“Holy crap, you’re back! Where the hell have you been?” I blurt.
It comes out too hard, like an air-bubble blast from a ketchup bottle. I groan.
I have been sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop open. My butt has warmed the grooves of my grubby wooden chair, and my heart feels tight in my chest.
I am supposed to be writing, lightening the world and my debt load one essay at a time. But I am not writing. I am drowning.
I have got to get these words moving.
I have banged a title across the top of this document. It is my summoning incantation, an invitation for my muse to come and show me the way out of the crushing pressure in my head.
And she has appeared. I heard the dry tick-tack of her raccoon claws jogging my way. I turned my head, and saw her furry grey form approach.
But instead of relief, I felt a cold flare of anxiety.
My armpits began to prickle. This isn’t the sweet comfort I was hoping for.
That’s when I spat criticism at my dearly-missed friend.
Now, my Dark Little Critter has stopped beside my chair. She doesn’t answer my rude question. Her face is blank.
She cocks her head to the side and stares at me, then rises up on her hind legs and begins to sniff. She puts her paws on my thigh and leans in for a stronger whiff. Her head sways back and forth and her nostrils dilate, sniffety-sniffing, taking my measure.
Finally, she stops, and sits back on her haunches.
“You’re in strange shape,” she says.
“You have no idea!” I answer. “I’m stuck! All gunked up. I can’t breathe. Can’t think. Can’t sleep! Can’t parent, or wife, or write. I’m full of garbage. Where the hell have you been?”
My voice cracks and my heart hammers.
Critter stays seated at my feet, looking up at me. I become hyper-conscious of my face – my cheeks, mouth, and nostrils. They all seem to be snarling. I try to force them to relax, but they won’t listen. There is a numb disconnection between me and my body, and I am awful.
“You’ve been gone for months!” I suddenly cry. “How could you leave me like that? I’ve been floundering without you. Everything is bloated and stiff: every muscle, every thought. I’m in agony. I needed you, and you didn’t come.”
Now, there are hot tears in my eyes.
Critter’s face softens. Her green eyes seem to melt into puddles of mossy light.
Looking into them, I feel like I’ve slipped into the heart of a deep cave. I see a pool of cool water, rippling with light from a source I can’t explain. In this space that should be dark and cold, I feel penetrating comfort.
Critter’s voice brings me back to my kitchen.
“I know it’s been too long,” she says. “You’ve been unhealthy. It’s been hard for me to watch.”
“You were watching?” I ask. “Why didn’t you come?”
“Because you never asked,” she said. “I watched and waited, and hoped you would reach out, but you never called.”
Now I feel sorry. A wave of it rolls over me, dousing my hot blades of anger.
She’s right. I didn’t call. I had felt the freezing stress, rising higher and higher up my body. My toes went numb, my groin screamed alarm, and my chest squeezed blue. I was strangling inside the pressure of fear and despair, but I never called out for help.
I had forgotten that was an option. I lost the words to say and the numbers to call. I went horribly blank.
Two blinders had covered my eyes; one said that I was alone, trapped in a world where no one and nothing could help me. The other said that no one would help me, even if they could, because my darkness was too sticky and gross. I was unbearable to touch.
“So you kept your mouth shut,” Critter interjects, having seen this story scroll across my trembling brow. “How did that work for you?”
“Not good, Critter. Not good.” I admit. I take a full breath and sigh it out slowly, feeling the weight of my mistake.
I didn’t call for help when I needed it. I didn’t open up and give my friend a chance to help. I made her watch me drown, and attacked her when we finally came together. That must have been painful.
This truth, seen directly, is sad, but not crushing. I am surprised that I can fully feel my regret, and somehow draw strength from it. It feels like next time, I will remember this, and I will do better.
I look up at my fairy god-rodent. She is crying.
“I’m sorry, my friend.” I say. I scoop her up and hug her to my chest. It feels like I have shed a chain mail sweater. My burden is suddenly lighter, and there is no more barrier keeping warmth away from my heart.
I bury my nose in the Critter’s thick, coarse coat, and inhale the dusty spice of her body. She sighs.
This is why people love pets, I think, wishing that I wasn’t allergic to real fur. I would get the most intuitive, raccoon-looking cat I could find and love that thing with all my soul.
“It’s not about holding a furry body so much as choosing to open up ,” Critter says.
“Mmm-hmm,” I agree. And it starts with being honest with myself.
I hold my imaginary raccoon for one more breath, letting the warmth of our embrace penetrate right to my spine. Then I let go, and she hops down from my lap.
I notice that the cold pressure around my lungs has released, but a weight has settled down on my lap. It doesn’t interfere with my breath, but it begs to be handled.
I look down, and see the weight take on a physical shape. It is a grubby bar of steel, and there is a number stamped into it.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I ask Critter.
“That is your work. You need to make something out of it. Take your aching and turn it into something useful,” she answers.
“Oh. Okay,” I say. “But what does this number mean? I can’t quite make it out.”
“That is the number of people you need to help. You don’t need to know how many just now, but I’ll tell you, it’s a lot.” She explains.
“Whoa,” I say. “I think I see five digits!”
“Yep. But don’t worry about that. Just start working, and start helping.” she says.
“Okay,” I say. My chest is getting warmer. This feels right. “What happens when I hit that number?”
“You’ll see,” Critter answers, and her eyes sparkle.
I really want to know what is making her smile like that, but I know damn well she’s not going to tell me. It makes my eyebrow wrinkle, but I give it up for now.
“Alright,” I say. “One more hug, then.”
“Of course,” she says. “Then, get to work.”
And now, I am.
Today, I want to leave you with a few thoughts:
First, we are all drifting in the same ocean. No one is so wretched that the world has created an entire, extra-horrible ocean just for them. The universe is way too busy maintaining the physics of every atom, planet, and star system to single out one pitiful human. We are all in this mess together.
That means that you are not alone in your darkest times, even though your weather may be stormier at the moment than others’.
If you feel like you’re drowning, reach out your hand.
Ask for what you need, and try not to blame people for not reading your mind.
Apologize when your fear makes you mean. Get back on track.
Find people you can trust to listen and help you get oriented when you’re lost. They may be friends, professionals, or figments of your imagination. Call on them as needed. Allow them to support you.
Return the favour when someone you love falls into the ocean.
And most of all, never stop trying until you grasp salvation. It is near, even when you can’t see it. Remember that. And find it.