Last night I lost the world, and gained the universe. – C. JoyBell C.
Maybe it all started when I was a child, on a sunny day in kindergarten, when I first learned the days of the week. It was a solid, certain kind of knowledge. Learning it gave me a curious flavor of peace.
Then again, maybe it started when I was placed into the gifted program at school which is, if you haven’t heard of it, a classroom based on the dangerous assumption that some children are smarter than others.
That could definitely have been it, though it could just as easily have been my first “successful” diet which, as I discovered later, qualified as a pretty serious eating disorder. I still remember the self-assuredness with which I controlled, precisely and certainly, my 400 allotted calories for the day.
Whatever the roots, somehow I’d ended up a young woman who was quite sure that:
- I knew what was good for me
- I knew what I was doing
- I knew everything
Woven in labels and interests, I thought I knew myself. Playing Sherlock Holmes with the grit on their boots, I thought I knew other people.
Addicted to Certainty
Nowadays, I sometimes run into people who remind me of who I was. For some time, they annoyed me terribly. Now, they make me sad.
There is a whole culture of them: the people who think they know best.
You might find them on Wikipedia before a party, preparing to dazzle others with their profound understanding of complicated things that are difficult to pronounce.
You could run into them by visiting the lecture halls of rigorous academic programs. You’ll find them wearing a scowl, boasting grades at the top of their class, and unable to get through simple acts of human interaction without anxiety.
You could just as easily find them in ordinary garb arguing about politics with a stranger at the local diner on a Sunday morning.
They have an answer for everything and their answer is always right.
If you don’t know what it’s like to be this way, then I can best summarize it as a sort of addiction. Just as some people get addicted to donuts or heroin, I was addicted to certainty. I was addicted to being right.
A Game of Survival
In that world, everything and everyone was two-dimensional, including me. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw only what was wrong. The longer I looked, the deeper I descended into a horrible, lethal darkness that lay at the very bottom of my core.
When I interacted with people, my mind would be constantly comparing. If I thought I was better than them, I felt great. If I thought they were better than me, I felt intense and overwhelming violence, sometimes for them, sometimes for myself, sometimes both.
Since core-sucking-darkness and consuming violence are not nice feelings, I would seek to avoid them at all costs. In order to prevent as much pain as possible, I had to be right. I had to be better. I had to win.
My whole life turned into a sick game.
I lied pathologically, exaggerated my achievements, and manipulated others. I lived with a mask over my face and a shield over my heart. I was winning the game, but I wasn’t having fun.
It’s not a game for fun. It’s a game of survival.
To a person who is constantly trying to win their own worth – whether they’re measuring themselves in dollars or pounds, friends or trivia – the wrong numbers can mean death.
And that’s how I ended up out of control, addicted, and suicidal at the age of 23.
No amount of facts gained or weight lost could fix the giant, gaping hole growing within me.
There was nothing I could find in a textbook which could soothe the violent screams inside my head and the raging pain inside of my heart.
All I knew how to do was to calculate, measure, and judge.
So when I went to bed, night after night, having flashbacks of rape, abuse, and other parts of my life I had tried to shut out, I had no idea what to do.
I tried to self-diagnose and self-medicate, but it didn’t work. I was too stubborn to reach out for help and I was too sick to pretend I was okay.
One memorable March evening in 2008, I had a mental breakdown.
I know you’re probably imagining a giant tantrum, but it wasn’t like that. It was actually very simple and, in retrospect, very predictable. All of the complexities in my head, woven around one another, reduced to two simple options: change or die.
I debated the options for a long time. The choice was not actually a simple one.
If I died, I wouldn’t be able to experience joy again, but I also wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. If I changed, I could be suffering for a long time, with no end in sight. If I changed, I chanced losing everything I’d gained for myself, everything I’d learned, everyone I knew.
In the end, I chose to change.
That was probably the most important choice of my life.
The next morning, I looked into my own eyes in the mirror and felt unbearable, searing pain. It was worse than the violence and the darkness combined. It was the feeling I’d been hiding from my entire life.
I realized that everything I had worked for – the weight, the grades, the reputation – couldn’t ever help. They could only put off the pain.
With searing clarity, I realized that I had no idea how to help myself. I had no idea who I was. And, most painful of all, I had no idea what was going on.
That’s when I got on my knees. That’s when I surrendered.
That was the scariest part – trusting that there was some flow, some system, some order that governed the world beyond my own stubborn clutches.
I felt, for some time, a great sense of loss. I’d lost that head-held-high confidence I’d felt strutting down the street. I’d lost the comfort of chasing and catching numbers. I’d lost most of my friends, my interests, and my values. I’d lost my identity and my labels for myself.
It took some time before I saw the value of what I had gained. In the midst of all the wreckage, I discovered the truth about myself. I found out who I was.
My body, mind, and emotions all needed healing, desperately. In order to heal them, I had to put them to bed and let them lie. In order to heal, I had to discover who I was beyond my external form, beyond my thoughts, beyond my definitions of myself.
Yes, I lost so much. And yet, I gained the only thing that I ever needed, the only thing I was ever looking for – myself.
I guess you could say it was a miracle, but that makes it sound rare and elusive.
The truth is that I didn’t really change and I didn’t really die. All I did was let go. All I did was get out of my own way.
And that’s a miracle that can happen to anyone, anytime.
All it takes is a little faith, a lot of trust, and the willingness to sacrifice the comforting illusion of certainty for the wild adventure that is real life.