That Time When I Lost a Piece of Myself

In the time before

In a recent email exchange with an old friend from grad school, 25-year-old Vanessa appeared, invited by his words. It was as if he added water to a freeze-dried me, and I reconstituted before my own eyes.

There she was, that other, prior me. A young woman who had done one thing consistently since she could hold a pencil: write.

That Me-Who-Wrote refused to be vanquished or even dimmed, no matter what. While working full time, putting myself through college, juggling night working with day studenting, and acing my classes, I wrote. Riding the roller coaster of teenaged misery and the even more distracting bumper-car ride of 20-something angst and ecstasy, I wrote. Living fully (like 24 hour a day LIVING LIFE), loving with an ease and joy that defined me, offering my heart to the wrong men and having it cast away—no matter what, the stories poured out. And then there was that eating disorder, an abortion, and my mother’s descent into psychosis. And still, I wrote, just about every day.

The thing is, I could not NOT write. I had plenty of options, and many choices to make… every day. Whether I sat down, pad in hand, or before my typewriter (yes… typewriter) was not a choice, any more than breathing or eating are choices.

But now that I think of it, eating was a choice. For almost three years in my twenties, I actually chose not to EAT. Why did I stop eating? There are answers to that, I believe. Explanations. I’m pretty sure I know what that was all about. But that episode in my life troubles me less than the much longer episode of abstinence that makes far less sense to me.

Why did I stop writing for 25 years?

75% of the work I’ve done over the last 15 years—in my shamanic journey, my spiritual questioning, my self-healing— has been focused on that singular question, which is like an ice pick in my heart. And I still don’t have good answers.

Yesterday, on the phone with my sister, I grieved freely for the first time. I cried and cried. It was a conscious grief. I let myself feel the loss fully. It felt like shit. But why had I repressed the emotion for so long? I had allowed the loss of a piece of myself to exist only in my mind, where I could manage it, look at it, “think about it.”

I have put words to this fact—that I was a writer who stopped writing—many times. Friends and family who knew me in the before time could never reconcile the non-writing me with the person they knew. I had handydandy answers ready. Answers about having a family, raising kids, that my (then) husband was the writer in the family now. Excuses about being a working mom, a teacher with hours spent reading the writing of 13-year-olds and helping them make it the best it could be. All the writing I did for other people, clients who needed my words and skills to say what they wanted to say. I enjoy that work, don’t get me wrong. But I have, for years and years, put all of myself into helping other people be writers, or giving other people the words they could not find on their own.

Writing did return to me for a while when I invited it in, about seven years ago when my marriage ended. It came easily for a time. I became prolific again, briefly.

I often wonder if one of the reasons that marriage had to end was that I realized I would never write from inside it. Not writing was a defining factor in how I saw myself in that relationship. As hard as it was for my husband to allow himself to grow as a partner within our couplehood, it was just as hard for me to return to the writer I had been. That is not on him. It is all on me.

But even though the words flooded back for a while, the act of ending a marriage is never going to be enough. There needs to be so much more.

For a short time, I was in a relationship with a man whose belief in me as a writer spurred me on. But there needs to be so much more.

I need to believe in myself as a writer. I need to accept the loss of 25 years and reclaim the part of me that I lost. The part that snapped off. The giant organic piece of my soul that just broke the fuck off and rolled down the cellar stairs.

When my friend John reminded me: “You were always a serious and optimistic writer,” my heart jumpstarted as if I’d said those words myself.

Yes, Self, you can be serious again. You can be optimistic again. That means… you write.

I started this blog in 2013 so I’d have a reason to use my voice again. It seemed an easy (er) way to find the flow of words that had once been a cascade. It has been fun. I am not sure if it paved the way as much as it filled the gap. I am grateful for it, but it is not enough.

What I need to do now: feel my grief. Let it move through me and pass away. Integrate the learning. Return to myself.

There is only one way to know if these lessons will take. If the writing starts again.




The Bed Lesson: Remember Who You Are

I have a new bed. Off to the bed store I went, driven by pain and blessed with an IRS check that had some flexibility within its digits. Going to Metro Mattress, New York State’s own bedding outlet, turned out to be an educational experience. (Most things in life are educational experiences of one kind or another, I find.)

