“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”John Milton, Paradise Lost
Dry eyes stared unblinking through the windshield, until cars, and lights, and asphalt became an almost unintelligible blur. I had cried out all my tears again. Nothing remained except a sharp, insistent ache that seared through the lump in my chest like a hot branding iron. There was nothing left but to exist.
I had hoped to break through this time. I had hoped the wounds of the past would not win. Now a new wound deepened within me, draining away every drop of vitality, and grounded-ness, and hope.
Trauma is a potent thing, and it’s crazy how the mind reacts to it. The Interpreter of the mind assigns meaning to the things we feel, and then releases an avalanche of messages based on whatever meaning it has assigned. For some reason, those messages are usually bogus. Yet we believe them, and if unchecked, they can go on to perpetuate cycles of dysfunction and suffering for ourselves and the people who love us. Messages about our worth, abilities, future, people’s intentions toward us, and many other things become psychological trenches through which our decisions and responses unconsciously run. Our inner rebel bucks at pain, and determined to protect us, it unwittingly wrecks everything that could possibly make us happy.
For some, all that’s needed is an awakening―to receive the right information and the right tools to begin dismantling the labyrinth of dysfunctional thinking that’s been habituated in our psyches. But what about when the lies run so deep that we can no longer distinguish the truth? When the habits are so embraced that we don’t know ourselves without them, or don’t feel safe if we lay them down. It is then, that it takes an extreme defining moment and unrelenting resolve to set us free.
One of my greatest defining moments came at age twenty-seven. I didn’t know I had been caught in a web of pathological deceit and mind games. But after a soap opera-worthy two AM phone call, and a failed attempt at further emotional manipulation, the man I was falling in love with simply told me: “I don’t love you. I lied.” It was another in a string of heartbreaks. Yet in the aftermath of being treated as the smallest, most insignificant and dispensable thing, I had a flash of illumination. Initially, my old familiar litany of self deprecating thoughts had surged in, but then something amazing happened! Another voice rose to the forefront of my mind. It said, “Wait a minute, this is rubbish! I’m actually a good woman. I deserve better than this. I deserve to be appreciated, and cherished and loved.” These were revolutionary notions to me. I had always loved deep and hard, and would do the utmost for the ones I loved. But I never truly, deeply believed that people loved me. Experiences like the one I just recounted would reinforce my belief that I was unlovable, and I would then unconsciously interact with people through the assumption that I was not truly loved. I recognized that I did this in all my relationships, both romantic and platonic. I hungered for love, but did not truly believe that I was capable of receiving it. For the first time in my life, something inside me rose up to challenge that notion, and I decided to commit myself to dismantling my self- deprecating internal monster.
“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”John Milton, Paradise Lost
The highway ahead of me is a vague sea of gray. Drenched in numbness, I will my eyes to stay open. I barely care, but deep inside I remind myself that I’m still afraid to die, so I must not rest these burning eyeballs yet. Surroundings, surreal, flow past as if in a dream or nightmare. “My life is over!”
“But it isn’t really over, is it? We have been shattered before, and we have healed.”
Even after years of self-talk using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I still have frequent moments of intense struggle with my inner mind. My anxiety and tendencies toward depression are an unfortunate genetic inheritance that I decided would not define and drive my life. When I learned about Cognitive Behavioral and Truth Therapies, I decided to put them into practice on my own. At first, it took excruciating almost constant discipline. I would become mentally exhausted and disoriented as I interrupted my natural thought-flow and battled my shockingly profuse array of misbeliefs and dysfunctional thinking patterns. At times, I was tempted to give up, but I chose to persevere, and in time, began to form new mental habits. It became more natural to catch an errant thought and present the truth. I gathered tools for my mental tool belt. And I endeavored to pass these tools to others who needed them.
One of the hardest things is knowing the way, trying to show the way to someone you love, and having them not take hold of it. I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog, always wanted to love people back together. But when I started to really find myself, I swore off of it. “I need someone who’s healing or healed…” I told myself. But how much healing is healed enough? Perhaps I have learned the hard way, that it’s a certain kind of readiness that makes the difference. A readiness that can’t be rushed or manufactured, that can’t be wished or loved into existence. It must, at some juncture, emerge determinatively from within.
