Monday, April 10, 2017

My greatest fear
Is that I’ll leave no trace
That I was ever here.

And I know that fear is irrational.

I have children
Who are growing into
Amazing young adults.

My husband would argue
That I matter to him.
My friends tell me
I make a difference.

They make a difference
To me as well
So I suppose I can understand that.

I was always the kid
Who worked behind the scenes
So that someone else
Could have the spotlight.

A lifetime of being told I wasn’t
Attractive enough
Thin enough
Tall enough
Smart enough
Popular enough
Talented enough.

A lifetime of being told
I wasn’t enough.
I didn’t matter
Except to help others achieve greatness.

The one thing that 
Brought me joy
Was writing.
Creating worlds and characters
Playing out my fears
And dreams
And challenges
On paper, under different names
Gave me an escape
From all the not-enoughness.

But I didn’t share my writing.
That would be taking the spotlight
Meant for someone else.

I wrote a book
And it got published
But it didn’t change anything.

I started writing
Anonymously
Safely
About things I was going through
About abuse
And depression
And anxiety
And trauma.

People started to take notice
And asked to share what I’d written.
I said yes but I didn’t understand
Why they liked it.

It wasn’t happy
Or inspiring
Or hopeful.

It was pain
And darkness
And tears
Shed alone.

I wrote another book
And had fun sharing it
But still nothing really changed
And the not-enoughness
Followed me.

Finally I stepped
Out of the shadows
Out from behind the scenes
And began to speak
My truth
My experiences
My pain
My longing
My fears
My hopes
My self.

And people responded
By saying lovely things
That I didn’t understand.

They said they wanted
To be here for me
To fight for me
To celebrate
Each step I took
In my own healing.

They said I was strong
And courageous
And beautiful
And talented
And inspiring
And even things like
Funny and charismatic

And quirky 
Though I think that
Might not be
A compliment.

I hear and see their words
And I still don’t understand.

If you knew me
Really knew me
My failures
And mistakes
If you saw
My apathy
My ignorance
The times I didn’t care enough
Didn’t try hard enough
Didn’t love enough

You would not say these things.

I don’t think I’m
Particularly inspiring
Or funny
Or beautiful
Or strong
Or brave
Or talented.

I see so many others
Who do so much more
Than I could ever do.

My lifetime of experience
Tells me that these people
Are the ones who 
Deserve the spotlight
The admiration
The praise
The love.

And yet that leaves me
Hiding again
Crying myself to sleep
In the hopes
That tomorrow
I will feel worthy
Of living another day.

I don’t like that option.

And what of all those
Who feel as I do
Yet are unable
Or unwilling
To speak
To share?

Perhaps the truth
Is hidden in paradox
That I cannot see
How others see me
The impact I have
The difference I make.

Perhaps the truth
Is that I can only be
Who I was born to be
Even if
A lifetime of experience
Tried to defeat it.

I can only shine
My own light.

All I can do
Is follow the joy
And do those things
That make me come alive
And shine.

And if my light
Shines on others
And they perceive it
As strong
Or courageous
Or beautiful
Or inspiring
Or loving

Then it is no less true
Because I know my own imperfections.

And if I practice
Following the joy
Speaking my truth
Sharing myself
Then perhaps
I can catch a glimpse
Of that light
And know
There was nothing
To be afraid of
After all.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

On Family

Seven years ago today, I wrote about family, about finding it and losing it and recreating it. 
Seven years later, these words are still true.

*    *    *
I've been resting and talking and reading and trying to work through the fallout that inevitably happens when you try to go home again. In one sense, what I did was so easy. I flew on a plane to my mom's house several months after she died, cleaned it up, packed much, donated more, and drove home.

In another sense, it couldn't have been harder. I flew to the house where my mom suffered and died, slept in the same room where nurses and aids and family and friends cared for her in her last weeks, sat in the same chair I'd sat in months earlier while stroking her still-warm body, only seconds after she'd left it behind on her journey. I relived every moment of our trip in December '08 and again in April/May '09, discovering priceless information about this very complex and very convoluted family that would throw me into a deep and sudden awe and compassion upon finding one treasure, anger and betrayal at the next discovery.

But that's what family is for, is it not? To leave future generations with enough burning questions and obsessions that neither genealogy researchers nor therapists will ever have to worry about job security.

