The holidays can be a difficult time for people to manage their mental health. We can try to smile and pretend like everything is ok. Going through a difficult time or a “dark night of the soul” can be especially heavy this time of year. This episode of our podcast is for those facing personal challenges, asking tough questions, confronting troublesome truths, and making hard changes in their life during the holiday time.
TRANSCRIPT: Not This! Mental Health and the Holidays
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. So you may find that I’m not doing weekly podcasts, and I haven’t been for a while, not because that was my intention really, just because I’m trying to take care of myself and put my emotional and mental health first, and there are just days where it does not get done, and so I’ve given myself permission to miss a week. I don’t know that I’ve missed two weeks in a row, but that’s just what’s going on. I’ve had a few people ask because I’ve been pretty consistent in the time that I’ve done the podcast with doing weekly podcasts, and I’ve just had to this year, it’s one of the things that I’ve just decided I can’t keep up with, and if that’s one of the things that gets moved off of my plate, then I’ve given myself permission to do that.
Already I’m starting this new week, it’s the first week back from Thanksgiving, and I’m starting this week with the thought it’s Monday night and I’m recording this, and I’m thinking, what have I forgotten to do for this week? And I can’t come up with anything, but that’s never a good sign when you’re starting out your week thinking, what have I forgotten to do that’s going to come up and surprise me this week?
So this podcast episode is not going to be one of those warm, fuzzy, happy feeling about the holidays kind of podcast episodes. Every year as a therapist when the holidays come around, it can be bittersweet, and every year I have clients who are not in a holiday, festive, celebrating, gratitude kind of space, and it’s usually hard for them. It’s hard for me to see the pain and to just sit with them in this space.
I also think, while it’s hard for me to do that, I also find it to be a privilege for them to be vulnerable like that and to be able to not put on a smile or to make themselves appear to be what everybody else expects them to be at this time of year and to just really let down and kind of open up and be vulnerable about where they really are, and so I just want to do a podcast episode for those people who are dreading the holidays, who are finding themselves now with Thanksgiving just past, we’re right in the middle of the holiday season, moving into Christmas and New Year’s, and they’re just in this place of dread about the holidays, and it feels like a big, black, grey cloud hanging over them.
So this episode is for you because we all have those times, and if you’re in that space, then I want you to honor that space that you’re in. It’s an important space when we’re in that space, and we shouldn’t just brush past it or put on some fake smile or offer up a useless platitude is what I call them.
Often when we’re in this place, I’ll talk to clients about a dark night of the soul. A dark night of the soul is a term that goes back a long time. Dark night of the soul was given retroactively to an untitled poem written by the 16th-Century Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross, where he describes in this poem the anguish of the separation of an individual soul from God while he was imprisoned for his unconventional religious beliefs.
Now it’s a term that’s used to describe what one would call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life, an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what we conventionally call depression. Nothing makes sense anymore. It’s hard to find purpose to anything.
Now there’s an excellent book… It’s a heavy book. It’s a weighty book, but it’s an excellent book entitled “The Dark Nights of the Soul” by Thomas Moore. He talks a lot in there about the dark night of the soul and actually the purpose and the invitation that the dark night offers and extends to us, and that in our current culture, in our current society, often we want to just kind of slap a band-aid on that or wash over it with a fresh coat of white paint and pretend that that’s not there, and we don’t see the invitation. We don’t see the extended hand from the shadow side of ourselves, this dark night of the soul.
Thomas Moore says, “I reserve the expression ‘dark night of the soul’ for a dark mood that is truly life-shaking and touches the foundations of experience, the soul itself. But sometimes a seemingly insignificant event can give rise to a dark night. With dark nights, you always have to be alert for the invisible memories, narratives, and concerns that may not be apparent on the surface.”
So a dark night of the soul actually goes beyond depression. Sometimes, though, we may think of it as depression if we’re glossing over it, if we’re not seeing the extended invitation to us. Anyone can go through a period of sadness or a challenge that is so deep-seeding and tenacious that it qualifies as a dark night of the soul. A dark night of the soul isn’t depression, although being stuck in a dark night could make you think that it’s just depression that needs to be medicated, maybe schedule with a therapist, but a dark night includes a brokenness by some loss or failure or long-forgotten emotional wound that leaves one in a desperately dark place.
