“Start over, my darling. Be brave enough to find the life you want, and courageous enough to chase it. Then start over and love yourself the way you were always meant to.” ~ Madalyn Beck
There’s something to be said for having to start afresh. To have to rebuild one’s life from the ground up.
It offers us a chance to finally be happy.
Of course, we can refuse to accept that opportunity. We can revert back to those same maladaptive patterns we’ve carried around for decades, those same patterns that helped us to burn our life to the ground in the first place. However, same patterns, same results: unless we evolve, we’re only to going to end up at rock-bottom again.
Nothing changes unless we do.
And, when we’re standing in the wreckage of what once used to pass for our life, we’re given that opportunity—to change.
But even then it’s a difficult path. We’re naturally conservative creatures; evolutionary-speaking, risk represents danger, and as we’re hardwired to propagate our species and survive, change is a something we’re biologically programmed to avoid. Stepping out of our comfort zones may offer us the chance for greater fulfillment, but it’s also something we’re innately resistant to. Change equals risk, and that presents danger.
As a result, most people only change when they have to. When they have no choice. When they’re at rock bottom, and have no option to do things differently this time.
As I had to.
I had to change, to do things differently, to be different. It wasn’t a case of reinventing myself—these weren’t cosmetic changes. I never wanted to be at rock bottom again, so that meant more than a drastic overhaul. I had to undergo a rebirth.
And that’s tough.
I’m still stumbling my way through that process, but I’ve learnt five important things:
1. This is going to get messy.
Healing, and then rebuilding, is going to be haphazard. You’re going to make huge (huge!) mistakes that will send you back to your starting point. You will spend months travelling down a road that only has a dead end waiting for you. You’ll find your path eventually, but there’s going to be a few horrid failures along the way.
And those “things” you’re recovering from, healing from? They will fight back.
You know that breakup from last year, the one that left you reeling? Yeah, that’s going to come back and bite you on the behind. You know that depression that plagued you the whole of 2019, that all-pervading sense of sadness you’ve fought so hard to banish? Wait until Christmas rolls up; it’ll raise its ugly head once again.
And, because you don’t exist in a vacuum, the outside world will throw you a few curveballs to fend off. Feeling socially isolated, and in need of new friendships? Here’s coronavirus, along with their friend, self-isolation!
And that’s before you even get onto tackling those unhealthy coping mechanisms you’ve spent a lifetime acquiring—ones that you know you now have to leave behind. You may understand that many of those strategies, and much of your personality as a whole, was honed within a dysfunctional family unit, but just wait until you start unpacking all of that—properly—in therapy. I can easily understand why people resist change; working through all of that is torture.
And then there’s “you.“ Change means facing those parts of yourself that you don’t like. It requires you to accept your mistakes and tackle them. Realizing that you might be the most toxic person in your life is a bitter pill to swallow; that’s going to hurt.
In short, things are going to get messy. It’s not going to be glorious; it’s going to be raw and painful. It’s not going to be linear; your journey will resemble the outline of a mountain range. You’re going to screw up, fall over, and wish you could just jump in your imaginary time machine, and fast-forward through all this vile stuff.
But, you know what? All of that is okay. It’s alright if you find it all hard and get lots wrong. You’ve never had to do any of this before. This is new terrain; you’re going to get lost.
Plus, you’re not you anymore. Not the old you anyway. You’re a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, trying to figure out how your new body (and mind) works. Trauma changes you, and you’re not the same person anymore. You don’t see anything, or anyone (including yourself), in the same way. Things that were a struggle before suddenly become easier; things that you used to be able to do are now almost impossible.
There’s a huge amount to adjust to as you get used to the new you—accept it. Give yourself as much time as you need to get used to this.
It’s just another messy element to incorporate as you slowly move through your rebirth.
2. There’s no time frame; the only measurement is baby steps.
As your journey toward a new you is messy, there’s no neat timeline you can follow.
I have two friends who both suffered severe breakdowns, and their path to rebuilding themselves are two markedly different tales. One was relatively fine a few months later; the other was a shell for over two years. There is no prescribed healing period. A lot will depend on your support network, and whether any mental illness is also in the equation, as well a million other factors.
It varies from person to person, and—simply put—rebuilding your life (and yourself) will take as long as it takes.
Take it day by day.
And don’t beat yourself up if it’s taking longer than you want.
I know that I was frustrated with myself for not being “better” a year after my discharge following my breakdown. Why wasn’t I happier? Why couldn’t I sort out some of the issues that had landed me in a psychiatric ward in the first place? The short answer is that I needed longer to sort through them. Who cares if someone else could do that same emotional work in a few weeks? I’m me and I needed longer. The moment I stopped worrying about timelines and just embraced the process was the moment I started to move in the right direction—albeit infinitesimally.
Aim for daily progress, no matter how small. A step forward is still a step forward, even if you need a microscope to see it.