In my family, in that house, with those memories, I'm still confused. Information I discovered that had never been shared with me before, information that made me see my parents with part-awe and part betrayal, not knowing in that moment if I loved them or hated them, but only knowing I couldn't walk away.

My brother and I, who could barely be trusted to be left alone when we were kids, lest one of us injure the other seriously enough to require medical attention, went through 65 years of collected possessions, including possessions my mom had inherited from her mom and dad and from her mother-in-law. We opened every box, unwrapped every piece cushioned by well-worn newspaper or paper towel. It was a life autopsy of possessions and we, the examiners, separated and examined and weighed and tested every piece.

Numerous times, most notably when I was eyeing the growing stack of boxes for me to take back home and then visualizing the interior of a minivan and trying to figure out how it would all fit, I would wonder why I had come to do this in the first place.

Why?

It seems instantly an easy enough answer. I wanted some remnants of my childhood, as did my brother. I wanted some mementos of my parents, ones that focused on the happy times. I didn't want my brother to have to do this all by himself. And I wanted to get the place cleaned out so it could be rented. Another family, new life, new dreams. I think Mom would have liked that.

But was that really it? Digging through boxes and papers and clothing and endless amounts of plastic utensils and wet wipes and matches, the detritus of a life lived and loved and suffered and lost, what did I really find?

I found that family is a need, not a noun. Family could have been brutal and unforgiving, it could have meant growing up battered in mind, body, and spirit, and it also could have been children's laughter on the swingset, a surprise trip to the zoo to put the blue elephant key in the box and hear the narrator tell you about what animal you're viewing. Family is the need to always display some photographs and never others, never quite explaining if the hidden ones are being sequestered away to be forgotten or in need of more precious protection than hanging openly on a wall.

Photo copyright ©2001 by Sheyna Galyan All rights reserved
Family is a beginning and often, an end. Family is where we came from, that lifeline to who we were and how we came to be this way. Family is our excuse, our answered prayer, our legacy, our mark on the world. We love it and hate it, run to it and rebel from it.

Spending one week immersed in this family, in these memories, in this house, I was nearly ready to walk away. But I didn't, and now I'm home in the midst of these memory-filled items, not sure whether to mourn or rejoice, whether to use these objects as jumping-off points for discussions about the great-great-grands and how their lives were similar or different, or whether to pack them away until I can look at them without feeling such a hollow sense of loss.

I sorted and cleaned my way through a person's life, learning as I went, and found a woman I hadn't completely gotten to know, and now never will. Then I spent a week trying to return to my family, my mind ever on the challenges of the road I was taking. And then when I got home, I buried myself in a collection of political thrillers, looking, as the characters are, for order within chaos, duty within impossible moral choices, fleeing a past that may never be gone, and in fact parts of which are sitting in my living room.

I went for family, I stayed for family. And yet I feel like I'm leaving with a different sense of family. Gone is the omnipotence; what remains behind is the shattered life that found comfort in collections. And after picking up the pieces, I moved toward a family that I want simply to be honest and decent and caring.

You can't go home again, but you can define home and family for yourself and build it, out of the tools you inherited from your family, or the creative adaptations you learned because the only tools left to you were so morally broken they weren't worth using.

I did it for family. Which one—then or now?  Neither, actually. I did it for what family means to my heart and soul, where family means the most.

Originally posted on Interstate Insanity
Reprinted with permission
Copyright ©2010 by Sheyna Galyan


Monday, October 31, 2016

Four Lighthouses (or Why You Matter)

Many thanks to Teresa Romain/Access Abundance for the inspiration.

Have you ever thought about what it's like to be a lighthouse? I have. Of course, I am a lighthouse, so I guess it's only natural. I'm nothing special. Wide and a little on the short side, I'm not even 100 feet tall, though I do sit on the bluffs overlooking a very large lake. The lake gets a lot of marine traffic, most of it well to my west. I'm on the eastern coast, where a few ships glide by and storms rarely hit. The main marine channel is along the west side of the lake, and that's where the bad weather tends to be the nastiest.

There are three lighthouses on that side of the lake. On the northernmost point is a famous lighthouse that people travel from all over the world to see. It's everything a lighthouse should be: tall (181 feet), strong, with a very bright light. It's survived every storm without appearing to age a day. In fact, on the rare occasions that tourists come to visit me, I hear things about this lighthouse. That it almost never needs repair. That it is one of the most picturesque lighthouses in the world, part of it painted in a sleek black paint that almost looks like leather. That if you had a lighthouse fetish, just looking at it would make you weak in the knees. It even has a foghorn, loud and low. If there was such as thing as a badass lighthouse, this one would be it.

