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Free Yourself

For a while, I think I wished I could just enter some cocoon like a caterpillar and emerge a butterfly one final time.

purple, pink, blue, abstract, spiritual portrait by Nicole Sylvia Javorsky

Dearest Doodle Soupsters,

The painting above is called “Free Yourself.”

I started it in 2019. A self-portrait painted mostly in blue with some highlights in yellow. Last year, when I was in the middle of my Love Letters to Mother Earth series, I continued the painting.

I layered over the portrait with brushstrokes of deep purple, pastel pink and lavender, a rich purple-blue, hints of red. I smudged over the face with a cloth.

In other words, I covered the portrait and then uncovered the face. Looking at the painting now, I see a tortured spirit. At first.

And then, I see something else. I realize the spirit is not tortured, or muzzled. Rather, the spirit is sad. It’s the experience of grief and the transformation that comes along with allowing ourselves to feel our grief.

While the brushstrokes may appear to be covering the mouth, thereby silencing the spirit’s voice, I also see these brushstrokes as a swirling wind. Like the kind you’d see in a cartoon, an animated fairytale. The pumpkin transforms into a carriage. The plain, worn frock transforms into a ball gown.

Fairytales have been used to sell a certain brand of homogenized happiness. You know the drill. Prince Charming and Cinderella find each other. They live happily ever after. The fairytale ends at the wedding. Most times, we don’t get to see what happens next.

Except when it comes to fairytales, Disney is far from the only storyteller out there.

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés frames fairy tales, myths, and stories with the wild woman archetype.

She tells a story of a fisherman who accidentally hooks the bones of the Skeleton Woman. Assuming he caught a big one, he reels her in. And once he sees the Skeleton Woman, he cries out in terror.

The fisherman tries to run away. But in his panic, the fisherman drags along the Skeleton Woman (still snagged on his fishing rod) home with him. He opens his door, relieved at first. Until he lights his lamp and sees the Skeleton Woman all tangled up in his fishing line!

But something about seeing her there in that light all tangled up — a softness swept over him. After he gingerly untangled her from the line, the fisherman became very sleepy.

Fast asleep and dreaming, a tear fell from the fisherman’s eye. The Skeleton Woman noticed the tear and became very thirsty. So she crawled over to the fisherman and drank the tear from his eye, quenching a thirst she had carried with her for many years.

The Skeleton Woman reached into the sleeping fisherman and took out his heart. And she drummed. And as she drummed, she sang. She sang for flesh. She sang for hair. She sang for eyes. And as she sang, her body filled out.

And when she was done with this, she joined the fisherman in bed. Tangled in each other’s arms, skin to skin. They slept just like this.

The story of the Skeleton Woman and the fisherman is a love story. One that reflects the life/death/life nature, as Pinkola Estés describes.

She writes, “This story is an apt metaphor for the problem of modern love, the fear of the Life/Death/Life nature, the Death aspect in particular. In much of Western culture, the original character of the Death nature has been covered over by various dogmas and doctrines until it is split off from its other half, Life. We have erroneously been trained to accept a broken form of one of the most profound and basic aspects of the wild nature. We have been taught that death is always followed by more death. It is simply not so, death is always in the process of incubating new life, even when one’s existence has been cut down to the bones.”

I fell in love with my husband on our second date. We were at the Whitney Museum when I saw some images I had seen before. I don’t know precisely what, but something in the exhibition set off flashbacks. I went to the bathroom and called a close friend.

After describing the situation to my friend and hesitating for a few moments, I knew what I wanted to do. I went over to my date, told him briefly and directly about my PTSD, that I was experiencing flashbacks. I told him I needed to go sit somewhere private for a little while.

He came with me and we sat in the stairway. I shook and tried my best to ground myself.

He didn’t try to intervene in a panic. He didn’t leave. He just stayed with me. And he respected my power. My power to take care of myself.

The flashback wasn’t easing up enough so we left the museum. We walked over to a bench near the water.

And as we walked over, he looked out for me as we crossed the street. (My flashbacks were much more intense back then and it was challenging to pay attention to my surroundings while having flashbacks.) Yet, he looked out for me in this quiet, calm, respectful way.

He didn’t act like a pompous knight rescuing some poor damsel in distress. He behaved as a human being who seemed to intuitively understand how to treat a person in distress (me) like a full human being.

It’s all I’d wanted for so long. I thirsted for so long that there was time I’d nearly forgotten I thirsted for that kind of knowing, that understanding, that respect. I wondered if I was the crazy one for having that thirst, longing for something no one seemed able or willing to give.

I “earned” respect, autonomy, freedom by pretending to feel okay, by trying to lie to myself, by hiding my pain from others. That’s how I adapted. I noticed. I noticed others’ reactions. What a sick environment, where a child who’s been abused hides her pain to “earn” respect and autonomy.

