“Standing on a golden perch behind the door was a decrepit-looking bird that resembled a half-plucked turkey. Harry stared at it and the bird looked balefully back.” -Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
DISCLAIMER: I promise this isn’t just for Harry Potter nerds like me; no prior understanding of the Harry Potter series is necessary to read this post.
As a kid I think I was aware of phoenixes in a vague sense, but they paled in comparison to other mythical creatures like unicorns, who had associations with magic and rainbows. I was a Lisa Frank girl, so anything colorful was enough to capture my attention for an unreasonable amount of time. Phoenixes, with only a portion of the color wheel to their feathers, just weren’t as interesting.
It wasn’t until I read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as a preteen that I considered the actual mythology behind phoenixes, but even then, with the majority of the book featuring strange beasts and fantastical spells, phoenixes once again faded to the back of my mind.
I struggled with depression in middle school in the angsty sense that every young teen experiences depression: isolation, hormonal imbalance, and a touch of existential crisis for good measure. I wasn’t a stranger to feeling down, but I had never reached a rock bottom, so my understanding of depression, while real, was limited.
When I lost my father at age fourteen, I hit rock bottom so hard I think I made a cartoon-like, full bodied imprint in it. I suddenly understood the full scope of things like depression and grief, but instead of figuring them out through gradual exposure like most people, I was instantly saddled with the entire scope of negative human emotion.
In other words, I was that half-plucked turkey looking balefully at my surroundings, no longer containing the energy or will to continue. There was effort involved in existing now—in doing things like pulling my covers off in the morning or getting myself into clothing that didn’t remind me of sadness. All of my feathers had been ripped from my skin, leaving me raw and bleeding. And unlike a cat or dog or other mundane animal, phoenixes, as extraordinary as they are, can’t lick their own wounds.
When Harry, while wandering around Professor Dumbledore’s office, encounters this sickly phoenix, Fawkes, it bursts into flame. This prompts Dumbledore to say,
“It’s a shame you had to see him on a Burning Day […] He’s really very handsome most of the time.”
What I didn’t know in the period following my dad’s passing was that I needed a burning day. It took me a long time to realize the cycle into which all humans fall—of getting wrapped up with our inner demons, ruminating, and then ultimately overcoming them—before I realized what a burning day was for me.
At many different times in my life, like after my dad’s death, I’ve been faced with seemingly more than I could deal with. Some people handed me platitudes like, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” as if that’s some kind of sword I could bring into battle with me. Others told me to suck it up, as if I hadn’t already tried that. Even more people told me that happiness is an attitude I choose, as if I’d actually choose to be depressed and overwhelmed.
What I needed in those moments was to set myself on fire. Not in the literal sense, of course, but I needed to let myself be engulfed in flames. I fought against my invisible foes for so long that my energy got completely drained, but I didn’t realize—not for a long time—that it’s okay to be overwhelmed. It’s okay to feel negative emotions, even though people around me sometimes might want to make me think otherwise. It’s okay to feel depression and pressure lick my sides with long tongues of fire.
Why? Because the human spirit is a phoenix. All mythological creatures are based on some truth or human understanding. A unicorn is just a magical horse given properties humans find alluring. A mermaid is half person, half fish, appealing to the parts of us that want to explore the mysterious depths of the ocean. Phoenixes are birds that can be reborn—and what human being doesn’t want that kind of resilience?
From the ashes of my former self I would start again, time after time. For a while I would feel raw and vulnerable—too small for a world that loomed larger every day—but in the coming days and weeks, I would start to grow feathers. Beautiful ones, in the most vibrant hues of red and gold. I would gain strength I never knew I had and marvel at the fact that I had once caught fire—that I had once thought life could never be anything other than the war I fought inside myself.
There’s nothing glamorous about a burning day; it’s a tear-streaked face, trembling hands, echoing isolation that hurts as much as any flame. It’s messy and terrifying and means letting go of control, but it’s necessary. Without the flames, there’s no rebirth.
When you’re nearing a burning day, it’s hard to remember or believe that you can start over and become stronger from the experience. In order to keep a reminder for myself, I got a tattoo of a phoenix (of Fawkes, to be specific) on the inside of my right forearm.
Last week when I had to have my heart chemically stopped in the hospital, the nurse commented on my tattoo as she was putting the IV in between the tips of the phoenix’s wings. “It’s really beautiful.”
I knew that it was a burning day and that the flames were about to wrap around me, so I gave her a short explanation of the tattoo’s meaning and said, “You’re gonna see me crawl out from a pile of ashes soon, but I’m gonna look like that bird some day.”
Maybe she thought it was crazy—that they had given me a sedative or something—but I think somehow she understood. I think we all understand the idea of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” but I like the philosophy of the phoenix because it emphasizes the cyclical nature of life in general.
There will be burning days. At certain points in life, you will be consumed with negativity—some kind of tragedy or overburdening or anxiety. You will reach those pinnacles when you can’t imagine things ever feeling differently or the sun shining through the windows of your soul again. You will scream and cry and swear at God for putting you through it, but when the flames subside and you’re born again, you’ll grow into your feathers and realize that you’re a goddamn phoenix.
The human spirit is a phoenix, constantly being reborn and transformed and reinforced, and there’s nothing more life-affirming—or badass—than that.