Chapter One The Shadow Man
My first memory of the Shadow Man is waking to find him standing in the corner of my room. He blended into the dark and stood so still I couldn’t be sure I was actually seeing him. That night he just watched me, or rather, we watched each other. I was sure if I fell asleep he would kill me. Malevolence radiated from him and it was specific to me. His visits became a regular occurrence. Sometimes he just stood across the room. Other times, he moved closer and closer while I held my breath, unable to move or scream. The worst was when he got right up next to me, near enough to touch. I’d squeeze my eyes tight, waiting for a morning that never seemed to come.
I have dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder). It’s not something I talk about very often, and given what we’ve seen recently with Britney Spears and mental health conservatorships in general, I feel fairly validated in that choice. I grew up in a very controlling family and being “not okay” was never really an option. We were expected to be smiling no matter what emotions we were having. More than that, no matter the circumstance, we were supposed to actually feel fine or at the very least, feel nothing at all. There were brutal consequences for expressing outrage or grief at one’s circumstances. I knew without being told that “crazy” was not a safe thing to be and it’s only in the last couple years I’ve started to share the details of my diagnosis.
Which is not easy. Whenever I start talking or writing about having DID, I get dizzy and confused and often very, very sleepy. I have trouble remembering where the conversation was going. Occasionally, I lose time. I’ll sit down to write and a half hour later come back to myself folding laundry, no idea how I got there or what I was doing before. Certain questions or topics will send me into a spiral of yawns until I have to lie down and later, I don’t remember what about the conversation was so triggering.
When I started my mental health journey, I focused primarily on addiction and recovery. I didn’t have a lot of success. I relapsed after four years and came very close to suicide. In outpatient treatment, I was diagnosed with DID and started to finally see real progress. I started working towards integration, a fusion of separate personality parts into one cohesive self that has access to all thoughts, emotions, and memories.
One of the tools used is called parts therapy. A type of EMDR but instead of revisiting old trauma, I was told to imagine there was a large conference room in my head with a big, long table and lots of chairs. Once that was established, I was to say out loud, “I ask anyone who’d like to join us to please come to the conference room.”
The first few weeks (maybe months, I don’t actually remember, I just know my therapist is a very patient person) we spent long silent hours waiting while a whole lot of nothing happened in my head. Eventually, bits of me started to saunter/slink into the room and the table slowly filled up. Initially I felt very little connection to these strangers who apparently lived in my head but through treatment I grew to understand their origin and purpose, to accept and even love them as aspects or extensions of my whole self, even the most troublesome ones.
There was Poly, a hyper-functional, perfectionist “manager” part. Baby, a very young, sweet, stuck-in-trauma part. Monster, a manic, chaotic “acting out” part. Kami, a “fight part” who believed she was protecting me with her “eroticized rage”.
There were pieces of me the other parts wouldn’t let into the room. For months water pooled under the conference room door, a figure lurking just beyond the frosted glass. I repeatedly asked Poly about it, but she would only say, “We don’t talk about the Drowned Girl.” Eventually we did, and I invited her in. She came into the room, little red coat dripping saltwater and seaweed onto the carpet.
The Drowned Girl, who calls herself Ruin, is the part of me that lived through the majority of the abuse I faced. When things got so bad none of the other parts could stand it, Ruin came out and lived through the unlivable.
I suspected there was still another part, a sinister lurker on the edge of my observation. As far back as I can remember, I lived with a voice in my head that hated me. Some people might mean this metaphorically, I do not. I mean there was a literal voice in my brain that near constantly whispered abuse at, well, I guess at the rest of my brain. It told me I’m worthless, crazy, melodramatic, lazy. When I felt proud of a job well done, it rolled its eyes and said, “So arrogant.” When something went wrong in my life, it seethed its approval. According to the voice, everything was always my fault and I couldn’t do anything right. It took some mighty swings at me in the past, dragged me deep past ideation into the hushed, still waters of “putting one’s affairs in order”. It didn’t drive me to suicide, but always seemed pretty confident that it eventually would.
