This piece is from a retreat I did with Deena on Martha’s Vineyard in September 1998. Deena was using as a theme of the story of Psyche and Eros. The descent into the Underworld is part of Psyche’s story. I am describing my experience of the “Summer from Hell,” the summer of 1996, when I was terrified out of my mind. I never slept more than ninety minutes at a time, would wake terrified in a sweat, somehow manage to sleep again, and wake again in ninety minutes… I lost a lot of weight, I was down to 105lbs. By 1998 I was on antidepressant medication and it was working somewhat, at least I wasn’t terrified any more, but I still had trouble sleeping.
The Descent into Hell
My life is getting drier and drier, grayer and grayer, all the juice is running out, has never been. Step by step through the rain of ash, the bitter fog, the deepening cold. Step by step. Now put your right foot forward…
I wake in terror. I get out of bed because it’s just as scary to stay there, and sometimes things are better if I move. I do yoga because it’s something for my mind to cling to. I have a sequence of postures written down because it’s too hard to decide what to do next. I eat breakfast, forcing tasteless food against the dryness in my mouth. I wash dishes because it’s something I can do and something that must be done, and it gives me an illusion of being effective, having a purpose. I lift a spoon out of the water, resist the impulse to scrub it quickly and move on — because what do I have to do today, nothing important, nothing worthwhile, nothing that would save the world or “do good for others” — there isn’t anything I can do that would make me feel better, would still the panic, would give me the sense that there might be something that I could do “right”, something that would placate the angry goddess who has never been happy with me. So if there’s nothing I can do, I might as well be doing the dishes, putting off the awful moment when I will have to decide what to do next. I scrub the spoon slowly, saying in my mind “This too is God.” I try to scrub it gently, reverently, with my anxiety-stiffened fingers. I notice the sun glittering on the dishwater, the chickadee in the apple tree, the snow on the mountain. I know that at some other time, on some other planet, these things are beautiful. There is no beauty now, no peace, no silence, no warmth. When I have finished the dishes the next thing is to water the plants. I pour spring water from the hose into the watering can. I notice how the stream of water spirals with silver glints inside, how it follows a trajectory without being either rigid or sloppy. As I pour the water on to the plants, I hold on to the silver spiral glint as a drowning person holds on to a rope she hopes might lead her to the surface.