There were bright flashes of light carrying little reminders of what mattered before, met with staccatoed glimpses into the year that changed everything. Moments of impact. The big, loud, desperate need to grieve, and the hesitation that trailed behind me. The drive home from a sushi restaurant that Friday night in early November filled to the brim with anxiety. The drive home from work that Monday night less than two weeks later that played over like a tape in my head. The tears, followed by guilt, followed by anger, followed by fear. A death and a potential life-threatening illness rattling my bones. Empty promises made to shut everyone out — that it was okay, that I was okay. Life became defined by a timeline: the before it happened and the after it happened, and it was only myself that was let there stuck figuring out which pieces to pick up and which to leave behind.
* * *
December 31st is slowly melting into January 1st. I am sitting in my best friends living room watching Mariah Carey give a performance that is destined for headlines. It’s a quiet New Year’s Eve, a gentle nudge into the next year, and a less-than-subtle confirmation that even the slightest change in tradition seems wrong. It’s the first quiet New Years Eve since before the day stopped meaning watching Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve on the couch with my parents and started meaning big, glittery, liquor-infused ragers. And though much has changed throughout the years — big and loud slowly transformed into more subdued, classy, champagne-infused gatherings, this year’s quiet journey into the New Year marked a tremendous shift in my life. Sudden illness, an unexpected hospitalization, and other plans got in the way of tradition. The shift in dynamic, the quiet Happy New Year’s that replaced the once rowdy clanking of champagne flutes was symbolic — a reminder, to me, of just how important those moments are. It was a reality that knocked the wind out of me and left me clinging onto nostalgia the way I always do when things start to change.
I ended the night in my own bed. Another first in many years. There might be more of these moments in the future. There might be more moments I find myself sitting in a room a lot thinner than it typically is, whether intentionally or not. And in those times — in those moments where life seems to shift, and change, and twist all the way ’round, I want to hang on tight to the moments that made me feel full, and whole, and happy, and loved. Like masquerade themed New Years Eve’s and the sound of laughter at seeing my friend come out in a Taylor Swift mask. Or a Sunday dinner, sitting around the table, talking about the things we never thought we would. Or throwing hatchets on a Friday night and thinking to myself, this is good. These people are my people. This is the stuff that makes all of the other stuff fall away.
And so, I ended one year and welcomed another a lot different than years of the past, yet still so very much the same. A list of resolutions were written and drawn out: goals for the year, a check list of 30 things to be done by 30 rattling away under a layer of dust. And finally, a promise, like years before, that this would be the year, whatever the year was supposed to mean.
A hard month; always one of the hardest months. Riding waves of anxiety like a novice surfer, clutching onto the tiniest breath of fresh air, only to come to find the anxiety growing thicker and harder to manage in the month ahead. In between those moments of sheer panic, brief flashes of hope. Repeatedly telling myself to practice what I preach. Trying to get it right, trying to find the motivation, trying to keep the promises that I’d made 8 year ago, and 7 years ago, and 6, and 5, and 4, and 3, and so on and so forth. Promises that don’t seem to matter sometimes because he isn’t here and I still am. And the whole entire world gets to move on even when someones heart stops beating. Even when someone stops living. And doesn’t it seem unfair that the world gets to move on and live when he hardly had a shot?
Treating myself like a human punching bag, beating myself up over the same promises left unfulfilled from all those years ago. He will never have what I have — time. Time to mourn. Time to grow. Time to change, to move mountains, to shake the dust. Time to take chances to grasp and any and all of the strings dangling right in front of me that always seem to slip right past me. Empty, deep, swells of grief. Swallowing the hard truth: I am 8 years older now, and time, for him, has always stayed at 21.
Grief has always come to me, teetering between the first two stages: denial and anger. It starts like a sharp pain in my chest, but quickly gets wrapped up and tucked away before anyone has a second to hear the gasp of air and deep breaths and shattered heart. Time cushions the loss, but regret is a stronger force. Regret that I didn’t have another day. Regret that I am not taking advantage of what I have. Regret that 8 years can pass and though so much has changed, so much also has stayed the same.
February came and went, as it always does: with a long hard look in the mirror, a promise, again, that this has to be important. That if time is all I have, then I ought to use it. That these bones aren’t hollow and my words aren’t empty and maybe, just maybe, I deserve to loosen the grips on the boxing gloves and start treating myself the same way I treat others.
A slight reprieve from the bitter cold nights cloaked in anxiety. Just slight. A whisper that reminded me: life is transient, life is transient, life is transient. You know this, you’ve seen it; don’t waste it. And then, a louder reminder of just how fragile time is. A road trip to North Carolina — a heavy heart for an old friend, but a full heart at surprising her under the worst conditions. A genuine reaction of shock. A moment I wish I could have bottled up and kept forever on the days that I feel like time can’t hold onto the people and things and memories that matter. Clarity in the midst of sleepy eyes on a quick 48 road trip. The celebration of a life lost and a life lived over clanking glasses filled with wine. Love being the driving force that week — friendship sitting in the passenger seat. A quiet trip back home — a solemn promise to myself to let the people I love know. And just on this side of agreeing to be better, just a few seconds within walking in my door back from the road trip, another reason to grieve. Again, another loss. Another sting. Another young person’s life gone. A screaming, shouting, reminder that you can blink for one minute, and it can all leave you. Tears. Loss of sleep. Regret, after regret, after regret. An awakening. A promise, again, to be more intentional. And even as I write this, that promise seems to have faded away.
