If music were a love language, that would be mine. There’s something so powerful about how lyrics combined with a melody and a bass line can stir the soul’s emotions. Last summer, when my personal ship was sinking, my grieving process was intimately intertwined with music and I felt blessed to have friends who knew that about me and shared songs with me to help me along my path. “Who you are” by Jessie J. is one of those songs, and it helps me tell the next chapter of my story.
July 5, 2020 Journal Entry:
“How did I get here? I’m alone in my house in Boise, ID on a beautiful summer night watching Dances with Wolves by myself with a glass of white wine. I’m trying so hard to be OK with the loneliness. And then the sadness uppercuts me. How did I get this so wrong?”
When I read my journals from a year ago, I feel so heartbroken. The heartbreak isn’t a present-tense heartbreak, it’s an empathetic grief for the shell of a woman that I was when my husband left me. Over the course of 20 years I had slowly given my power and my voice away. I had allowed myself to believe that I was never enough and I gradually built a cage and locked my free spirit inside of it. I mistakenly thought that if I just worked extra hard, cooked extra delicious and healthy meals, threw exquisite dinner parties, or created an incredible experience by volunteering at my kids’ elementary school, that my value would be recognized and everything would be ok. I would feel good and the judgemental feelings inside of me would go away. It was a perpetual strive for perfection, followed by a perpetual loss when I didn’t meet the expectation or something else was sacrificed along the way. So I would go back into my cage, feeling small and not worthy of soaring. The crazy part is that from the outside, we seemed like the perfect family. But inside the walls of our Dublin home, I was walking on eggshells. Did my ex lay those eggshells down, or did I? It’s hard to say, but what I know for certain is that the feeling that I was never enough was growing.
I thought that our move to Boise in 2017 would change all of that. I was going to go back to work, doing what I loved, and he was going to take a much needed break from the high tech world to do some soul searching. The idea was invigorating, and at first everything was great. I had found a school that had the most incredible team of teachers and fiercely strong women. At work, I was known as Andrea. Not as my kids’ mom, not as my ex’s wife, simply Andrea. I was valued for who I was and it was like there was a part of me that had sparked back to life through teaching. I forgot how much I loved to be in the classroom and the cherry on top was how supported and valued I was by my coworkers, students and administrators.
At home, however, I gradually began to notice that there was increasing resentment over my work and how I was not managing to keep “it” all together. My work days were long and sometimes there were extra activities required of me in the evenings, like Back to School Night or chaperoning a dance. It was clear that my hours at school were cutting into my time typically spent at home. So I cut out all unnecessary activities, like hanging out with my co-workers, or going to the hair salon to cover my greys or even exercising. Back in Dublin, exercising was practically a way of life, and now I just didn’t have the energy to fit it in. So when I let the natural grey start to grow out, along with the extra pounds that I put on, I started to believe that I wasn’t attractive to my husband. I took everything personally and felt like I just had to work harder, then everything would be OK. If only there were more than 24 hours in a day.
Can you relate to what I’m saying? And can you see the distorted reality that I allowed myself to live in? Something was so deeply offset in my mind that I believed that if I just did more and worked harder that I could fix everything. I was so critical of myself when I didn’t live up to my ex’s unspoken expectations. The truth is, I was the most critical judge of myself, not my ex. I was unloving of my physical appearance and of my inability to “do it all.” My life was a whirlwind, spinning out of control and by the summer of 2020, I had no clue of who I was anymore. I was so, so lost. The pandemic had taken my students and coworkers from me, my husband had left me, and I was all alone in my big beautiful house on a sunny summer day watching Dances with Wolves by myself and feeling so very sad and lonely. I was trying to be okay, but clearly I was not. Something had to give.
Rumi says“It’s your road, and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.”
Even though I was supported by many, many beautiful souls, this pain was mine alone to work through. I knew that if I wanted to emerge stronger on the other side of my grief, I would have to courageously face the demons that were screaming inside of my head. And that’s what I set out to do. Slowly, I began to review my life and ask myself the hard questions like “how and when did I give my voice & power away, when did I accept that I needed to say “yes” to keep the peace, where did I cause harm, when did I stop loving myself?”
I don’t have the answers to all of these questions yet. However, there are so many things that I want to say to 44-year old Andrea, to 32-year old Andrea, to 19-year old Andrea, to 7-year old Andrea. And it’s all the same message: you are enough exactly as you are. You don’t need to perform to receive love. You don’t need to pretend to be somebody you aren’t. You don’t need to be perfect. You are wholly and completely loved by the very life force that created you and you owe it to yourself to love yourself exactly as you are, grey hairs, extra pounds and all. Do you remember what it was like to be 3 years old and totally wild and free? That was the last time that you accepted yourself fully as you were. You weren’t aware of expectations of others and you certainly didn’t have any for yourself. You were just you. And you were happy and silly and loving and playful and unabashedly talkative and loud. Heck, you didn’t even wear a shirt when you didn’t have to. You were free. But over the years, you constructed a cage around yourself; when you felt like you didn’t meet someone’s expectations, you added another bar to your cage. You worked harder to make yourself smaller. You don’t belong in a cage; you are a free spirit that has unique gifts to share with the world. It’s time to take those bars down and free yourself again. It’s okay not to be okay. The quest for perfection is a mirage, and it only prevents you from being authentic and vulnerable. It’s only when we are fully ourselves that we can create meaningful connection with others. So Andrea, whatever age you are, and whatever struggles you’re going through, I want you to practice loving yourself exactly as you are. Stop listening to the critical judge that’s inside your head. Learning to authentically love yourself again will take time and you won’t do it perfectly, but in the end, it will be a worthwhile endeavor because you and I both know that only love can set you free. You were created to be a free bird and it’s time to take back your flight!
What I know for sure at age 48 is that music will always help me to understand myself and my feelings better. There’s a reason why Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song Free Bird resonates with people of all ages and walks of life: we are not meant to live our lives as caged birds. When I own my feelings and love myself just as I am, I am more than enough: I am free. Think about the people in your life who are the most happy and alive. What makes them unique? If I were to guess, I’d say that they are vulnerable and authentic and that they love themselves fully; they don’t take things personally and they are free of judgement of themselves and others. They are walking the Toltec Way of the Four Agreements. This way of life is readily available to all of us. In fact, at one point in time in our lives, this is exactly how we lived. So I am on my way back to finding my three-year old self again. Want to fly along with me? I think it’s going to be a joyful flight!