THE TAKE AWAY
An Allegory of Mental Illness
By Kersley Fitzgerald
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T. Jaden Ozwell has given us a series on what it feels like to be a 20-something in the midst of transitions, struggling with depression, anxiety, and a personality disorder. As I've spoken to her over the last couple of years, and watched her try to explain her situation to others, this is the image I get. My hope is that it gives insight to those of us on the lip of the crevasse, looking down.
Once upon a time there lived a tribe of travelers. The tribe consisted of several families, each with their own caravan. The travelers valued their God, their tribe, and their children.
Although their route through the fields and meadows and towns and forests looked somewhat random, the travelers agreed on the single goal of reaching the mountain that rose above the whole world. They dreamed of one day entering the shining castle that sat on top. On clear days, the light shining from the castle outshone the sun. On cloudy days, it lit the mists in a soft glow. At nighttime, it served as a beacon — not bright enough to keep you up, but still providing direction and light enough if you needed to travel.
The travelers taught their children about the castle and the beacon. The children learned that the King in the castle was loving and kind, but also strict. And they learned that if they obeyed and loved the King enough, the distance to the mountain would seem shorter and shorter.
One night, the travelers said their goodnights, climbed into their caravans, tucked their children into bed, and fell fast asleep. So tightly did they sleep that they didn't hear the wolves creep into their camp site. When the night guard finally caught a glimpse of yellow eyes in the firelight, it was nearly too late. His cry awoke the travelers. Men grabbed shovels, and women took butcher knives. The children dove under their beds, grasping small clubs and reminding each other to make no noise lest the wolves hear and drag them away.
In one caravan, a young girl named TJ didn't crawl under the bed. She stood in the middle of the caravan, a boning knife at the ready, as if daring any wolf to charge through the locked door and threaten her younger brothers and sisters. Outside, they heard a cry. The youngest, only two years old, clutched his blanket tighter. TJ looked back and nodded her approval. "It will be okay," she said in the barest whisper.
A thud pounded the door. The caravan rocked. The children's breathing grew heavy and fast. TJ stood at the ready. Another thud, then a crash and a slightly dazed wolf fell into the caravan. TJ wasted no time but sliced with the boning knife, reaching through the thick, heavy fur until the tip found skin. The wolf howled and jumped back.
"Bar the door behind me!" TJ yelled. Then she leapt, grabbed the wolf by the scruff, and tumbled out the caravan.
TJ rolled on one shoulder and stood ready. She had to get the wolf away from the caravan and away from the other wolves before he alerted his brothers of the children there. She feinted, turned, and stabbed the wolf in the shoulder. It worked. He was more mad than hungry, now, but as she stepped back, she realized her knife was still sticking from the bleeding muscle. He bared his teeth, and TJ ran.
With every step, TJ felt hot breath on her neck, but the longer the wolf chased her, the farther he was from her brothers and sisters. She ran into the woods, lightly vaulting fallen branches and holes, thanking the King on the mountain for the soft glow that lit her path. But the wolf grew closer, and TJ was getting farther and farther from the caravan. Still she ran. The wolf lunged, snapping his huge teeth on her heel. She pulled away and fell down, down, down into a deep, narrow crevasse. When she reached the bottom, her head hit a rock and all went black.
When morning came, TJ knew something was seriously wrong. She could see the lightening sky. She could see the contours of the crevasse edge. But everything around her was in shadow. Her head pounded. Her heel felt it was still in the jaws of the wolf. And as she rose, she realized she'd landed in a nest of nettles. Stinging barbs stuck out from her skin. As she pulled each one out, a little drop of blood dripped to the dusty sand below.
TJ disentangled herself from the nettles and found a rock to sit on. She considered her options. The crevasse wall was steep, but she could see roots sticking out that would make good handholds. Or she could follow the trail north, toward the mountain, where she knew her family would be headed. With her pounding head, her wounded heel, and her scraped hands, climbing wouldn't be easy. She'd walk instead, hoping to find an easier way up.
Boulders, nettles, sand, occasional streams that promised to refresh but left her cold. Every night, pitch darkness save for the stars high above. TJ could see sunlight, but the glow of the castle never reached into the deep darkness below. At one point she heard laughing and recognized a game the travelers' children played. She called for help. Flushed faces peered over the crevasse lip. One disappeared, and an adult took its place.
"TJ?" the baker said. "What are you doing down there? Come climb out."
"I can't," she said. "It's too steep."
The baker looked back and forth. "Right over there. There are handholds enough, and the dirt looks stable. You just have to work hard."
She found a good root and started climbing. Divots in the soft earth made for easy steps. But half-way up, a root slipped, the dirt gave way, and she fell.
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