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November 18, 2021

Learning to Live with the Beast Within.

I have a beast inside me.

The beast is strong and fearsome and black as the night. The beast dwells in the deepest, darkest regions of my being.

Twice in my life, it has risen from the depths and wreaked havoc on my days, dragging me down into a wasteland so black and bleak that to die seemed the only way out.

My first bout with the beast was in my early 20s when I was getting out of college and unsure of my path in life. The second time, even worse than the first, was in my mid-40s when my marriage was crumbling.

My fights with the beast went on for years at a time. I fought like a warrior. Bravely. Valiantly.

The harder I fought, the more enraged the beast became, and the deeper it dragged me into the swamp of its misery.

Until one day, I realized that this beast can’t be beaten. It can only be lived with.

I made peace with the beast, and now it leaves me alone.

If you’ve ever been severely depressed, or you are now, you know what beast I speak of.

The beast of depression operates from its own rules. Rules that obey no familiar laws of logic that we’re used to.

Life in the land of the beast is reduced to its basest elements. It’s a fight for survival. Man versus beast. The beast wants you dead, or so it seems. The beast hates you. It hates itself—it hates everything.

More than anything, the beast hates life. It hates life and light and brightness. The beast wants only to calm all the noise and tumult and to go back down to the black obscurity of the swamp where it can be at peace.

This beast is not intelligent. But it knows how to fight, it knows how to destroy, and when the beast is enraged, it cannot be beaten at its own game.

The beast is pure muscle and reflex and animal instinct. Think of the biggest, meanest, ugliest dog you can imagine. A dog with vicious teeth. A dog with no loyalty to anyone or anything. There’s no reasoning with it. Approach the beast and it will snarl. Try to run and it will leap on you. Stand still and it will circle and circle and circle, waiting for you to move.

The black beast takes different forms in history and in folklore. For Winston Churchill, it was a black dog. For Beowulf, it was a dragon. For Jonah and Ahab, it was a whale. For Little Red Riding Hood, it was a big, bad wolf.

For me, when I was battling it, the beast was a bear. A monstrous, black bear with foul breath and sharp, vicious teeth. That’s how I saw it when the beast had me in its claws. To this image of the bear went my deepest disgust, my most virulent anger.

One day, about 20 years ago, in the pit of my despair, I wrote a poem about the black bear to give voice to my rage and anguish. “Trash Day,” I titled it. (Disclaimer: Life in the land of the beast is harsh. Hunting is necessary for survival. Some scenes may be disturbing.) The words flowed effortlessly from inside me, like puss from an abscess needing release. All I needed to do was give the wound a push and out it came, a foul-smelling, yellow excrescence seeping forth from my soul.

How I hated the black beast. I hated it more than anything. I hated it for stealing chunks of my life, for stealing my happiness, my joy, my peace.

I determined to slay the beast, to eradicate it from my psyche forever so it never bothered me again.

For 25 years, the blasted beast had been haunting my dreams and now it was time for it to die. I would hunt it down in the swamp and shoot it until he was dead. I’d drag the beast out, 600 pounds, and hang it in the public square for all to see.

Oh, what a day that would be. I would ride victoriously through the streets shouting at the top of my lungs,

“The beast is dead!”

“The bloody beast is dead!”

And so, like Hercules, going after the three-headed Hydra, I set out on a life-or-death quest to kill the beast inside of me. Killing the bear became my obsession—my life’s mission.

I wanted to fix, once and for all, the fault lines within that were causing me to fall again and again into the pit of despair. As with everything else in my life, I went about this self-improvement mission with methodical determination.

For four years, I worked at it. I tried everything—and I mean everything. Talk therapy. Alternative therapies. Experimental therapies. Medications. Meditation. Tapes. Programs purchased over the internet. Reiki. Homeopathic medicine. I read book after book, article after article, combing through the deep web in search of a fix.

The harder I worked at it, the more depressed and desperate I became. How could this be? I was trying so hard! No one had ever worked harder at getting better.

Finally spent, exhausted—with nothing more to try and no strength left to fight after four grueling years of battling the beast—I put down the gun and admitted defeat. Like a drowning person who stops fighting the riptide and releases into the current, thereby gaining his freedom, I raised the white flag of surrender.

I give up, black bear. You win. Come eat me if you like. Come tear into my flesh with your razor claws—I don’t care. It can’t be any worse than this hell I’ve been living.

Right away, I felt a little lighter. A certain tension let go inside like a long-held muscle allowed finally to relax.

An unexpected thing happened then. The beast came up to where I lay and batted me around like a toy ball. When I offered no resistance, he drew open his rotting jaws and let out a blood-curdling roar so close that I felt the heat of his fetid breath on my face. Every time I made a move, the bear came at me again, growling fiercely.

To look into the mouth of death is not so fearsome when death can do no worse than your present suffering.

So it is, I believe, with people who have reached the end of terminal illnesses. So it was with me. I gazed into the horrid, dripping jaws of the beast and felt no fear of what it could do to me. Again and again, he roared; I just lay there limp as a doll.

After a while, he lost interest and wandered away. I sat up and watched the bear stomping around, making a mess of my garden.

Something had shifted inside of me. It was as if I had moved from the spot where I had been standing my entire life and was able to see the beast from a different vantage point.

This black bear that I hated so much: he had no intention of hurting me. In fact, he was trying to protect me, in the only way he knew how. The beast that I had loathed and feared and wanted to kill for so long was fear itself. He was ancient, he was primitive, he was powerful, and he was part of me. I could no more kill him than I could cut out my own heart and expect to keep on breathing.

And so my healing began. Having given up trying to fix what I saw as wrong with me, I focused instead on being grateful for what was good and right in my world. I began appreciating all the little things I had in my life. As I did that, day by day the black beast retreated to its lair and sunshine returned to my world.

I had learned the paradox of manifestation: whatever you focus on grows. By focusing on killing the beast, I was only making him stronger.

Accept the beast within you. Make peace with it. Accept it, without conditions. Maybe even begin to appreciate it.

Most of all, stop poking and prodding it. Let it alone, change your focus, and allow your healing to begin.

~

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