Comfort in the Dark

You reached out your injured arm, placing your hand on my shoulder while I wrapped and bound it. You didn’t even wince as I pulled the bandages tight to help slow the blood flow. One of the Healers would need to tend to the wound once we returned to the Haven, but for now, this made an adequate field dressing.

You smiled as I worked, and we made small talk again, as if we hadn’t just fought for our lives. Such was the way for those of us who made a habit of traversing the darkness. We all learned after a while that dangers lurked everywhere and that there was nothing to be done but to roll with them, dealing with each one as it cropped up. You were already an old hand at this, well-versed in dealing with such risks. You had taught me much in the brief time we had known each other.

I could help returning your smile. You always had that effect on me. Your smile could light the darkness in a way our lanterns never could. The warmth of your smile dispelled the chill of the eternal night here, however briefly.

Piercing the Dark

Our blades flashed in the dark, sparks of light from our lanterns flickering off our weapons. The things were all around us, attacking from the sides, the floor, even the ceiling. We stood back-to-back and warded them off — one, two, sometimes even three at a time.

Until there were none left. Corpses lay all about us as we struggled to catch our breath. We had fought. We had won. But we had not escaped entirely unscathed ourselves. Such are the dangers of traveling these dark corridors.

We moved off a bit, choosing a side passage almost at random. We needed to leave the stench of death behind us and attend to our own wounds. We both resheathed our blades into our walking sticks, then sat, our backs to the tunnel wall.

I could see a long scratch along your left forearm. It was already growing dark with the venom of the thing that had caused it. I dug into my pack for a bezoar, but a familiar crunch from between your teeth told me you’d already pulled one out of your own. Of course you didn’t need my help.

Traversing the Dark

We traveled like that for some time. Talking. Sharing. Laughing. It was always a joy to travel with you, and it was no less so this time.

And as we walked, we noticed the ground beneath our feet begin to slant ever so slightly downward.

The thing about the dark is that the path rarely ever stays the same. The tunnels are always changing, ever shifting. Honestly, it was a small wonder I was able to find you at all. These are the kinds of things the Watchers are ever on the lookout for, giving warning when such events occur. But even They can’t see everything, and so this shift slid beneath their attentive gazes.

We reached a cross passage, barely having time to note it when things, creatures of the dark, lunged at us. Neither of us missed a beat. We whirled as the things, barely seen yet lethally dangerous, attacked. We pulled weapons — you a stiletto, me a sword — and danced death with them, never leaving the other’s side, never dropping our packs. One always fights while bearing one’s own burdens.

Sharing the Dark

We found each other in the dark some time later. Or, rather, the semi-dark. A crack in part of the tunnel ceiling extended through the rock over our heads and let in just enough light that we didn’t require our lanterns. It did little to dispel the gloom to either side of us, of course, but it at least gave us a safe haven for our reunion.

You were already on your way back when I found you. You greeted me with a hug and a smile that was genuinely warm. I knew I’d been right not to worry, but your gear clearly told the tales of your travels. There had been hardships along the way. I could see those markings clearly, even in that dim light. But still you smiled, ever positive, ever optimistic. And this was part of why I chose to follow you into the dark. How could I not?

We walked together then, both our lanterns lit, the shared glow of those lights illuminating the path ahead of us more clearly than each had alone. We talked, voices low, exchanging stories and sharing experiences.

I didn’t want it to end.

When Anxiety Becomes Outright Fear

Let me be the first to admit it — I lost my mind for a little while today. The anxiety I’ve been feeling all week has been weighing heavy on my mind and heart. It has been interfering with my ability to perform my job, a job that I love and enjoy and would hate to lose. The anxiety has been intruding on my sleep, causing me to wake up multiple times a night, tossing and turning and even, on occasion, feeling like I’m suffocating. It’s caused my mind to race with a thousand thoughts a once but prevented me from effectively focusing on any one of them. In short, anxiety has been making life hell this week.

So I was glad I had an appointment scheduled with my psychiatrist today. I wanted to talk to him about the increase in anxiety, the increase in sleep disturbances, and even the possibility (suggested to me over this past weekend by a former psych professor) that I might have Type II Bipolar. We made the decision to increase the dosages of a couple of my medications and to add an additional one to help with mental focus. And I left the office feeling optimistic and hopeful that these changes will start to make a difference quickly.