Faced with a dark night, many people treat it like an illness. It’s just depression. They may, like I said, take medication or schedule an appointment with a therapist, looking for the reason behind this. Now it can be useful to search for the roots of a dark night, but as Thomas Moore says, “In my experience, the best way to deal with it is to find the concrete action or decision that the dark night is asking for.”
He says, “During the dark night, there is no choice but to surrender control, giving into unknowing and stop and listen to whatever signals of wisdom might come along. It’s a time of enforced retreat and perhaps unwilling withdrawal. The dark night is more than a learning experience. It’s a profound initiation into a realm that nothing in the culture, so preoccupied with external concerns and material success, prepares you for.”
Now if you’ve had a dark night of the soul, unfortunately that doesn’t mean you’re one and done. Often as we continue to evolve as human beings in our lives, if we’re open to this process of expansion and evolvement and awakening, we may have several dark nights of the soul. A dark night of the soul is a deeply miserable process of growth in order to come out the other side a more conscious and mature individual with more wisdom and awareness. It’s a painful shedding of previously held conceptions such as an identity, a relationship, a career, a habit, or belief system that previously allowed a person to construct meaning and purpose in their life.
Joseph Campbell said, “The dark night of the soul comes just before revelation, when everything is lost and all seems darkness. Then comes the new life and all that is needed.” During this dark night of the soul, a person can struggle with their sense of meaning in the world. Everything can seem purposeless, and it can seem like there’s just no place where they belong and there’s nothing that they can connect to.
I have some clients explain it, and it resonates with me. I’ve had a few dark nights of the soul. I’ve had them explain it like I hear these words going on outside of me, but I can’t connect with them or I can’t make sense with them. They’re usually intense feelings of sadness, frustration, loss, hopelessness, and meaninglessness.
Thomas Moore says, “A dark night of the soul is a vast interior landscape of loneliness and abandonment. Solitude is our only companion in a dark night. Even if the midst of our loved ones and friends, we persist in feeling desperately alone. Darkness invokes extreme contrast between our immense feelings of solitude and deep desire to belong to something greater than ourselves. The suffering that results overwhelmingly defines our presence in the world. Patience is essential, as any attempt to forcefully speed up the process actually only hinders the process.”
Joshua Press, when we was writing about the dark night of the soul, said, “The dark night of the soul can convince you that it’s just because you aren’t doing enough. Your peers certainly may reinforce this idea. They don’t understand that there are feelings that you need to feel and hang-ups you need to overcome in order to be functional again.”
This reminds me of a phenomenon that I see often in both my personal and my professional life, and that is that people in general are afraid to be vulnerable. We’re not very open, and we’re not very honest about where we are and who we are, and as long as we’re ensconced in our own shells, we are also afraid to be a witness to someone else who is in a vulnerable state, so often we give them these useless platitudes in an attempt to make them feel better, when in reality we’re actually only trying to make ourselves feel better.
I see this often when people meet someone for the first time. We tend to ask them what they do, and then we tell them the things that we do. Rarely do we ask about who they are or tell them who we are. That is an extremely vulnerable conversation to have. We’re quick to latch onto this concept of what we do, rather than who we are. We see our works and our deeds as enhancing and demonstrating maybe our faith and our righteousness or our goodness or worthiness, but we don’t see compassion and empathy as markers of our commitment to the divine.
I see more and more that the work that is ambiguous and often emotionally uncomfortable to perform is often the work that “doesn’t count.” It literally, this emotional work, this deep, dark work, literally goes uncounted in the daily tally of all the things that must be met. This need for emotional connection, for play, for being present with loved ones, is as vital as putting food on the table if we want to have healthy selves, healthy families, healthy communities. As Joshua Press wrote, “One thing to remember is that you don’t need to ‘be more’. You need to ‘be’ more.”
