Have you met my Shadow?
Well then, let me introduce you.
Shadow has been with me for years. It was there when I was a child, looming darkly over the horizon; manifesting in the distance where it was still too far for me to see its true nature. I thought it had been but a coming rain cloud at first, and since I loved the thunder of a good storm, I saw no danger in its approach. How could I foresee that it would rain down torrents on my vulnerable mind and can cause damaging floods in my heart?
I was a child. Children do not think of such things.
I played when the thunder clouds clapped over my head and built blanket tents with my siblings.
But the shadowing clouds did not leave after the rain. Instead, they gathered in on themselves and descended as one being; watching me from a small distance away.
That was how it started; my first memory of Shadow.
Shadow was with me when I entered puberty, a doubly confusing time for a boarding-school teen who thought that it was the homesickness, bullying and the cruelty of teachers that started to overshadow my rebellious, brave little spirit. Shadow wrapped its darkened tendrils around my arms from behind, slowly cradling me as my personal confusion deepened with each new hurt.
It was hundreds of miles away from home when I experienced my first period: a traumatic experience that left me weeping and embarrassed for months afterward. The boarding mother had explicitly mocked me before her children and I went unfed that night, unknowing of my wrongdoing.
Periods were the unspoken woe of womanhood.
In school, the cruelty of children cut deep, and I spent countless hours in the chapel trying to find comfort in a God who never offered peace. I was tormented and lonely, and with those emotions, I had thought it was merely a passing sadness that had come over me: circumstantial and bound to dematerialize when I was on firmer ground. I rubbed my bruises and hid my limp, dusting off Shadow’s light touches as a tried to move on.
But further abuse by friends whipped my heart into pessimism with their cutting words and betrayal. I slunk back into Shadow’s soft embrace as I cringed from the pain.
Ninth grade came and with it, I was brought back home to help: a happier situation. Or so I had thought.
Shadow lingered still: faithful and constant.
It was at my back as I cooked, cleaned and cared for my siblings. It was there when I first found my passion for writing. It hovered above me and grew with each added responsibility. I became the parent, and my siblings saw it. A crevice of black pressure divided us, and I realized that the chaos of home demanded that I played all sides to seek peace. My ability to self-assess and analyze suffered as the cost.
The responsibilities bent me backward and threatened to break my spine. Shadow whispered routes of escape. I hid in my room to avoid exploding my “irrational, female emotions” and carefully perfected the art of returning my inner demons to their own, personalized Pandora’s box. I locked those beasts up and stretched out my smile, Shadow’s newly-formed fingers holding the corners of my mouth in a pleasant upward crescent.
Shadow continued to “aid” me throughout the years.
It crept closer as I realized that my boarding-school stint had robbed me of friends and familiarity, and that this online school would grant me no replacements. Shadow’s long, dark fingers encircled my legs and hips as I began to question my purpose and beliefs: so isolated and lonely. It molested me as I sought out help for my confusing feelings and conflicting emotions; mocking as I spoke to the authority figures I had always been told would help me when I needed it.
Surely, I had thought, they will know what is wrong with me. They will cure me of my drowning state.
I was ridiculed and preached at for my hurt and lack of understanding. By voicing my thoughts, I was told that I had made an error. My doubt and depressive state were not to be tolerated. I was told that my feelings were the result of sin, of my own mistakes. I realized I could no longer make mistakes; that doing so would bring anger, shame and disapproval on my head. So, I silenced my internal agony and Shadow slowly wrapped its oppressive arms around my neck: a mockery of a hug.
It didn’t squeeze. Not yet.
The abusive friends from my boarding school days apologized, but the damage was already done. I avoided speaking to them, though I was grateful for the gesture.
Graduation came, and I was dressed in a white gown and cap. I was a sparkling image of perseverance and success. Both parents were there. My brothers and sisters were there. They all watched from the stands. I think they were proud. But unseen to my family and those 300 strangers who sat around me in that stadium, I was enveloped in grey: Shadow’s black, translucent form clouding around my gown like a boa constrictor suffocating its prey before devouring it whole.
My father cheered for me; a man who had told me to drop out on multiple occasions. Controversial as his affection was, I wanted it. Shadow tapped my shoulder, but I tried to brush it off. Dad was here. That meant something.
Afterwards, I saw my fellow graduates receiving roses and gifts from adoring parents. My mom said she was happy for me but that we were too poor for such trivial things. I smiled, nodded and agreed, trying not to be jealous and wanting to be good. Then I turned away and piled into the van with my siblings.
Shadow hugged me and I choked on my breath.
I enrolled in the local community college because I didn’t want to get married and have children the traditional way. I had already experienced the home-making life and wanted to be different. I had so much to give the world and my excitement and determination caused Shadow to loosen its grip on my shoulders enough for me to breathe without feeling a metal ball on my chest.
I met people, got a work-study position and found friends and love. I excelled in my classes, earned scholarships and enrolled in the Honor Society. I joined a leadership program and was awarded certificates of appreciation by the program and by the school. I was writing every day.
