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When Depression Is a Birdcage and You're the Imprisoned Bird

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It was a little golden birdcage, maybe a couple inches high. You could hold it in the palm of your hand and stare at the delicate little bird inside. The bird perched on its tiny golden bar and the hinged golden door to the birdcage could open and shut.

The door always stayed shut.

It was years ago that I loved that birdcage, that I would hold it in my hand in the silence that sometimes would take up the counseling office. It was in the years of counseling when she would still make me play in the sand tray for Play Therapy, much to my grumbling and eye-rolling. There were shelves and shelves of figurines to choose from: animals, food, people, sports, trees, bridges. She would just sit there, in her purple chair, watching your mind say the words your mouth couldn’t say. You could put whatever you wanted in the sand tray, make whatever picture you wanted to make. I would roll my eyes at her a lot and only ever put a few things in. But most every time, I was drawn to the little golden birdcage with its hinged door and its prisoner inside.

For so many years, the birdcage was my life. Stuck, stuck, stuck. In the early years, it was questions about faith, depression and self-harm that made me feel stuck. Like everyone else was out there free and flying, and something was wrong with me for being behind these bars. In the later years, the years of the sand trays, I had stuck myself in there with my own silence about relationships. I had sealed myself off from honesty and help. The birdcage was safe. The birdcage was understood. Sure, the birdcage was a little cramped and cold and lonely, but it was home.

Years pass by and the birdcage starts to self-destruct, though. What a miserable miracle in disguise it is when our walls come tumbling down around us. We can sit there in the rubble and cry about it for years if we choose, and I did just that. But eventually, you gain enough maturity and distance from those years of silence to see them for just how exhausting they were. The birdcage no longer looks safe. It looks awful. You want to go back and tear those hinges off, to free that poor little bird on the perch. So you do.

Nothing about healing is easy. It is a conscious choice you have to make, one baby step after another. But it gets easier with each incremental move forward. The words start to come and the wounds that had been festering start to scar over. There is such freedom when you finally decide the birdcage is no place for you to live. The outside world is scary, but the outside world is where you’re meant to live.

And so after these weeks and sessions of letting those caged up days go, I came home and bought a necklace with a little birdcage and a bird flying free. Perhaps it is silly, but it is a symbol to me of hope and help and freedom and laughter that is present now when it wasn’t before. A new chain to hang around my neck, but this one is free and forgiving.
My counselor tells me these days that other people love that birdcage, too. And I ache a little for them, as I imagine them holding it in their palm. I ache for the stuffy birdcage they are stuck in, whatever circumstance or silence they’re finding themselves in. I want my life and my words to be a testament to others that doing the hard work is so worth it. Saying the hard things, trusting the right people, fighting the depression and demons that want to creep back in, believing my past is paid for and wiped clean: it is a process. Take the first step.

These words trickle back to mind, as I think about the cages we keep ourselves in. Before the figurine was even a part of my life, there was a line I remember clinging to that she told me once, as we started to tackle self-harm and silence: Step out of the cage. It’s not locked… It just looks like it is. How often we deceive ourselves; we grip the key so tightly and let the freedom go instead.

The cage isn’t locked. It just looks like it is.

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Thinkstock photo via stsmhn

Originally published: May 5, 2017
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