One of my jobs involves teaching a teenage girl with cancer. We’ve just finished analysing the novel Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and honestly, its wisdom and relevance to suffering of any kind has utterly dazzled me. This story has been so meaningful, both to me, a 36 year old woman struggling with mental illness and addiction, and to the young girl with whom I was reading it. Now I’m not saying for a second that my struggles are equal to a child living with cancer. I am hushed and humbled every day by the quiet confidence that this girl exudes in response to her situation. But nonetheless it seemed remarkable to me that one story could mean so much, in different ways, to two human beings in radically different contexts fighting very different battles.
It’s a story about a young girl, Coraline, who lives an ordinary, somewhat tedious life in a flat, somewhere in England with her kind but distracted parents. She discovers a door in the flat that leads to another world which mirrors her world, but becomes increasingly dangerous and frightening. Behind the door live her ‘other mother and father.’ The other mother kidnaps Coraline’s real parents, and the story unfolds as a heroic tale of Coraline’s fight to save her them.
The story reflects and mirrors classic myths and fairytales of the journey of the dark night of the soul. Like the story of Persephone in Greek mythology and Vasalisa of Russian folklore, Coraline is cast into an underworld where she must relinquish her childhood in favour of something more solid and sustainable.
It said something to me about the universal healing balm of storytelling. Ancient stories carry ancient wisdom, and guidance that we need. And what a gift to be able to tell and re-tell these stories in ways that can reach the young minds of today. Coraline was first published in 2002 but as far as I understand it has obtained a kind of cult status, and carried many an emerging young woman upwards on her path to becoming whole.
There is a particular chapter in Coraline, chapter 10, that reads very much like a guide to life. It seems to me worth sharing, from my own perspective of addiction and mental ill health, but also just as a human being, lost and confused on her path.
Coraline’s other Mother steals souls. She turns them into marbles and scatters them across her ‘other world.’ In a daring act of courage Coraline challenges her. If I can collect the marbles, she says, you have to let my parents and I go home. If I can’t you get to keep me, and I will stay with you, forever and always.
The other Mother, to me, represents kind of a shadow self. She is the cold and nasty inner critic that haunts us all in our darkest moments. She is the saboteur, the temptress, and in my case, the addict.
The chapter in question can be read chronologically as a way to face our demons. It starts like this:
1. Say it out loud.
‘”I’m an explorer,” said Coraline out loud.’ That is what we must be to find the answers we need. Cultivate the mindset of an explorer. Curious, intrigued and determined, we must be archeologists of our own despair. Stand back, get some distance, and examine it. What is this really all about? We must ask.
2. Say it even if you don’t feel it
‘”I’m not frightened.”… there was nothing here that frightened her. These things were illusions, things made by the other Mother in a ghastly parody of the real people and the real things on the other side of the corridor.’ That is what the creations of our inner critics are. They are illusions, designed to trip us up and keep us where we are.
3. Be prepared for temptation.
‘”Stay here with us. We’ll listen to you and stay with you and play with you and laugh with you… you’ll go home and you’ll be ignored, No one will listen to you., not really listen to you…If you stay here, you can have whatever you want.”‘ These are the words of the Other Father, and for me they mirror so perfectly the voice of my inner addict. Just do it, just take it, it’s too hard out there, there IS no other side of the rainbow, stay here with us… stick with what you know… There is also something here about other people’s reactions to us when we try to behave differently. However unconscious the message might be we often hear ‘change back’ from the people around us. And the fear of the loss of social connections can be another stumbling block for an addict who’s trying to change.
4. GROW UP.
Now this is the toughest one, and God knows I’m a million miles away from it, but Coraline, a girl of around 11, sums up in the wisest way I have ever heard what it really, truly means to be an adult. “You really don’t understand, do you?” she says to her other Father. “I don’t WANT whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t MEAN anything. What then?”
This illustrates perfectly for me the state of arrested development that so many addicts find themselves in. It is not POSSIBLE to grow up as long as you are drinking, using, or engaging in any kind of addictive behaviour which prevents you from engaging with your experiences and with your emotional reactions to those experiences. The two are quite simply mutually exclusive. An addict wants what they want when they want it, like a child. So grow up. Like Coraline, and learn to delay and distance yourself from gratification in order to find esteem for both yourself and the world around you.
5. Walk towards that which you are afraid of.
“Coraline took a step closer to the man, and he fell apart.” So much of our avoidant behaviour feeds our fears. What is allowed to ferment in the dark, like so much home-brewed wine, grows stronger.
6. Ignore distractions.
There are rats in the other world. Black rats which could symbolise a multitude of threats. And one of them steals a marble which Coraline is prepared to fight to the death to get back. “Now rats can run faster than people…but a black rat holding a marble in its two front paws is no match for a determined girl…smaller rats ran back and forth across her path, trying to distract her but she ignored them all, keeping her eyes fixed on the one with the marble, who was heading straight out of the flat, towards the front door.” Keep your eye on the prize, basically, and fight against the scattering of your thoughts as your inner critic tries to trip you up and stop you moving.
7. Don’t run too fast, and be prepared to get up again if you fall.
“…she was simply racing pell-mell down the steps in pursuit of the rat, with no room in her mind for anything else…she was running fast- too fast, she discovered, as…her foot skidded and twisted and she went crashing on to the concrete landing.” Coraline falls, but she gets up again. This sounds so simple, but it is oh so very hard to keep doing.
8. Be prepared to feel loss.
There are times when there are no answers, and no neat happy endings. As we grow up we must let go, and sometimes this is very, very painful to do. Coraline is outrun by the black rat with the marble, and she feels grief, and the deepest kind of human sorrow. “…she felt nothing but cold loss…she had failed her parents. She had failed herself, she had failed everything.” Sometimes we do, and there is nothing to do but feel the sadness and shame that that brings.
9. Accept help when it comes, no matter what the form!
The day is saved for Coraline by the appearance of a black cat, another character rich with a lineage of symbolism. The cat has neatly decapitated the rat for Coraline, just when it seemed all was lost. “I think I once mentioned, said the cat, that I don’t like rats at the best of times. It looked like you needed this one, however. I hope you don’t mind my getting involved.” Coraline accepts the cat’s help with a quiet and self assured grace. Just as all help of such kind should be accepted.
10. There is only one way out, and you must take it.
Like the child’s book, ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,’ there’s no way over it, there’s no way under it, there’s no way around it, we have to go THROUGH IT.’ And that’s the way we all have to go, sooner or later, so we really might as well get on with it. Coraline does, with a truly courageous flourish that grants her the highest status of fairytale heroine. “If the only way is past her…then that’s the way we’re going to go.”
11. Find comfort in your SENSES.
Just before Coraline walks through the door to face her nemesis, the other Mother, she ‘checks in.’ This concept could broadly be understood as an aspect of mindfulness, and a grounding, meditative tool. “Coraline walked up the steps one ar a time, heading back to her own flat. She was AWARE of the marbles clicking in her pocket, AWARE of the stone with the hole in it, AWARE of the cat pressing itself against her.(SIC)” This is such a great tool to remember in times of panic and distress. To become aware of small sensations. To focus on physical realities. To ground in external experiences when we feel overwhelmed by storms within.
Neil Gaiman wrote this book for his two daughters. It is the most beautiful and valuable gift I can imagine, and a real work of feminist art. Its wisdom applies, of course, to all human souls regardless of gender, but there is something particular about the journey of a girl towards adulthood, and a woman through trials of any kind. This story meant so much to me, and to the young girl I work with, who truly is MY hero. It landed it our laps like a little piece of heavenly wisdom, and I am so grateful for its message.