The lighthouse just south of that is the tallest lighthouse on the lake, a whopping 204 feet tall. People love to visit it, and I hear that tourists can even climb the lighthouse, to see the view from so high up. It also is a picturesque lighthouse, a gorgeous tan color that never seems to fade or get dirty, topped with a brown cupola and gallery that make it look almost like it has long hair, which tourists say is adorable. But what I hear most about this lighthouse is that its light is so gentle and warm, nearly everyone who's ever seen it says it's like being smiled upon by the sun. This ginormous lighthouse has survived the strongest storms, including some straight-line winds that came through nearly ten years ago. The winds cracked part of the tower, but it never failed to light the way, and after only a little repair, it was even stronger than before.

To the south, the third lighthouse is an enigma. It's not especially tall, about 160 feet, but it attracts tourists from all over just because it's nearly everything one would never expect from a lighthouse. Instead of a bright white light shining over the lake, its light is a bright blue, almost glowing in its intensity. And it is painted the most bizarre of colors, multi-colored polka dots visible along one strip of its tower, contrasting zig-zags along another, some sort of random paint splotches on a third, and, from what people have said, another strip is always something different. No one ever sees anyone out there painting, yet whenever locals revisit the lighthouse, it's always new. Tourists love to take photos in front of this lighthouse, and often find themselves letting loose and having fun, taking goofy photos of themselves and each other, often making new friends in the process.

It's hard, quite honestly, to be a short, unremarkable lighthouse on the other side of the lake from these three other lighthouses. Most nights, I shine my unremarkable light onto water that is shipless. I wonder, more often than I'd like to admit, why I was even built here. It seems I'm never needed, while it's clear that the three lighthouses on the other side of the lake are both needed and wanted.

I begin to dream about what it would be like to be wanted and needed as they are. I'd have to be taller—much taller—and brighter, and somehow stronger or more beautiful or weirder. I'd have to be different, something that both ships and tourists alike would appreciate. This thought consumes me and sometimes my light sputters. But that's okay, because it's not like it's actually needed, anyway.

And so one night, I lose myself in a dream about having a lighthouse makeover. In the dream, I have moved to the western coast of the lake, grown nearly 100 feet, and am trying out different paint colors and patterns. I've tried changing my light color too, even experimenting with a rotating rainbow of colors. I'm so engrossed with exploring all the variations between stately and silly that I don't notice at first that the wind has picked up. It isn't until I hear the howling that I realize a storm has arrived, but that makes sense, because I'm on the west coast now. I wonder if it's possible to be beautiful and strong and courageous and fun.

I'm trying to figure out how to do that when a large branch hits my tower and I'm suddenly back in my place on the eastern coast, wind howling around me, trees bent almost to breaking. Hail arrives, making visibility almost nonexistent. I am so disappointed that I'm back to being unremarkable, not-beautiful, not-strong, not-courageous, and most definitely not-fun, and I let my light grow dim and hunker down to sit out the storm.

And then I sense it: a ship on the lake, very much in trouble. And it's headed my way. This is not good. The reason the western coast is the main marine channel is because the lake is deeper there. Where I am, it's much shallower. Ships know not to come this way. But this ship is being driven by the wind, unable to see through the hail and rain, and it will crash on the shoal if it's not warned away.

I put everything I have into my light, yelling as loud as I can through my rarely-used foghorn. I'm not used to the exertion and the effort tires me, but I know that I cannot allow this ship to sink. One of the bulbs in my light flickers and threatens to blow, but I can redirect some of the energy and keep it from overloading. I keep scanning the horizon, looking for some sign of the ship itself, but can barely see through the weather. I cannot tell if the ship is still coming closer or heading back toward the marine channel.

I keep my light shining and my horn blowing throughout the storm, unable to think beyond the next moment, keeping my focus solely on light/horn/light/horn/light/horn, until the storm finally abates near dawn. Finally I can rest, and I do, drained.

For weeks after that, there are no more storms on my side of the lake, and I am back to thinking about the three amazing lighthouses across the water from me. And then one day a bus pulls up and dozens of people get out, standing around me and taking photos. I am confused. Don't they know that the picturesque lighthouses are on the other side of the lake?

As I stand there, I catch pieces of their conversation.

"I thought for sure this lighthouse would be taller."

