I’m taking a break from blogging this week because I have been trying not to die from strep throat and haven’t had the energy to put into a post. My final post on reclaiming healing will come next week.
In the last two posts, I began exploring what healing means to me, starting with dismantling the myth that healing is some sort of final destination. Last week, I focused on the multifaceted nature of healing (e.g. it’s not just one thing). Now I want to somewhat return to the idea of healing as a journey metaphor.
One of the earliest ways that I came to think about healing was in the context of the story of Inanna.
Inanna decides to visit the Underworld when she hears about her sister (shadow self) grieving the death of her husband.
As Inanna takes the journey into the Underworld, she has to pass through seven gates. At each gate she is required to give up one of her Goddess symbols until she gets down there stark naked. She goes into the court where her sister is grieving, but rather than empathize with the pain she sees, she mocks her sister.
In a rage, Ereshkigal orders Inanna to be hung on meat hooks, where Inanna stays for some time. Eventually her lady’s maid/friend/person, Ninshubur, realizes that she isn’t coming back on her own and goes around to all the other gods seeking assistance with getting Inanna back. One of the gods eventually takes pity and creates these creatures that go with Ninshubur down to the Underworld.
Once down there, they begin weeping and grieving with Ereshkigal, and they do that until Ereshkigal releases Inanna.
When Inanna returns to the upper world, she brings with her characteristics of the Underworld goddess.
In turn, it’s hinted that Ereshkigal is pregnant (a characteristic of the role that Inanna played with fertility and life). So each goddess integrates portions of the other.
Thereafter, Inanna spends part of her time in the upper world and part of her time in the Underworld, and the changing of the seasons is born.
While Inanna’s is hardly the only goddess myth that involves a goddess going down into the Underworld, it’s significant to me in that Inanna does so voluntarily (as opposed to being kidnapped or tricked). I love the image of an intentional, cyclic descent into the dark places of the soul in order to integrate and retrieve those lost, wounded parts of the self.
However, it’s not a static cycle either. Inanna doesn’t repeat the same journey each time. She doesn’t forget what happened in the Underworld. She doesn’t lose what she gained down there. Each time she descends, though we don’t get a tale all over again, it’s implied that she maintains what she has accomplished and the integration she has achieved.
Even the seasons themselves, one of the most profound demonstrations of cycles, are not static. They build on each other.
Healing is not easy. It’s not always pleasant. Often times, it can feel like I am revisiting the same topic over and over, yet the story of Inanna reminds me that while there might be similarities in the process of descent, pain, stripping away of that which protects me, and meeting my fragmented, shadow parts, I am never actually taking the same journey twice.
Healing is a progressive cycle. Each time around, something is different. Maybe it’s that I recognize the things that got me stuck before and avoid them more easily or that I take yet another step towards a decision that I know I need to make but haven’t been able to follow through on yet.
Most often, there is some element of further integration with a part of me that was too emotionally raw to integrate all at one swoop. Repeated journeys into the same territory allow me to do pieces of work that would overwhelm me otherwise. The journey is necessary in exactly the way that it is happening. There’s only so much I can process and face at one time before I need to come back up for air and recuperation.
We live in a society that wants a quick fix for everything, from health to wealth, that I think we have somewhat forgotten that the most important things cannot be done quickly. This is true especially for healing, I think. No one has the resources to stay in the Underworld non-stop. Trying to force more to happen than is ready to happen only causes more damage as the wounds “hang us on meat hooks.”
My contention with the destination myth revolved around the finality of the journey, but Inanna’s story symbolizes how healing can indeed be a journey and a cycle at the same time.
It’s a journey whose destination is to revisit the shadow and the Underworld on a regular, intentional basis in order to further integrate the parts that have been lost down there.
It’s a journey that doesn’t devalue the role of recurrent themes or emotions as evidence of having failed to heal. Rather it portrays them as normal parts of the process that need empathy rather than scoffing and judgment.
Welcome to part 2 of my reclaiming healing mini-series. If you missed part 1, you can find it here. This week I’m going to begin exploring one of the aspects of healing that stand out to me as I explore the meaning of the concept for myself.
But first, a relevant tangent.
In my dedication to radical self-care, I have learned that there is a nauseating pop-culture view of wellness that makes me want to smack people…and then there is the more nuanced concept of wellness as developed by researchers.
If I were to listen to pop culture, I would think that wellness was a light switch with two positions, Well or Not Well. Usually it’s relegated to one or two facotrs, e.g. physical wellness or emotional wellness.
But when I look at wellness more deeply, I realize that it’s a multi-faceted, ever-changing thing. And it’s not so much about obtaining perfection in all of the facets as it is about balancing them and obtaining the best functioning of them all in that period of time.
