I walked slowly, accompanied only by the broken disc in my spine and a fuzzy Vicodin hangover, to Cedars Sinai Hospital for back surgery.
I can hear how it sounds when I tell people now about my solo venture. Strange, desperate, crazy even, though I suppose it felt normal then, or at least like the best option I could come up with at the time. I had only been in Los Angeles for two months, and had no “in case of emergency” person programmed into my phone, or into what was supposed to be my new, perfect life. I had left New York feeling defeated by a city that I could never make feel like home, only to end up feeling beaten again, just by a different coast.
Two weeks earlier, I had taken a cab to my first-ever emergency room visit, because I was too embarrassed to call an ambulance for help while sobbing in my sunny, yellow and white kitchen. As I cried in the backseat of the taxi, not-so-silent tears running down my cheeks, the cab driver seemed nonplussed, as if he had seen it all before, as if there was nothing original about me, especially my pain.
So when my scheduled surgery date arrived, I chose to walk the half-mile to the hospital instead. I remember calling my mom, across the country in New Jersey, straining to hear her voice over the traffic noise on Third Street in a city where no one walks, trying to reassure her that I was fine. I was testing myself, perhaps, proving I could still walk a half-mile, before going under the knife and whatever would happen there. They make you sign a release form that says you might not walk again. It also says you might die, but you can’t dwell on that.
A nurse, who smelled faintly of antiseptic and rubber-soled shoes, checked me into pre-op before the doctor arrived and asked who was waiting to bring me home after surgery. No one is waiting for me; I’ll be fine, I told her resolutely, silencing her questions. She didn’t inquire further; she just looked at me sadly, as though being alone was the real tragedy rather than that broken fragment of disc floating around my lower back.
There is a difference between the look that says Oh you poor thing, going into surgery, and Oh you poor thing, going into surgery, and you’re alone.
She didn’t realize that alone is what I know. It’s where I’m comfortable. Loneliness has been a faithful companion to me, the kind of loneliness that comes from never showing anyone your truest self, because you’re sure if they saw the real you, they would run the opposite direction and you would be alone anyway.
The weeks following surgery were mostly spent in a self-imposed solitary confinement, on my couch, watching trashy TV or just staring out the window. June gloom, they call it in Los Angeles, where a cool mist hangs over everything, sometimes allowing a hazy sun to shine through in the afternoons, but not that summer. That summer the darkness never lifted, outside or inside. It pressed down on me like a lover whose weight was crushing the breath and life out of me, but from whom I didn’t know how to escape.
At night, I would cry. Because I thought I might never feel better. Because I feared I would never be able to run, or practice yoga, or do anything I wanted to do, ever again. Mostly because I worried I would feel this alone forever.
I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t know how to accept the help that was offered. How could I let anyone know what was really going on, that I was not fine?
Who was I to ask someone to save me?
I wonder if I have ever felt like I was good enough.
There have been glimpses, here and there, certainly. Maybe for a few longer moments, like the time in the sixth grade when I got to play one of the leads in the school musical, and had the most lines in the show (I counted). There was me, center stage, with my ill-advised bangs, and braces, and acne, and I think I even had a perm, and my costume was my own souvenir t-shirt from our trip to Florida with something scrolled across the back in neon.
I must have bragged about my stardom more than once. A family friend made some remark to the effect of, “well, aren’t you proud of yourself” with her eyebrows raised, and I knew instantly that this was a bad thing, being proud of myself, or maybe just talking about it. I can still feel the flaming in my cheeks and the burning pit of shame in my stomach. And I immediately was knocked back down to not good enough, remembering that I hadn’t even gotten the role in the first place. I had only gotten it because someone dropped out or got sick and they needed someone else to fill in and I was available since I hadn’t made the cut the first time around.
And then I remembered that I also didn’t make the choir that year either, the special choir that you had to audition for that got to go to Hershey Park at the end of the year. You could smell the chocolate in the air all the way from the highway, and the ones who made it would get to spend the whole day running around the park, eating chocolate and riding roller coasters before they got on stage to sing “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Candle on the Water” in a competition that would award trophies to the winners. I got to go anyway that year, at the last minute, because someone else dropped out, or got sick, and they needed someone to fill in.
