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Skeleton Woman & the Death of Desire


About a month ago I began a deep grieving process...I would wake up sobbing, feeling empty, and unclear why I was so upset. It felt I was underwater gasping for air or something to bring me back to life. It took me weeks to realize what I was mourning--the death of my own desire.

It happened so slowly that I didn't realize it had desire died over many years and decades. I began to lose my appetite not just for food, but for everything. I had ambition, but it was driven by survival, not pleasure. My desire instead covered up layer by layer by others' wants and needs. I ate sugar or comfort foods when I wanted a loving word or touch instead. I carried heavy things alone to avoid simply asking for help. I drowned in my own fear of vulnerability.

Then one day I woke up ravenous. Ravenous for all the things I haven’t allowed myself to want or ask for. For all the times I have wanted someone or something and instead of moving towards my own yearnings--I moved away. For the moments I pretended to be satiated with trails of breadcrumbs when I was still hungry. Now my thirst for more had become a wave of grief.

The truth is I don't know of many things as vulnerable as desire. Being with desire means revealing more than I sometimes even know about myself, so I dissolve away from it and talk myself out of the very things I want most. It's easier to let other people’s desires become my own than to reveal mine, then I can hide behind their yearnings and keep my soul safe.

"One must desire something to be alive."

Margaret Deland

The past few weeks have been a deep uncovering practice of my own desire…mourning the times I have been unclear with myself and therefore others. When I wanted to move more slowly, instead of being forced forward. When I wanted more money and instead settled for what I was given. When I wanted to be adored and taken on dates instead of being friends or a one-time hook-up. I mentally know nothing has to be done with desire…but the moments I don't even give it a chance to request on our own behalf, bring me closer to death.

In Sigmund Freud's 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle he described two main drives: Eros and Thanatos. Eros was the life instinct that included sexual desires as well as thirst and hunger while Thanatos was the death drive. Thanatos puts us in contact with negative feelings and destruction and counterbalanced Eros with an opposing force away from love and life. Both Eros and Thanatos exist in our own psyche and I experience them both in desire.

At the time there was a guy I desired so much that I avoided him until the last day of the retreat. That was 9 years ago and it has been much longer than that have avoided wanting someone or something. Desire energizes me with life force while simultaneously brings up sadness and the fear of not getting what I want...or perhaps getting what I want only to realize it wasn't the right track. Desire is unknown and uncontained, the mystery of the soul's yearnings may bring us face-to-face with parts of ourselves we aren't yet ready to meet.

Mark Epstein in his book Open to Desire speaks to my own experience of this beautifully:

"Anxiety and desire are two, often conflicting orientations to the unknown. Both are tilted toward the future. Desire implies a willingness, or a need, to engage this unknown, while anxiety suggests a fear of it. Desire takes one out of oneself into the possibility or relationship, but it also takes one deeper into oneself. Anxiety turns one back on oneself, but only onto the self that is already known."

-Mark Epstein

However, I disagree with Mark (I don't know why I just used his first name), because I think anxiety is a response to desire. So too would be over thinking or avoidance. In any case the desire becomes suppressed or dies.


My life has become a warning for what happens when we let desire die--we begin our own painful death hoping for a resuscitation of sorts. Perhaps no story I have ever heard speaks to this more than Skeleton Woman from Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. While in the book, the story examines Skeleton Woman through the lens of about Life-Death-Life cycles of relationships and emulates Freud's Eros and Thanatos, to me the symbology speaks instead to our own life force and its relationship to desire. Because once we have something, desire dies just as when we don't follow it and if we don't cultivate it again...we sink to the bottom of watery underworld realms--like Skeleton Woman.

Skeleton Woman with a woman similar to Sedna begins, who had done something her father disapproved of and was thrown over the cliffs into the sea. She drowned and fish plucked out her eyes and ate her flesh, leaving her bones to turn in the tides. One day a fisherman came to the area and his hook caught in her ribs and he imagined a large fish while she thrashed attempting to release herself only to become more entangled. As he saw her bald skeleton head and teeth clutching the back of his kayak, his "heart fell into his knees." He was hoping for a large fish to feed many and instead he was afraid and began paddling a way only Skeleton Woman was attached to his line and "appeared to stand on her toes chasing him."

He reached land and continued running in fear only she followed attached to his fishing stick. And as she bumped along she ate some of the fish he caught "for she had not gorged in a long, long time." Then the fisherman dive into his snow house and thanks Sedna for this safety and as he lights his whale oil lamp sees her there with him on the floor all tangled up. Something changes in him, with the lighting or that his own loneliness set in. For whatever reason he speaks to her sweetly and untangles her limbs from the fishing line. After she is untangled he covers her with fur blankets and lights a fire.

Skeleton Woman watches him in silence out of fear he will return her to the ocean and throw her again over the cliffs. She lie quiet while the man sleeps and suddenly a tear comes down his face. She becomes so thirsty she crawls over and drinks his tear, and only one satiates her many year fast. Then she curls up next to him and reaches inside him taking his heart, to which she begins using like a drum and singing "Flesh, flesh, flesh." And she sang her body become filled again with flesh and her hair returned and her breasts, and eyes, and "the divide between her legs." After she was done, she sang off the man's clothes and laid next to him skin to skin and returned his heart. They woke up entangled in a new way and the story ends explaining that they were well-fed and they don't remember her initial ill-will.


This story has always made me cry no matter how many times I read it or share it in a Wild Woman & Wolves group. It does what myth is supposed to do, remind us of pieces of ourselves calling for healing and integration. I feel my own inner Skeleton Woman who feels left at the bottom of the ocean as a remnant of who she used to be. No longer a luscious head of hair, a bit more emaciated and lackluster. Sometimes this part of me is brought up from the ocean and she is terrifying...too much for myself or mortal men because her hunger can be scary. Sometimes I have been the fisherman afraid of my own desire though on the hunt for nourishment. Other times I am helpless at the bottom of the ocean pulled by a force unbeknownst to me, perhaps desire itself. On a rare occasion I or someone else is willing to untangle the pieces and warm the soul with words or song with me, otherwise I quickly become overwhelmed and flooded only to return to the bottom of the sea.

If the untangling happens, I keep quiet, careful not to ask for anything I want out of fear of rejection. I hold back often until the hunger overwhelms me and I glance an opening...a tear. A symbol of softness that quenches my thirst for more than the fish I can snag on a line as I am carried away. The bit of water nourishes me enough to find my own needs again. Then I take the heart into my own hands, I reach farther and more boldly for love. I claim something that I want and I listen to the heartbeat drum for openness and availability.

Then I become fully me, filled out with hips and breasts, no longer hungry for more. Then I sit naked, vulnerable with my desire unclothed and unveiled with enough love nourishment for us both without needing to return to the bottom to find out why.


It isn’t so simple to say my desire was repressed or oppressed…there are varying degrees of what that looks like for different people. For some the repression is an overthinking, for others it’s a disassociation, for others a rejection or judgment. Mine has been all of them and I don't need to go down into the bottom of the ocean to know why it left. She too forgets in the myth.

I know my story isn’t new or different, it’s unfortunately something many struggle with, but it’s one I haven’t wanted to really tell myself or others. If desire is vulnerable, then what is writing about it?;) Slowly but surely Eros and desire return to me in sparks and flashes, I feed the flames of my desire as best I can and wait for the hunger to subside as I am pulled up out of the ocean. Perhaps love itself catching me under the rib and guiding me to a kind hunter. Or my unconscious hooking me with fate to move forward. I may not fully be on land yet, but I am nibbling on things as I find my way and utilizing desire as my compass.

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