If my aim is to prove I am ‘enough,’ the project goes on to infinity — because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debatable. So it is always ‘one more’ victory — one more promotion, one more sexual conquest, one more company, one more piece of jewelry, a larger house, a more expensive car, another award — yet the void within remains unfilled. — Nathaniel Branden
I vividly remember reading this passage while riding the train on a cold day in February 2016. I remember because I put the book down on my lap, keeping the pages parted, and stared out the window, my heart sinking, tears welling in my eyes. At that point I had been in therapy for about 3 months and felt, like a novice sleuth, that I was drawing very near some explanation for how I arrived where I was. That is, bursting with dread and panic at age 25 after what would appear to be (to most people) an exciting graduate school journey and excellent job transition, with mostly praise thus far. I spent those first 3 months wondering if I just damn near lost my mind.
Bear with me when I say it simply did not occur to me I’d have to reckon with the consequences of being beaten and berated as a kid. And I realized, much later, that most folks never have the privilege of facing those demons. (I call it a privilege because to do it gracefully and with any degree of success requires access to a great deal: stability, expertise, space — all very costly right now.)
When I finally did end up sinking into that first therapist’s deflated, forest green leather couch forcing the next syllable out, I realized something terrible: I needed to go back. I needed to experience it all over again. I’d spent the first 25 years of my life trying to escape abuse only to find myself in another sort of fortress, built of coping mechanisms and Facebook likes and achievement and a long chain of yes-yes-yes to every opportunity that ensured I’d never be alone with my thoughts. And the most terrifying part?
I was celebrated for it.
The image I portrayed was that of a vibrant young woman chasing independence and success and fulfillment. This is what I now call ‘the second prison.’
Chrissie too saw the advantages of the hard-work escape route, but did not take it. There was a perverse, wicked, rebellious streak in Chrissie, which has led her to a kind of liberation. She was a shrewd little thing, and she had seen what was happening. What good did it do you to work so hard, to pass your exams, to go to university like a good girl? You ended up miserable, cooped up, trapped just the same. — Margaret Drabble, The Peppered Moth
The origin of the panic and anxiety, the beating and berating, doesn’t matter much here. Instead I’ll tell you why it took so long to realize I was trying to solve the wrong problem. Mental health professionals now call what I had in my early 20s ‘addiction’ but that word feels too strong for the daily self-sedation a lot of us indulge in. And, on the face of it, I didn’t look addicted to much of anything.
I had a boyfriend (that I consulted for virtually every decision I made), had a job (that I used to measure my usefulness to the world), used social media (obsessively, with anticipation and out of reflex), and binge-watched the latest shows (which gave me illusion of engaging with the world).
It wasn’t extraordinary or disruptive. I imagine if you sat down the 22, 23, and 24 year old iterations of me and asked them what their looming concerns were they’d say, “I can’t figure out my personal brand” or “How do I find my passion?” I sounded like any other driven, career-oriented young woman.
I watched my peers ascend into positions at top publishers and agencies, attend prestigious graduate schools, write their own books, and win Emmys, all before the age of 25. It was only through fleeting looks in conversation that I’d realize they asked the same unsatisfying questions, and also sat alone envisioning their happiness over the horizon, just past another achievement. They, too, were sent on an early pilgrimage to explain to the world why they deserved to exist.
This is the trouble.
I thought I was getting out when I actually traded one exhausting, circular experience for another. Granted, it didn’t look like a trade at the time, it looked liked an escape. Momentum always feels like an escape when you’re eyes are fixed on what you’re running from, not what you’re running toward.
To oppose something is to maintain it. They say here “all roads lead to Mishnory.” To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk in a different road. — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
So, before and after that train ride I spent a good deal of time trying to escape the eerie sense that I was not and could not ever be good enough. Where there was only a fleeting chirp before now alarm bells blared.
I concluded after a month of debilitating anxiety that if I couldn’t feel contentment after so much material success I might never find it. The clothes and accessories I was sent to review on my blog sat, still in their boxes, on the shabby carpet of my 10th floor apartment. I ate little. I slept even less. I felt exhausted and miserable unless I was at work, distracted by rote tasks.
And then, finally, when I stopped trying so hard to make something better happen, I felt sad and peaceful. And I let myself feel sad and peaceful.
It was in this place, what felt like an open meadow where I had no name, that I glimpsed a way out. I sat still there, day after day, week after week, and cultivated trust in whatever might come next, and trust in myself to accept it.
The trap I’d stepped into was simple but insidious: I was told, early and often, that I was fundamentally flawed. And I believed it. I spent my entire life asking the question “Will I ever be good enough?” and fighting to find “yes” somewhere out in the world.
We live in a society constructed on the core idea that any feeling worth having, contentment, connection, joy or peace, can only be attained, not embodied. That is, you must go looking out in the world to find it; always outside, always looking, always a long, long journey requiring equipment and makeup and gadgets on the way.
So, I built a religion around that question. I brought it sacrifices; shriveled up relationships and medals and praise and it gulped it all down. It was the foundation of every relationship, every intellectual and professional pursuit, every movement, every breath. I worshiped it devoutly.
And then, in this new place, I asked a different question:
“What if there is no enough?”
The body knows. When your heart sinks. When you feel sick to your gut. When something blossoms in your chest. When your brain gloriously pops. That’s your body telling you the One True Thing. Listen to it. — Cheryl Strayed, Brave Enough
Moving through the world after discovering the meadow felt like standing still all the time. The polished commercials, the pop stars, the talk shows, the high-achieving friends and misguided mentors, I could listen to them, really listen, without becoming them. I felt like a fish noticing water.
I continued therapy twice a week. There I’d describe the meadow and describe the world, and describe the differences between the two. I reduced the number and intensity of my commitments, and tried to live as ordinary a life as possible. I cooked slowly and walked slowly and read slowly and wrote slowly and listened, listened, listened. I tried to notice everything.
I knew that If I could see the world I’m living in clearly, what it demands of me, what it asks me to demand of others, and how much wrath it unleashes if neither of us comply, I could choose, without fear, which step to take next.
I’m already home.