“At any given moment, you have the power to say: This is not how the story is going to end.” ~Christine Mason Miller
Eighth grade was a bit of a bad year for me, if I’m being honest. The dust had settled after the seventh grade popularity battle, and I had some close friends and we were mostly surviving, but there was one class I just could not make a go of.
I didn’t have any friends in the class, or rather, the one I did have made a choice to hang with the popular girls, and left me to be made fun of. It’s an understandable choice, really, if you can remember high school. I probably would have done the same had it been an option.
Those girls were pretty horrible. I can’t recall the specifics, but I remember feeling tight across the chest every time I had to walk into that room. Every class I would try my hardest to make myself smaller and more invisible, and yet their unkind words would still find their way, prickling into me.
So the next year when I took drama class as an elective, I strode into the theater and was horrified to see those girls standing there.
My drama class! They’d invaded my safe place, the haven for outgoing but also nerdish types like me! Who let them in?
I was dismayed, but I recall making a decision: I was going to be loud and proud and super-dooper-me all over them. They weren’t going to claim my space and make me feel like rubbish there too.
I proceeded to do exactly that.
And it worked. It more than worked: Those girls became my friends. Not hanging out in the schoolyard friends (I’d never be cool enough for that), but in-class-hanging-out-laughing-doing-plays-having-a-ball friends.
One of them asked me, “Why weren’t you like this last year?”
The message was clear. Be yourself! Be yourself times fifty and good things will come. You’ll have more fun. Most importantly: people will like you.
Even Mike McDonald, who relentlessly tortured me in maths class for four years, couldn’t faze me. I just shrugged him off or talked back to him or ignored him with my head held high. Sure, I was scared of him (and clearly I still harbor a minor resentment against him), but he wasn’t going to snuff out my flame.
And so I continued to be me, pretty much from then on.
Great story and life lesson, huh?
Except that it’s not the full story. It’s only a thin story, a half-truth.
Another truth is that this experience taught me to only be one kind of me: the outgoing, talkative, confident, brave, funny, cool girl who doesn’t take garbage from anyone. The girl who says what she thinks without a moment’s hesitation.
The girl who is always happy and never miserable.
The young woman in her twenties who forgot how to cry, and didn’t cry for at least eight years. The woman who had no idea how to be vulnerable, or even what authenticity would feel like. A woman who, as a social worker, could and would help anyone, but didn’t know how to help herself.
All that changed when a significant relationship ended and I had a mini mental breakdown. Flooded with panic, grief, and an intensity of emotion not experienced before, I was a mess. The confident girl deserted me.
I remember lying stiff in bed after not being able to sleep for three days. My best friend was lying beside me talking about the relationship. She was trying to be helpful in the ways she usually was, but this time it didn’t work.
Electricity flooded up and down my body as I began to shake uncontrollably. I felt hot and my heart was thumping. I knew panic was here again, and that I had no control over it. So she simply held my hand and talked me through a meditation, and then something else became clear.
All I could do was ask for help.
And help arrived. From family and friends and a great therapist and places unexpected. From nature and mindfulness and a senior manager at work.
I called my family, and took two weeks off work to stay with my parents in my hometown. My dad took me sightseeing (in my hometown! The most boring place on earth, but I enjoyed it). My mum was a rock, just quietly following family routines, and hugging me when I cried.
I hardly ate and went on long walks with my beloved dog. I think everyone was worried and bewildered. And I was too. Having no choice in the matter maybe even made it easier to succumb to what my body was telling me. Stop. Be.
When I went back to work, the tears came as soon as my caseload was being handed back. But the suggestion to take more time off was abhorrent; too much time alone with my thoughts was the last thing I needed.
The senior then suggested I just come in every day and do all the tasks that usually just sit around and never get done. No clients. It was perfect for a couple more weeks until I found myself naturally drawn back to human contact, and just not so afraid anymore.
And I continued to be surprised about how thoughtful, supportive, and creative people were in taking care of me.
It turns out I may actually be lovable without needing the only be one type of person.
I read books on mindfulness and meditation and practiced every day, sitting by the creek and watching the liquid flow, observing the scary parts disappear around the corner. I saw my counselor more regularly, and with her skilful listening and gentle challenges I began to feel more and more connected to who I was, my history, and what I was feeling.
It took about a year to fully recover, but I can’t tell you how amazing it was the first time that panic feeling rose, and the mantra “Bring It On” popped into my head. I stopped, breathed slowly, and completely dissipated the feeling before anything else happened. It’s never failed me since.
And so, amazingly, I came out the other side a much richer person for having been needier, emotional, and human.
I’ve found a way to be both confident and authentic. I laugh and have fun and freely speak my opinion. But also, tears come easily—sometimes too easily—although these days I am proud of the tears.
When I’m running a group for women survivors and they share their stories, I find myself getting choked up and I tell them, “What you’re saying has really moved me. I’m so privileged to hear you.” The tears speak to what matters most.
Being the “confident girl” was useful and gave me a skill for life, and a valuable lesson about being true to who you are and shouting it from rooftops. But it also taught me the lesson that appeared later in life: only being “confident girl” means shutting off from the dark places, from sadness, from grief, and ultimately genuine connection with other humans, and that’s not worth it.
Finding the girl that can cry and feel and be moody and genuine has allowed me to have richer relationships, connect with lovers, and be myself in all my complications.
It’s multi-storied, as we all are over our lifetime. One story, one experience, might not mean what you’ve currently chalked it up to.
I wonder if this particular story will mean something else again in another ten years? I hope so. Because it’s all about a life of meaning-making, and I want that to be as complex and messy and beautiful and human as is possible, for myself and for others.