I find myself sitting on the edge of my bed a lot these days. Doing what, I’m not entirely sure, but the majority of it has to do with sitting and thinking, or maybe just sitting and existing.
And what is it about sitting on the edge of one’s bed that makes it feel like such a universal action? We’ve all seen it: a character on television plops down on the edge of his bed, head in hands, sighing. A pregnant woman holds her belly as she rests on the edge of her bed, thinking.
Being on the edge, I’ve come to notice, is a very noncommittal space. You’re neither taking initiative to stand up or lay down, but rather, are just sitting in a state of limbo in between your decision. And when you think about it, isn’t that kind of symbolic of life in general? Aren’t we always deciding between one thing and another? And when we can’t decide, we just kind of hang there . . . in between . . . waiting.
I’ve found that the most stressful state to be in is that of indecision. And the more indecisive I am, the more I find myself sitting on the edge of my bed.
But maybe it’s comforting to know that there is a physical place where life can still exist in limbo. When I was a senior in college, I happened upon a word for this state of in-between in my capstone English course: Liminality. I remember jotting the word Liminality down in my journal that day, thinking it entirely all too fitting for a senior in college (especially one with major post-graduate life decisions ahead of her).
Week after week, it would come back to me. I started writing this word at the top of my weekly “to-do” list just so I wouldn’t forget it.
Liminality, Liminality, Liminality.
I needed more.
So I did some research. Liminality, in its simplest form, is a type of transition period. From an anthropological standpoint, the word was used to describe the disorientation that developed during the middle stages of various ethnic rituals. In the article entitled “What is Liminality?” author Charles La Shure further describes this idea:
“The initiate (that is, the person undergoing the ritual) is first stripped of the social status that he or she possessed before the ritual, inducted into the liminal period of transition, and finally given his or her new status and re-assimilated into society.”
If that doesn’t make sense, think of it as the ambiguous stage that occurs in an initiation ceremony. Someone that becomes the president or leader of an organization no longer holds the same responsibilities they once did as a general member. However, they won’t hold their new title until the ceremony is over. Liminality is that uncomfortable, who am I and what do I do now, feeling.
About two years ago, I met a man at a career-writing workshop that (without even knowing it) encouraged the feeling of Liminality. Relishing in that feeling, he said, is when you grow the most. It means you’re doing something right. Although he was presenting on Grad School applications that day, I think the message can be easily applied to most situations of uncertainty.
Right now, as many of you know, my family and I are dealing with my father’s diagnosis of ALS. The day my mom told me that our worst nightmare had finally come true was December 24th, 2015. That awful day, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror for what felt like hours, boring holes into myself. I was looking straight ahead, but I didn’t recognize the person staring back. I was stripped of my identity.
At this point, many of you are probably thinking, but Gabby, you’re still yourself. You’re not the one who was diagnosed with ALS; it’s your dad. And you’re right. I was (and am) still a daughter, still a college graduate, and still a person existing on this earth.
But what was my identity as a daughter/college graduate/person existing on this earth whose father was just diagnosed with a fatal disease?
I didn’t have an answer, so I lost myself.
For weeks after my father’s diagnosis I didn’t know which way was up and which way was down. Everything I thought I knew and understood about the world was suddenly gone.
Am I still Gabby, or has someone replaced her? Who am I and where am I going?
Without realizing it, my beginning state of Liminality was also the beginning state of my rebuilding process. I was the initiate La Shure outlined in his article. Literally, started from the bottom now we . . . you know the rest.
In all seriousness though, rebuilding from my initial state of Liminality hasn’t been easy, and my journey has been nothing short of brutally painful.
Here’s kinda what happened:
The worst or “stripping of my identity:”
- I found out my dad had ALS in December.
- I almost quit my service year with AmeriCorps.
- I cried (like falling on the bathroom floor sobbing).
- I went back and forth about whether I should stay in Florida or move home.
- I closed myself off to my students.
- I was frustrated.
- I found God.
- I lost God.
- I contemplated suicide.
- I cried.
- I broke up with my boyfriend.
- I cried the most.
- I felt empty.
- I regretted every decision I’d made.
- I joined a new gym and quit 2 weeks later.
- I lost 10 pounds.
- I slept. A lot.
- I started counseling and then quit counseling.
- I didn’t know if I liked the same music anymore.
- I didn’t know how to present myself.
- I saw a psychiatrist.
The not-so-bad or “liminal period of transition:”
- I started taking anti-anxiety/depression pills.
- I went to the Florida Keys and relaxed.
- I cried, but a little less.
- I started journaling again.
- I started reading again.
- I went to the beach.
- I let myself be vulnerable to people that cared about me.
- I cried, but I wasn’t alone this time.
The best or “re-assimilation:”
- I put my energies into positive outlets.
- I started laughing a little.
- I went to yoga.
- I went to yoga.
- I went to yoga.
- I was there for my friends.
- I was there for my students.
- I opened up to one of my students.
- I joined an ALS support group.
- I reconnected with my spirituality.
- I started cooking again.
- I got a new job for next year.
- I cried and I laughed, and this time, I felt OK.
- I felt hope return.
Look I don’t have all the answers. I’ve been through a lot this past year, but it doesn’t mean I claim to know everything. All I know is that transition periods are hard, and life is hard and Liminality is hard. But if you find yourself in one of these in-between states, and you don’t know where you’re headed, please don’t give up. Giving up is too easy and it is sooo tempting. Trust me, I know. I’ve been in the dark tunnel with no end in sight, but the man at the career workshop was right. It is when we find ourselves in transition (or Liminality) that we grow the most. It’s uncomfortable as hell, but trust that it is overwhelmingly powerful.
So who am I now? Well, it’s only been about five months since my dad’s diagnosis (and a year since he’s started showing symptoms), but I feel stronger everyday. I can’t say I’m the same person I was before this past Christmas Eve because that would be untrue. We can’t expect ourselves to “never change.” Life doesn’t allow it. Evolving is good, and it’s healthy.
Right now, I take it day by day. I listen for intuitive clues to what screams yes and what shouts no for me. I may still be sitting on the edge of my bed during this time of “re-assimilation,” but I know now that I won’t decide to lay down. Laying down would be easy; it would be giving up. No, I know that one day I will stand up from the edge of my bed, and I will walk forward.
La Shure, Charles. “What is Liminality?” Liminality: the space in between. n.p. 18 October
More information at: http://www.liminality.org/about/whatisliminality/