While responding to a reader email this weekend regarding my latest essay “What are you willing to sacrifice?” I found myself grappling with the idea of finding happiness in success. Without thinking much about my words, I wrote the following:
“As for being happy, I don’t think that success with writing will necessarily make me happy. It would help, in terms of career and life goal fulfillment (like, not looking back on my life, and saying “you know, I should really have tried to make something of my writing. I was pretty good back there!”). But I really want to check that box and say, I tried. I’ve missed out on much of the opportunity for achievement in my life up until this point. I’ve never really lived up to my potential, and a huge part of that has been because so much of my energy has been tied up in healing from a laundry list of traumas: early sexual abuse, being raped in college, an emotionally abusive relationship, devastating injury, and losing my mother at 27. I’ve always felt a bit damaged, and I’ve learned to find happiness outside of the traditional ideas of success. But again… here comes the yearning!”
This concept — of fulfilling my potential — has been exceedingly salient in my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve berated myself for not doing more. I’ve always thought myself to be a bit bored and lazy. I set myself lofty goals, and then when I (obviously) can’t fulfill them, I enter into the shame spiral. Whenever I read back on my old journals, I wince at how hard I am on myself. It’s always should, should, should. I’m never doing enough. I am always behind; always failing.
Around 2012 (a year before my mother died), I finally began to understand that my inaction was directly related to my trauma and the vast energy used up by healing, and it was revolutionary to me. Suddenly, I no longer viewed myself as a failure and instead recognized myself as a survivor. I began to see all of the ways in which my pain had held me back in my life. Still, I didn’t want to make excuses for my indolence. And if knowing was half the battle, then surely I’d be on my way in no time, right?
At the start of 2013, I began writing in a journal that was gifted to me with the word “ACTUALIZE” emblazoned on its front. I decided that the theme of my year would be just that: to actualize my goals, and fulfill my potential. I wanted to be everything that my biggest supporter, my mother saw in me. I started off the year strong. I had a promising new relationship, I’d been promoted from part-time freelancer to full-time at my job, I was finally making headway with my writing, and I’d started to workout 4 to 5 days a week. I’d come out publicly as a survivor of sexual assault and was met with more support than I knew what to do with. I was feeling extremely alive. This is my year, I thought, now is the time.
And then in May, the stroke took her. She died in July. And I fell back in the hole — except, for once, I did so knowingly. This time, I was fully aware of what it would take to come back from my unspeakable sadness. I’d been lower than low more times than I care to remember, and this time, I vowed to be kind to myself.
I mostly kept my word to myself. I took time off of writing when it felt like words wouldn’t do. I did everything in my power to be as generous to myself as I would be to a dear friend. I absolutely refused to berate myself, even as that same little voice crept up: you are not doing enough.
This year feels eerily similar to 2013. My energy levels have climbed back up, and I’m back on track with my goals. I still go through hard times, as I’m wont to do, but I am no longer living in the grief cloud. I’m focused and ready. I’m also extremely aware of how delicate my situation is; how easily my life could be turned back upside down by yet another blow.
I can’t help but pause and wonder who I would be if none of this tragedy had ever befallen me. What would my life look like if I didn’t constantly have to use up my energy to heal? What could I have accomplished? Does it even matter?
It really got me thinking.
I know ultimately, it matters not who Alternate Universe Chelsea would be. It’s a moot fantasy, and a dangerous one. Perhaps my pained complacency might have been replaced by blind ambition. But would I have had this empathy; this ability to connect with strangers and touch their hearts with my words? Would I still turn around and give a stranger carrying a heavy load a ride and $0.50, just so she could buy a single cigarette? Would I be boundless with my heart, generous with my time, sympathetic with my ear?
All that has knocked me down has forced me to build myself back up into a wiser, more compassionate person; a better writer, a stronger advocate, and a more helpful friend.
What to do with it all? I have this feeling tickling inside my that my “potential” is so much more than a body weight, a book deal, or a number in my bank account.
But what, then? Stay tuned . . .