But I’m also currently without medical insurance, and one of my medication refills that’s critical to maintaining my sanity — Effexor (or rather, its generic, Venlafaxine) — turns out to be not so cheap without insurance to cover the bulk of the cost. I watched in horror as most of the money I’ve been saving away the last four week disappeared just on these medications I need to keep me mentally stable.

And that’s when the fear ripped through me. That knot of anxiety I’ve been living with all week exploded, erupted into uncontrolled anguish as every little worry and concern I’ve worked so hard this year to confront and face down came crashing back down on me like an anvil. I’ve been worried all week about maintaining this contract I’ve landed that I enjoy so much, so the fear that I might lose yet another job because my health is real. Plus, I have a car payment now, and I’d been planning to sock every spare dollar away to pay it off early and quickly. Instead, I got to watch as half the money I’d saved this last month disappeared in about three seconds.

All those feelings that I’ve been dealing with for the last 18 months hit me again. Hard. I felt like a failure. I felt like I can’t do this, that I’m never going to get ahead because every time I start to gain ground, I’m going to get knocked back again. I felt like I’m never going to get my life back, get a chance to really start it again, that I’m going to regress into a state of mind where nothing makes sense and everything is large and overwhelming and terrifying.

I had to take some time for myself.

So I drove to a local park and just sat in my car for an hour or so until I could calm down, slow my thoughts and my racing heart, and remind myself that things could be worse, much worse. This is a setback, yes, but it’s not the end of the world. And I’m still stronger and healthier than I was a year ago. I’m still fighting and clawing for every inch of forward progress I can get. And even if I do get knocked down a peg or two, so what? I pick myself up and start climbing again. There is no way but forward, and the only things behind me are the past and the lessons of life I’ve learned so well recently. There are still things I can do to improve my status and my situation, and I’m smart and clever. I have friends, family, and support. There’s no reason why, together, we can’t figure this thing out.

Yes, my anxiety turned into fear today, but it didn’t stay that way. I wouldn’t allow it. I’ve worked too damn hard to get where I am right now to let a little thing like this defeat me. And on top of all that, I know my God is still in control, still walks by my side, knows all my heartaches and troubles, and will not abandon me even now.

So here I go again, one foot in front of the other. There are things to be done and work to be completed. It’s just going to be a little harder than I expected, and that’s ok.

One day, one step, one breath.

Into the Dark

The Watchers tell me you departed some time ago, that you walked into the tunnel by yourself armed with nothing but your pack, walking stick, and a lantern. An incredible risk, if you ask me, given what we both know lurks there in the dark. But I know you. I know your strength; I’ve seen it first-hand. So I’m not worried for you. But the things that live there, in the dark, ought to be worried, even though they don’t know it.

I’ve waited for you to return. I’ve hoped to see you again by now, but you haven’t come back yet. I can only assume the journey has been longer than expected, or that there has been some complication on the other end we didn’t anticipate. I’m certain the journey itself was safe enough. I’ve seen the way you take care of others, and I understand full well that you exercise the same level of care on yourself.

Just the same, though, I’ve explained my plan to the Watchers, and they have agreed. I have my own pack now. And walking stick. And lantern.

I’m going to follow you into the dark.

Living with Anxiety

The thing about living with an anxiety disorder is that you never know when those cloying fingers of fear will wrap themselves around you and bring you to a debilitating halt. Sure, there are medications you can take to ease the symptoms and cognitive behavioral techniques you can employ to gain some measure of control. But even with those tools at your disposal, there are more than a few days when it’s still not enough, when those sneaky tendrils of anxiety, stress, and paranoia snake their way into your mind and body and wrap themselves tightly around you, holding you immobile and paralyzing you completely. You can take a self-care day, of course, focusing on resting and regaining the upper hand, but after taking a couple self-care days in a row, it’s easy to start feeling guilty about it because you know there are things around you that need to be done.

Like depression, anxiety, too, is a chronic liar. It tells you that everyone and everything is out to get you, that you’re constantly in danger. It takes everything in your willpower to fight against those lies, to push back against that fight-or-flight instinct, and to settle into a state of gentle repose instead. But it’s hard because that ball of fear stays lodged firmly in the pit of your stomach and, for me at least, my mind loses its ability to focus and my skin feels like it’s on fire with hypersensitivity.

