I woke up this morning with a Bruce Springsteen song in my head (one that – coincidentally or not – begins with the same five words as this post). A song about failing to learn from experience and making the same old mistakes, “One Step Up” is heartrending in its simplicity and its complexity. And in spite of its ‘80s drum machine beat and the cliché Springsteen deliberately builds its concept around. The song applies the hackneyed phrase “one step up [read: forward] and two steps back” first to the acrimonious collapse of a marriage, and then to the singer’s feeling of failure and faltering self-image.
The reason it was in my head this morning (aside from those opening five words) is that I suffered an unexpected setback just at the point when I felt I had everything under control. Over the last month or so, my counsellor has been asking me if he thinks that our work is done. In the last few sessions, we had gotten to a point where just about all I had to tell him was how well things had been going. That said, we agreed that it was still worth a check-in every couple of weeks just to monitor how I am getting on. He has said he is extremely pleased with my progress, and at one point went so far as telling me “You’ve nailed it.” And so I felt I had.
Then last week something happened to (if I can use a cliché myself) upset the apple cart of my progress against the anxiety and depression of recent months. If not exactly two steps back, it felt at the very least that I was back where I began. With no warning, and for the first time in months, there again were the overpowering spasms of anxiety, the sharp chest pains, the dull thumping ache in my gut. With them came the sense of helplessness and hopelessness, of failure and anger. The anger was the worst of all, and seemed to be driving the whole machine. To make things worse, I was utterly unable to call up any of the tools my counselling sessions had supposedly equipped me with to deal with this. The words of “One Step Up” didn’t come to mind until this morning, but they fit perfectly what I was feeling then:
When I look at myself, I don’t see/The man I wanted to be/Somewhere along the line I slipped off track/Caught moving one step up and two steps back.
Phone a friend
I never expected to have to call my counsellor to ask him if he could see me sooner than the next appointment, still a week away. He said he could only manage to move it forward one day. It scared me to think how I would manage the days in between, and time was proving no healer. After three days, I was if anything, worse. Then, two days ago at the lowest low, I did the one thing that made the difference. I phoned a friend. I could barely string a coherent sentence together, but she said “Come over. Have dinner with us. I want to see you.”
I might not have been able to find the tools to dig myself back out of that hole (the clichés keep coming…), but that was the reminder I needed that there were people close at hand who were concerned, and wanted to be there for me. Just being around other people, doing something normal, and feeling appreciated regardless of my mood, set me back on the right track.
My friend said: “I’ve never seen you better than the last few months.” My father told me: “Whatever happens, don’t let this set you back.” My mother said, “You’re strong,” and she hugged me. My nephews and niece sought me out to play with them, without knowing anything. For days, I had thought I was back where I started, but there were more resources to draw on than I realised. I had the concern and the support of the people who loved me.
Don’t stop dancing
Art – music in particular, I find – has extraordinary cathartic and comforting effects when it resonates with the emotions you are feeling in that moment. It doesn’t have to offer answers, but just to feel its empathy helps. It may not take the pain or sadness away, but by converting them into poignancy or melancholy instead, it make those emotions somehow beautiful and so, somehow more tolerable. That said, there is a danger that this can lead you to be satisfied to wallow – to only look for solace in the song, the poem, the novel, the picture – and to neglect to actually remedy the cause of those emotions. I could sit and listen to “One Step Up” and let Bruce make my feeling of failure sound beautiful in its sadness. Yet four and a half minutes later, my situation would still be the same.
Leave it to Bruce to not leave it at that. In the last two lines of the song, he takes the one step up and two steps back and makes them steps in a lovers’ dance. As I lay there this morning with the song playing in my head, it dawned on me that the backsteps are just as much a part of the dance as the steps forward. And so it is with life. There is no avoiding the occasional, and occasionally devastating, setback. The challenge is to figure out how to move forward from where you end up, not to despair at how you got there. What I’ve been taught just in the last day or so is to not stop dancing.
If I can use one last cliché – I’m not out of the woods yet, as far as this setback goes. Not by a long shot. But if I can just remember that the counselling has given me a map, and the people around me now are not just companions but guides, then maybe I won’t have to retrace my steps. One step up…