I resigned myself to being the fill-in, since I never seemed to be good enough to be what I wanted: the first choice.
So I adapted. By following things that came easily, that involved less risk, that were safe. But always looking over my shoulder for that voice that would tell me that I wasn’t good enough.
And what you look for, you find.
When the soccer coach suggested that I wasn’t likely to be a starter on next year’s team, I took it as a cue to stop playing. I’m not good enough.
When the algebra teacher said, “well, I’m not trying to make you feel stupid”, I accepted that I was doomed to fail algebra. I’m not good enough.
When I was dumped, from yet another failed relationship. I’m not good enough.
When the voice teacher said “you’ll never be one of the great opera singers”, I said ok, and thank you and I guess I’ll transfer into the business school. I’m not good enough.
I don’t know why it never occurred to me that it might not be true.
When the refrain of I’m not good enough plays on an endless loop in your head, you start to hear it in surround sound. It becomes easier to just not try. You can avoid rejection if you never open yourself up enough to be rejected.
You reject yourself before anyone else can.
Until you meet someone who doesn’t allow it anymore.
Another surgery, nearly four years later. This time I can drive myself, to the dentist’s office where my gums will be fixed. The nurse here gives me that Oh you poor thing look, but it’s not the one I had dreaded, full of pity and judgment. There’s just simple empathy this time. I settled on my couch afterwards, anxiously prepared for a repeat performance of lonely, party of one.
Except, this time, things are different. I am different.
The evidence was all around me. There was my friend, outside my house that first night with a balloon and cookies for me, unexpected and uninvited, but not at all unwelcomed. And then the next day, another friend stopped by to visit and eat ice cream and remind me that I wasn’t at all alone. Yet another friend offered to bring me soup or mashed potatoes, and checked in on me regularly. And the next day it happened again. All at once, there was no room for loneliness on my couch.
And in the spaces between visits, there was no crying this time, no gloom. Instead, there was reading, thinking, writing. Not ever knowing if it would be good enough but doing it anyway. Coming to understand that maybe, just maybe, there is no good enough.
What was closed is now opening. What was dejected is now hopeful. What was empty is now filling, slowly but surely.
This is what happens, I think. This is what happens when a life blossoms.
You asked me to tell you how my life has changed and I couldn’t tell you.
You asked me to write about what was different and I couldn’t find the words.
But I can point. To what was before, and what is now.
This. THIS is how a life is changed.
A single email, sent to you in desperation, late one night, that opens the floodgates. The unearthing of the art that opens my heart, and fills my soul. Five retreats, each of them moving me closer to the life I didn’t even know I always wanted. The self-confidence, and also humility that comes from traveling to foreign lands, bringing experiences that forever alter my perspective and expand my thinking. The safety that exists within a supportive tribe of people, who allow for trial and failure, and picking myself back up again and doing better next time. The stripping down of relationships, often painfully, to their core, in order to rebuild them, this time from a place of truth. The forming of new ones, for all of the right reasons this time.
The softness brought on by vulnerability, after so many years of the hardness of I’m fines. Learning to actually say, out loud, I’m not fine. Countless yoga classes, with mantras like kindness and gratitude, which brought about the gradual quieting of that I’m not good enough refrain, no longer looked for or heard in surround sound. Posing in downdog atop a horse, unsure of what it looked like, or what might happen next, but feeling both free and grounded instead of my usual anxiety. The awareness and acceptance of the need for help, and the grasping for it when it arrives. Taking risks, small ones perhaps, but risks nonetheless. The sighting of beauty all around me, where before there had been blindness.
The right person, at the right time, answering that desperate email, believing in you, and in who you can become.
This. This is how a life is changed.
Katie chronicles her journeys on her blog Confessions of An Imperfect Life. Her work has appeared on sites including Thought Catalog, XOJane, The Manifest-Station, MindBodyGreen, Medium and Rebelle Society. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen will be leading a Manifestation Retreat in Costa Rica at the end of March and her annual retreat to Tuscany is in July 2014. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing and for ALL levels. Read this post to understand what a Manifestation retreat is. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Jen and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October.