Scared Journeys

“A turkey vulture!” I gushed, the bird surfing in the wind above the trees. “Uhh…that’s totally a seagull,” my friend said. “No way, it has that v-shape and a huge wingspan,” I mused in reverence with its majestic confidence. “Seagull, Kim.” said my friend, giving me the side-eye. “I love that we interrupt each other for nature.” she added with joyful grin. “Me too,” turning my attention back to her. “Anyway,” she continued, “my therapist has been discussing with me how in the dark night of the soul…”

My friend and I have been walking and talking together at least once a week for the past 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s one of my most meaningful connections I’ve had with another person. We live about 500 meters apart and we fell into a routine of calling each other up, meeting at the bridge, and walking along a path by the river.

What started out as me dragging her to the oldest and most intricate trails around has evolved, such that lately we walk a paved path, people-watch, and admire our local neighbourhoods. We started this ritual in winter months, with me reminding her to put on wool socks, to pull her hood on when she was cold, and to take her boots off in the car if her feet were wet. I would opt to hike the large wooded areas, just outside the city, with no sounds from traffic, and only the tracks of living beings and the chance to encounter a deer. These days though, it’s different. She has prompted me to tune in to urban nature. I now notice our various local bird species, the bloom of the magnolias that line our sidewalks, and when the dew sparkles in the light.

Our walks are also different because what started out as us discussing our individual journeys has become an intertwined adventure, inseparable in our shared decisions and knowledge. Together, our wisdom and experience reveals many answers to larger life questions than our mere individual perplexing puzzles. It’s a kind of intimacy that I cherish.

When she was discussing her dark night of the soul conversation with her therapist I was struck by how similar it sounded to the elements of The Hero’s Journey. This is a concept I am loosely familiar with from my time in a high school outdoor education program. I feel connected to honouring the processes of transformation, evolution, and regrowth. So I mentioned it to her in that moment. “This reminds me of the threshold to the ‘special world’ in the hero’s journey” I said. “Have you heard of if?” I wasn’t sure if this idea would land with her. It’s a bit mythical and not exactly something I imagine is aligned with a therapists’ scope of practice. I did my best to briefly explain. And then went back to listening to her describe her embrace and enter this dark and twisty part of herself. I followed along, closely, as much of what she said resonated with my experience seeing a psychiatrist 5 years ago. I knew some dark and twisty places, and felt I had returned home from them.

Today I woke up to a text from her saying that her favourite book, Sacred Contracts, discusses the hero’s journey. Ha! Of course it does. It makes perfect sense since she’s told me that it is about 7 archetypes. This was one of of the most powerful texts I’ve received from a friend. Not only had my comment landed, but how serendipitous that it was inherently tied to her own intimate reading journey.

Serendipity, I believe, is the result of deep listening: to our friends, to our mentors, and to ourselves. It’s a response that arises from listening to and following an instinct, or many instincts, that lead us to the same multi-dimensional space (theoretical or literal). I often describe how my “worlds collided” when I worked in a child care program that valued nature-based and arts-based pedagogy. Yes, a collision, in some ways, but also a decision, or rather many decisions, that brought the universe into alignment for me. The collision was within my mind/body when I realized that the world doesn’t operate in disciplines, industries, or silos in the way that we typical come to know it. Instead, I experienced a tiny explosion, a light bulb moment, a realization that all things in life are so very deeply connected. The symbiotic, interconnectedness that is the universe, ecosystems, and reciprocal relationships are all still such a mystery. But one to be trusted instead of scrutinized. What tender support comes from participating in, relying on, and contributing to this vast and expansive web of life, past, present, and future.

That text message shifted something in me this morning. I realized that for my friend and I, our inner worlds have collided too: my passion for embarking on journeys, spending time in nature, and being curious interlocked with her commitment to making authentic agreements, honouring her embodied knowledge, and avoiding poisons. Only together have we create our shared sacred journeys.

Lately I’ve been wondering if thriving in this life has to be complex as it is marketed to be. The constant self-help messaging from psychologists, mental health practitioners, education experts, neuroscientists, dieticians, economists, epidemiologists etc., make us into growth junkies. And while I spent years studying psychology, learning neuroscience and being baffled by biomedical science only to move on to social sciences, cultural studies, and humanities, I’m still not convinced the colonial structures of scientific rigour and research can capture the intersectional realities of our lives. I’ve both lost faith and moved beyond science, if that is possible, only to return to a simplified understanding, one of story and art. At the end of the day, I feel like our experiences have already been reflected back to us through stories and art (of all types), and that these modes of creation are far more complex and sophisticated than any science. Conversation, intuition, and faith in sacred journeys, are the things that move us and heal our soul wounds within our human experience.

More likely, and yet again, maybe it’s a both/and (of medical intervention and relational connection).

