The Transformation of the Fat Girl


transformation

“If you’ve been fat, you will always feel and see the world as a fat person; you know how difficult it is… It’s the same coming from a working-class background… it never leaves you.”
― Caitlin Moran, Moranthology

Living my life as a fat person has been the hardest of all the challenges I have encountered. Overcoming emotional abuse and the dysfunctions of my childhood pale in comparison to my struggles of self-acceptance and finding a place of self-love that transcends what I look like. My existence has been marked by a shame spiral that circulates between my humiliation over my weight and the weight of the shame that holds me back from tackling my problem. My strategy has been to overcompensate for my largesse by trying to distract people from really seeing me. Humor and intelligence, accomplishments and pleasing are some of the sharpest tools in my bag of tricks. Yet, every day I have looked in the mirror and focused in on my fears about what people would see and how what they see might influence how they perceive me. My goal was always to find a plan to shield them from what I internalized as ugliness. What looks back in the mirror at me is viewed, by me, as an abnormality – a misfit who is unacceptable and, surely, unworthy of love. When I reflect on all the struggles throughout my life and the darkness that has lurked so deep within me, I know the truth is that my weight helps to keep perpetuating the pain and reinforcing the message that I have been running to escape – no one will love me.

This is not a new story for me but, like everything else in my life, it has shifted as my life has evolved. As we work through our challenges and commit to improvements, we have to keep diving deeper to study the roots of our emotional baggage. There are layers of experiences and pain that have resulted in our current selves and, sometimes, what looks to be the source matter is, in fact, just a projection, distracting us from the more painful reality that is out of our reach. My relationship with myself and my journey of self-acceptance has finally led me to here and now I have the space to explore this deep and secluded area of myself. All the work I have done to move past the traumas and deep scarring pain has led me to this place. I know, with certainty, that this is the final frontier and truly the last piece of the puzzle for me. Around the corner, I can see peace and love and acceptance but first I need to confront the darkest core of my soul and unlock the safe where I keep all the shame that plagues me.

Despite all of the unpleasantries that have marked my difficult life, my weight has, hands down, caused me the most pain and has most held me back from being the person I always believed I could be. That simple acknowledgement causes me even more shame and discomfort because it feels like failure. Hiding behind my weight feels like I’m using a lame excuse to cloak and protect myself from the heavy lifting required to live an authentic life. So, when I decided to write this blog, I had to be metaphorically ready to stand in the middle of Times Square, fully naked, with the words “I am fat” tattooed across my stomach. And I had to be comfortable with everything that came along with that. Alright then. Here I stand. And, for the record, I am really not comfortable at all. Give me what you’ve got. I can take it as it is all part of the process.

To be clear, I have travelled a long road to where I am today and I’m confident that I’m close to reaching a destination that feels awfully good but, in order to get through the final leg of this journey and ensure my admittance to the Emerald City, I need to confront the truths of how I got to where I was. I have had to burrow down a bit further to understand the roots of my weight issues. And, most importantly, I have to step out into the light and acknowledge who I have been and who I am becoming today.

I had a deeply traumatic childhood, riddled with emotional abuse and abandonment. Food served as an emotional pacifier for me, providing a salve for my wounds and serving as a stand-in for the love that was so painfully withheld. I can intellectually lay that out on the table and I grieve for that young girl who was so tortured as she sneakily comforted herself with cake and cookies. The most distant element of my battle – the part I struggle to wrap my brain around – is the emotional understanding that would afford me a level of self-acceptance. For me, while the truths behind my addiction to food are abundantly clear, there has been no absorption of this deep in my psyche and I have continued to abuse myself by reinforcing the disappointment and shame. Over the years, I have read stories about people who have lost large amounts of weight, only to swiftly gain the weight back because they never addressed the underlying pain that resulted in them gaining or maintaining their excessive weight. They were incapable of making the mental adjustments necessary to see themselves as anything but the overweight person they were. For me, being fat is what I know. It is, quite frankly, synonymous with me. I cannot imagine a world where I am not a fat person. Yet, for the first time in my 48 years of life, that might be the case.

I have had a private and dysfunctional relationship with food. Food has been my best friend and worst enemy. I am not one of those people who loves to eat but, instead, I eat to soothe. For me, eating has always been a private affair. I would eat late at night or when no one was looking. Even after I was married, I would quietly slip downstairs after my husband was asleep and pour myself a bowl of cereal or fill a large bowl with ice cream and tiptoe back upstairs, eating the food quietly, hoping my husband would not wake up and find me.  Or, I would wrap a sleeve of cookies into a napkin and pour a glass of milk, feeling my anxiety and sadness slip away as the sugar made its way into my bloodstream. This was my heroin. I could numb myself standing in the darkness of my nighttime kitchen, flooded by the light of the open refrigerator, shoving leftovers into my mouth, silently hating myself with each bite. I would lay in bed at night thinking only of the food that called out to me from downstairs.  I needed to fill the bullet holes left behind from the massive assault I experienced throughout my childhood and young adult years. Food was a bandage that stopped the bleeding but, of course, couldn’t ward off the infection that was inevitable for I never dealt with the underlying disease. What has been hard for me to accept and absorb is that, as I grew older, I was creating more holes by repeating this cycle. No one was hurting me anymore except for me.  Food became my drug of choice and my weight became my weapon of choice.

Alarmingly, my food addiction and associated weight issues became a comfortable place and I used them as a way to distance myself from the rest of the world. Despite my desire to have intimacy and close relationships, I spent my life living life on the fringe, withholding myself from others.  I could more easily tolerate my disruptive upbringing by letting my weight be what distanced me from the rest of the world. Being fat meant that I lived outside of the mainstream and I didn’t have to address the loneliness left from the abandonment and loss of family. When I struggled with dating when I was younger, I would always blame it on my size. All I could see was an ugly girl who grew into an even uglier woman. I believed what my mother and sister told me for years (as an encouragement to lose weight) that no man would ever date me if I was fat. Instead of looking at my emotional dysfunction, I would focus my disappointment on my weight and neatly distance myself from the realities of having to engage in an emotionally mature relationship. While I can never deny that living outside of the lines of conventional beauty is challenging, I never had the emotional maturity to understand that I had the ability to emanate beauty from a different place and could attract love just as easily as my more traditionally attractive friends. Instead, even when I met my husband, I quickly attempted to pawn him off on my more attractive friends because I never believed he could sustain an attraction or love towards me because I didn’t fit the part. I was really fucked up. Focusing on the fat meant I never needed to zero in on the truths that I was too scared to face which was that I wasn’t sure if I could emotionally endure an intimate relationship with anyone.

“Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of fucking yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren’t indulging in the “luxury” of their addiction making them useless, chaotic, or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that’s why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice. All the quietly eating mums. All the KitKats in office drawers. All the unhappy moments, late at night, caught only in the fridge light.”
― Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman

I have often believed that it was some type of miracle that afforded me the opportunity to secure myself a husband and, rather than using that as evidence of my worthiness, my self loathing deepened even more over the years. As a result, I found myself moving further away from a sense of normalcy and deeper into a dark cave of loneliness and depression, padded with humiliation. Over the past 25 years I have gained and lost weight, never achieving any significant results and, like most yo-yo dieters, adding more weight in the end.  I would secretly attend Weight Watchers meetings or try fad diets, never admitting to anyone what I was doing. There was some twisted part of me that believed if I never told anyone that I was on a diet, they wouldn’t notice that I needed to be. While all I saw was fat and all I believed that anyone else ever saw was fat, I worked tirelessly to hide it.  My life was a costume party with me donning disguises to mask the truth. I think I was the only one I was fooling.

