Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Life in the 'Wheel of Fire'

I studied English Language and Literature at university. Shakespeare, of course was one of the most significant writers studied, due to his influence in both literature and language spheres - he invented 1700 words that are still in common usage! Of all of his plays I am most drawn to the tragedies of King Lear and Hamlet, along with the tragi-comedy, Twelfth Night. I kind of love misery...

Central to all of these plays is the idea of fate and fatal flaws in the main characters, which causes their ultimate downfalls. This sense of being trapped in endless suffering is sometimes called 'the wheel of fire'. The idea of characters trapped in the 'wheel of fire' comes from Greek tragedy. It is the story of Ixion who is tied to the wheel of fire for the crime of lusting after Zeus's wife. As with all Greek punishments the wheel turns unendingly.


I have had a number of conversations with fellow sufferers of mental illness around the idea of suffering and the feelings of despair felt by the sense that we seem to be tied to our own 'wheels of fire'. It is tempting to see myself trapped in my own 'wheel of fire' made up of my mental health condition and the cycles of uncontrollable emotional storms which have plagued my life.

The idea of a Fatal Flaw is the closest I can come to describe the feeling of being trapped by who I am and how I feel about my life experiences. Perhaps my understanding of this idea has meant that I have not struggled with the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder as a description of the cycles I have gone through in life. However, there is a flaw in this symbol. It is two-fold: firstly, the character's flaw is usually something like pride, or blind trust. In contrast, for me, the problems I encounter in being emotionally sensitive are not embedded in who I am, but in how I am 'wired' - I'm sure a neuroscientist could explain it better than me - the part of my brain which controls the emotions is more 'trigger happy' than average. So the 'flaw'is not in my personality, but in my physiology - if it were 'faulty' cancer cells, it would be easier for other people, as well as myself to understand - somehow.

Secondly, within all Tragedies there is a fatalism which means the characters are unable, or unwilling to try and break the endless turning of the 'wheel of fire', so their ultimate destruction is inevitable. Even though there have been times when the pain of living with trauma and the inability to manage the emotional fallout from it, has meant that hope has been absent in my life. I have come to the other side. I am not living at the whim of an author for dramatic effect. I am living in the real world with the complexities of real life. That means, contrary to what my feelings and flawed thinking have told me, it is not a life of black and white, either, or. There are degrees of suffering and shades of light of varying degrees.

Pain is necessary, it is a reaction to that which harms us, either physically, emotionally or spiritually. Suffering on the other hand is optional and not unending. This would have made me laugh a few years ago. For me, every day was suffering. I carried with me the pain of not just that day's sadnesses, but also the pain of my childhood and other historic wounds. They were not healing scars but open wounds, which were so sensitive to additional pain, that it was as if I would reopen the wounds with each new, perceived or real, hurt, however minor. For so many who I allowed to get close enough, it was puzzling that my emotional reactions to every day trials and tribulations were so out of proportion that my relationships with those people broke. They could not see that felt I was tethered to the constantly turning wheel of fire. This was my belief at the time - my lot in life is to suffer, simply because I must have done something 'wrong', or because I was intrinsically flawed in some way.

However, having recognised that, as the Bible says, 'sufficient unto the day is the grace thereof' (King James Version), we only need the ability to live that day's pain, I have started to live without that grinding, eroding sense of despair which comes from life in the wheel of fire. I have already survived my childhood, my twenties, my thirties, the past five years, the past month, week, day. Whatever pain contained in my life at that time, was experienced, in the moment, and now passed into history. To keep the pain alive is not to allow it to heal and will prolong my sense of suffering. In the light of this grinding despair, the impulses to self harm and self destruction are more readily understood. What helps me is the ability to recognise that I am not tied to the wheel of fire, I can step off it. I can choose to see my episodes of pain as just that - not the endless stream of misery that I have felt my life to be in the past.


The emotional and mental exhaustion with which I presented to mental health services, is a consequence of my mistaken belief that I had to carry the burden of all of my life's suffering in the present. Finding a way to give myself rest and respite of the unremitting pain I have felt all my life, has allowed me to view pain in the context of what gives my life meaning. For me it is my faith that helps me make sense of the world and my experience of it. For others, there may be different things which bring meaning to life's experiences. Until I allow myself to end the punishment of prolonging my own suffering, I will always be trapped in the wheel of fire. In order to do that, I must see myself with some compassion, to allow my wounds to heal into scars. Reminders of past experiences, without the constant reopening of old wounds which prolongs my suffering.

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