Christmas had been full of laughter. But on Boxing Day when the children left, Emma began to cry. Grief racked her body. It was as though she had been taken over by a power beyond herself. There was no apparent reason for this, yet it went on for three hours. That was the beginning. Within three weeks, each time she went out to walk in the woods near her house, the trees, the grass, the rocks - all came alive. They seemed to vibrate with energy and to glisten with light, almost to breathe. Their colors had become overwhelming - too intense to bear. Panic set in. This healthy and competent woman in her early fifties feared that she was losing her mind. The doctor suggested tranquilizers, sleeping pills and psychotherapy. "Don't worry," he assured her. "We will soon have it all under control."
For Rebecca, 32, the crunch came at work after neglecting her relationship with her lover and ignoring a mounting biological urge to have a child, then passing up two intriguing job offers and working 18 hours a day for seven months on a marketing plan for a new toothpaste. She knew it was just what she needed for a promotion which would make her the first woman on the board. Then the managing director announced the take over. The launch had to be scrapped. The product would have been in direct competition with the new company's own product already on the market. Two days later, her boyfriend announced he had fallen in love with someone else and was leaving. Then one morning while doing her morning run in the park, Rebecca sprained her left ankle so badly that she could not walk at all for two weeks. This meant that now, when it was absolutely crucial that she be at work to secure her future, she found herself completely bedridden. She felt her life collapsing around her and knew she was helpless to do anything about it.
the signs of molting
Two women in crisis - that moment in life when the foundations of personal safety, beliefs, security or values are challenged, overwhelmed by either internal forces or external events. When any one of us experiences such a crisis it is a sign that a molting is about to take place. We are being asked to walk a passage which, if made with awareness and trust, can expand our experience of life and our sense of ourselves enormously. This demand for personal metamorphosis may be triggered by a death, the ending of a love affair, the recognition that one is addicted to alcohol, drugs or work, a dawning awareness that what you have always worked for and what you have achieved no longer holds meaning for you, the loss of a job or reputation, or even the detoxification process of a cleansing regime. Although each person's metamorphosis is unique, experiences of profound change have much in common.
The advice to people in the midst of crisis is pretty standard too. It goes something like this: "Pull yourself together," or "Don't worry," or "Go see the doctor" (who most often supplies a long-standing prescription for potent antidepressants, barbiturates, or tranquilizers). In the case of women - particularly women of menopausal age - the men in their lives (whether they be husbands, lovers or bosses) are frequently made so uncomfortable by the unexpected changes in a woman's feelings and behavior (changes that they themselves feel unable to handle) that they insist she must be mentally or biologically ill. For they, like most of us, just want things to return to normal. We are all afraid of crisis, and fair enough. Change that is truly transformative seldom comes easily.
Emma's background was simple. After many years as a successful wife and mother, she approached the time in her life when all of the structures on which her life had been built were becoming redundant. Her children had left home for university and work. Her husband, the managing director of a large engineering firm traveled a lot and she, who had given up a job in publishing twenty five years before to look after her young family, felt she had little to look forward to. Before crisis struck, Emma had become vaguely aware of these things and told herself she should take up a hobby or go back to work, but nothing grabbed her interest. Thanks to the success of her husband's business, she did not need to earn money. When, unable to cope with the strange states of consciousness into which she found herself plunged, and on the advice of friends and family, she sought help from the doctor, he told her she was menopausal and wrote out a prescription for tranquilizers and hormone replacement. Something prevented her from having the prescription filled. "I feared I was losing my mind and I was absolutely terrified that these intense visual experiences together with sensations of powerful energies flowing through my body in waves day after day were a sign that I was actually going to die," she says, "But a small voice somewhere deep inside me kept saying `see it through - don't run away from it.' I didn't know where to turn. Everyone, including my husband, thought I was irresponsible not to do as the doctor advised. The irony of it all was that the one thing on which I had always prided myself was my sense of responsibility."
The healing power of friendship
As it turned out, Emma was lucky. Despite her embarrassment and shame about what had been happening to her, she frequently spoke about it to people whom she did not know very well. "It was as if I had to tell someone" she says "and I couldn't speak to my family and closest friends since they were convinced I was crazy." One of the people she told was a woman who had herself been through a similar experience five years earlier. Emma, relieved to find anybody who "understood" and didn't brand her psychotic, began spending time with this woman. On the advice of her husband who thought a change of scene would be good for her, she decided to spend a fortnight with her new friend in a small holiday cottage in the Lowlands of Scotland. There the two women lived together, ate together and walked in the wilderness. Emma's symptoms continued, but the woman she was with was not in the least afraid of them, neither did she worry about Emma's intense emotions - feelings of grief at the loss of her children, of uncertainty about her future, of abandonment much like a baby must feel when taken from its mother - nor about her strange bodily sensations which were particularly severe at night. She simply stayed with her friend and allowed it all to happen. In Emma's own words, "The experience of her simply letting me be in the state I was in and her complete sense of trust that what was happening to me was all right was incredible for me. I learnt from it that the death I feared was not physical death as I had thought, but the death of everything in myself that was meant to die - the end of the life I had lived as a mother, always sacrificing myself for the sake of my children and my husband, and the death of my image of myself as a responsible but limited person with no real sense of identity apart from the way I could serve others."
