“What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?” ― Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Modern success stories always go the same way. Some formerly overweight, addicted, sad, single, hopeless, directionless woman who has lost 200 pounds and kicked heroin is sitting in her tastefully decorated apartment next to her ratty old fatpants promoting her new travel weight loss blog which is now her full time job. Her cookbook is coming out next month in hardcover, and she’ll be on a book tour through Europe in the spring. Her emotionally intelligent, extremely attractive, sexually experienced life partner she met buying heirloom beets at the farmers market is by her side. He works in tech and loves to cook and snuggle and do laundry. She’s healthy, fit, confident, beautiful, creative, and everyone is waiting with baited breath to find out how she did it.
“What’s your secret, amazing, perfect woman? How did you lose 200 pounds in a year? Did you really run two marathons last month? Are you planning your DIY wedding on Pinterest? What’s your recipe for humane hobo hummus burgers? It’s sooooo romantic that you guys do acro yoga together. I totally want to start a food and travel blog, I just haven’t had the time, do you have any tips? How do I get thin and beautiful and find my dream job and my soul mate? What kind of mascara do you recommend? I’m sorry, just one more question, HOW CAN I GET YOUR PERFECT LIFE? “
And the answer is always the same.
“I just woke up one day and realized I didn’t want to live that way anymore.” There’s always a couple paragraphs about how she just started eating a few vegetables instead of entire large pizzas from Domino’s, and just suddenly stopped wanting heroin, like cold turkey. After a few trips to the gym, she discovered she loves Pilates and kickboxing, and running 20 miles every two days. She can’t believe how she just forgets to eat sometimes now. It was easy from there, the blog and cookbook just wrote themselves because so many people identified with her journey. And she met Blane Blandwell, dreamy tech chef sex god emotional empath just by accident because it was meant to happen that way. Soulmates. It was easy!
Oh my god, just fuck right off.
I’m sure there are some people who are able to jettison their negative habits, self harming addictions, bad behavior, self loathing, and emerge from the metamorphosis a delicate butterfly all in one go because they just decide to do it. Sure. That’s a thing. That just doesn’t happen to me because I’m not trying hard enough or buying the right products or going to the right fucking beet stand.
Changing yourself isn’t a straight line to jackpot city that happens because you want it to kind of.
What’s the real story?
What does it look like to decide to take off the mask and choose authenticity and live the life you know is true inside instead of the one you built to hide your pain?
Where does that start?
Isn’t it more accurate to admit that progress, growth, permanent, meaningful change is a fucking slog, a daily Fight Club where we are bleached blond Jared Leto getting his face destroyed most days? It is days that feel wasted in jobs we hate, forcing ourselves onto the spinning bike after sitting in the parking lot for 15 minutes thinking about how much better it would be to be watching Fringe right now. It’s moving into half pigeon pose in yoga and crying quietly because you feel such an intense emotional release and you will never see your father again. It’s immediately doing wheel for the first time in 13 years right after that, because YOU ARE A POWERFUL, STRONG MOTHERFUCKING EARTH GODDESS.
Progress is eating two Tiff’s Treats in a row instead of drinking six drinks at a bar and fucking a stranger because you can’t feel anything. It’s getting knocked down by disappointment, rejection, heartbreak, and indifference a thousand times and still being able to say “I think you’re magical” and mean it, even if no one ever says that to you. Success is getting far away from your worst days , becoming smug, then finding yourself right back and the fucking base of the mountain again because you just weren’t paying attention.
Growth is learning how to adapt, meaning there is no one answer, no set of instructions to guide you through to the end. You have to adjust for the person you become, because that person needs different whys than the you from ten years ago. You have to just keep going, even when it seems impossible to exist. When you throw your love into the ocean and she comes right back to you, like a boomerang, and you let her, because you have no regrets.
I didn’t start trying to change myself because I wanted to be fancy and beautiful and admired. I wanted character and integrity. I wanted to be a person people could count on. I wanted to do work that matters. I wanted to build a family of people who I love and who love me, so we could take care of each other in this heap of wires. I didn’t know how to help other people so I just decided to help myself. I wanted to wake up in the morning and feel like I deserved another day on this planet, and I wanted to be present for it.
For most people, their rock bottom isn’t some kind of near death hell that can be fixed with a fad diet or a few days at the gym. It’s quiet desperation and prolonged suffering. Success doesn’t just knock on your door, not even after years of trying to invite it in. You have to go looking for it. You have to get a goddamn scalpel and cut the monster out of your chest while you’re wide awake, and then do it again when it comes back. And again. And again. And again.
I spent years running away from the worst parts of myself, trying to bury them, drug them, ignore and deny and not feel so much. Not feel anything.
What did failure teach me? It taught me that I am strong beyond belief, wise beyond my years, and that my heart has no bounds, my love has no limits. Nothing can break me permanently. The only way to lose is to stop giving a shit, and for me, that’s impossible because life is too fantastic to miss.
Not feeling is not something I am capable of. I would have to be dead. I have been dead. I have gone into the far reaches of my heart and soul and mind and understood that vulnerability and intuition are gifts. It took ages of trying to drown myself to realize I can breathe underwater. I can breathe in space. I can go into the light and the dark and disappear and find myself again. Empathy, compassion, curiosity, authenticity, fearlessness – these are my superpowers, my best parts. As I struggle through the hard things, I realized that my monsters and my power come from the same place. My scars and my wounds are where I carry my wisdom. My skinned knees and patchwork heart hold all my love. And it only gets bigger, deeper, wider. Compassion is how we experience infinity.
Inside of each of us, there is a polarity. We are constantly at war with ourselves to change, to be different, to be better. We tell ourselves how we have failed, and we punish ourselves. We live in fear of the dark parts. But we cannot have superpowers without the monsters. Our success stories are not straight lines to the top of Candy Mountain. We walk in circles, spirals, jagged, crystalline, intersecting dimensions that we can’t even see, but that all lead us back to ourselves. Within is where the perfection is, light and dark together. We grow by being the magical tortoise. Just get up. Keep going. Fail again. Fail better.