Now, I understand what I couldn’t fully grasp before, because it wasn’t safe to believe myself. It was never about me or my pain. It was about an environment where the people around me were so often dishonest with themselves — they had no clue when it came to making space for my honesty.

The story of the Skeleton Woman goes back further than when the fisherman accidentally reels her in and brings her home. At one time, “she had done something of which her father disapproved … her father had dragged her to the cliffs and thrown her over and into the sea. There, the fish ate her flesh away and plucked out her eyes. As she lay under the sea, her skeleton turned over and over in the currents.”

I live with death. And when I write the word, “death,” I don’t mean just literal death. I mean the nature of death. I live with loss. I live with pain. I live. I transform over and over and over again. I lay in bed with my grief. I awake once again and go about living.

For a while, I think I wished I could just enter some cocoon like a caterpillar and emerge a butterfly one final time.

Yet, that’s not how it goes. We fall asleep and we wake. And we fall asleep again. And we wake again.

We cannot enter one long slumber that subsequently allows us to live out the rest of our lives awake, no more sleep ever again.

There is wisdom in living with death. Letting old versions of myself die. Letting relationships that kept me stuck die. Knowing that there is only so much you can do in one day and letting that be what it is. I don’t need to stretch anything out or squeeze anything in. I only have to love this one life I’m living right here, right now.

Love is not happily ever after. That’s too static to be love. Too surface to match the depths of love. Too one-dimensional to capture something that’s so immense, so multi-dimensional it must be felt to be understood.

Love is not eternal bliss. In fact, love is something so much more glorious, so much deeper, so much more beautiful than Eden on Earth. Because love spans so much more than mere pleasure.

On that second date, after we left the museum, after we crossed over to the bench by the water, we just sat together. He didn’t try to fix me. He didn’t rush me. He mostly just sat there, with me, quietly.

After a while, he offered me a granola bar. I still remember the way he asked, so gentle and quiet yet also direct and kind without the empty frills of “nice.”

I ate the granola bar and we sat together a while longer, quietly. And when I was ready, we hugged. It was the most incredible hug I’ve ever experienced. I felt safe and cared for and protected in a way where I still felt like an independent, autonomous, respected human being.

We’ve had many, many conversations since then. We grow and evolve. We laugh. We annoy each other sometimes. We watch The Office together, and our favorite characters change each time we watch it over. Right now, it’s Creed if that gives you a sense of how many times we’ve watched it over! ;)

Yet, I also love just being together, in silence too. There is so much understanding and care in that quiet we share.

I’ve been so scared. So scared of my past repeating itself. So scared of becoming something, anything like the people who’ve abused me. So scared of falling into being abused again. So scared of riding public transportation and being in crowds and traveling alone and getting flashbacks out in public. I’ve been so scared of losing myself again. I’ve been so scared of remembering. So scared of forgetting. I’ve been so scared of losing him. I’ve been so scared of airports and how the sounds of the security machines make my whole body feel like it’s on fire. And I hate how when I’m taking a peaceful walk a dog bark or a person brushing past me or a siren can just throw my whole body into panic, heart-racing, quicken my breathing, all of it. I’ve been so tired. And so scared of being so tired like I was tired before.

Something’s been clicking recently. And I think it has to do with the Life/Death/Life nature. I’ve always noticed the Life/Death/Life nature. Even when other people gaslighted me. Even when space wasn’t made for my healing, my grief, my pain. And I became afraid of the Life/Death/Life nature for the same reasons I became afraid of myself.

I took the bus to work today. I taught piano lessons. I walked home. I got tired and thirsty. I drank some water and ate. I’m okay. I don’t need to protect myself from feeling sad, or anxious, or frustrated, or tired. I’m not afraid of my emotions. I trust myself. And I’m still working on trusting myself even more.

And my grieving isn’t going to be “completed.” Healing isn’t a checklist you finish. I can’t take one long nap and wake up and never have to sleep again.

I’m living with grief. And the less I fear grief and the more I embrace my grief, I feel freer and more empowered.

I am not a tortured spirit. I am free.

Free to love and be loved. Free to feel my pain. Free to be myself. Free to feel whatever I feel.

And I don’t need to protect myself from exhaustion.

I’m traveling outside of my comfort zone more. I’m resting and making peace with the in-between. I’m more in touch with my body. I’m more in touch with my soul. I’m changing. I’m learning. I’m able to speak and write and paint and sing honestly without feeling shame for that.

I’m honoring the wild and untamed inside of me. And instead of trying to tame myself, I meet my inner wild woman with reverence and curiosity. I’m honoring my power.

Honoring the wild woman within, setting myself free,

Nicole Sylvia Javorsky


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