Healing Through the Dark Emotions

The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Dispair 

My third child was born with a neuro motor disability that has no name. She walks with leg braces and a body brace. Her hand use is severely limited. Her muscle tone is neurologically weak throughout her body, her coordination so poor and her muscle-sense so limited that she broke 11 bones in the first eight years of her life.

Esther has spent too many moments of her young life in pain. Her life is more limited than most. Yet she’s one of the happiest people I know. While her neurological system bogs her down, her emotional genius keeps her buoyant. Most of what I know about emotional alchemy comes from what she teaches me on a daily basis.

What I know about the alchemy of fear has not just come from the work I do as a psychotherapist. Mostly, it has come through facing my own demons.

Here’s how fear’s alchemy found me.

Esther had just learned to walk when she vaulted herself out of her crib. For more than two years, she’d been a fitful sleeper, especially after a particularly difficult motor milestone. Learning to walk was a mammoth accomplishment, requiring careful, continuous patience on her part and ours, because Esther did not learn to move without hours and hours of coaching and assistance. For weeks after her walking triumph, Esther didn’t sleep for more than two or three hours at a stretch. Getting her down to sleep was harder than ever. Bleary-eyed, we’d consulted a sleep expert who advised us to let her know that we’d be in the next room and then leave her in her crib until she cried herself to sleep.

Roger and I retreated to our bedroom, holding our hands over our ears. Esther did not cry herself to sleep. She cried herself into a majestic leap over the bars of her crib, vaulted by tears of rage. The fact that she was able to do it was the only silver lining in this episode. (It’s amazing what the energy of fear and anger can do!) Running into her room after we heard her fall, we found her dazed and whimpering, but apparently okay. By the next morning, however, she awoke with her neck tilted rigidly to the right. And we were off to Children’s Hospital again, a place we’ve come to know all too well.

The orthopedist called it torta collis. His assessment was alarming: Esther probably had a slipped cervical disc. She might well need hospitalization and traction. A CAT scan was scheduled for the following Monday, and she was discharged for the weekend under our care.

“Be careful that she doesn’t fall again.” the good doctor said, casually, as we got ready to leave, “or she might have further neurological complications.”

“Like what?” I asked ever the one to know the possibilities.

“Like paralysis from the neck down.”

Uttered with a disarming nonchalance, these careless words were a mainline of fear shot straight into the chambers of my heart. Had we come this far with Esther only to lose her to mundane falls that could make her quadriplegic?

I descended into a raw terror that would not loosen its grip for the next two days, a ragged zone of fear about Esther’s fragility. When not with Esther. I paced the floor praying for her safety. Feelings this powerful often compel us to seek comfort, distraction, or oblivion. But these options seemed useless. There was no pill or drink or TV program strong enough to distract me.

After several hours of trying vainly for some relief through sleep, I saw that there was no escape. I remembered a bit of advice that my midwife had given me when I was in the grip of labor; when you feel the pain coming, head straight into it. I decided to head straight into the fear, to make fear my meditation.

All night, I lay awake, experiencing a succession of physical and mental states that I tried to witness without flinching; a numbing cold in my extremities, my gut churning, my chest radiating with the sensation of hot dry ice. I watched my mind tell tragic tales about my life with a child impossible to protect: Esther paralyzed and unable to move, all her progress finished for all time. Esther in a wheelchair, immobile. Our lives in ruins. , After a seemingly endless time, I noticed a shift: the fear felt less like a siege and more like an energy moving though me. I began to be more curious about it, to just notice it.

At four in the morning, the fear broke, like a fever. And my mind’s agitation came to a full stop, I was thoroughly awake, in a state of wonder. Somehow, mysteriously, my heart had emptied itself and I was lifted up, in a state of inexplicable ecstasy. My face awash with tears of joy, I felt as though I could burst with it. Whatever this child brought me was going to be all right, I thought. At the same time, a warm energy coursed through my body, concentrating itself in my hands, which were now hot and tingling. A voice, quiet but insistent, said: “Go to your child.”

When voices like this insist, 1 do my best to listen. I got out of bed and followed directions, extending my hands over Esther’s body in the darkness. The energy seemed to stream out of my hands towards her sleeping form. After a timeless time, the voice said: “She’s all right.”

