Photo by Orin Zebest

Photo by Orin Zebest

What does it feel like to hit bottom?

Sometimes, after many years and many failed landings, it can be like simply coming to rest, two feet connecting irrevocably to earth with a muffled thump and a tiny puff of dust. Sometimes there’s no crash, no thud, no debris, no collateral. Just the magnetic snick of your feet sliding home, where they’re meant to be. The bond moves upward from the heels, as all the poles of your body realign themselves to the lodestone. Grounded. Once joined, the slow seeping warmth of the earth travels from toes to fingertips, stirring your blood and the tiny hairs on your skin to a pattern you can feel and hear and smell. You know with certainty that this is the bottom of the mess, nothing is obscured, nothing lurks: it doesn’t get any more complicated than this. All your confusions and questions shake themselves out like a dog emerging from the lake. It is all suddenly very simple.

What does it feel like to hit bottom? For me, it was learning that all the unhappiness in my life, and especially in my marriage, grew from just two sources: feeling unsafe, and feeling powerless. Unsafe and powerless: legacy of childhood, a lesson those charged with my nurture collaborated all unknowing to inculcate. They did not mean to do this. With words telling me: You can do anything, be anything. With actions attacking the integrity of my spirit relentlessly in ways I hardly knew to recognize from those I loved. I did not know that I needed to defend myself. I did not see that I was laying aside my own power to keep myself safe.

My family did not mean to offer this to me. I did not mean to accept. People who avoid experiencing their own pain are bound to inflict it upon others. It is a terrible binding, especially for a parent. How good it feels to shrug my shoulders, and feel the cords of compulsion slip free from my body!

Seeking to liberate myself, I’ve been following this thread of fear hand over hand through the dark, through the tangle that still surrounds me, losing it sometimes and then teasing it out again. This thread has a name and now I know what it is. This is the same coarse rope that slid thickly down my throat so many times, preventing me from saying No, No and No. At last I have reached the place where it tethers me to the ground, subterranean anchor sunk deep into the bones and breath of this earth, and discovered its name: to stay alive.

To be alive for humans can get complicated, can go far beyond body and breath. Alive can be the one huddled under the table after the gunman has shouldered his way into the room, riddled everything else with seeping holes. Alive can be the one who screams and scratches, overturning the dominance an assailant so craves. Alive can be the ones who sit and sit and sit at the counter, insisting on their right to the same bowl of grits. Alive can be the one who says gently, I love you and I can’t allow you to speak to me that way. Alive can be the one who says, I’m enraged, and I won’t allow my anger to degrade the words I choose for you.

To be alive, to live in one’s own safety and power: the gift parents offer their children when they are able to keep them safe, when children are allowed to stand up straight within their own intentions, motivation and sufficiency.

And when a family is given too much damage to hold, damage that slips through parents’ grasping fingers, damage that drips into the open mouths of children hungry for their parents’ lessons on how to stay alive…That’s when the cord of fear begins to wind its way through the young ones, growling its mistaken certainties into their anxious ears: The only way to keep safe is to keep quiet. Don’t make any noise. Don’t say anything. Be invisible. Run away. There’s nothing you can do. He can’t help it. You can’t help it either. It’s all your fault. And so the rope twists itself stronger, strand after strand, year after year, thwarting the most timid expression of power, strangling even the innermost spaces of safety’s retreat.

Touching my finger at last to the nub where this fear is grounded, just a small scarred spot on the bit of earth between my settled feet, I feel it grow warm: it, too, is alive. Boldly I grasp the cable in both hands, and the length of it suddenly glows bright and golden. I know the feel of this rough, knotted rope, its particular musty, hempish smell. The whole of it makes itself visible to me, transformed in the moment I followed it back to its source, into a shining path winding its way through all my tangle.

I will never be blind to this fear again. Because I know that being alive, being human, should be more complicated than eating the offered crust, or scrabbling after the last wool blanket. It’s not just finding a mate and reproducing, but learning to love and be loved, splashing paint on a canvas, finding just the right words.

I now own this glowing rope. I can latch it to a sail and skim over oceans, I can whip it taut and hang my sheets from it to salute the sunshine with the clean smell of soap. This rope is mine. This one, I own now. No longer named Fear, rechristened my Power, this living cord keeps me safe. It whispers to me of borders and boundaries, it encircles the secret spaces inside with an impenetrable shield. It connects me to this earth and this life—my map, my guide, my protection. I stand back, hands on hips and head cocked to one side, to examine the snarl that is me. Somehow the tangle seems smaller, looser, diminished by the living cord that now glows and throbs through the center of it all. Yes, I have definitely hit bottom. And I think I’ll stay right here.

2 thoughts on “Unraveled

  1. Powerful words. You write with such beauty and strength.

    I just got back from visiting my childhood home and so I have been thinking about my dad. I was rereading a post I wrote about my dad’s open house (is it strange to admit to rereading my own stuff?) and your comment there was so potent and raw and I wondered where you had gone. I am glad I clicked over.

  2. Thanks for checking back in. In my dad’s home now lives a young couple with a newborn who shares my son’s name. I have not returned to see it. Instead my mom and I took a trip to the storage unit where she stashed everything she thought the kids might want someday. We shuffled boxes around while my young daughter stood in the snow, eating crackers. Something about the ruffled tin doors of those units and the steady drip of ice melting in the drainpipes felt both grim and refreshing at the same time. There was nothing much of interest to me there. But I did find a wind chime that used to hang on his porch–I’ll go hang it outside my writing studio now.

    Thank you again for your kind words and audience to my grief. May the storms in your own life abate and be at peace.

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