As I’ve been watching the seasons change here in Boston, I’ve found myself unexpectedly at odds with the Earth’s natural rhythm: as the world slips into the dark winter months, my energy finally seems to be returning.
I feel hesitant to say such things out loud because this isn’t the first time I’ve hoped I was recovering only to find myself slipping back into familiar lassitude.
And yet, here I am again, quietly announcing that this time I hope it’s true.
You might think that after however many months (has it been four or five now? I’ve lost count…), I’d be used to the slowness with which this healing has proceeded, but it’s still so easy to trip over my own impatience.
I’ll have a really great day where I feel amazing and get a lot done… and then I’ll spend the next three days recovering.
But here’s the thing: this is just what healing looks like.
As much as I wish that healing was a straight line from unwell to well, a steady climb from rock-bottom to dazzling new heights, the reality of it seems to be that healing looks more like a rambling mountain road filled with unexpected twists, sudden turns, and jarring bumps.
And, just like when driving that winding road, it is easy to get frustrated.
It is easy to feel that after months of malaise there hasn’t been any real progress. But if I take the long view — if I compare where I am now to where I was three months ago, or twelve — it becomes easy to see how different things are now from how they were then.
I think that the changing season serves as a really good metaphor for how change proceeds in our lives. I can predict the first snow of winter no better than I can pin the day on the calendar when I’ll be “better” or “ready” or “healed”.
As much as my mind might wish to do so, there’s no line to be drawn in the sand — no well-defined boundary to cross between “when I was there” and “now that I’m here”.
At the change of the seasons, the weather is often volatile and contrary — a dizzying tour of hot, then cold, then hot again. And yet, there’s an underlying trend: summer’s heat yields inevitably to winter’s cold, and eventually cold will yield to warmth again. But the exact progression of days and temperatures that will lead us from here to there is impossible to guess.
I’m increasingly convinced that all change proceeds like this: a dizzying tumult of ups and downs, that mixes us up until we’re not quite sure how far we’ve come or how far we’ve yet to go. A series of largely-random fluctuations that catches us so off-guard it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.
And my mind hates this.
My mind hates being unable to predict, because what I cannot predict I cannot control, and what I cannot control seems dangerous.
My mind wants to say that if I cannot predict when I will be well again then there is no way to know I will ever be well. And yet when I look at the trend over the past few months, it remains clear to me that I am getting better.
And here’s another truth: it’s when I let my fear run away with me and forget to trust the process that I trip myself up.
When anxiety wins I stop listening to the needs of my body, I overdo things, I relapse.
When anxiety wins I lose patience, I become unable to remember all the reasons there are to hope, all the evidence I can see pointing to signs of improvement.
When anxiety wins I slip back to where I was a month ago, or two — I slip back until I fall into something familiar. A pattern, a rhythm, a habit that I recognize because we’re old friends now: I spent my summer becoming intimately acquainted with their shape and heft.
And so now when anxiety wins I slip back, but in backsliding I find myself once again on solid ground. Familiar, well-worn ground I’ve walked four dozen times before.
When you think about it, it’s almost magic: the process itself catches me.
Over and over I return to where I began and each time it gets easier to crack the puzzle because I’ve practiced this now. This place is familiar but time has moved on and I’m not the same person I was the first time I landed here.
The more times this happens, the more I trust myself to hit the bottom and rise up again.
It is this trust that offers us real freedom, I think. When rock bottom is something we fear hitting, fear holds us prisoner. It becomes impossible to do anything that might trigger any sign of collapse for fear it might grow into an inescapable, all-consuming collapse.
When fear holds us prisoner, we inevitably find ourselves unable to risk anything at all.
But when we trust in our own ability to bottom out and pick ourselves back up and try again, the paths that used to seem too risky might begin to seem more enticing.
And if we can learn to navigate the dark days with kindness, with awareness, with compassion and gentleness — then we can learn to bring these qualities to the bright days, too — and ultimately everything gets better.
So if you’re muddling through a dark time right now, I’d encourage you to make friends with the process. Learn how to comfort yourself through the dark times.
Because falling apart is inevitable.
No matter how much we try to control things, no matter how hard we work to protect ourselves — our hearts will always be vulnerable to life’s bumps and bruises.
But if you can learn to greet the dark days with gentle curiosity instead of fear or anger, if you can learn to comfort yourself with compassion instead of beating yourself up with self-judgement — then I really believe that you can do anything.