A few months ago, a string of events and circumstances left me broken, in one of the lowest points I can remember. When telling stories about ourselves, our minds will locate us in time and space. As we search for meaning, we identify that day when everything turned around, or the moment it all began to fall apart. For me, that was the day of the Women’s March, the same day that my grandmother died, January 21, 2017. Though she was 90-years-old and her death was expected and natural, the emotions, the sense of loss, the power of death swept over me. It was profound and emotional and I don’t think it’s arbitrary that this was the exact day I remember things started slipping.
Living abroad and losing a family member throws everything into question. You are back in bed with your own guilt and shame about leaving, reawakening family secrets that drove you away in the first place, as well as the reality, that there will be more losses, and especially that loss of time, that grinds on, as true, as the lines that crease our skin. Death has that power to invoke our own mortality while at the same time, spurring questions about how our lives have been lived, how they will continue to be lived, until they are not.
All of these questions about life and choices and the heaviness surrounding my grandmother’s death compelled to go home for the funeral, on a last minute international flight, at the very least, so that I didn’t have to live in more regret, or the question of whether I had made a mistake, made a wrong turn, or missed something important.
In a cab headed to Tegel Airport I felt something clench my chest, like a hand had reached in and squeezed. I thought it was anxiety about leaving my daughter for the first time, on another continent, while I flew back to the U.S. An hour later I started to feel uneasy and overwhelmed. I couldn’t sort through my physical feelings from the emotional ones and somewhere over the Atlantic, I fell into a fever, cold sweats, and nausea. By the time I landed at O’Hare I could barely stand straight. I drove holding a bag next to my face the whole way from Chicago in case I threw up in my Dad’s pick-up. I spent the next three days unable to get out of bed, missed the funeral, and was diagnosed with pneumonia and bronchitis.
Also, it was my birthday.
In the weeks to come, my daughter would need an MRI to rule out a brain tumor after she had some troubling exams on her eyes. While getting said MRI she would catch a super virus in the hospital leaving her hooked up to an IV and unable to eat, drink, or sit up on her own for six days. I had mustered some adrenaline to get through the hospital stay, yet, my own health plummeted again, and I came out of the hospital with two more rounds of stomach flu, two sinus infections, and had been on three more rounds of antibiotics since I returned from the U.S.
This series of events were emotionally, spiritually, and physically draining in that way where you don’t know how to keep turning over the days. I kept thinking back, “When did this all start? Why is this happening?” and more pressing, “When is it going to end?” I was having trouble getting back into work, integrating my own health problems with caring for my daughter, trying to handle my job, working on my own recovery and also just trying to stay mentally stable enough to face each day. I didn’t want traditional counseling or psychotherapy, but I knew I needed support and someone to talk to about what was going on with me.
I began working with a wellness coach, referred to me by a mutual friend. We had bi-weekly sessions and explored my varied issues—family life, career, addiction recovery, emotional stability, depression, parenting, health and fitness, and even my artistic endeavors. I loved our sessions and found them such a comfort during some dark days where I felt completely hopeless. Because of my physical health problems, I had sunk into a depression, some days very uncertain about how things were ever going to get better. One day I hit a real wall. I was crying in the bathroom at work. On the way to yet another doctor’s appointment, I was sobbing so hard that a woman handed me a pack of Kleenex before she stepped out of the train.
Later that day while going through my list of “things wrong with me and my life,” I told my wellness coach, “And on top of everything… I just got the worst haircut.”
It was true, by no fault of my beloved stylist, but I wasn’t ready for the short bangs or the angled lob that was about four inches shorter than I imagined. It seems vain and superficial, but there is nothing like a bad haircut that can really throw you into self-doubt, wondering, who are you really?
A short hair history: When I was six years old I got a really bad boy haircut in kindergarten to please my mother who was sick of my perennial hair veil. I was already socially anxious, but for years, I truly believed that it was this single bad haircut that left me feeling like I didn’t belong, like there was something wrong with me. But, hair had always represented something bigger to me. It was about making a decision about who we are to the world, it was about crafting and creating a version to be loved. And for me, there was so much pressure on being a certain way and I lived in fear that with one wrong move, one erroneous scissor slip, I wouldn’t be loveable at all.