Thus, someone can have a physical health problem and still be relatively well if they have a strong support network, a healthy environment, plenty of resources, methods of caring for themselves emotionally and physically, and a way of finding hope or meaning through the experience.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. I think as a society we have a tendency to reduce healing to as simplistic and ineffective a model as we do wellness, but if we were to actually look at a visual representation of healing, I’d bet double the amount I owe on student loans that it would be more like the wellness wheel than like a light switch.
Last week, I talked quite a bit about physical healing and the parallels I see to emotional/psychological healing, but it doesn’t just have parallels. The mind and body are astounding in the way they relate to each other, and science is just beginning to scratch the surface of how interrelated they can be around trauma (for a deeper look, check out Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score).
In the healing work I have done around my sexual abuse, I have had to learn how to respect that mind-body connection and the reality that memory is stored in my muscles as much as in my brain. Both my body and my mind have to heal, but they require different kinds of healing practices. Counseling has been invaluable to my mental and emotional healing, but it took working with a physical therapist to address some of the physical damage.
But like wellness, healing is not just emotional and physical. Growing up in a cult is a relational trauma, and there has been a social component to my healing as well. I’ve had to learn how to trust again. I’ve had to learn how to take relational chances and open up to people—how to ask for help or reach out for support. And most importantly, I’ve had to learn how to set boundaries.
The cult was also a spiritually abusive place though, so healing my spiritual life has been a large focus of my journey. Much of that has taken the form of exploring Paganism and Goddess spirituality…which could also be seen as a healing of my gender identity as I created new ways of thinking about the feminine that didn’t root it in shame, inferiority, and perversity.
Already I have loosely and easily covered several of the wellness wheel spokes. I could go on and on tracing a map of healing in a myriad of places. I use the wellness wheel as a jumping off point for visualizing, but it could be just as easily portrayed as a web.
The short of it is: healing is simply not simple. It’s multifaceted in a gorgeously complex and interdependent way.
This past month marked the anniversary of the death of someone who was like family to me. The pain was intense, and I had my fair flood of tears. No one pointed a finger at my recurring grief to accuse me of not having healed from my loss.
Continuing to miss a loved one who has passed, continuing to hurt when little reminders come up or special days go by—that’s all perfectly fine and normal for death because it’s a huge event in someone’s life.
Most people understand that healing from that doesn’t mean losing the emotion around it.
However, people aren’t always so understanding about other significant events that can happen to people, particularly trauma and abuse. Fairly frequently, when people find out I don’t think forgiveness is necessary for healing…and often detrimental in its universal prescription, people will challenge me by asking if I still have any anger or pain left over from my abuse—as if the presence of either indicates that my attempts at healing have failed.
It’s an interesting measuring stick—one that reveals how confused we are about what it means to heal, psychologically or emotionally.
Is healing a destination, a place you reach where you can say that an event no longer bothers you, that any “negative” emotions associated with it are gone?
I think not.
I wouldn’t want to have zero emotional charge around the biggest events of my life. I wouldn’t want my abuse to be as insignificant to me as the breakfast I ate two years ago.
We understand healing better on a physical level.
When you get a papercut, it’s pretty simple to imagine that you will need to give it a few days to mend. Generally a band aid is all that is needed, maybe some ointment. It probably won’t even leave a scar. Two weeks from now, the papercut will be so far beyond bothering you that it might be forgotten entirely.
Of course, papercuts are hardly the worst injury that can happen physically. If you break a bone or have surgery, healing takes a lot longer. There might be scar tissue, or physical therapy may be required to regain strength and mobility.
If the injury is severe enough, healing might not mean getting back to former functioning. You might have a limp, or chronic pain, or need to adjust the way you do some things because you’ve lost an ability.
In that instance, healing is more about ending the critical injury and learning how to optimize functioning around limitations.
Which brings me back to the idea of healing psychologically.
Trauma isn’t a papercut.
It would be absurd to expect someone to heal from something life-altering at the rate that we would expect them to get over the frustration of their partner forgetting to put the cap back on the toothpaste.
It would also be absurd to expect that a life-altering event would “heal” to the extent that it was as if it never happened—no emotional charge, no recurrent memories, no resurrected pain on anniversary dates or around significant reminders.
So how do we define it?
I think a big step in the right direction would be to discard the notion that healing is something we do and have done with.
It’s not a destination.
I’m going to be taking the next few weeks to focus on healing, doing what I have done with my series on negative emotions–defining it in a way that works for me. Because I don’t think healing should be set up as an impossible-to-reach standard, nor should it reinforce harmful myths about shadow emotions.
I hope you will join me on this journey and think about how you might define healing for yourself.