On Sunday, I celebrated my thirty-fifth birthday. For many, there’s nothing special about the big 3-5. For me, it’s everything.
Three months ago, in anticipation of this big birthday approaching, I held our 2022 printed Christmas card. I looked at it a lot. Over and over. It was as if I didn’t believe what I was seeing, didn’t feel like it was real. My therapist helped me process a bit of what I was feeling and it was summed up in one phrase “you built this”. When I looked at the pictures it wasn’t just the new house and healthy family members that stared back and me, robbing me of words, it was the nine+ years that Christmas card represented. There was a lot to process and reflect on, so I pulled out my journal from that time period and began reading.
After Jacob died, in the deepest part of my heart I just didn’t see myself living past 25 years old. I struggled to dream, struggled to set goals. I knew I always wanted to be a mom but never pictured a family or a future. Why think about that stuff when it could all disappear in an instant?
Turning 25 was surreal. I was still here, still alive and kicking. In that 25th year, I started dating a man who seemed like he could be forever and I started dreaming a little. We talked about the future, about our wedding, our plans and then, after our breakup… he was gone, too.
With little over two months left in my 25th year, I found myself grief stricken and confused, staring back at seven years of highs and lows with little thoughts on what was coming next. One phone call with my mother, just screaming because it hurt so bad, once I calmed down she said, “I don’t think you’re just grieving (the ex).”
After Jacob died, my heart strapped on running shoes and I became a professional “runner”. Running from the pain, running from having to process it, feel it, wade through it. Running because I didn’t know how to slow down, how to feel grief, how to face the pain. Because even the thought of doing so felt like it would take me under.
At Christmas time as a 25 year old, I sat with my dad in a Waffle House booth, some treasured time with my beloved father who said, “I hate to see you cry”.
“Dad, I know how to make the tears stop. (I pointed out the window to the booze filled bars).
I know how to stop crying but I don’t want to.
I want to FEEL THIS and not numb it.
I don’t want to wake up at 35, still battling the same grief filled demons I’m battling at 25.
I HAVE to do it different this time.”
This was a process, it wasn’t an overnight thing. Hell, it’s been a nine year process, but the beginning looked like this.
First step was to take off the running shoes. For me the running shoes were in the form of drinking booze (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot), nicotine and getting attention from the male species. Once those coping mechanisms were removed, the pain got worse. Way worse. Like sometimes I couldn’t breathe worse.
One story from that season I picture in my mind as clear as watching a movie. It’s my bathroom in Auburn, AL, the lights are on, the song “I AM” is playing, water is running in the bathtub, I’d just removed my clothes to climb into the warm water and a pain wave hit. It literally knocked me off my feet onto the cold laminate floor. Seeing my closet mere feet away, I army crawled to lay on the carpeted floor and stayed in a fetal position. I couldn’t catch my breath, I couldn’t sit up, let alone get back to my feet. So I laid, exposed literally and figuratively. I told myself to not run from the pain and to feel it. Everything in my body and mind screamed “NO, don’t feel this, it will kill you.” To this day I can’t remember if the song started playing or if it was just in my head but I started singing…
“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior” Oceans by Hillsong
I was in deep water, my trust had no borders, but I knew the deep water was better than standing on the shore. The shore, where I was “protected, “safe” from the pain, “safe” from the feelings. I had gotten to a point where “safe” was only an illusion. It wasn’t real. I wasn’t safe on the shore, I was safer in the deep water. I didn’t know much else, but I trusted that.
So I let myself float out to where my feet couldn’t touch. I let myself feel it. I stared fear in the face and gave myself permission to be consumed by the pain. But it didn’t consume me. And it didn’t kill me. I got to my feet and realized how quickly the pain wave actually passed. It only lasted a few minutes. The water in the bathtub hadn’t overflowed or even filled to the top. What had I been running from?
