The hero like the warrior is a figure of action, willpower, courage and purpose. S/he lives by his/her core values. The actions of a warrior are aligned with his/her higher self and what s/he stands for regardless of opposition, rejection, failure, judgement and setbacks. In Dan Millman’s creative non-fiction novel, ‘Way of the Peaceful Warrior,’ the hero, Dan, becomes a warrior with a firm sense of who he is and no longer betrays or compromises his integrity through temper, ignorance and arrogance. Dan finds himself independent of his mentor, Socrates, who could be argued to be the personification of his intuition. Nonetheless, he no longer seeks outside of himself to be told what to do but thinks and chooses for himself. He is now aligned with what is right and at the service of others by sharing the wisdom he has gained.
Since I first watched The Karate Kid as a little girl with my older cousin, the warrior has remained a figure of intrigue and admiration for me. My cousin wanted to be the hero Danielson and made his karate moves. I wanted to hang out with the warrior and ‘wise old man/mentor,’ Mr Miyagi to learn what he understood.
As I grew into a teen obsessed with dead artists, musicians and writers, my fascination with the warrior intensified. The warrior had something wild yet disciplined and wise yet childlike that kept me longing to see the world like them and live the kind of freedom and truth they did. Unfortunately, the reality of the way I lived my life continued to grow evermore antithetical to that of a warrior’s as my reliance on alcohol and pharmaceuticals increased. I did not know how to face the world outside and inside my front door without them. And my need for a cocktail of these thrived when it came to getting through social situations I couldn’t avoid or just not attend. I also needed to be chemically altered to follow through with things I didn’t know how to say no to or escape; trying new things and to make and commit to even the smallest of decisions.
The adult world and all the things one has to do to maintain appearances and protocols in daily life seemed too much, overwhelming and full of confusion for me. I couldn’t adapt to the next stage of life because although my body had developed into a young woman’s, inside, I remained a shattered and polarised child with an avoidant attachment style. Mostly, I was a barely held together collection of maladaptive behaviours that were no longer working. Even to get through a hospitality shift, run around the river, sit through a university lecture or tutorial I needed to be the right kind of high and numbed out. Otherwise, the nightmare in my head took over, and I had to escape to a small confined space like a toilet cubical or closet so I could be alone where all was still, quiet and preferably dark.
Inside I was shattered. That is the closest I can get to describing what existing felt like then. I just couldn’t generate the strength of mind and state of calm a warrior has to engage confidently, gracefully and head-on with daily life. In fact, a day rarely ended without me needing a paper bag over my mouth to help regulate my breathing. I was all fear, an explosion of unrelated thoughts all at once and oblivious to the fact that how I was and felt wasn’t how I’d always be or feel. Or that inside the chaos I was experiencing was the logical reaction to the childhood trauma I had not yet processed. But most importantly I didn’t know that just because I had none of the qualities or any resemblance to the kind of life the heroes and warriors had in the fiction and non-fiction stories I consumed, didn’t mean I would never become someone with some of these traits, capacities, insights and experiences. Nor did I understand that like heroes and warriors, I could choose to behave, think and perceive differently and by doing so make my life bearable and something I could survive.
For a long time even being the main character to my own life remained beyond me. A protagonist or hero participates in his/her life as an adventure through which to create a desired reality. Addiction, depression and self-sabotage are the means through which I avoided reality and being responsible for all that I was unconsciously choosing as a young adult. A hero is active, assertive and doing with intention, vision and purpose whereas I often found myself physically paralysed and failing to remain consistently conscious before those talking to me. I didn’t know I was dissociating, but a lot of people picked up on it and got angry about wasting their time on me. And they were because I really would have no idea what it was they had said or where my mind had gone. At my worst, I could not speak even a single monosyllabic word or make eye contact with anyone regardless of how close or safe they were. To answer the phone was something I just could not do. Terrified of the sound of it ringing I disconnected it, which I now realise marked the exact moment I gave up and totally disconnected from myself.