I learned many things, one of which was that I could actually afford a memory foam mattress since a market glut has driven prices down from the heady heights. But the upbeat and overqualified store manager, who graduated from college with a double major in biochem and business 8 years ago and somehow wanted me to know it, taught me a thing or two about memory foam. As I lay on a floor model bed, rolling around to feel the embrace of the magic foam, he sagely informed me: “Memory foam is called that, not because it remembers your shape. Memory foam remembers its own shape, and goes back to it every time. Guaranteed for 20 years.”

Makes sense. You don’t want your bed to have a giant imprint of your body in it. But I guess a lot of people don’t get that at first, what with the name “memory foam” and all—they get confused.

Three nights so far in my new bed and I’m loving it. I woke up in the middle of the night last night (not from pain, but because of a cat settling on my chest and drooling on my chin), and realized something very cool. At two a.m. it even seemed profound.

I realized that memory foam is how I want to be. It always knows who it is. It remembers itself. It is true to its nature. Aligned with its core being.

As a human being, I also want to remember who you are. The figurative “you”—the people in my life. I want to notice, see, hear and remember you, of course. But what is harder for me is remembering me.

For one thing, I don’t remember my life. Huge swatches of life—seemingly erased from my memory banks. I’ll go to alumni weekends and hang out with elementary and high school classmates, and someone will say, “Vanessa, remember when Mrs. Southwell….” And I’ll listen and respond: “No.” They are often surprised that I don’t have such a shocking, fun, important, humorous event at my fingertips, in my mental filing cabinet. Entire years, gone. Details—huge, significant, life altering details—missing. My theory is that a few significant traumas trained my mind to delete things to avoid retraumatizing via memory. The problem is, my subconscious is very sloppy when in erase-mode and errs on the side of getting rid of too much. I guess it figures it won’t miss anything really awful that way. But the good stuff gets lost too.

But there’s more to this memory foam lesson than retaining the details of my life, though one of the resolutions I made this year was to retrain my brain to hold on to more.  There’s also that self-knowledge I think everyone would say is important to possess. But so many people don’t. It is not so easy. We all know someone about whom we might say, “She is so wise at understanding people, but gosh, why can’t she see how messed up she is?”

Remembering our true selves is easier sometimes than others. When I am feeling very threatened, uneasy, out of sync with myself or my life, I tend to ignore the signs. I forget to remember who I am.

All the good people in the world, me included, behave well. We behave in accordance with our principles and sure, that is part of remembering ourselves. But that hard look. That close look. The inward look that is akin to sitting in a room flooded with natural light and looking at your own face in a magnifying mirror. That kind of look. Where you see the sags and wrinkles, and the beauty too. (Why is it so hard to see the beauty through the flaws?)

Remembering who I am is about being able to admit that I am worthy, loving, independent, smart, talented, committed, brave, hardworking, loyal, honest, funny, insightful and capable of great joy. Easy to write down a list of adjectives, but harder to really live every day in possession of that glorious self.

Remembering who I am is also about seeing the darker truths, some of which exist in direct opposition to my strengths. That I am fragile, controlling, needy, insecure, shy, compulsive, obsessive, anxious, feel unworthy, mask my true feelings from others and am capable of going into the dark and not finding my way out. And the list goes on. None of these things is what I want to believe about myself.  I have spent much of my life in denial of them. On the other hand, I am very willing to censure myself when it is UNwarranted. The compulsive apologies. The faux self-blame: “I’m an idiot,” “I’m a jerk,” “It’s all my fault,” “I’ll take care of it.”

It’s okay to not be to blame. It doesn’t always have to be up to me. It’s also okay to be weak or scared – these are not faults. It is okay to be good, brave, and loveable – these are not faults either. And besides, it’s okay to have faults! When we are jerks, let’s say it! Accept responsibility and take action to better ourselves. But let’s not say we’re jerks when we are just being human.

With any luck, by the time I remember how to remember who I am all the time, it will be guaranteed for more than 20 years.