The Only Way Out is Through

Sometimes, I forget that life is so much more than this.

I open my eyes and the oily film is once again coating them, warping my vision and clarity. Once again it’s nine to five, traffic, paying bills, a Monday every week, a January every year, cycling on and on and on in the same ambiguous and infuriating way. I have bought into the Great Lie and although I vividly remember escaping it, I am trapped once again.

Two years ago, I stood on a foreign street in Atlanta and bent my head in prayer with a stranger. I wandered and explored without fear. I dipped my brain in freedom and let myself be carried by the Georgia winds into a store with bars on the windows and a cage for the cashier; onto a cement ledge where I caught my bearings and blended into a sea of golden yellow; into the care of two strong women who saw me safely to the conclusion of my evening. 

I think about that person that I was and wonder where she went. She felt God all around her that night, and she was not afraid. 

A few months after that incandescent night, I began hearing the murmurs of a potentially devastating virus. Early on, those around me radiated unworried acceptance that we would eventually fall to it, too, while I chose to stay in denial — it wouldn’t hit the home base. It couldn’t. The thought genuinely frightened me.

A couple months after that, I finally had to accept that life as I knew it, once again, had ended. 

I’ve alluded to it enough times, but in the vein of transparency, I left my home state because I could no longer physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually tolerate being here. I was a big, open wound, walking around collecting more debris and sickness because I did not know how to even begin to heal. I had never put myself or my needs first in my life. At a young age, I started giving and did not stop until it nearly, actually, killed me.

So I fled. One of my best and oldest friends offered refuge and I accepted it. Words cannot begin to describe what my years in Alabama did for me. I had been carrying so much, terrified of what would happen if I set it down. Not only would I have the capacity to carry things much more precious and joyous, which in and of itself is a petrifying thought, but I would have to face what had imprinted itself into my spine from over two decades of bone-breaking labor. To put it simply, I finally allowed myself to fall apart. And it felt sublime.

I had spent so long keeping myself together for the sake of others, but here, I didn’t have to do that. I pulled the plug, so to speak, and all of me fell out onto the ground where I could reflect and sort, dispose of or tuck away for later. I reached a sense of peace and comfort and love that I’d never thought possible for me. I tried new things in new places without fear because I knew I would never find a familiar face in the crowd, while finding every face in the crowd familiar. I was totally free to become and be who I always wanted to be. 

Of course, hard things still happened. I still struggled. But it felt like it was in a much bigger context, expansive and magical and never-ending. Back home I could see the possibility of that expansiveness, but it was through the suffocating glass of a massive bell jar. Here, though, I unfurled.

The moment I knew I’d healed tremendously was when I decided that I could, and probably would, move back home. I could take what I had learned and put it to use. I would walk the streets of my hometown and exterminate the bad energy with all the magic I’d learned over the last few years. Never again would I live in constant fear and pain. 

I began making these plans with a specific timeline in mind that would give me time to really prepare. Not long after I started planning, someone very close to me received a very grave diagnosis, and before I knew it I was on a plane and facing the massive peaks of the Wasatch Front once again. It was October, so the entire year so far had been one blow after another between the pandemic, the protests, and the president. I hated that I had to be there, especially under those circumstances, but I felt immense gratitude for the progress I’d made in my time away. I could handle this. I could handle anything.

A day after I arrived, my nearly two-year job in Tuscaloosa called to tell me that my position no longer existed effective immediately, and I no longer had secure employment with the agency. My insurance ceased, my income ceased, but I was home, dealing with something much larger. It was actually a relief.

The longer I spent with this loved one and her family, seeing what the cancer and treatment was doing to all of them, I realized that this couldn’t just be a visit. I could not stomach returning to Alabama knowing that her life could end abruptly at any moment, and I’d have gotten no time with her over the last three years. And despite feeling like Utah would swallow me whole, I chose to return.

A good friend flew to Alabama with me, and a few more good friends helped me pack and load a U-Haul, and I’d never felt pain quite like it. I’d grown into a delightful rhythm with my friend there. I’d crafted my own life with my own hands, fallen apart, picked up the pieces, and made my own mosaic of who I wanted to be. I had finally raised my cowed gaze from the ground and showed life that I have teeth and I am not afraid to use them. I was safe and powerful and in charge. I did not want to give that up — not yet. 

I drove the U-Haul with my cat drugged up in the passenger seat while my friend drove my voting-age Honda. We drove all through the day and as it got dark, it began to snow. I felt my stomach hit my feet as I watched the flakes fall and collect on the road. How could there be a snowstorm in October? I’d just been wearing shorts and sandals in Tuscaloosa.

It was a fall winter storm, and it threw a giant, frosty wrench in our plans. It was near midnight when we finally arrived at the hotel. Despite it claiming pets were allowed when I booked the room, when we blew into the lobby from the icy night, the clerk apologetically told me, “It’s dogs only.”

