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You are here: Home Resources E-Newsletter Archive Spring 2016, Issue XIV Dying to Live: Adolescence, Despair, and the Healing Rituals of Grief

Dying to Live: Adolescence, Despair, and the Healing Rituals of Grief

Journeys Youth Mentor, Alex Eisenberg, reflects on her own journey with depression, and how it has shaped the work she does with Rite of Passage Journeys and beyond in her essay Dying to Live: Adolescence, Despair, and the Healing Ritual of Grief.

by Alex Eisenberg


Much of my adolescence was colored with the hue of sadness and struggle. Thoughts of suicide were perpetually looming in the background of my days, and became the rocks that weighed me down during late night attempts to summit a mountain of homework. They filled my backpack as I slouched from class to class through high school halls. My parents, my grandparents, my aunt, my counselor, my doctors, and many of my friends endlessly encouraged me to lighten the load with antidepressants. I firmly refused. *

*I'll say right up front, to be very clear, that this is my truth and my experience, and by no means do I intend to suggest that medication isn't the right choice for anyone, or that my path is the only way. I hope everyone who struggles with depression is presented with options and adequate resources to address their struggle in whatever way is most appropriate for them.

My refusal was in part because I was afraid the drugs would only make it worse. I'd heard stories of people going over the edge as soon as they started messing with their internal chemistry. I was already so close to falling and was terrified of losing what little footing I had. If I was going to die, I wanted it to be my choice, not because of some manufactured hormonal mess-up. If I was going to live, I wanted to fully face reality, not numb myself to it (which I believed medication would allow or force me to do). I personally never took medication for my depression, and I struggled overtly with it for 10 years.

While I still deal with the impulse toward self-harm and contend with suicidal thoughts, I have made some discoveries over the past couple of years that have dramatically changed my orientation to and beliefs about despair, depression, suicide, and self-harm. The first major shift came from Joanna Macy, who affirms that despair is one the most appropriate responses to what is happening on and to the planet (including our own bodies and psyches) at this time. We all carry that grief, and I’ve found grace and release through actively facing the reality and emotional impact of our wounded world, particularly within the context of a safe container.

The container Joanna offers is a collection of rituals and practices she has developed for looking deeper into this pain and finding empowerment and interconnectedness within it. Joanna and her work have helped me realize that I’m not insane or disordered for feeling despair about the state of the world, and have given me permission to explore the power that lies within those emotional responses.

Around the same time I discovered Joanna's work (toward the end of college), I began learning about traditional rites of passage and the widespread belief among indigenous (and many other) cultures that the transitions from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood, and really all life transitions are meant to be marked and honored, and that an observation of a ritual death is often one of the most powerful ways this is done. The implications and importance of this was driven home for me in a talk of Derrick Jensen’s in which he speaks to a conversation about gang violence between he and gang-member-turned-poet, Luis Rodriguez. Jensen said he had asked Rodriguez why gangs shoot at each other — basically mirror images of themselves — and not at the cops? Rodriguez told him: "They're shooting at mirror images of themselves because they want to die. And the reason they want to die is because they are teenagers and teenagers are supposed to want to die because a teenager has to die as a child to become an adult. But what they don’t know, because no one is telling them, is that this death is supposed to be spiritual and metaphorical. There's supposed to be a ritual death of the child and then the adult emerges. All healthy cultures have this."*

Hearing these words, "teenagers are supposed to want to die," clarified and affirmed my entire experience of adolescence. There had been nothing wrong with me. I didn't need to be medicated. Those impulses and anger and despair were natural, even healthy, expressions of adolescence (and, again, accurate responses to what was happening in the world around me). What was unhealthy was the social-cultural container that should have been strong and intact enough to hold those volatile expressions and experiences, but wasn't. The elders in my life were "supposed to" understand all of this and create an opportunity for that energy and experience to be affirmed and given meaning. But they didn't know that. And how could they? Their elders didn't know that. The culture they grew up in didn't know that. At some point in history, this once almost universal understanding of the importance of ritual death was lost or deeply skewed.