Unlike my other parts, this voice didn’t seem to be of me. It wasn’t my own irritating inward vocal fry that pops in with the Zamzows theme song when I’m trying to meditate, or reminds me during sex that we’re out of toothpaste. This voice was a spy, a disapproving witness riding my shoulder like a vindictive parrot. “NEVER GOOD” it squawked at me about my behavior, my body, my perceived character flaws and anything else it felt I’d missed. I called this voice the Shadow Man, and he didn’t always stay in my head.
Once, when I was around ten, I woke up because my bed was shaking, almost imperceptibly at first. I lay wide-eyed in the dark, wondering if we were having an earthquake or if I was imagining it or still dreaming. The shaking increased, rattling the legs of my bunk bed against the hardwood floor in a staccato. I held tight to my mattress, trying to scream but couldn’t manage more than a strained whisper.
“Help,” I managed to squeak into the darkness. From under the bed, I heard a soft, glottal laugh. It was the Shadow Man, under my bed instead of beside it. The shaking increased til I was in danger of being tossed from the bed. I found my voice and screamed in earnest. The thing under the bed’s chuckle grew into a full bellied laugh at my distress, cackling as I sobbed and yelled for someone, anyone to come save me.
My stepfather burst into the room. The bed stopped moving the instant he turned on the light.
“What? What is it??” he asked. “Why are you screaming?”
“The devil is under my bed,” I wailed. He crouched down out of my line of sight and I had a moment of panic that I’d just sent him to his death. He popped back up.
“Nothing there,” he said. “Just a bad dream.”
I made him check the closet and even behind my small desk before he went back upstairs. He left the light on and after he was gone, I got down from the top bunk and checked under the bed myself. I half expected to find some evidence that the shadow man had been there. Some small fragment of twilight, a scorch mark, a claw. There was nothing, just dust bunnies and a lonely sock. I arranged my stuffed animals in a semi-circle guarding the space and that seemed to work. The Shadow man didn’t return.
Until about a year later. I was home alone. My parents left with specific directions that they would be back late and I was to fold and put away the mountain of laundry they’d left for me on the couch. After they’d gone, I sprawled on top of the cooling pile with a book, losing track of time and eventually dozing off.
I woke up a few hours later. The house was silent and dark, which was jarring because I felt like I had just closed my eyes. A single hanging lamp behind me was the only illumination and the living room was draped in gloom. I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that he was standing behind the couch in our entryway. I couldn’t bring myself to look. After a few frozen minutes, I managed to gather a little courage.
“Go away,” I told him in a small voice.
“No,” he said. The word was drawn out and I seemed to hear it both behind me and in my head. I yelped and burrowed under the laundry, using towels and socks and flannel sheets to cover myself completely. I lay perfectly still, ears straining. Finally, anxiety about my parents' annoyance that I hadn’t finished my chore outweighed the fear of the Shadow Man and I poked my head over the couch. He was gone.
We continued this little dance throughout my adolescence. Once I admitted to my stepsister that I had nightmares about a man who wanted me dead, but sometimes I was awake when I had them. “That’s a ghost,” she said. “You’re haunted.” She suggested I attempt to make contact with him, give him a name, learn his story. The next time the Shadow Man came to my bedside, I asked him what he wanted but we both already knew. He wanted me dead.
Shortly after this conversation, our cousin was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized for several months. My stepsister told me she’d been having hallucinations, hearing voices. “She thinks people are trying to kill her,” she said. “It’s really sad.” It was really sad but also terrifying. I couldn’t decide which was worse: being haunted or being crazy.
When I was at treatment, we did something called “family constellation therapy”. During my first session, the facilitator handed us a stack of 8 by 11 foam mats and told us to lay one down for each person in our family, oriented where and how we felt they were positioned in our life. I put my father right behind me, breathing down my neck, even though I haven’t spoken to him for almost a decade.