After about ten days, her symptoms peaked and then began to subside. By the time she got home she was still experiencing strange energy flows in her body and the colors still seemed extraordinarily bright (it took about three months for all that to change) but now she no longer feared what was happening because, she says, "I could feel for the first time in my life that there really was something inside me - something very alive and real. I am determined to get to know it and to find out what it is all about. Where it will lead I don't know. I have begun to paint - to try to get some of that vibrancy of color on paper. Incidentally, a lot of people don't like the `new me'. They prefer the `good old reliable Emma'. But I feel, far from my life being over, that I am beginning a new adventure and that wherever it takes me, it is uniquely mine."
harbingers of change
This sense of impending death which Emma experienced is common in the experience of molting. It is something I have experienced again and again before a major change takes place in my life. As American expert in transformative psychology, John Wier Perry MD says, "Whenever a profound experience of change is about to take place, its harbinger is the motif of death. This is not particularly mysterious, since it is the limited view and appraisal of oneself that must be outgrown or transformed, and to accomplish transformation the self-image must be dissolved... one is forced to let go of old expectations... let oneself be tossed about by the winds of change...cultivating a more capacious consciousness, open to new dimensions of experience."
Perry, a Jungian analyst, encourages people to work through their experiences - even when they are very extreme - without the mitigating effect of drugs. Instead they are given the support of a safe place to be while their particular molting is taking place, and a lot of loving support from people who have, from experience in their own lives, learned to turn the experience of crisis into a passage to power. Perry insists that, like the crab in need of a new shell, what precipitates such a crisis is the surfacing of energy from deep within the psyche, which has been bound up in the structures of a self-image or a worldview that has become obsolete - too limited to suit a person's needs.
where inner and outer meet
One of the most common objections amongst conventional "batten-down-the-hatches" psychologists to viewing crisis as part of a transformational process is that, while a crisis such as Emma's appears largely to have arisen from within, that of Rebecca was triggered entirely by outside events - the company take over, the decision of the man in her life to leave her, the accident to her ankle which put her to bed - all things over which she had no control. Or did she? According to British transpersonal psychologist Barbara Sommers, the outer and the inner world are not as separate as we might imagine. A woman like Rebecca may be far more responsible for precipitating the outer events that triggered her crisis than she thinks.
Each of us has an inner and an outer world. When these two get out of balance, say, by emphasizing external or material values to the detriment of more personal deeper values, then a person invites disruption. The more someone like Rebecca pushes on with her ambitions and neglects her inner voice, the closer she brings herself to situations that precipitate crisis. Then crisis becomes a way of rebalancing things by forcing her to turn and look within.
Things fail: She loses the man she loves because she has, by her actions, undervalued and neglected the relationship, and she damages her body so she is quite literally forced to go to bed, to be alone and to listen to her inner voice. In Sommers' words, "The real woman inside her doesn't like the way she has been living so she starts to cry out, `What about me?' The more she drives her energy into her conscious external life, the more power from her unconscious is generated to redress the balance. The `feeling' side of her (as opposed to the `doing' side) actually magnetizes a field around her so things start to happen." According to Sommers the important thing about Rebecca's crisis is that out of its forcing her to be with herself, instead of constantly being caught up in doing, comes the opportunity to ask questions such as "Who am I?" and "What do I want? - is my goal really to have a seat on the board? Or is that something I think I want because my father, my society, my friends think it is important?"
All crises big or small are opportunities to get in touch with the wholeness of ourselves, not just to live lopsidedly or as partial people pushed into the way we are living by our culture, by education or by other people's views or values.
rehearsal for change
All crisis offers transformation provided, as the poet Rilke says, we have the courage to embrace it: "...this very abyss is full of the darkness of God, and where one experiences it, let him climb down and howl in it (that is more necessary than to cross over it)."
Let yourself become aware of any structures of your own life - emotional, physical, environmental, intellectual - which no longer serve you and the choices you are making. See if there are any passages that are appropriate for you to make consciously. Making simple changes willingly can be useful practice for developing the skill of transforming crises, when they appear, into passages to power.
You might like to experience the passage to new energy and clarity that a detoxification diet followed for a few days can bring. Or you might try doing without some addictive substance or activity which you feel is draining your energies. If you choose to do either, notice any changes that come about and pay attention to any messages that you get from within in the process.