I endured myriad struggles. I could never really shop with my friends.  I’d go to stores and pretend that nothing was of interest to me and then secretly shop on my own. I could never admit that I was relegated to the plus size departments. Shame. No one could ever know my size. Shame. Perhaps the most humiliating experience came when I should have felt most beautiful. After I was engaged, my girlfriends wanted to shop with me for my wedding dress and all I could think was how dreadful that seemed. I couldn’t bear them knowing the truth about my size. I was dying on the inside as the seamstress took my measurements and announced to the group that I would need a size 18 dress. There was no place for me to hide and I averted their eyes in fear that they would judge me. It has taken me a long time to understand that my real fear was that they would stop loving me because I secretly believed that my weight was to blame for my family’s lack of acceptance of who I was. So much bigness wrapped up in that small little word. FAT.

When I was pregnant, I struggled to find maternity clothes in my size. I found plus size shops and purchased whatever I could find to fit my rapidly growing body. I was disappointed to not have the cute outfits I saw my friends wearing and tried to create looks that would emulate theirs. During my pregnancies I couldn’t wait until my stomach got so large that there was no question as to whether or not I was just that fat or, in fact, I had a baby in my belly. I never experienced that exuberance of “popping” like so many of my girlfriends did.  Well, I knew that I had popped but it was months before anyone could see the protrusion of my uterus beyond my otherwise thick belly.

“We fatties have a bond, dude. It’s like a secret society. We got all kinds of shit you don’t know about. Handshakes, special fat people dances-we got these secret fugging lairs in the center of the earth and we go down there in the middle of the night when all the skinny kids are sleeping and eat cake and friend chicken and shit. Why d’you think Hollis is still sleeping, kafir? Because we were up all night in the secret lair injecting butter frosting into our veins. …A fatty trusts another fatty.
― John Green, An Abundance of Katherines

To further cover myself, I often avoided hanging around other fat people, choosing instead to surround myself with the most attractive people I could find. I had this twisted perception that I would stand out less as the one fat person in the group because I would be overshadowed by all the beautiful people. It felt like I could become invisible in this group. This served to be an even more painful version of torture because it was a constant reminder of how much I was not like those around me. All I focused on was what people looked like and I berated myself for not being able to look “normal.” I moved so far away from the core of who I am and neglected the parts of me that most needed my love. The recording in my mind was repeating hatred and disgust, pushing me further and further down. And, even worse, my existence became even more solitary because I never had anyone with whom to share my struggle. When I was finally ready to confront my truth, I realized that no one around me really understood my challenges or could relate to what I was going through. I had distanced myself from anyone who looked like me and stood alone. No one I knew understood what it meant to have this branding from early in their life. No one shared my identity that was marked by only one characteristic – FAT. When I was finally ready to broach the subject, I didn’t know how to openly discuss my feelings about my size. So, the first time I publicly confronted these emotions was about two years ago in my blog. To an anonymous audience, I revealed the secret truth about how I looked at myself and, for the first time, acknowledged how much my weight influenced how I traveled in the world.

In the beginning of 2011, I hit bottom. I am not sure how much I weighed at the time but I know I had ballooned past 280 lbs. (When I weighed myself for the first time after I started working out, that became my starting point. Yet, I’m fairly certain I hit a mark closer to 300 lbs., which is painful to even acknowledge today). I recognized that something had to change but I was so very lost. I’ve shared before that, sort of by accident, I began a journey of transformation. The universe led me to what I needed right then and I first found a pathway to fitness. At the time, while I had no diagnosable illnesses such as diabetes or hypertension, I could barely walk down the stairs in the morning because of the pain in my knees and my feet. I struggled to get myself out of bed in the morning because even sitting up was difficult and walking up a flight of stairs was overwhelming. I was in denial and frightened about my future. On a drunken dare, I began kickboxing, finding the courage somewhere deep inside me to make myself vulnerable and show up in a way very different than I had ever done before. Fitness and exercise became a fundamental part of my life for the first time ever. But the underlying issues were never addressed. Within a year, I had lost 50 lbs. and started to see myself in a whole new way. My body began morphing into something different but I was still emotionally eating. I was like so many of the people that I read about. And, sure enough, about a year later, after an injury, I was not able to exercise regularly and the weight started piling back on. And within another year, I had gained back 25 lbs. of the weight I had worked so hard to lose. I was free-falling back towards a place I swore I would never return to. After feeling such great accomplishment, I was awash in a new level of embarrassment and disappointment in myself.

Like most of us, I have watched people on television or read magazine articles about people who have managed to have success with extreme weight loss. I’ve always paid attention to these stories looking to identify their secret. What changed for them? How did they finally find the willpower and discipline to change their lives? What I realized is that no one can ever explain the shift that takes place in your brain when you are ready to change your life. It just happens and you know it. And then you have to be ready to endure it. No one rolls out the red carpet for you, enabling you to strut your way to transformation. You don’t reach the end of the line, walking past the black rope in a new body. You trip and fall and get back up and cry and struggle and breakthrough lots of pain. And then, if you have managed to endure all of that and still have the discipline to stay the course, you might actually make it to the other side. In the late winter of 2015, the switch flipped in my head. I can’t exactly say why and I am not sure I will ever truly understand. Perhaps I was simply ready and had found the strength to look at myself for real for the first time. What I do know is that on March 1st I committed myself to being open and honest about the deep pain associated with my relationship with food and my self-loathing and I knew I was ready to really change my life. I started an emotional and physiological cleanse. I chronicled the journey in my blog, publicly sharing my battle with my weight and holding myself accountable to whomever might have been along for the ride. I started unpacking some very heavy bags and couldn’t help but notice the shifts occurring. The heavy weights that had been buried so deeply inside me were starting to melt away and, with them, the fat on the outside of my body disappeared too. After three weeks, I had shed 15 lbs. and, within months, I was down nearly 30.  I felt different and began to see glimmers of sunshine that had never made its way to my eyes before. In August, after maintaining my weight for a while, I decided to cleanse again, as if to exorcise any remaining demons. And, another 15 lbs. were gone. And then more. Today, I hit a milestone of 70 lbs. lost. I can actually see the end of this road in sight.

After my first cleanse ended in March, I sat with my best friend and shared small pieces of my struggle with him. It was the first time I had spoken so openly about my weight with him and he listened intently, aware that this was a breakthrough. In all of our deep discussions about the various elements of our lives, we had never touched this and he didn’t dare ask because, instinctively, he knew it was a place I was not ready to visit. This time, I told him that I was ready to tackle my issues head on and was committed to take control of my weight and find a place of self-acceptance, wherever that might be. I knew I would know it when I saw it. About a month ago, I sat in therapy and told my therapist (who, by the way, also acknowledged that I had not been very open about my weight battles) that I no longer feared that I would regain this weight. I implicitly knew that something had shifted inside me. I am no longer hiding. This shit is all out on the table. It doesn’t feel great but I know it is where I need to be.