We took turns standing on each group member's placed mats and roleplaying with them as that family member, which was as deeply healing and effective as it was weird. Requiring both the skills of intuition and improv, when I played someone’s mother or sister or child, I just somehow knew exactly what that person would say, how they would act. It probably helped that we spent an emotionally intense week getting to know one another’s deepest darkest secrets, but there was an element of magic to it I still can’t explain.
When it came time to act out my relationship with my father, one of the women volunteered to play him. When she stepped on his mat she shivered. She stepped back off. She gave a small laugh and tried again, placing her hands at her sides and facing me. She gagged and jumped back. “I can’t, I’m so sorry.” She went and sat back down. Another woman stood and came over.
“I’ll do it,” she said, stepping onto the mat. A revolted look came over her face and she burst into tears. Both were very strong women, but the second was in construction, a six foot tall steel beam of a woman, she hadn’t cried during some of our toughest exercises.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shocked by her own tears, “It just feels so...evil.” The instructor came over and comforted her. We calmed her down and the instructor said, “I’ll do it, I don’t usually but we can make an exception.”
She walked over to the mat, considering it. She walked around it in a circle. After a moment she declared, “No one will stand on this mat.”
My parents split up when I was six. My mother had us during the school year and I spent my summers up in rural north Idaho with my biological father. It was, among other things, very lonely. His nearest neighbors were miles away and we lived a fairly hermitted existence. I sometimes went weeks, even a month without seeing anyone I wasn’t related to and we didn’t exactly have the happiest family dynamic. I went most of my childhood at his house without a bedroom. I slept on the couch and lived out of my backpack.
Eventually when I was thirteen, I was moved to a “sheepcamp” near the barn. (A sheepcamp is a covered wagon type structure used by herders during livestock migration.) My father and I painted the interior pastel shades of pink and green. When we finished painting he offered me a non-alcoholic beer. This was during one of his longer stretches of sobriety, and I even have a handful of happy memories from this time.
I liked having my own space even if it was a little isolated and had a mouse problem. The camper was a ways from the main house, at night I could hear coyotes howling and the sheep shuffling nervously in their pens. I had a little wood burning stove and a lamp which I used to read late into the night. Luckily the one thing that household never skimped on was science fiction books.
It was more private than being on the couch, but often I would get a very sure feeling that I was being watched. The sheepcamp had small, curtainless portal windows my father had cut and framed along the sides. I tried to tell myself I was being silly but the feeling persisted and I got into the habit of locking the door each night and changing my clothes under my heavy jean quilt.
The summer I turned fourteen, my best friend Jen came up from Boise to visit me for a week. This was very exciting because I’d never had a visitor during my summer exile before. I usually just spent three months trying not to imagine how much fun everyone was having without me and checking the mailbox obsessively for responses to my letters.
Jen was a good friend and loyal correspondent, always filling her messages with commiseration, gossip, and proclamations of how much I was missed. Specifically by her because at this time, we were essentially inseparable but for these three tortuous months of the year. She somehow convinced her parents to drive her up partway and I whined and cajoled my father into fetching her from the nearest town.
When we got home, I showed Jen around, giving her the grand tour of our narrow canyon farm, introducing her to the chickens and the goats. “I thought you said your dad was a jerk?” she said while we were petting our burro, Bunny. “He seems really nice.”
I felt a tug of the cognitive dissonance I always felt seeing my father interact with other people. He could be quite charming. Depending on his mood and current mental state, he could be the life of a party, engaging and entertaining everyone with his wild stories and outrageous jokes. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to experience him not as a child, not specifically I suppose, as his daughter. Two of my brothers still adore him so it must be alright.
He’d been laying the charisma on thick during our drive and it worked. “He’s sometimes nice,” I told Jen, not really sure how to describe the Russian roulette of narcissistic personalities my father contained on any given day, and that was just when he was sober. Jen stowed her bag in the sheepcamp, ooing and ahing over its tiny stove and breakfast nook, and we went to the main house for dinner.
