Caterpillars are not ‘transformed’ into butterflies. There is no blast of magic that gives the little crawly pest its beautiful wings. The whole process is in fact gruesome. To become a butterfly, that caterpillar has to die, to dissolve in enzymes and become a shapeless slime before its cells begin rearranging themselves into new legs, antennae, wings.
We often use the metaphor of metamorphosis to explain a transformation in our lives. The term is synonymous with growth and renewal. But really, when a caterpillar enters its cocoon, it is destroyed. It dies, nothing of its previous form remains. Here’s a great article on all the gory details if you’re interested.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m not all that interested in insect life. I was just drawn to this whole confused metaphor when I read about it a few weeks ago. I guess that’s because I feel like the analogy is actually accurate for me.
In the past few years I have undergone such a transformation. I feel as though the old me was dissolved. She was liquefied by my depression, evaporated in the flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety of PTSD. I was a distance runner. I was training for my first triathlon. I worked a full time week and more. I saw friends and family and was present and intimate in my marriage.
Everything eroded as I slid into the cocoon of my breakdown. I became reclusive. Stopped eating for days at a time or over-ate. Ceased working or doing any sport. Disconnected from my wife and anyone else who cared. I was so lost in my introverted, tortured world, I could barely look at the faces of the people I loved. Eye contact became frightening.
That wasn’t the bottom. Oh no. That came later. As I began opening up the memories and feeling the body held trauma of being abused as a child, I became suicidal. I cut myself almost every day. I took overdoses, some with more serious intent than others. I was so desperate.
I remember the moment when I felt real, deep despair for the first time. That feeling is indescribable in its horror. I was face down on the carpet in my room on the psychiatric ward, feeling nothing but a wretched, gnarly despair.I couldn’t comfort myself. I couldn’t cry or scream. I was frozen in silent agony. My solution was to make an embarrassing and misguided attempt at hanging myself with shoelaces I knotted together as a makeshift noose.
It was all dreadful. And those dreadful feelings rise up in me regularly still now. But at the same time I can recognise that I have been through a kind of metamorphosis. I was broken down to almost nothing. I lost everything I thought defined me, everything I took pride in. The old me is dead. And I do miss her, I miss her terribly.
It scares me that I am so different now, but it also sometimes feels good. On the better days, I feel liberated from everything I used to be. The bright days give me a feeling of freedom; I can start re-plotting my trajectory now.
I am no longer just wandering through my life. I’m not on autopilot. That’s super scary a lot of the time, because I have to think. I’ve got to really think about why I am here, what I’m doing and where I am heading. In the past I just sort of meandered through, but now everything looks different. I am full of choices, full of questions. Nothing is definite anymore.
I’m well aware that I am still a million miles from emerging from my metaphorical cocoon. I am not transformed. I am not renewed. But I also know for sure, there is no going back. The only way I can ever have a real life again is to leave my old self behind. And every now and again I get a fleeting sense that eventually, eventually I will get there.
Photo: coniferconifer, Creative Commons.