This is really part one of a two-part blog to be continued next week. I’m telling you this because the experience I am about to describe was not pleasant, and I will write more about how I came out of it next week.
I had all kinds of ideas about how a three year sabbatical would go. Think about it: three years of stillness, no deadlines, enough money saved to pay the bills, each day a welcoming spaciousness. After book tours and conferences I was tired, peopled-out and feeling the effects of the Chronic Fatigue that had waxed and waned for over twenty years. Minimally, and not unreasonably, I expected to regain some physical vitality and balance.
But, that’s not what happened. For lots of reasons (which I won’t go into here except to say all were exacerbated by the hormonal shift of menopause) I became increasingly ill. A whole new level of skull-cracking headaches arrived and seemed impervious to previously helpful medication. I was exhausted, aching, sometimes feverish, and generally wiped out.
In between moments of bewilderment and frustration, I surrendered to what was. I cancelled plans, lay in bed and followed my breath. And I got worse. Somewhere in the endless days of what the medical profession calls non-restorative rest, as I stared at the ceiling, I thought, “Maybe I’m just done.” I was too ill to read or write. And I didn’t care. Food, plans, people and even the stillness that in the past had brought peace and pleasure were flat, unappealing. It was as if the colour had been leached out of my life. I was not upset, worried or afraid. I was “done.” At one point I described it to Jeff as being on a hill-side cable car that is slowly but relentlessly going down. I couldn’t stop the descent. And, increasingly, I didn’t care.
I sought help- inner and outer- and nothing changed. One doctor said I was depressed. I wasn’t particularly resistant to this diagnosis but after years of working with those who struggle with depression, something about it didn’t quite fit. Still, I started to do the things I know can help with depression.
Then I heard the CBC radio show, Tapestry. Mary Hynes was interviewing Kathleen Norris about her book, Acedia and Me. Acedia is what the desert monastics called the “noonday demon” (noon being a particularly challenging time on the desert.) It is described as a state of not caring, of refusing the gift of the day. Things feel pointless, flat. . . .done. Those who do solitary work that requires focused attention- like contemplative monks, artists and writers- are particularly susceptible to it. It was considered one of the eight bad thought patterns, precursors to the seven deadly sins. Later it got lumped in with sloth- but that implies a kind of laziness that doesn’t really apply. Today, depression is probably the closest psychological concept to acedia, but again, it doesn`t quite fit. Depression can be horrible and debilitating but, with guidance, it can be a fruitful journey into the darkness of our unknown self, a mining of the gold we may have left behind. Acedia yields no such gold. Acedia, if given free reign, only leads to suicide.
As I listened to the broadcast I thought, “That’s it. It’s acedia!” and I suddenly felt something I had not felt in a long time- hope. The fairy tales were right: naming the demon gives us some power over it. The monks who had been beset by acedia were directed to pray, read the psalms aloud and go about the mundane tasks of the day – cleaning, cooking etc.- mindfully, whether they felt like doing them or not. If they found themselves avoiding company, they were directed to work with others. If they were avoiding being alone, they were directed to persist in solitary meditation.
In a world with so much frenetic doing, it’s easy to romanticize stillness. There is a time for and a gift in stillness that is much needed in our lives and our world. But so too, there are times for movement, times when failing to move can prove life-diminishing in a very real way. Suddenly everything in me- including the dreams from the Grandmothers- said very clearly, “Move!”
So, following the advice of those who’d guided the new monks, I read aloud (usually poetry, the “scripture” of my heart), did my prayers, cleaned my house and took myself out of isolation. I sought the guidance of a gifted Jungian analyst and went into Toronto a few days a week to see friends, meet with health care practitioners and connect with community. The acedia grew smaller and receded. One day, about a month after making these changes, I was walking down a Toronto street when the thought came- “I feel like myself again.” It was only then that I realized how far I had travelled away from feeling like myself.