I have been working on several posts lately, but rather than publish one of those; I have been called to share the following with you all. In the program that I completed earlier this year, part of our graduation was to share our “Words of Wisdom” with people still in the program. Below are the words that I shared, and while they are not my best writing, they are some of the most raw and vulnerable. I hope that they might help those of you who are struggling or affirm those of you in recovery.
I want to start by saying thank you, from the deepest part of my soul, to my case manager, Kristen and the entire staff here for your help along these last several weeks. March 10th I was non-functioning, thinking about suicide and checking in upstairs because I recognized how bad things were. Just a little over a month later, I’m getting ice cream with my family and planting in my garden. I owe that 180-degree transformation to you, Kristen. Without your perfect combination of compassion and challenge, I would not be here. Thank you.
I know some of you, though many of you I did not have the pleasure of getting to know, and so hearing “advice” from a stranger might seem a little odd. By way of introduction, I’ll say that the last six weeks or so have been some of the hardest of my life. And you’ll just have to trust me when I say that that is saying something. I am no stranger to hardship. So, with my journey in mind, I have just a few thoughts to share, which I hope will help you as you continue to walk this path to better mental health.
The first is this – As is so often said around here, Stop Shoulding All Over The Place. I have struggled profoundly with this. I should be happier, I should not feel so afraid, I should enjoy things more, I should feel a certain way, I should wake up at a certain time, on and on and on. “Shoulds” are a net that you weave around yourself, and I am getting better at recognizing when I am entangling myself. Release yourself from the expectations of your should statements.
The next thing I’d like for you to consider is that we are all here for the same reason, though the paths we walk may look different. That said, the reason that we are here isn’t perhaps what you think it is. It isn’t because we want to get better. Obviously, that’s part of it, but at the root of wanting to get better is believing that you can. Even more important, it’s believing that you are worth getting better. Even on your darkest days, even when you feel terrible, even when your battle with anxiety has you filled to the brim with guilt, shame, disappointment, and doubt; somewhere deep inside you, buried in the very foundation of your Self, is the belief that you are worth getting better. Otherwise, you would not be here. I want to affirm that which you may so often deny or question – You are worth getting better.
Knowing that you are worth getting better is important, but it isn’t everything. There’s another piece to this. You see, I think we carry with us a bag, let’s pretend for now that it’s a garbage bag. One of those thick ones with the fake scent, meant to mask the horrid smell of waste so that your fish bones smell like lilacs. I think we go through life and we collect things to put in that bag. Personally, I have collected the abandonment of a parent, divorce, sexual assault, betrayal, postpartum mental illness, the death of my daughter, grief, pain, self-doubt and fear. Most of all, I have collected fear. Burdened, I have carried around this bag for many years, collecting the most putrid of my life experiences, and stuffing them inside, hoping the artificial fragrance will make them seem less awful. Less powerful.
However, something I have learned during my time here is the importance of this bag. You see, it doesn’t have to be a garbage bag, and it certainly doesn’t have to be scented. We hear the term “baggage”, and we think of it as something negative. But we are the sum of our life experiences. More accurately, we are the sum of how we REACT to our life experiences. We are the sum of how and what we collect.
Monday is my 32nd birthday, and I have decided it is high time to trade in my garbage bag for one of those clear tote bags. A really big one. I’m going to need it to be big, because I’m going to be putting in more than just my garbage, moving forward. I’m going to need to reach back 32 years, because there are a lot of things in my life, past and present, that I want to carry around with me. My supportive husband, my hilarious and kind children, my work as a writer and storyteller. My parents. Hiking. My garden. My dog. My community work with mothers. I have realized that my life is so much bigger than the bag of garbage experiences and fears that I have been carrying around. And I want to show it off, most especially to myself. It doesn’t mean that the negative experiences won’t be there, too. It doesn’t mean that the fear will be gone. But they’ll keep company with the joy and love and gratitude that round out who I truly am.
The last six weeks of my life were some of the hardest because that garbage bag, simultaneously stinking and nauseatingly fragranced, had finally begun to weigh me down. I began to believe that my worth was defined by these things which I carried around with me, and I was not carrying the right things.
So, if there is one bit of advice that I can share with you as I leave, it is this – We are no more or no less worthy than we choose to believe that we are. Your life will be defined by the things that you choose to carry with you and the way in which you carry them. If you lug around only the parts of your story which are rotten and painful, they will stink up the place and take over. However, if you fill your vessel with the breadth of your life’s experience, the good and the not so good, I think you will find that you are so much more than you ever knew yourself to be.
Having baggage isn’t the problem. The problem is carrying the wrong stuff.