As I continue to tenderly caress the scars and wounds in my soul whilst continuing to learn to lovingly accept my (seemingly many) frailties and imperfections, I’ve reached a point of compassionate assertion within. It’s hard to describe ‘compassionate assertion’ and the phrase doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it’s the best I could do given the somewhat limited nature of words.
For a long time, I wholeheartedly believed in the concept of ‘cause and effect’ when it came to illness and ill-health. The new age, modern spirituality world in which I lived for many years frequently reports of the notion that repressed emotions causes physical ill-health and imbalance. I’ve no doubt there’s truth in these words but it’s far too simplistic a perspective for me. There is undoubtedly a connection between body, mind and soul; imbalances can manifest physically, spiritually and emotionally. Yet, ‘cause and effect’ leaves little room for the grey and smudged edges of being human.
In my personal and professional experience, ‘cause and effect’ can create layers of guilt as it can create a sense of self-blame: ‘I did this to myself’, ‘Why did I do this?’, ‘Only I can fix this?’. As a result, the cycle can intensify as we buckle under the pressure of trying to fix what’s broken, after all, everyone wants to live well so we feel compelled to do all we can to achieve that.
I did this for years. I felt a huge burden of responsibility for everything that was wrong with me, but this perspective wasn’t helping nor was it instigating change; it was simply making me feel worse about myself. I’m the first to admit I’ve got plenty of repressed pain and emotion stuffed inside of me. I’ve soul-searched and dug deep, I’ve also healed on many levels, but, despite being spiritually robust, I’m still physically fragile. I still have repressed ‘stuff’ within, and I always will, but the ‘cause and effect’ belief cycle was more damaging than the repressed emotions themselves.
One day as I sat in a grief-induced and broken haze, feeling a sense of despair and immense guilt for still not being able to heal, I broke. My beliefs shattered. I’d reached a point of realisation that whilst any ‘inner work’ would always help bring equilibrium into my life, my strategy of focusing so hard on trying to untangle the knots within was causing me more suffering rather than alleviating it and I was the only one suffering as a result. I was getting worse and feeling further away from me, and I realised that it was the very nature of looking for a ‘why’ in order to be able to fix it, that was at the heart of the destructiveness. My desire to heal and to work through the concept of ‘cause and effect’ had stomped on me good and proper as I’d managed to tangle myself up in well-intentioned, but highly destructive, knots.
My realisation was simple and succinct:
‘Sometimes things are the way they are because that’s the way they are’.
Okay, I’m the first to admit that this isn’t a particularly revelatory statement but it was for me as it was a sign of a profound inner shift. I could spend the rest of my life trying to unpick and untangle the knots and trying to heal but the cost would be a life un-lived. By accepting my realisation, I wasn’t giving up but I was stopping the violent and bloody battle going on between me, myself and I. So I put down my armour, I sent my trusty steed off for a well-earned graze and I let go. I stopped trying to make sense of my ill-health and I instead chose to start living once again. Instead of trying to heal and fix, I embraced my ‘what is’ and chose to live anyway. It’s not pretty: my ill-health isn’t discrete or polite, but it’s present whether I acknowledge it or not.
I haven’t given up, I’ve simply stopped looking for a why all the time. Nietzsche once wrote: ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’, but for me it was letting go of the need for a why that’s given me courage and strength, reconnecting me more wholeheartedly to life once again.
I’m not a puzzle to be solved, an imperfection to be fixed or a blemish to eradicate; I’m me. I’m not solely a result of my repressed pain and emotion (and I have lots), they’re an integral part of me and no matter how much work I do on myself, I will always have more inside of me as they are a part of being human. Trying to fix them in order to become whole suggests I’m not whole now and I no longer accept that’s the case. Shit happens all the time. A full stop just begins a new sentence, not always one full of challenges and ‘bad’ stuff of course, but we are never immune. Acceptance lifted an immense weight from my shoulders and my soul finally found some room to breathe.
Acceptance finally allowed me to turn to face all the pain, the un-cried tears and the grief within head on. I stopped trying to fix it, heal it, understand it or eradicate it and instead decided to love it as a part of me. I’m learning to wholeheartedly love myself exactly as I am. Compassionate assertion, or perhaps assertive compassion, is loving myself by being myself, warts and all.
These days when someone suggests my genetic condition is a result of repressed pain, emotions or trauma, I smile. Obviously I know the words come from a good heart but I’m in a very different space in myself these days. When I reply with my new mantra: ‘Sometimes things are the way they are because that’s the way they are’. I feel a deep sense of freedom within me. Living in the here and now leaves me nowhere to hide but isn’t that exactly how life should be? Our quest to fix and mend is a distraction from the here and now, sometimes graceful acceptance is the true key to freedom.
