When It’s Not a Metaphor

Reflections on being lost. And being found. Originally posted on August 8, 2019.

Sarah Sullivan
6 min readOct 15, 2019

I’m sharing more about my health journey — not so much to help with my own healing, though I’m sure it will do that! But because so very many of us are sick. As I get more and more on the other side myself, I realize it does no one any good for me to stay quiet about what I’ve learned, especially since this learning was so hard-earned and since my ability to get better is rooted in many layers of privilege that others may not have.

I got really sick about 5 years ago. For the first 2.5 years, I walked down the path my doctor laid out for me. Even though I still feel I got good care, during that time my health steadily, seriously declined.

Through that first phase of my illness, I tried desperately to “think” my way out of it. I met for long, frequent appointments with my doctor where I asked a lot of questions. I read everything. Ran mini self-experiments. Paid constant attention to how subtle changes in anything affected my symptoms. I tried — exhaustively — to understand it.

Leaving the White House in 2017 afforded me a respite to honestly assess my health. The sobering reality was: after everything I had done, I was no better. I was worse.

I decided to leave my doctor, which was painful as she was the only one who had born witness to my suffering, who knew how far I had come, how hard I had worked, who knew how sick I was, still.

With no team, no plan, no idea of how to construct either, I felt impossibly confused. I was lost.

Then in the spring of 2017, in a moment of very high drama, I had a breakthrough. I was on a prolonged water fast — which I was convinced would help me and my doctor agreed to supervise, at my insistence (this was the last thing we did together).

I had read books about water fasting and knew as well as I could what to expect. I sent daily numbers to my doctor that she wanted to see. She knew I was interested in fasting up to 30 days. She said she would give her blessing one week at a time.

I fasted the first week. All went well.

Then, a few days into the second week, things started to change. I experienced strong feelings of dizziness and fatigue — all expected with a long fast. My numbers were fine, but eventually it stopped feeling right, and I considered breaking it.

Here’s what I asked myself: Am I feeling bad because I have not eaten in 10 days, and these are the normal side effects of a long fast, and it’s working? If so, then I desperately want to continue.

Or, am I feeling bad because I am literally killing myself? In which case, I desperately want to stop!

I didn’t know the answer.

For maybe a half day or so, these two questions rattled around in my head. My will was waning, my confusion compounding.

Starving and pushed to my breaking point, literally on my knees in my kitchen, holding a piece of — locally grown, organic lettuce — I asked myself that question again: Am I helping? Or am I killing myself?!

That’s where I found myself crying out my answer: I don’t know. I DONT know. I don’t KNOW. I. DONT. KNOW. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

I didn’t know.

There, in that most vulnerable place, everything shifted. It shifted down — from my head, to my heart. I had a deep knowing: “You cannot think your way out of the dark. You can only feel your way out.”

I ate the lettuce.

That marked the second phase of my illness. Where I stopped trying to “think” my way out, stopped trying to understand it. I let my heart lead the way.

Instead of trying to dominate the feeling of confusion, I explored it. I mapped the terrain. I realized that confusion is no better or worse than any other feeling. It turns out that being confused is wildly interesting.

Exploring the confusion — rather than rejecting it — a simple image began to emerge: of me, lost in the woods.

This illness felt like being lost in the woods. I knew I would get home. But I really, really didn’t know how. To get there, my intuition was my guide.

That intuition gave me all sorts of amazing insights. Insights that didn’t make “sense.” But I no longer cared about that.

I tried anything that I felt called to do (in retrospect: the fast was the riskiest thing I tried). I immediately stopped doing anything that was not working. I doubled down on the things that did.

I slowly put together a new, bigger health team, led by a new doctor who I painstakingly selected.

This time, I cast a wide net. Eventually, I built out a core team that consisted of: a medical doctor, a nutritionist, a nurse, a dentist, a massage therapist, a core synchronism practitioner, the nice people who run a sensory deprivation tank, a grief counselor, a meditation teacher, a shaman, and a medium.

My intuition gave me strong guidance to work with doctors and practitioners who had been sick themselves and gotten better. So I did that.

Slowly, I was crawling my way back to health.

Of the more unusual things my intuition brought up, was the desire to be in very cold water and to be with lots of trees. This is especially unusual since I’m from Florida, and I historically can’t swim in water that is colder than 80 degrees.

Trusting my intuition, I spent some weekends in Virginia forests. I took cold showers.

All the while, I would let the metaphor of being lost in the woods guide me. What was that metaphor about? What was it trying to show me?

It was a long time before I realized that being lost in the woods is a textbook metaphor for a spiritual journey.

It took me longer to realize that maybe it wasn’t even a metaphor. Maybe it was real.

That’s how I came to spend last summer living on a beautiful, freezing river (44 degrees) in the middle of a forest in Oregon. I don’t know what exactly happened there. But I walked out of that forest last summer, less sick than when I went in.

That was a year ago. Today, I am returning from another, much shorter stint in the same forest. I went to say thank you; I went because I think it still has so much to teach me; I went because I love it there.

I don’t think my story is finished. So I can’t tell you the definitive moral yet. But the truest, most humbling lesson I’ve brought back from the forest so far is this: We can heal.

If you are sick, if you get sick, you will encounter a lot of people and institutions who — one way or another — will make you feel like you can’t heal. I want to be someone in your life who makes you feel like you can. Because, you really can.



Sarah Sullivan

Mostly interested in healing of all kinds. Formerly: NDP, @USDigitalService, and Obama White House.