But have you ever become a stronger person and regretted it? Have you ever looked back at who you were before and wished to revert to being that person again? The saying that adversity builds character seems corny until you realize these experiences are what it refers to.
This is what it feels like when that happens. To live through it, in the first person. It does not feel triumphant, or life affirming. It does not feel invigorating. It feels like you have been destroyed, yet are still here. Like you’ve died but continue to breathe somehow. Like the parts of you that are too soft to survive being burnt away and replaced with metal.
It is impossible to look back on those long, dark nights of the soul and be glad that they happened. Yet I also don’t want to go back to being who I was before. It’s a paradox. Is this just the pain of personal growth? Or is it recovery? Only one of those is actually necessary to go through, the other is just making the best of a bad situation.
I have come to think of myself as a candle, drifting through this cold, rainy night. A single candle’s flame is easily put out by even a single rain drop. But in my travels I have encountered other candles. My journey has intersected with theirs, and we began to travel together.
In doing so, I found that many candle flames clustered together burn too brightly for the rain to extinguish. That our flames warm each another, beating back the cold and lighting up the night. Man is not meant to be a solitary animal, and has only come this far by seeking out other flames in the darkness, that by clinging to one another they might not be extinguished.
When this dream reoccurs, it leaves me feeling hollow upon waking. Afraid, and alone. But it also compels me to break out of my little bubble and reinforce connections with dear friends, without whom I’d have long ago succumbed to the rain and the cold.
Those connections don’t sustain themselves. They’re like flowers that need to be periodically watered. It doesn’t come naturally to me and before I learned this lesson, I allowed several such connections to fade away. Now I have no idea what’s become of those people, my efforts to find them on social media have been fruitless.
It’s not the bridges I’ve burnt which trouble me most, but the ones I allowed to collapse from neglect. Those forgotten friends may now be wandering down their own dark, rainy streets of the heart. If I hadn’t let them drift away, I might’ve added my flame to theirs, and made it all that much more bearable.
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