From Black Goop to Radiant Light: Recovery as a Metaphor

I often tend to see the world in symbols and metaphors. I’m an INFJ and a Cancer and a highly sensitive intuitive, and with that kind of resume, it’s impossible for me to not always seek the deeper meaning within any given situation and draw connections between events, people, and circumstances. It’s a significant part of what makes me who I am, and it’s a rather rich and satisfying way to live. Sometimes I may get a little too out there or dismissive of cold hard facts and logic, but more often than not I found that observing the world through such a lens is a special way to live.

When I was nine years old, I thought I had asthma. I started to breathe funny. Sometimes I couldn’t catch a deep breath. It was like my chest was clogged with some kind of sticky substance that had also wrapped itself around my heart and esophagus and throat. My mom took me to the doctor to get my lungs check and to test me for allergies. Nothing there. No asthma. I was too young to be considered a child struggling with anxiety, so like a good little girl after my results came back clean, I ignored it and carried on.

It probably was anxiety, but that wasn’t the whole story. That was part of the trouble breathing, but I liken it more to the fact that I was being raised by parents who didn’t know how to offer me the sort of protection and safety and freedom of expression that I so desperately needed. My parents were getting divorced and my father could be tough and rigid and my mom didn’t always pay much attention. I had two older brothers competing with me for their love and care. I was always fearful and sensitive and terrified of my father’s temper. I was not (and still am not) the type who is immediately forthright and expressive of my feelings, seeking a shoulder to cry on. So everything stayed deep within me like a hot breath of carbon dioxide with nowhere to go. I was literally and figuratively holding my breath in fear and unknowing.

All that held breath built up and began to feel like black goo, blocking my insides. Off and on through my adolescence, it would swell and pulsate and I would struggle for breaths the way one struggles for steadiness while being thrown around in the ocean. Sometimes it would settle back and harden, therefore feeling like it was gone. I didn’t feel it as much when I drank and did drugs. That was the whole point – self-medication.

But when I started a journey of recovery and was stripped of those once foolproof coping mechanisms of checking out through mind-altering substances, that black sticky sludge was still there, and it was as rotten and putrid as ever. It was everywhere. In my chest. My stomach. My throat. My head. My heart. I was infected. It was killing me. It was choking me. Looking back now, I realize it was trauma. Trauma is far more a visceral beast than simply a mental recall – it gets stuck within parts of body and can lie dormant for years. My parents didn’t beat me, and I always had a bed to sleep in and a lunch for school and birthday parties and sleepovers and a lot of what is considered magical and joyful for a childhood, but the bottom line is that underneath the visage of happiness, everything was messy and chaotic. Divorce is never pretty, even the “amicable” one my parents had. Your parents dating other people when you are five years old is confusing. Your father yelling at you and cursing and telling you that you are fat and lazy when you’re nine years old (and just fine, thank you) is psychologically wounding. Your mother not protecting you or defending you from your brothers teasing when it’s clear that you are an especially sensitive little girl makes you feel worthless and ashamed. There were many fine moments in my childhood, but overall, I always felt afraid and sad. I learned very quickly how to control my environment and block my feelings in order to feel relief. Because of these basic survival instincts, my little girl attempts at keeping myself safe and tending only to fixing the outside world, the trauma had nowhere to go.

During that first year sober again around four years ago, I struggled with my breathing everyday. I had to concentrate and get very quiet and still in order to breathe well. It was like walking around in armor that was not only too tight but also sharp and cutting. I was so uncomfortable in my skin it was like I was a walking infected nerve-ending.

A friend of mine, Rachel, noticed it once when we visited the Self-Realization Temple in Pacific Palisades (where I grew up.) We sat on a bench and attempted to meditate, and for ten minutes I could not catch a deep and satisfying breath.

“Are you okay?” she asked me gently.

“No. I just. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t ever seem to breathe well.”

She nodded and thought for a moment. Rachel was a special person. She was into crystals and funky forms of meditation and visualizations, and she had done major work in the rooms of recovery. She was another carrier of Light who showed me a path I hadn’t dreamed of before. She always told me, faith can move mountains. I really admired her and clung to her example.

She looked at me closely, her eyes narrowing as if she perceived something. “You have what looks like a black snake wrapped around your solar plexus. It’s choking you. But don’t be alarmed. It will come undone and leave you as you keep walking this path.”

As out there as it sounded, I wholeheartedly believed her and understood. Though I hadn’t considered it a snake, I always knew there something black and tight and slimy coiled around my torso. I could feel it. Hearing someone else validate it made me not feel so crazy and out there and figurative. 

After another year of immersion in all things recovery and God-centered, I started to breathe better. Without trying, there was just suddenly more space in my lungs and throat and stomach. Breaths would come and feel like God. Whooshes of freedom. I started to feel so clean. Like there was cool water running into my system and slowly dissolving all that black crud. I see now that it was years of denied trauma beginning to loosen and finally leave my system.

I started to feel this subtle warmth in my heart. Not the stale and rubbery heat I felt so often as a child, but a clean, shining, radiating energy that seemed to come in through the crown of my head and move down through my neck and shoulders into my heart and belly. And then it would extend outward. Like a channel of peace. It was like these major blockages in my body had finally been swept clean and there was space for feelings to move, energy to flow, and toxins to depart.

The more I gave myself over to my practice of recovery, the cleaner I felt. The better I breathed. Even still today, if life gets a little busy or stressful or scary, it can feel as if I am clogged again. If I get disconnected from my center, my perception can grow murky. But it is sort of like phantom pain or phantom recall. It’s not as if all that black goop has suddenly returned; it’s that I imagine it has, and our imaginations are great at creating things that aren’t there. Today, I can clear the channels more quickly and let that radiating energy come back through me. Sometimes it takes a few walks or a mental health day from work or writing in my journal or going to a meeting. Sometimes it requires simply thinking about or talking to God.

But I am clean today from an onyx sludge that haunted me for years and attempted to choke the life out of me. Call it trauma, call it alcoholism, call it the forces of darkness or the accumulation of years of held breath – black goop makes sense to me. And there is something larger than it and that will always triumph if you allow it to: the Light of God’s Love.

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