Mountain Survival Kit

regenerative places, navigating sustained grief

You go on by doing the best you can. You go on by being generous. You go on by being true. You go on by offering comfort to others who can’t go on. You go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and allowing the pleasure in other days. You go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage.    

—  Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

My Airbnb hostess heard me crying the shower at 6 am, I know because she told me over coffee while we stood on her front porch, overlooking the sunrise as it swept across the Blue Ridge Mountains this morning.  I turned to her and said, “It’s…I’m ok, there are days where I have to start by pulling myself up by the whip. You know (way) up north they have to use engine block heaters before they start their cars because antifreeze only works for half the components?  I kind of work like that.” She puts her hand tenderly on my arm - traces the summer triangle on my left shoulder and asks me how old I am.

I tell her I’m 33, and she says “You talk like someone in their fifties or sixties, and you look like you’re in your late twenties.” I tell her “Sustained grief is an old sound.” She smiles at me with the kind of smile that looks like it could break open into a hundred tears and rays of sunlight at the same time - she knows what I mean.

I’ve recently taken to staying in single rooms when I travel, vs. having a whole house/apartment to myself because it’s just me and I don’t need all that space, and it’s nice to know that someone is there - even if there are walls between us. There are always walls between me and everyone, no matter how hard I try to break them down. No-one is going to rush or break down my bathroom door and scour the rust from my shoulder blades except me. No-one is going to pull the grief out of my bones or throw the emptiness out of my arms, or add it to the spaces we breathe - unless I do. No-one is going to open my siren throat or wipe the salt from my cheeks. No-one is going to hold my hand through the darkness or stop the sword that comes swinging down in it. Some days I feel like the blade has never cut deeper into my palms - and I’m on my knees holding it centimeters above my head - but I have so much scar tissue in my hands it’s hard to tell.

One of the hardest parts of surviving long-term/repeated emotional abuse (gaslighting/lack of remorse especially) is feeling like we never truly know another - especially those we’re closest to. It’s not fear; it’s an expectation - that (almost) everyone will fall short. Eventually, they’ll disappoint us, lie to us, abandon and betray their virtues, promises, and morals in moments of crisis. There is no deeper, more profound, and disproportionate anguish than watching the person you love most in the world, your best friend, become unrecognizable all over again.

I’ve grown weary of the weakness of others, and I know how ironic/tragic that is. What’s left of my heroes are tired. Over half of them have given up or sold out. In the nearly eight years that I’ve been clean, I’ve had two sponsors relapse, had two sponsees die from going back out, saved two people from overdosing in gas-station parking lots, and had another die in my arms. I carry Narcan in my backpack because I halfway expect to come across another overdose in public any day now. And the disappointment, grief, and despair nearly split me in half some days, but I keep clinging to, searching for, nurturing, and holding out for the light. I hold on to the strength of others that are still here, and to those that came before me.

I know the world needs people like us right now more than it ever has before. I know that there’s no time for wishing that brighter days will come. I know that every moment could be our last chance to see the sun. I know that I have a song like a breath in my chest that can and will raise us. I know others, like you, carry it too. But I feel like it’s my duty to carry it - for as long as there are wind and blood pulsing in my body - even if I have to carry it alone.

I am, like many of you are, very tired and lonely. I feel discouraged whenever I turn on the news or open twitter. I know it’s our duty to be informed, but it’s not our responsibility to consume every negative piece of media and information that’s out there - even if it feels like penance. If we can’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be able to take care of others, much less fix the structures that are broken.

When I feel overwhelmed, I have to focus on tangible things I can do. I can make my family, workplace, community, and city better. I can call my representatives. I can donate, volunteer. Give to that homeless vet on the corner, listen to him for 15 minutes, make him feel like a human being. Get him help at the VA. I can hold my sister’s hand while she goes through her divorce. Teach my nephew. Show up, and encourage others. Equip people to be who they’re called to be. I can hold onto those two kids who shared that they both wanted to die in a meeting this past Monday night. I can show them a better path. How to know the darkness instead of fearing or succumbing to it. Explain that I used to be terrified of dying, and that was because I hadn’t yet begun to live. I can show them how to live.

Time and effort can and will transmute the unbearable pain of grief and trauma into something remarkable and beautiful - but only if we embrace that transformation. We have to stop trying to collect/reacquire the things we’ve lost and embrace that nothing worthwhile comes packaged the same way twice.

I watch the pastel sunset over Craggy Pinnacle alone; I feel the wind rush over me, the grime, sweat, and dirt between my hands - the tears running down my face. There are no ghosts here. Only beauty, echoes, and grief.

I came to the mountains to bring their strength back home.

I know they’ll give me as much as I can carry.