As a child I used to sleepwalk. As I grew up, they told me I did it less and less until it stopped. Nobody ever realised that the truth was that every day when I awoke the real sleepwalking began. Now I look back desperate to break the habit, desperate to play a waking part in my own life with no idea where to begin and terrified that perhaps it’s already too late.
There is a place where angels reside, a place where they meet and discuss their wards, where they seek assistance, where they move to different realms. There is such a place and I know because I walked there. Sometimes I am sure it was nothing but a dream, and other times I know I need that certainty to make sense of all that has happened. So was it a dream? Did I walk with angels and inhabit their world? I don’t know. Perhaps I will never know. All I can do is tell you the story and leave it for you to decide.
If we do not learn to tell our stories they will destroy us. I was told that once by a shaman in South America. His words haunted me and I spent the years that followed desperately trying to help others tell their stories, terrified by the idea that our silence could destroy us. It is always easier to help others than to help ourselves and, as they released their stories, I found I could try to forget a little of mine. Forget? No. Then perhaps make peace with it. I showed others how to find their voice and as they did, they released their stories into my keeping. They were horrific stories, so much pain and abuse, so much guilt and torment.
I accepted them all. I didn’t question. I didn’t judge. Yet with each new story I continually pushed my own further and further away. I never quite learned to tell my own story and it remained locked within, as my life drifted by without me ever feeling I was taking an active part in it. I filled the days to help them pass. The fuller they were, the less I needed to think. I would collapse exhausted into bed at night and await the dawn, for this new day to pass so another could come and then another and another until it would all be over. But it became harder and harder to fill that time. Soon even sleep, my sacred escape, began to elude me.
So many of those I have worked with over the years do not initially want to tell their stories. They fear judgement, they fear remembering and, most of all, they fear themselves. There are so many fears to overcome yet fear of telling our story, in essence, is a fear of living. My fear is that my story will disappear within me, swallow me up until I no longer know what happened or did not; where the comedy ended and the tragedy began or was it the other way around? Today as I sit down finally to put pen to paper, I realise that it is not solely my story I will write, not even now. All of our stories are so interwoven and I cannot tell you mine without also sharing the stories of others.
My job has always been to listen to others, to somehow make it easier for them to tell their story and through the telling, to let it go. For a long time this just seemed to happen, people would tell me things and the more we talked the more they would let go of their stories. I thought it was funny at first and my friends and family always laughed at how people were drawn to me in this strange way, offloading their stories then disappearing leaving me with the remnants. When I got older it seemed only natural for it to become my ‘work’ – yet still I never sought it out. It is important for me that people know that. I never went looking for this. Somehow people would find me and share their stories of pain and loss, their traumas, their anger, their fear and shame. They would laugh and cry, some would become enraged screaming at me even though I was blameless. Or was I? And each time I listened to them. I comforted when necessary, encouraged when needed, and accepted the anger and abuse that frequently came with the letting go. What else could I have done? What would you have done in my place?
When people have been quiet for so long, they need to tell their story, they need to pass it on and free themselves. My job is to listen and consume, using one story to help me through the next, to guide me when to speak or even if to speak, to show me how to let it go, lest it should become my own. But is that really possible? I am not so sure anymore. In South America a shaman once explained to me that I was what they called a sin eater. In shamanic tradition a sin eater is called upon by the family of a deceased person to eat a last meal of bread with a sprinkling of salt left on the stomach of the dead as they await burial. Through this ritual it was believed that the sins of that person would be absorbed through the food and they would have clear passage to the afterlife. The sin eater was paid for his or her trouble, but otherwise avoided, feared as being sin-filled and unclean as a result of their work. Those sin eaters usually lived at the edge of the village, unwelcome in the community, and children were warned away from them. In the South American tradition the sin eater is sacred to the society, though never quite a part of it: always needed and respected, but not quite embraced.
Of course my role as a sin eater has a more modern slant. I don’t eat off of corpses (honest) and my neighbours and their children do not shun me, as far as I am aware at least. But I serve the purpose of listening to the stories. I listen and then I am dismissed. No longer useful, I serve only as a reminder of the story they wish to move on from. Sometimes people hate those to whom they release their stories because they fear their newfound knowledge and worry that it could be used against them; others despise any reminder of the story which they now feel they have been freed from, leaving it to become the burden of the sin eater alone; and others despise the sin eater for ‘making’ them tell their story, for drawing out their secrets and magically making them reveal all. Nobody can ever be made to tell their story; it is always a choice. It must always be a choice.
There is nothing magical in the sin eater’s gift, or perhaps curse is a better description, but others find safety in blaming magic and invisible forces when they don’t or can’t understand and this helps them to alienate the sin eater even more. The more stories you hear, the more you begin to look around and view the world with very different eyes. You become aware of horrors that you never dreamed existed, aware of suffering beyond any you could imagine, you learn the extremities of evil human beings are capable of inflicting on others. It is not that you are shunned by society, but rather that you cease to fit in … if you ever did. Although, if I were being honest, I think you lose any desire to fit into such a world. The knowledge you carry from the stories you have heard makes it all too painful. You become an outcast by your own doing and you live on the edge looking in at everyone else, or out at them. I am never quite sure which of us is the more trapped.
And it was somewhere amongst all of that, I managed to lose both my own story and my identity for a time. So why was I now sitting in some old woman’s kitchen, a woman who told me she spoke to spirits and angels? And how did I come to be in tears as she told me an angel stood behind me with its wings tightly wrapped around me? She told me this angel was trying to comfort me through my pain. And why, I am sure you are wondering, do I believe such things without question or comment? I’m not even sure that the answers are relevant anymore, although I understand why you may want them. All I know is that this day was the culmination of many in which the presence of angels and spirits around me was something of which I was forced to become aware.
But of course all good stories should start at the beginning although I’m not sure where that beginning is. Perhaps I only need to find ‘a’ beginning and the rest will follow. For so long I have avoided writing all these things down, I have played with them in my head, but they never truly leave me. I guess you can only avoid for so long.
Everything catches up with us eventually.