"Have you ever seen a light that bright come from a lighthouse?"

"I can't believe this little lighthouse out here all alone saved our lives."

And then I understand. This is the crew of that ship standing around. They are here and not dead or injured because of me.

The thought is stunning and I have a hard time believing it. I argue against it, listing again all the things I am not. How many lives have the other three lighthouses saved? It must be thousands, hundreds of thousands.

One of the ship's crew comes over to my tower and puts a hand against me. "You keep that light shining, you hear?" he says softly. "We've traveled this lake hundreds of times and never knew you were here. And then the one time we really needed you, you were there for us. I was able to make it home in time to be there when my wife gave birth. I may see those other three lighthouses more often, but you're the one I'm going to think about." With that, he pats his hand on the side of my tower and walks away, hands in his pockets.

And then, as I watch the bus pull away, I think that maybe, just maybe, it was kind of a badass thing that stormy night for me to keep going until dawn. Maybe, just maybe, I was stronger than I thought. There's no doubt in my mind now that knowing one of the crew got to be with his wife while she gave birth is a thing of beauty.

And maybe, just maybe I don't need to be an odd lighthouse. Maybe I just need to be me. Where I am. As I am.

Though a few new colors on my tower could be fun.

Shine on.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

To Fight or Not to Fight #AKF

Everyone goes through depression differently. There's no one cause, no one experience, and no one solution. But there are some commonalities.

Aside from the typical symptoms of depression (lack of interest in usual activities, sleep disturbances, feelings of hopelessness or that one has let others down, changes in appetite, thoughts of self-harm or worse, etc.), there are some other commonalities:

  • Worsening of self-esteem
  • Tendency to always see self in a negative way
  • Feeling at fault for everything
  • Belief that one deserves this depression as punishment for being at fault for everything
  • Certainty that one is a burden on friends and family
  • Belief that others will be happier if one is not there to drag them down 
  • Thinking that one is only ever taking from others and never giving
  • Feeling ugly, unloved, unwanted, alone
These are clearly untrue beliefs and thoughts, and I know that with every cell in my being. When I'm not depressed, that is.

Somehow, the depression shifts even "provable fact" and twists it to its own end, which seems to be solely to hurt the one afflicted. It's a kind of mental invasion. And what do we do with invaders?

We fight back. Of course we do.

Back in 2007, when I was blogging anonymously as Rivka through a severe depression, I likened the depression to my own personal, internal adversary (unlike the more hopeful metaphor of wing molt from earlier today).

In that adversary post, I wrote:
  • it breaks me down and consumes me and spits out what's left, and
  • I have this black cloud over my head or in my head and I can't see (both from here)
  • [it] takes that and twists it all around, that I don't deserve success, that my faults are too many, that I'm simply not good enough (from here)
  • I'm ... under the influence of my unstable emotions (from here)
  • It left me questioning my contribution to my marriage, my contribution to anyone, my value to the world (from here)
  • It's that I just feel less. Less everything that is meaningful to me, and
  • It diminishes everything important. It corrodes what makes my life meaningful and powerful and profound. It eats away at what makes me me (both from here)
And yeah, I want to fight that. Fight it and win. Fight it and hope it never comes back, and if it does, fight it again. And again.

There's an online campaign (initially launched as a t-shirt campaign for charity in 2015) started by Jared Padalecki, one of the stars of the long-running sci-fi show Supernatural, with the hashtag #AKF, standing for Always Keep Fighting. The t-shirt campaign raised money for three charities that all helped people dealing with mental illness (especially depression), self-harm, and suicide. Mr. Padalecki, who also shared his own bout with depression, stated the following on his personal interest in the cause:
"On New Years Eve, my dear friend lost his battle with depression. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the first time i lost a personal friend to suicide, and it hurt me deeply, in a way that only a personal experience with suicide can. Though he wasn't the first friend I’ve lost to suicide, I sure hope he’s the last. I wish i had the chance to go back and tell them what they meant to me. I wish I had the chance to beg them to seek help, to keep fighting. I wish they knew that they were surrounded by countless others who struggle on a daily basis.
I hope that this campaign, while raising money for a wonderful charity, can also raise awareness about issues that affect more people than we know. I hope it inspires people battling depression, addiction, mental illness and suicidal thoughts to be vocal about their struggles. I hope it helps people realize that they shouldn’t be ashamed of what they are going through, and I hope it helps people meet and find new friends that they can relate to. I hope it helps people take pride in the fight that they have been fighting, and gives them a push to never give up or give in. I hope it helps inspire people to keep fighting. no matter how hard it is.
For people who deal with mental illness, depression, addiction or suicidal thoughts, every day can bring about new struggles. Every hour and every minute can seem to bring insurmountable odds of happiness. I hope that the simple message of “always keep fighting” can help to bolster somebody through a tough time. I also hope this campaign can help alleviate some of the stigma that the terms “mental illness” and “depression” sometimes evokes.
Everybody has either dealt with these issues themselves, or had a loved one who deal with them. It’s time for us to put these issues front and center and not be ashamed of the path we are walking. If you’re out there and need help, please seek it. Be proud of your valiant day-to-day struggle. There is no shame in needing support. I hope this campaign will help you be vocal about your own struggles, or vocal in your support of those who might need a helping hand. Most of all, when life seems to want to beat you down, I hope you Always Keep Fighting."
 On the one hand, the warrior in me—the one who's been fighting for my life and identity since I was a child—loves this. Because it absolutely feels like a war, sometimes every minute.