A hero shows up for the obstacles. I let my addictions, weaknesses and fears have free reign until I bored myself out of inertia and nothingness. After examining every millimetre of pain, sadness, fear, shame, self-hate, emptiness and the shoebox my world had become, the fear dissolved and I found myself starved for something other than the hell happening in my head. I had exhausted my story to the point that what had happened to me really didn’t matter to me anymore in the way that it once had. I wasn’t afraid of it any longer nor was I prepared to give it any more of my time. I felt hungry to connect with others whose lives seemed so full, ‘normal’ and shared. This doesn’t mean I woke up bored one morning and by the end of the week, I had jumped straight into how everyone else was living life like we often see the heroes do in movies. It would’ve been nice, but unfortunately, I remained on the mattress that moved with me from one temporary place to another where I’d lie on yet another bedroom floor crying because I didn’t know how to connect with the world outside my window and be like the people I longed to be amongst. I wanted the prison it felt like I was in to be over but still failed to realise that I was now an adult and it was me who got to say when it was over. I had the key to the front door. All I had to do was use it.
I lost a lot of time sweating and shivering on the mattress and under a doona containing the weight of what seemed like at least five elephants. I just couldn’t lift it and the downward spiral I was on continued as I kept trying to slide out from this significant weight determined to bury me ever so slowly. This feeling intensified with my decision to withdraw from a smorgasbord of addictions such as alcohol, cigarettes, pharmaceutical cocktails, highly processed foods, sugar, salt, caffeine, toxic relationships and self-harming behaviour. At other times it was due to past memories that I felt locked inside of and no longer able to breathe alongside. I’d hug my knees in fetal position and retreat into fantasies about being the hero I wasn’t in real life.
I let the hero I pretended to be have everything I didn’t: strength and tougher than nails demeanor; a mentor; a goal; great physical stamina, conviction; ability to discipline the mind and body; an exceptional talent or skill; and challenges they could overcome in order to reach that final destination of belonging, community and vocation. I obeyed my need to fantasise while I actually regressed to the extent I began failing on a daily basis to muster up the energy to get to the bathroom and shower. It seemed as though the most abject and grotesque smell and filth I’d spend most of my life trying to clean from me had finally won.
So finding my way back to the shower and practising physical hygiene was my first step towards the positive until it returned to being something I was obsessive-compulsive about since drugs and alcohol could no longer be relied upon to turn the volume down on it. Eventually, I couldn’t keep up with all the baths, showers, saunas, steam rooms and trips I needed to take to the beach and colonic clinics to feel clean enough to not want to scrub off my skin and water fast. I just couldn’t sustain how clean and organic the little food I found a way to permit myself to eat had to be. No one could smell my stench or see my filth like I could, and nothing I did could remove it. I had to give up on this battle I couldn’t win if I ever wanted to do more in a day than just clean what only I could smell and see because disgusting and dirty was how the little girl I still was inside always felt. To get out of my head, I’d listen to audio books about warriors and stretch out the pure ache my body had become through the yoga I learned from YouTube.
Once I finally made it outside the front door, I’d continue listening to hero stories on my iPod and walk six to eight hours a day along the beach and then circle the Patterson River over and over. Circling the river is something I’d done when I’d felt stuck before. I kept
circling the river until I figured out a loophole to the situation I felt trapped in. So I kept walking for a way out of a rut I’d been losing myself in for too long. Some of the locals who lived around the river started waving at me from their balcony and eventually met up with me for their daily exercise. They’d talk, and I’d listen to their stories instead of those from my audiobooks. Others would pass comments about the amount of walking I did and soon coined me, Felicity Gump, after I started running. They kept reassuring me I didn’t have any weight to lose because that was how they understood how excessive I was. I didn’t bother saying that I wasn’t trying to lose weight because I felt ashamed of the truth is that it was just so important to me that I protect being able to move outside again. The pleasure I got out of being in motion was too precious to limit myself to twenty minutes a day when I’d spent so long not moving at all. How could I make these people understand that walking, running and getting out of the apartment was me fighting my a way back into life and the world outside my window? I don’t think I’d ever understood what that meant if someone tried explaining it to me. Not unless I’d experienced it or seen someone close to me do so.