Several years ago, maybe about four or five years ago, I can’t do the math right now, I’d have to think about dates to put an exact year to it, but it was around four or five years ago, I was going through one of these dark nights of the soul where the constructs that I had been handed at birth and in my childhood that helped me to make sense of the world and to help me kind of construct my perspectives started to collapse, and I came across this writing by Liz Gilbert the author. Yes, that one. Eat Pray Love, that author, and it just really resounded with me, and I knew that I had bookmarked it. I knew that I had kind of saved it somewhere. Thank goodness for technology that I can kind of piece together enough of it to be able to find it.
So I have a client that I’m meeting with who’s in one of these dark nights, and when we meet, the sessions are heavy, and they’re holy, and there’s not much that I can do to fix it because you can’t fix a dark night. That’s not the point of a dark night, and so I reassure him that where he is is okay, that there’s something meaningful in what he’s going through. To borrow the phrase from the 12-step communities, nothing is wasted. Sometimes there’s long pauses of silence where I just sit and hold space with him.
So as I’ve met with him and thought about him and thought about the holidays and how hard that can be when you’re in this place, the holidays are hard, but it’s also… it’s really hard to have a dark night in the middle of July, where everybody’s happy and the world at least in the northern hemisphere is in blossom and bloom and we’re socializing and we’re gathering. It’s also hard in July to be in a dark night. I don’t know that there’s a good time to have a dark night.
So I looked for this, and I found it, and I’ve read it multiple times. I sent it to this client, and I love it today as much as I did at the time when I was in my own dark night. She says this:
“Dear ones, most of us at some point in our lives, unless we’ve done everything perfectly, which is nobody, will have to face a terrible moment in which we realize that we have somehow ended up in the wrong place or at least in a very bad place. Maybe we will have to admit that we are in the wrong job or the wrong relationship with the wrong people around us, living in the wrong neighborhood, acting out on the wrong behaviors, using the wrong substances, pretending to believe things that we no longer believe, pretending to be something we were never meant to be.
This moment of realization is seldom fun. In fact, it’s usually terrifying. I call this moment of realization ‘Not this’ because sometimes that’s all you know at such a moment. All you know is ‘Not this.’
Sometimes that’s all you can know. All you know is that some deep life force within you is saying, ‘Not this,’ and it won’t be silenced. Your body is saying, ‘Not this.’ Your heart is saying, ‘Not this’. Your soul is saying, ‘Not this’. But your brain can’t bring itself to say ‘Not this’ because that would cause a serious problem.
The problem is you don’t have a plan B in place. This is the only life you have. This is the only job you have. This is the only spouse you have. This is the only house you have. Your brain says, ‘It may not be great, but we have to put up with it because there are no other options. You’re not sure how you got here to this place of ‘this’, but you sure as hell don’t know how to get out.
So your brain says, ‘We need to keep putting up with this because this is all we have.’ But still, beating like a quiet drum, your body and your heart and your soul keep saying, ‘Not this. Not this. Not this.’
I think some of the bravest people I have ever met were people who had the courage to say this words ‘Not this’ out loud, even before they had an alternative plan. People who walked out of bad situations without knowing if there was a better situation on the horizon. People who looked at the life they were in, and they said, ‘I don’t know what my life is supposed to be, but it’s not this.’ And then they just left.
I think of my friend who walked out of a marriage after less than a year and had to move back in with her mother, back into her childhood bedroom and face the condemnation of the entire community while she slowly created a new life for herself. Everyone said, ‘If he’s not good enough for you, who will be?’ She didn’t know. She didn’t know anything about what her life would look like now, but it started with her saying, ‘Not this.’
I think of my friend who took her three young children away from a toxic marriage, despite the fact that her husband supported her and the kids financially, and the four of them, this woman and her three children, all slept in one bed together in a tiny studio apartment for a few years while she struggled to build a new life. She was poor. She was scared. She was alone, but she had to listen to the voices within her that said ‘Not this.’
