Summer 2014 spiked in sweltering temperatures. Trying to tame my rising khaki skirt, I chased down the bus every morning. I claimed my seat, avoided eye contact with the other passengers, and inserted my earbuds. Index finger to my iPod, without fail, I began every morning of summer 2014 with “I wanna get better” by The Bleachers. The chorus shouted “I wanna get better” in the background of the lyrics– a rousing echo, a chant to somehow overcome a difficult time.
Jack Antonoff wrote “I Wanna Get Better” about losing his sister at eighteen. How, as his peers gleefully flew into the world, he grappled with loss, mortality, depression. He writes, “I didn’t know I was broken until I wanted to change”. That is how I feel currently– I could not assess the carnage of my survival until I decided that I no longer wanted to merely survive. I want to live, to flourish, to thrive.
You know part of this awakening, Reader. You know that I admitted myself to the hospital less than a month ago. I loomed in the psych ward for twelve hours. I walked home at 1:30 am. I returned to the office at 9:30 am the same day. My pattern in every traumatic experience ever to mar me is that I miss no beats in returning to my previous routine. No healing blooms when the focus is performing “better” as opposed to getting better. Better takes time. It is ugly and uncomfortable and demands grace to accomplish. I recognize this because I’ve devoted all my energy to convince everyone around my that I am fine. I’m great! I’m smiling! The problem has not left. The force which drove me to this point is very prominent in my life, and I now know I need to make changes.
My eating varies wildly without regulation or stability. I cannot gage how I feel. My head orbits in an unreachable galaxy. Every time I go through a rough patch, I date like a madwoman. I don’t have to like myself if someone else likes me. The pursuer undertakes my emotional labor. I rely on the dopamine rush of knowing I am wanted, the intoxication of exchanges, the electricity of touch. Still, attention is a hollow placeholder; it takes up so much space but carries no weight. Last weekend, I blacked out from drinking. The last time I did that, I was nineteen– a coping mechanism in the wake of assault. Nothing consequential befell me, thankfully. I was unharmed in both instances, and I, you guessed it– went right back to my so-busy-you’re-head-will-turn routine. Busy manifests itself in so many normal rituals. I’ve hid my negligence in plain sight.
Trauma sunk its teeth into me at such a young age, I did not recognize it for what it was. I knew it was bad, abnormal. Goodness was something I needed to prove, and as I walked away from that pivotal moment, the drive to earn my worth roared through every cell. This is what I have done so many times, Reader. From girlhood into adulthood: Bathrooms, dark offices, bars where I couldn’t get away, bedrooms I didn’t recognize, cold tile floors, sometimes with an audience and sometime when it was just the two of us– they all became the first act in a longer performance. Act two onward hinged on me being the triumphant, strong, bubbly heroine. Age incorporated martyrdom into the scenes. I grew into a caretaker. I relish caring for others. In so many moments, someone preyed on my vulnerability, and to engage with people in a moment of softness and give them all the things I needed in my moments does feel like a subversive act. It is healing. Yet, care taking is a distraction. If my hands are always tending to others, I’m rendered useless for myself. Martyrdom is rooted in the idea that I am not good enough on my own, so I have to always prove my goodness, my value, the validity of my existence.
I am good enough. Tears fill my eyelids as those words appear. Intellectually, I accept the concept that my existence is inherently valid. Emotionally, it is another story. My emotional landscape is so scorched by my unresolved traumas. I stunted my emotional growth in performing normalcy. While this is a fact, I flog myself for every human reflex my body exerts. I gotta give myself a break. There is no reward at the end of self-loathing. There is no gold emerging from a split self. Half of my scar tissue is self-inflicted. I cannot be my biggest oppressor anymore.
One of the hardest aspects of recovery is that the are no external metrics. We could argue that the absence of relapses, presence of healthy habits, etc– qualify better, but really, there is no checklist. My better rests on the rightness of my soul. Recovery demands that I trust myself. A way I redeemed myself from my traumas was to exceed the metrics set forth by external entities. Grades, race times, dance steps, yoga poses, accomplishments– every one a step away from ruin. Now, there is no metric to save me. I thought my savior would arrive on a white horse or in an envelope, but my savior beats in my chest. It has been with me all along, I just couldn’t hear it until I was ready.
I wanna get better– not thinner or richer or prettier or more successful. I want to feel warmth that doesn’t come at the expense of setting myself on fire. My strength isn’t a performance. My joy isn’t a performance. So many of those positive traits are real. The authentic root of those traits is how I perform them so well. Regardless, I will endure. Human beings transcend out of necessity more than anything else. So, while I have overcome traumas, many have overcome much worse. That is not to discount my story, but simply to say that it is just a story and everyone has one.
There is a future, and I am in it. In this future, I am not enduring, though I have for the first twenty-five years of my life. Survival mode is antiquated here. In this future, my head rolls back to the sunshine on a Sunday afternoon, and things don’t hurt as much (or even at all). The years ahead of me burn with hope, promise, joy, travel, kids I’ll hopefully bear, poems ringing in my ears, songs commanding my feet, and jokes that keep me laughing long after the punchline. I can tackle the hardships. Conquer is written in my footsteps. I welcome the bitter winters because I am spring incarnate. I will melt the ice. My intention is to not also burn myself in the process.
My present is pretty damn good. I am loved beyond human measure, and I love with the radiance of a star much bigger than the sun. There are places I’ve yet to see and friends I’ve yet to meet, and thank god for that. My body is healthy– a miracle in that it has housed such violence, and yet welcomes ecstasy like an old friend. I reject positivity culture. I don’t write these things to make you feel better. I don’t share my traumas as some resilience narrative. The last hope I have for my work is that it be fashioned into some kind of inspiration-porn– objectified for some BS “Live. Laugh. Love” agenda. When I confide these truth in you, reader, I do it because life is not black and white. Mine isn’t gray, either. My life is so colorful it makes rainbows feel unstated. It is messy and ripe and mine. I want it to be really good. I want it to be great. But the only way that happens is if I get better.
Summer 2014 sandwiched itself between a strenuous academic semester and my life changing experience at LeaderShape. I did not think things were bad. They weren’t, but I wanted to get better. Better arrived with the unburdening of my shoulds, a recommitment to my purpose, and daring greatly. I can measure summer ’14 in 3:24 second increments– the time “I wanna get better” takes to play, and at the end of those repeats came LeaderShape: where I met my best friend and built a new community. LeaderShape is how I knew to apply for a TEDTalk and jolted my spirit with confidence. , I reprise “I wanna get better”. I am daunted by the work ahead: therapy, meds, loving loudly and perhaps not getting it back. I may be poor by the end of this. This may not be pretty, and perhaps, I won’t be either through this. Better is a silent force, only revolving herself in hindsight. Yet, I am more excited than afraid. “I didn’t know I was broken ’til I wanted to change”. I’ve never broken into a smaller woman. The breakdown, in retrospect, has been little more than the dramatic start to a glorious new plane. It has to be dramatic. It has to wash me clean and erode all the pretenses and performances. So, I sit here: alone, raw, uncertain– all the ingredients ripe for the recipe of better.