I’ve been thinking a lot about love. What defines it, what it looks like, where that “spark” comes from between two people who have found a connection with each other that they just don’t have with anyone else. What does love look like over time? What does love mean when the best of times become the worst of times?
These questions and so many more have been on my mind and tugging at my tender heart. I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but one thing I know for sure: You have to love the one you’re with, and the one you’re with through everything, regardless of what comes is…yourself. It is not possible to fully love another person unless you first love yourself. When you are able to love yourself and feel sure of your own place in the world, you can be free from the baggage which so easily encumbers those who look to others for their fulfillment and happiness. You can love freely, able to give of yourself with abandon because the well from which you draw never runs dry. The more you love, the more you’re able to love, and it begins with looking in the mirror and being able to say with sincerity that you love the person staring back at you.
Getting to a place of fully accepting and loving myself has not been an easy road for me. I am quick to criticize myself. I have an entire committee of voices in my mind that are quick to speak up when I begin to feel comfortable with who I am, reminding me of past failures and things I’ve screwed up beyond all recognition, telling me that those elements of my past define me. Slowly but surely, I am learning to tune out these thoughts and embrace myself as the amazing, spectacular, glorious, flawed, broken, but incredible human being that I am. The things from my past that could so easily have broken me, the mistakes I’ve made which have cost me so dearly, have only made me stronger and smarter, better able to navigate through this life.
Perhaps the greatest measure of my progress has been in my ability to look at pictures of myself as a little girl and think, “I love this girl. I want to protect her.” Seeing pictures of myself as a child used to break my heart. I would see my big blue eyes looking up at the camera and think, “That poor child had no idea what was coming. Look at the trust in her eyes. She had no idea…” and I would look away.
The little girl in the pictures didn’t know that the world was not always a kind place. In the years following the picture above, I would experience bullying that ripped my childlike soul to shreds. I was made fun of for everything from my clothes to my name, and beyond. School became a torment. In the years during which I endured the worst of it, I learned to find solace in books. Books became my friends. Regardless of what else was happening in my world, I knew I could always lose myself in a book, and for that time, all was just as it should be.
Over time, I stopped expecting people to treat me well. I had grown so accustomed to being made fun of and mistreated, it became part of my identity. When I was hurt by someone, my reaction was, “Well, of course they hurt me. It’s me. I shouldn’t expect anything different.” This attitude is one which followed me through my teen years and well into my adult life, casting its shadow over many choices I made in life. I didn’t expect the best for myself because I had come to believe I didn’t deserve the best. The little girl inside of me trembled. She only wanted to be loved. That was all she ever wanted.
As I get older and experience more of life, I see that this little girl is still there, still wanting to be loved. Still afraid sometimes that she isn’t worthy. When I look at pictures of myself as that trusting, innocent, beautiful little girl, my instinct is no longer to look away. My instinct is to say to her, “Come here and let me hold you for awhile,” much like I say to my son if he’s having a rough day. Sit in my lap and let me hold you for awhile and tell you how amazing and loved you are, and that nothing that happens in this world is going to change that. Let me tell you the world is full of miraculous things, and the miracle…is you.
As I get stronger, I am better able to help heal that little girl who still lives within me, whose blue eyes still peer out at me when I look in the mirror. I am able to tell her that she is so much stronger than she thinks she is, because she possessed the strength to weather many storms and still greet the world with a smile and an open heart. I am able to tell her that she is worthy of love, and that her heart is one that grew to understand compassion and empathy because of all she endured. I see her eyes and I remember how she used to feel bad for the toys that didn’t get played with as much as the “prettier” toys, so she made a point to play with all the toys so none felt left out. I remind her that in her childlike innocence, there lived an old soul who came into the world well equipped to handle all that life was about to throw at her, and the things that hurt her and could so easily have destroyed her only made her heart stronger.
I tell her she is precious, she is loved, and I am grateful for her. I don’t look away from my pictures anymore.
Of course, the little girl has become a woman. As a woman, I still feel that vulnerability sometimes that says, “Please love me,” as I hold my heart out with trembling hands, hoping it will be accepted and well cared for. Unlike the little girl I was, though, I do not wonder if I am worthy of that love. I know I am. I know I have something of value to give the world, and I know my presence here is not by chance. My life may not have been what I ached for it to be up to this point, but it is within my power, indeed, within my responsibility, to make the changes necessary to shape this life into what I dream it can be. Unlike the little girl I once was, the woman I now am understands that I do not have to settle for scraps. I have all the makings of something extraordinary, if I choose to seize the day.
This Easter weekend seems a perfect time to write about rebirth and renewal. We are reborn every morning. Every day is a chance to start fresh and make a change if we don’t like where our lives are headed. Rebirth and renewal can be messy. Springtime in northern Michigan is muddy, cold, sometimes dreary, a blend of hope for new things to come and mucky reminders of the winter that has ended. As the snow melts, all manner of deleterious reminders of the death winter brought begins to come to the surface. It’s ugly. It’s unpleasant. It can even be gross. However, it’s a necessary unpleasantness in the process of renewal. We have to get through the muddy, slimy part of the spring thaw before we can get to the growth of fresh green grass and the blossoming of gorgeous flowers.
So it is with life. Renewal is difficult. It’s messy. It’s unpleasant at times, but the unpleasantness is necessary. I am at a place where I believe I have come through the muck of the process, and now I am ready for growth. Again and again, I am being reborn into a better version of who I was made to be.
I am going back to school, with classes starting in a couple weeks. It’s exhilarating to think of where I was a year ago, and where I am now. A year ago, I was a shell of who I was born to be. I was fearful. I was in the throes early recovery. I was doing well just to get through the day, let alone plan anything for the future. Now, I am going back to school, picking up where I left off, planning for the future…and the future is looking bright. My heart is full. Everything is mine for the taking, so long as I am operating from a place of love. The little girl in me is protected and nurtured, and I am grateful for her existence. The woman that I am is strong, becoming more fearless every day, taking on a world that once used to frighten me into paralyzed silence.
I have learned to love the one I’m with. I have learned to love me.