It became clearer to me that part of my calling would be to change the story for today's youth. Not everyone successfully navigates the cliffs of despair as I, somehow, was able to. Many fall. Many jump. Many just get lost. And I wouldn't expect it to be any different without a container, without a village, to witness, validate, initiate, hold space for, and guide these difficult but authentic experiences of adolescence. I wanted to help re-create that container for people, adolescents and adults alike, who are depressed by their unexpressed grief. And I wanted it even more, years later, once I got a taste of "village" for myself.

I signed up for my first Grief Ritual Retreat at Sacred Groves on Bainbridge Island during the hardest year of my life. I was 24, and in the couple years prior had taken several opportunities for my own ritual deaths to mark my transition from adolescence to adulthood, and even to retroactively mark my transition from childhood to adolescence. But I was still struggling. 2014 was a wildfire that swept my life clear of everything I thought I had, and I was lost. I didn't really know what I was getting into going to the grief retreat, I just knew I needed to go.

It was clear to me at that point that expressing my emotions fully and purely was crucial, but I still didn't know how to do it in a way that was safe for myself or others, nor had I had the proper guidance to do so. But the retreat was just that. I was finally not only allowed, but invited to express my grief and rage fully — through wailing, sobbing, screaming, yelling, crying, thrashing, dancing, drumming, and whatever else came through. And I was witnessed in it by loving, non-judgmental others. And I was safe in it. I was surrounded by those others who were also throwing their entire bodies and souls into active grieving, and who were holding space for mine. I had found my village.

This experience offered me affirmation of things I'd intuited but had been actively discouraged from fully believing: depression and despair are not the same thing; depression is a stagnation or suppression of despair, anger, and grief; and the antidote to that stagnation truly is full expression.

So often in my life I had been told that I needed to manage my emotions, that expressing them was dangerous and inappropriate. Perhaps some of the ways I had expressed them were dangerous or inappropriate to those that witnessed and experienced them, but stifling my expression turned out to be at least as dangerous, both to myself and others. My emotions always found a way to express themselves anyway. They built up and pushed their way through my skin, turning to blood at the end of a knife. My suppressed emotions had manifested as self-harm and depression. I also see them express as illness, melancholy, eating "disorders," addiction, and violence. And I've found that my own experience is supported by emerging research in the field of psychology that specifically links self-harm with the feeling of being silenced and suppressing emotional expression.

I have been back to the Grief Retreat twice more in the past year and a half since the first one —my most recent experience being this past weekend. I am currently living in the wake of the weekend, which is a field of exhaustion, but also relief and a deeper sense of communion with other humans, the more-than human world, and the more-than-visible world. I feel witnessed, known, seen, heard, and believed. I feel like myself again, and have reclaimed myself as an unapologetically emotional being. My most difficult life experiences, having been affirmed and lifted and given the space to be raged over and grieved, are suddenly less daunting to face. I am more willing and more equipped to deal with them and the challenges ahead. Through my grief, I have been enlivened. Through my grief, my longing to die was transformed into a longing to live a deeper life.

I ache for, and I will fight for, communities and a world in which all people are given these types of containers; a world in which adolescents are valued for and empowered with their gifts — their fire, passion, energy, anger, despair, juice, and ultimately a sensitivity to the deeper currents that are influencing us all; a world in which deep emotional experience is not pathologized or medicated, but held, valued, and worked with; a world in which the impulses toward suicide and self-harm are seen for what they are: longings for a deeper, more enriching experience of life that is calling for witness, ritual, and support. I believe our vitality and resilience as a species, and as communities, and as individuals depends on the ritual and communal honoring of all life stages and emotional experiences.

These days when I feel depression closing in, or when I find myself feeling the impulse toward self-harm, I know it is time for me to experience ritual death — whether that means going to a grief retreat, going on a vision quest, screaming to the sea, breaking glass, or creating small personal rituals to honor whatever part of me is wanting to die. This honoring allows for the gifts of the experience to be realized, and the release creates space for new growth and discovery. My depression is not a disease — it simply means it is time to move something that is stuck. My longing to die, when it arises, is not pathological — it is the longing toward the richer life that lies on the other side of ritual death.

(*this quote is from the film Occupied Cascadia)



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