By: Shadine Ménard
Life happens. Throughout it we stand alone. Not isolated; after all those of us who are lucky have love ones to share in our joy and a support system to shoulder the burdens and comfort us through the tears. However in our most private moments, when everything is still, we need something to keep us anchored; something to stop the emotions from running getting lost in our mental maze and escaping to engulf us from the inside out. And that my friends, is where and why the spiritual journey begins.
Some might think that they have to know a person’s personal struggles to identify with their battle, but in truth we all fight for the same thing when it come to our spiritual state. We aim for balance, love and joy. Our individual challenges can be won over with the proper tools.
That sentence sounds a lot easier than it actually is. Picture a conflicted man who has dealt with unemployment, abuse, financial hardship, illness and catastrophic loss. Also, picture a content man who has experienced the love of his family, a brotherhood of close friends, passionate affairs, worldly travels and professional ambitions. Now picture both of these men morphed into the same. They could be the same man if the first doesn’t succumb to depression and the second manages to stay down-to-earth. How they become one is by finding an anchor that keeps them from traveling aimlessly so that the first can process his sadness and move forward. That anchor is different for every man. Some people find God, others practice Yoga or throw themselves into a sport, some turn to music while others meditate. Unfortunately there are other that misguidingly crutch onto food, booze or drugs to escape their lives, but escaping is the wrong approach because we all eventually must return to reality. Now let’s quit the generalizations and let me get personal.
I have had serious bouts of depression and wrestled with demons of all shapes and sizes throughout my life. When I could no longer complete a day without thinking of bloodied hands I knew I was so far underwater that I couldn’t even reach a life jacket. I needed to re-learn how to swim to kick my way to the top. And so my search began.
I’ve always believed in the beyond; things I couldn’t understand or explain. As a little girl I had seen a grown woman gallop like a horse while another walked behind her, wielding an invisible master’s whip. When I was 9-years-old, my late grandfather came to me in a cautionary vision that protected me from the thieves outside while the rest of my family slept soundly. I would listen to my grandmother’s tales and secretly admire her tenacious faith to the unknown; her unwavering belief that things will work out “si Dieu veut” (God willing). In 1998, I was a freshman in college and just wanted anything that would make the retched homesickness go away. Most freshmen have trouble adjusting, but for someone who was used to living with my complete immediate family and most of my extended family all on the same block, my sadness would come in waves. It was only while away that I realized that up ‘til that my family had always been the one thing I always had unwavering faith in. On my 18th birthday I penned: “This morning I woke with a feeling of dread. I knew that any little thing would send me into depression-mode. I like being independent, but I miss my family. On days like this I need them. I miss Mom the most: her smile, her laugh, her happiness.” My birthday still ended up being a special day thanks to a great big sister and special friends. Even that first year of my adult life, I was trying to stay true to my scale sign and balance myself from sadness to optimism as I updated that same night “We may not always have things how we wanted them, but it is usually in the smallest and simple ways that we can find alternative joys. I found out that I am very lucky.” That was my first glimpse at the answer I would one day discover.
January 2, 1999 marked my mother’s birthday as well as the passing of her mother. I felt like I was literally punched in the stomach and could only gasp for air. On the day of my grandmother’s burial, January 9, in between the crying, comforting and bonding, I felt an immense gratitude for having known this incredible woman. I realized that while I was so deep in my grief and craving those daily conversations with my mother and those afternoons of sitting on the porch with my grandmother, I needed to find another harbor. I made a vow that day that from then on I would pray not only to God, but to my Nennayi. The words have always come easier to me on paper than out of my mouth, so for every prayer I spoke, I wrote 10 times more. My journal collection grew impressively and instead of strictly using narrative accounts of my days, I let my old high-school love of poetry re-emerge and dabbled in the short story. However my emotions transformed into written form, I welcomed them. Then it all changed. Writing would not be enough to take the following pain away: following my grandmother’s passing I got word of my ex’ disappearance and eventual death, another ex committed suicide and my family was in turmoil that preluded the biggest dark period of my life up ‘til that time.
My silent fight intensified in September 1999. I realized then that the bad dream I tried to convince myself I’d lived through a few months back was a harsh reality I was reliving. This pain was too great for the living so again I turned to Nennayi. I found myself speaking to her more and more and taking on her faith as my own. In the next year I adopted a modest appearance, enrolled in Bible study, restricted what I watched on tv, got baptized and lived my life only as the Bible and church allowed me to do so. My mother worried I’d been inducted into a cult, but I was merely seeking peace.
