30mg of immolation: self-care for the ecstatic soul

(Trigger warning: self-harm.)

I’d pushed my way right up to the singer. He turned to me, held the mic between us, and we yelled these lyrics together. “You’re not the only one. I’m not the only one.” It was a delicate synaptic bridge, crossed in the sweat and sloshed beer of a strobe-lit mosh pit on a Tuesday night. It opened in me the question I’d so longed to ask without knowing the words: Can I make it to tomorrow? And the answer: Yes. I’ve found something I love in myself, and that makes me want to stay here.

Alexander Lumans, on dealing with major depression through heavy metal

I think about self-care a lot lately, for reasons I don’t feel like reiterating.

“Self-care”, to me, has certain benign connotations: meditation. Journaling. “Me time” with a book or a favorite show. Walks in the woods. Making time to talk to friends. Working out.

I love all of these things, and practice all of them regularly. Well, as regularly as my life presently permits.

But it’s not enough for me. I need more.

When I was a teenager and the pain got to be too much I used to cut myself.

When I got older I discovered goth/industrial clubs. I discovered dancing. Not swaying-a-little-bit, bobbing-your-head dancing.  I’m talking about muscles-burning, down-to-the-floor, gasping-for-breath, disoriented, drenched-in-sweat dancing.

When I first read about the Lakota Sun Dance, where dancers have their flesh pierced with bone hooks and dance for hours until the hooks rip free of their skin, my reaction was to be jealous, angry, and disappointed that there was nothing like it in my own cultural heritage.

I daydream about being suspended.

Dancing was never as much of my life as I wanted it to be. I had kids by the time I started going to clubs, and my partner was older and mostly “done with all that”. So I didn’t get out very often, and less and less as time went by. Gradually, I absorbed the narrative that maybe I was mostly done with all that too.

Lately, I’ve realized I’m far from done with it. Dancing is a window into my authentic self.

I have an ecstatic soul. I have a need to regularly burn myself to the ground and step out of the flames, purified and renewed.

My ecstatic nature leaves me feeling isolated.

Most religious traditions have steadily sidelined their ecstatic components as they’ve modernized. The only religious writings that make any sense to me are the poetry of ecstatic Sufi masters like Hafiz and Rumi.

I take my kids to a UU church to socialize them with other tolerant, social-justice-inclined people. But the WASP-y worship services leave me cold. I sit them out in the library or the church garden.

I find it hard to explain to people that while my beliefs are ecumenical and inclusive, the only type of service that speaks to me are the kind found in Pentecostal churches. Give me electric guitars, hand-raising, falling to the floor, speaking in tongues, yelling, rolling in the aisles. I don’t understand a worship service that fails to leave me sweaty. It’s a shame I can’t have that without a side order of bloodyminded fundamentalism.

Looking around at my “tribe”, I feel like I ought to be into certain things. Craft beer (yes please!). Expensive bicycles (not so much). Music that makes you think (I want music that melts my brain into a hot puddle). I feel like most people I know wouldn’t get it.

Even the spiritual-minded hippie-types I’m acquainted with feel like they are from a different world from me. A purifying religious experience for them means a meditation retreat. Which… yes please. Sign me up. But give me tickets to Ultra afterwards.

I carry a voice of judgement around with me about how these interests are somehow “adolescent”. It says to me: you’re 37, you shouldn’t be seeking out raves. It says: old guys at dance parties are creepy.

I hate that my needs and parenthood are so at odds. Going out dancing, on the rare night that it’s even possible, always competes with staying in and getting desperately-needed rest. More often than not, the exhaustion and the daunting prospect of a 45-minute drive to a venue and back means that sleep wins. And my soul goes hungry.

Most of all, I feel alone in that ecstatic experiences seem to be completely left out of discussions around mental health.

I didn’t really put my finger on this sense of alienation until today. I’m writing it down to capture it, and to say to anyone else out there with an ecstatic soul and a life that’s hard to reconcile with it: you’re not alone.

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