I was one week into a three-week personal writing retreat up north to finish my book when I got the news. News that shook me to my core. The teenage daughter of a dear friend of mine had just died.
“Wh-what?” I stuttered out.
“Zoe died last night,” my friend repeated.
Her next words cut into me as if someone had taken a knife to my heart.
“She killed herself.”
The silence that followed was somehow even more devastating. The unfathomable had happened and for maybe the first time in my life, I was speechless. I wanted to say something that would help my friend, wanted to ease her pain, wanted to go back in time and stop it from happening. I wanted to hug her, tell her that everything was going to be alright, but I was 600 miles away and it was never going to be alright.
Finally, she said, “I gotta go.”
“I’m coming home!” I blurted out, starting to pack up my things.
“No. Don’t,” she said.
“Too late,” I said. “I’m already packing.”
“If you don’t finish that book, I will never forgive you.”
“I can finish it later,” I said. “You’re more important.”
“I’m not gonna be the reason you miss your publishing deadline. Finish the book.”
“No. I’m coming home.”
“There’s nothing you or anyone can do to make this better.”
She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t angry. She said it so matter-of-factly that it gave me a chill. Then I remembered. I’d experienced the death of a loved one before. I knew that there is a time of numbness before grief takes over your whole world. In that brief window of suspended animation, before the realization of what has happened hits you full force, you feel a bit like you’re walking around in a fog. Everything seems far away and hazy. I recognized the signs in my friend.
“I need to do this,” she said, “alone.”
Her words stung, but I stopped packing. I realized she was right. There was nothing I could do—nothing but grieve with her. But she didn’t need that right now. She needed to put one foot in front of the other. She needed to be there for her younger daughter. She needed to keep breathing. At that moment, if I could have found a way to breathe for her, I would have, but that was not a gift I could give her, nor was it what she truly needed. What her heart truly needed, no one could give her. Only time could do that.
“Okay, I’ll stay. I’ll finish the book,” I said in a near whisper, my heart tight in my chest, “but please, please call me if you need me…if you need anything at all.” She didn’t speak. After an agonizing moment of silence, I said, “I love you.”
“Love you too. I’m sorry. I gotta go,” she repeated and hung up.
From that moment on I found it impossible to concentrate on my writing. What was once a doable task (finish editing book one, start book two), now seemed utterly impossible.
I sat in that sparse room staring at the blank walls for the longest time, trying to sort out the noise in my head. Thing is, I’ve been there. I don’t mean I’ve lost a daughter. I mean I’ve been where Zoe was before she took her own life. The details may have been different, but the resulting emotion was the same. I just wanted it to end, and death seemed like the only way out. I knew exactly what she was thinking. I remember every crystalline detail of that night, even though it happened over 25 years ago.
Now, here I was, on the other side of that mountain range, the one I had to climb to get to where I am today… where I believe in myself and have faith in all my tomorrows no matter what today might bring. Yet my thoughts were now spinning into a downward spiral. I couldn’t stop thinking if only I could have spoken to Zoe before she did it. If only I could have been there for her. Maybe I could have talked her out of it. Maybe I could have stopped her—
It was at this point that the floodgates opened. I started to cry, and couldn’t stop. I cried and cried and cried. Not just for Zoe and her mother, but also for the me that once was, the me that tried to end my life not only because I thought I was totally alone in a never-ending-shit-storm of pain and suffering, but also because there was no one there to talk me out of it.
I didn’t stop crying ’til the well ran dry.
After that, I slept for a time, and when I woke, I didn’t know where I was for a moment. I forgot I was away from home. I forgot about the devastating loss that had occurred. I forgot my heart was breaking for my friend. But in the moments of remembering that followed, I knew what I had to do. And I knew I wouldn’t be able to return to work until I did it.
I had to write a letter.
Not a letter to Zoe, or to my friend, but to me, to my future self. Because if I’m ever standing on the edge of that abyss again, I want to be there to talk me out of it.
I needed to speak to the part in me that searches for answers and sometimes feels lost when I can’t find them. That tiny me that, when something unfathomable happens, I begin to question whether it’s all worth it. I needed to write a letter to the me inside who fears not death, but a life of unbearable anguish. I knew I needed to speak to the part of me that doesn’t always believe time can heal all wounds, or that things will always get better. It’s the tiny fearful part of me that thinks death may be the only way out. And I carry her within me still.
But because I was there, on that precipice, and survived, I know that this smaller me is wrong.
In my darkest moments, it whispers death is the only answer, but there’s a bigger part of me that knows this it’s a lie and that bigger part of me can argue for the truth. The truth that life is a gift and hardships come to help us evolve into our true selves (our bigger, brighter, wiser selves). But if I ever forget this truth and become my small self again, I need my bigger self to talk some sense into me.
So I sat myself down at the empty desk provided for my workspace, and wrote a leeter to my future self…
I’m staying in this beautiful hundred-year-old house right now, trying to finish a book that, for you, is no doubt ancient history. There is a very long, very dark hallway in this house that I walk every morning at the break of dawn to get to the bathroom. No matter what time of day it is, the hallway is always dark. So dark, in fact, that I have to trust my inner senses rather than rely on my outer senses, to find my way.
