A few months ago, in the midst of probably the most difficult time in my life emotionally, my best friend from childhood, a girl who has been by my side since we were three years-old, reached out to me, wondering if we could plan a trip together in Europe. A year before, we had talked about her coming to visit me in Paris for her 25th birthday and we had both been excited about the idea. Now she wanted to talk to me about dates and logistics. When I read her message, my heart sunk, knowing I just was not in a place where I could open my home or my life to her at that time.
So I sent her a message telling her the trip just wouldn’t be possible, that I was not doing very well and just needed some time to myself. I clicked send, filled with an overwhelming feeling of hot shame; I was letting her down as a friend and I felt like a failure just as I was failing in all the other places in my life. When I received the notification of her reply, I ignored it, leaving the message unread. I was so afraid of what she would say, unable to face what I thought at the very least, would be disappointment and at the most, hatred.
A few weeks ago, while sorting through my messages, I fell upon her unopened one. After months of sorting through a lot of emotions, it felt like it was time to open it. I knew I could handle whatever was inside, knew I owed it to her to read her words. I took a deep breath and clicked on the message.
“I love you. You are strong. To me, you are irreplaceable. I can leave you alone as long as you promise to tell me when to not leave you alone anymore.”
These are the words I found staring back at me. I sat open-mouthed, stunned to my very core. I sat in the same spot for nearly 15 minutes reading these words over and over again. Goosebumps covered my arms, a chill ran through me, and I began to cry. I had kept this sweet friend of mine, someone I consider to be more of a sister, at a distance for so long and she was still loving me from afar.
Over the past seven months, I have confronted some of the darkest parts of myself – thoughts, fears, and emotions that have lingered since childhood. To this day, I’m still not sure what radical shift happened to move me to the point in January where I just no longer had the energy to keep playing all these roles in my life that didn’t feel like my own. All I know is that right after Christmas, I got terrible food poisoning – I threw up 16 times and actually thought I might be dying. No one else got sick, and when I went to the doctor, he explained it wasn’t bad food that had made me so sick, but the accumulation of too much rich food that the body has trouble digesting – a crise de foie, or a “crisis of the liver.” In French, the word for faith is also foi – pronounced the same as foie with a mere gender distinction between the two words. I find it to be an interesting coincidence because by the time I rang in the New Year, it was clear to me that something was deeply wrong inside – a crisis of faith. I no longer trusted myself, or at least the part of myself that has always pushed me to keep going without asking questions. I no longer trusted what this person had built for herself, no longer trusted what she felt, no longer trusted the institutions that had told her she was smart and capable and worthy of love.
Now, seven months and many therapy appointments later, I have the benefit of a bit of distance to reflect on that time and to appreciate the difference in how I feel, how I express myself, how I am gentler with myself. I have pushed a lot of people away, not just this year but in the years following my mom’s death, building walls to mask where it hurt the most. Of course, I have wondered what would have happened had I read my friend’s message back in February, or if I’d been honest about how I was feeling the day she came to visit me after Mom died instead of trying so hard to be “normal.” What would these past six years have looked like? Would I have made different decisions? In February, would I have even believed her and been able to accept such selfless love and grace at a time when I was hurting so deeply?
Her message has taught me a lot about love at a time when I have had to reconsider my own misconceptions on the subject. It also has made me consider my own pride and the different forms it takes on – we never think of ourselves as being prideful, it hides deep within us, until it kind of hits us in the face. It is painful for me to read some of my older blog posts, not because I don’t like the writing or think those stories aren’t important. I’m glad I wrote them down and shared them with you, and I believe it has led me to places I wouldn’t be had I not started. What makes me cringe is that I know when I first started writing them, I wanted you to understand these things that hurt so badly, while convinced that you could never understand them. It is a weird kind of pride to have – we often think of pride in terms of boosting about the things we have or the things we are good at. All forms of pride are a shield against the things we are afraid to face, or afraid others will notice in us. I was so afraid of being “the girl who’s mom is sick” or “the girl who’s mom died” that I had to protect my loss, claim it as my own so that others wouldn’t do it for me. But in my own head, I WAS the girl who’s mom died and so I had to protect myself even more.
It also makes me think back to my days in college when I was volunteering with Relay for Life. It was a great outlet for my grief, a way to connect with other people affected by cancer and to actually do something about it. I think about how my entire dorm raised money that year, and then the next, for my team in memory of my mom. Of how my roommate and friends and church family baked cookies for bake sales and galas, how they woke up at five in the morning three years in a row to help organize our team fundraiser, how they walked for 20 hours beside me every year, how they helped me raise probably around $10,000 for cancer research in four years. No one ever said they didn’t want to do it, and their enthusiasm and support helped me rally through the hardest parts of the year. And still, I thought that they didn’t understand! All this pride to mask all the things I was hiding from myself.
What I’ve come to realize, now that this pride has moved out of the way, is that everyone understands pain. There are different types of pain, different degrees of pain, different names for pain. But we all know what it’s like to feel worthless, enraged, abandoned, not good enough, afraid, or broken. Different experiences shape us but in the contexts of our own lives, we all understand these emotions as humans. My pain feels unique, because my mother was unique and our bond was special. But if we didn’t understand the basic premise of pain, would we really be able to love each other through the hard times the way we do, even when we may have never experienced what the person is going through?
I have learned a lot about my grief and about myself this year. I have learned to accept that it does not go away, that it will require constant care and self-love. Every season brings in a different tide – usually it is just a thimble-full, tucked away inside, but then without warning, it becomes an ocean and I feel lost at sea. It is times like these where I feel plunged into a silence, a bubble that I cannot burst. I can be riding the metro, surrounded by people and noise, or go out with friends and make polite conversation, but I cannot feel the hand that touches me or hear the sounds around me.
Luckily, I’ve always been a strong swimmer. But I’ve also learned over the past few months not to panic, not to be so afraid to float there for a moment. More importantly, I’ve learned how to reach out my own hands and grasp on to the amazing people around me who I love and who love me. Once I’ve embraced the fear, the anger, the sorrow, I’m able to swim back to shore, deflate the bubble, and tuck away that thimble again. I’ve learned to trust that I’ll find my way.
Last night I called my sister-friend and we spoke on the phone for two hours. It was amazing to hear her voice again and humbling to experience, once again, her constant love and grace in action as she listened to my teary apology and welcomed me back with open arms.
So maybe sometimes we swim in different oceans, but I know you understand.