Psyche, Goddess of the Soul

Friday, May 18, 2018

The story of Psyche and Cupid is a beautiful, archetypal story that has been retold over the generations.

Psyche, the main character of the story, is originally Greek. Translated, her given name means "soul". You may have seen psyche referenced to in the modern medicine of psychology, and rightfully so. Psychology is the science of understanding and healing a person's inner world - not necessarily their mind, but their deep, complex, spiritual aspects.

Carol Gilligan, author of The Birth of Pleasure, encourages the use of this myth as a road map of the soul. The idea of "mapping a myth" inspired me to read this story in depth and find its guiding elements. I found that this myth teaches not only what the soul needs to find peace but how to achieve it.

Becoming familiar with the soul takes time. Unfortunately, years of experience can cloud the understanding of self. Luckily, with gentle effort and self-study, it is possible to become familiar again with this "forgotten", quiet voice. The story of Psyche, through the lessons Venus gives her, shows the way.

Sorting Seeds

As Psyche's first trial, she was given a massive pile of different seeds and grains to sort. Not a single grain could be out of place - not a single mistake made. At first, Psyche was overwhelmed by the task. Luckily, she had helpers. An army of humble ants came to her aid and did the sorting for her while she rested.

The act of sorting hints at a more sacred art than simple organization. Seeds and grain are nature's essential components of life. If Psyche's first challenge was to sift through them, to decide what is placed where, I think its a wonderful place to start - by individually determining what is most essential to life. I call this value-based living. Identifying what qualities and virtues are most important and valuable enables their prioritization.  I consider the ants to be a personification of the subconscious mind. If a person can hear their inner voice - the thoughts beneath the thoughts, the thoughts that create feeling - they able to identify what is most important to the soul. The soul already knows what is most important - one need only listen to the quiet voice inside to hear what needs to be heard.

Gathering Gold

Psyche's next task was to collect golden fleece from a flock of poisonous rams. When she saw the task seemed impossible, she walked to a nearby river and was ready to drown herself in it. Just before stepping in, a reed from the river told her the secret to success - to gather individual strands of wool left on the branches of trees until she had enough. Psyche, finding hope in the reed's message, was able to complete her second assignment.

This second task is essential for Psyche to learn to trust her inner self. Again, I look at the whispering reed as another personification of the subconscious. The inner voice, full of wisdom and experiences of its own, is able to guide success. It plays its part by whispering and gently guiding with nudges and hints on our journey. Dreams, personal poetry and journal entries, and visceral reactions to music and art are all ways the soul speaks. It is an act of wisdom to develop a trusting relationship with this inner voice by acting on the guidance it gives.

Sometimes the instructions given are unconventional, but they are unique to each individual and their circumstances and will not be ignored. In the myth, Psyche is surrounded by deadly animals and the temptation to drown in her sorrow. Stripped down to its archetypal bones, the story highlights a choice: act on the soul's direction or die. Deafness to the soul's voice is a willful acceptance of a death worse than loss of life - the death of spirit.

Fetching Water

The third task given to Psyche was to collect water from the River Styx in a bowl given to her by Venus. The river was nestled in the depths of treacherous mountains that not only were full of serpents but also continually crumbled and rebuilt themselves at will. For a mortal, these mountains were impassible.

Imagine Psyche sitting at the foot of these mountains, bowl at her side, filled with dread and the certainty of death. As she watched the writhing mountains, an eagle  appeared at her side. The eagle explained he had been sent by Zeus, the king of the gods, to assist her in this part of her journey. The eagle took her bowl in its talons, flew high above the serpentine mountains to the river, and brought Psyche her bowl full of dark water.

Life's experiences can sometimes push one to the limits of what they feel they can handle. The soul is keenly aware of ts limits. I believe these limits are divinely placed so the soul recognizes where it's obligation ends and others begin.

This is an opportunity to exercise faith. Whether faith is placed in divinity, a generous universe, or simply in the goodness of the human spirit, at some point one are required to reach out for strength and learning. It can be challenging to be vulnerable and allow space for this assistance, especially when  doing so in the past has brought let down and pain. But the soul knows the wisdom in connection. Trust and act on its encouragement to reach out and receive. Life was never meant to be lived alone.

Braving the Underworld

Psyche's final trial meant a trip to the Underworld, where she was to obtain a pearl of beauty from Persephone and bring it back to Venus. Just as she was to enter the Underworld, she was once again given advice from a nearby tower.

