What I Know Today
After over 25 years of working with clients struggling with addiction—and those who so dearly love them—not too much surprises me anymore. Not only have I survived many of my own difficult past experiences, I’ve also heard about—and witnessed—a great many traumatic stories from both addicts and their loved ones. I’m constantly awed by the resilience of the human spirit, especially when people have the intention to rise above the tremendous grief that could otherwise totally take them out.
My work is most satisfying when I have the opportunity to watch people move from feeling victimized by their experiences, into a place of deep understanding of the choices they have in terms of responding to what has happened to them. I’ve gone through that myself, numerous times in my own journey of recovery—both from addiction and chronic illness—and each time I’ve come out the other end of that seemingly endless tunnel, I’ve seen that the light was there all along. Now, most days, I am able to trust my hindsight about this and remember that even when I don’t actually see the light in that moment, I believe the time will come when I will. Today I know that if I can stay the course, great learning will come to me. I trust now that I will be better off than I was before, if I just stay on the path.
What I absolutely know today is that when we’re going through hell, we need to keep on going—because if we stop at that point, we will undoubtedly get stuck—in hell!
A Hellish Experience
Not too long ago, I found myself in the middle of a very difficult growth period. I had recently been through what felt like an emotional nightmare, and I was physically not feeling too well either. I had some ideas about what was going on externally for me—a long-term friendship was unraveling and my health was definitely not good at the time, due to medication I was taking for a Crohn’s-related condition. I had the outer explanations and tried to let that be enough. But I soon discovered that these surface understandings would not suffice. I felt as if I was struggling with some post-traumatic stress—which I later recognized to be the truth.
I am very grateful to have a few amazing spiritual teachers in my life. One in particular is truly an ally on the path, and she was able to guide me through the worst of that experience. When she mentioned that, in her opinion, I was in “the dark night of the soul,” I began to feel understood. I’d heard that term before—it’s a fairly common saying—but I hadn’t really known the depth of what it meant until that time. As I read some of the articles she sent me about this, I was astonished at how accurately my thoughts, feelings, and symptoms were being addressed and explained. I remember thinking “How could this author understand me so well, without ever having met me?” That’s when I realized that what I was dealing with was common enough for others to have been there too. And although that misery loves company idea often gets a bad rap, I have to admit I felt grateful that I was not the only one!
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
It was really hard to just stay in that place for as long as I needed to. I so very much wanted to be done with that particular growth period and move on. But the more I read, and the more I cried and shared—with my spiritual teacher as well as some other loving friends and healers—the more I understood that I needed to give myself time to grieve some deep-seated, heavy-duty issues and feelings that were finally seeing the light of day.
I’m a firm believer that the only way out is through, especially when it comes to times like this. And I began to realize that the only way to get “through” this was to allow myself to be where I was for as long as I needed to be there, without doing anything to medicate myself—except for the occasional piece of chocolate, of course!
So, in it I stayed. It was a choice I made. I knew I was going through hell—there was no question about that. But I also knew that if I tried to get myself out of it too quickly, without learning the lessons that were staring me in the face (and some were pretty painful), I would likely have to experience the same thing another time, to finish it up. I knew that I really didn’t want to do that—so I stayed and I learned.
The biggest lessons for me were around taking full responsibility for my actions. I had felt hurt and abandoned by some people in my life—and it was very easy to blame them and not look at my part in it, at how I had unwittingly contributed to that difficult situation. But until I did look at that, I would remain stuck in that hell, unable to climb out of it no matter what I did or how hard I tried. This was my moment of truth: Was I going to live my life according to my spiritual beliefs or was I just going to give them lip service? If I was going to choose to live according to them, then I needed to take full responsibility for everything that happens to me, even when I feel betrayed and deeply hurt by external circumstances.
The vicious circle, I discovered, is that when we’re going through hell (aka the dark night of the soul) it is much easier to remain in a ‘victim’ place and blame others for their words and actions. But I can’t control anyone else—and until I could own my very real contributions, I would remain stuck. I knew that taking responsibility for myself was going to be much harder than making this somebody else’s fault…
Which would I choose?
Coming out of Hell
It took me a little while, but eventually I started to get sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I slowly began to feel grateful again, even for the smallest of things. I leaned a bit more on the people in my life who love me, allowing them to tell me how courageous they thought I was—and I began to feel like I could let some of that in, even a little. I enjoyed the sunshine as much as I enjoyed hearing the rain against my windows. I really appreciated chocolate! But most of all, I appreciated those in my life who had already experienced their own dark night of the soul—and had come through it well. These were the people who gave me much hope that I could do the same thing if I just stayed with what I was beginning to heal within myself.
My favorite article about that dark night had this idea in it: “Then, it happens.” We begin to feel lighter and freer than we ever could have imagined. We become new and transformed in ways that defy explanation. As I read this for the first time, I sobbed. In that moment, all I could do was doubt that this would ever happen for me. I was much more inclined to whine, “But WHEN?? When will I feel better? How soon will I be able to come out of my own personal hell?” In that article, I read that in order for this to happen, I needed to abide, to stay there, to work it through, to not medicate myself with addictive behaviours, to be willing to own everything about my life, including this period that felt so intensely horrible.
I felt encouraged. I did the work I needed to do, and I continue to be a work in progress—which I believe I always will be. I am happy to report that I am no longer in the dark night of the soul. I’m not in any way suggesting that I’ve healed everything or have learned all my lessons. I feel sure I will again have my times of sadness, of anger, of fear and frustration. But what I believe to be true today is that when that happens, I won’t feel so desperate. I’ll be able to be braver and withstand it, knowing that this too shall pass.
Because none of us is exactly the same, I believe that we each experience our times of ‘hell’ differently—even when the circumstances might be close to identical. When we can stop judging others for how they are coping, and respect ourselves for the courage we show when we choose to face these hardships instead of running from them, we’ll deeply know that we will not give up or give in. When we’re going through hell, we will choose to keep going—and that light will, indeed, appear in order to assist us.
If you’re interested in reading more about the dark night of the soul, here is an article that helped me a lot.
From one fellow traveller to another, I wish you all the best—wherever you currently are on your journey.