This transformation process has been rough and emotionally challenging. Seeing my body become something I am not familiar with has been both wonderful and disruptive. I struggle to see what others see and often try to imagine how someone who meets me for the first time perceives me. I don’t think the first thing people see is the fat girl anymore. In fact, while I still have a ways to go before I will stop thinking of myself as overweight (and before the medical charts will stop referring to me as obese), I am not entirely certain that the rest of the world sees me as the fat person I once believed I was. My friend explained to me that he thinks I have rewritten my script so dramatically and have made so many other emotional and internal changes that how I show up is so very different than how my old self did. I am not hiding nor pretending to be someone else. I am living out loud and proudly strutting my peacock feathers. I feel bold and beautiful and, most of all, proud and confident. My arms are jiggly, my belly is saggy, my neck is wrinkly and my thighs will forever touch but I feel so good about myself. After covering my body for years when working out, I am now wearing tank tops and funky bottoms. I am coming out of the shadows and confidently showing up, less concerned about what others see. I want everyone to know my story. I need everyone to know my truth. My wish is that it will help another person come out of hiding and feel comfortable enough to confront their own truth.

And, something really remarkable happened to me last week. While, for most, it will not seem all that amazing or noteworthy, for me it was a truly incredible experience. I was out shopping with a friend and we walked into Banana Republic where I saw a jacket I liked. I tried it on, out in the open of the store, and it fit perfectly. I calmly walked up to the register to get in line to pay and, on the inside, I was doing a victory dance. Right there in the regular people’s department I found a jacket I loved. Just a plain old size Large. That was pretty cool. For the first time I can honestly say that I like being Large.

THE DEMONS


fighting demons“What we call our destiny is truly our character and that character can be altered. The knowledge that we are responsible for our actions and attitudes does not need to be discouraging, because it also means that we are free to change this destiny. One is not in bondage to the past, which has shaped our feelings, to race, inheritance, background. All this can be altered if we have the courage to examine how it formed us. We can alter the chemistry provided we have the courage to dissect the elements.” 
― Anaïs Nin

It’s that time of year again.  Time to do some serious self-reflection and evaluate your road map for the coming year.  And, while I typically reject the idea of new year’s resolutions, I cannot escape the reality that the chance to slow down, contemplate and think about your intentions is hugely beneficial right now.  I have fallen in step with everyone else and am using these last days of the year as an opportunity to engage in some reflection and try to understand where I am headed.  This year has been one where I have been in perpetual motion and have had little time to stop and think for long chunks of time.  My interactions with myself mostly occurred on plane trips, in the quiet of the evening in a hotel room or on the rare occasion that I had some quiet time at home in my office.  Mostly, I have struggled to take fragments of ideas that have floated around inside my head and tried to tape them together to create some formulations of ideas, understandings and evaluations of how my life has been transpiring.

2013 was a very tough year for me.  Unlike any other year it was not because I was facing constant adversity.  I was not battling the same forces that have been so prevalent in my life for most of my 46 years.  In fact, I came into the year with a sense of peace.  I felt that I had confronted so many demons last year and had built quite a nice size to pen to house them, allowing me to deal with them as needed rather than constantly braving the elements, putting on my armor and going to battle.  I believed I had wrestled some level of control over those aspects of my life that have perpetually challenged me.  And, as I am sure you are figuring out even as you read those words, my life did not follow the plan I had laid out.  What I failed to comprehend is that you only think you have controlled your demons.  You must spend a good deal of time staring them in the face, allowing them to spit their venom out at you and taking it over and over again.  You must confront them, not cage them or they will forever wreak havoc.  They will roar and growl and threaten you constantly.  Sometimes it is more quietly than other times but, until you are prepared to face them head on and tackle them to the ground, proving that you are no longer willing to play the victim to their antics, you run the risk of letting those demons break free.  And, when I say “you,”  I am, of course, referring to me.  No, this year my difficulties were different.  They came from within me.  I went to battle with myself this year.

I read a quote from Cory Booker today:  “Don’t stumble on something that is already behind you.”  Well, that assumes that you have put it and left it behind you.  Early this year, my best friend and I had one of our trademark discussions at a restaurant in Boston – one of the many I will reflect on this week as I conduct my self-assessment for the year.  We were talking about my writing and my ability to come to terms with many of the traumatic events of my early life.  His assessment was that I had to be ready to close the chapter before I would be able to get my story written.  I had to be ready to put it to rest, let go of it and move on.  Could I truly let go?  Was I really ready to move beyond my stuff and stop stumbling over it?  Intellectually, I have been more than ready for a long time.  Psychologically, I struggle. I still have more work to do there.  I’m not sure what I am holding on to and why but I know that my past is still very much a part of me and still exerts some level of control over my life.  I believe there is a reason but it might simply be because I am not ready to push forward.  I am afraid.  Who am I without my sad stories?  What happens when I lose my benchmark to measure how far I have come? Am I hanging on to my past as an excuse to not have to move ahead?

I walked away from our conversation feeling bad about myself.  I felt weak and powerless – and I know that was not my friend’s intention whatsoever.  He was trying to empower me to be strong, to help me find the courage to let go.  Instead, I beat myself up for not being brave enough to release myself, to stop holding myself hostage.  Now, as I think more about this so many months later, I understand that I have not been ready because I simply have not tackled the deeper problems.  I’ve put band aids on the surface wounds and  I am still being held hostage. Until I am ready to look my captors in the eye, accept the pain and learn how to unravel myself from their grip, I simply cannot move on.  I am not ready yet.  And that might just be ok.

Another quote that inspired me around this topic comes from my favorite self-improvement goddess, Brene Brown: “When perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun and fear is the annoying backseat driver.”  I was going to share that with a friend this week and decided to hold on to it for myself a bit longer.  I immediately thought about how this pertains to someone else’s life and had to digest it a whole lot more to realize that this is my story.  I am continually seeking perfectionism.  I am trying to be the most excellent patient who tackles a problem, overcomes, moves on and is magically all better.  I believe that if I don’t fix my shit then I am less than perfect.  I am not ok.  For me, the opposite of perfect is broken.  And, while I will say all day and all night that I know I am not perfect, I simply have not accepted that about myself.  I struggle to fully embrace my imperfections and allow them to be a part of who I am.  I am in a perpetual state of fixing and correcting and whiting out the mistakes in my life.  Sure, I learn from them and definitely make strides forward but I continually stumble and fall because I am not accepting of who I am as a deeply flawed but determined and inspired person.  I have shared a bit of my shame through this blog this year in hopes of releasing some of it but I still let fear drive me.

I spent 2013 in an intense battle of wills with myself.  And, in the process, I dragged some important people into the fight with me.  However, I’m not sure if I have any regrets around that.  Frankly, I’m not sure if I had any choice over the matter (there is the part where I am supposed to be forgiving of myself rather than blaming myself.  You see how that works?).  I spent a good deal of the year feeling guilty – hands down, my biggest vice.  Guilt corrupts me.  Guilt cripples me.  Guilt strips me of all the things that make me beautiful, wonderful and strong.  Guilt destroys my spirit.  And, I lived in a constant state of guilt.  I felt responsible for everything that went awry in my life and took on a preponderance of responsibility in any and all shortcomings in my relationships.  I did not have the courage to stand up to myself and have confidence to believe that I could trust those closest to me to let them know how I felt or what I believed.  I succumbed.  I caved.  I kept quiet.  I ate my heart out.  I suffered.  And, I did it all to myself.  Not one person in my life right now is someone I cannot trust.  I have pared my relationships down so carefully to ensure that I am surrounded by love and trust.  I have created an environment where I can be the best me. The only problem is that I am still part of the inner circle.  The one I trust the least.

