From time to time, I’ll get an email from a reader who is not in a good place. It is almost universally a case where she tells me her life looks great from the outside – shiny and happy – but she is in trouble. She is going through each day, being productive, crossing all of the things off all of the lists – being a mom, a wife, a girlfriend, a friend. A doer and a giver. She is frequently a pillar of the community – a caregiver, teacher, nurse, student, coach. She moves through her day, she smiles. She asks you, How are YOU doing?
Her outside, the face she shows to the world, looks GREAT.
But if you were to really look you might see the cracks. You might notice that the bones in her wrists coming out of the oversized sweater might be just a little too pronounced. You might think- “WOW! I need to find out what diet she’s on!” Or you might see her on the elliptical at the gym at a pace that seems almost manic, and think, “I wish I had that commitment.” If you came upon her in the locker room and caught her unaware, you might catch a glimpse of criss-cross scars, shiny and feathered across her belly or her thighs, maybe an angrier, more recent one. I don’t know though, she’s pretty careful. If you were standing quite close to her you might pick up on the fact that her eyebrows were mostly drawn in with pencil and take note of the fact that you’re pretty sure that wasn’t always the case.
Our brains are miraculous. They really are. The more I talk to people, women in particular, the more I know that our pain will find a way to make itself known. As William Shakespeare put it,
“The truth will out.”
I believe that when we are in such dark, low places and the way we feel in our hearts and souls is at odds with the face we show the world, our brains find a way to make our outsides better match our insides.
I had this photo as my profile picture for a while. People always comment on what a good photo it is, but that’s not why I trot it out from time to time.
The day this picture was taken was one of the worst days of my life. I won’t get into why because it honestly doesn’t matter anymore. I was in the gorgeous backyard of my dream house, I had my two beloved dogs, including our newly adopted old lady dog, CJ. I was wearing a cute new outfit, the sun was shining and I had a big smile on my face.
And I was dying.
I hadn’t slept in I don’t know how long. I was almost surely hung over. The makeup concealed dark circles under my eyes. I was wasting away. At that point, I’d probably dropped about 25 pounds in two months. The new outfit was purchased because my clothes were falling off my body. The new dog, who was an angel, was a great decision made for terrible reasons. A distraction, a band-aid on a bullet wound.
I was in serious trouble. I needed so much help.
But I was thin and I had nice clothes and a beautiful house. I had a successful husband and I was a PTA fixture. All of the messed up metrics that we use to measure well-being said I was okay. And if you’d asked me, I’d have chirped, “I’m fine! How are YOU?????” Deflect, deflect, deflect.
My veneer of “fine-ness” was paper thin but it looked cute and made people comfortable.
If you are not fine and are exacting some measured punishment on yourself to try and control the pain, if you are trying to disappear or hustle or numb, this is for you.
The rage and grief and pain need a way to come out. You’ve tried the other methods. You’ve scratched and sliced your skin to feel the manageable sting, you’ve felt the surge of control when you deny yourself food until you see spots. You’ve bumped the acceptable hour at which to have a cocktail earlier and earlier. You’ve stayed up night after night until you are so tired you feel outside of your own body.
It works for a while, that’s the thing. It gives you the illusion that you are handling it. You’re not, though, my love. You are doing the only thing your brain knows to do, at this point. You are sending out clues whether you know it or not. Your drinking and starving and cutting and hustling are all desperate flares in the night – the problem is, not everyone understands the signals, or can be bothered to decode the messages.
I know. You’re thinking, “Better the pain I can control.” Here’s the thing friends, there is so much help to be had if you will just reach out for it. If you will find someone or someplace safe to out yourself. I think we’re not entwined in each other’s lives enough anymore to be able to count on someone knowing when one of our community is fighting for their lives. Actually, too often, we don’t even HAVE community anymore.
This past June I stopped hustling. I sat still for the pain. I allowed myself to feel it. I let it wash over me and I sat with it. I picked it up and turned it around in my hands. Examined it, held it close to me. Embraced it and then let it go.
It was as bad as I thought it would be. But then the unexpected happened. I lay it down and it stayed down. It’s still near me. I’m still aware of it. It’s separate from me, though. It’s only mine to carry now if I make the decision to pick it back up.
I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. I DIDN’T think it was possible. It is.
I read something once about this woman, a midwife. She was talking about how we do such an awful job preparing women for childbirth – especially in this country. We either terrify them and convince they cannot possibly do what women have been doing since the beginning of time without massive intervention, or we paint a rainbows and unicorns picture that does nothing to prepare them for what they are about to go through.
She takes a different approach. She said she says the same thing to all of her clients. “You going to have to be brave.”
You’re going to have to be a little brave. If you are going to get to a place where you can lay down the dark and heavy things that are keeping you from being who you were made to be, you are going to have to be a little brave – but we already know how brave you are.
You can do this. You can stop hurting yourself. You can reach back to that little girl or boy, the one who found ways – even if they were ultimately self-destructive – to survive. You can say goodbye to the voluntary pain, to the distraction of the self-imposed wounds, and get to work on the thing. The thing you’ve been avoiding. The thing you’ve been dancing around.
The REAL thing. The original pain. Your darkness.
You can say, “Hello, old friend. Sit with me a while before you leave.” And it will settle on you, dark and heavy. You will feel its weight, pressing. You will fight the urge to struggle, to run, to manage it. You will sit with the pain, and you will grieve the loss.
And then, acknowledged, it will lift. Bit by bit. Grudgingly, perhaps. But with patience, and love, and a helping hand, it will go.
And then, sweet friend, you will rise.