That week, my father was in full likeability mode. For Jen, he transformed into a version of himself that was patient, calm, attentive, and forgiving. That laughed off small mistakes, that didn’t call names or issue threats for perceived attitude or “backtalk”. We had a fun week. We went fishing, baked pies, made cheese. He was determined to give Jen the full country farm experience and she was completely taken with him.
“It’s weird you guys don’t get along,” Jen said one night as we were playing cards in the sheepcamp before bed. It was past midnight, we’d spent the evening sitting around a fire while my father told stories I’d heard hundreds of times and was well past believing. I was only half-concentrating on the card game, preoccupied by a stronger than normal sense that we were being watched. I kept getting waves of goosebumps that started on my calves and travelled up to the nape of my neck. I felt a cold, hollow lump in my stomach, dread like I used to have when I was a small child about to be punished.
“He’s different with other people than he is with me,” I said in a low voice, realizing that Jen was waiting for an answer of sorts to her statement. I was reluctant to say more, as I was for many years thereafter. She waited for me to expand and when I didn’t, sighed and said, “What’s the plan for tomorrow?” I thought about it. Jen was leaving in two days, it would be nice to have her to myself a little before she left.
“What if we went camping tomorrow?” I said. “We could hike up the creek, bring bedrolls, sleep out under the stars.” Jen loved this idea. Our farm butted up against a small mountain. There was a path that ran alongside a stream that took you nearly to the top. I often hiked the surrounding woods and had found several choice (if technically trespassing) campsites. We settled into bed, foot to head, giggling and fighting over the quilt. The dread I’d felt earlier eased into excitement for our adventure and I fell asleep.
The next day, we informed my father of our intent to hike up the mountain and camp. He was excited for us and helped pack our gear. We stocked up on junk food, filled our canteens, hoisted our packs and headed out. My father admonished us to camp along the path just in case we had an emergency and made sure we remembered our flashlights. We waved goodbye to him and my brothers and took off into the hills.
I remember that hike feeling so liberating. There was the independence of it, being on our own, masters of our own destinies. There was also the heady exhilaration of having outsmarted my father, of not letting him take over and dominate my relationship with Jen. We hiked up the steep incline in good spirits, stopping often to explore the forest along the trail.
The campsite, such as it was, was about a mile up in the crook of the stream. It consisted of a fire ring and two old bench seats some local teenagers had drug out of a minivan. Jen christened it “Woodstock” after finding a carved peace sign in the nearest tree and we set up camp. We spent the afternoon kicking around the area. We found a small patch of dried out huckleberries, fished unsuccessfully in the stream and skipped rocks. In the evening when it cooled down, we made a fire and prepared the dinner we packed: cup of noodles with easy cheese on crackers.
When I went down to the stream to fill the pan with water, I made a startling find. There were two unopened six packs of Coors Light tucked beneath the roots of a tree. I pulled one off the ring and looked around, half-expecting a high school redneck to come barreling out of the woods yelling, “that’s my brew” but when he didn’t, I decided whoever left the beers wouldn’t miss a couple cans. I snagged another and brought it up to Jen.
“No way,” she said when she saw what I had. I told her where I found them and she looked momentarily worried. “What if they come back?”
“It’s on our property,” I said. “I could just tell them to get lost.” Anyway, it was 8pm on a Wednesday, I highly doubted someone was going to show up looking to party tonight. Jen thought this over. “We’ll only drink a couple,” she decided. “That way when they come back, it won’t all be gone.” We opened the beers and clinked them together, giggling nervously. We’d gotten drunk together at parties a couple times before, but this somehow seemed both more mischievous and more adult. Just a couple of gals in the woods, drinking stolen beer and living off the land.
We danced around the fire, tipsy and singing songs from the musical “Hair”, which we had entirely memorized. It was an extremely fun night, but I kept getting that old feeling that we were being watched. I tried to ignore it, chalk it up to teen girl spookies, but the feeling remained and I spent the night with one eye on the woods. We finished off the six pack and decided that actually the Coors was a gift from the forest. “It would be rude to reject such generosity,” Jen said as we cracked open our fourth beers.
