Seek Higher Ground

by Janine Starr, MSeD

“Seek higher ground” is what the men were shouting through the bull horns, amid all the warning sirens, down by Boulder Creek on Thursday, September 12, just a few blocks south of my apartment. I couldn’t make out the distinct words, but I could feel the weight of the moment. Something big and public was happening. The authorities knew what I did not yet — that two young people had died on Linden Drive; that a 20-foot wall of water was about to come crashing into town.

Everyone was doing their best to set boundaries around what could not be controlled. They wanted to say, “This is the uncontrolled part where we don’t go, and this part over here is okay for us.” But how can we get out of the way in good conscience when our houses, our town, our beloved hiking trails and mountainsides and roads are in danger of being destroyed? How can we tear ourselves away from the drama of it all, even when we know that it is not safe? Yet if we do not seek higher ground, we will be swept away. And it is only from the high ground that we can see how to rebuild. This is what we in Boulder call a koan or spiritual paradox.

For me, Mental illness has been a lot like the floodwaters. Like the floodwaters, my mental illness has always carried a koan at its heart. On the one hand it is frightening, wild and uncontrollable, carrying with it all kinds of dangerous and toxic debris for me and those around me. On the other, letting it “be” is the first step toward healing. For many years, before I named it and befriended it, I sorely wanted it to go away. As a child I would look up at the evening star and wish, “God, please make me normal! Make me fit in with the other kids and know how to act like them!” I didn’t know then that I was simply missing social cues. Or that my behavior was normal, given my circuitry, and could be managed. That there were ways to learn to compensate for what I was missing, ways to understand how my brain worked and be its friend. This knowledge would have been my higher ground. Back then, the inside of my head was one big roiling torrent, perpetually flooding the lowlands.

Boulder County Sheriff Pelle was quoted in the Daily Camera on Friday, September 13: “All the preparation and want-to in the world can’t put people up the canyon while the debris and water is coming down.”

I have learned to let the floods come and step out of the way. When I have a hard day I take comfort in the knowledge that the next one will be better. I have learned to ride the ebbs and flows of my energy, my moods, my concentration. On this journey I have had many wise guides. The one thing that all of them have in common is the ability to just let it “be” and model for me how to take the high ground.

Janine Starr

MSeD, Cantorial soloist and mental illness survivor

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.