And on the other hand, I don't want to fight anymore. Not that I want to give in—that's not where I'm going at all. But I've absolutely seen the effects of the adage, "What you focus on, you get more of" over the last 15 years, and I'd rather focus on hope and love and compassion and freedom and strength and beauty than on war and battles and being on the defensive and casualties and injuries and knowing that the next battle is just around the corner.

So I use the hashtag AKF because it connects me to others who find strength and hope in fighting their own personal demons, and at the same time, I look forward to a change in perspective when I can retire from fighting and wait for my feathers to grow in.


Wings

I took a shower today.

To most, that wouldn't seem like a big deal, but when in the depths of a depression it is a Very Big Deal indeed. If you're familiar with Spoon Theory, it took almost all of my allotted spoons for the day. If you're not, it means that it took just about all the energy—physical, emotional, spiritual—that I had.

Because taking a shower is not a single step. No, there's starting the water and undressing and getting used to the water (physical sensations on one's skin can be draining and painful during a depression) and selecting shampoo and the actual scrubbing (holding one's arms above one's head during a depression is tiring and can exacerbate feelings of vulnerability and weakness) and the rinsing and (for me) the same round with conditioner and then washing of the body (also sometimes emotionally problematic) and rinsing and turning the water off and adjusting to the room temperature and getting out of the shower/tub and drying (multiple steps here too) and dressing again, and it's SO MUCH. It's exhausting.

I tried to think of the depression as a thick, sticky goo that coated me, something I could wash off in the shower. Under the water spray, that visualization didn't seem to work. Some part of my brain went off in the direction of the thick, sticky goo (depression) being an oil slick and I was some sort of bird variant, covered in the stuff. And that kind of clicked. I was stuck here, at least temporarily, in the depression. I was grounded (not in a spiritual, good sort of way). I couldn't FLY.

But even then the oil slick seemed too easy to get out of, as if all I needed to do was find that magic anti-depression version of blue Dawn dish soap and I'd be all better. But depression doesn't work that way. Even with antidepressants. Or therapy. Or family and friends and loved ones.

In the dozens of depressions I've been through, most of them in the autumn, I've learned that it's a process. And I do usually come out the other side stronger and wiser, as if the depression brought with it a gift, buried under the self-loathing and overwhelming sadness and fatigue. And as I combed through my hair, and gathered up the loose strands, the visualization took a different turn.

I'm molting.

Joe Smith, in an article on bird molt, writes, "Bird owners know that the “mood” or “personality” of their bird — whether it be a chicken, parrot or darling starling — can change dramatically during molt. The birds often retreat to quiet spaces, reduce their activity and just want to be left alone."

Bald cardinal. Photo © John Benson/Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Since I was very young, I've always had some affinity with winged creatures. To me they represented freedom, beauty, compassion, strength. To fly was to have a kind of freedom I'd only dreamed of at that time: freedom of thought, of creativity, of expression. Freedom to love and be loved.

I was so enamored with flight that I bought and asked for books on flying airplanes and, at the age of 16 (the minimum age requirement), took and passed flight ground school. The next step was coming up with the $15,000 or so I needed at the time to start flying lessons. (My progress derailed from there.)