And one area you’ve really got to try to move forward with is…
3. Letting the past go.
You’ve got to let your past die. Not all of it—some of it is too important to ever lose grip of. But the stuff that made you unhappy? You’ve got to let that crap go.
Easier said than done, but absolutely vital. Your past is heavy; if you want to swim, you’ve got to lose some of that weight.
I did this in two ways: writing and forgiveness.
My writing gave me clarity on a lot of things, but it also enabled me to let go. I processed, I said what I needed to, and a weight has been lifted. I’m not sure I’ve got anything left to say about invalidation or abandonment anymore. It all still interests me on a theoretical level, but personally? It’s gone. None of that stuff is polluting my insides now—it took time, but the processing of letting all that go is far nearer the end than the beginning.
Then there’s forgiveness, something I have always struggled with. However…
You know what I said before about needing to acknowledge your own toxic traits? My rumination on past hurts is one of mine. I had to learn to let go. And, so I’ve finally embraced forgiveness. Six month ago, I was angry and bitter—that simply didn’t work for me. I wasn’t moving forward; letting go has, finally, given me some forward momentum.
I say a Buddhist prayer of forgiveness every morning when I wake up and just before I go to sleep. I didn’t believe it when I first began reciting it, but, thanks to neuroplasticity, its words have slowly taken root in my mind. I feel lighter, more at peace.
Does forgiveness require you to communicate that with anyone else? That’s up to you and the person you want closure from. For me, I only formally did this once; there was a huge knot of miscommunication at the heart of this relationship, and it mattered to me to at least try and untangle some of that, as well as part on good terms—they were a good person and had been there a lot for me in the past, but things had just reached a point of no return. A proper goodbye mattered.
With others, I didn’t want to open up the channels of communication again; self-preservation trumped everything else, and I didn’t want any more hurt, nor for them to think I was somehow sending a message I wanted them back in my life. It was enough for me to forgive them, and myself—the bond connecting me to them was lessened, and the weight of my past was lifted.
However, more important than forgiving others, I’m also learning to forgive myself. Cutting myself some slack for the mistakes I’ve made instead of letting them eat away at me. No more “What if I’d said this,” or “if only I’d done that.” What’s done is done. Learn the lesson (and there’s always a lesson), and move on.
Letting go is so, so hard. But there’s few better foundations stones on which to build your rebirth.
Related to that…
4. Find a code to live by; use whatever works!
It might change. It probably will. But, you’re in a messy state of flux; having a code will give you something to cling onto—a little bit of stability. Forgiveness helps, but you’ll need a bit more.
For me, I’ve got a random, smorgasbord of ideals and principles. A lot of that is, basically, Buddhism-lite. I’m not sure where my newfound interest in Buddhism has come from—perhaps it’s simply that I’m in a place where I’m willing to embrace parts of me that were either closed off, or just didn’t exist, a year ago. I’m still trying to figure that out.
But with its emphasis on kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, Buddhism is helping me. Not least is that I’d hated the person I slowly became over the last four horrible years. Hated him. Now, I’m beginning to like him once again—this version of me is being built on positive human qualities. Kindness, compassion, and forgiveness—they’re pretty amazing building blocks on which to construct self-love.
Try everything, no matter how “out there“ it might seem. Not all of it will work for you, and you won’t always understand why the things that do work for you do—perhaps that’ll come later.
But give yourself something to cling to. And don’t worry about what others think about the tools you’re using on your journey, because…
5. Not everyone will understand.
If you’re expecting unwavering support and kindness, think again. You will get that—the people who really love you will see the effort you’re making, and they’ll support you. But not everyone will.
Some will bemoan your lack of progress, or the strange way you’re doing things. Always listen to them—you never know, there might be some truth in what they say, some nugget you can use. But, it’s your journey, your choice—everyone deserves an opportunity to have a say, but what you do with their words is up to you. Your recovery, and rebirth, doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you.
Some will walk away. Let them. Don’t chase after them—you’ve got far more valuable things to expend your energy on. If they come back, so be it. If they don’t, say goodbye, wish them well, and let them be.
The ones who want to support you—let them. The ones who don’t—let them go.
It’ll be lonely at times. Learn to live with and embrace that. It’s in those quiet moments that you will find fortitude, and reliance, and the chance to reflect. Eventually, you’ll find your tribe—you will. But, no one is coming to save you; you’ve got to save yourself. You’re going to do most of this on your own.
Despite the mess, the raw, unadulterated pain, the haphazard, halting progress, the stumbles, the dead ends, and the solitude, slowly you will find you. Rock bottom is a vile, horrible place to be. But down there, among the rubble, and the ashes, you can begin to find, and build, a new you.
One that is happier and better than the previous incarnation. It’s a difficult road to travel, but it’s one well worth taking. And, once you’re on it, keep going. Baby steps, all the time. Just keep moving.