My bravest choices begin with being honest with myself about where I am.
Dearest Doodle Soupsters,
I've had days when it took all my strength and willpower just to get through, just to get out of bed in the morning, just to eat something, just to get dressed, just to breathe in and out. There were multitudes of social media posts, therapists, acquaintances, and sometimes even friends who made it sound so easy. They'd say, "Choose life." They'd say, "It'll get better." They'd say, "Oh, you can't really believe that, right? You know that's not true." They'd say, "Why don't you try meditation?" They'd say, "Have you tried yoga?" They'd say, "Don't you want to feel better?"
It's really painful to remember those looks I was given: of bewilderment, concern, judgement, contempt, dismissiveness, and sometimes all of these mixed together into one very uncomfortable facial expression. I felt so ashamed because the truth was I was trying crazy hard and I still felt awful. I tried yoga. I tried reading positive affirmations. I tried listing what I was grateful for. The funny thing is I didn't have any trouble coming up with stuff I was grateful for. I wrote how I was grateful for that feeling when you're mesmerized by the sight of the night sky flashing by in the window while riding in the passenger seat of a car on the highway. I wrote of sunsets, bike rides, Granny Smith apples, art, music, sharing laughter with friends, and the feeling of letting loose on the dance floor. I thought there must be something fundamentally wrong with me because nothing worked. I felt so disgusted with myself for my "failure to recover." When person after person treated me like my pain was just one small trick away from magically vanishing, I felt so alone and ashamed. There was no space for me to express, "Yeah, I tried that. This still hurts." Or, "I'm already choosing life. Every day. And I feel scared because life just keeps being hard. I don't know what to do anymore. I don't think I can go my whole life feeling like this."
I've written about the moment when my life changed course. This is how I put it back in December:
Almost 6 years ago, I had my most serious attempt at ending my life. Shortly after, the person who had been sexually assaulting and abusing me at the time stopped. Just after that, I had a moment of clarity: I needed change. One of my coping mechanisms from repeated abuse was anorexia. I said to myself: I want to live, just not like this, and so I must find a way. Still I had no clue even how to imagine what another way would be like. The roots of anorexia went back even earlier to abuse during my childhood.
Well, there's something I left out. And it's really important. My moment of clarity involved realizing that no one was coming to save me and that many of the people around me who I told myself were my support system ... their actions weren't helping me at all. I was stuck. And unless I took matters into my own hands, I was actually going to die. I wanted to live. It's so clear in the way I journaled about the sky and the way I just savored simple everyday moments how badly I just wanted to live.
I took a leave of absence from college and reached out to an eating disorder treatment program I had been to the prior summer. For the first time in my life, I truly recognized that I needed to stop using anorexia behaviors to cope. I wanted to stop right then and I didn't know how. I started the treatment program and I tried so hard, like never before. I was actually honest about how I felt. Instead of trying to hide and suppress my emotions, I told my therapist in the eating disorder program about my sadness. I expressed to her just how automatic my eating disorder behaviors felt, just how agonizing it felt internally to refrain. Then, one day, I was told that I was being discharged from the program. I was surprised because it seemed early. She, in turn, was surprised about my surprise, explaining that from our conversations, it seemed like I wasn't motivated to recover anymore.
She couldn't be more wrong and I felt crushed. Oh, that familiar shame - "Why can't I just get better? Why is this so hard for me? It shouldn't be this hard. There must be something wrong with me. I'm a failure. I'm a hopeless case." Except this time I was aware of how committed I was to leaving my eating disorder behaviors behind. My mind was firmly made up about it. I wanted more than anything to live without relying on those behaviors. So I felt shame, but I also felt angry. It was a feeling I often suppressed and feared, but I felt my anger and it allowed me to stay in touch with the truth. The program broke my trust and I lost faith in recovering there. But after being discharged, I didn't retreat from my goal. I sought out DBT therapy, something I briefly overheard two patients discussing together.