So, yeah, it was just a bad haircut, but it felt like the death knell on the last shred of mental health I was holding on to.
When doing any kind of self-improvement, it’s easy to focus on our best self. Who will we become if we get to tweak this or that? I had always believed that there was a best version of myself and spent most of my twenties and early thirties trying to figure out how to get to her, this imagined version of myself, this perfected version, like a sculpture, the ever-unfinished masterpiece.
I knew exactly who she was. I could see her so clearly that she never seemed too out of reach. She always looks impeccable with rowdy, full hair. Somehow her legs always appear slightly longer in photos. She has my body type, but with a few inches shaved off here and there. She wears glitter for no reason and dances shamelessly in public (even when sober). She is known for her hilarity and wit, and can even banter in German. She is a good cook (even likes it) and a devoted wife and mom, who never tires. She can wear a pressed, white shirt without staining it before noon. She performs her many roles with vigor, while always reflecting a perfect inner calm, a nearly meditative state. She is whimsical, independent and free-spirited, never afraid of taking a risk. She is smart with money, but also a generous gift-giver who never misses the mark. She is comfortably extroverted while also quietly intellectual. She is brave and never worries about the consequences. And, her consequences are never regrets, but well-processed learning lessons.
So, that’s her, the, unrealistically developed and unattainable me. And there were so many ways of working on her. I thought about how much time I had spent wanting to love this person- this best version of myself, how many hours of the day I had spent strategizing, trying to figure out what I would still need to do to become her. There were degrees and resume boosters, new career paths, and experiences, travel and other forms of cachet. There were countless beauty products and treatments, investments in heels and platforms, eyelash and hair extensions. There were artistic performances, publications, and expressions, there were workouts and wellness routines, and parenting books, and cooking classes, and even if I got close, she was always fleeting.
Because, this version of myself was never real. In fact, I never realized that I even had this fantasy of myself until my wellness coach wrote to me that day after my bad haircut breakdown: “I wonder now, just what you think of yourself when you are in the depth of depression? Are you able to sit with yourself in these low places and just BE with her. The non-high energy, non-vibrant, sick Kate. Can you love her too?”
“Her? Who is her?” I thought, as though she was writing about someone I had never met.
Breathless for a moment, something clicked. Her.
I burst into tears on the train (again, always a good place to cry), realizing how I had compartmentalized these versions of myself, that I even withheld self-love, making it conditional upon performance, giving myself some unattainable standard, my constant discourse being, “Of course I can love myself, when I am perfect, when I finish this project, when everything about me looks right, and my life works out exactly the way it should, and I have this accomplishment or that fix…” For the first time, I realized that I had never loved myself as I was.
I was always waiting for someone better to show up.
And for the first time I asked myself, “Can you love her too?” And then I thought about the real her.
Can you love her… who was so terrified in the hospital that she closed her eyes instead of watching the doctors inserting an IV while her daughter screamed? Can you love her on those days, when completely isolated, desperately alone in a foreign country? Can you love, her, when she is sick and depressed, and even, when she wonders, if she will ever be okay. Can you love her when she is full of loss and regret and fear?
Can you love her?
It’s easy to love the highest versions of ourselves… but can we love the lowest ones too? I had ignored this weaker, suffering version of myself, because I did not want to see her, I didn’t want it to be possible, that she was just as real, just as alive. Somehow I hadn’t seen, that these imperfections, had always made me stronger, they made me who I was. They taught me what I was capable of, because you can’t hide your weakness, without hiding your strength too. Because of course there would be missteps, and falling short, and always days, I would be a lesser version. Of course I was her.
How could I have missed this blatant fact, that I was human?
Loving only one version of ourselves is denying who we are. It is depriving us of the capacity to love where we have been, where we are going. Denying our darkest nights is the same as forgetting our brightest days.
Now I know, it is not my best self that needs love, it is the other one.
The one who suffers? Love her.
Ashamed, guilty, full of regret? Love her.
Sick, worn down, weary? Love her.
Scared? Love her.
Gained ten pounds? Love her.
Depressed or anxious? Love her.
Exhausted? Love her.
Selfish, wanting, hopeless? Love her too.
Impatient, cruel or unkind? Forgive her, love her, love her, love her. Even more…
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