In order to make it past the giant, three-headed dog Cerberus that stood guard at the gates of the Underworld, Psyche must bring two honey cakes to give Cerberus - one for her passage in and the other for her return. On her journey, she will come across those who beg for her help. The tower explained that Psyche was to stop for nothing and never set the cakes down. She would not complete her journey otherwise.

Just as the tower promised, help was needed. An old man needed only a moment's assistance to gather sticks. Three old women asked for untangling wool for their weaving. As simple as the requests were, as much as she desired to stop and help, Psyche continued her journey without pause. She found Persephone and brought the pearl to Venus, completing the final step of her mission.

I believe each person is born with a life's mission, or a soul purpose. The missions vary in length, appearance, and purpose, but each brings value to the collective and meaning to the individual. Each journey is unique - and sometimes it follows unconventional paths. There are those who try to deter or detour the journey. Success may require a certain level of rebellion or shirking of the judgments of others. Sometimes detours are less sinister because they are merely distractions. When one chooses to hear the soul's direction clearly and follow its guidance, distractions can be avoided. Perhaps most importantly, one will find assurance to take the steps that lead to alignment with their true purpose.

 If this myth is a road map, where does it lead? 

After completing each of her given tasks, Psyche has become familiar with the voice of her inner self. 
She has learned to trust its sound by acting on her intuition. She finds humility by accepting both the limits of her mortality and the help of others. She appreciates the weight and influence of her soul purpose and seeks to fulfill it without pause. With this earned insight, she sees that the tasks given to her were lessons rather than punishments.  In summary, she has become a well-rounded, intuitive, and wise woman who understands her worth. This is a reward greater than pearls and rubies.

At this point, Cupid re-enters the story. He beholds Psyche in all her glory and remembers his love for her. Zeus transforms Psyche, making her a goddess (elevating her to a more fitting nature) and she and Cupid are married. Shortly after Psyche gives birth to a daughter named Pleasure, and fittingly so - for what greater peace can there be than to live in one's truth and find love there?

Originally published in Strong Yellow Soul Magazine, February 2018

How to Encourage Women Struggling with Mental Illness

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

When a friend or loved one is in the midst of a struggle with mental illness, it can be really tough to know the right things to say. This is especially true if she is newly diagnosed or has not received treatment. Even as someone who has a clinical diagnosis of OCD, its sometimes hard for me to muster up anything other than an honest "I know. I've been there. I'm sorry." when confronted with emotionally charged conversations.

Would it be helpful to hear some of the more brilliant things I've said or heard along my journey, either in conversations with friends and family or my therapist? I hope so. I want to share the most encouraging words of support I've both given and received about coping with mental illness. The following are the examples and their accompanying encouragement.

"I don't want to talk to anyone about this (doctor, therapist) or get help. Its scary."

Its SO scary, right? Its completely normal to feel hesitant to share how you're feeling with anyone, especially a stranger. They don't know you. They don't know all the things you're good at. They don't know what I know about you - that you're an amazing person and capable of great things. But I think you'll find that talking it out with them might help. Hear me out. They may not know you personally, but they know the brain and they know depression/PPD/OCD etc. You felt better after talking to me, right? They are here to help and listen too. They have special skills like knowing what to look for, how to give you a proper diagnosis, and how to help you with medicine and therapy. They can help you in ways that I can't!

I know its super scary because you've never done it before. But you're brave, you're strong, and you can do this. (Once they are ready:) How can I help you? Do you need help finding a psychiatrist? Do you need someone to go with you to your appointment? Do you need a babysitter for your kids? Let me know how I can help you!

"I am a bad person/mom for feeling this way/having a mental illness."

I understand how you could feel that way. There's a lot of bad energy/juju around mental illness. But here's the thing. Mental illness is just a physical thing. Your body had some bad luck. Seriously, what probably happened is that the universe read the hormone recipe wrong and you were born with some kind of weird cocktail that makes up this illness. It didn't even bother to send a note tied to your toe to let anybody know in advance. What the heck, right?

Your mental illness has everything to do with your body but absolutely nothing to do with your soul. To quote the fabulous C.S. Lewis, "You are not a body. You are a soul. You have a body." Your mental illness does not change your love for your family, your spouse, or your friends. It doesn't change your limitless creativity or your beautiful voice when you sing. It doesn't change how smart you are, how kind you can be, how hardworking your heart is. It can, however, change how strongly you feel those inner qualities and how you're able to act on them. Because your body is what you live in, it does affect you. To say otherwise would be a heavily sugar-coated lie. But your illness doesn't change the most important things that make you who you are. 

"I'm afraid I am crazy/going crazy. The real kind of crazy."