If someone has not decided and settled within a readiness, a blazing determination to do all the work required, then you will offer these tools in vain. When the internal misbeliefs and coping mechanisms are still considered Friend and Protector, the ego will retaliate against every assault upon them. Efforts to encourage and inspire and remind them will all be perceived as an assault. Only the individual themself may wage the war, and choose to relinquish these things. It can be complicated, because a person may truly want, and make efforts and progress toward change. But if they have not entirely and radically committed all to the endeavor, it will not be enough. It will thus remain a rollercoaster up and down as with one arm they throttle their misbeliefs and with the other they cling to them. No, they must resolutely let them go. And must then continue to turn the lies away each time they come back knocking on the door of the mind. It isn’t an easy process. It takes immense discipline and perseverance at the most difficult and often emotionally charged moments. But it is possible when one refuses to be a coward and a captive to the habits of their inner mind.
“Awake, arise or be for ever fall’n.”John Milton, Paradise Lost
One must turn their rogue agent. Until one finally throws the entire weight of their inner rebel behind the right cause, one may not fully overcome and heal. All the energies of the rebel must be harnessed to rebel against the destructive force that perpetuates dysfunction and wreckage in their life. It must be turned from bucking against pain, because healing is a painful process, and life lived to the fullest includes pain. It must be turned from rebelling against insult to rebel instead against the self deprecation that feeds insecurity, and in turn perceives insult.
We must each internalize the reality that all the love in the world won’t be enough until we love ourselves. And as one famous actor so insightfully said, “Self love is discipline.” You must love yourself too much to allow yourself to choose things that are not in your own best interest, whether it be a food choice, an activity choice, a relationship choice, or the root issue of all things: a dysfunctional thought choice. If we truly look with open insight, we will see the patterns in our life that prove which beliefs are not in our best interest and the best interest of those who love us. Loving ourselves and loving others is more closely related than most of us have realized. The ego that looks first and primarily to its own preservation from pain ultimately achieves neither that nor the preservation of others. It does not love either itself or others, it merely fears. Although a vain and arrogant complacency may be reached, the possibility of true joy and fulfillment has been rejected. All is lost. The rebel must come to realize that what they are clinging to is neither friend nor protector, regardless of whether it has enabled them to survive in the past. A life truly lived is not a life merely survived. Yet, until the readiness is there, the ego will keep throwing tools back in the faces of those who want to help, thinking only that it’s under attack.
Until you’re fed up enough that come hell or high water, you grab those tools and throw your entire being into doing the work. Until you take those tools and fight your demons and slay your dragons and lay them to rest. Until you want to change, until you want freedom, as desperately as a drowning man needs his next breath—you remain in bondage. Until then, you will drown every lifeguard who comes to save you.
“To love or not; in this we stand or fall.”John Milton
I blinked at last, to quell the acid in my eyes. Behind them, the image of an old photograph arose. A little girl, about four years old, stands in a dark church room with her thumb up but her face contradicting it with fear, mistrust and uncertainty. “If you won’t protect her…” my mind whispers, “I will.”
My counselor told me that people with self loathing and childhood traumas sometimes benefit from keeping a photo of themselves as a child in their room, and giving it regular reassurances. “You’re safe now. I’ll take care of you. I love you.” and so on. Some find it easier to have compassion on a child who is their former self, than on their present self. The traumatized inner child may not have received the things it needed, but it is still able to be healed and matured. Incidentally, I have trouble believing it if I tell my child-self that she’s safe. But it does seem to help when I say I’ll do my best to take care of her.
It’s easy to tell someone “You need to love yourself.” But how does one actually go about developing that love? There isn’t necessarily a simple answer, but self talk really helps. Out loud self talk in the mirror. It’s surprisingly difficult for hurt people to look in the eye of their reflection and say positive things about themselves. It feels fake and untruthful. But when continued, day after day, it begins to do something. It becomes more believable, and eventually boosts confidence, positivity, motivation, and self-care. The things we tell ourselves regularly are the things we end up believing. Reinforcing negativity breeds a negative outlook. Some of us have spent years telling ourselves lies, and we believe them to be true. But we can re-program our minds if we are willing and committed to doing the work.
There is one who sees the shadows amidst the light, and another who sees the light amidst the shadows. Inescapably there is darkness in this life. Irrefutably there is also light. We may choose to walk in the light, or we may choose to walk in darkness. We choose. We must each choose.
“This horror will grow mild, this darkness light.”
“Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind.”John Milton, compiled
One thought on “A Hell of Heaven: Moments That Define”
Understood! Though we may receive pain as an inheritance, we may choose to view it as a gift of good fortune designed to reveal a disguised opportunity.
Once fertilized, pain can gestate triumph or defeat, gold or stubble—whichever we choose to conceive.
If we choose to conceive triumph, it is fertilized with honesty, positivity, trust and hope, and we bear the difficulties of it draining our resources to ensure it’s growth for the full term—but then we give birth to new life and obtain the gold!
If we choose to default to defeat, the term is easy and the fruit is stillborn—the opportunity stubble.