We got pretty drunk, which is to say really drunk, since we were lightweights with no experience holding our alcohol. Around 1am, we snuggled into our sleeping bags on our respective car seats and settled into quiet chatting and occasional singing. The fire died down to embers and the night was alive with crickets, owls and the occasional yip yip of a far off coyote. We dozed off, warm and comfortable in our bags, little inebriated caterpillars under the wide expanse of the clear Idaho sky.
An hour or two later, I woke up. The fire had gone out and it was completely silent. I didn’t move. Something felt off. It was too quiet, and the dark had a dangerous, intentional feel to it. I tensed, rolling ever so slightly to my side to get a better look, straining my eyes to see across the small clearing.
He was there. His outline unmistakable, darker than the night around him, a featureless inkblot on the woods beyond. My heart pounded in my chest as I tried to breath as slowly and quietly as I could. This was the first time I’d seen him with someone else present, he usually waited til I was alone. I considered waking Jen but decided against it, mostly because breaking the silence would require mustering a courage I didn’t possess.
Go away, I thought at him. Go away, go away, go away.
He seemed to waver for a moment then disappeared. I let out a slow breath. I’d done it, I’d banished him. Maybe that was all I ever needed to do, to have a small amount of resolve and stick up for myself. He was, at the end of the day, a bully, and didn’t they say all you needed to do with a bully was scare them right back?
I relaxed back onto my bed roll, looking up at the stars. The Milky Way was dusted across the sky, closer and clearer than I had ever seen it. A lone cricket started back up. My eyelids began to feel heavy and I felt myself starting to doze.
A head and shoulders appeared over me, blotting out the stars. Instinctually, I closed my eyes tight and kept my breathing even and slow, doing a “fast asleep” impression that would have the Oscars calling. I waited for him to strangle me. Stop my heart with a touch. To carry me away to whatever dark place he went when he wasn’t terrorizing me. I held perfectly still, adrenaline screaming through me.
After a few minutes, I risked cracking an eyelid. He wasn’t there. I opened them all the way, not moving but scouring the campsite for his whereabouts. I found him. He was standing over Jen, looking right at her face. He looked smaller somehow than usual, more man than shadow for once.
No, _I thought helplessly. _Jen was the one thing I had in my life that made it bearable. Not just here at the farm, but back home too. At school where I was an acne-covered outcast. At my home where I was an afterthought. She was the one person in the universe that made me feel like I was somebody and not even the Shadow Man was going to take her from me.
I did the bravest thing I could manage and let out a little string of fake sleep-talk mumbles. The Shadow Man’s head swiveled. I mumbled again, and he turned toward me. I rolled over in my sleeping bag, back to Jen and made a big production of getting comfortable, leaving myself prone to attack. There was a long pause then I heard the scuff scuff of footsteps. I waited, then rolled back to my original position. He was gone.
I ended up doing the family constellation exercise without a partner. I confronted my mat-father (which should have felt silly but didn’t) and told him I didn’t want him anywhere near me ever again, that he wasn’t allowed to watch over my shoulder anymore. I was ready to be free of him, he needed to leave me alone. When I was done, the facilitator removed the mat from the room, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger, holding it far away from her body like the tail of a dead rat.
Later, she told me she’d tossed it in the dumpster as she was leaving. She’d never thrown away a mat before and she’d been doing constellation therapy for over a decade. She said she’d never felt such hatred coming off a person’s placement before. She wasn’t a part of any of the rest of our therapies, she knew nothing else of my life. But she could feel that.
After the session, my body completely freaked out. I started sneezing and couldn’t stop. I peed blood all night. I had diarrhea and vomited hard, three times in a row, even though I hadn’t eaten all day. I went to my room and slept for sixteen hours, missing dinner and our final group meditation.
