[Trip Report] Raw despair, false shortcuts to healing, and chrysalism

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Don’t you love finding out there already exist words for some of the seemingly inexpressible feelings that being human entails? Stuff you may have wondered if you were alone in feeling, only to discover somebody’s put a name to it. It reinforces a sense of shared humanity.

Words like sisu, kenjataimu, and chrysalism. Chrysalism is something I have felt strongly all my life. It’s loosely expressed as the pleasure of being indoors, dry and warm, while you listen to a rain storm raging outside. Of being wrapped up, sheltered and insulated from cold, harsh outside conditions.

There has been a lot in my life I wanted to be insulated from. I found that refuge inside my mind, and even found out there’s money to be made writing about it. Really hard, chilling, raw shit you cannot find a way to deal with. The narrative comes apart. Everything comes apart.

It’s like having molten metal poured onto your naked body but you remain conscious for every minute of it as it invades your mouth, your stomach and lungs, burning you from the inside at the same time as it boils away your skin, muscle and organs until you’re just a screaming, quivering skeleton. Stuff keeps happening to you where it’s like “How can this continue with my humanity intact?” But it continues, and you just become something else in the process or you die.

Someone close to me is going through that sort of thing right now. Even just watching it happen from the outside is agonizing. They’re just this soft, warm little creature that I’m watching being mercilessly ground up into slurry, like all the male chicks at a poultry farm.

I tell them, don’t resist it. Let it burn everything away that is possible to burn. What is left will still be enough to make a person shaped thing out of. I said trying to hang onto any of that stuff only prolongs the misery. There are no short cuts, anything that looks like a short cut just opens the door to more pain. The emotional equivalent of a payday loan.

But to hear them talk about it, about having overcome bad stuff before without changing who they are, made me think that maybe that wasn’t really necessary. Maybe I was supposed to hold onto those shredded pieces of my heart, no matter how badly it hurt, and that I destroyed them myself because I thought it was a shortcut.

It only left me with the bare minimum pieces left to build a person shaped thing. A lot like a cinderblock: Strong, but empty. Featureless and without much to describe it except that it exists. But because there’s that empty space inside of it, something small and soft can still seek refuge there.

It’s hard and cold, but a sturdy shelter. Nothing can crush it while it’s inside there, no rain will fall on it. Like becoming the cocoon for another person during a fragile, transformative stage. What I realized other important people in my life were for me, when I was rebuilding myself into whatever I am now.

It feels good, and right, to be able to do that for another person. Like I got something useful out of it after all. Even if I’m just an inanimate stuffed toy they cling to, like one of those baby spider monkeys in the lab clinging to a robotic surrogate mother, at least I can do something that helps.

Maybe that is the beginnings of something definite and distinct about me I can point to and say “Look, I am a real person after all”. Maybe it’s been in there from the beginning. Something that survived the shredder because I didn’t know it was there, so it didn’t get tossed.

A chrysalis is beautiful, but never lasts. It is destroyed when the soft, delicate creature inside finishes transforming and emerges from it. I hope by the time that happens there is more to me than just being a shelter. That’s a good quality to have but not really enough to base a person around.

I recommended they write about it. Anything you can’t bear to leave inside of you can be removed and put outside by fully describing it in writing. That has some mysterious cathartic effect, like defeating Rumplestiltskin by speaking his name.

There are undoubtedly people going through the same stuff right now who would find it a big help just to read the same thoughts and feelings from somebody else who they can be sure was in the same place they are.

It does keep me dwelling on the stuff I write about, however. Like a large amount of medicine all at once, but with a small amount of poison mixed into it. I worry maybe this is another one of those deceptive shortcuts to healing, which only serves to trap me in that headspace.

I can make some amount of money by packaging and selling beautiful descriptions of that suffering though. People really have a ravenous appetite for it, despite being surrounded by it every day, free of charge. Maybe it’s been a big help to somebody I’ll never meet, and I have no idea.

I hope so. It will be another thing I can point to that is good and useful, and another tool in my arsenal for easing the burden of people that I care about.

I recently told somebody that we didn’t go from the caves to the stars on the power of individuals. Our greatest strength is in our ability to organize. A community of humans has persistence of memory, each generation becoming a part of the next.

When one member suffers, it is spread out over a web of people connected to them. It’s the difference between ten pounds pushing down on a very small area on your body, say the size of a needle point, versus that same weight spread over a square foot or so. One is a lot more bearable than the other.

“Relying” on other people to help bear an intolerable burden is then not a weakness, any more than a lion is “weak” to rely on its claws and teeth. Knowing how to push yourself to reach out to other people when you need it is a strength, and being able to be one of those people for somebody else is a legitimate, acceptable reason to feel good about yourself.

I would like to be able to offer better advice, though. Here’s my first attempt: If you’re going through one of these dark times, don’t do what I did. Don’t convince yourself that you have to let it burn away everything soft in you that is possible to burn. I don’t know if that was the right answer now, even for me. I don’t really trust myself to have the answer to that anymore.

I guess anything you do that helps you wind up alive on the other side of it, ears still faintly ringing from the explosion of your old self, is self-justifying. There’s an old army saying, “It’s not stupid if it works”. The main thing is to come out of it alive, because while you’re still breathing, the number of possibilities is greater than one.

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