Let’s take a walk, shall we? Not through the forest, along a beach, or up a mountain. The trails we tread won’t be firm or formed by shifting tectonic plates. It won’t be lit by the sun or a street lap. It’s deep inside an ill-traversed cavern full of wonders and dangers. It goes deep inside a place I don’t like to visit but a place I spend too much time.
My mind is a dark, damp, cave. There’s mold clinging to the walls. I can smell it spreading as the air grows colder. It’s feels like my brain has been locked up tight for a century or two. Hiding treasure deep inside a vaulted grotto just waiting for a daring explorer to break the code. Waiting. Still waiting. Forever waiting.
There’s a slow drip in the corner that’s keeping pace with my heart. Drip. Drip. Drip. There’s an echo off a far wall, and it sounds like two hearts are beating but it’s one. It always has been, always will be, one but the echo, its companionship, is comforting.
Ah, there goes a thought but as soon as it strikes it’s deflected by another and they both bounce off aimlessly. They continue their journey without fully realizing their purpose. Each thought dances with a memory that, like an old photograph, slowly fades away with each breath. Feelings tied to an unraveling string. Thoughts, memories, feelings catch in the wind and disappear into the dark, damp, cave but at least I have my echo.
I trace the pathways of my mind and look for tracks to follow, but they’ve been washed away. There are puddles to wade through, about ankle deep. Murky water with a greenish hue that shimmers even though there is no light. It’s mesmerizing and I stop to stare. It dances to a rhythm I can’t hear. Swirling this way and that. Faster, faster, and then it slows till its movements are barely noticeable. I don’t think it likes to be watched, so I leave it be and walk on.
My open palm presses against the damp walls and I feel a pulse quivering restlessly. It’s not strong and vibrant. Not what I would expect from a life force. It’s rather timid, shy, but it’s trying to carry on. There’s a tiredness in its movements. Its pulsations are straining but they refuse to stop. There’s still some strength left. It’s not ready to rest.
Laughter bounces off the walls and a warm breeze replaces the chill. The dampness is replaced by an aridness that laps up the moisture. A bolt of lightning shoots through the walls and under my palm there’s a renewed fervor. The pulse quickens, it feels less strained, and the tiredness is replaced by an energy that feels new but familiar.
The laughter continues, the lightening illuminates the high ceilings, and I see the scars cut into the cave. Raw and red. Deeply set. Thick cut. Some are fading. Some are fresh. All are healing but healing takes time. Healing takes patience. Healing takes more laughter, tear-filled puddles, and a beating echo bouncing off the walls.
The laughter fades, the lightening subsides, and the dark, damp cave resumes its tired hum. The ground trembles. The walls shake. The beating echo picks up speed. I fall against the wall, but it pushes me back. It’s time to go. I’m not a welcomed guest inside my own mind or my body. It’s time to leave the darkness, so I make my way out through the shimmering puddles and past the scarred walls.
The last few months have been difficult for me. A number of stressors have come up, and I’ve been feeling like I can’t get my head above water. Just when I think I can breathe, another wave knocks me under. The stressors, while a bit much, haven’t been unmanageable. If I had a brain that functioned in a healthy way then I’m sure they would be relatively minor. Especially when I compare them to other things I’ve gone through.
My car died, and I had to find a way to get another one. There was a problem with the pipes in my walls that, thank God, turned out to be nothing to worry about. The holidays always bring a weight that I don’t handle very well. There are external factors like watching good people suffer, horrible people prosper, and illnesses take the lives of people who were loved.
Hopelessness, insecurities, the pressure to be more and feeling like I’m falling short, yet again, bounce around untamed. It’s all too much and so I shut down. It feels like everything has pilled up and it’s blocking off the entrance. My brain feels like an abandoned cave. Locked up tight, covered in mold, and drowning in unshed tears. An echo chamber with nothing but the beating of my heart filling the silence. Spurts of joy that last a few minutes or seconds. Staying long enough to remind me that happiness exists but not long enough for me to savor it. Taunting me with something I don’t think I’ll ever fully experience in a meaningful way.
I feel like I’m living on a fault line topped with quicksand. One good shake, it’ll all cave in, and I’ll be buried alive. The shake doesn’t even have to be that big. A hiccup could do me in, and I know I shouldn’t feel this way. I shouldn’t feel like a guest in my own head. I shouldn’t feel like a squatter in my own body. I shouldn’t…
Look at me, should-ing all over myself!
One thing I’ve learned from therapists and psychologists is, when it comes to our mental health, “should” is a very dangerous word. It’s a word-based in negativity and judgment. It’s rooted in the perceived failures of ourselves and others. It breeds guilt and shame because it tells us we’re not enough. Our choices weren’t good enough. Everything we should do or be has, and will always, result in failure.
I’ve been should-ing all over myself lately and it’s not helping me get out of this funk. It’s digging another pathway in my cave and letting more water pool in the corners. It’s pulling me down further, and it’s adding another layer of mold that I won’t be able to scrape off.
To be clear, this isn’t the cause of my headspace! It’s a symptom of a much larger problem, and it contributes to the ferocity of an illness I’ve been battling for most of my life. Should-ing is a byproduct of my insecurities and I’m trying to catch myself when I slip into the habit. I’m trying to break this habit and replace it with something healthier.
If I can change should to “I need,” “I could,” or “I would like to…” then I change my outlook on any given situation. Instead of feeling helpless, I take back some of the control. This is especially true when l feel an overwhelming hopelessness. To be honest, it’s a feeling I have more often than not because why should things work out for me this time?
Yes, there are things I would like (or should have) but some of these things are beyond my control. I get lost in that feeling! It takes over and I stand, stuck, staring up at the vaulted ceiling of my cave. Finding things I can do now, steps I can take, eases this overwhelming sense of helplessness and replaces it with a glimmer of empowerment.
Small things that don’t seem like anything to anyone looking in. Doing the dishes or taking out the garbage. Making the bed. Taking my dog for a walk. Write a blog post when all I want to do is lay down and cry. I know these things won’t change my life but at least I feel like I have some control over my environment. I’m not useless. There are things I can do even when my broken body can’t do much of anything. There are things I can do when my broken mind won’t let me do the things I think I should be able to do.
It comes down to me, cutting myself some slack and giving myself credit for the thing I have done or can do. I’m my worst critic and my very own troll. A troll that lives in a cave inside my brain. I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t venture in too far inside the damp, dark, cavern. Somethings are best left undiscovered.
Completely relatable post! I am also guilty of this. “I should be able to…”. It’s easy to fall into that mindset and I’m glad you are speaking up about it! Baby steps.
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Thank-you! Totally agree. Baby steps. It’s such a hard habit to break.
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It really is. It’ll take a lot of hard work but we’ll get there.
I love how you have a strategy for re-directing the “should”s into “could”s. It seems like you’ve learned from experience what to expect when you wander down the path of self-doubt & condemnation. Are you excited or worried about what you’ll discover when you explore new paths?
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My natural tendency with anything new is fear & self-doubt. It takes a lot of energy, effort, & time to find ways to combat the anxiety that comes up with anything new.
It can be so easy to interpret shoulds as needs, but being aware of it definitely helps.
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I can hugely identify with what you’ve written here…
and though it’s great when people successfully steer us away from Shouldsville for a while,
or something reminds us of all we’ve achieved in spot of our doubts…
or the really cool person that they see when we’re busy shoulding the living daylights out of ourselves…
I get how so many little barbs and judgements and ill-considered demands are flying about, waiting to hit our anxiety buttons.
It’s great that you write so honestly about this.
Lovely description of mental processes. They seem kind of creepy and organic. I like your style.
Thank you so much