There was once a little girl, with golden red curls, a fierce independence, and a fire in her belly. No dream impossible, no fate improbable, no problem insurmountable. Life stretched out with infinite opportunities, days and nights secure in the knowledge anything can happen and she could shoot for the stars.
Precociously articulate in an adult world, thoughts churned in her head, until a bubbling confidence arose to share with the people she looked up to, in every sense of the word. Acutely sensitive to sights, sounds and smells, and intuitively empathic in a world too young for her to understand, this little girl learned to hide emotions. She adeptly intuited feelings were of no consequence and not to be discussed. So, she hid them away and proffered instead a girl filled with confidence and knowing. Never rattled. Never unsure. A girl who could lead and be relied on. A girl nobody suspected would crumble into a million pieces, never to be whole again.
Emotions don’t disappear.
Sadness with no outlet gnaws a pit in your soul, and gradually leaches into every aspect of your being. Anxiety second guesses your every decision and erodes any sense of self or confidence that once burned brightly. And together, they quench that fire in the belly and steal the hopes and dreams of a life with infinite possibilities.
I’ve had an eating disorder all my 52 years – in one form or another. I’m working through recovery, with two inpatient stays, and intensive support from a team of incredible health professionals. While I still have a way to go, I’m much further along than I was. Each time I relapse then crawl back out, I ask, Why? What the fuck was I thinking?! And then it occurred to me, I keep looking for the girl with the golden red curls and the fire in her belly. The girl who quite literally, ate every emotion that touched her sensitive spirit, and refused to acknowledge life was anything but a gift she had no right to frown upon. There was no room for sadness.
We’re all a messy concoction of nature and nurture, and whether our problems are based in one or the other is a moot point – the problem remains. In hindsight, I see a golden-haired girl with a propensity for depression and constant high levels of anxiety. A little girl seeking perfection almost as badly as she yearned for acceptance and unconditional love. Yet I was 49 years old before I associated either of those words with myself. Depression and anxiety were nasty sounding things other people experienced. Not me. I was an optimist, always looking on the bright side. Exuding high energy and infectious joy whenever possible– because everyone prefers happy people. I was calm and controlled under pressure. I knew how to deal with life and stress.
Until I didn’t.
Decades of maladaptive coping mechanisms crashed down around my ears, and the words severe depression and chronic anxiety were bandied about – in relation to me. I was in the depths of self-induced starvation, self-harming, highly suicidal, too depressed to function, and suffering the physical misery of high anxiety – pounding heart, shaking hands, internal catastrophising, panic attacks. I’d become one of “those people”.
Now I have these labels and I’m learning tools to manage the symptoms, but I keep searching for the girl with the fire in her belly. The fiercely independent girl where no dream’s impossible, no fate improbable, no problem insurmountable. A life of infinite possibilities. I make progress in my recovery and keeping wondering when she’ll reappear – full of hopes and dreams. Desperate to live a life of purpose – to leave a lasting legacy.
But she’s gone. And she isn’t coming back. She can’t. Her strength was a façade. A false belief that other people’s perceptions were more important than reality. A desperate desire to please by expending energies on other people and never taking a moment to look inwards and see the festering mass of unacknowledged fear. Seeking that girl is holding me back. There’s a new me coming – one with an acceptance of the sadness that and settles on her shoulders for days on end, and recognition of the anxiety that appears when a situation hasn’t been fully accepted, acknowledged or explored. The new me doesn’t use food to anaesthetise, procrastinate or distract. The new me doesn’t use self-harm to still the panic brewing over every little person, place and situation. The new me must stop considering suicide is an option.
I don’t know what the new girl looks like. Or how she dreams and reacts to life. I’m just discovering her – helping her find a voice and teaching her to be brave enough to use it. Reimagining the lost hopes and dreams of youth, fine-tuning them with the wisdom that comes with age and experience.
The girl I used to be is gone, and she isn’t coming back.
But a new girl is emerging, with shadows of the old, but fortified by newfound knowledge and a refusal to submit to the lure of the dark side. I’m going to miss that little girl – she was so full of spirit and hope. But she was also a lie. The new girl is saggier, wrinklier, and some days, a whole lot more miserable. But she’s honest and has the power to acknowledge and accept the realities of the inevitable stresses that this thing we call life deals out.