Readings for Dark Moments

Introduction: 
Isabel Joely Black is a writer living in the UK. She has been working on Amnar, a fantasy fiction series, for the last four years. Currently, she divides her time between freelance academic writing, podcasting and working on her latest book in the Amnar series. Vivacious, frenetic and talkative, she also enjoys music and running, but doesn’t like having to write descriptions like these. In 2006, she began promoting Amnar and Distant Ground, a semi-autobiographical account of her struggle with anorexia and depression during the 1990s, doing readings at a variety of literary festivals. 2007 was a break year, but this year she is working on a podiobook of Amnar: Book One and discovering the joys of reading her own fiction out loud. She can mostly be found at a Starbucks or a bar in the city centre where she lives.

Over the next few weeks, she is going into the studio to record an audiobook version of her first novel, Amnar: Book One. The blog and Facebook Page will track the progress of the recording all the way from the first production of the scripts to the final release on March 1st, 2008. From then on, the book will be available to download in weekly segments from iTunes and her new website. For more information, check the blog for updates.

Contact information: You can follow Isabel Joely Black’s work and communicate with her through her Facebook Page, or for fans of Amnar, you can join the Group.

                                                            The Edge 
A few months ago I sat in a coffee bar with a friend just after experiencing a bout of what I suppose you could call “acute depression”, the kind where you feel as though you’re being sucked into a black hole of despair from which there is no escape. We were talking about depression, and she told me the story of a man who had depression but hadn’t acknowledged it. His story is fascinating, not least because of the secret that lay behind the critical illness he suffered for so many years. It also taught me a great lesson about life and fear.The man in question was an alcoholic, and a very severe one at that. He drank to mask a depression he wouldn’t even acknowledge to himself. His drinking became so extreme that on a few occasions, it almost claimed his life. It did manage to claim significant relationships in his life, and cause a great deal of trauma for himself and those who loved him. He was a determined alcoholic, apparently beyond help and refusing to seek any kind of assistance for himself. The repercussions of his refusal to seek help or even to face the nightmare that lay behind his drinking and depression were damaging not just to him but those who loved him.One imagines that such cases involve a history of abuse or some severe, terrifying secret that cannot be revealed at any cost. And yet, the cause in this case was something painfully familiar: he was afraid of the dentist.

I’ve never met anybody who enjoyed going to the dentist. It’s not an experience one normally associates with pleasure. I have known a great many people with a terrible fear of the dentist. Indeed, I was scared of the dentist for a very long time. It’s one of those relatively common fears, like spiders and death. In the UK, you have to go to the dentist once every six months to stay in NHS care, but it’s entirely up to you, and many people who are phobic about dentistry simply don’t bother attending until a crisis occurs, for which they will then pay.

The lesson is not that this man was ridiculous in making such a huge fuss over such an apparently trivial thing, allowing it to destroy his life and relationships over the course of a few years, but that everybody has an edge. I walked away from the meeting thinking about something I’d read by Pema Chödrön earlier in the year that discusses “the edge”, the place where we meet our darkest, most terrible fears. It’s that point where we break, where all our insecurities are revealed.

It made me step back from the fear I’d been feeling, from all the pain and depression in which I’d wrapped myself. No matter how much we want to claim ourselves to be rational human beings, emotions carry us away like wayward horses. The fears that drive us to distraction are the ones that will suffer no logic whatsoever. We’re convinced that we’re the worst human being on earth, that we can never be loved, that we can’t do what we want, that we’re hopeless, destroyed, beyond help. In the depths of depression they become truth, a terrifying cage that suddenly dominates our life. From the outside, it may seem ridiculous or it may seem understandable, but whatever it is, it’s reaching that outside space that’s so difficult and so necessary to recovery.

This was the story that made me climb outside of all those old truths by which I’d lived, that cage. It was suddenly seeing myself from the outside, really taking a moment to look without attachment to what I was feeling, and seeing compassionately where I was and what I was doing. It planted a seed of reason that allowed me, at any point, to suddenly step outside the cage and see it for what it was: nothing but a web of lies. We create terrible stories about ourselves when we’re depressed, or even just sad, but not only that, we beat ourselves up for the way these stories make us feel. Understanding that these are only stories, that they’re nothing but imaginary tales we tell about ourselves, is the key to ending the nightmare. Once you’re able to say “these are just stories” and to view them without attachment, then you move into a space where if you need to feel a great pain, sadness or grief, you can feel it with compassion but without the need to hurt yourself for having it there.

We have a great attachment to our stories about ourselves. It took me over a decade to see that starving myself wasn’t solving any problems and that I could walk away if I wanted. The depression was more insidious, however. Eating wasn’t enough; the stories were still there, and so was the edge. The edge is the point where the stories are challenged, where we face everything we’d rather hide about ourselves – both the good and the bad. We face our greatest threat when we meet our edge. It might be in the dentist’s chair, in a viva voce exam, facing a lover we wish to ask to marry us, or even just to date us. It’s where we’re exposed and vulnerable, naked in a space where we either buckle or transcend our stories and find a new way of living.

In a sense we want the stories to be real, because they keep us safe. Letting them go requires great courage; even to acknowledge that we’re terrified, that we don’t know if it’ll be okay in the end, that we don’t know if we can cope is a gigantic step. It’s at that point though that depression is transformed. I’ve always thought of depression as not just the feeling of a great sadness but the desperate attempt not to feel it. Fighting with our thoughts and feelings makes them worse. We hold on to them for fear that if we let them go, we’ll only get worse. Yet when we recognise that we feel the way we do and allow it to be, that acceptance itself is releasing, and deeply freeing.

Whenever I find myself wrapped up in stories again, feeling that fear, that need to crawl away and hide, and whenever I start listening to that inner critic telling me stories about who I am in the world, I remember the alcoholic who was afraid of the dentist. I remember that what I’m thinking has no bearing out there in the world, and no truth unless I allow it. I recall that these stories are all an illusion, and then they can be released.

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