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We are all composites of our past experiences: the good, the bad, and the ones we would rather forget.
Every new day we are presented with obstacles and situations that give us the opportunity to grow and shape our existence. Although our experiences make us who we are, that does not mean we have to let our past define us.
The challenges that we face are meant to guide us, to strengthen us, to encourage us. It is how we face our traumas and struggles that lead us to creating the life we want to live. If we do not process and acknowledge these challenges appropriately, they can be detrimental to our quality of life.
Unfortunately, especially early in our lives, we do not always possess the tools necessary to do so, and too often face circumstances that feel beyond our control. Many survivors of pain and traumatic experiences at a young age suffer from difficulties forming relationships, lack of self-worth, and a number of psychological and physical health complications.
My personal experience with mental illness stems from my childhood, which was laced with daily episodes of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse that lasted for five years.
Although my parents encouraged me to seek professional help, I didn’t speak of my experiences for years. The resources provided to me at the time essentially alluded to how broken and damaged my life was going to turn out, and I refused to fall victim to that stereotype. I was determined that I would not let my past negatively affect me and saw no point in dwelling on it, nor did I want to play the victim or feel sorry for myself. I convinced myself that I was stronger than that, that I didn’t need help, and that it wasn’t a big deal. So I buried my feelings and focused my energy on erasing memories of my childhood with no intention of ever looking back.
As it turns out, this genius plan of mine—to live in a state of denial—backfired.
As I got older, I suffered from extreme depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and a variety of physical health ailments. By the time I was 23, I was taking eight different medications that did nothing but numb my body, fog my mind, and create a variety of other unpleasant side effects. My self-worth was non-existent and I was completely disconnected from myself. I found myself living most of my life looking to others for confirmation, confidence, security, and support.
My inability to be vulnerable caused me to push people away and create a barrier between anyone who attempted to get close to me. Not only did I struggle to form and maintain healthy relationships, but I didn’t feel worthy enough to deserve love of any kind. The denial of my past was creating so many blockages in my body, my health, and my relationships that I often found myself feeling trapped in toxic, destructive situations.
I refused to consider that my childhood experiences had any connection to these troubling areas of my life. It took many years for me to realize that this path I was on no longer suited me—and that it was my responsibility to take control of the life I wanted to create.
For me, the first steps to start living a more fulfilling life was owning my story and surrendering to my reality, and not looking to others as outlets for comfort and support. Although acknowledging my past was one of the most challenging things I had ever done, it was not nearly as damaging as spending my life running from it.
I Brought Awareness to my Struggle
The truth is, our stories are important and our pasts are important. It wasn’t until I woke up one morning, having spent the night with a bottle of bourbon questioning my existence, that I realized it was time to get honest with myself. I had hit rock bottom. I was not okay—and that was okay.
We are often burdened by the pressures of our societal norms to maintain certain images of success and happiness. We are conditioned to view expressions of negativity or hardship as weak and unappealing. But conforming to these expectations is not a realistic or proactive way to deal with our struggles.
Acknowledging and opening up about my truth paved the way for me to connect with my personal power and self-love. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of us, and until we can get real and raw and honest about what we are going through, we will never be able to successfully move forward. I stopped feeling shameful about my past and stopped feeling angry with myself about the fact that maybe my experiences could possibly have some significant impact on certain areas of my life.
Some people say that time mends all wounds, which can be true to some extent. Time may be able to dull some of the pain, but deep healing and growth does not happen until we make ourselves aware of our struggles and accept and acknowledge our own suffering.
I Made Space to Feel what I Needed to Feel
It is essential for our well-being to let ourselves hurt, to let ourselves cry, to let ourselves be vulnerable, and to not feel shame about it.
We live in a culture that places so much of an emphasis on constantly staying positive in order to survive. Social media is littered with “Move on, learn from your pain, don’t worry, be happy”-themed quotes that can sometimes minimize valid emotions. While these affirmations may be uplifting for some, oftentimes we have to make room for our feelings to break through and to simply let them exist.
We have to focus on ourselves and pay attention to the pain that comes through during the hard times, even when it’s not an easy thing to do. It didn’t take long for me to realize that healing and growing is demanding work that requires us to put ourselves in uncomfortable and unpleasant situations.
When I first started allowing myself to be more vulnerable, my immediate reaction was to push these emotions away. I have spent the majority of my life burying and covering up unwanted feelings as a coping mechanism because it was the easier alternative. But the more we fight those feelings, the more likely they are to come up in more destructive ways later in life and keep us from experiencing loving relationships, a sense of belonging, and feelings of joy.