Something about this metaphor gave me hope. That maybe this was a natural process, and my responsibility is to make sure I have a safe "molt." That I eat enough to sustain my energy. That I rest as needed. That I take the time I need to be alone. That I accept I will be out of sorts and off my game. That I recognize that for this period of time, my freedom will be curtailed, my beauty in flux, my compassion needing to be more self-compassion, and my strength sorely tested. During this time, I'll feel unable to fly, helplessly grounded, but appreciating that freedom even more when I get it back.

And when my new metaphorical feathers grow in, they'll be even better than the old ones.

It's just a metaphor. But it gives me hope.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Healing Through Music

I wasn't going to post this at all, and then I realized that that flies in the face of what I've been trying to do for the past nine years -- break the silence and end the stigma around depression.

So here goes. My depression is back. Maybe only for a short stay. Maybe not. It's been here a week now. A devastating sadness -- "best friend died" sort of sadness. And nothing of the sort is going on in my life. My life is amazing right now, with more exciting things to come. And yet, my brain sometimes does its own thing.

I'm doing things that I find helpful and comforting in a depression, and I'm also limiting the things that lead to overwhelm. One of the things I've done is compiled a list -- in a specific order -- of music. My "Feel Better" playlist. And I thought I'd share an annotated version with you today, in case anyone else finds it helpful.

These songs are intentionally in this order, to be played straight through. I created it to form an arc, to start from where I often am, and gradually lead myself to a more powerful place.

1.      Crossroads” by Don MacLean
“Can you remember who I was/ can you feel it?/ Can you find my pain?/ Can you heal it?”

2.      Angel” by Sarah McLachlan
“There's always some reason/ To feel not good enough/ And it's hard, at the end of the day”

3.      Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M
“If you feel like letting go/ If you think you've had too much/ Of this life, well hang on”

4.      Try” by P!nk
“You gotta get up and try, and try, and try”

5.      Show Me the Way” by Styx
“Give me the strength and the courage/ To believe that I'll get there someday/ And please show me the way”

6.      Crawl” by Thisway
“Faces I remember, I'll still see/ And places in a memory, hold on to me/ I can't wait to crawl out of my shell”

7.      Making It Up As I Go Along” by Marie Wilson
“Don't want to be scared/ Don't want to be weak/ Don't want to be the last to speak/ I'm gonna be brave/ I'm gonna be strong/ I'm ready to take it all on/ Making it up as I go along”

8.      Brave” by Sara Bareilles
“Don't run, stop holding your tongue/ Maybe there's a way out of the cage where you live/ Maybe one of these days you can let the light in/ Show me how big your brave is/ Say what you wanna say/ And let the words fall out/ Honestly I wanna see you be brave”

9.      Come to Life” by Trent Dabbs
“Let it breathe/ It will be alright/ There's gold in the ground where we're walking tonight/ Just sit back/ And watch it come to life”

10.   Perfect” (Clean) by P!nk
“Pretty, pretty please/ if you ever, ever feel/ Like you're nothing/ you are perfect to me”

11.   With Your Face to the Wind” by Peter, Paul & Mary
“Sometimes it takes the dark to let us see the light/ You can't have that victory unless you've fought the fight/ Sometimes it takes a winding road to lead us home/ While you're windin' 'round my friend just don't go windin' 'round alone”

12.   Home” by Phillip Phillps
“Settle down, it'll all be clear/ Don't pay no mind to the demons/ They fill you with fear/ The trouble it might drag you down/ If you get lost, you can always be found/ Just know you're not alone/ 'Cause I'm gonna make this place your home”

13.   I’ve Gotta Be Me” by Sammy Davis, Jr. (Cover by Ryan Tedder & Contraband; Lyrics by Walter Marks) 
“I want to live, not merely survive/ And I won't give up this dream/ Of life that keeps me alive/ I gotta be me, I gotta be me/ The dream that I see makes me what I am”

14.   Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars
“And when you smile/ The whole world stops and stares for a while/ 'Cause girl, you're amazing/ Just the way you are”

15.   My Way” by Frank Sinatra
“To think I did all that/ And may I say - not in a shy way/ Oh no, oh no, not me/ I did it my way”

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lessons From High School—30 Years Later

I went to my 30th high school reunion last weekend.

Aww... Thanks for saying that I look like I couldn't be more than 18 years out of high school. That's sweet.

Anyway, I had a pretty good idea who I was in high school. Or at least, I knew what I cared about (ethics, humanity's search for the divine, playing your best game with a badly-dealt hand, kindness to others, global respect, resilience of the spirit, the priceless value of life) and what I didn't care about (fashion, dating, gossip, makeup, social status, school politics).

