The reality of growth is that it isn’t linear. It isn’t a straight shot from damage to health. I performed at an event for eating disorder awareness once and a fellow panelist asked me where I was in my recovery. The question struck me as odd. “I think I’m in this for life,” was all I could think. And I believe the same is true for the majority of areas of identity/patterns/behavior that I struggle with. Life as I have come to know it is a constant swaying from one side of the pendulum to the other, and at my best, when I’m doing all the healthy things I need to do to fully show up, I’m resting gently midway between either but the pull never goes away. If it did, there would be an end point. I would know that once I reached Level 32 (or 64 or 3,076) I had peaked and could then coast but I’m fairly certain that is not how life works.
I’m a pleaser by nature. And as this behavior begins to change, adapt, transform, just like with similar losses of structure at other times, what comes with it is a loss of identity. When someone’s personality has been constructed in response to another’s experience of her and she then starts to remove the other from the equation, what’s left?
I remember when I realized I no longer believed in the Christian God I had been brought up with and the deep loneliness I felt in that moment. Up until that point, I hadn’t even realized that I did believe in the God of my childhood. But something about the structure and stories and presence had worked its way into my psyche and offered me some security. Another and maybe harder to understand example of this was when, after living with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt for 15 years, I finally made my last payment and was debt-free. Instead of feeling free that I had finally reached the point I’d been working towards after so much time, I fell into a deep depression. I wasn’t happy but paying off my debt has given me a purpose. I had replaced knowing myself with knowing what I had to do and losing what it was I had to do made me feel lost, scared, empty. (This could also explain how and why I kept my debt at the levels I did for so long, but alas, that’s another blog post.)
I have never questioned the appeal of military enrollment, religion, cults, politics. I completely understand the human condition that is afraid of too much freedom, that doesn’t know what to do without boundaries and constraints. Dogs feel safe in their kennels, we feel safe in our 9to5s, no matter how much we complain, bitch and moan, we make it work because there is something comforting about structure. Both debt and a Christian authority allowed me to feel safe even if they didn’t make me happy. I understood what my next move was, how to put one foot in front of the other, where I was headed. With that gone, instead of freedom, I felt lonely, depressed and untethered. Those losses equated to me not knowing what my purpose was and I confused purpose for identity.
I understand those people who cut themselves in high school. Those who dragged a blade over a thigh to feel something. I had a counselor tell me once that I am an adrenaline junkie. I understand needing to confirm that you exist and a bright hot line of red pain being the most accessible way to do that. When I feel too safe and too comfortable I start to feel smothered. I feel naturally more alive when I am pushing up against discomfort–working a little too hard, drinking a little too much, getting caught up in drama I really have no stake in. I remember a professor of mine in university talking about an Icelandic country’s tolerance to all forms of personal expression and social rebellion and, in correlation, their incredibly high heroin use: we like to know where the line is, we like to know we have something to push against to confirm our own presence. Limitless freedom is something we don’t know what to do with.
I remember sitting in meditation once and it was like a doorway was opened for me and through it was Freedom. I had such a visceral response as I stood at its edge. The (loud) reaction from my mind was,
“I’M NOT READY!”
I’ve kept that memory with me when I’ve struggled with how shallow my time in meditation seems to be sometimes, that there is a part of me choosing that, feeling comfortable in that, wanting the safety of that. This knowledge makes it easier to be gentle with myself when I see patterns that I don’t like that I have been living out for so many years. Because the truth is, things work for us until they don’t. And there is a reason we choose seemingly harmful, destructive ways again and again over their alternative: something is easier to work with than nothing. And when we can’t imagine an alternative to struggle that doesn’t look identical to absence, lack, space, we keep doing what we’re doing. Too much freedom and we have to really start to ask some pretty deep questions: who am I with nothing to measure myself against?
Do I know myself well enough to be unshaken by loss, change, threat?
Without realizing it, all of the self-work I’ve been doing for the past however many years has been about addressing the being left standing when all the other distraction, obligations, dramatics, has been stripped away. Getting to know, making peace with, and ensuring that should I lose approval, employment, housing, love, health, or mobility, I won’t have also lost Me.
This is the basis of the work I do in Using Art to Heal, the virtual workshop series that starts next month. There is a baseline that is completely independent of all that swirls around us that most of us just haven’t taken the time to get really clear on who and what that is. Because once we know that, truly know Ourselves, we are unbreakable. And that is real freedom.