Disrupting our old ways of coping will bring up intense memories, fear, and grief that can be difficult to face. Releasing internal and external emotions that keep us stuck can feel like a never-ending process. But in order to make profound changes in our lives, it takes being true to ourselves and taking on the uncomfortable, yet exciting, process of transformation. Only when we are courageous enough to explore the darkness will we ultimately discover the infinite power of our light.
I Began to Prioritize Self-Care
I have found that when dealing with past trauma, it is especially important to be kind and gentle to ourselves.
A common side effect of any kind of trauma is a lack of understanding for our own needs. For most of my life, I constantly focused on fulfilling the needs of others instead of investing that energy on myself. I often felt obligated to say “yes” to everyone and everything, and felt guilty if I was not able to live up to the expectations and needs of others. I regularly relied on alcohol and drugs as a crutch to escape from the feelings I was too ashamed to feel and the challenges I was too afraid to face.
My unhealthy habits started to take a toll on my mind, body, and life. I started to notice a change in my appearance—like there was literally a lack of life in my eyes. I constantly felt sick and struggled to find the motivation I needed to succeed in my career. After a DUI and 72 hours in solitary confinement, I realized it was time to make serious changes in regards to the ways I was treating myself.
I was at such a low point that even getting out of bed was a challenge, so the thought of incorporating healthier habits into my lifestyle was extremely intimidating. I could barely run 100 yards at the time without nearly passing out, and spending Sundays with mimosas and friends sounded much more appealing than planning out evenly proportioned, veggie-packed meals for the week in my BPA-free Tupperware.
But I forced myself to start exercising regularly, even if that just meant walking a mile. I committed to spending time in nature, even if that just meant sitting in a grassy field with a book. I learned how to eat well and focused deeply on these steps because I knew they were what my mind and body needed in order to start living a life filled with more joy and purpose.
I committed to a daily yoga and meditation practice. I revived my love for hiking and the mountains and spent at least 30 minutes each day outside. I practiced vulnerability and mindfulness in my daily life and held myself accountable to these goals. Creating a healthy, more mindful and holistic lifestyle was the best thing I could have ever done for myself.
Eventually, I started to see a huge transition in my quality of life. I started thinking and seeing more clearly, and looking and feeling healthy and energetic. I even gained the confidence that I lacked for so many years and finally started to feel proud of the person I was. But this process took a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication to get to where I needed and wanted to be.
I Committed to my Growth
The work I had to (and still have to) do was messy, challenging, and deep. I still have constant struggles and failures, but am able to find beauty in every setback and lessons through every breakdown. Committing to making drastic lifestyle changes can be overwhelming and daunting, but we have to remind ourselves that it is a gradual process, rooted in small, daily steps. Start by making the commitment to at least one small change toward bettering yourself each day.
It’s also important to recognize that talk therapy, holistic living, and other external tools can certainly help ease the darkness, but they cannot erase it completely. Sometimes, there are parts of me that still don’t feel like I’m good enough in certain areas of my personal and professional life, and I still occasionally question if I am worthy enough for love. But I now have the clarity and resilience to own, share, and manage those fears and emotions when they do arise.
And although the dark areas of my childhood experiences still spill their shadows at times, it’s not a part of my life that defines me. I have learned to separate my existence from the pain of my past.
Fortunately, my efforts turned into a success story. I now feel healthier, stronger, happier, and more grateful than I could have ever imagined. I am capable of connecting to friends and family in ways that I never thought possible. And most importantly, I feel truly comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my entire life.
I am who I am today because of my past, and I am grateful beyond measure for my journey. I only wish that during those hopeless moments I knew what I know now: that if we are willing to work hard, if we are determined to make lasting changes in our life, if we are persistent in seeking valuable resources and support, we will not only heal, but we will thrive.
Owning my story and loving myself was the best and bravest thing I could have ever done, and through the process, I created the life that I desired.
Be brave enough to find the life you want and courageous enough to chase it. Don’t let your past determine every facet of our life; don’t let it prevent you from loving deeply, from living fully, from growing courageously.
Use your experiences to fuel your growth. Use these challenges as an opportunity for awakening. It is not until we take charge of our own existence, of our own lives, that beautiful things begin to emerge.
Dare to recognize yourself as a unique and worthy individual, both capable and deserving of living life on your own terms.