I think of friends who walked out of jobs with no job waiting for them because they said, ‘Not this.’ I think of friends who quit school rather than keep pretending that they cared about this field of study anymore, and yes, they lost the scholarship, and yes, they ended up working at a fast food restaurant while everyone else was getting degrees, and yes, it took them a while to figure out where to go next, but there was a relief at last in just surrendering to the holy, non-negotiable truth of ‘Not this.’
I think of friends who bravely walked into AA meetings and just fell apart in front of a room full of total strangers and said, ‘Not this.’ I think of a friend who pulled her children out of Sunday School in the middle of church one Sunday because she’d had it with the judgement and self-righteousness of this particular church. Yes, it was her community. Yes, it was her tribe, but she physically could not be in that building anymore without feeling that she would explode. She didn’t know where she was going spiritually or within her community, but she said, ‘Not this’ and walked out.
Rationally, it’s crazy to abandon a perfectly good life or at least a familiar life in order to jump into a mystery. No sane person would advise you to make such a leap with no plan B in place. We are supposed to be careful. We are supposed to be prudent, and yet if you keep ignoring the voices within you that say, ‘Not this,’ just because you don’t know what to do, instead you may end up stuck in ‘Not this’ forever.
You don’t need to know where you’re going to admit that where you are standing right now is wrong. The bravest thing to say can be these three words: what comes next? I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. It might be worse. It might be better. But whatever it is, it’s not this.”
Isn’t that amazing? Oh, when I just read that, as I’ve read it over the past week, it reminds me of where I’ve been, things that I had to say “Not this”, and some I said it with courage and I said it with conviction, and other times I whispered it. I only said it to my husband, or I only said it to myself, and it brings back the heaviness and the hardness and the challenge and where I am today and how I got here.
There is the possibility that you emerge out of it into a transformed state of consciousness. Life has meaning again, but it’s no longer a conceptual meaning that you can necessarily explain. Quite often it’s from there that people awaken out of their conceptual sense of reality, which has collapsed.
Thomas Moore said, “As they awaken into something deeper, a deeper sense of purpose or connectedness, with a greater life that is not dependent on explanations or anything conceptual, it’s a kind of re-birth. The dark night of the soul is a kind of death. What dies is the egoic sense of self. Of course death is always painful, but nothing real has actually died, only an illusory identity. Now it is probably the case that some people who have gone through this transformation realize that they had to go through that in order to bring about an awakening. Often this is part of the awakening process. The death of the old self and the birth of the true self. You now go around the universe without any longer interpreting it compulsively, as an innocent presence.”
I remember when I was young, I was 14 or 15, I’ve talked about it before on this podcast when my mom was in the hospital for the better part of the summer. My mom had Chron’s disease, and she was diagnosed, she had her first incident that led to the diagnosis when I was in the third grade, and she had surgery and was in the hospital for a while, I don’t really remember much about that time, and then the summer right before school ended, I think it was the end of my ninth grade year, I think I was 15, she had another flare-up, and it was a pretty bad flare-up, and she ended up in the hospital, and over the course of different events and different infections she developed and a reaction to a medicine and different things like that, she was in the hospital for the better part of three and a half months, something like that. By the time she came out of the hospital, my next school year had started.
So I remember during that time period, I didn’t really talk very much about that time period. My older sister had a job, so she was working a lot. I’ve mentioned before, my dad, I don’t even know where he was. He was never home. He was “working”. So I was home in charge of my four younger siblings for most of that summer, and I didn’t really talk to anybody about how I felt about it or what I thought about it, but I remember I had one friend named Joette, and she would talk to me about it, and she wouldn’t just accept. You know, sometimes people would talk about it, and I’d maybe give them a factual update, and they’d move on with that information that I gave them, but Joette didn’t. Joette wanted to know how I felt, and when I didn’t really have the words to explain how I felt, Joette would imagine how she would feel if she were in my shoes, and she would tell me how she would feel if she were in my shoes.
Her mom kind of had an inside scoop on things that were going on with my mom that maybe I as her child didn’t have because I was a kid, so I remember one night, Joette called me, and something had happened with my mom. I think this was when she had a really bad reaction to the medicine that they’d given her, a new medicine that they’d given her, and Joette did not know that I did not know this, but she had overheard her mom talking with some neighbors and some people who knew the situation on the phone, so she rang me up right away and called me to see how I was going, and I remember her saying to me, “How are you doing with the fact that your mom just almost died?” And I was like, “What?”
