Friday, August 20, 2010

Into The Fire

I love the myth of the phoenix. Do you know it? In it, the giant, beautiful, colorful bird builds a nest and sets it and itself on fire. (Don’t even ask me how the hell a bird sets a nest on fire. It makes for a good story. OK?) The bird emerges from the ashes a totally new, reborn bird. The phoenix has become my symbol over the past 3 years.

I downed over 90 pills in a very real attempt to kill myself. There are some things at which it is good to fail. They found me too late to pump my stomach. All the drugs went completely through my system. Mostly brain drugs – sleeping pills, tranquilizers, anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants (ironic, I know.)

At first, I was seriously mentally impaired. I had a hard time putting thoughts into words. It was a painstakingly slow process. I could barely talk. It sounded like a drunken slur. I shook uncontrollably. I did not know what to do with my arms when I walked. My balance and coordination were way off. With lots of determination, lots of hard work and discipline every day, lots of reading and learning, lots of self examination, lots of doing things differently, and through the miracle of neuroplasticity, I have emerged slowly from the chaos I created stronger, happier, and healthier than ever. I am a phoenix.

In her book Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, Elizabeth Lesser calls such a transformation the Phoenix Process:

Surviving the Holocaust, enduring the loss of one’s child, learning to live with an incurable illness, witnessing terror, or experiencing trauma—these are Phoenix Processes of the tallest order. Come through one of them with an open heart, and you will light a path through the woods for all of us.

She goes on to say that a person must make the journey by themselves. They must go into the flames alone to burn away the illusions of the ego and arise from the ashes with their true, authentic, new self. A person can choose to go into the fire, through the unknown, through the darkness and do the gut wrenching work or they can choose to turn away and remain frozen in an empty relationship, a soul killing job, a difficult loss, a numb life or whatever. Should they go into the fire, they stand to emerge with a new level of strength, power, and courage and with an awakened sense of empathy and a softer heart.

My choice initially was to do neither. I just wanted out. Surviving the suicide attempt and the resulting brain injury flung me right into the fire. It put me in a situation where all I could begin to try to control was how I dealt with the reality of the circumstances psychologically. Therein is the magic for anyone in any situation. The whole recovery has been a transformative Phoenix Process for me and a blessing in disguise. I would not go back to being who I was before for anything — even though she didn’t talk funny and had much better penmanship.

As a symbol of all I have been through and the promises I have made to myself going forward in my life, I got a tattoo of a phoenix. My first one. At my age!?! It is small and in a discreet place. I just love it! It is my own, private badge of honor and courage. I am ready to fly.


  1. Great article. I wrote a poem about being the Phoenix some years ago I'll havr to locvate it.

  2. Thanks, Tony. Please find your poem and share! I wanna read it. The phoenix is such a powerful symbol in many societies and for many people.

  3. HI Debbie,
    You did it (re: tattoo)! Woot! That's awesome -- I bet it is gorgeous.

    I love this, Debbie. I love your spirit and tenacity. And, I absolutely agree, the phoenix process is very real and transformative. I gleaned a lot of great information from Broken Open, too, and feel my heart softening.
    Thanks for this, and for speaking so openly about your challenges.

  4. Lori, when I decide something...I do not waste any time! I really feel some fresh, good energy with the phoenix. Glad you have read and also found some wisdom in Broken Open. I think anybody can!

    Thank you for the kind words about my spirit and tenacity. They have sure gotten me through this, but I am learning to tame my tenacity a little bit in the right situations. That is what is all about, huh? Balance.

  5. Debbie, I just stumbled across your blog this morning but I'm enjoying the posts you've written.

    I understand - and respect - that this tattoo was a private thing for you, but I've gotta admit, I'm very curious as heck about what it looks like! Tattoos that have some underlying story and/or meaning are truly fascinating!

    I've been drawing & tweaking on a phoenix-like tattoo to symbolize a transformative journey that I undertook. I haven't quite arrived at the design that seems right just yet, but I think I'm nearing that point.

  6. Mine is kinda simple, but funky and feminine. I just searched on the web. There are many designs available for free. You have to consider where it is gonna go and how much ink you want on your body. I am still loving mine. Makes me feel like I have a secret and a little wild. Good luck with yours!