Transformation: The Art of Being Willing
by Laura Didyk
If change is akin to rearranging the furniture in a room, transformation is the knocking down of a wall or the addition of a sliding glass door—it’s a dramatic alteration in structure that’s nearly permanent. In this piece, writer Laura Didyk shares a personal story that expresses the challenges that exist at the core of a process of self-transformation—and the rewards that await on the other side.
I am at my stove in my kitchen stirring hot cereal, waiting for the grains to soak up the water. It’s quiet except for the bubbling from the pot and the faint hiss of my gas stove. Steam swirls up from the pot and clouds my glasses, which I take off, fold, and lay on top of a cookbook. For a few minutes, I am just stirring. Listening. Feeling the steam on my face. Removing my glasses. Folding them. Setting them down. It is a simple, unadorned moment in the early hours of an ordinary day. This is how it is now, a lot of the time—this kind of moment used to be incredibly rare.
I travel back six years to a time when I couldn’t do much of anything, to a depression so debilitating that food didn’t even make it on to the docket most days. Here are some things I considered accomplishments at the time: getting out of bed, making it to the shower, not looking in the mirror, not thinking “those thoughts,” which consisted of possible things I could do to guarantee not having to wake up and do this again, this enormous, nearly impossible task of getting through a day, an hour, the next five minutes.
Depression, as I’ve experienced it, isn’t about being sad. Or melancholy. Even the word “pain” doesn’t quite describe what inhabits a person in such a condition. It’s almost as if depression takes the person. During my worst bouts of it, it felt like this: I am hanging off the edge of a cliff over a deep, dark, echoey canyon. My fingers are growing tired, starting to slip, and I am about to fall—about to fall—and I lived in that state all the time. Writer Andrew Solomon addresses this experience in his book Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, “What is happening to you in depression is horrible, but it seems to be very wrapped up in what is about to happen to you the dying would not be so bad, but the living at the brink of dying is horrible.” I couldn’t remember who I was before this thing had gripped me, and in hindsight, the idea of taking myself out of the running seems like a perfectly reasonable and humane consideration at the time given my interior circumstances. But how lucky I am, how blessed, that I didn’t go through with it.
I regularly push myself to reflect on that time because there are a few things that I never want to forget: 1) how bad it was, 2) how far I’ve come, and 3) that transformation from what seems like the most dire of circumstances is absolutely possible, if you are willing. I believe that what was going on with me at the time had roots in physiology, and I also believe I was suffering from a spiritual illness. So many of us suffer from it—a kind of viral emptiness that starts in the heart and spreads. When coupled with a certain physiological make up and with particular circumstances, this disease of the spirit can become excruciating and unbearable. Some of us experience it in small ways, in different areas of our lives; for others it can, in its extreme forms, manifest as different shades and grades of mental illness.
In my case, immense and ugly forces from my past had come to bear on the present in a way that my psyche was unprepared for and my spirit didn’t know how to handle—up until then I’d always found ways to ward those spirits off, but I’d run out of ideas. They’d finally intersected inside me. And it was time.
It’s the ultimate spiritual paradox: we don’t have to step very far or very fast, yet the significance of that miniscule step is massive—it doesn’t have to be much, but we have to mean it. When the gods of transformation picked me up and had their way with me, I had to let them. I had to go in and stand at that intersection, and say, “OK. I’ll do it. I’m ready to face whatever it is I need to face so I can feel something different.” I had to be willing to embrace the same dark self that I’d been undone by. Carl Jung referred to it as the Shadow, and I knew if I wanted to live with any amount of peace I was going to have to bring it into the light of day and make friends with it. Unfortunately, this process didn’t look or feel how I wanted it to—I don’t think it does for anyone. It wasn’t graceful or beautiful or uplifting—the process of deep, permanent inner change hardly ever is, at first.
Also, it didn’t happen overnight—it happened over time. I was not suddenly okay. There wasn’t a singular moment when I stopped and said: now I’m different, now I’m transformed. But I feel that way today. Transformation isn’t what happens when the universe feels sorry enough for us to have mercy. And it isn’t the gift of instant relief. It’s what happens when we finally decide we’re going to stop running and instead face, head on, whatever it is we have not been willing to. While I have, I hope, many years of living ahead of me, my experience with depression and my experience surviving it has helped me build the inner resources I’ll need for whatever else comes down the pike.
I have a mental photograph of myself from six years ago, and in my mind I like to place it next to who I am now. Me, who can sit in a room and just breathe. Me, who can sleep through the night, who can feel hungry, who can make breakfast, who can dance in my living room, and who can then get into my car and drive to my job—all in the span of a couple of hours. Remembering the before and taking stock of the now helps me untangle what I’ve traversed, how I’ve healed, what it took, and everything about my getting better that I can’t account for. I am humbled by the power of what happened, and the way the transformative process became a steadfast bridge over the gap between then and now.
I feel indebted to that process as if it were a person, an entity, a teacher, but the bridge could not have been built without my permission. I had to help with the construction. I had to admit to myself how badly I needed it. I had to pick up the telephone and tell people. I had to become willing to stand in the middle of that intersection, even if it meant risking what little life I had left. I had to access courage in its purest form. And I had to pray to a god I didn’t even believe in.
I still have episodes of depression, but I am lucky that they do not last long, aren’t paralyzing, and, generally, are made better by talking to people, getting more sleep, eating healthier food, and, well, dancing in my living room. In some ways, it might not even qualify as depression, as these are things that made no difference when I was in the worst stages of it those years ago.
Transformation—real transformation—leaves us at home in our own skin. The mind becomes something of a friend, a powerful tool which we can use to move in the direction of goodness. The transformative process, most of the time—from mental illness to health, heartbreak to serenity, addiction to recovery, confusion to clarity—will not feel good. And the biggest mistake a person can make is to expect it to. The journey can be difficult and lonely and, when we’re in the middle of it, it will feel like nothing is changing at all. But then one day we’ll realize we are on the other side of something. We can look behind us in awe, knowing that all we did to get to where we are now was give up, just a little.
Laura Didyk, MFA, former Special Projects Editor at Kripalu Center, is an essayist, poet, and a former athlete with a lifelong passion for nutritional health and optimal living.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the May 2008 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.