Typically a hero has external obstacles the reader or viewer can see, and they can be analogous to the internal struggles taking place within him/her. Ever since I turned twenty-one, the obstacles have been in my head. Others just can’t see the memories of experiences that broke me, so it’s been very hard for those on the outside looking in to see what the challenges I didn’t know how to fight or what they were exactly. Even I believed I was a top-shelf freak, but now I can see that I’m not a freak at all. Everything seemingly ‘weird’ and ‘strange’ about me actually makes sense, and many adult survivors of childhood trauma are likely to experience the same ways of behaving differently than I did. It’s very hard to know how to speak about the memories being re-experienced so others can understand and tolerate why we act the way we do when everything in our external world looks manageable, and yet we’re coming undone. But when the things I’d managed to kind of forget or keep at a safe distance for the longest time became all, there was in my head my body shut down and became a stranger I had no control over. And when this phase didn’t pass after a few months, and I grew increasingly suicidal, I stopped being able to work and study. Unlike a hero, I lost all sense of use, worth, and capacity to function at the most basic level. Eventually–through the need in me to understand I kept trying and researching anything that might help me to help me know what was going on with me– I came to realise my unconscious core belief that I did not deserve to exist not only reined over my life but it had become all there was to it. If I didn’t argue with it, question it, think of what was positive about the fact I existed, fight the desire to die and replace it with a loving belief repetitiously until I authentically felt it I would’ve added another number to the disturbingly high suicide rate along the Frankston line. Instead of me dying it was actually the kind of life that I was living that needed to die and so I killed it.
I attribute something of my steadfast admiration for the heroes in the warrior stories I surrounded myself with through film and audio books. These stories helped model for me what life could include. They inspired me to fight such a profoundly ingrained self-belief until it stopped being in the way of having an understanding of why people actually liked and valued life to the point in which they invested so much money, effort and time into preserving and prolonging it.
I remember wanting so badly to be a warrior so I didn’t have to be me and that was enough to get me through to a point in which I would learn that I could do some of the things a warrior did and practice some of the qualities I loved about them and still be me. In time I would also come to learn that the hero and warrior are not roles reserved for the elite few, they are archetypes for the potential we all have in us. However only we can choose and then work at realising this. Each of us shares an essential need to be the hero of our life story because we are born the protagonist of it. Storytellers know this, and that’s why the story’s they tell typically feature a main character that is the hero for that story.
The reader is likely to identify with the main character because s/he knows what it’s like to be the main character in his/her own life and can identify with the emotional journey life takes us on through different circumstances, trials and tribulations. We like hero stories because we get resolution and insight after the conflicts are faced, it gives us a satisfaction we don’t necessarily get in life despite our best efforts. I stopped idealising the warrior and hero and started actually seeing the journey they took within the story. It was made up of many failures, faults and struggles they had to learn to overcome before their growth and insight transformed them into the good figures I was in awe of I saw that we had actually shared something in common the whole time. Persistence. Every time I gave up and had run out of things to try there was a part of me that persisted with or without the rest of me.
The day I started yoga on a mat in my bedroom with my laptop I did the warrior pose, and at first, I was perplexed as to why something so relaxing, peaceful and life-affirming would have all three yoga poses devoted to the warrior. The yoga teacher proceeded to tell the myth behind it and then explained that the warrior in the story represented the higher self-being at war with the ego with the aim of protecting the heart. And that’s when I first started to become aware of what is meant by Dan Millman’s ‘Way of the Peaceful Warrior.’ In me was the power to self-destruct and it was as strong as my appetite for all that is good, loving and creative in life. I could either fight to protect and nurture the good in me and others, or I could join forces with the negative I’d already become so bored with because darkness is actually quite shallow and mainly full of hot air like the bully. And trauma is very much like a bully that never leaves a survivor alone but challenge it, and it backs down
immediately. The trick is to stand up to all the nuanced ways in which trauma bullies you. It seems to me that my fear is what had fueled its power for so long. As soon as I took my fear away from it had no power and I could start putting together a life from what was left. The whole time I was hostage to the darkness in my mind the world outside my head was surrounding me in light, and I can’t help but grieve for all that time lost to pain and fear when it could have been shared and enjoyed with others. So I suppose now my fantasy is that someone who reads what I write and discuss about overcoming childhood trauma might understand what is going on with them and find a way out of the darkness that continues inside their head sooner than I did so there’s less to be put together and caught up on. So that s/he knows that s/he is the peaceful warrior if s/he chooses to be so.
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