Despite all of this, 2013 was also a phenomenal year.  All of this struggle led me to many extraordinary outcomes.  My relationships are stronger, deeper and more meaningful.  I have cried more than I have in the last several decades, meaning that I am allowing myself to feel my emotions.  I have exposed myself to levels of intimacy that at other points in my life would have been too frightening to attempt and I have survived and thrived.  I have learned so much, even if some of it has leveled me.  I have had professional success beyond my wildest dreams.  I could not imagine as this year started out that I would be where I sit today.  I did not have any images in my imagination, any crayons or paintbrushes that could illustrate this picture.  I am so truly grateful for it all, no matter how challenging, no matter how ugly some of the days looked.  The year flew by in a whirlwind yet I have such beautiful snapshots in my mind of those moments where things slowed down and magic happened.  I could spend days sharing all the wonderful stories.

Last week, I sat again with my best friend as we had our annual holiday celebration and we reflected on the year.  We discussed all the less-than-wonderful moments and talked about how much we had grown and how much we have learned about ourselves.  I sat for a moment, staring out at the window behind his head and thought about how different my life would have been had none of the events of the year occurred.  What if the struggles and challenges had been non-existent? It was a tantalizing thought because I think it would have been so much easier on me emotionally but I had to come back to the reality of my life.  I had to stop myself from fantasizing about a different existence. I had to, in that moment, accept myself for who I am.  I wanted to apologize for all the challenges we had faced and my contributions as a result of my own demons.  I stopped myself short.  I literally pulled the words back from my lips because I knew they were not appropriate and were completely unnecessary.  There was nothing to apologize for.  And, while I struggle to accept this, I acknowledged, just quietly to myself, that I am a whole package.  Good and bad.  Plusses and minuses.  Positives and negatives.  I am a complete being filled with a certain amount of chaos, a certain amount of crazy and a whole lot of love.  My friend sees that.  Me?  Not so much.

So, I still resolve not to resolve.  However, I am committed to facing the ugliness in myself and trying to go to the mat with it to move forward.  I am no longer looking to fix and stop the bleeding as much as I am trying to become more aware of those critters that continue to haunt me and control me, preventing me from being the best person I can be.  I will try to accept my imperfections and embrace growth and change.  My friend tells me that he loves my willingness and ability to accept feedback and act on it quickly and effectively.  Perhaps I need to give myself  a little constructive feedback rather than continue to beat myself to a pulp because, after all, those demons I am fighting are all really just me.

FEAR


diving boared“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

Today,  my younger son did something I had never dreamed imaginable.  He, without provocation from me or anyone else, volunteered to jump off the first tower of the platform diving boards at our community pool.  Now, this may not seem like a big deal to many other parents of 9 year-olds who hold their breath or close their eyes as their children deftly take on new challenges.  While I would never refer to him as cautious because he has a personality that is larger than life and he throws himself into the mix with his older brother and his friends, I would suggest that he is rather unadventurous.  With just about everything in his life, he avoids taking on anything new.  He will push the limits of anything that feels familiar to him but, rarely, does he willingly jump into unchartered waters. He sets defined limits on the risks he will take and handily manages to skirt through life avoiding the curves and finding a safe straightaway where he can drive really, really fast.

My son applies this principle to just about everything in his life and will explain to you, with conviction, why his logic makes sense and is appropriate.  He refuses to try new foods (although he recently, surprisingly, agreed to add cheese to his burgers) and, when forced, twists up his face with disdain before his taste buds are even remotely engaged to register any form of reaction to the food barely touching his tongue.  When we try to encourage him to take on a new activity, such as a sport other than the ones he has been playing for years (and feels relatively confident about), he politely says “no thank you, I’m good.” without even looking up from his handheld device.

This is not to say that he lives his life trapped inside a plastic bubble.  He plays sports (and is fairly skilled at those he plays) and is quite the popular kid at school.  He just comfortably sets his limits and sees no reason to reach beyond them.  He’s sort of like a crotchety old man who is set in his ways and will not be provoked to change.  I appreciate this about my son because, if I am being honest with myself, he is quite like I was at his age.  Except, of course, he has a million times more self-confidence than I did and doesn’t struggle with his decision to disengage around certain things – he has his mind made up and wavers only when he sees a legitimate reason to budge.  For me, my limits in life were self-imposed out of fear.  I was always afraid that I was not capable of doing things so I avoided them rather than step out of my comfort zone.  I refused to put myself into situations where I could not anticipate the outcome.  Even as a young girl in elementary school, I understood that I was different from other kids because I was chubby and awkward and did not have much athletic prowess.  Not only was it uncommon for girls in my school to play sports (and there were very limited options even if you wanted to), there was no one in my family encouraging me to do anything because it was not our culture.  No one in my family played sports or was particularly active – even my brother skipped Little League because my parents were too involved in their own lives to pay attention to him and give him that opportunity.  As a result, not only could I not turn a cart-wheel, I would never even dare try because the fear of failure was too overwhelming.

My son sees the world through a different lens.  His body is bigger than most kids his age and he has a harder time running fast and certainly is nowhere near as agile as most of his buddies.  But, this does not stop him.  He will still stand in front of the basketball hoop and jump up high trying to out dunk his big brother.  He believes he has the mad skills to do what it is he wants to do.  He just picks his battles and eliminates those areas that seem too far out of his reach.  While I was afraid and avoided humiliation and shame, his excuse is typically apathy and a bit of laziness.  Fear may come into play for certain things but he is certainly not afraid to make a fool of himself and, when he is ready to take something on, motivated by some unknown driver, he just does it without worrying about what others might think.  While I can relate to him on some level, I am truly in awe of him.

One of the greatest gifts of parenthood, for me, was the ability to see myself through a whole new lens.  Once that child is placed in your arms and is now in your care, your ego begins to shrink as you recognize there is something so much bigger than yourself that matters in the world.  Your needs are no longer primary and your fears often must be tossed aside to ensure that you can do whatever it is you need to do to love and protect this person that is now solely dependent on you for its care and safety.  Their outcome is in your hands and they come first.  For me, what this meant was that I could no longer indulge a lot of the anxiety I struggled with in my life.  It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own fears and limitations as a kid and begin to both liberate myself from them while trying to encourage my own children to embrace life and take on new challenges and experiences.  Amazingly, somewhere along the way a shift occurred for me.  A very powerful and meaningful shift that allowed me to gain courage and confidence from my children in order to tackle some new avenues for myself.  After I turned 40 and my children were now in elementary school and starting to become just a wee bit more independent, I saw some space in my life free up.  I had already spent close to a decade focusing steadfastly on ensuring that my children were given the right foundation to feel good about themselves, had confidence and security and could make bold choices for themselves as the opportunities arose.  I was determined to not have them live inside a bubble of fear that prevented them from believing in themselves, resulting in the paralysis that defined so much of my childhood.  For me, growing up, there was no climbing trees, no jumping in lakes, no hiking up hills.  I was afraid my body would not do what I needed it to do and that I would fail or get hurt, leaving me both physically and emotionally wounded.  Instead, I opted out and, like my son, suggested “no thanks, I’m good.”  But I really was not good.  I was always running scared.

In less than a week I will be 46 years old.  It is an overwhelming notion for me.  Suddenly, I can imagine myself turning 50.  I see myself as being as old as the parents of my friends growing up.  My older son is becoming a teenager this year and my sweet younger boy is turning double digits.  My life is half over and the first half is so distinctly branded by fear.  Fear has ruled my life, crippled me, caused me to avoid, disengage, disconnect, run away, hide out, lock up, look away, and, worst of all, fail to live.  Over the last few years I have noticed something happening in myself, probably as a result of my children giving me the space to fill with something new and my newfound confidence that comes with middle age.  Nowadays, I am looking at challenges and risks and I’m intrigued.  Where my life never involved adventure that included things like zip lines, hang gliding or kite boarding, these activities suddenly capture my attention.  I no longer worry that I am too awkward or too fat or simply incapable and am now curious about pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone to see what lies on the other side.  I am beginning to believe that my body, still chubby (and now way more jiggly), has strengths and capabilities that I have not dared to explore.  Because I know that I can count on me and don’t need to rely upon others to always hold me up, I trust that my body will be there to do what I need it to do when I need it to do it.  I believe that I have more strength that I ever dreamed possible.

