“Alice: How long is forever?
White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.”
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
I think it’s fair to say that not even Alice found what she was looking for in Wonderland, and that in the end she could not and did not want to stay there forever. Even when she became a heroine, she wanted to go home and continue her real life. The one she had first run into Wonderland to escape.
And I am not Alice, and this world most certainly is not Wonderland. And tempting (and enjoyable) as retreating into inner worlds and looking for permanent answers at the bottom of a bottle or in mind-altering substances can be, those experiences can only ever be temporary and can easily slip over into the realms of problematic if I keep trying to extend my stay, because forever can, quite rightly be, “just one second” but that kind of forever is a self-limiting choice.
So this not-Alice is returning from not-Wonderland, a little battered, a little jaded, and with a little hope for a new resolve. Armed for the moment with the discovery that Wonderland is not synonymous with recovery; I won’t ever live there forever. Recovery, unlike Wonderland, can’t be reached through quick fixes or easy escapes, it is not a cosy bed you can run away to and hide in. Not yet anyway, not until you have done the hard work it takes to get there. And perhaps not ever. And perhaps that is OK, because perhaps hard work is OK. Perhaps hard work will not always mean pain, although it does right now. But even pain, if experienced, leads to relief, whereas running and hiding can only ever become utterly unbearable in the end.
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cheshire Cat That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
So the path ahead now is steep and slow, but for now, I have set my sights on a destination. Knowing where you are headed does not necessarily mean the path is easy or clear of bear-traps and beasts to conquer, but today I hold in my hands the tangibility of shaping my actual reality. And if I do that, maybe I won’t need Wonderland any more. I don’t think I want it any more; it no longer holds the appeal that it once did, and directionless wandering along paths to nowhere has lost its attraction. And I think this is what, in the real world, we call progress. And perhaps this makes no sense to you, if you are a creature of the ‘real world’. One who has never felt the allure of wandering endlessly lost in the dim beauty of the woods of Wonderland, instead of choosing a direction, and a destination (do these people exist? I don’t know.). But this is my reality; finding a path out of Wonderland is a real part of my journey, and its fraught with dangers and traps. Because Wonderland is my comfort-zone, my home, the paths I have wandered for years are well trodden and their dangers well known. And escaping requires the knowledge that my destination is in my control, even if the dangers I face along the way may not always be. And that knowledge is very new and very fragile for me, it slips through the mind like tendrils of cobwebs in the wind, and those cobwebs are of an old, old knowledge, one from before time began. And I don’t have the picture for what they looked like before they were torn; it seems to me that they were always this way, although something whispers that perhaps they weren’t.
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Perhaps everyone is born knowing they can take their own destiny in their hands and shape their life, but for some that knowledge becomes lost at some point, obscured, or hidden, or torn by experience, and those are the ones for whom Wonderland calls. Because when you have forgotten that the destination can be something you choose and shape along the way, through active participation in life, through choice and with joy, and when everything in your now feels bad and wrong and out of control, it’s easy to assume that this is your forever.
Out of control.
And if you take this experience of now, and add to it the assumptions about the future, perhaps it is a bit easier to understand why someone might choose the one bit of control they feel is their own. Control over the path that they walk, not the destination, but the path itself. Because the woods of Wonderland are littered with paths that loop around and back on themselves and lead to nowhere. And the paths are rife with crossroads and forks, and even if you refuse to look more than one step in front, and refuse to head toward the other side, you can choose the twists and turns of the path. You can choose to wander lost, turning away from any hint of a destination, wandering down side roads and into adventures. Falling asleep in fairy rings, solving the problems of the creatures you encounter, befriending the darkness, the fog and confusion, and choosing forever to divert your path further into these adventures, despite knowing they are distractions and that they lead nowhere. Even when you know that choosing to wander directionless, forever, stands to sabotage the likelihood of reaching any destination at all.
Because when your choice has been taken away, and your ending feels inevitable and ill-willed, turning perpetually away feels the better of two evils. Even though the paths are those of existential crisis, despair, hopelessness and futility, the end you have been ‘given’ may seem to promise worse. The mere possibility of autonomy may not even occur to you, caught up as you are in the moment by moment drama of the paths you weave. Wandering then seems to hold the (false) promise of stumbling upon something better. But the reality is that nothing lies in the woods. They are cold, and empty, and devoid of charm. The only excitement they hold is fear and confusion. And the only answers are questions and riddles.
So today, I choose to walk with deliberation, on a path that I believe will lead me out of the woods. Towards I don’t quite know what, but towards something that may well be good, not bad, and that can surely be better than the emptiness of avoidance.
And this realisation, this deliberation has taken a long time (and a considerable amount of help) to filter through my fantasy-prone, reality-shy mind, and will probably have to filter through a good few times yet. Indeed, I suspect this is not my first epiphany of this kind, though I have temporarily chosen to forget the others; I hope I have recorded them somewhere, in some form. I suppose I probably have as this is my pattern, my path, my rhythm, my cycle. And I am destined to loop this loop forever or until I close the loop altogether.
And this time feels different; it feels resonant. I feel I have reached a new level of understanding of what recovery could actually look like for me, or of what I want it to be. And that decision is mine. My future is mine to mould it belongs to no-one else. Though I suspect that it always does feel this way, and that the resonance is soon lost as I turn another corner, forget where I am going, get temporarily caught up in another fairy-tale, another drama, another side-plot to my life.
But a victory is a victory, no matter how small. And choosing reality over fantasy is a victory, even when it feels like a raw deal. Today, I have this dawning sense of my cycles getting smaller and my loops getting tighter, my paths less rambling, less overgrown, my ragged tapestry of understanding of what choice really means, getting another thread added, another hole filled as I try, yet again to remember it, to repair it, to hold it safe from the winds that would tear it from my hands. And so, though I tuck it away and perhaps forget for a while that it is there, I am now keeping it safe, so each new understanding is not a case of finding it anew, but of remembering where I put it and reviewing what I have added as my understanding grows and my ‘self’ becomes more whole.
Art Journal Sketch Series. Watercolour Pencil on Paper. © Katy Matilda Neo 2018.