I’ve hit rock bottom more times than I can count over the course of my life. I always prided myself on my resolve to take each of these moments as a lesson and push forward to become bigger, better, and brighter than ever. At times it’s been incredibly difficult and sometimes damn near impossible to pick myself and keep going. But I did it, time and time again, each time feeling more confident than the last that I’d be ready for the next speed bump I hit.
Unfortunately you never can quite prepare for what life is going to throw at you. My psychologist told me yesterday that anxiety is an evolutionary adaptation — that it’s our body’s backwards way of alerting us to potential threats. In the wild, animals have to stay alert to any potential threat to their survival. As humans, when we experience a threatening situation, we develop defense mechanisms to prevent that situation from occurring again. Subconsciously, we often wind up perceiving an attack where there isn’t one in order to protect ourselves from reliving past trauma. I’ve found that many people who experience major hardships throughout their lives inadvertently end up letting those trials harden them, building up walls to prevent recurrence of a situation they never want to be in again.
I’ve spent my life focusing most of my energy into sheer determination not to allow myself to become hardened by the world. I adopted a phoenix mentality pretty early on in my life. We moved around a lot as a kid, and each time we moved I would have to leave everything I knew behind and start off fresh. New school, new house, new neighbors, new friends. I learned that life can change in the blink of an eye. As soon as I started to feel comfortable, everything I loved was ripped away from me and I would have to start over again.
As a teenager I developed severe anxiety issues that were later diagnosed as OCD. Then, after a particularly rough move, I was diagnosed with depression. I had always maintained good grades up until that point. Suddenly I was sleeping through my classes, failing to make friends, wandering through life not forming any attachments because life had made it very clear to me by now that attachments only lead to heartbreak.
I started keeping everyone at a safe distance because I knew I would inevitably lose them anyhow. It didn’t manage to protect me from getting hurt, however. During my senior year of high school I started dating. By the end of the year, the guy I was involved with ended up making out with my best friend in front of me. Not long after that, I met someone who wanted to show me what true love was like. I wasn’t as interested in him as he was in me, but he treated me well, so when he asked me to marry him (the night I was breaking up with him) I said yes.
During the honeymoon I had my first major flare-up of what I now know to be fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a pain & fatigue disorder mainly aggravated by stress. I wasn’t sure if I had made the right decision in marrying him. Suddenly, one day, I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t walk. I had no idea what was wrong with me. We spent a few days on the couch of the beach house before we decided to go home early.
I spent the next year and a half on a medical merry-go-round before I finally received a diagnosis. I would randomly experience back spasms while we were out that left me so fatigued I could no longer function. Some nights I couldn’t make it to the bathroom in our 400 sq ft apartment without assistance. I was a total wreck, and I know now that it was mainly due to my emotional state.
My husband stopped being supportive fairly quickly and started to become very agitated with me. He expected a home-cooked meal every night when he got home from work and it had to have 2 starches, 1 meat, and a vegetable. He expected me to wake up bright and early every Sunday morning, put on a nice dress, go to church, and pretend to be happy. Church was an hour away and it was essential that we stayed for the evening service as well. In between services I was expected to spend time with other church members, and help the women with the dishes while the men sat in the living room chatting about meaningless nonsense. I was expected to do the housework and go grocery shopping while he was at work. I used the motor carts because I couldn’t walk the length of the store before my legs gave out. Everyone stared at me like I was some entitled young person taking advantage of the motor carts. Occasionally someone would even have the nerve to ask what was wrong with me. I learned early on that nobody really cared.
My father-in-law pointed this out to me one day, and it says something that I took this as being the wisest thing he ever said. His words stuck with me. “No one cares about your pain, so there’s no sense in showing it.” From that point forward, no matter how much pain I was experiencing, I didn’t show it. Every time I did, I was told I was being dramatic anyhow. I learned to bear the pain without flinching, both physically and emotionally.
I know now that my husband was abusive. He once had the nerve to tell me no one could ever love me the way he could. Thanks to him, I lost a lot of faith in true love. I played the abuser when I left him, because I knew if I played the victim I would be victimized even more. I did it so convincingly that even I believed it for awhile.
Mostly everyone in my life ditched out on me then. His friends had become my friends, and the one friend I had outside of our social circle betrayed me by telling my now ex-husband that I was talking to someone else. He didn’t know the situation I was in and he put my safety in jeopardy. I never could express to him how badly that hurt me, but then again, I didn’t allow myself to truly feel the depths of that betrayal anyhow.