Yesterday, on the 4th of July, one week before my 46th birthday, I tackled something I never imagined I could.  I ran a 5K.  This body pushed through incredible heat and humidity and crossed the finish line – dead last.  I did not run every step of the way but I ran more than I walked and I never gave up.  I was so far outside my comfort zone that I was afraid I would never find my way back.  And, frankly, I might have just thrown away the map back home because nothing has felt as good as the moment my sweaty and exhausted body stepped across the finish line.  For 45 years I have never competed in any athletic challenge for fear that I would lose or fail.  For 45 years I shut out the idea that I could push myself beyond my limits and still live to see another day.  Well, I survived and made it to today and feel great.  Yesterday, as I passed all the locals sitting on their porches or gathered on the curb to cheer on the runners, I raised my arms and yelled “It’s my first time!”  I was so proud and never once cared that I was the last one in the pack and was sure to be the last one to finish.  As I looked at the race clock when I was crossing the finish line, I saw my time at a little over 47 minutes and felt immense pride.  In my mind, I expected it to take an hour.  In my mind, I expected my lungs to give out, forcing me to walk the whole way.  In my mind, I feared humiliation as everyone saw my jiggly body that did not fit in with the other long and lean runners.  But, in reality, none of it mattered.  I ran the race, pushed myself to do the best that I could and I finished, feeling stronger and prouder and more determined than ever before.  I was supported by friends in the most amazing way (that is surely another blog post about the power of the people who come into your life when they do) and felt exhilaration that, if bottled, would make me a very rich woman.  And, I knew, for the first time, that I could do so much more than I ever dreamed possible.

Today, still high from yesterday’s accomplishments, I sat on the edge of the diving pool with my younger son as we watched the kids going off the tall towers.  His older brother had just accomplished the feat of jumping off the first tower last week, which surprised me but I sort of expected that he eventually would once all his friends pressured him enough.  I expected that my younger son, like me, would look at that tower and determine it was not worth the risk.  It was not a required goal.  Instead, he looked at me and asked me if I thought he should give it a try.  That was a no brainer.  I encouraged him to do it and he hesitated, suggesting that perhaps he would another day.  Then, as the life guards called last call for the towers, he yelled across to his older brother and said” Will you go with me?”  My older son enthusiastically nodded and prodded his brother just a little bit.  They got on the long line which I feared would give my son enough time to turn around and rejoin me at the side of the pool but, instead, he hung in.  He climbed the ladder, determined and, when he reached the top, I held my face in my hands, worried that he might get hurt or, worse, might chicken out and take the walk of shame back down the ladder.  But not my son.  He now had his mind made up and he took his little chubby body to the edge of the platform and, without hesitation, jumped and did the most glorious belly flop into the ice-cold pool.  And, right then, my excitement and exhilaration topped the feeling I felt when my feet crossed the 5K finish.  I was proud and thrilled because I knew that my son, at the ripe old age of 9, was overcoming his own fears – way ahead of schedule.

MISFIT


being an outsiderDespite all the pain I have endured in my life, dealing with my dysfunctional family, trying to piece together a life that is built on something more than a foundation of quicksand, the aspect of my life that has caused me the most sadness, the most conflict and the most torture is my weight.

I rarely talk about my weight unless it is focused on my doing something positive around it.  Last year I lost 50 lbs and I talked bravely and boldly about my efforts to get there.  I chronicled my efforts with kickboxing and karate and how it helped me to reshape myself.  I developed a new level of confidence and became empowered as I saw my body transforming to something I had never seen before.  With all that, however, I never tackled the underlying issues that I have faced for almost my entire life pertaining to weight, body image, food and self-loathing.  I ended up going to kickboxing because it was yet another attempt to shed pounds and prevent myself from falling off a cliff into obesity.  My weight had spiraled out of control.  I was heavier than I had ever been in my life.  I was miserable, hated myself and simply did not know what to do.  By the grace of God, I was turned on to kickboxing and it helped me to jumpstart my efforts to begin to shed the weight that I had carried around for far too long.  But that was only the tip of the iceberg.  I went down several clothing sizes and liked what I saw in the mirror so much more than what was there before.  I developed a new sense of confidence but the fat girl still lives inside me.  The girl who has been fat since forever still looks back at me in the mirror every morning.  Of course she does.  I still have a long way to go.  I am, by no means, even close to where I want or need to be and, in truth, I fear that the little girl who was tortured for most of her childhood about how ugly and fat she was, will never be able to break free from this prison.

I recently had a little bit of an epiphany.  I realized that every single day I wake up and my first thought is about what I ate the day before.  Like an alcoholic or drug addict, I take an inventory to see if I fell off the wagon.  It is an involuntary reflex that I simply cannot get a handle on.  The tone of my day is often set by the choices I made the previous day.  I either applaud and celebrate a “good” day or I ridicule and punish myself with guilt and misery for those days that I went off the rails.  And, unfortunately, my train often has a hard time staying on the track.

I am embarrassed and ashamed by my weight.  While I don’t think of myself, today, as someone who is less deserving of anything because of what I look like, that was not always my truth.  For most of my life, I believed I was a lesser person because I was not pretty and thin.  I felt ugly and undeserving.  I was bullied and tortured for the better part of my young life – and not just from kids at school.  My own family tormented me and humiliated me in order to try to convince me to change my habits and lose weight.  I was the butt of jokes in my house because of my extremely healthy appetite.  I loved to eat as a kid but no one seemed to understand that most of it was rooted in unhappiness and boredom.  Food made me happy.  Oreos were a treat that soothed my pain.  Ice cream or cake numbed me like a healthy hit of heroin.  I was a junkie at a very young age but my own family only saw me as defective on the outside rather than seeing that I was broken on the inside.

My life was a constant circuit of feeling bad about how I looked and being subjected to abuse by those around me to the self-medication of food.  I would sneak whatever I could find in order to get my fix.  My mother used to make bundt cakes, wrap them in tin foil and put them in the freezer in the basement to save for a special occasion.  Because I was forced to play down in our unfinished cellar and was so sad and resentful for the exile, I would use that opportunity to pick at the frozen cake and slowly and steadily consume it over days and weeks, all the while knowing that my mother would ridicule me when she saw the food was gone.  My most vivid memories of my childhood involved my attempts to locate cookies and candy that were strategically hidden throughout the house to prevent me from getting to it.  I was a latchkey kid who spent long periods at home alone after school and I had missions to seek out the treasure.  I found cookies hidden in the oven, candy tucked away behind cans pushed to the back of kitchen cabinets.  I snuck food up to my room only to have my mother find mashed up wrappers under my bed.  And the circle continued.  As did the abuse.

I internalized all the nasty words and the bullying.  I would not accept that I was such a pariah and tried to mask it all by being funny and trying to be likable.  I excelled in school in hopes that my teachers would love me and find me worthwhile.  Nothing in my life made me feel worthy except for my academic accomplishments.  I walked around with a giant, gaping hole inside me where my self-worth and confidence should have resided.  I felt small and insignificant and, at the same time, big and fat and taking up too much space.

