#13 Sitting in darkness with my demons
What happens when we stop running from our problems, when we finally say “enough” and stop to take an honest look. What will we see? Probably all the things that were suppressed, denied, pushed down and neglected. When I finally gave up running and resisting, I arrived at that place of plain hopelessness. This breakdown led me to the breakthrough. And the breakthrough came through a perspective that went beyond me.
When I returned to Antigua to give myself time to rest and reflect, everything was different. This bustling and colorful city whose streets Mateo and I had roamed so happily just a month ago had lost its charm for me. I felt disconnected and numb to its beauty.
I rode to the rural village of San Juan del Obisbo in what the locals call a ‘chicken bus’. It is an old US school bus painted to look like a bird of paradise, and while riding on it you are very likely to encounter passengers who are chickens. When I stumbled down the steep steps of the bus, I knew I had found what I needed. This village was rural, sleepy, and smelled like rest.
Joe, an elderly expat living in Guatemala who I had met at a farmer’s market, welcomed me like an old friend. His house was beautiful! The place was adorned with traditional decorations like colorful carpets and Guatemalan landscapes painted on the stone walls. Was it strange living with elderly expats as flatmates? No. It was not. They were more than kind and relaxed. And I had a whole quarter of the house to myself, a luxury that I came to appreciate after months of backpacking. So I slowed down my days. I stopped exploring and started creating stillness and space. We are caught off guard by the emotions welling up to the surface once we stop chasing instant gratification, stop constantly distracting ourselves, and just allow ourselves to be.
As I stopped moving about and slowed down my days, my mind rose up in rebellion. So much had happened. I had been travelling for almost ten months, had worked different jobs, followed my best guesses and still … I was lost. I had broken a heart. In fact, two hearts since the heart in my chest felt cracked as well. I think that, in part, my German upbringing conditioned me to feel guilty about indulging in the things I wanted to do. This was compounded by the fact that I had taken nearly ten months for myself without any tangible results to show for it. I also personally did not feel any closer to whatever it was that I was seeking so badly. I felt like I was back at square one. Where did I go wrong? What did I do wrong? What did I not see?
As the days passed, I noticed that I felt increasingly lethargic. It seemed like my life force was seeping out of me. There was such a deep sadness living inside of me. I did not know how to go on. Guilt and pity, that were like mighty waves before, now rolled over me and pulled me down into misery. I was living like a sea creature in those dark and murky waters. Where was the light?
What made this all even harder for me was that it was December. For the first time since I had left Germany, I missed my family in a painful way. All I wanted was to sit in my mother’s warm and cozy kitchen, sipping tea and listening to Celtic Christmas music. I craved the soothing candle light warmth of familial love. Instead, I lay alone in that cold stone bed that made it so hard to stay warm despite the scratchy woolen blankets. I barely cried. I just felt numb.
One morning I did not feel like I had the energy to get out of bed. “For what anyways?” a voice from the dark depth of me asked mockingly. This was shocking to me. I have always been an early bird, jumping out of bed with the first ray of sun or the first sound of the alarm (to the annoyance of boyfriends, friends and family). This realization snapped me out of denial and shame. I needed to do something.
Even here in the cold darkness of December nights and blindingly sunny days in rural Guatemala, depressed for the first time in my life, I remembered this: I am responsible for myself. I need to do what I can to take care of myself. For me, that involved eating fresh plant based food, writing and listening to wise people who seem to have it all figured out. Day in and day out I tried to do things that would support my healing.
Every morning, I’d make myself sit in meditation. I practiced yoga. I tried to learn Spanish. The highlight of my days became buying fresh papaya from the window sill of our sweet neighbors and making a fantastic granola-cacao breakfast. This self-care was good for my physical body but inside I still felt like that lost and exhausted deep sea creature.
I dove deeper into the self-help world. In the search for answers, I listened to Oprah’s Supersoul Sunday podcast, let myself be guided by meditations on Youtube, I took notes, I read a lot about meaning and purpose. “Give me a damn clue” I mumbled into the nothingness of my room.
And then one morning while I was lying in bed listening to yet another Oprah podcast, I heard the clue that changed everything. I wasn’t even completely listening until these words reached straight into my heart and illuminated my mind. “If you do not know how to help yourself, focus on helping others.” It is like the fog in my mind was lifted. The dots connected. Having read everything I could find about meaning, I learned that true meaning is to be found beyond ourselves. It always serves a greater good beyond our personal satisfaction. I almost laughed at myself! How blind and self-focused I was! I had searched for my purpose with a misaligned ego-centric motivation. We need to be motivated to find something that is meaningful to ourselves and in service of others! This was the breaking point. The breakthrough!
”Our lives are not meant to spiral inwards in a vicious circle of self-absorption, but outwards towards the fulfilment of the purpose and destiny of our lives within the greater scheme of things.”
― Teria Shantall
As it happens, that following weekend, my oldie roommates threw a rooftop party in our house. “Hey Sarah, funny thing but a friend of ours that you will meet at the party is also from the Black Forest!” And this is how I met Ingrid, an energetic early retired teacher and principal who lived in Guatemala for a while. She tells me about a little project she has been supporting for a while called Nuevo Amanecer “New Dawn”. This family organization’s purpose is to help Mayan children get an education and widen their opportunities in life. “Why don’t you join me this Monday when I visit them? I am sure they’ll be happy to meet you and they could use every helping head and hand…”
This is the meaning contained in situational depression and in breakdowns. It is better to allow them to happen because we’re literally breaking through to what needs attention and what allows breakthroughs to happen. The painful process is necessary because Life asks us to transcend and look beyond our own suffering to remember our natural interconnectedness with everything that is. In this sense, suffering is a springboard into a more meaningful life.