A year later I was the keynote speaker for a series of seminars in Eastern Idaho. That weekend the voice started really howling for me. I’d framed my speech around a personal story of courage and the voice couldn’t believe my audacity. It was incensed that I had described myself as brave, how typically dramatic of me. As I drove to the Craters of the Moon National Park where I was planning to do some hiking, it reminded me of every time I’d acted like a coward.
By the time I reached the gate, disgust had formed itself into a lead fist in my belly, a feeling familiar to my childhood. That lead is so heavy, it changes my physical posture, rounding my shoulders and causing me to cave in on myself, making me hate any physical reminder of my body.
I tried to hush the voice with many things over the years. I tried to soak it out in hot springs. Let the wind blow it out on cliffs. I laid naked in the sun, tried burning it out with campfires and incantations and prayers, all the moon goddess hippy bullshit from my childhood that I still have a chip on my shoulder about.
The closest I got was with the parts therapy. One of the parts many people with DID have is a part that imitates your abuser. It punishes, threatens, and harms either the person with DID or others in their life. For me that part was the voice, the Shadow Man. When I tried to discuss this with my therapist, I got hazy and confused, sometimes even nauseous. I forgot mid-session what we were discussing, losing track of the conversation and having a feeling like I was just coming into the room. Unlike the other parts, the Shadow Man wasn’t interested in integration. It refused to abide by our pact that no matter who was in charge, our unified goal was one of health, self-love, and peace.
I tried everything but I couldn’t seem to shake it, this deadly worm in my ear, so I’d decided to do what one does in situations where therapy, meditation, support groups, and $50 in pink crystals doesn’t work--I turned to drugs. Because of liability, I’m going to say that my doctor prescribed these drugs, which definitely weren’t a mixture of marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms and CBD, ground up with special Himalayan coffee that one administers orally. Not enough to get you high, just a little microdose to perk up your senses. Prime your divining rod. Make you weep at aquariums.
I parked at the base of the inferno cone, the largest and most popular of Craters’ attractions, and took the prescribed amount of poor woman’s Xanax. It was very much off season for the park and I knew even with a coat and hat, I’d be a little miserable hiking up the volcano face. I took a little extra smidge just to be sure. It was a beautiful, clear day and when I reached the top, I stood in silence for a long time, the world laid out before me as the desert wind tried to cut me to ribbons.
I also took photos to post later on Instagram and the voice loved that. You see, it said, even here, in this perfect place, you are ruled by your ego._ Even here, you’re image based and false. _Dispirited, I climbed down. I wasn’t feeling the effects of the powder my “doctor” had given me, so I drove the short distance over to the next spot, a place labelled “Indian Tunnel” on my map.
I walked until the trail came to a fork, with one sign pointing toward “Beauty Cave” and the other to “Boy Scout Cave”. Beauty, I decided after some consideration, because I don’t much care for the BSA’s politics.
The hike was an easy one. A paved trail over the lava field, periodic signposts informing about native flora and fauna. I reached the cave and I don’t know what I expected but it seemed to be just a hole in the ground. Even the warning sign next to it was a let down. “Wild Caves”, it read “Beware of Hazards. Proceed with Caution.”
I climbed down to the mouth, a little disappointed. If this was a proper cave, it would say, DANGER STAY OUT and the sign would be all rusted and at an angle. There would be a strange groaning coming from deep within that you’d blame on the wind as you walked quickly back to your car.
But this was a tame ass day hike cave, a flip flops and jorts cave. I entered with the bored confidence of a teenager, drugs just starting to tickle their way into my system. I climbed down the rocks that made up the entry, pausing a few yards in to let my eyes adjust. I couldn’t see very far but there seemed to be no sign of the cave’s namesake. Not a single stalagmite or geode. Just a bunch of rocks and dirt and millennial quiet. I considered hiking back to the car and making a sandwich, maybe taking a nap, but I had just taken DRUGS. I was here for a REVELATION. For enlightenment. So I turned on my phone’s flashlight and went deeper inside.