I recently started looking at photos of myself as a young girl and felt angry because I simply was not the monstrosity that my memories suggest.  I was chubby but not the obese child that my family chastised me about.  I remember clothes always being an issue because I was taller and bigger than most of the kids my age and my mother continually reminded me that I had to shop the bigger sizes.  I hated it.  I dreaded going clothes shopping because I knew it would include a torturous commentary about how i was so different than the other kids and how difficult I was.

I was difficult.

I was the problem.

I was wrong.

I was not worthy.

I was not lovable.

I came to understand, much later in my life, that my mother was projecting her own insecurities on to me.  She felt ashamed by me and my size disrupted her world in ways that she simply could not deal with.  Nonetheless, as a child, I believed I was to blame.  I believed that I was not worthy of love because I was fat and ugly.  That was my absolute truth and I struggled with it every single day.  In fact, I believed all of that until well into adulthood.  When I met my husband, I tried to introduce him to some of my pretty friends because I could not believe that I would be attractive enough for him to want to date me.  I did not think I was deserving of him.  I did not believe he could see past all the ugliness that I saw and find me desirable or worth loving.  I look back at the photos of myself then and realize how adorable and beautiful and wonderful I was.  I simply could not see it.  I had no way of loving myself because all I had been told was how ugly and unworthy I was.  They just used nicer words to say it.

When I was in my early 20s (around the time I met my husband), I was staying at my sister’s house and I had slept the night in my niece’s bedroom.  My niece must have been around 8 or 9 at the time.  I was just beginning to wake up but still had my eyes closed and was savoring the last moments of sleep before it was time to get out of bed.  My niece, much like me, struggled with her weight from a very young age.  My sister, who also struggled with her weight but managed to keep herself happy at a size 8, was very troubled by her daughter’s size and used similar tactics on her as my mother and my sister used on me.  As I lay in the bed and my sister believed me to still be asleep, I heard her fumbling around in the closet trying to find clothes for her daughter for school.  I listened as she whispered to her “You don’t want to be fat like Aunt Tammy…”  I can still feel the sting of those words.  The heartless and cruel exploitation of me married with the degradation of my niece.  She managed to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone.  I immediately internalized the comment and turned it onto myself.  She was right.  I was bad.  There was something wrong with me.  I was not worthy.  I was not worthy.

I spent most of my childhood alone and with my thoughts.  It was there that I began to write to create alternate realities for myself.  I created characters that lived the lives I so wished for myself.  The girls were all beautiful and loved.  They had friends and families and their lives were magical.  Not so for me but I could create any world for them and so I did.  I suppose I should be grateful for that as I would never have had the need or the motivation to learn how to express all of my innermost desires and articulate them in that way.  But, no.  I still have a hard time finding the silver lining.  Being subjected to bullying for the majority of my academic life and never learning how to assimilate with other kids was a horrible existence.  When I finally learned how to cover my pain and put on a show to let people believe that I was more confident and self-possessed, I began to develop friendships and actually was part of a more popular crowd in high school.  Sadly, I could not sustain many of those relationships because I never felt like I really fit in.  While my friends were going through the traditional adolescent experiences, I was desperately praying that I could just get through high school so I could move away from home and try to start a new life someplace else.  I prayed that I would crack the code and figure out how to lose the weight and become normal like the other kids.  What, of course, I did not realize was that the weight was becoming less and less of an issue and the damage to my soul and my fractured psyche were now what was holding me back.

There is no happy ending to this story.  It is just the beginning of the road for me with this.  I am just now starting to unpack decades of boxes filled with unbearable pain.  And, in order for me to truly become the authentic person that I am desperately trying to be, I cannot hide this aspect of myself away.  It is such a huge part of my story – not just a chapter or two.  This defines me and yet it is a secret I bury so deep inside me because I don’t want to be looked at differently.  I want to blend into the crowd. I want people to think I am just regular.  I suppose it is why I gravitate to those who are different.  It is why I still don’t fit in with the popular kids.  I am a misfit.  Except, today, I am proud to be a misfit.

And so my story begins….

MY DIRTY LITTLE SECRET


secretI have a dirty little secret.

I suffer from depression.

Not the blues.  Not feeling down in the dumps.  Full on depression.  The kind that takes me to a very dark place.  And, apparently, I share this disorder with 14,999,999 other Americans – a vast majority of them women.  I don’t necessarily keep this fact a secret but it is not typically my lead-in when I meet people.  Oddly, I don’t actually think of myself as someone who gets depressed but, as part of my efforts to live authentically, I have had to come to terms with what I refer to as my “dark periods.”  These periods do not pop up that frequently.  In fact, I can go years without having any type of serious depressive episode but, like earthquakes, it is not about the frequency, it is about the magnitude.

I suppose it was my birth right.  My mother suffered from depression most of her life.  She attempted to take her own life on two separate occasions when I was a young child.  Both times she downed an excessive amount of pills (likely aspirin because we didn’t have too many medications in our house) and I remember being in the ER at the hospital wondering what was wrong with her.  Despite the fact that she was often going to therapy, she never seemed to be able to treat her depression and, I suspect, it is because she desperately needed to be medicated.  Her depression was only one one of her many mental ailments.  My father struggled with alcoholism his entire life.  My brother is bipolar and my sister, like me, lives with depression and, likely, other forms of mental illness.  Our family legacy is both biological and environmental.  There is severe mental illness in my mother’s family and my parents, fighting with their own demons, inflicted a significant amount of trauma on my siblings and myself which, according to science, likely created a chemical imbalance and a form of PTSD that we each confront in our own unique ways.

Over the years, I have become skilled at dealing with my depression, from looking for the warning signs and fortifying myself, using exercise and diet as a minimizer, as well as treating it with antidepressants.  One of my challenges, however, is that my depression typically creeps up on me when I have either run out of things to distract my attention from it or when crushing stress becomes too much for me to bear.  Sometimes there are specific incidents that bring it on like negative interactions with people that leave me empty, wasted or diminished.  But, in most cases, I don’t see it coming and once it is upon me, I can’t find a way out of it.

I recently researched symptoms of depression to help me understand it a bit further.  I wanted to determine if what I was experiencing was truly depression or just some low periods.  I compared my feelings to the list:

  • persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood – check
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex – check
  • restlessness, irritability, or excessive crying – check
  • feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism – check, check
  • sleeping too much or too little, early-morning awakening – check
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts – check
  • difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions – check

People often think that those of us who suffer from depression are downers who have difficulty functioning in everyday life.  These are just some of the myths that create stigmas and often prevent people from being honest about their own mental illness.  For me, the truth is I function very well and, most often, I am pretty upbeat – typically the life of the party.  And no, I am not bipolar.  I simply am not depressed every single day.  But when I go down, I go down hard.  And once I am down, it is very hard to get back up.

