On November 16th, 2014, a boy I knew killed himself. Neither his life nor death was a cautionary tale, so I took no caution when I began my own descent soon after. I had been passionately engaged in the movements for queer rights, Black Lives Matter, and feminism, but that fall, bearing witness to the suffering in these communities became unbearable. Overexposed and over-sensitive to what I saw around me, that winter I retreated into myself and collapsed.
I had always dreamed of driving from the East to the West coast (I’m a romantic, I know) with my older sister. That spring, trip plans inexplicably began to form with little heed given to what I was recovering from. We drove off into midtown-midday traffic. I was empty but not numb: I wanted to be porous and new. On the road I ended up learning how to open myself up again.
At the Grand Canyon, it turned out I was wrong about what big can mean. The unwavering mass of rock appeared to be on a different scale than my all-encompassing pain. My mother had warned me rocks that big make people do crazy things, forget themselves, forget their mothers. I entered the park wary of myself. At first I looked and did not let myself feel awe. The second morning, I allowed myself to drink in the blue and red masses, purple through the fog. I had seen several faces of The Rocks, but they had not reacted to me. I shook in their presence with everything I saw and felt, and they stood still. My pupils opened wider trying to capture all the light the rocks contained. These canyons let the light sink and soak in, so I, too, took in the light. I expanded beyond the part of myself that had collapsed in on itself, and simply existed next to them.
Entering the black caves of the Carlsbad Caverns, we heard the endless dripping of stalactites and stalagmites. I couldn’t see where the path led. My feet gripped desperately at black tar. I kept walking, and trusted that the steep descent led to something better. I could not help imagining myself falling. I remembered that I am not afraid of physically falling, I am afraid of falling-forever out of control. When the sun disappeared and only bats populated the skies, the icicles of shining rock were the proof that change is continuous so I, too, must be transforming like the slow drip of calcium in these caves.
We visited the UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico. In the museum a ceramic alien lay on an operating table, surrounded by doctors. The museum visitors gawked at the alien, disregarding HIPAA privacy laws outright. Seeing the alien was a strange sort of homecoming for me. I had forgotten how my body worked: I was alien to myself. When I saw this exposed alien lying on a public operation table, utterly helpless, I had somehow arrived full circle in my sense of awareness. A fuse lit inside of me and I wanted to cover its body, be its shield of comfort.
When I was on the road, I found stable footing again. The unbearable pain slowly ebbed away. In the winter, observing pain in others was unbearable. Now seeing pain in others invigorates me to do more–to bring awareness to eating disorders, mass incarceration rates, and the harm of heteronormativity–all to assist in the alleviation of pain. The more I am able to reflect on what I went through, the more I am able to care and love people, without condition and (perhaps) limit.