The back corner of the cave was a mystery, I couldn’t tell how deep it went. As I stared into the dark, pupils stretched with searching, the sick rock of dread I’d felt above ground was replaced by true amygdala-deep fear. Adrenaline pumped through me in increasing waves, a drumbeat building from scared to afraid to terrified. I stood frozen, just like when I was a child, listening with every follicle.
He was here. Waiting. Watching me fearfully quake my way into a cave visited year round by children and the elderly._ Didn’t you just give a speech on bravery?_ He laughed at my cowardice. If I focused, I could make out his outline just beyond my light.
You should be dead, the Shadow Man whispered.
With the painful clarity unfortunately only psychedelics seem to bring, I realized this wasn’t just a voice, it was his voice. My father’s. My sister was right, I was haunted. By ghost and by man. Preyed upon by my father, stalked by his shadow. The voice picking up wherever he left off, making sure I never had a moment’s peace.
I felt a small, white light in my chest. It expanded, taking the shape of a snow hare. It was my fear, the grown up version of my childhood dread. The hare bounded out of me, landing between me and the Shadow Man. As it left my body, a stillness as deep and quiet as the cave itself came over me.
You should be dead, he had said and he was right. When I was in treatment, once a week our therapists all got together and one by one, discussed each patient like we weren’t in the room. This sounds awful and I’m not saying it was a comfortable experience, but it was also extremely helpful. During one of my 3rd person group therapy sessions, the head of the center said, “I find it remarkable that Emma is still alive. She should be dead.” Later that day as we were leaving, one of my fellow patients expressed outrage that the clinician had said that about me.
“I wanted to hit her!” she said. “What a terrible thing to say, you must be so angry.”
But I wasn’t angry, I was thrilled. This was what I’d felt my whole life, it was validation that what I lived through was unlivable, that my very existence was a miracle. My crazy, wonderful broken brain had found a way to save me and if it was messy, so what? It was also remarkable.
I knelt and picked up the hare, Shadow Man forgotten. It quivered, muscles flight-fatigued and failing, exhausted from a lifetime of predation. I’d only ever lived in a constant state of anxiety, always waiting to be punished, body tensed for violence. I could feel the rabbit’s heart hammering against my hand and I cradled it to my chest, this tiny, courageous ancestor. To live in the world even though you may be eaten at any time! To remain even though the comfort of death and never being afraid again is just one quick wolf away.
I’d always tried to keep a lid on my fear. Ignore it, repress it, pretend it wasn’t so bad. I could finally see the importance of just letting it RUN. I set down the hare and we both bolted from the cave, not looking back to see if the Shadow Man was following. I could feel his vile fingernails scrape my scalp as I burst into the light. I scrambled up the small hill to the path, only stopping when I was completely clear of the shadow and stood gasping in the sun, grateful for its warmth. I looked for any sign of her but the rabbit was gone. I walked back to my car, feeling light and joyful, so happy for the first time to be alive and out of the dark.
After that day in the cave, the other voices started shouting down the Shadow Man when he spoke. “No she’s not,” they’d yell when he’d tell me I was worthless. “No, she doesn’t,” when he said I deserved pain. When he told me to hurt myself, they told him to get fucked. When he pestered me with suicidal ideation, they distracted me with jokes, stories, and creative ideas. The voice got quieter but it didn’t go away.
Maybe that’s the best I can hope for, I told my therapist and he said that might be true. Living with DID can be partly about managing expectations and I tried to be grateful for the unhappy armistice going on in my head. It was certainly an improvement of how we all lived before and that was going to have to be enough.
But it wasn’t enough, and so I took mushrooms. There’s so much more to that story for another time. I faced my mortality in a deep and meaningful way, found acceptance for my chronic illness, and I finally reached full integration. That last accomplishment initially brought me a lot of grief I was not expecting, but the peace that came from that experience has been priceless. For now, we’ll focus on just one aspect of that tumultuous evening, truly the most glamorous part: the puking.