I bet so many people who have (insert mental illness here) feel that way too! Can I tell you a secret? Everyone is crazy.

Your mama? Crazy. 
Your husband? Crazy. 
Your bff? Crazy. You know it too.
Your frenemy? Cray cray.

Everyone here is crazy. Don't buy into the spectrum thing either. No one is more crazy than anyone else. We are all here with our own challenges, secrets, and inner demons that we grapple with every day. Crazy is just a word that people use to define something or someone they don't understand. Don't let that define you.

And if you're really worried about being 'crazy', let me put your mind at rest: If you had actually lost your mind, you wouldn't know it AND you'd be thrilled. Do you feel ignorant and blissful? No? Okay. You're just as sane as me. *cackle cackle cackle*

"People are going to judge me."

Yeah, they probably are. Jerks.

What matters is that you are taking care of yourself. The people who really matter, like your spouse and your children, they need you. They need you so much more than you need the people who will judge you for having a mental illness/taking medication/being in therapy. You need your health and peace more than you need judgement. There are people in your life who love you no matter what. Listen to their voices and tune out the others. Also, the haters have no room to talk *see "I'm afraid I'm crazy" point above*.

"I want to die."

*If someone says this to you, find help ASAP. I suggest the 100% confidential National Suicide hotline or calling it yourself. Is there anxiety about calling? That's okay, the Crisis Text Line has you covered.*

Those are really tough and scary feelings to have. I'm so sorry that you have had to carry them for so long. I'm here to help. Here's some ideas I have (mention the hotline, text line, ER, therapist, whatever resources you have available). Which sounds best to you? How would you like to move forward with this?

"Why is this happening to me?"

Why do you have brown hair? Why do you have freckles? Why are your feet size 8 instead of size 5.5? Why does your sis wear glasses and you don't? Its just a part of how your body was made.

Does it suck? Yes. Is it difficult and inconvenient to deal with? OMG yes. It might be awkward at first, but as you become more familiar with your mental illness you will learn that this is just another part of you that needs to be loved and accepted. *See also "I'm a bad person" and "I'm going crazy" points.*

"I feel like this will last forever" and its cousin, "I don't want to deal with this anymore."

*This phrase most often comes when someone has been struggling for a long time without help or are newly diagnosed. Its just part of the process.*

It sounds like you've been feeling this way for a really long time. I can't even imagine how difficult that's been (or if you can because you have mental illness too, its okay to say so). I am so proud of you for being strong and brave while you dealt with those feelings. Seriously, you are a freakin' star! And I'm even more proud of you for reaching out and getting help. Once you talk to someone/start medication/get a few months into therapy those feelings will start to subside a little bit. You do not have to carry that load alone any longer. You have good support and help now. Soon you'll feel a bit lighter. Hang in there. You're almost there. You can do it!

"This is too much for me to handle."

You're right. This is too much for you to handle, because you're just one person, right? You're just one person.

Well, Just One Person, I'm really excited to tell you that this is not too big for you with your spouse, your family, your friends, your therapist, and your doctor to handle. You have an awesome support group. Between all of them, you all can handle the load together. They are your team and they are there to help you. You don't have to do it alone anymore.

A note for friends and family of those with mental illness

If your loved one has confided in you, it has taken tremendous courage on their part to open up to you. They trust you and your relationship enough to risk sharing their thoughts and feelings of shame, worthlessness, hopelessness, and fear. Honor their bravery by receiving them with unconditional love. 

The words you speak in these moments are powerful. Do everything you can to make them compassionate. Be honest if you're not sure what to say or do. In some cases, the best thing I have done is ask the person what it is they want me to say or do. Sometimes I speak the words they give me. Sometimes I give a hug. Sometimes I help them find help. Its okay if you've never dealt with this before. They never have either. Its okay to figure it out together.

That being said, responsibility for their healing does not depend on you. You cannot go to appointments for them. You cannot do their homework for them. You can't take their pills for them. You can't be mindful for them. They must do these things themselves. You can support them in their journey but healing is 100% their job.

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Friends, I hope this gives you some good ideas for helping someone who is relying on you for support and encouragement. The most important parts of being there for someone who is struggling is to be kind, understanding, and a good listener. Be honest and be yourself. My style is pretty humorous and sarcastic because that is how I deal with hard things; however, I am very careful to never make fun of someone struggling or make a joke at their expense. I am on their team and I see it as us against the problem. Your style may be different but no matter what it is, if its empathetic, supportive, and loving, it will always be the right thing to say.

Has someone shared encouraging words with you about mental illness? Have you shared any yourself? I'd love to hear them!
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