We have been forced to go inside, and stay there, much longer than we might like or even feels possible. And yet, here we are.
Written by Bethany Toews.
I used to clean my bathroom with a toothbrush every Sunday. And every night before bed I’d do 300 crunches. I thought anything less than an A was a death knell announcing the end of the world. And I used to think my body was a torture chamber.
It wasn’t until several years later, in my early twenties bent over backwards making a bridge of my body in a beginner’s yoga class, that I had the breakthrough that would finally challenge that belief. My body was in fact the safest place for me to be. Not a prison. Not a war zone. But a beautiful shelter. A barometer and a beacon both. A true place of belonging. And that’s where the real work began. The work of slowing down and learning to be in my body.
Several years after that upside down epiphany I had another realization in the office of a therapist. My first time in such a place. I was in my early thirties picking up the pieces of an imploded dream. A pregnancy, followed by my partner leaving, followed by making what felt like my only choice at the time — the termination of that growing life inside of me. The world ended and all the straight A’s I had collected couldn’t help me anymore.
Devastation doesn’t really do the job of describing what followed. But there I was, trying. Sitting on the couch opposite a stranger, next to a Kleenex box that wasn’t prepared for my offering. And after doing everything I could to explain my pain, the therapist concluded that I was “a recovering overachiever”. And there it was—a title for my until then unnameable mission statement. A road sign to make sense of my unexpected trajectory. From Valedictorian to Summa Cum Laude to a beer bellied and bummed out Midtown Manhattan bartender whose highest ambition had become making it home safe each early morning after work. Buzzed and alone in a dark apartment wondering why no one wanted to touch me anymore.
I was beautiful in high school. Thick shiny hair to my waist. Fit from all the sports and anxiety. Confident from all the achievable goals. And also, miserable. Knife fights waged in my stomach most hours of the day. The doctor labeled it “Irritable Bowel Syndrome”. I labeled it not being able to poop for three days at a time and occasionally blacking out when the abdominal pain reached critical mass. Add to that chronic insomnia and you get a better picture of how a seemingly “normal” person can become highly motivated towards and totally unaware of their propensity for dissociation. Waking up was a nightmare. I often went to school in my pajamas, unbrushed, half asleep, unable to remember how I got there.
To me “normal” was a nervous system under constant stress. I didn’t understand then that I was addicted to perfectionism. To doing. To getting. To proving that I deserved to exist with the exhaustive list of all my achievements. All the impressive things I could do and had done. All the effort put forth at controlling the appearance of my body. All the clubs I joined or activities I participated in. All the honors, and awards, and nods of approval from the sea of appraising heads. Endlessly collecting an excess of ducks for my tidy tidy row.
I was in pain. And I was too young to compile a legible list of all the ways my heart had been broken. All the injuries and traumas we take to be deserved. All the ways we lessen ourselves to make sense of those woundings. It’s too much to understand injustice. That brutal things happen to innocent people is too huge a thing to hold. So I learned to leave. I learned to put all of my focus on everything outside of me. What others thought or felt or wanted or needed. The endless hum of everything else.
But eventually, something happens. Something breaks down. The structures that hold the hiding in place lose their grip and you realize that no amount of running will ever change the landscape of what you’re holding inside. You can’t escape yourself. At the end of the day, there you are. And all the people or hands or words that have hurt you, there they are too. And you need to be able to sit with them, eventually. Or you’ll never be able to sit with yourself.
I wanted to learn how to sit with myself and everything I was hosting. So while I watched other people navigate their early adulthood focused on building careers and following what looked like clearer paths to success, I got lost, intentionally. I didn’t want to be found until I knew where I stood. I wanted to draw my own map. To find out where I actually wanted to go.
With much bumbling, I grew better at letting my body be my compass. I started to rely on my body instead of neglecting or abusing it. I began the lifelong, daily practice of being with the sensations that move through me — to come to know them and learn to understand their communications.By some grace of something I connected with the choices I have and am always making.
I chose to stop. I chose to stop bypassing the moment in pursuit of perfection. I chose to stop devoting myself to the escape — be that a jar of peanut butter in one sitting, or three too many beers, or mindless television, or incendiary attempts at love. I accepted that I had to stop racing ahead of each rising discomfort. I surrendered to the empty, unknowable, unfixable place that I had been avoiding. I became willing to withstand the pain of remembering. Because the body doesn’t forget. And the body, whether you’re out in the world or stuck inside, is where you live. We must learn to come home to ourselves.
I believe that is what this moment is encouraging us to do. We have been forced to go inside, and stay there, much longer than we might like or even feels possible. And yet, here we are. Surviving what we have been sidestepping all this time. Noticing the dust that has collected in the corners that have been neglected. The piles of maybe laters or the drawers full of I’d rather not go there. Here we are, with nowhere to go but in.
So while you’re “stuck” inside, I’d like to offer up the challenge of believing something radical. Something deeply controversial in these highly commodified times. And that is this: You already deserve to exist. You do not have to prove anything. Your presence here is enough. What do you ache to do with that? What joy do you hope to know? What helps you sleep deeply knowing you get to wake to another day? What does that day look like? Have you been living it?
Wearing the Everything Set.
I know, I know, you’ve heard this before. But have you listened? I roll my own eyes as I write these words, and at the same time my belly growls, LISTEN. Be with the sensations that move through you. Do not rush to judge or change what decides to pay a visit. Stop rejecting who you are. Who you are is all you’ve seen and tasted and touched and wished away as well. It’s all right there, inside you. You are a net that is forever gathering your own becoming. You are something new by the time you’ve read this sentence. And you are all the words that led up to this period.
If my words annoy you trust me when I say I’d be annoyed, too. Who am I to say anything? I often ask myself. But I am saying something that I need to be reminded of constantly. I write to take the risk that my need to remind is just our collective need to remember. The will to forget what matters is constantly rewarded by all the billboards we see and fail to notice their affects. I’m just longing for us to pay attention. To come home to our bodies so we can feel what’s true and filter what’s not. I want so deeply for us to be true to each other. But we can’t be true until we confront what keeps us lying. Can you love what you are enough to be honest about it?
Try to be with that question a little longer than might feel comfortable. Hold it in your chest and see what happens in that space. The quivering and shivering and jumping out of windows into dark and uncertain wildernesses. Would you stop running if you knew you weren’t meant to escape your own heart?
I don’t have any answers. I’ve just been collecting questions. I’m overwhelmed and confused and unsure of what I have to offer. And I am still awkwardly trying to slow down. Watching myself race towards some conclusion. Gently calling myself back. I’d like to sink into the space of the simpler things I’ve always wanted to enjoy someday. Today is a good day for the backlog of somedays. So I’m learning a little more about life’s smaller celebrations. I am planting seeds and watching their patient progress. I am baking bread and marveling at how waiting increases deliciousness. And stitch by tiny stitch, I am learning to knit. Spending weeks at a time on an imperfect sweater I’m hoping to wear one day in a room full of closely spaced humans. For now it is enough to use the hands I have. I never really know how each project is going until it’s finished. It’s frustrating and fulfilling both. That is the way of things. We don’t know until we do. But we can go slow enough to notice what is here along the way.