The first thing I learned in DBT therapy is this - "Therapy can fail. Therapists can fail. As long as the client tries, they have not failed." Just showing up is trying. That's actually huge and incredibly difficult - the act of trying. Just returning to try again when things feel just as awful as before, maybe even worse, is a feat. For the first time in my life, I felt validated. "Yes, this is hard." "It makes sense that you don't feel better yet. It makes sense that this doesn't feel easy." "You're right. It's not easy. At the same time, you are capable of doing this really hard thing. One moment at a time."
It took several years before it became clear that I had complex PTSD and that the source of my struggles had actually been a severe trauma history all along. Instead of joking about the fact that I couldn't remember my childhood, I started to come to terms with what I was really experiencing in my body each day: flashbacks, hyper vigilance, nightmares, exhaustion, physical pain, headaches, and digestive issues.
Healing from trauma is absolutely hard. I've had days even recently when getting through the day is the primary goal. Yet, my reality today is nothing like what I experienced during my childhood and early adulthood. I'm still processing just how different it is now. I'm so proud of the 20-year old me who experienced such intense distress in the early days of recovery and kept trying. I needed to hear that the difficulty I experienced made sense and that my pain made sense. I needed to hear that I didn't need to be better already and that all I needed to do was try my best. I needed to hear it was okay to not feel good and express that out loud. Hearing this validation from the DBT therapist, who is also my current therapist, made all the difference. I learned that I deserve love in my painful moments - not judgement, not pressure, not others telling me how I should feel or what should make me feel better. I'm still learning this.
I'm proud of who I am today. I've come a very, very long way and I want to acknowledge that. I need to hear that from myself right now: I'm proud of you.
The strange thing about going after what we want most is that it's almost never an overnight process. And it goes further than the cliche, "Success doesn't happen overnight." I couldn't have decided six years ago to address my trauma. Six years ago, I was so scared, lost, and alone that I continually suppressed my emotions, turned to anorexia and suicidal thoughts to get through each passing day, and hadn't found a safe place yet to even begin the recovery process. All I could do was start somewhere. I could decide that I didn't want to have an eating disorder anymore, set my mind to this goal, and decide that I wasn't going to stop trying until I found a way to recover from anorexia. I made a lot of really brave choices, but I had to start exactly where I was. And I had to find the right kind of support. I had to accept that help that hurts isn't help at all.
Today, I took my permit test and passed. But it meant so much more to me than what it sounds on the face of it. I've been afraid of learning how to drive for a really, really long time. My boyfriend told me about how he felt when he started to learn how to drive. And I didn't realize it right away, but he was validating how I felt. He met me where I was. He helped me understand that it was okay to be afraid, and that I didn't need to let fear stop me. He reminded me that just like anything else, I was capable of facing my fear of learning how to drive. I think that the bravest choices are often made when we acknowledge our fear and then, try to act from a different place inside of us, whether out of courage, love, integrity, or compassion. Passing the permit test was a small thing, but it was also a big thing. It's big to me.
The painting above is titled, "Through my kaleidoscope." It's part of my new Love Letters to Mother Earth series. There's actually a real leaf included in the artwork. Two years ago, I had just moved to Brooklyn from Queens to live on my own. I wandered around Bay Ridge and followed the dead leaves drifting in the wind. I listened to the crunch, crunch, crunch under my feet. I made a habit of catching leaves mid-air, taking one or two and moving them to a ledge, pocketing a favorite to bring home, arranging leaves like words in a poem. I could say it was just a small thing, but it was also a big thing. I was experimenting with my freedom. I was teaching myself that I could do things for no other reason than I found it amusing or fun and that was good enough reasoning. I was teaching myself that sometimes, you don't need a reason. I was teaching myself that I was capable of making my own choices, no matter how "silly" or "strange" they appeared on the outside. I was teaching myself that it was okay to want more than survival mode. I was reminding myself of something integral to who I am: my playfulness, my imagination, my willingness to be my own person.
I want to keep letting life unfold. I want to keep finding awe and wonder in the uncertainty of what the future will bring. And I want to keep reminding myself that fear, frustration, disappointment, and sadness are emotions to be felt, not avoided. I do not need to be devoid of fear to make progress. I only need to accept myself and make one brave choice at a time. I want to keep trying starting where I am. You have to start somewhere to go anywhere, right?
With fear and the courage to face my fears,
Nicole Sylvia Javorsky