The Journey(s)

A few weeks ago I attended what I have been calling the 10 year acknowledgement of my family friend/teacher/beloved community member’s passing. Many people in Guelph knew Mike Elrick either through the education system, his family, or his tendency to build community and connections. I was fortunate enough to be in his last class of students prior to his illness, and I truly believe it had taken me 10 years to heal, reflect, and grow from the lessons I learned from and with Mike.

It was leading up to this 10 year event that I had an epiphany. Bare with my attempt at an explanation…

I was preparing to play some music for a small crowd at Centennial CVI where Mike used to teach, and I hadn’t really touched my guitar in the past ten years. ‘Quickly’ learning some folk songs took longer than it used to. But I got the hang of it. It was during this preparation that I started to really question why I hadn’t been keen to play my guitar since the summer I went tree planting. Where did my passion for music and song writing go? I used to scribble lyrics and chords on any scrap piece of paper, and obsess over new songs until I could play them. I owe some of this change to my mental health and my journey from clinical illness to healthy recovery. Now that I have lots of structure in my life, managed stress, and effective sleep, the thrill of song writing and mid-night jam sessions sunk lower and lower on my priority list. I didn’t get the same kind of rush as I used to. Nevertheless, I thought beyond this. There was something deeper going on with my aversion to my guitar and I wanted to know why.

Thinking back over the past 10 years, I have changed in very fundamental ways (who hasn’t?). But seriously. And I use the ‘changed’ intentionally – it was as if I evolved and morphed into different identities and sampled different lifestyles. Over time I’ve been many versions of myself. At 25, suddenly, mental illness stripped all of these identities away from me. I was a sluggish, confused, cognitively-impaired insomniac; sedated, and feeling incapable of doing more than a part-time retail job. This break in my life was the biggest blessing in disguise because it gave me access to treatment that I needed, and it also let me hit a reset button. At 25, mid-way through these 10 years, I realized that I didn’t like the path that I had ended up on. So I made the hard choice of going back to school part time, while living at home, being heavily medicated, without a car, and working part-time across the city. I walked everywhere, and I regularly cooked my own food and lugged it with me because I had no money to buy meals in between work and school. I didn’t have money for hobbies either. This meant I ate well, I moved, and I thought – a lot. It also meant all my hair grew back; long and thick, my cognitive abilities returned, my attention rekindled, my anxiety settled, and my sleep became regular. Once I was enrolled in school full-time and sought some studying-life balance, I started to pick up hobbies again. But not the way I did before where I darted from one to another with frivolous and intolerant impulsivity – but all at once and rooted in genuine desire and intent. Slowly and then suddenly I was once again singing, doing yoga, taking pictures, crafting, sewing, hiking, biking, working with children, volunteering, advocating, cooking for fun, camping… playing guitar, and even learning piano. It felt like recovery let me access and integrate all of these skills and passions so that this synthesized and expressive, relaxed, calm, assertive woman could emerge. All the past girls that I had been were all still within me, and content. And that is when I had the epiphany.

Mike had used a metaphor when designing our outdoor education course. He called it Headwaters because the course was a journey to the source of our food, water, and selves; to the intersection of living, being, and becoming while gathering and connecting with others; a journey to the peak and pinnacle of our learning and then the return journey home to bring and share this new knowledge. It was an experience, an example, and a pre-life prep trip for the journeys we would continue to take both away from and returning to home. What I realized in recalling his teachings was that maybe I was thinking about these past 10 ten years inaccurately. Rather than evolving or wandering aimlessly through these past version of me, tainted with mental illness, what if, instead, I had responded to every opportunity that beckoned me…what if I had gone on 10 years worth of journeys and had finally returned home with all of my new knowledge, experience, and skills integrated? What if I was the same person, but with rich travel stories and life lessons after participating in every call to adventure that I could manage? What if, instead of describing my past with different patterns, cycles of (un)health, personality evolution, and linear growth spurts, I could reimagine my story as a re-birth; a Phoenix-like return and re-emergence after fundamentally exhaustive, reflective, and challenging experiences? I like that better. And I know Mike would too.

I was lucky, and I am extremely privileged. My experience with mental illness could have led me to a different place in life, or could have held me hostage in one of those previous ‘versions’ of myself. Instead (and after 10+ years of self-advocating), I am the woman I always knew I always was but was not quite ready to ‘be’.

The advantage of this new perspective on my past is that it gives me permission to think about my future in a similar way: rather than being afraid of more changes, or returning symptoms, or of re-awakening either manic pixie dream girl or stressed, depressed smoker, what if I could instead prepare for my next possible journey? Restoring hope in my ability to move through more self-development and growth with the intention of returning ‘home’ is one that keeps me grounded and optimistic. On a painting I made on 2012 my younger self wrote ‘trust the journey’. Little did I (consciously) know how necessary this trust was to my growth and recovery after that dark time. Never did I imagine a journey taking 10 years, or that it would take so long for the self-reflection process to occur; nevertheless, this realization solidifies my faith that the metaphor of a journey of learning/growth can be quite literal for many young adults.