Recently, I went through an extremely dark period.  It felt like it came out of nowhere but, upon reflection and analysis, there were many triggers including work stress, holidays, and some challenging personal relationships.  I realized it was chasing me down and I was running from it like an animal being hunted as prey.  I just didn’t consciously realize I was scurrying from capture until it caught me and pummeled me.  When I saw the face of my demon, I recognized instantly that it had been sneaking up on me for a while.  Unfortunately, once I thought I got rid of the beast, I relaxed a bit and was shocked when it quickly reappeared and lingered  like a stalled-out hurricane.  It blew in, did some destruction and then seemed like it was moving out to sea.  Much to my surprise and severe disappointment, it changed direction and ended up blowing back in, this time much stronger and hanging on for a much longer period of time.  I was absolutely certain I was having a nervous breakdown. The darkness was so severe and so intense that I could not see my way to clarity.  I did not think the clouds would ever pass, that the winds would ever let up or that the rain would stop pouring down.  But, as is always the case with storms, they do pass and the sun shines through the clouds offering the hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Depression is even more complicated in my life because it is magnified by the echoes of the traumas of my childhood – the scars of which layer on top of my depression and validate many of my dark thoughts.  When I sink into worthlessness, my memories of words or experiences that traumatized me as a child, come to the surface and haunt me, giving credence to every distorted feeling I experience during these episodes.  It’s as if I am an alcoholic and, despite my efforts at recovery, there is always an open bar or a  friend standing by with a bottle to prevent me from ever achieving sobriety.  I have enough ammunition to keep me down for decades and, during some of these dark periods, I am rather confident that the sun will never shine again and that all of my worst experiences are my truth and personify who I am and what my life is meant to be.

The scariest part of depression, however, is not the admission of my illness nor is it the actual experience of going through the dark periods.  The scariest piece comes in the aftermath when, with a clear head, you realize just how low you have fallen.  When you realize just how easy it is for your mind to take you to places that seem unfathomable when you are rational and have your senses intact.  You realize that, in a split second, the pain that you are experiencing will take hold and you are captive to its powers and incapable of freeing yourself, left only with futile attempts to defend yourself and preserve some level of sanity so as not to have devastating outcomes.  I recently had a conversation with a close friend who had spent some time with me while I was in the middle of this recent episode and he shared with me his and his wife’s experiences and concerns for me.  It was humbling and, to some extent, overwhelming and humiliating.  He was kind and thoughtful in his comments and shared his fears in a compassionate and loving way.  But, it was in that moment that I realized how far away I go during those periods and how far removed from reality I am.  That is frightening and makes me feel vulnerable in the worst possible way.

Ultimately, my depression does not make me a bad person.  It does not prevent me from engaging in intimate and meaningful relationships.  It does not inhibit my ability to live a productive and successful life.  It does, however, force me to be acutely aware of the triggers and make choices differently than others who might not endure the same struggles.  It is like any other disease.  If I were diabetic, sugar would be my enemy.  If I had a heart condition, cardio would be a danger for me.  My medical ailment, caused by chemical imbalances in my brain (and, possibly, exacerbated by the hormonal disruption caused by the onset of menopause) forces me to think very seriously about how I interact with people, situations I put myself in, and how I deal with stress and anxiety.  I am neither ashamed nor afraid to share my truth but I realize that many will never understand this dimension of my life.  I need not be pitied or treated any differently.  It is just part of my truth.  And, fortunately, severe depression is something that rarely strikes me but, I acknowledge, that even if it happens once every five or ten years, it is real and it is dangerous.

So, I share my dirty little secret for the millions of Americans who are afraid to share their truth for fear that they will be stigmatized or ostracized.  I am not afraid because I am fortunate enough to have a small, intimate group of friends and family to whom I can turn for support during my dark periods and who understand my struggles and provide me with the love and nurturing that I need to get through the haze.  I also have an amazing therapist who works with me during dark days and, more importantly, during the bright ones to keep me focused on tackling the demons that bring me down and keep me down.  But, for many, they don’t have such luxuries and cannot be honest with themselves or anyone else because they feel shameful or afraid of the consequences of revealing their truth.  And, for some, like my own mother, they simply are not capable of seeing the truth in themselves and spend their lives living in denial, inflicting pain on those around them.

If you struggle with depression or know someone who does, take a moment to learn more and create a safe environment for yourself and others to live honestly and authentically.

MISSING


“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown

I am currently working on a very meaningful project – coaching someone to help them uncover their story.  I love this for so many reasons but mainly because I am helping them find their story to authentically and passionately share with others the importance of the work that they are doing.  It is an exciting journey for them because they are being pushed to explore aspects of themselves in ways they may not have before and it is interesting for me because I am challenging myself to be present on their ride and partake in the same activities.  Part of my role is to provide journal prompts each day to encourage them to write.  The prompts are often benign and are intended to simply get them to explore some thoughts and put them down on paper.  I’m not particularly interested in what they write.  I simply want them to write.  But, of course, the mere exploration of thought creates pathways to information and the act of scribing creates further connections and suddenly stories are unfolding right in front of you.

Yesterday, I offered up a prompt to write about someone that you miss, dead or alive.  I put no parameters around this topic because I wanted them to explore on their own who they missed and why and, perhaps, what it meant to miss someone.  Do you miss someone because they are no longer part of your life?  Do you miss someone because they have passed on?  Do you miss someone at that very moment even if you are going to see them the very next day?  The exercise was intended to allow them to journey along all those lines.  As I am trying to parallel the exercises and simultaneously write on the very same topics, I commissioned myself to tackle the same subject…and fell short.  With each journal prompt, I also ask that we write about something that we are grateful for and/or something we are disappointed about from our day and, last night, I got really hung up on the first part.  I focused on my lack of gratitude, which was, conversely, a source of disappointment for myself.

Ironically enough, I am not someone who enjoys journaling because, for me, it sometimes seems forced and I am often harshly critical of what I write.  Because I typically write with the intention of having others read it, I am extremely focused on my choice of words, the deeper messages and having compelling content.  And, of course, that is exactly what journaling is not and exactly why I should spend more time on that activity.  Journaling is most powerful as a tool to allow for a free stream of thought to enable you to find those pathways to your inner voices.  I recognize that it’s nuts that I resist it and, as a result, I am forcing myself to take advantage of this opportunity to embrace the art of journaling if only to have some connection and authenticity with this project.  What comes from it will only be the icing on the cake.

Last night when I set out to write about someone I miss, I struggled.  I could not really come up with anyone that I missed so much that I wanted to write about it.  There are a lot of people that have been a part of my life that I do not have any connection with anymore because of life circumstances.  I do miss some of them and, sometimes I feel badly about the role I played in our disconnection.  I miss what they used to mean to me and I feel sad about the fact that, in many cases, I allowed the person to slip out of my life.  There are also certainly people who are currently a part of my life who I do not see very often and I surely miss them.  In truth, some of the people that I am closest to live at a great distance from me so I am constantly missing them but that has become a regular, ordinary characteristic of my life.  I don’t like to write about it because it frustrates me and also makes me very sad.  So, ultimately, I avoided the topic entirely and I ended up spending my time writing about my own disappointment in myself for not feeling more grateful and for letting myself continually get caught up in malaise rather than focusing on the positive aspects of my life.  The subconscious thoughts about how missing people makes me feel bad surely inspired a whole lot of negativity towards myself and was a perfect platform to display my deep levels of disappointment in myself.

This morning, as often happens when I am returning from dropping my kids off at school, I took a few minutes for some self-reflection and started thinking about the exercise again (yes, this is how this stuff works.  A simple little prompt can permeate your thinking and just sit with you for days.  It’s pretty awesome).  With a somewhat clear head, the loud and resounding noise was that the person I missed most right now was me.