My nerves were already frayed, so I collapsed onto a sofa in the lobby and considered my current plight. The poor clerk saw me on the brink of breaking and told us to go up to our room, that she would take care of it on her end. I thanked her profusely, tears in my eyes, as we entered the elevator adjacent to her desk.

The storm showed no sign of relent, and my friend and I talked a long time about what to do. In the end we decided we both really needed rest and we would decide in the morning. When we woke, that decision was to simply forge ahead, which we did. The roads were relatively clear, the sun was shining, and we were headed home.

When we reached Laramie, Wyoming, I-84 was closed until Cheyenne. These fifty miles of the interstate in Wyoming is the only way through Wyoming. It was drive through another state and take your chances there, or stay the night again and prolong this ordeal. With my friend needing to return to work the next day and very few prospects to stay the night, we decided to detour.

The detour was a narrow mountain pass through the Colorado mountains during a snowstorm. The sun had set at this point, dripping us in frosted darkness. There were semi trucks coming down the other side that I thought would take my side clean off. I could barely see a mile in front of me. I focused on the bumper of my Honda as my friend led the precarious parade of vehicles through the winding, icy roads. I felt all of everything press down onto my shoulders. I did not want to go any more, did not want to drive any more, did not want to live any more. There was nowhere for me to pull over. I just had to keep going forward until this ended. The only way out was through.

I cried. I sobbed and wailed. I made sounds I’d never heard myself make before. My cat, blissfully riding what the vet prescribed her, slept through all of it, and that’s what kept me going. I just kept looking at her, at her little sleeping face in her kennel. I thought about when I’d seen her on the shelter bus, that I knew she was for me and I for her. I could do this. I could do it for her. I could get her out of these godforsaken mountains.

And I did. The mountains spit us back onto I-84 where it opened back up. The peril wasn’t over, though. Black ice, snow, and sludge still littered the road. We still had hours to go. We stopped for gas and my friend told me that the check engine light had come on in my car. It was the middle of the night, so nothing could be done about that. We simply had to keep moving.

Once the ice danger had ebbed, I let myself have hope once again that we’d make it home within my lifetime. As we entered the final canyon that would deliver us to Ogden, my cat finally awoke and had a lot to say. I listened to her yell at me for over an hour as I coasted down the canyon. Soon, little girl. I told her and me. Soon.

We made it. It was around three a.m. and we landed where we needed to, got very briefly settled in, and slept. And slept. And slept.

When we went out the next morning so I could tell my friend goodbye, one of the tires on my Honda was flat. My reaction was to laugh. Thank every god that it waited until we were home to deflate. Lilith had gotten me through countless journeys unscathed, and she didn’t let me down this time.

I quickly nested into a corner of the basement of my afflicted love one’s home. Her daughter and grandson were nested there, too. I’d been part of their family for about half my life, though I didn’t know her grandson very well. That all changed, though, and unfolded beautifully.

A year later, she has undergone major surgery, several strokes, and currently soldiers through more treatment with grace and strength. Her daughter is a riot and a bastion of hope all at once. Her grandson, five and a half years my senior, captured me completely and I him, and we are building a future together. My cat turned three and made her home here. 

I got my vaccines in January, which allowed me to visit with my grandma every week. She was on round-the-clock home health care, and we often ate lunch and talked together. My grandma helped raise me, and she will always be one of my favorite people. She passed away in June, and it’s still hard to talk about because I miss her so much.

My mom even had her own brush with a medical crisis which sent me into a whole new kind of panic, but helping take care of the other matriarchs in my life prepared me a little. I’d had a few years off of facing loss, and 2020 and 2021 made up for it. Neither year was kind nor cruel, or maybe they were both, but I find myself nearing the anniversary of all of this, and I feel so many things. I feel grief for the life I lost with my friend in the South. I miss my grandma everyday. I fight tooth and nail for my sense of peace and power to exist in this landscape. Every time I enter someplace here, I scan faces and hope I don’t recognize any of them. I do not wish to be known. I simply wish to be.

But I’ve also been blessed with a love unlike any I’ve experienced before. It’s safe and comfortable and warm and there is no fear. I am authentically and unapologetically myself and loved for it, not in spite of it. Our values are strong and we are on the same page. I feel held.

I’ve gotten to reintroduce myself to my friends and family as the me I’m meant to be, not the me that was shaped by her trauma. She is warm and open and free. She is fearless and strong and loved. She does sometimes get trapped by the Lie. I am trapped now as I turn to look at how far I’ve come. I must mourn what I’ve lost and revere what I’ve gained and make peace during the sparse daylight that remains until spring. 

The only way out is through.

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