Anxiety and grief took turns steering the wheel in March. Anxiety, being the nagging neighbor tapping on my window just as I would find some sort of stable ground. Grief, the unwanted house guest that plants herself on my couch and refuses to leave no matter how hard I shake her. Even months after, admitting that feels a little more like a sucker punch to the gut than a relief — like the sting after ripping the proverbial band-aid off, like holding your breath for a second too long, like the slight burn on your tongue after the first sip of coffee.
Hanging tightly onto the mask of perfectionism and wrestling with myself for falling short. Getting slapped with a bitter dose of reality, the white flag barely over my head: maybe it all does hurt. Maybe I am still grieving. Maybe it’s all I’ve ever done. Maybe this does sting. Maybe it all does. Maybe I do have a hole in my chest that can’t ever be filled with multiple jobs, and plans, and things to do. Maybe I need to reach out for the hands held out for me, instead of tiptoeing around all of them.
Remember to breathe.
I wrote the words down for someone I’ve been working with for awhile. I’ve said the words out loud to the same person more times than I can count. A reminder, and sometimes, an urgent request: please, please, remember to breathe.
* * *
The ebb and flow of moods. Seesawing between the need to get up and get out of myself and the need to stay in and hide. Remembering to breathe. Gripping tightly onto that white flag of surrender. I still have this. I still have this. Covered in a cloak of defeat, but desperate to find scraps of motivation, of hope, of persistence. A desperate need to get away. An even more desperate need to be pushed to get away. A weekend trip to Georgia to get away. Remembering to breathe. Moments of frustration. Moments of joy. Moments of reflection. Moments that mattered and moments that never came close. A little boost of hope. A day filled with inspiration — the loudest message: Arrive Already Loved. Remembering to breathe. A low-key holiday weekend with friends. A promise to each other to keep celebrating birthdays together. To keep being there for the big moments. To make them matter. A reminder to myself that I decide what stays and what goes. I decide what hurts and what doesn’t. I decide who hurts and who can’t.
Remembering to breathe.
I don’t wanna keep on wishing, missing
The still of the morning, the color of the night
I ain’t spending no more time
Carrie Underwood blaring through the speakers, unwittingly carrying with her a begging, screaming message.
She kept drivin’ along til the moon and the sun
were floating side-by-side;
he looked in the mirror and his eyes were clear
for the first time in awhile.
I was driving along a beach town road, seemingly straight into the reflection of the full moon when this song came on the radio on my way home from work last week. The melody filled my car — the lyrics wrapping themselves firmly around my heart. My favorite Carrie Underwood song.
I don’t wanna spend my life jaded
Waiting to wake up one day and find
That I let all these years go by
We are six months into the year. Six months. I am restless. I am sleepy. But I am more awake than I’ve been in awhile.
* * *
Back when anxiety was the name of the weighted blanket I wore early on in the cold months of this year and panic was the unwanted house guest tapping on my window, I was given simple wisdom that I tucked away. At the time, as badly as I needed it, I couldn’t hear it.
In order to get my tires out of the mud, I needed to figure out the why and turn it all around. She looked to me with hopeful eyes and said, “Go back to the basics. Back to the beginning of everything. That is how you find your way back again. That is how everything becomes okay for you.”
And I suppose I’ve been trying to do that all along. Just on my own timeline.
. . .
Tonight as I am writing this, I am frustratingly tired, wondering if I’ll ever remember what it feels like to sleep without waking up in intervals with the voice of anxiety coursing through my veins. I am sitting in a sticky 93 degree apartment too burnt out to get up and prepare myself for the week ahead: my sister’s graduation, my friend’s wedding, another friend spending the night, my cousins coming into town. I am debating turning on the AC, reassuring myself the temperature will drop tomorrow. I get up and turn on the AC. I am groggy. I am sleep deprived. I am pouring from an empty cup, all while knowing that tomorrow, I’ll be back at work. Preaching balance, preaching self-care, preaching wellness. All of the things I’m trying to find a place for in my own life.
The last six months felt a lot like stagnation, but in retrospect, looked a lot like a big, long, lesson in grace. I’m learning to give myself full heaping servings of grace without adding shame and guilt as side dishes. I’m learning how exactly to practice what I preach — how to do hard things and have hard conversations about myself, instead of hiding under a role, a title, and a job that allows me to have hard conversations with other people.
I’ll be honest — I’ve sat at my dining room table almost every other day for the last two weeks trying to conjure the words to write as my big grand re-entrance onto the blogsophere. I’ve typed and erased and typed and cursed and typed and felt solemn and hopeful and pissed and relieved. But the words don’t matter as much as the message behind them do — going back to the basics has been the theme of my life the last few months, coming in waves and intertwining with my persistent need to chain myself to painful things. Going back to the basics tells me that even though there are a million thoughts running rampant in my head, a million pieces of wisdom I want to share with the world, a million things I want to get off my chest, what matters is simple – figuring out who I am and what I want underneath the layers of who the world, more specifically my world, has begged me to be.
One day, I will write all of those things I have swirling inside my head. But, for now, I’m here. And I’m back. I’m learning how to allow myself to be authentic in a world that screams crop, the filter, add a caption that makes it sound better than it already is, make sure it’s worthy of a like.. and when all of that is done, then you can post. I am learning to peel off the extra pieces of myself that don’t add up. I am learning to incorporate the who I believe others around me can be into the who I am and who I want to be. And just like everything else, that’s a process — one that starts right back at the beginning of who I am: the basics. So, for tonight, and for the road that lies ahead, the mask is off. The facade is up. I think it’s better this way. A six month hiatus from dusting off my heart and bleeding through words is long enough, dontcha think?