In this perfection-seeking world, it’s hard not to feel the pressure of trying to be perfectly perfect: to be one of those who appear to glide through life smiling, emanating a vibe of ‘Everything’s perfect in my world’, seemingly without a care in the world as they have mastered the art of denial. The smiley, happy, wholesome veneer of the new age is, on the whole, well-meaning, but it also presents a falseness that can lead to disempowerment and guilt when we can’t live up to the façade. We feel ‘less than’ because we are not one of those ‘shiny, happy, hold it all together’ people.
These days I’m keeping it real. I still work on my repressed emotions but I love them as they are a part of me. I don’t necessarily like having them in my life but we can’t always have what we want. I’m just me, but I am no longer trying to be the person I think I should be nor am I constantly chasing the horizon of ‘getting life right’ all the time, I’m just living it instead and I’m being myself. Achieving balance and equilibrium is a work in progress but I take each day as it comes and approach it with an open heart and mind.
Disability and illness (whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual) is a part of my ‘what is’ and I’m finally allowing it to bring me some joy and enrichment. I have met some incredible people on my journey through life and I have discovered so much about the human condition. I’m finding peace amongst the chaos and discovering tranquillity in the storms. I’m not a fan of so-called illness inspiration but I see no point in being angry or bitter about it. It is what it is, after all. Of course I have days (even very recently) when my resolve falters and I slip into those deep and painful emotions within and the strain of the daily struggle gets too much but I take a deep breath and it passes. I’m far from perfect! Yet I am no longer trying to eradicate these as they remind me I’m human.
Many still offer me condolences when they hear of my illness but I don’t want that. Maybe their response is more down to their own internal struggles than it is to do with me? I’m learning to live well as me and that includes my many conditions. I don’t want pity or sympathy, just love and compassion. I don’t want judgment, just acceptance. I’m finally learning what happiness truly is, don’t try to fix me…
In truth, I’d never really acknowledged just how challenging it would be for me to put my struggles down in writing and then share them openly and wholeheartedly with others. I had no idea how it would feel to become completely vulnerable and transparent leaving myself nowhere left to hide. I had no idea how my confession of brokenness would be treated; in this world of ‘love and light’ spirituality, would acknowledging my fragility and lack of robustness be seen as ‘less than’ and I’d be dismissed as damaged goods? When I pressed the send button I had no notion of just how many people would read ‘The Year I Broke’ nor could I comprehend how many messages it would trigger. However, hearing the words of love, support, compassion and unity of so many from so many different places on the planet, warmed my heart and soul to it’s very core.
We often suffer and struggle in isolation and disconnection; we pull back from life when things get tough which leaves us feeling awkward and disjointed like a misshapen piece of the universal jigsaw puzzle we call life. We all have times when we feel fragmented and broken; unable to reach out to others through a fear of judgement or rejection. We try to present the façade of being whole and complete as we know that many don’t really want to hear the truth when they ask how we’re doing or feeling: ‘fine’ is all they want to hear. We also try to kid ourselves that a smile and ‘keep on keeping on’ approach will fix and heal. After a while, we begin to assume that no one wants to truly know our pain and we smile stoically trying to keep up the pretence, trying to fool everyone – including ourselves – that we’re coping. And yet, the more we try to hide away the truth of our pain and the depths of our feelings, the more they intensify and grow as we begin to buckle under the strain.
Last year I reached a point where the intensity of my disconnection, desolation and despair grew even deeper as life events exposed, and then trampled upon, the delicacy of the fine-line I walk when it comes to ‘holding it all together’. I tried desperately to rush around picking up the shattered pieces before anyone noticed but I couldn’t muster the energy; there was nothing left. I was struggling to breathe, my mind was unravelling and my spirit shattering as the raging torrent of ‘stuff’ inside me whipped up into a frenzy. It was hard to know what to do with it as it was so intense and powerful; it consumed me. I couldn’t keep trying to contain it as it split me open and tore me apart.
In truth, when I feel this fragile, all I want is to return to the safe place from my childhood: under the kitchen sideboard resting in a basket of freshly dried washing listening to the reassuring sound of the whirring washing machine. I felt so safe there. I wanted push the world away, weep uncontrollably and get back into the safety of my own little world and stay there. But I couldn’t, I’d nowhere left to hide anymore as every corner, nook and cranny had been used already. I didn’t even have the language to navigate and articulate myself away from my pain as it all felt too raw, my emotional core was exposed and exquisitely sore and I was drowning.
When I go into that desolate space I’d previously only ever sensed two options available to me: 1) box it up and push it back inside or 2) end. I have never opted for the latter, obviously, but I have felt perilously close at times. Yet, I know there’s a third way: to talk about it, express it and to stop stuffing it all inside of me. After all, how could I have a healthy relationship with life if I didn’t have one with myself? Yet, I’d always fought hard to keep it inside and hold it together; I feared I’d shatter if I let it out.