There was so much sunlight during my freshman year that Shadow had to shrivel up behind my back to avoid being disintegrated by the shimmering beams of my happiness.
Then my home life became more strained and those shining rays of light came to be blocked by Shadow’s form as it strengthened rapidly with my stress. My new friends tried to fan the misty beast away, but Shadow was growing too solid to be blown aside this time.
I moved out suddenly, into a $250/month room that had dim lighting, bugs and no room for my clothes and books. It wasn’t an exciting time as I had always imagined it would be. I was constantly filled with panic and was overly paranoid about doing what I wanted. I didn’t know how to survive on my own. That room was my escape plan, and as undignified and ratty as it was, it had been mine. I had had firm, kind and supportive friends who had helped me out of a stressful situation, and the debt I owe them will never be paid off.
But my freedom came at a high cost. Being self-supportive is a hell of a job when you make minimum wage and attend classes as a full-time student. I began to gain weight with the stress and tears sprang more readily to my eyes.
Shadow flourished in that room and I watched in horror as small teeth, nails and beady yellow eyes sprouted from its hardening form. Its new traits brought about anxiety levels that burned holes in my chest and caused my brain to thrum violently.
I began to struggle to make the simplest decisions.
I graduated with an associate’s degree in Liberal Arts; Shadow’s influence caused too much indecisiveness for me to establish a solid lifelong career choice. I didn’t care about that graduation. I just wanted to get it over with. My mother insisted on coming and later my extended family would question why they were not invited to celebrate. I couldn’t comprehend their desire to come. How could I invite anyone to be joyful about my accomplishment when my own heart had already checked out? When I didn’t see the value in what I had achieved?
My gown was black this time, so I wasn’t grey. Not that it would have mattered. Shadow was healthy enough now that even a pure-white gown would have been eclipsed by its massive form.
The next two years gave Shadow a stronger body as my best friend sincerely told me I was going to hell, and my father refused to acknowledge my existence as I sat across from him without explaining his rejection. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be and the struggle of self-definition was constantly on my mind. Then one of my dearest friends up and vanished to North Carolina, and one of my housemates killed my beloved pet gerbil. Pew Pew. I gained and lost jobs, never quite able to find a steady, fulfilling position.
Severe anxiety bloomed during that time, and Shadow watered it carefully.
Roaches and fleas chased me out of my small $250 room and I was aimless until my brother welcomed me into his home. I uprooted once more and lived shamefully on his charity and love while my own self-hatred elongated Shadow’s teeth and nails until they were like razors. Again, I felt aimless and without purpose; struggling to make the simplest choices regarding my future. I began to obsess over making the correct choices to avoid the venom of failure and give myself some relief. Instead, it only made me loathe my reflection more.
After a few, guilt-ridden months, unseen situations caused me to uproot once more and I came to stay with my boyfriend’s family for a few days. Days turned into weeks, and weeks to months as I had nowhere else to escape to. Shadow became able to speak clearly then and snarled searing words into my ears that distorted my vision and burned into my soul. I hated myself more than ever before. I was an intruder; a helpless ingrate who spun mindlessly without direction.
Stupid. Useless. Idiot. Fool. Leech.
I believed it. I was without worth.
I gained more weight.
I returned to school and found a back-breaking, demoralizing job that just barely helped my boyfriend and I get our first apartment. Shadow’s hands blinded me from seeing the step as an accomplishment. It was another escape. I needed to prove I could be useful and that I had what it took to face the world.
But I didn’t.
School and work had me running every day of the week: downtime was not permitted. Shadow became able to caress my back with its nails, leaving bloodied wounds that took ages to heal. Day after day it clawed me, slowly becoming more aggressive in its attacks until it began to gnaw at my neck and shoulders possessively. The wounds bled, and the constant pain granted me no relief. Soon I leaked crimson without stop as my body began to refuse to heal. My cuts and gnashes no longer crusted over, but remained bare and raw to the world’s salt.
The semester ended; I stared down at my 4.0 numbly, a confused burning in my eyes.
Shadow nuzzled the crook of my neck and purred.
My father disowned me and I shredded my throat with screams for his lack of care.
My grandfather passed and I couldn’t cry. I remember our last hug; his last words of “love you” as I walked away.
The new semester started, and I was already exhausted and had not yet healed from the last. Shadow chirped in delight as I dragged myself to that cursed job every day, slowing deteriorating. My confidence was vaporized under the heat of Shadow’s crippling gaze and all that was left was a sunburnt shell of crusty flesh, absent of all joy, creativity, and pleasure. I was too beaten to do the most basic of things, too terrified to pursue my dreams, too broken to make decisions.
I began to wonder what the point of living under such oppression is when you lose yourself in the blackness.
Finally, something broke.
I cry all the time.
Shadow is still with me; it’s standing by my side.
It’s my constant companion,
My faithful parasite.
I don’t know how to banish it and every day it grows.
It soaks up all the good and joy
And leaves me only woes.
So I’m going through the motions,
And waiting for the day
When Shadow comes and at long last,
Sucks my breath away.
Can you relate? Let Katie know in the comments below.