We sat, as we had before, in our sacred circle—a group of women gathered together in safety to write down our words and speak them out loud. Beth, our leader, called to order our crew comprised of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities. She reminded us again of her fundamental “rule,” not to apologize when our turn to read arrived. Almost always one of us forgot, overcome by the need to justify our humanity.
I expected a list of prescient prompts. Beth has that gift. She began, “Number one, a birthday cake” and continued on until she said, “Number 10. My girl going.”
My eyes welled and I knew in an instant that this was the prompt I’d use. At past retreats, I had tried to write the truth of my experience as the mother of a daughter who struggled with mental illness. To do otherwise seemed a waste of precious time and energy. Yet, that truth was tempered by shame and fear, by the editor in my head that struggled to keep my words and by extension me hidden away in the dark. I hoped this time would be different.
I found a quiet corner in the place where we were and opened my journal. I wrote that sentence fragment at the top of my page, My girl going. . ., and continued to write. I soon discovered that I couldn’t stop writing. This never happens. For me, there is thinking and staring and jotting and scratching out and starting over—a near obsession with control of the creative process. Folly, I know, and beyond that even detriment. The real-time editing of my thoughts is a perfectionist behavior, a habit I try and usually fail to break. But this time, there was no need. This time my pen scribbled across the paper at a maddening pace. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote straight through until it was time to stop. My world split open in a way it never had before as words poured out of my soul.
When it was my turn to read I said, “I used the prompt my girl going.” Instantly, tears began to flow. I resisted the urge to apologize, instead grabbing tissues from my purse. Someone held my hand. I read and cried until I was finished reading and crying. I had a wad of soggy tissues in my lap and a tread of watery mascara down my cheeks. I looked up and into the faces of the women who encircled me. The reading this time had felt different and I saw that it had been. I saw compassion. I saw understanding. I saw tears in other women’s eyes and knew that I had been received. Shame had not prevailed. My experience was accepted, and my world split open again. This, I realized, is how we heal.
The next day, I decided to share what I had written for the group on my blog. I was scared. My words were intense. They’d included descriptions of suicidality and images of blood and razor blades. There’d been anguish and rage. I’d crossed an invisible line in the invisible sand and had written about my child. I hesitated. I anticipated blowback because I’d addressed topics people would rather ignore. And because 1,400 words does not a full story make. What would people think of us, how would they judge us, after reading an infinitesimal offering of our experience? Plus, my daughter was years into her recovery. She no longer was the damaged young girl I’d portrayed. I wrestled, too, with the narcissism inherent to appearing center stage of my girl’s story. Determined, I put aside my hesitations. If I wanted to call myself an advocate, I had to advocate for myself and for the women I’ve met on our journey who can’t or won’t speak for themselves. And my daughter understood that I wrote to educate. I wrote to support. I wrote to eradicate stigma. Going public with this post felt as crucial to my healing as writing it had felt. I created the post, clicked Publish, and then pasted it onto my Facebook page.
On average, my new blogs are read by maybe a few dozen people. “My girl going” topped out that day around 2,400. Some of the comments were neutral. Most were positive. The trolls were silent. No one was more surprised by this than me. I replied to every person, thanking them for their kindness, for having my back, and for acknowledging their new perspective courtesy of my bravery. My external world had risen to meet the challenge of supporting my tender heart. Then something happened.
I didn’t feel it, exactly, but I knew something was wrong, something inside me snapped shut. The next day I was awash in anxiety. I paced from room to room worrying about the piece’s potential ripples, effects beyond my imagination. I considered removing it from my blog, and ticked off a list of pros and cons, like the comfort of anonymity versus the waste of good work, and the required vulnerability inherent to both success and failure. What if I can’t do it again?, I wondered. I felt the weight of responsibility in my clenched jaw. I covered my keyboard with miscellaneous bills and paperwork, as if feigning indifference could solve the problem. I didn’t write anything new. I didn’t want to. Days and then weeks passed. I sought advice from a mentor and still didn’t write. I discovered tons of good excuses not to start again. I even believed some of them. I was busy. I had shit to do. I told myself I’d sit down and write tomorrow, but tomorrow never came. Months passed. I suspected my writing life had reached its conclusion. I figured my inner world wasn’t up to the challenge of mining and sharing rigorous honesty. The question I pondered but never answered was why? Why was fear getting the better of me?
A year has passed and I’ve now returned to the page in a regular way. There was no epiphany, no come-to-Jesus moment. One day I just realized it was time to get back to work. No one else was going to write my story. That was my job, and my privilege. So I grabbed my keyboard, moved aside the bills, blew off the accumulated cat hairs, and wrote. I also signed up for another of Linda Schreyer's Slipper Camps. This post is the result of one of her prompts.
When I sent Linda my first draft, I assumed my story here needed a clear-cut ending, that knowing why was imperative. It was she who reminded me that not knowing finds us all. Not knowing is "juicy and honest." I would have accepted that ambiguous solution if my intuition wasn't implying otherwise. I was missing something important.
I lamented to a friend. "It seems a cop out," I said, "to write I don't know and leave it at that."
“Didn’t Julia Cameron write about fear in The Artist’s Way?” my friend asked?
Yes. Yes, she did and there it was, right in the Table of Contents. Fear written about in the chapter on self-compassion. I was on to something. Cameron confirmed that fear is what blocks an artist. I got that part, I thought. And? I read on until I found what I was seeking. Cameron wrote: There is only one cure for fear. That cure is love. Figures, I thought, in a "Dorothy, you've had the power all along" sort of way.
The answer to why fear derailed me is a lack of enough love, enough self-love to be exact. To a woman who has dedicated her year to exploring self-care, which is to say self-love, this revelation (this synchronicity) came as no surprise. In fact, I chuckled to myself and had to wonder if love will turn out to be the answer to every question I've ever asked.
You can read My Girl Going here.