Another voice—the doubting voice that hardly ever leaves me, despite my many experiences as a reluctant mystic—whispered in my head, “This is really nuts. You’ve finally flipped.”1 decided to ignore it, since it seemed to have nothing constructive to say. Returning to my bed I saw the light begin to dawn, a rosy glow against the darkness. In my mind’s eye, a book, open to that table of contents, appeared to me. Looking closer 1 could actually see the chapter headings laid out before me; Grief and gratitude, fear and joy, despair and faith. I grabbed the pen and paper I always keep at my bedside and managed to scribble these words down before falling into a welcome, dreamless sleep. When I awoke a short time later, I felt impossibly rested and calm. We returned to the orthopedist on Monday, who declared with obvious befuddlement that Esther’s CAT scan was normal. He wanted to do more tests, to see if there were some other” anomalies.” We politely declined and took our daughter home. Esther’s crooked neck straightened itself out and has not been a problem since.

Ever the scientific mystic, I wonder: was this some miraculous shamanic magic I’d stumbled into, or an arrogant doctor’s mistaken diagnosis? There is mystery here, but one thing is clear: There was an emotional alchemy that my life was teaching me, again and again. The heart heals itself when it’s open to pain. The lead of suffering transforms into the gold of spiritual power.

Since Esther’s fall and its aftermath, I have tried to describe the alchemy I experienced.

Being with fear in a state of awareness which we don’t a void, cling to, try to fix, or even try to understand, but are simply present: this is the pre-condition that makes the alchemy of fear possible. This is a process without a goal in sight. You are not trying to fix fear, make it go away, or to feel more “in charge,” less vulnerable or helpless. You just watch and listen. This requires an intentional choice to regard fear as a kind of “meditation” and then to focus on it as clearly and openly as possible.

When we listen to fear, the appropriate action becomes clear. This is not always the action our rational minds would choose; it is the action that comes to us from the heart. When we are willing to accept the dark emotions rather than conquer them, we become warriors of vulnerability, and we learn the way of surrender.

When there seems to be no way out of a fearful situation, there is still an action that can work to alleviate fear: prayer. Sometimes prayer is the only action possible. We may not always get exactly what we pray for, but we discover that fear does not have to be a barrier to joy; it can be the gate that opens into it. Prayer comes to us instinctively, almost despite ourselves, when we are afraid. It is an ancient practice in the art of surrender.

Unlike the warrior’s armoring and the victim’s self-limiting reactions to fear, the way of surrender is about remaining vulnerable and finding the power of no protection. Surrendering to fear does not mean acquiescing to what scares us, giving in, becoming passive, or becoming cowardly. Surrender is the art of letting fear be. It all gets down to this: face into your fear and it lifts!

Esther seems to know this alchemy by heart. She is the teacher in this area, and I am the rather slow student. She is at risk for falling, breaking bones, dislocating knees. Her fear of falling is something she lives with, but she walks on. In fact, in her own unique way, she does more than walk: she dances, leg braces, back brace and all. Every day she’s alive she finds something to be joyful about. Remembered joy is, in fact, one of her self-applied balms for fear. “That was a good day,” she’ll muse, when confined to her bed or the house because of yet another dislocated or fractured bone.

And living with fear for Esther every day, I can find, at least on the good days, the secret she seems to know instinctively. Driving in the car, taking her to yet another physical therapist or doctor, we sing a song from a favorite tape. Eric Clapton’s “If I Could Change the World.” A little-known country music song, “Blame It On Your Lying Cheating Mean Mistreating Loving Heart.” As we cruise down Route 128, the crazy traffic speeding around us, Esther and I are singing our hearts out. Joy! To be alive!

Joyful living is not the same thing as living without fear. It’s about living fully with fear Joy is what we find when we act with our fear for the sake of life. Mindful fear moves us to act with courage and loving kindness, in the service of ourselves and others. And these acts of compassion and service are the quickest route to dispelling fear. If you’re afraid of illness, serve someone who’s ill. If you’re afraid of disability, serve someone who’s disabled. If you’re afraid of not having enough money, work for the poor If you’re afraid of death, volunteer at a hospice. If you’re afraid of loneliness, work with the elderly shut-ins in nursing homes. Then you will discover the alchemy of fear.

Facing into our worst fears—of death, loss, pain, vulnerability, isolation and chaos—takes as much courage as trekking in the wilderness in a snowstorm. The good news is that the more dreadful the fear, the greater the joy of facing into it. It turns out that our fears of death, vulnerability, pain and even helplessness are not intolerable. Finding the core of our fear, we find our way. Like the wilderness adventurer who makes it home through the storm, we are filled with joy.  

Miriam Greenspama psychotherapist in Boston, is the author of A New Approach to Women and Therapy. This article is adapted from her new book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair (Shambhala, 2003).