There was a part of me that really believed that I had somehow seduced darkness into my life and that I deserved it. For once I wanted to be pure and worthy of goodness so I “seek(ed) first his kingdom and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33)
On May 18, 2000, still rigid in my religion, I wrote down a prayer for the marauder who stole so much from me, my family and our bond. By July he was inflicting hurt on our family again and I found myself pleading with God “I know that I was meant to learn from this, but please in the future do not make your point this way. Be with me Lord, stay with me. Help me.” I was living life as I was taught He would want it, yet again here I was in the darkness and this was a pain from events that were anything but rewarding of my living a virtuous life. Where was the justice? I went to church needing answers, reassurance and compassion. I wanted a reaffirming of my faith in light of the hole I was being swallowed into, but what I got was a distant “you must forgive and forget” from the elder disciples as well as the pastor, even as I told them that I live in constant fear. The church became a judgmental, unwelcoming place. Although I wanted to keep cultivating a spiritual relationship, I no longer could relate to this church or its people. I could no longer blindly accept and believe words that were written by mere mortals telling me what my God would want. I could no longer believe that the creator of all that is beautiful in the world would just want me to forgive no matter how many ills were done against me and my family. If He does than more power to him, but I cannot and must find my own answer because forgiveness could not be it at the moment. So my search continued.
I became a member of my college’s dance troop in the fall of 2000 and the hours of exercise, commitment and performing allowed me to express myself without words for once. It was the love I had always had for dancing amplified. But a writer needs her words. My closest cousin and my best girlfriends became more than just my sounding boards. From 2003 to 2006, they were my therapists, my anchors. The day my niece was born in 2004, I was at once ecstatic and heartbroken. I was welcoming one love of my life while I felt a suffocation from within from another. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to upset my family’s joyful moment with one of sad foresight. Later that month, I ultimately felt my seed slip out of me. I learned what it meant to experience the brutal loss of something that you had yet to even enjoy. I had not been sure of or predicted my condition, but experiencing the loss left me adrift, lost and broken.
On April 4, 2004 my words were as follows: “Sometimes I feel fine, other days there’s tightness in my chest and the tears come. It hurts and stays with me. I’ve tried to heal in solitude, but that pain remains.” The solitude I spoke of was isolating myself in my apartment, neglecting school, loathing work and though my friends checked on me with care while my family made sure to keep calling, I couldn’t help but think “God must have some big plans for me or else He just doesn’t exist because the pain just keeps being thrown my way.”
After losing what I was convinced was a baby girl, I found I could no longer look to the Bible as my solace. I was not finding equilibrium. Hell, I wasn’t even finding one moment of quiet. Tears became my words. I was at an all time low and my girlfriends, sister and journals could no longer keep this boat from drifting. I tried to get outside help, but was left feeling uninspired, with no reprieve. My only joy in those days (and any time in the future when nothing else could get me to smile) was named after the incredible woman I had prayed to. My niece – and Nennayi’s namesake – had a light that could touch me where no God ever could. Her birth, my empathy for my sister during her divorce and Tupac Shakur’s words convinced me I had to find some other way to balance on my Libra scales so that I could help myself and start helping others.
“My heart is full of understanding, love, and inspiration. I think of my potential and what writing might mean to the progression of others.” This was my journal entry after watching Tupac Resurrection. I don’t know why, but something clicked that day.
What has allowed me to stay on my path when others have tried to tempt me with whatever else they consider a quick way out? The answer is that happy or sad, I know who I am. No matter what situation I am in there is a line I forbid myself to cross. I identified with Tupac when he said he could act, be whoever and still shine and survive because he knew his soul. I knew my soul. Now it was time to become grounded in my belief in it, make me the anchor. The realization was there, but the hours-long crying sessions continued. Until the loss of one friendship became the catalyst to reclaiming my soul.