By now I had learned that love is painful. The next man I dated treated me better, but would stonewall me during a disagreement and left me after a year and half because he no longer found me attractive. The man after that was incredible, but after 2 years he decided he wanted kids and I knew I couldn’t provide him with the life he envisioned. The man after that was even more incredible, but I couldn’t keep up with him and thought it best to move on.
And I did move on. Straight into another highly toxic relationship which brought up all the pain I hadn’t been allowing myself to feel for the past several years. I sunk so far into that relationship that I hardly recognized myself anymore. I allowed myself to be consumed by him. By the time I realized the toxicity, I no longer cared anymore. It took a huge wake-up call for me to gather up the courage to leave him behind, and even then it took me months (and numerous tries) to do.
I left him for someone else and then I went back to him. I finally broke free of him again and started dating someone who was distant, detached, apathetic. Broken.
And that was the push I needed to get over my own brokenness. I broke things off with him when it became clear he had no intentions of facing any of his problems and his problems were quickly becoming my problems. I decided to work on myself. I started seeking a greater meaning to my life, and just as I felt I’d found it, life hit me right upside the head. Literally.
Over the course of one week I had 3 ischemic strokes. Everything changed in an instant when the third one hit. Suddenly half of my body wasn’t responding to me properly. Lights were intolerably bright. Sounds were intolerably loud. It felt like I was stuck on a tilt-a-whirl I’d never asked to be on.
I had to rebuild everything from the bottom back up. In the hospital, everyone was amazed at my positivity. I managed to stay positive then in part because it wasn’t the lowest I’d been. I now had so many things to be thankful for. Over the past few years I’d finally made friends and grown so much as a person. I felt confident that whatever I’d lost, I could gain back that much more. I knew that how I was feeling wouldn’t be permanent, because my other hardships had passed. Every trial in my life had taught me a valuable lesson that had helped me become a better person. I knew I could use this experience to reach out to others who were going through hell. I knew I could push through it and come out the other end bigger, brighter, and better than ever.
I underestimated the hardships I would face following my strokes. All the stress I’ve been under, combined with the change in my brain chemistry and the unfortunate need to learn how to do literally everything again, has led to some fairly difficult confrontations. I’ve managed to butt heads with quite a few other people I’ve known who were going through a rough time. My lack of a brain filter mixed with disabling anxiety has caused me to lash out at times. On top of that, I’ve been placed in numerous situations that have tested my patience and as it turns out, I may have used up all my patience in my first 30 years of life.
I’ve come to a point where I’m afraid of losing everything again. Make no mistake, I still have plenty left to lose. I wake up every morning and make a conscious decision to focus on the things I’m grateful for in my life, no matter how trying a time I’m going through. The downside of this is that when the things on that list get threatened somehow, I lose my footing. If I feel one of my relationships is failing, I sink into a depression that puts me right back into the mindset of a situation I never want to be in again, and that mindset puts me at greater risk of losing the person in question.
But I’m trying. I’m learning. I still put one foot in front of the other, and I still choose to focus on what I’m grateful for, day after day after day. At times it feels damn near impossible to pick myself up and keep going, and I do it anyway. Because I choose to be happy. I choose to find meaning in every experience in my life, even the ones that have straight up destroyed me.
I’ve burst into flames again and again and again, and each time I rise from the ashes bigger, brighter, bolder. Filled with a new determination to make my place in the world. Not to find it — to create it for myself.
My favorite books growing up told tales of heroes who were persecuted and victimized. Heroes who overcame opposing forces and showed the world that even the smallest person (quite literally in The Lord of the Rings) can make the biggest difference. I adopted the phoenix as my symbol because I love the idea that destruction doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but rather a shedding of one’s skin, so to speak. Those things that pick away at our walls have the power of showing us who we truly are, and give us the opportunity to reclaim ourselves.
Trials will come, and sometimes they’ll seem insurmountable. But even where we fall short, we’re presented with an opportunity. To take a new approach. To look at the situation from a different angle. To re-frame everything we think we know about the world, about other people, and about ourselves. I made a vow to myself years ago to always get back up, and somehow, I keep finding the strength to do that. Sometimes I spend awhile on the floor, but each time I rise after being knocked down, I take the opportunity to claim a new kind of power. A new perspective. A newfound strength, determination, and drive to create a life of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.