I’ve pushed the pain away; I wouldn’t acknowledge it, allow it or accept its presence in my life. Of course, it’s hard to face reality when it’s so painful, and it’s hard to bring acceptance or grace into every day when every day feels so heavy and arduous. Yet, it is my reality, and it’s ultimately my perception of this that flavours it. So, if I continue to carry these burdens, how will I ever set myself free? Indeed, I wonder if there is such a thing as being totally free. Of course, intuitively I know that freedom comes from within, but as my within was so choked and suffocated with repressed pain, grief and emotion, freedom felt a million miles away. It wasn’t a million miles away, but as long as I continued to believe it was, it would always be out of reach.
So, the time came to stop spending my days simply using up perfectly good oxygen and creating greenhouse gases. I became ready to open up my heart and soul in order to step beyond my pain, to admit my failings and fragility, to accept that I’m not perfect, to be willing to be vulnerable, and to not be afraid to falter in the presence of others. My stoicism wasn’t fooling anyone any more, well, other than some of my hospital consultants who still take my smile at face value (although I must admit I do wear it well after so many years of practice).
Yet, wanting to break free and change isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. I was aware of the changes I needed to make but until life pushed me to the brink of collapse I didn’t know how to implement them. It was only when I broke that I realised I was over-thinking the situation. I didn’t need instructions, I just needed to let go and be real.
I think most importantly I’ve accepted that my stoical smile isn’t fooling me as I can’t believe the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ positive thinking anymore. It’s not that I don’t believe in the power of positive thought; I’ve just decided to opt for realistic thinking instead. I’m turning to face myself with honesty and authenticity, I’m beginning to acknowledge my pain, my grief, my anger and my fear. I’m finally allowing myself to experience them as they are important facets in the spectrum of my life. I can’t push them away any more, I need to face them, befriend them, and find a way to live well with them as they are an intrinsic part of me.
Whilst I may have a way to go before I start loving these difficult emotions, I’ve realised the importance of trying not to fight or resist them. The residues of grief and pain have etched deep engravings into my heart and soul; they have helped to shape and define my essence. They are no less a part of me than joy or love and they make me, me. When I finally acknowledged the truth that I was the biggest obstacle holding myself back, I began to see a deeper and more enriched picture of the intricate and tangled web I’ve weaved over the years in a seemingly futile attempt to stay ‘safe’.
I feared letting others in. I feared them discovering the real me and feeling so disappointed as I wasn’t ‘Miss Everything’s Wonderful in My World’. I feared them walking away as a result. I feared them getting close. Yet, an even bigger fear was the fear I had of myself: I wouldn’t gaze into my own depths as I felt ‘less than’ because I wasn’t the superwoman I thought I should be. Of course, in hindsight, I now know there was never anything to fear, but hindsight is easy with the benefit of hindsight! Whilst in the midst of turmoil and disconnection, it’s hard to think rationally about anything much.
The Day I Woke was a powerful one for me. I had just been told I needed major high-risk surgery. My consultant mentioned death a few times and, during the conversation, I realised that I no longer held any fear of death; although I wasn’t (and I’m still not) overly keen to die, I was at peace with myself. I have much I still want to achieve in life and I have a rich enthusiasm for the preciousness of life but I had found peace with the only truly inevitable thing: death. It was only when I reached this point, I realised that when death holds no fear, everything changes including fear itself. I refused the surgery which has potentially created an even bigger risk but I’m at peace with my choice. Intuitively I know I’ve made the right decision for now.
I felt a profound and exquisite peace rising up within me as the turmoil quietened and I re-connected to an essence that danced and laughed within every single one of the billions of cells in my being. I had woken and I felt as though I had been given a new chance at life. I am still processing the somewhat profound shifts within me as I grow accustomed to the giggling, dancing sprite-like energy within me as it feels at a tangent to the somewhat fragile and broken figure I see looking back at me in the mirror. Yet, my eyes are bright and the fire in my soul is radiating brightly. Finally, I feel alive, tantalisingly awake and exquisitely connected to life (and to myself) exactly as it is.
Someone once said ‘to find real peace you have to let the armour go’. Mine fell away during the year I broke and rather than trying to find replacements or welding together the shattered fragments into some kind of Frankenstein-esque armour, I’m finding strength in my vulnerability and open-heartedness. I have no idea what tomorrow, next week or even today will bring but that’s okay. Whilst I can’t pretend that everything’s now rosy and perfect in my world because it isn’t. I feel more awake than ever before but I’m still fragile and delicate. Breaking may have been a gift but it will take time to restore a true sense of equilibrium in my body, mind and soul.
My world turned upside down and tossed my spirit about like a ragdoll and it continues to do so. As I continue to peel back layers and make peace with myself there are still violent lurches as life continues in it’s own unpredictable way, yet, it’s okay as although I still have no idea who I am becoming or where I am heading, I am me and that is enough and it’s incredible because it’s exactly as it’s meant to be. I’m finally learning to love the inherently unpredictable and confusing nature of being human and, most importantly, I’m learning to love myself (imperfections, frailties and quirks included) with every ounce of my being…