Guest post by "Claire" (not her real name)
Each time I look down at my bare feet, I see three small arrows. Each is unique and imperfect, reminiscent of a doodle that 16-year-old me might have scribbled inside my arch, while crouched on the floor of my bedroom listening to Pink. At that age and for many years after, I reckoned that I would never get a real tattoo because I would never find anything that meant so much to my heart that I should choose to write it on my body with such permanence. I mean I could hardly choose a nail polish color that I liked long enough to keep from peeling it off before the first chip or scratch appeared. Nearly a decade later though, thanks to a period of personal trials, a few gin and tonics, and the encouragement of a few close friends…who had also been encouraged by a few gin and tonics… there I sat, in the only tattoo parlor still open, in Asheville, North Carolina, with a needle in my foot and sweat beading up on my face.
At the time that I chose this design, it was significant for a handful of reasons. The arrows were to remind me of a quote that had stopped me in my tracks a few months earlier. I had spent the 2 years prior living in a new city, in a new state, working my first post-graduate job. I’d made new friends, lived alone for the first time, wrestled deeply with some of the new realities of “adulting”, gotten engaged, gotten a dog, and had a slew of other “firsts” and “lasts” . I had also unknowingly started a spiral into a depth of anxiety and depression.
At the time of the “inking,” I felt like I was coming upon a turning point. It had been a long and difficult year, full of unexpected heartache and frustration. It’s hard to be so uncomfortable and lacking in joy at a time when the world expects you to be frivolous and rosy. But just around the corner was my wedding to the love of my life, plans for us to move in together in a city all our own, and another new job for me. The chips had fallen, many of the “unknowns” were now known, and I was finally starting to feel more settled in the direction my life was headed. The quote I saw was this:
“An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward. When life is dragging you back with difficulties, it means it’s going to launch you into something great. So just focus, and keep aiming.”
These words were both healing and enlightening for me. They confirmed my belief that I was on the verge of “launch,” and put all of life’s recent “difficulties” into a nice box. These experiences, it seemed, were simply the backward drag that must precede a launch forward. This was a nice thought, a great sentiment, and a super cool tattoo (wink). But I’ll refer you back to the “spiral” referenced earlier. As it turns out, I may have been at a launching point, but it wasn’t exactly in the direction I had hoped.
The first year of any marriage is challenging, especially when the couple has chosen not to live together beforehand. But compound that year with multiple job changes, lots of unplanned travel, crippling anxiety, unidentified depression, and a fair number of other significant shifts in our routine, and you have an unfortunate recipe for despair. And on occasion, despair we did. Especially me.
I worried, I lashed out, I numbed, I cried, I withdrew, I worried some more, then I worried about how much I was worrying. At times, I became paralyzed, frozen by waves of fear and palpable anguish. I didn’t have the understanding or the vocabulary at the time to explain just what I was experiencing. The loneliness in that place compounded with the pain of those experiences lead to even darker thoughts.
I began to feel like the weight of doing life was more than I could carry. I didn’t want to hurt myself, and I didn’t want to hurt anyone else. I just wanted to disappear, to fade into the abyss, to cease to exist. Though dark, it felt like the only way to escape the feelings that had taken over most of my waking hours. I did anything to run from them, and even more to hide them from the people around me.
It was difficult to hide from my husband, and I could tell that the weight I was carrying was beginning to affect him and had in some ways taken hold in our marriage. Intimacy was difficult, communication was difficult, and enjoying alone time together was difficult. I was so keenly aware of all the things that were wrong and was quick to list them out for him. Nothing that he could do removed the feelings or lifted their weight. At that time, realizing the consequence this behavior was having on him made me all the more keen on my disappearing act. It would be an act of mercy, not only for myself but for my partner, who I feared I would drag down with me.
And in some ways, I did begin to disappear. I had no interest in social outings – they seemed like an exhausting performance. I found it difficult to answer the phone or hold an in-depth conversation – I just didn’t have the energy. I stopped trying to make connections at work – what was the point? I lost interest in things that used to bring joy, like cooking and exercising, and took up new habits like pouring a glass of wine as soon as I walked in the door after work, and continuing to pour fresh glasses until I felt confident that I’d had enough to be able to sleep instead of lying in bed listening to a relentless cycle of thoughts when the lights went out.
I found comfort in losing myself in TV shows or movies that allowed me to imagine a different life for a while and escape my own reality. I stopped praying and pursuing spiritual experiences, as I couldn’t imagine a God who could use me for anything good. I went into survival mode, just doing the bare minimum keep my life afloat and keep anyone from noticing my spiral.
One evening, in a period of time that I now consider my ultimate low point, I confessed to my husband that I no longer wished to be here. I even went so far as to discuss with him why this was for the best and how his life might be improved by my absence. He tried to reason with me and appeal to my sensible nature, but I was so deep into my despair that I couldn’t be reasoned with. The level-headed, rock-steady being that he is, he gently requested that I continue to try a bit longer and that we (read – “I”) seek some help outside of ourselves.
