Last month, I had a special experience. I haven’t shared it here yet because it feels both precious and fragile. I feel a bit like how I imagine a new mother would feel. I want to tell everyone about this amazing thing that happened, and I also want to keep it nestled safely close to me until I’m sure it’s real. I’m so proud of these changes in me, the idea of offering them to someone else to hold, even for a moment, seems frightening. What if I share my newborn joy and hope, only to have it misunderstood or rejected?
Then I gently remind myself that it is real, and real doesn’t mean perfect – in fact, it’s raw and shining, unfinished and yet completely whole. I am starting to know the truth of me, and that is all I have to worry about.
So, in the spirit of real, here goes.
In early December, I traveled to Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee for a workshop at Onsite. I attended the Living Centered program, a week-long experiential therapy retreat. My step-dad, a psychologist, has been going to Onsite for years, and each time I sank into another round of depression, he would share stories of his experience and suggest I might look into it.
These moments of depression began in elementary school. Going to church, school, and even birthday parties awakened my anxiety, which I couldn’t name as such, and I didn’t understand why these things seemed difficult for me and easy for most others. I was smart, and my family and teachers expected things from me, so I buckled down and did what needed to be done.
I figured that I needed to push through and get over it – get over myself. As years passed, I did big things in spite of my fear; I worked to make my outer self a more genuine reflection of my true personality. I taught myself that others had just somehow gotten hold of the playbook, and I would be fine once I learned the game. Once I learned the rules, then I could really start living.
The harder I worked at trying to crack this nonexistent code, the more I began to see everything around me as a reaction to me. Social interactions or dating relationships gone awry, or a toxic work environment – everything negative in my life must have happened because I couldn’t play life perfectly. Even with friends I loved, who really knew me, I nearly always panicked over a misstep. I became exhausted; at times I grew resentful or felt like a failure; I lost sight of my own value.
Was I broken? Was I weak? How could I have so much potential but still feel a lap behind?
Though I had grown braver and more determined, my two-headed dragon of anxiety and perfectionism continued to pace at the mouth of his cave, standing between me and the treasure that lay out of reach behind him.
When my step-dad first told me about Onsite, it felt foreign – something I didn’t need, or maybe deserve. During the darkest times, it felt like a life preserver just out of reach. Finally, this past year, I got my head above water long enough to realize I wasn’t earning any prizes for struggling. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew there was a place to go to learn, and there were people there who might be able to help me get off the bench and really start to play.
I arrived in Nashville and boarded the shuttle bus with a few other folks, and we rode into the country, tense and silent. I sent a final few text messages to friends and family, and then we arrived. They gave us a tour and pointed out our cabins, where I stopped before dinner. One roommate was already there, and her warm, genuine welcome calmed my growing nerves.
After an awkward first dinner with 40 other participants, we handed in our phones for the week, renouncing contact with the outside world to begin our journeys into those caves guarded by our dragons.
The details of what happened that week I leave in Cumberland Furnace, but what I found there changed me. I learned what it feels like to be real – to set aside the funny faces and self-deprecation and smart comments and say only, and simply, what needs to be said. I was humbled by the kindness, love, and grace that was given so freely to me. I was amazed to realize I could give all that in return, and not by achieving the right to this exchange, but by trusting that the core of me is enough.
I learned that the core of me is not comprised of my particular struggles. Those struggles are real, and I have work to do, but I am not doomed. For the first time, I began to understand myself – a deeper wisdom than the track that used to play on loop in my mind. That understanding led to compassion, which led to hope. Not a frenzied grasp at change, but real, sweet hope.
I received the gift of understanding that I am a good and worthy soul, and I can take responsibility for my life without sinking under the weight of everyone else’s. I enjoyed my first glimpse at escaping the strangle-hold of perfectionism, and how good it feels to give myself permission to do things clumsily.
The final evening of our program ended with a dance party – a room full of people living out our joy to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas. On the shuttle back to the airport, we laughed at how different this ride was at the end of our week together. One man and I realized we had sat by each other on the shuttle in. We had started this process as frightened strangers, and in just a few days, we shared conversations about God and love and the nature of humanity. We had held each other’s hearts gently and with gratitude. We had become friends.
Each day that passes, Onsite feels farther away, but it continues to show up in my life. Sometimes I feel an actual shiver of gratitude that I got to have this experience, I get to be a part of this community. Sometimes I feel so settled in this new understanding that I almost can’t remember how I felt before. Sometimes the old stuff pops back up, but then I gently remind myself: real doesn’t mean perfect. In fact, I’m raw and shining, unfinished and yet completely whole.