MMax Retro Read: [Nourish] A New Experience
At seventeen, Janis Ian learned that love was meant for beauty queens; I began unlearning that same truth. I’m twenty-seven now, and recognizing my worth is still an ongoing practice, just as it is for those I love. As I watch people I care about struggle to set aside shame in favor of vulnerability and connection, I find myself returning to some of the same lessons I started putting voice to more than a decade ago. I speak my own truths a little differently these days, but the messages remain largely unchanged. Here then, in lieu of new writing, is how I put that truth as a teenager. May it mean something to you in 2012.
No matter how long it’s taken you to come to this point, no matter how many times you’ve slipped back or stayed still when you needed to move forward, you are not to blame. You did not sabotage your life. You did not choose to experience pain while aware of an alternative. You have, up until this point, seen what you were doing as necessary. Maybe it was the lesser of two pains. Maybe it seemed to help you in the moment, when you didn’t know how else to continue. Maybe it felt deserved, or it allowed you to punish yourself when you didn’t feel worthy of compassion. Up until this point, this means helped you to feel safe in a circumstance where true security seemed impossible. You have been aware of all the risks of continuing this path- the dangers other people see clearly- but you are also aware of the danger of not continuing. You also sense the lack of safety in giving up this device that has allowed you to live, even when it hurts you.
You feel the fear that others exhibit as you hurt yourself. You aren’t immune to it, and you, too, are likely frightened of what will happen to you if you can’t stop. At the same time, you have no idea how to stop. Somewhere, over the years, you survived immense pain, and you don’t feel capable of going back into that. You don’t feel capable of living through that sort of pain again, and you can’t realize right now that you don’t deserve to. You don’t deserve to experience that sort of life; you never did. The people who rally around you now talk of taking away the only way you know to cope with your life because they see it as the danger. They don’t understand yet that the pain you have experienced led to your using this strategy, and that losing it now could put you back in that helpless position. They don’t know yet that as frightened as you are of your position, to be in that position without any means of coping would be worse.
In order to start moving forward, you need understanding. You need to share your experience and your fears about what letting go will mean. Questions that go unasked rarely receive answers. Hearing others’ experiences won’t instantly change your own, and in all likelihood you will still feel afraid, but you may find relief in starting to voice the reasons you can’t imagine choosing not to continue on in the manner you have up until this point. Outside reassurance probably won’t cure your anxiety, but starting to speak up is a step in itself. Sometimes, when the first step seems too difficult, it isn’t the first step. Sometimes, the first step is talking about why you feel you cannot move. Be honest about your thoughts, and stay open to those who respectfully challenge them. Listen to what they have to say and evaluate it for yourself. Consider how it might help you to test what has been true for them in your own life. Understand that it will take time to change your thoughts. Your thoughts come from your experience, and at this point, your experience is still limited to pain. As you have new experience, your thoughts may change. Understand that what you believe is a choice; if something sounds like a “nice idea” you can assimilate it into your experience in time. However, you can also be gentle with yourself and understand that your old thoughts had a lengthy period to develop and may take time to dismantle.
New experience leads to new ideas. New ideas also lead to new experience. What we’re talking about now is something new, a life that you have not experienced, that comes out of your strength, courage, and hard work. As those around you better understand your pain, they will feel the same desire to keep you safe from it as they do to keep you safe from you destructive coping mechanism. With these people to support you, you can start experiencing, small step by small step, the sort of life you have always deserved: one where you have real power in your experience, where you can feel safely, and where your needs are met. Recovery involves exploring your past as a means of instating change in your life; it’s not a path back into your pain. In reality, it’s the truest way to free yourself from that pain – because instead of avoiding it, you begin healing it. You truly pass through it on your way into a new experience. You transform.
And you deserve this.