"Gently, hold your darkness with your arms, as you approach the light." Beth Walker
My Story: Approach the Light
In August 2006, my younger sister was killed in a car wreck. She had just turned 18-years-old and graduated from high school. As she was my only sibling, and our family had always been close, I was devastated. I was 23-years-old at the time and the loss of her life devastated me. At first, I felt stunned, with shock and disbelief. But with several life circumstances changing all at once, I started to feel like my world had been flipped on its head and turned inside out. I felt as though I were staggering through a thick and heavy fog, with nothing but my mind's idea of what happened to her that night playing over and over in my head. My skin feeling as though it had been stripped away, leaving my nerves exposed--like my body was one giant bruise.
For many years after her death, I did not see a counselor and did not even feel I could talk about what I was thinking and feeling. Having been a life-long journal-er, I avoided writing about it, and eventually stopped writing altogether. I felt like a shell of a human. And while my thoughts focused on existential questions regarding death itself, I did not want to take me life---but wanted to slip into a long, deep sleep like Rip Van Winkle. Only sleep brought no comfort, as my dreams were filled with images of her. It would be years later, in retrospect, that I would be diagnosed with clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I don't know how long it was exactly, but ever so slowly, I started to notice moments of healing. It would come as I tried to sit out in the Spring air, the sun warming my cheeks; the breaking of the earth to plant fresh flowers; the movement of clay between my fingers as I shaped it on the wheel. I began finding small moments of joy in simple things again. And I made note of how it felt to be doing them in the moment. Eventually, I started using clay and other materials to express what I was feeling. I joined the YMCA and took every yoga class I could. I started intentionally seeking out things that I knew were helping. And eventually, as I found the words to describe what I was feeling, I started writing again. I was healing.
As a psychology student interested in counseling prior to my sister's death, I started to make the connection between the growth I was experiencing and the things that I was doing. I started to research the connection between yoga and depression, about the benefits of mindfulness, about the connection between creativity and healing. By understanding my own process, I learned that these methods could be extended to others, as well. With over ten years of study, I have collected personal insights and professional tools to be able to offer the same growth and healing to others.
In 2011, close to the five year anniversary of her passing, my family and I decided to put together a scholarship in her memory. An artist herself, the scholarship was set up to benefit students studying fine arts at our local university. In the development of the scholarship, I found the words "approach the light" drawn several times throughout her sketchbooks. I asked several of her friends, but no one seemed to know what the phrase meant or referenced. But as I sat with it, wondering what it had meant to her, and the significance of having drawn it several times, I realized that "to approach" means to move towards something, and "light" is often associated with goodness, beauty, truth, divinity. So, I took the phrase as a personal motto to "move towards the good things in life." And we called the scholarship The Approach the Light Memorial Scholarship in her memory.
In 2015, after a lot of further life changes and personal growth, I decided that another way I would "approach the light" in my own way was to finally return to school to complete a Master of Arts in counseling. I applied to the one university that offered the program I had always wanted to attend: Appalachian State University for their Expressive Arts Therapy certificate. And I got in. To Boone, NC, I went to pursue a fifteen year dream.
However, after I was accepted, I learned some news that impacted my time and brought up a lot of past wounds. While I had enrolled in this program and moved states to "approach the light," I felt very much "in the darkness." I didn't want to be faced with these uncomfortable memories and feelings again during such an important time. I felt angry that another obstacle, a mountain that seemed to appear out of nowhere, was in my path. I could feel the sinking of the depression, with an undercurrent of rage, return. I functioned the best I could as a student and graduate assistant at the university during the day. But at night, alone in my tiny Boone apartment, I sank and fell apart. For weeks, I gathered myself enough to function, and fell apart at night. In the middle of my first semester, the expressive arts program in which I was a student, showed the documentary film "The Barefoot Artist," about the life and work of Lily Yeh. Within the first few moments, she shared words that would sink into me and stay there, shaping the way I saw my own experience, and informing my outlook on counseling and what humans need to feel supported. She said "You must walk into the darkness. You have to sit with it, look at it, and hold it with your arms." Hmmm... what? Hold your darkness with your arms? Not beat it off, not slay it? Not cast it away and "overcome it?" No...intentionally walk into it, towards it. To sit with it, look at it, and hold it with your arms.
I had come to Boone to "approach the light," but I was faced with my darkness. And rather than avoid it, numb it, or fight it, I needed to turn towards it, walk into it, sit with, look at, and hold it with my arms. I needed to approach these vulnerable places of myself with compassion and curiosity. I needed to become acquainted with it. And as I began to understand this, I realized that this, too, is what I did with my grief years ago. Long before I was able to "approach the light," I sat with my darkness. I sat with the grief, the fear, the hurt, the pain, the confusion, the self-blame. I found compassion towards myself then, which allowed me to appreciate the small glimpses of the light. For the remainder of my time in graduate school, I spent time exploring and understanding the importance of "holding our darkness with our arms, as we approach the light."
I realized that for each of us, it is "both/and," not "either/or." We need to "hold our darkness", the vulnerable parts that we might feel the need to hide from others out of fear or shame, with compassion, curiosity, and non-judgement. And as we do, we can simultaneously "approach the light," doing healthy, positive things for ourselves that bring joy, peace, fulfillment, and delight. There is a symbiotic relationship between our darkness (or shadow) and the light. When we begin to appreciate this relationship, we can begin to stop fearing the darkness itself.
One way that helped me to truly understand this was by making an actual "darkness/shadow puppet," a physical representation of what it might feel like to "hold the darkness in my arms." Made from construction paper, yarn, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes and a tiny grin for good measure, I could "see" my darkness and literally hold it. I intentionally made my little creature look awkward and strange, but also slightly goofy and innocent, as a reminder that while our darkness might be uncomfortable, it is not something to be afraid of. It is not evil or a monster, as we might think when we hear the word "darkness." But a reminder that, like a small child who needs us to turn our attention towards it and discover its needs, our darkness is asking us to pay attention to it and listen to what its trying to say.
Removing the critical and judgement thoughts of "I'm a bad person for feeling or thinking this way," or doing whatever we can to avoid or not see/feel it, when we turn towards our darkness, with curiosity and compassion, we may begin to see the hurt, fear, confusion, sorrow, or despair that may really be there. We cannot treat our internal wounds if we do not know what they are. We would not ignore a broken bone or an infected cut. We would tend to and receive the proper treatment for it so that it can heal.
This is the most loving, courageous thing we can do for ourselves. Turning towards the tender, vulnerable parts of us that need the most care, knowing that we are worth the effort and deserve to receive the proper treatment so that we can heal--this is the place we must start. And as we become familiar with the darkness, or shadow, bits, we can begin to let the light in, pouring through the cracks and broken places.
It has taken a lot of time, but I have and continue to learn how to be present with my own vulnerabilities. It's not always comfortable, but I'm learning not to be afraid or feel shame. It can be a long journey, but one worth starting. I would be honored to journey alongside you, to sit with you in your dark and shadowy places, as you begin to turn towards them, working with, not against, "what is". Whether I am your guide or you find another along your path, I send you care and compassion as you, too, learn to "gently, hold your darkness with your arms, as you approach the light."
"I wish I could you show you when you're lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being." -Hafiz of Shiraz