No matter how ‘in a hurry’ I am to get to the bathroom, I have to slow down… plot a course, step lightly (the floorboards of this old house are so loud and creaky that it can wake the other occupants if I walk down the middle, so I have to step closer to where the floorboards meet the wall, where they don’t make as much noise). Also, this hallway has many doors to many rooms, only one of which is the unmarked bathroom. And the bathroom door is always kept closed, per the owner’s instructions. So I have to count my steps, lest I overshoot the bathroom and walk into someone else’s bedroom in my skivvies in the wee hours of the morning.
But after a week of this dark–hall–journey, I am getting fairly proficient at it and now, just now, I begin to see the lesson in it for me.
It has trained me to see that the long dark tunnel with no light at the end, doesn’t have to be or feel hopeless, as it so often does. I now realize if I take the same method I use to navigate the long dark hall to the bathroom and apply it to my soul journey, hope returns. The darkness may still be there, but I will begin trusting that there is a way through.
So what am I talking about here? What is this long dark hallway method that you and I can use to navigate our life journey? Okay, here it is in a nutshell. It may sound silly or too simple to make a difference, but trust me, this is the roadmap you’re looking for:
⓵ Slow down. Sit quietly. Close your eyes. Breathe. Now open your eyes and choose a path. Any path. Don’t over think it. Just choose. And the next day, even the next moment, choose again. The power is in the choosing.
⓶ Step lightly, use your inner senses to find your way, plot a course by trial and error, find a way to push forward, even if it’s just one step at a time, and get into the rhythm of it. Stop assessing the situation. Stop resisting where you are and just put one foot in front of the other.
When I began to do this, I found no more judgment, no more stumbling, no more doubt, no more worry, no more stress, and eventually, no more fear… just pure acceptance. I got to the point where I could say, ‘this is just the footpath I must follow to get to where I need to go.’ This one thought spoken over and over, allowed me to LET GO of my resistance and judgment of the situation, which, for me always creates healing.
Now, after a week of trial and error, when I walk down the long dark hallway, I have utter faith that what I’m looking for is there. I have complete certainty that I will eventually get to where I need to go, even though I can’t see it. You could even call it an inner knowing. I no longer question it. It is simply the truth.
⓷ It is this same simple truth, this inner knowing, that you must cultivate in the long dark hallway of the soul. You don’t need to see the light at the end of the tunnel to know it is there. You are human. Imagination is your birthright. As is faith. All you need to make it through is imagination and faith.
Now I can hear you saying, “But how can I muster imagination and faith when fear and pain riots inside me and fills the darkness with hideous monsters like hopelessness, regret, guilt, anger, self-loathing, pity, shame, loneliness, and grief?”
That is where the rhythm of the routine comes in. The footpath you’ve plotted, the techniques and skills you have acquired to stay the course, even the simple muscle memory of the path you have walked to the bathroom every morning, can get you through. It’s called going through the motions, but, simple as it sounds, it really can save you, especially if you do what comes next…
④ To this daily routine, add the following:
Every morning, whether you are in the mood or not, force yourself to get out of bed, put on clothes and go for a walk, whether it be around the block or just down the hall. Do whatever moves your blood through your veins. Count your steps, and on every twenty steps say:
“This is the path I choose to walk and it’s leading me to a better place. Every step is important. Every step is necessary to get me through the darkness and back to the light.”
Ok, so you’re not gonna want to do this. I get it. You’re gonna wanna crawl back in bed and hope to die before you wake. But just know—this—and whatever got you to this place—is not all there is. Believe me. This time in your life, this all-consuming pain, this dying of the light—is not all that’s left, but it is important and necessary. It has come to teach you what you need to know in order to become who you are meant to be.
Not one moment of your life is wasted.
Not one minute is pointless.
Not a single second is wrong.
All of it is the dark rich soil of your soul, nourishing you and encouraging you to grow. And soon you will break through to the warmth of the sun, I promise.
Just as the seed is compelled to grow, so it is with souls. Just as the seedling is driven to emerge from the earth and claim its place in the field of infinite possibilities, so it is with humans. There is pain and grace and beauty in the evolution of the soul. Open your heart, be kind to yourself, and embrace this time in your life for the fertile and sacred ground that it is.
Do this for me, okay? Do it every day until the light of the universe bursts through your dark night of the soul. Say this stuff out loud without caring who hears it. The most important thing is that YOU hear it. Trust me. Our future is bright. All you have to do is make sure we get there. I love you. I believe in you. I will always be there for you, no matter what.
Your Loving Self
Many blessings to all of you from all of me. Stay safe in these difficult times. Keep hope in your heart. Conquer fear. The human race is resilient. We will persevere.
NOTE: Names in this post have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned.
Elayne G. James is the author of the adventure/fantasy coming-of-age series: The LightBridge Legacy, and the spirited holiday novel: The Saint of Carrington. Learn more at: ELAYNEJAMES.COM