I started feeling nauseous and dizzy a few hours in, which unfortunately is how I often feel with my chronic illness. I fought it at first, refusing to acknowledge how sick I was, until I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Even then, I fought, refusing to vomit, forcing the sickness back into my gut. I spent what felt like hours sitting in the dirt, right on the cusp of throwing up, overwhelmed by anxiety. “Just let it have you,” my partner, Alex, kept saying, rubbing my back. “Let go.” (Easy for him to say, since the biggest epiphany he had that weekend was that ants are cool.) But I knew he was right, that if I let go of fear and stopped trying to control the situation, the experience would unfold and magic would happen. But I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and the suffering seemed endless.
At sunset, finally, I could fight no more. I rose to my hands and knees, surrounded by sagebrush and old growth pines. “This is your chance,” a voice said. “Get him out.” This wasn’t his voice, it was a woman’s, a divine voice, the woman I could have been, the version of me that died, whole and unhurt. I vomited so hard, it seemed to pull everything out of me starting at my toes. I could see the inky black substance that made up the Shadow Man being yanked out of every pore and sinew in my body. I puked him out until I was shaking, tears streaming down my face. I heaved and heaved, knowing I needed to get all of him out, to purge every last cell so he couldn’t regrow inside me ever again.
When I was done, I felt empty. I was exhausted, like I’d just given birth but was both newborn and mother. For the first time I could remember, my mind was silent. Just me in my head. Alex helped me to our tent and I passed out.
I haven’t felt or heard the Shadow Man since. At first his absence was a little jarring, I was very aware of it, like the space of a recently pulled tooth. Wet and raw, I couldn’t stop touching his absence with my tongue. There was no constant reminder of my uselessness, no pervasive hum of rage. All these years, I thought I hated myself. But he hated me. Without him, what was left was shy curiosity at the prospect of finally meeting myself.
This is how normal people are living, I marveled repeatedly for the first few months. Just walking around, feeling pretty okay about themselves. Not expending mountains of energy each day trying to convince their own brain they deserve to live. Not avoiding sleep because they’re on nightly ghoul-watch. Sometimes even now, I’ll pause and feel/listen for any trace of him in my life; an uptight whisper, an out of place gloom.
I recently went back to Beauty Cave while on my honeymoon. We were on our way up to Yellowstone and I wanted to show Alex around Craters of the Moon. I was a little nervous even though this time I wasn’t alone and had a headlamp, a lantern, and a map. After we scrambled down the tumbled rock to the dirt floor, I felt an elation, a near-giggly vindication for my previous fear. The cave was just as dark as I remembered. I mean, it was fucking DARK. I couldn’t see a foot in front of me and when I turned on my lamp, the light seemed to be fighting for its life against the pressing gloom.
My husband, typically unfazed, wanted to take some video of the cave. While he set up, I decided the best thing I could do, what I’ve always done when I feel afraid, was to gather information. To explore every inch of Beauty Cave until it held no more secrets from me. I examined the walls and found tiny, delicate crystals growing among the green lichen. I inspected the fallen rock pile in the middle of the cave and ogled the high ceiling. I found a patch of moss in the shape of a man and a sign at the back of the cave that said, “For your safety, go no further”.
I wandered around and around, waiting for Alex to finish his filming, but you can rush that man about as easily as you can the formation of a stalagmite, so eventually I climbed back outside to sit in the sun. I leaned against an ancient lava pillar and closed my eyes. As I sat listening to the desert wind in the limber pines, the realization of my emotional shift came over me. I was BORED. This place that had held childhood nightmares for me was now dull and uninteresting.
If I didn’t bring my own ghost, the dark was just dark. A cave was just a cave. And my father was just a broken, old despot who lived hundreds of miles away instead of here in my brain.
When we were exchanging our vows, Alex said to me, “You’re the bravest person I’ve ever met.” It’s easy, he went on, for someone like him to be brave, when nothing bad has ever happened to them. But to know monsters, live through them, and go in caves in anyway, that takes real courage.