I’ve gone away.  I have allowed myself to get caught up with the messiness in my life.  I focus on all the things wrong and nothing that is right.  I have become blind to the beauty around me like the rich fall colors and the fragrant aromas of the season that so often make me feel whole and connected.  I feel disappointment in myself in regards to many areas of my life.  I am harshly judging myself and critical of my thinking and endeavors. I am, as the brilliant Brene Brown would say, caught up in a shame spiral.   She says that “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”  That is a potent message and, when I reflect on my life right now, it truly represents how I feel and why I miss myself.  I miss the person who rises above and feels tremendous gratitude for all the richness and texture that makes up my life.  I miss the strength that I typically exhibit to work through the clutter and chaos and the pride I feel for having muddled through and come out the other end feeling confident and powerful.  I miss waking up every day looking forward to the challenges before me and going to bed at night feeling tired but inspired and excited about what comes next.

I miss me.

The good news, I suppose, is that I can see myself in the distance and know that I am not far away.  And, chances are, it will likely not be too long before I return.  However, in the spirit of honoring this exercise, I will recognize that the person I miss is me and I will pine for myself and encourage myself to find my way back.  I will, like any good friend, extend a hand to help myself back up the hill, shout out directions as I traverse the rocks and catch myself if I slip.  And, until my return, I will keep on missing me and will remember another passage from Brene:

“Shame resilience [is] the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it.”

She says, “shame derives its power from being unspeakable…language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”  So, I guess this little exercise, this benign journal prompt is exactly what I need to help myself as only I can.

SHAMELESS


“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

My journey into the dark valley of vulnerability has been quite an interesting adventure.  I certainly did not book this trip completely without apprehension and, frankly, did it despite many deep reservations about how I would be able to tolerate the trip.  It has been a bit of a rough ride with some ups and downs but, I am beginning to see my way to a comfortable resting place where I can shed my cloak perhaps once and for all.  I have surprised myself in many ways including the recognition that much of my apprehension around allowing myself to be vulnerable was intellectual rather than emotional.  I have had a mental block masking an open heart.

All this searching I have been doing to both understand my capacity for experiencing vulnerability as well as to understand the roots of my blockages has had me winding down roads and turning corners allowing me to discover many more perspectives.  I feel like a young student soaking in as much information as my brain can tolerate.  I am constantly learning and this knowledge is bringing me power.  Last week, my new hero, Brene Brown, gave another TED talk, this time on the subject of shame.  This is a topic that interests me immensely because much of my life has been veiled by shame.  Shame has served as a huge obstacle in my life and, remarkably, I have not spent much time exploring it.  In her talk, Brene talked about the year following her breakthrough speech on vulnerability, which she readily admitted might have been the craziest thing she had ever done.  She, in her estimation, recklessly stood before 500 people and told them how afraid she was of vulnerability and, never for a second anticipated that millions more would be catalyzed by her words once the talk hit You Tube.  Her big a-ha from all this was that vulnerability is not a weakness.  In fact, she suggested that when you see vulnerability up close, it actually looks like courage. Pretty powerful stuff.

Last week I was sharing with a close friend my journey with this blog and my lack of perspective on how what I write impacts other people.  We all have our own lenses and sometimes it is really difficult to see the world through anyone else’s eyes – no matter how much they try to describe the picture they see.  He told me that he thinks what I am doing is brave and, not surprisingly, I did not see it that way.  I was extremely flattered by his comment but, in reality, I do not see courage when I feel the pain and struggle.  It feels hard and feels unpleasant.  It is the same way I have felt about vulnerability.  It is hard work to allow yourself to feel vulnerable – to expose yourself and be open to what might be coming your way.  However, to those around you, it is unbelievably courageous to watch as you open yourself up and allow yourself to feel and experience the world in a way that many choose to avoid because it is simply too risky and too painful.  The ability to take an emotional risk such as saying I love you when you are not certain if the sentiment will be returned is so brave.  The  confidence that comes from allowing yourself to be exposed with tremendous uncertainty of how you will be received is quite an accurate measurement of courage.  It is being truly honest and authentic and not fearing the consequences.  That is bold.  So, despite the fact that my perspective and humility refuse to allow me to see myself as courageous, I can appreciate where my friend was coming from and I acknowledge that this work is not easy.

When opening up the subject of shame in her most recent talk, Brene talked a bit more about vulnerability, crediting it as the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.  For someone like me, that is pure gold.  I live for innovation, creativity and change – and I struggle terribly to try to achieve any of it.  I have spent so many years locked behind doors, preventing me from unleashing my creativity because I could not be honest with myself. I was always creating a false, altered story that allowed me to avoid exposing the ugly underbelly that I feared I would be rejected for.  Over the past few years as I began to embrace some of my truths and become more accepting of myself, the veil began to lift and creativity started to flow.  This blog is the absolute evidence of that.  What I realized when listening to her talk was the role that shame has played in my inability to be open, even with myself.  The reason for me being locked behind the big steel doors that I caged myself in was because I felt shame.  According to Brene, shame is the ultimate focus on self and is the corollary of guilt.  When we feel guilty about doing something wrong, we might say that we are sorry that we made a mistake.  When we feel shame, we are thinking “I am sorry that I am a mistake.”  We feel inadequate and worthless and have no ability for compassion or love for ourselves because we do not believe that we are deserving.  Brene calls shame “the swampland of the soul.”  Put on your galoshes, walk through and find your way around.

Thinking about shame this way has been revelatory for me.  I do not think I feel shameful any longer.  I cannot begin to explain how major of a statement that is for me to make.  To have moved past something is seemingly impossible in my mind. It often feels like I will be burdened with my baggage until I take my last breath, focusing my energies on strategies to manage through it rather than move past it.  Yet, I believe, without reservation, that shame is not part of my current story.  It has been a sad truth for most of my life where I struggled to feel accepted and not feeling safe enough to admit that I was damaged and came from a very damaging place.  That is not my story today.  If empathy is the antidote to shame, then empathy is what I feel most of the time.  I empathize with myself and others who have struggled with their demons, addictions, weaknesses.  I have compassion for myself and understand that I am not defined by what has happened in my life but what I have done with it.  I remember writing a blog post not that long ago where I acknowledged that I struggled with forgiving myself.  I am beginning to feel that, perhaps, for the first time, I am prepared to cut myself some slack.

Last night I was talking with someone about a mutual friend who tends to complain about everything around her.  She is a bit of a downer and I find it tiring to listen to her steady dialogue of discontent, finding ways to put a negative spin on even the most positive experiences.  My friend and I talked about tactics for shutting down that type of behavior as opposed to indulging it or engaging it.  Negativity can be contagious.  In fact, it is much more easily spread than positivity because it requires a lot of work to be positive.  As someone who has made more than her share of snarky, cynical remarks about people and life, in general, I recognize how easily the words slip from my mouth.  I acknowledge how often I was perpetuating darkness rather than shining light to lift people up.  In fact, I also know how cynical I was of people who spent their time trying to bring lightness into other’s lives.  They were being brave and open and honest while I was hiding behind darkness to prevent myself from being seen and my shame being on display.  During the discussion with my friend, I thought a lot about the messages I want coming from me.  I thought about how I can be more intentional about being positive and trying to respond to negativity with positivity, thereby creating a force field to deflect the negativity.  It seems a bit superhero-ish but I believe it is a pathway to true happiness.  I knew, in that moment, that I could not change this other friend and would prefer to not harp on her unhappiness.  Instead, I needed to turn inwards and understand how I could counter it with my own positivity.

For many these are lessons that may have long ago been learned.  For others, like me, the doors are beginning to open and new opportunities and explorations are beginning.  And still, for some, they remain locked and closed off, struggling to find the pathway to trust themselves and others enough to let go and be vulnerable.  No matter where you are in this process, it is important to keep moving forward because it is worth the trip.  And, now that I like to write personal notes, I’ll send a postcard from my next destination!