Lately, I’ve been revisiting places that are connected with a lot of past pain. My intention wasn’t to test myself, although that was a happy side-effect, given the positive outcome. They’re just good places to go hiking, to have coffee and a piece of cake, or a burger and a beer, or a Glühwein–’tis, after all, the season. The pain is, predictably and in the most banal of ways, connected to a certain person of the male persuasion–but this is not about that story, which I’ve written elsewhere. This post is about the places. And the joy. And the ability to exist within yourself, with company or without.
It’s also about that most elusive of human goals: contentedness.
So, let me make myself comfortable, light a scented candle, and tell you all about it.
I went through a rough time last year. I’m not complaining – I’m rather lucky, after all. I had a great support system: a husband who loves me to pieces (although his high-functioning autism makes life hard sometimes), children who are a joy (although their anxiety or hyperactivity is often burdening), parents who accept me unconditionally, and friends who were there when I needed to talk. And, boy did I talk. You’ve heard of Dimitra. Several times. She’s the guest star of my life, really. She was always there when I needed her. What more could I want?
The answer is, time to myself, with myself, for myself. That’s what my therapist stressed, time and time again: you have to feel comfortable within yourself. You have to value yourself. You have to, yes, even love yourself.
“You have to travel alone,” Dimitra said. She was more right than she thought. Get to know yourself. It’s time well spent.
I genuinely love people. I have many friends, and they’re all special in their own way. It’s such a joy to be with them, share experiences, food, stories, walks, thoughts. But you need a good relationship with yourself to begin with, otherwise your self-criticism, self-loathing, self-deprecation, whatever it is that makes you less than infatuated with yourself, poisons all relationships with those around you. I’ve seen it happen. It happened to me.
When I took my therapist’s – and Dimitra’s – advice to spend time alone, something changed. First of all, I had some peace and quiet. Then, I realized I wasn’t bored at all. I could always find something to occupy myself with, be it books, writing, coloring, drawing, walking, swimming, or just plain lying around and enjoying some well-earned rest. And, finally, I realized that all my rejection sensitivity that makes me dread interactions with others is a reflection of how I see myself. So, I had to change my view of me. to look at myself in the mirror and be able to say, honestly and with conviction, “you’re absolutely fine the way you are.”
This is not selfishness. It’s basic common sense. We might think the expectations we have of ourselves are not the same as those we have of others, but that’s not entirely true. Expectations morph our understanding of the world. If you dislike, loathe, or disparage yourself, it shines through. And we all project, to a certain extent. Our relationship with ourselves dictates how we interact with others. If I hate my body, for example, I feel uncomfortable when eating, or when swimming. How can I fully enjoy myself and engage with my friends, then, at the restaurant or at the lake?
My friend Chet wrote this brilliant piece about joy. Joy by seeing your reflection in someone else’s eyes – that’s poetry! But, if I’m honest, this never expressed me, even in my days of self-loathing. The reason is clear: I never liked my reflection either.
These days, my joy comes from the inside. It comes from serenity. It comes from lying on wet leaves in the forest, alone and out of breath because I’m not fit enough to hike uphill, and looking at the sky through the foliage, and being at peace within my mind, because I accept. I accept I’m chubby and have no stamina, and that my body can’t cope with relatively simple things, and so I have to just lie there and enjoy the sky.
Joy also comes from sitting in a cafe with my friends and listening to their chatter, all the while feeling like I belong there, no matter if I have something to contribute to the conversation or not, because I am, finally, okay with myself. See, you can’t really have peace if you don’t make peace with all the parts of you that whisper to you how unlovable you are, or how objectionable your behaviour is, or how brash you are, and how not okay this all is.
Okay, maybe your parts don’t whisper that. In that case, you’re lucky. But mine did. The good news is: not anymore.
Revisiting places that are connected with pain doesn’t hurt me at all. Even when the pain was fresh and the wounds raw, the places didn’t hold any of the hurt. How could this be?
I think it’s because, somewhere within all that drama I put myself through last year, I learned to enjoy things with an eye turned inwards and a mind to savor all the joy in my environment. Today, I put this theory to the test: I returned to a place that is a landmark of last year’s pain.
The place is a small lake, and the last time I found myself in its vicinity was in January. To be precise, it was Saturday, January 16, and I went for a hike around it. It was frozen. The sun was shining. The landscape was an unbroken, otherworldly white, the air was frigid, the sun sinking between the trees holding an eerie quality in the silence. I walked and tried to reach that place within myself where whispers of you’ll be all right become true and convincing. But on that day, I wasn’t all right. Still, I learned something: I enjoy hiking alone. I enjoy it a lot. I could envision a day, after all the pain had dissipated, when I’d hike alone and I would be abolutely and unequivocally all right.
That day came ten months later, on the day I lay in the forest unable to hike uphill.
And what about today? Today, I didn’t hike alone. Sara and Christiane were with me, and it started snowing – big, fat, languid snowflakes – and we had a blast. We took photos. We ate and drank hot beverages. We froze while sitting there, at minus temperatures. We agreed we’d soon come back to that magical place, drink more warm drinks, eat more sweets and fries.
And what about the pain?
I’m glad to inform you, the pain has exhausted itself and left me to prowl for other victims. Because it never had anything to do with the place. Because I can and will be steadfast within myself, wherever I am, whoever I am with. Places can’t impose feelings on me.
Here, look at us three, enjoying ourselves in the cold!