Today is one of those days where it’s a fight and a struggle. Tears have been threatening to slip down my cheeks most of the afternoon already. One part of me wants to slip back into the safety of my bed, to sleep and to hide. Another part of me recognizes that won’t help nearly as much as I want it to and insists I stay put and fight. And so I write. I wield the only weapon currently at my disposal, the sword of words and the sharing of experience. I’m thankful for good friends I can talk to on days like this, friends who won’t judge and who will, in fact, do what they can to support me and prop me up when I can’t seem to do so myself.

This anxiety will pass. It always does. I rely on my mantra to remind me to breathe, and to keep breathing, in and out, as often as necessary, in order to make it from this moment to the next. I fall back on my faith, reminding myself that God walks with me and beside me, and that even if all my human friends were to turn away from me, He is still there for me. The key to all this is patience, a lesson I’ve learned all too well in the past 18 months and which I continue to learn and put into practice. I am a fighter, a warrior, and I wage battle inside myself, with myself, as often as necessary to bring my own body into submission, using whatever tools I have at hand. And I have put together quite the toolkit over the months, but I haven’t done it alone, and for that I am always grateful.

Life marches on. I insist on marching with it. Yes, I have mental illness, but I refuse to allow it to define me. Instead, I learn anew every day how to define myself, in spite of my illness — and perhaps even because of it — and how to keep moving forward. Because forward is the only acceptable direction. I’ve lived in the darkness before; I refuse to go back. The light is what I seek because that is where hope lives and life thrives.

One day, one step, one breath.

A Horse – and a Gun

Dagron Max had been stranded only twice in his life. The first time, he returned carrying a gun. The second time, he returned carrying a saddle, as well. In both cases, a horse died, but in the second case that a man died, as well. And not without cause.

“You just don’t mess with a man’s horse,” Dagron said, retelling the story to anyone who would listen. At the moment his audience consisted only of the bartender — and a horsefly on a filthy shot glass a little way down the bar. “A horse is the measure of a man’s status in this world. You fuck with a man’s horse, you fuck with his reputation. That shit don’t fly.”

Dagron tossed back another shot of the firewater the bartender had served up, the flames burning his mouth and throat as they slid down his gullet. He barely noticed. Smoke puffed out his mouth with his next words.

“That’s why I shot the man. Square between the eyes. You don’t put another man’s horse down like that.” He slammed the shot glass down onto the bar.

“You don’t do that kind of shit.”

Quoth the Raven

I laid on my back on the forest floor, the deadfall beneath me striving vainly to push me closer to the sky. Perched above me a black raven rested on a branch, peering intently down at me, just as it had for the last two hours. The creature never moved, never blinked, never stretched a wing. It might have been dead, for all I knew, except that the occasional gust of wind forced it to readjust its stance.

We remained like that for a long time, the raven and I, staring at one another in quiet communion. I didn’t know why it held such an interest in me — or I in it, for that matter. But there was a sense of calm between us I couldn’t explain.

An old poem I’d read as a child kept replaying through my mind as I laid there. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. I kept expecting the raven to utter the word, “Nevermore!” and fly on its way. But it never did.

So I said it, instead. “Nevermore!” I called. The raven cocked its head in response, curious at my outburst. “So you do move,” I breathed. “That’s good to know.”

Deck Tremor

Captain Adriana Milosovic felt the deck tremble beneath her feet. It was subtle, barely even there at all, and yet it was enough that her senses came to high alert. She glanced around the bridge at her crew, but they were all engaged in their own tasks. No one else seemed to have noticed the oddity.

“Status report!” she barked. Immediately, her crew jumped to high alert as each one checked individual readouts at their stations. Several voices replied simultaneously, but she was used to sorting out the confusion. The gist of the impromptu systems check was that all operations were nominal, operating well within expected parameters.

Adriana returned to her captain’s chair and thumbed the comm for engineering. “Mr. Stock, report please.” The response was immediate.

“We blew a fuse, captain,” he replied. “We’re replacing it right now.”

“Very good. Any idea as to the cause of the failure?”

“None, captain. Diagnostics is underway.”

“Excellent, Mr. Stock. Report to me once you have something.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jack-of-All-Trades, Master of Words