In 2006, a “friend” betrayed me and I got fed up with a friendship where only one party benefits; I decided to cut her off. This was the year I developed an ulcer, the magazines I freelanced for were disappearing and my own desire to create HIP made me long to be closer to Haiti. 2006 is the year I decided to throw caution to the wind, stop being a 3-job-holding-New Yorker with little to show for it and move where I can embrace my family every day. 2006 is the year I stopped thinking of how to heal and started the process for real. I put my theory that I had to be my own ultimate support system to the test. What would I do when the best friends didn’t have cell reception or my cousin was sleeping? I needed to be strong enough to help myself up. I started out by going through my phone contacts and deleting every and anyone who only called to gripe, party or create negative energy. If you didn’t share all moments and contribute positivity in my life in any way, what was there to party about? I called the process “detox” as I equate it to the mental equivalent of cleansing my body. Clearing negative people out of my life leaves more room for positive thinking and happy faces.
While in Haiti and working on HIP, the dark days were almost nonexistent. There were grey ones at times, but the completely blackened times became hours instead of days. I keep fighting nightmares, but somehow making my soul my own safe place has been the only thing that keeps my feet on the ground even when my head wants to dive under water or float in the cloud. I thought “What if I were God? My own God?” Some may find it egotistical, but I do not see that being as just ONE being. I see it as the bit of magic that exist in all the miracles of the universe: a butterfly’s wings, a rainbow’ stripes, the innocence of a child, the root of a tree, and the strength in me. I found a deeper inner peace because I stopped looking for an outside person to help me and looked within myself.
Just because I found my answer doesn’t mean my life has been perfect since. It hasn’t all been peaches and cream and sweet cherries. I was targeted by a sick individual – a restraining order took care of that – and would get nightmares. At times I feel sad, angry, confused or tired, but I no longer ever feel lost. The 2010 Haiti earthquake propelled me into grief, but also to channel the positive mental energy I had trained myself on having into positive action. I needed to do something for a people whose country is etched into my blood and written on my heart. Not only was my anchor a positive thinking self, but it now performed positive acts. I have stopped being so hard on myself and give myself exactly one day to make peace with whichever of my demons might choose to come bare their teeth at me out of nostalgia. One quote I have hung on to on occasion is by Winston Churchill: “If you are going through hell, keep going.” I intend to trek on to the other side. The difference between the past me and the me of today is that I have faith in my own ability. Once you start reminding yourself to be positive, there comes a day when you no longer have to remind yourself but rather see everything in a brighter light because it makes life easier and your soul lighter.
I have a ritual that I use to make myself stay positive when things – like an impending surgery – may make me forget. It does not include anything else but saying aloud or –depending on the setting - silently to myself – “I am fortunate because (fill in the blank)”. I fill in as many blanks as I need to until I feel my calm and inner-peace return. Always repeating the preceding phrase, I always eventually get to the point where I can say quite simply “I am fortunate.” No fill-in needed. So far that realization, in a world where so many people have so much less than I (health, money, food, education, love, and security), has been enough to make me snap out of whatever dread I’d immersed myself in and smile at my good fortune.
Although I have no idea how to find my chakra, nor do I want to, I can identify with the Indian and Indonesian spiritual methods Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of in Eat, Pray, Love. How the tree comes from the seed, but the seed also comes from the tree because that tree so wanted to be. She writes “I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life. I think of everything I endured before getting here and wonder if it is me – I mean this happy and balanced me – who pulled the other younger, more confused and more struggling me forward during all those hard years.” I personally do not know if my grown self pulled the younger one forward or if the younger self so wanted to become this grown version that she finally said “heck, I might make it through this to finally see what I’ve been fighting for.” Either way I’m grateful I made it and had so many teachers and supporters along the way.
My journey is far from over, but I’ve come a long way and because of it the years ahead have less quick sand and road pits. I feel at peace with myself and my God is within ME.
I am not suggesting that anyone change their beliefs or lack thereof. I am saying that we all need to find whatever it is that keep us grounded and balanced. It does not have to be religion, but you should have faith in whichever path you choose - even if that path is atheism. Because when the doubts arise – and they will – you will need that thing that makes you feel secure enough that your feet will stay firmly planted as your heart and mind do somersaults before coming back to you. Even when there are no doubts and you are as happy and sure as can be, you must cultivate your root and keep it strong for the time you need to hold on tight. And if you are lucky enough to have that faith, anchor or refuge turn out to be your own being, soul or power than feel free to borrow my ritual and start repeating “I am fortunate.”