I write this post for those who are going through the dark night of the soul. I write this post to affirm that this is a natural part of life. I write this post to try and dispel the shame and guilt we feel for being in this place. I write this post to offer encouragement that by allowing yourself to experience it, with support and compassion, you will be transformed. For the butterfly can only emerge after the caterpillar has been wrapped tightly in its cocoon.
I’ve been guilty of looking for guarantees in this life. I’ve spent plenty of time under the belief that by being a “good girl” I was going to avoid the things that terrified me most. I took great care of my health, and I still was diagnosed with cancer. I’ve been a good friend, and still experienced loss. I’ve worked hard to face adversity head on, and still experienced setbacks. And with each of these experiences, I recognized that my beliefs and expectations were the components that caused me the most suffering, not the experience itself. When I lifted off the shackles of beliefs and expectations, I became free to appreciate the efforts I have made in this life rather than feel like I had failed. I became open to the spiritual and personal growth that adversity brings.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of hearing those words “You are cancer free” followed by “we found stage O DCIS in your other breast” (abnormal cells that likely would have caused another round of breast cancer). My provider wanted to reassure me that having the bilateral mastectomy was definitely the right choice, and would have been the course of action had we discovered this beforehand. I was in complete shock, in no way had I anticipated hearing those words. When I was diagnosed, I had a little more preparation for hearing it… the dream I had, the lump I found, the biopsy. I had been a “good girl”, I had taken all of those rounds of chemotherapy like a trooper, and still that sneaky bastard (ie cancer) had found a place to grow. It still stirs feelings of anger when I think of it, and that is ok. This anger is a natural response that validates me rather than dominates me.
I have walked with many on their journey into the dark night of the soul. The questioning looks are always there, the anxiety of feeling their way through it. We are wired for survival, so it can feel really counter-intuitive to say to yourself “I’m going in”. All sorts of warning signals are going off, and the choir of the “shoulds” (ie our judgmental voices) are singing loudly. And when the question the comes, is this the path I need to be on?, I always nod yes WITH the reminder of packing up the provisions for the journey.
So if you find yourself in a place in which you are facing the dark night of the soul, think about what you want to put in the knapsack. My recommendation is to think about what is going to sustain you through it, there are going to be parts that you will traverse completely on your own but that doesn’t mean you can’t have company. Creating a visual journal through art begins with sitting down each day and asking yourself “Where am I at right now” and “What do I need”. Represent the responses you get to these questions through color, shape and form on the paper. Let your instincts guide you, and after you have finished allow for some time to free write about what happened in this session. This practice becomes a tool for self validation and witnessing, which are essential elements for healing.
– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.