Over the next several months, I was lucky enough to find an exceptional faith-based therapist, a series of inspiring books and podcasts, and the sincere support of a few close friends. I talked, I prayed, I read, I wrote, I cried, I meditated. I studied the pros and cons of medication as an aid to talk therapy. I had some “aha” moments and some painful realizations. I nurtured some relationships, and let go of some others. I felt more “awake” than I had in my entire life up to that point.
This went on for over a year. It was a painful process, and not remotely linear, but it was the good kind of pain, like sore muscles after a long day of hiking. It’s the kind of pain that ushers in new strength and destroys old boundaries. And even the steps taken backward and the instances of falling off the wagon felt like opportunities, not game-enders. Over time, I found a new sense of gratitude pervaded my thoughts, and I craved communion with friends and family again. I took time to reevaluate my priorities and how I was spending my time, which lead to some beautiful new goals and a unique sense of clarity. None of this happened overnight, but through a series of blessed steps that ultimately saved my life.
Thankfully, I can say that I’m currently on the other side of depression, and learning new ways each day to cope with the anxiety I may well carry through the rest of my life. I still consider myself to be very much on a journey and very much in the midst of transformation, with a great deal still to learn. I hope that never stops.
However, I also feel more confident in the trajectory of my life now, with a clearer picture of the self that I hope to keep building. I feel more connected to my own power over my life, having realized how much of one’s experience is truly determined by the state of one’s own mind. I feel more connected to those around me and overwhelmed by the amount of love that is, and always has been, a part of my life, whether I could see it before or not.
And honestly, in some ways, I feel more validated in my human experience. I’ve had a fairly comfortable life, one that has not involved a great deal of tragedy or loss. I have never wished these things for myself and don’t wish them on anyone else. But I know that they are part of being human, and for the first time in my life, I feel like I have scars. I have a story to share and a hand to offer to others who may be fighting some of the same battles, and I relish that fact.
Most importantly, I have joy and a sincere appreciation for everything that is my life right now. I still have days of darkness, moments of doubt, and things that I want to change, but I’m also able to step back and marvel at how lucky I am, how much opportunity is still in front of me, and how much can change with just the decision to accept or not accept a given situation. There are new practices in my daily life, old thought patterns that I will not allow back into my mind, and new doors of discovery that open every day, as long as I keep searching for more truth and light.
You may be wondering what this has to do with arrow tattoos. I can’t fault you there. This whole story took a pretty deep turn, huh? I guess it all comes back to a new realization I had this past week while sitting on the couch with my husband, snuggling in the glow of our Christmas tree, and talking about something silly like whether or not we do, in fact, have the best dog in the entire world. My feet were poking out from under the blanket and he asked to see my tattoo up close. He asked if I still liked it and if I was glad I’d gotten it on my bachelorette trip. (Did I not mention it was on my bachelorette trip? That was probably on purpose…)
I told him that I was still glad that I got it, and that in fact, it had taken on some new meanings for me since that time. You see, that night in Asheville, the arrows were a sign of encouragement. The emphasis was on the dragging backward that I had been feeling, and the hope of the launch that was just around the corner. Stay hopeful, it said, because things could get better at any moment. I didn’t pay much mind to the “focus” or “aim” parts of the quote, hearing those words translated as, “just wait.”
What I see now is that the focusing and the aiming were the most important parts. As life dragged me backward before, I had panicked. I lost all sense of focus and aim and started running in circles, trying to escape everything that scared me. I lashed out at the people closest to me and hid deeper inside myself instead of being vulnerable in the moments when I most needed their help. I abandoned the healthy habits that used to help keep my mind and body in balance. I stopped praying, reading, writing, and creating, and instead numbed the hurt with booze, new clothes, and shows that whisked me out of my own life and into someone else’s. I placed extreme emphasis on things like my performance at work, the cleanliness of my home, and how well I was tackling all of my to-do lists because I felt like those were the only things I could control anymore, and I needed affirmation from somewhere that I was still doing okay.
No aim. No focus. Just chaos and survival.
Now I have a different appreciation for the arrow metaphor. It’s not just about waiting for the universe to launch you out of your muck into something wonderful, it’s about owning the direction in which you are pointing your life and realizing that things may accelerate in that direction much more quickly than you anticipate.
It’s about understanding that each decision, each daily habit, and each conversation is the opportunity to take a step forward, in whichever direction you choose. If we don’t focus on the direction of our steps, if we don’t regularly re-calibrate our aim, we may wake up one day at a totally different destination than we’d hoped for, wondering how we got so far off course.
I can’t say that different decisions would have saved me from my battles, some things are bigger than just that. But I can say that I’ve learned to set aside time to wrestle with my priorities and to take a raw look at the relationship between them and the decisions I’m making on a daily basis, from how I’m treating other people to what I’m making time for.
I can say that I see the importance of keeping your aim during periods of immense distraction or pain, even though this is when it’s hardest. And finally, I can say that lessons and truth are all around you if you’re willing to look for them and that even late-night-bachelorette-party-tattoos may have something to teach you down the road.
Bio: Claire is a twenty-something marketing professional with entrepreneurial aspirations. She enjoys reading, writing and painting in her spare time.