Not all prisons have walls you can see. Mine were built of fear and I lived behind them, like steel bars, for most of my life.
“I am afraid.” What liberating words they have been for me. Every time I say those words out loud, my fear loses its power. I didn’t used to know how to do that- say those words out loud. In fact, I spent most of my life denying that I was afraid and attempting to cover up my fear with a false image and a false self. My false image was one of strength and independence, because that’s what people told me I was for much of my life.
My fear would sneak out at weird times, trying to take control and pulling on the levers of my life. At work, that expressed itself by staying longer at the office and working harder than anyone else. No one would ever have reason to criticize me if I did everything perfectly. In relationships, since I didn’t realize consciously that I was terrified of being left or rejected, I was unable to ever truly be myself. I gave up who I was in so many ways; my music, my dreams, so sure that my true self would never be loved.
The years passed. I spent them hiding behind the walls I had built, comforting myself with overeating, smoking, and mindless entertainment. I sought hit after hit of my favorite drug – approval – from anyone I could. I used bosses, friends, and relationships with men, especially men. I was vulnerable to a quick hit of approval given by a man looking only for a quick hit for himself.
Then things started to unravel. While my marriage fell apart and I burned out completely at work, I escaped to Florida for a weekend self help workshop. Certain that I would finally find the secret to happiness, I took my notebook with me to a seat and dove in. The speaker talked about self esteem and old wounds. I took notes like an eager student, ready to take the test and get an A+. But then she had us set our notebooks down and close our eyes.
She talked us through a meditation where we were to go deep inside ourselves. We started with a beautiful room where we most liked to be, and I imagined a garden filled with beauty. Then she had us slowly descend a little deeper. In my mind I lowered myself and observed a colder, less colorful space. We kept going, each level down getting darker. After about an hour, we reached the bottom. I found myself in a cold alley filled with dumpster stench and fog. My heart was beating out of my chest as I looked around this place. I did not want to be there. Then I saw her, the 8-year-old girl sitting on the street against a dark damp wall, knees pulled into her chest trying to stay safe. I felt my stomach turn, I felt my blood get hot. Everything was shaking uncontrollably when I saw a figure walk through the fog straight towards me. He picked me up and carried me out of there.
I left the seminar early and flew home to Ohio, shaken by what I had experienced. Once home, I tried to re-enter my life but felt like I had been gone for years instead of days. Nothing was the same, I wasn’t the same. Who had carried me out of there? It felt like God. How could that have been God and why would he be in my alley? I didn’t believe in God. The thought persisted enough that I got up one Sunday and drove to the big church near my house. After twenty-five years, I was terrified to be in a church again so I snuck in and ran up the stairs to the balcony and just sat, trying to not be seen. When the music started, it flooded over me in a way I didn’t expect and I found myself crying uncontrollably. Holding my hand to my heart, I experienced an unbearable pain.
An announcement in the church bulletin led me to a grief support group a week later. I walked in with my head down, found a chair and looked around. All these people had lost someone in the last year. Once again I felt my stomach churn and everything in me was shaking. When it came time to introduce myself and share why I was there, I still remember my words. “It has been 27 years since my dad died, and 17 years since my mom died. I know I am supposed to be over it but I’m not and I don’t know where else to go.” I suddenly felt so worthless for being there. These people were grieving. I was sure the leader would say that he was very sorry but this was a group for people who had just lost a loved one, maybe I could try counseling. I had already tried counselors, I was desperate. When I lifted my head, though, no one was looking at me like I was an idiot for being there. They said I was in the exact place I needed to be and they were glad I came. My first touch of grace.
After working through the grief support program, I needed to face my past and all the bad decisions I had made while running from my losses. I found another recovery group called Integrity for Women. Its mission was healing for sexually broken women and it was a ten week group. I did not speak for the first seven sessions, I just listened. (“I am afraid.”) On the eighth week, we were broken up into smaller circles and some of the women were sharing their pain. I realized that if I was ever going to get anything out of this group, I was going to have to say some things. So with my head down and eyes closed, I started to speak. It felt like my entire body shook violently as I listed out loud the things I felt ashamed of. It was hard to sit with the shame that pulsed through me. I was suddenly sure I was going to be told that this was a group for women with issues but not issues like these. But again, lies. Instead, I looked up to faces of love, understanding and acceptance.
The bars of the prison have vanished and I am finally living my authentic life. The fears aren’t gone, they have just lost their power. Turns out most of them were lies anyway and when the light of grace and love was shined upon them, they fled. When they do come up now, I greet them politely and acknowledge their existence. I say out loud, “I am afraid” and sometimes I’ll just sit with that particular fear for awhile. Then I’ll remember telling my story to strangers in a little room in a big church building and I’ll see the love on their faces and the grace in their hearts for a beautiful mess like me. And I know I am free.
Random Writers would like to thank sue Markovitch for being a guest contributor to our site for this week’s topic. Sue is a personal trainer and owner of Clear Rock Fitness in Westerville,Ohio.