Which made me kind of a nerd. And a social outcast—a role I embraced wholeheartedly.

My first three years of high school were spent with one especially good friend who had similar interests, exploring exactly those things that mattered to me, and by the end of my junior year, I had a pretty good idea of why I was on the planet. But then my best friend graduated a year before me and I had rarely felt so alone and adrift. Always the questioner, I wondered if there was actually an average number of french fries served with hot lunch, and began counting my french fries at lunchtime, to see how much disparity there was from day to day. I ate alone, people-watching in the quad, and simultaneously felt a longing to be accepted and a desire to get away from it all.

High school graduation photo, 1986
From exploring the mysteries of the universe to counting my french fries seemed to be a pretty long fall to me, and I filed my senior year away as "pathetic loser." When I graduated and went off to college, I didn't look back.

I kept in touch with a very few close friends, including that one special friend, but high school held nothing other than pain for me. And so I largely ignored the reunion invitations as they came and went.

A few years ago, I became aware that it wasn't that I didn't care about my high school years. It was that I was still running away from them. And I'd done enough work on myself that I knew it was time to put those ghosts of high school to rest, once and for all.

I won't lie. I was scared shitless in the days before the reunion. That 17-year-old high school senior was afraid I'd be walking into the middle of the kind of cruel judgment that only teenagers can dish out. I was convinced they'd see me now as I was sure they'd seen me then: ugly, weird, worthless. I weighed barely 100 lbs. in my senior photo, recovering from several years of anorexia. Nearly thirty years later, after long years of doing battle with my childhood demons (there might be one or two still skulking around), I wore my scars in the form of distrust, social anxiety, depression, and weight gain. So now I was sure my classmates, many of whom were still trim and athletic and gorgeous (or appeared so on Facebook) could add "fat" to their assessment of me.

And then a weird thing happened. A shift, both subtle and profound, as I prepared myself to walk back into the haunted memories of high school. I stopped caring. Really, honestly, stopped caring what they might think. Because I know the truth: I have come a long way in my healing, my growth, my embrace of my spirit. My body will follow; I trust that now. By fully embracing myself, self-care becomes a desire rather than an unwanted obligation. Change always has to come from within.

When I graduated from high school, I was a mere eighteen months past seriously wanting to end my life. Now, thirty years later, though those intervening years were punctuated by death and unemployment and housing crises and medical challenges, I am living the life I've always wanted. I have a strong, solid marriage (25 years as of July, 30 years together), children (now teens) who still love to hang out with me, a 98-year-old house that I love being in, close friends who share those same values I've long held, a career I've dreamed of since third grade, and a clear, strong sense of who I really am.

I walked into the first of three social events at the reunion willing to be open to whatever showed up, be it criticism or acceptance, or anything in between. And I learned that while I was right about how I see myself, I was wrong about how my classmates see me. Wrong about how they'd always seen me.

I was, in fact, really, really wrong.

Many classmates shared their memories of me, and those things I was so sure they'd thought about me didn't come up at all. I started keeping track of the adjectives they used, and other than "quiet" (definitely then, and mostly out of fear, but not at all now), I was amazed at the words that came up most often:

Kind. Caring. Compassionate. Fiercely independent. Quick-witted (especially with puns). Champion of the underdog. Deep thinking (really, really deep). Poet/great writer. Badass.

Huh.

I'm humbled to say that they might have known me better than I knew myself thirty years ago. Because every one of those adjectives have been used to describe me lately, and I'd have to agree with them. ("Badass" took me a while to accept, but I'm down with it now.)

At the tree where I spent many hours
exploring the mysteries of the
universe. 2016.
I thought I'd changed so much since high school, that I barely resembled the girl I was. I think now it's less that I changed, and more that I grew into who I am, who I was meant to me. I was all those adjectives in high school, but you had to take the time to get to know me before you saw them. (The "quiet" part drowned the rest out unless you were willing to look deeper.) Now, they're big and obvious. "Quiet" is my default only when I'm under a lot of stress.

I went to my high school reunion, thinking that I'd show them—and myself—how much I'd changed for the better. And I did this weekend walk those familiar paths between classrooms with more confidence and contentment and clarity than I ever felt in that place. Already, I was no longer haunted by high school.

But the surprise for me was that my classmates showed me that they'd seen who I really was all along. And for that gift, I thank them.