I remember at that age kind of having this belief… again, I was given this construct that if I was good enough, if I was worthy enough, and if I prayed hard enough, God would answer my prayer, and I had been praying most of the summer that nothing would happen to my mom, and I kind of had this immature maybe faith that God would not take my mom from us because he would never leave us with my dad, that he knew how bad my dad was and he would never do that to us. So I remember reassuring Joette. I don’t think I really told her about these prayers that I was having as a teenager, young teenager, but I remember saying like, “No, it’s fine. She’s going to be fine.”
And I don’t remember the timeframe. I want to say maybe it was a week later. That was a time in my life where time didn’t really make sense to me, or it wasn’t really being counted the way that time normally is counted, so I want to say maybe a week later, I was watching the news, and there was a story of a family who the father had murdered the wife and I think like two of the kids and then two of the older kids, like they were… one was I think around my age, and the other one was a little bit older, but all of the children were minors, so the two older children, the teens had survived. I don’t think they were home at the time, and then the mom and two of the younger kids had been murdered by the dad.
I mean, that’s a horrifying story, but I remember watching that on the news, and this belief that I had, this construct that I had that somehow I was safe and God was looking out for me just kind of erupted, and it didn’t exist anymore, and I remember thinking like surely these two teenagers… again, one was close to my age, couldn’t have done anything bad enough that God wouldn’t keep their mom alive and would leave them with their dad. Now obviously he probably went to prison. I don’t really remember a whole lot more of the story or really watching or keeping informed on the story because I think it broke me in some ways, and I knew that I wasn’t more special than those kids, and that I knew that there was this fragility to life, and that there was unfairness that happened.
I remember that was probably one of the first dark nights of the soul, even though I was 15, I was really immature, but it started some cracks in the foundation that I had been given as a kid to make sense of my world and to make sense of me and my family in this world. So like I said, when we go through these dark nights of the soul, and usually if we’ve gone through one, there’s the possibility that we’re going to go through another, you go around the universe no longer interpreting it compulsively, as an innocent presence, as being the center of the world’s happenings. You start to look upon events and people with a deep sense of aliveness. You sense the aliveness through your own sense of aliveness, but you’re not trying to fit your experience into a framework anymore or into a box.
So what are some tips for dealing with a dark night? Well, I would say one of the first is don’t waste time in illusions and wishes. Take it on. Know that you’re there. Keep your sense of worth and power. Keep your vision intact. But let your darkness speak and give its tone to your bearing and to your expression. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling, even if nobody else around you can connect with that or knows what that’s doing or wants to tell you how to quickly get out of it or how to solve it. It doesn’t work that way. You don’t know what comes next. I don’t know what comes next. Nobody knows what comes next.
There will be people who will offer you answers, and you might think that that’ll make it better. It might actually make it worse, but if you’re in this place of “Not this”, know that this is a dark night, and unlike our timetable, it lasts usually longer than just one night, and it’s heavy, and it has meaning, and it has purpose. Allow yourself to go through it.
I remember talking to a sponsor years ago that I had six years ago, and I was working through some things in my life, and she was a mentor to me, and I remember talking to her, and she said… I think I said something to the effect.. and I know she’s not the only person who’s said this, but it was really profound when she said it to me at that particular time in my life, and I just said something about the pain and the misery that I was experiencing, and she said, “You know, the best advice I can give you when you’re walking through hell is to keep walking.”
You know, we kind of laughed a little bit. It was nice to laugh a little bit and have a little bit of lightness in the moment, and that would be my advice, too. Keep walking. Keep going. Keep awakening. Keep feeling. Because we have to keep feeling. And in a world that tells us to think, the only way through a dark night of the soul is to feel. So if you’re in this place during the holidays, or during anytime that you’re listening to this episode, keep walking, and know that there is purpose in what you’re feeling and that nothing is wasted.