For more years than I’d like to admit I worked hard to make myself small, to get through life on the fringes of awareness. I have tried and then tried again to find ways to avoid myself, to dilute my power, to circumvent my truth. For years I numbed myself out with masochistic love affairs, exercise, isolation and on and on.
I wasn’t always this way. I remember when I was a kid having this unshakable sense of self. I knew, deep in my bones, who I was and I didn’t question her power. Never did I doubt her.
In my memory it feels like it was instantaneous; I can even remember where in my childhood home I was standing when I had this thought, this tiny kernel of doubt that I had never thought to wonder prior to this moment.
“What if you aren’t good enough?”
I was 16 years old. Doubt, shame, and fear crept in and blindsided me. I was caught flat footed. I see now that it wasn’t so sudden after all, even though my memory has it as such. This intersection was the accumulation of a multitude of forces converging to create this existential shift. Age, gender, family dynamics, puberty, etc. all culminated at this period of time in my life to yield this crisis of confidence, which rattled me for a decade or more.
At nearly 44 I am so grateful that this shift happened; it was the spark that fueled a decades long journey of self-actualization. But it was also so painful. And it was lonely, even though I knew intellectually that I had some pillars of connection that kept me tethered to earth.
I was lonely because I had lost myself; I had lost this core connection to myself. I no longer knew my own worth. In the years that followed that buoy grew distant and drifted far from my grasp. For the most part, I could always see it off in the distance, I kept my eye on it even in the worst of times. I spent many years wishing I could just go back to that time when I was ignorantly blissful and full of childlike charm and charisma. I had to grieve that going backwards is never an option and even if I could time travel and meet that 15-year-old me again, she would no longer serve my needs. I’d outgrown her and somewhere down deep I knew I had to let her go. I watched her drift further and further away from me, like a train pulling out of the station growing smaller and smaller as she was transported to my past.
I want to be clear about something- these wounds were/are invisible. I looked and appeared and, on some level, I was/am very “high functioning.” Anyone who is thinking “oh she had a major depressive episode” isn’t correct. That’s too simple. It’s cheap. And now as a shrink, I know it’s lazy too. It lacks curiosity. It lacks depth. I wasn’t depressed, although I suppose I ticked all the right buzz words. But I was suffering and I was searching. I was desperately searching for comfort, for belonging, for a sense of anchoring and purpose. This searching ultimately brought me back to myself, but the road was long, winding, self-destructive, and I was reckless with others hearts too. I hurt people along the way. I let people down. I can think of at least two hearts that I just demolished. Three if you count my own.
But I can tell you now, with certainty, not in some academic way, nor as a shrink, but as a human, the times in my life when I have been at rock bottom have taught me lessons that no mountain top can ever reveal.
It’s not an exaggeration when I say that almost everything I use clinically has come from that journey of self-doubt, from that tiny seed that sprouted like a weed and sent me searching for myself. I’ve been at this gig, being a therapist for a lot of years now. More than twenty-five if we count my undergrad degree. I guess this is what the phrase middle age means; I am half way between starting and ending my career (and life), assuming I am one of the lucky ones who gets to grow old in this borrowed body I call home. In those twenty-five years I have worked with a lot of different people, in a lot of different settings and here is what I tell every person that has the courage to sit across from me on that couch:
I know this is not easy; and I know this is not complex. It’s deceptively uncomplicated.
I know that if you can’t sit still in your own skin and bones, long enough to grieve, to listen, to be uncomfortable, you will spend the rest of your life trying to outrun your shadow.
I know that if you continue to look outside yourself for your sources of motivation, security, answers, you name it, you will search endlessly for solutions that evaporate as soon as you get too close.
I know that if you can’t stand the company you keep when you are totally alone, you will never feel secure in the skeleton you inhabit.
I know that if you blame others for your lot in life and deflect responsibility for your actions you will end up lonely and isolated in a prison of your own making.
I know that I have now sat for decades in the company of others, all of whom were also lost and searching, and that no matter their lot in life, we are, at our core, more similar than not.
I know that money can’t buy your way out of the human condition; it’s not for sale; there is no app; you can’t upload the fix. I’ve seen people use wealth and affluence to try and outrun this truth. I’ve seen people use youth and beauty and sex to try and trick it. I’ve seen people try to numb it, shut it up, close it out, starve it, carve it, and shame it. Still it comes back for more.
I know that this will control you, hold you in its orbit, spinning endlessly repeating patterns of your past until you learn the lesson.
I know that pain is our ultimate teacher; it’s our spirit guide; it’s a primal mode of conversation with our self. I know that if you keep ignoring it, it will grow louder and louder.
I know that love and partnership can provide salve but he/she can’t fix this either. You can’t hide from this. You can’t simply love it away. You can’t think enough positive thoughts to make this not true.
I know this comes down to you against you.
I Know you want me to have a magic pill, or some kind of rabbit to pull out of my hat.
I know that an out stretched palm, tender with compassion has always taught me more than a stern finger wagging in my face.
This is an outstretched palm. This is an invitation.
I know you can do this.
I’m rooting for you.