As I continued to check-in, instead of run, I saw my heart was totally broken. Broken but hanging on, with duct tape and Elmer’s glue. My heart was trying to hold itself together as it was called upon to continue to function, continue to beat and live, even though it was hurting. Hurting and so, so tired from all the running. I’d asked my heart to run hard for seven years and there were consequences.
“I was too scared to stop running” is only part of the story, only a teeny tiny part. The bigger story, the more profound truth was, I had no tools to stop running. No one in my life had modeled how to feel pain, how to sit in it, how to actually heal my heart. I didn’t know how to stop running even if I wanted to.
If step one was to stop running, step two was feeling, and step three was to start learning.
“Everything is a choice…it is perhaps frightening…but it is also LIBERATING, because we can now begin to choose what we will find when we look at our life in the tomorrows that lie unlived before us.” – Matthew Kelly
I learned that in order to not be 35 dealing with the same crap at 25, I’d have to do things I hadn’t done, to make different choices.
This looked like a lot of time in “my chair”. A LOT of time. Like hours a day, sometimes. I journaled — a lot. I read copious amounts of books, including the Bible. I asked questions. I “screamed” words onto a page, I poured it all out. I learned to meditate (my version is just to physically sit still, that’s it — and the first time I did it, I set a timer on my phone for 2 minutes and failed. I fidgeted. I couldn’t let my physical body just be).
I started caring for myself physically, picking things I enjoyed at the gym, eating foods that fueled my body to do all those things. I found a therapist and showed up to appointments weekly.
I left a toxic work environment. I admitted to my parents in order to stay away from that toxic work environment I needed their financial help.
I had to make new friends. I had to get bold and brave in order to make new friends. I had to be vulnerable and tell those friends I needed them. I had to sit on their couch and cry on a Friday night because “I didn’t know how to have fun without booze”.
The choices were small and huge and everything in between.
Now, here I sit, only days before my 35th birthday with profound gratitude for my 25 year-old-self. The younger version of me who didn’t know what the future looked like but was committed to never giving up on herself and the tomorrows unlived before her.
She was brave. She was bold. She was determined to march to the beat of her own drum, the drum deep inside her soul, placed there by the One who called her to a life only she could live.
Alright, it’s weird to talk about myself in third person but doing emotional health work… it’s weird sometimes.
Just this week, I sat in a therapy session talking about something new that was scaring me. I wasn’t using booze to run from the pain this time, I was blaming other people I love. After years of checking in on my heart, I know how to process pain a bit more but it still doesn’t feel good when I start to walk off the “shore”. I wasn’t laying on a bathroom naked but I started to feel those familiar feelings — this hurts, ouch, RUN. No, stay, feel. What do you feel? Through tears I started walking into the deep waters, where I’ve now been hundreds of times, the feeling of my feet leaving the sand makes my heart beat faster and my breath shorten but then I heard my therapists’ words, words I’ve said to people, including myself, hundreds of times since — “yes, it’s scary, but we do it anyway.”
In four days, I’ll turn 35. I look at this tattered, often viewed, Christmas card, now, and take a deep breath. This life is real. All the highs and lows. The kids running around the yard with Mimi, the amazing teammate I have who adores me, the woman I’m so damn proud to be…and the four hundred baskets of laundry that need folding. It’s my life. It’s real, and I built it.
PS I did build it…but not alone. I’ve never written a blog post about my mom as the focus like I’ve down for so many others (Pops, Alana, my dad, my brother, Uncle Larry, Lukas, etc.) because, well, the words haven’t ever felt like they could be enough. She’s the unsung hero of my story. Her unconditional, ride or die, lasting love, is the constant throughout these past nine years. Mom, Lukas and so many others have shown up as the hands and feet of Jesus to help me build this life. I’m grateful for them with words that would never do that gratitude, justice. AND I still declare — I built this — because I have to. For myself and for others who think they are stuck in a life they aren’t proud of or wish was different. Your life might look insanely different from mine and yet, I still believe in the deepest part of my core that if I can build a life I only dreamed of living — the life you dream is something you can build, too!