In the epic poem “Beowulf,” the hero fights and fights until his last battle with the dragon where Beowulf is slain. But not all battles end in defeat. Some heroes face and conquer the beast that could have killed them.
After I teach “Beowulf,” I assign my students a narrative essay where they identify, describe and discuss a metaphorical dragon they struggle with. I start the students with the following quote by Joseph Campbell: “Psychologically, the dragon is one’s own binding of oneself to one’s ego. We’re captured in our own dragon cage. The problem of the psychiatrist is to disintegrate that dragon, break him up, so that you may expand to a larger field of relationships. The ultimate dragon is within you; it is your ego clamping you down.”
In each class, at least one student asks me, “Do you have any dragons?” I reveal I have several, but I do not share them. If I could answer their question, I would tell the story of my dragon.
The dragon within me — the dragon that has trapped me has the endurance of a marathon runner and the speed of a tornado. It chases me down no matter where I go. It’s been running with me for over a decade. It is a ghost to everyone but me. My dragon is heavy and it does everything it can to hold me down. I am the only one who feels its specific grip, its unrelenting grip allowing me to breathe just enough to stay alive, but not enough to feel more than my anxious heartbeat and my long breaths. In … and out. Instead of a fire-breathing dragon who burns everything in its path, my dragon is a sleuth, an invisible monster trying to kill me from the inside. He haunts my every thought, snuffing out the sparks of happiness and any potential smiles. Many people struggle with a similar dragon, but they are each built to cling to one specific subject, grab at their personal weaknesses and wither away their strength. While each different, they all try their best to extinguish our lights.
I have tried over and over to slay my dragon. It’s an endless battle every day. There aren’t any steps for success in this battle; there are only efforts and attempts. I have tried medication on and off for the past five years. They make death a more recurrent thought and they hurt my muscles, stomach and head. I try to connect with people, but then I feel like a misfit. It’s hard to belong when there is a monster tapping me on the shoulder, pulling me from every conversation and each possible friendship. He is the reason I sit silently in faculty meetings, the reason I don’t make eye contact with strangers in the store, the reason I run for the doors after church. The world thinks I am making excuses for myself, that I am socially inept or rude. They do not see the dragon that is wrapped around me. They do not realize how hard I am trying, how much effort it takes for me to climb out of bed each morning and how challenging it is come to work and stand at the front of a classroom of students all day. They don’t realize that while I’m teaching literature and writing, my mind is some place darker. Nothing, no one can save me from the pain he causes me.
I have grown comfortable with my dragon. His arms have become warm and comforting to fall deeper into at the end of a long, stressful day. He is a constant, a reliable friend and demon — the one in the room who I can trust to stay. Often, he brings along his other friends: Anxiety and Grief, who are not as strong as he is. While they visit frequently, he is a permanent resident — he will never let me go. My dragon is my longest friend, my most patient lover. My dragon has tried to kill me several times, but I have been able to ward him away.
I do not accept defeat or pity myself while my battle seems to refuse to cease. I am not Beowulf; I will not win with a swipe of a magical sword that is built to injure and kill even the toughest, grossest and most malicious monsters. However, I will continue to try until I cannot anymore.
If I were to slay my dragon, I would be relieved. Not necessarily happy, but relieved for the haunting to be over. I know in my heart the dragon can return. Sometimes after I’ve made progress, the dragon grows another arm or two that wraps tighter around me, restricting my breath and my life even more. With every fall, I struggle to stand and breathe again. Sometimes, I debate whether I should bother standing at all.
But, I always do.
The story originally appeared on As Told By Makaila.