When I consider my life, it is usually divided into two parts: Before and After. Before – before a proper diagnosis. After – after a proper diagnosis. This distinction isn’t some fleeting thought I have when I open a scrap book. It’s the way I tell my story, to myself and to others. I have rationalized a dozen different reasons for this distinction but, privately, I know that only one is true. I want to draw a bright red X on the calendar and say, “This is the day I stopped being a terrible person.” That is how shame operates. Shame is a liar. Shame will steal a memory and replace it with a sharp pain in your belly and a tightening in your chest. Others can foster shame, but it feeds on your hurt and regret. In my desperation to distance myself from Before, I ripped my life in half and gave the big piece to shame. When that happens, shame becomes emboldened and far less afraid of the light.
During Before, I lived an entire life; a rich and complicated life. I reached out for help so many times over the years, but never with any real conviction, or perhaps just never in the right direction. I did a bit of drinking and drugging, searched for comfort in the bodies of others, and made impulsive, sometimes self-destructive, decisions. Later, seeking something more ethereal, I joined a women’s collective, studied Sufism, and moved to a Biodynamic Farming Community in New York State. In between, I got married and divorced, raised an amazing step-daughter and a willful little beagle, traveled, ran a marathon and went back to college. Still, no matter where I was, each of these experiences, though important, brought me no closer to true wellness. I was sick, and as the years went by, I was getting sicker. In spite of all my efforts, eventually, Before became unbearable.
When I finally found help, it lived an entire state away. I understood, that for me, I couldn’t stay well under the same circumstances in which I’d become sick. Over the course of a single weekend, I packed my belongings into a U-Haul and drove across state lines, into an entirely new world. That began After. I found a psychiatrist, got the right medication and began therapy. With the support of my husband and family, I settled in and began building an entirely different life – a life lived with care, education, and intention. I kept my appointments, took my meds, made healthy choices, and created a support system. I read, listened and talked to the anyone who would share their story. Every day, I learned something new. I thought because my old life was becoming smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, that it was also becoming less and less important. That’s not true, you know?
A few days ago, someone I care for a great deal unexpectedly decided it was time to walk away from our friendship. She was the last real connection between my two lives. I am sad; so much sadder than I expected. This moment is very fresh so I am trying to remain present. In moments like this, if you aren’t careful, the past will grab hold and drag you back. This parting means I am no longer tethered to her or the hurt I caused her, but it also means I am also no longer tethered to the me that she loved. I am self-aware enough to admit that I held onto her much longer than I should have because I wanted to be forgiven. That isn’t her job. Her job is self-care. She needed to move on and I cannot begrudge her that.
As I sit here, trying to process this (what should I call it?) loss, it occurs to me (why wasn’t this clear to me sooner) that I have voluntarily given shame the entirety of Before. That is more than half my life! That can’t be right. No wonder shame has made himself so comfortable at my kitchen table, eating handfuls of calendar squares. Somehow, along the way, my memories got tangled up with my illness and it simply became easier to let shame take it all. But here’s the thing, THE MOST IMPORTANT THING, about Before and After: everything Before wasn’t terrible and everything After isn’t perfect. It’s a mixed bag. Life is messy that way.
A million amazing, ordinary, terrible and wonderful moments happen in a lifetime and they’re all connected. It’s all one story. Let me say that again – It’s all one story and it’s your story. It may be complicated but it belongs to you. Don’t let anyone else tell it for you. Maybe I can find a place on my calendar for this moment: a bright red X to remind me that loss feels terrible but you can’t go back and change anything. There are no mulligans in real life. What you can do, instead, is find somewhere safe to be, identify your allies, embrace your past, tell your own story, fight like hell to stay healthy and be gentle with yourself when you fall. Your past isn’t a minefield, it’s a history book. Use it!
P.S. To the girl on the bicycle, I will miss you terribly.