Before sitting down to write this, I did that thing where you look through photos from the end of 2009, to see what’s changed in the last decade.
What I came across was dozens of blurry, badly posed and lit photos of myself in skintight outfits, with my hair straightened and my tummy sucked in tightly, dewy-skinned and obnoxious, making crazy faces and making out with all my friends. (This was a thing– please bear in mind I went to acting school, and also didn’t fully realize how queer I was.)
Looking at these I feel curious and detached. I see a child, but I remember feeling about a million years old. I see someone ensnared in the aftermath of trauma, but I remember thinking that being numb and angry was just a part of my personality.
I see photos of the boys I dated and slept with, the ones who were captured by my digital camera at one moment or another, and I feel disgust. I remember them being beautiful, but in the photos they are not.
Did you know the brain scrambles people’s faces based on how you feel about them, to either make them more symmetrical (and therefore more attractive) or less symmetrical (and therefore more ugly)?
I saw their faces as attractive back then because of any number of reasons, not the least of which was chemistry and pheromones. Some of them were kind to me, and some of them simply gave me attention or validation. Some felt safe, and others felt dangerous, and either could be attractive depending on what I was looking for at the time.
We re-play our traumas, you know. We are drawn to put ourselves into situations that remind us of our trauma sometimes in a subconscious effort to sort of… try again. Figure it out this time. Solve the puzzle, change the ending. Reclaim our power and agency, so that next time we know what to do.
I did a lot of that. I didn’t particularly enjoy the physical sensations of sex, but I wanted it constantly because I enjoyed attention and validation and the feeling of having power over men. It made me feel good to be wanted, even if I didn’t want them. Even if I hated them. It’s a tricky business, being traumatized by men and also trying to partner with and sleep with them. It gets messy.
I wasn’t kind back then. I used my powers for evil. I made men cry in bars by zeroing in on their biggest insecurities until they broke down. I was extremely good at it. I was angry, and hurt people hurt people.
People don’t like to hear this. Women aren’t supposed to be like that. Women aren’t supposed to take pleasure in hurting people, but I did.
So much so that I used to fantasize vividly about murdering the person who emotionally abused and date raped me, even while I sought out partners who reminded me of him, like gravity. I assumed I was a horrible person; a crazy person.
What I remember most is feeling like I couldn’t stop.
I know now that this is how trauma and sexuality and hormones and self-beliefs work sometimes, and that there was nothing wrong with me, and this behavior didn’t mean anything about my core self.
I wish I’d known it was ok that I couldn’t stop. I wish I’d known it would end someday.
It’s amazing to me when people say they wish they could go back to their twenties, wish they looked like that again or had their youth back. I would never, not for a billion dollars, go back to living in that pretty girl’s body. To the constant rigid tension, to the potent combo of ego and insecurity, to the belief that I was the wrong kind of person for this world.
I would have said I was thriving. I would have been wrong, but I didn’t know any better. We don’t know what we don’t know.
I would rather take my worst day now than my best day back then. I am a different person, in a different body, in a different reality, in a different universe altogether. So much can change.
Recently my therapist asked me to rate on a scale of one to ten how upsetting a specific traumatic memory was, and we got down to me saying it was .01 out of ten. He asked… what was holding me back from saying zero? To my own surprise, I realized that if I got down to zero, if I really let it go, I would have no proof for how bad it had been.
If I stayed broken, I would be miserable, but at least I’d have proof that I’d been through something monstrous.
That’s how it goes sometimes, why we sometimes stay stuck for years or decades. Giving up our pain and fear and trauma requires a belief that giving it up will offer us something better than what we get if we keep it. If we keep it, we might get validation, sympathy, attention, connection and bonding, righteousness and a feeling of superiority, and even respect from others. If we let it go we might get… happiness?
It’s a harder sell than you might imagine.
I had a friend with an eating disorder who once said she wanted to get better, but not if it meant giving up the attention and concern from friends and family. She said nobody ever paid attention to her until she got sick, and even though she knew it was destructive, she wasn’t willing to give that up.
Sometimes holding onto your pain, fear, and trauma feels safer than giving it up.
It’s extremely hard to make that choice when you don’t know how freedom feels; when you don’t know joy or aliveness; when your nervous system has been disregulated so long you’ve made a whole identity out of it.
People who don’t believe it can get that much better don’t put themselves in therapy.
People who think this is about as good as it gets don’t seek out coaches and programs to help them get further, faster.
People who don’t know what thriving and freedom really feel like are content to settle at functional.
I was always functional. I was fine. I figured on the grand scale of human thriving I was probably at about an eight out of ten.
The only reason I can look back now and see how bleak things were is because throughout the last decade my human thriving scale extended to a hundred. I was realistically an eight out of one hundred, which means I was only “fine” on a scale that assumed “fine” is about as good as it gets.
If I could wish anything upon you in this upcoming decade, it’s the knowledge that the scale for thriving goes all the way up to one hundred; that with conscious work and an investment in personal growth, self-examination, and conscious healing, you can access a level of thriving that goes far above and beyond anything you ever imagined.
Bear in mind that thriving is not the same thing as happiness.
Thriving includes being open to and able to tolerate the many highs and lows of the human experience, which includes depths of grief and pain as well as heights of euphoria, connection, and meaning. It means waking up from the matrix and re-programming all the false bullshit you’ve been fed about what kind of person is supposed to have what kind of life.
It means freedom from constantly thinking about food, fat, exercise, and what other people think and feel about you. Freedom from self criticism, guilt, shame, and the need for validation. Self-trust and self-acceptance, even to your darkest dark material.
It’s possible to be free. I know because I climbed out. The beginning is the hardest, but it gets easier and easier as you go along.
If you happen to be at the beginning of this journey, I wish for you the tiniest pause, a sliver of a breath, a chink of sunlight where there seems only to be darkness. I wish this opening for you, so that you can make a choice: so that you can decide this is not thriving, that you deserve to heal, that you need help, that you want life to be different.
May this new decade be full of growth, courage, evolution, guidance, healing, and thriving for all of us.
Personally I’ll do continuing my unrelenting self-development work, because at the end of 2029 I want to look back at this post and say:
“What I didn’t know then was that the scale really went up to one thousand.”
Happy new year everyone.