A few weeks ago, at the end of a hike to the top of a volcano, we sat basking in the natural springs, dirty sneakers saturated with ash dust, thrown to the side of the rocks.
“Did you bring your slippers for after?” the girl I was with asked me.
I shook my head, cursing myself for being so unorganised. We had woken up late, cue me, throwing things into the back pack last minute. Water, sunglasses and sunscreen were the only essentials I had thought to pack in my sleepy haze, throwing in a swim suit last minute for good measure.
She threw her head back and laughed. “See! This is how I know that I’m ready to be a mom!”.
Her words have been playing in my head like an annoying song that gets jammed in the brain on repeat, ever since. How come at thirty years old, I wasn’t able to organise myself for a day trip, and yet here I was, daydreaming of a not so distant future that contained babies? I really ought to raise the bar to this girls’ level, I told myself. Yes… me, myself and I had work to do.
According to science, girls stop growing aged fifteen, but while I may have stopped growing taller fifteen years ago, I feel like I’ve grown most of all in the last three hundred and sixty five days, and yet still, I am not tall enough.
When we talk about growth, we envision something kind of beautiful, like growing pretty flowers in a garden, or growing our hair until it’s long and billows down our backs in waves. But in truth, it’s an ugly and exhaustive process. It’s messy and involves breakdowns in cafes and tears in bed. It’s hard to hear home truths and hurtful revelations that run rings around your head at 4am when you cannot sleep, and because this transformative process isn’t always visible to anyone else, it can at times feel a lonely uphill struggle – one where the leaps forward that we envisioned, actually feel like wading backwards through trenches. But if we emerge as a beautiful butterfly, when before, we were a hairy caterpillar, then surely it’s going to be worth the effort, right?… Right…?
A year ago, I started my yes woman project. I was more than aware it sounded a bit like a running joke. ‘Like in that Jim Carey movie???’ people would snigger. ‘Kind of. But with higher standards.’ I’d tell them.
In the past year, I’ve taken a helicopter tour over Rio, record break zip-lined across Oman, hiked to the top of a volcano, went on my first solo holiday, visited Zanzibar (I’ve only been dying to go since ever), started running (albeit short intervals), learned to be more selfish with my time, (re)taken up driving lessons, scaled back on my shopping habits, read a lot of books, donated a lot of things to charity, went paint balling, and met someone handsome, kind and wise, with great potential to stand beside me on my worldwide adventures.
But here’s the thing, despite these peaks that I’ve conquered – especially the ones related to height because it scares me, I haven’t yet managed to scale the Mount Kilimanjaro within me; that massive mountain in the background that overshadows everything else. My personal Kilimanjaro is my sometimes crippling and other times, dormant anxiety. A catalogue of issues, mainly lacking confidence and not being ‘enough’.
I once read a quote that stated, “confidence is quiet, insecurities are loud”. Well, I’ll personally contest that my anxiety has steadily cranked the volume to what feels like 100 decibels and somewhere under those anxieties, my confidence got relegated to background noise.
To the friends and acquaintances scrolling through my Instagram and other platforms, it really looks as though I am living my best life, and in a lot of ways, I am. I have so much to be thankful for, not to mention opportunities. But just as it wasn’t obvious to them, it wasn’t obvious to me either, that my self confidence and esteem was actually cripplingly low.
“This isn’t going to work.” he told me one morning after a workout together. He had corrected the way I did sit ups, and as usual, I did not take the feedback too well. His comment came out of love, but my mind heard it wrong. The gym was supposed to make me feel good about myself, but lately within its walls, all I felt was inadequate. I didn’t know what most of the machines were even used for, and I struggled to lift even super light weights – something I felt embarrassed about. I covered up my lack of knowledge with excess cardio, desperately wanting to know what to do, but conscious of looking foolish or weak in front of the person I wanted to impress most. I was blinded by the seemingly perfect girls in the gym who knew what to do, lifting weights with apparent ease and I would look over at them feeling useless. After recently braving a new gym, I approached two British girls in the locker rooms asking for help with the locker codes. Expecting them to be more than happy to help a fellow girl out, I smiled at them expectantly, waiting for a response. Instead, they looked at me, and then returned back to their conversation, as if I hadn’t even spoken. I felt as insignificant as a crumb on a shoe. Of course, they were just bitches. Their actions and rudeness said more about them than it did about me, but my irrationalities, and my inner seven year old self felt the same sting as if I’d just approached the cool girls in the playground to play, only to be told no.
“You need a shock Pam, to change the way you think. You’ve obviously been this way for so long, that you think it’s normal to think this way.”
Of course, he was right. I could blame it on my non existent father – an innate fear of rejection. I could blame it on my quite unusual home set up and lack go childhood routine. I could blame it on the two women in my first design job who shattered my confidence as a designer to the point I gave up. Or I could just stand up and take ownership that this is MY problem, and at thirty years old, I needed to stop making childish excuses for my behaviour and resolve this with actions. My friend’s and family’s endless loving words fell on deaf ears when they tried to praise me for all the things I am. They never once abandoned me for the things that I am not, just as I love them the same way, back. Instead they have always loved me for everything I am. They love me best on my good days, and they still love me even on my bad days.
The shock was that the guy who I was so smitten with, whom I so admired, and so adored, didn’t think we could work anymore, and I didn’t have anyone to blame but myself. All this time, I thought I’d been growing into a better person, and really, I wasn’t growing or progressing anywhere. I’d been, at best, dancing around the same troubles that had plagued me for years.
“There’s no point to cry about it and apologise.” He told me, when I tried to say sorry for the unprovoked words that tumbled out of my mouth, and when I stopped crying, all I felt was a dull ache in my heart and a hollow feeling inside to my core.
I didn’t want to talk to my mum; my best friends or anyone. I wanted to be alone but I didn’t. I wanted to be hugged but I didn’t. I wanted to feel close to people but I wanted to be far. No-one needed to my negative energy. I didn’t even want it myself. I signed out of instagram, only to delete the app from my phone a few minutes later. One morning, after a few days had passed, I had just finished work. I calculated that I had been awake for around 26 hours. I felt terrible. In that moment, I decided enough was enough, and after 30 hours awake, I found myself sitting in a small room opposite a counsellor.
As I sat a few feet away from her, I tried to blurt out my thoughts and feelings but they came out all jumbled and incoherent through my tears.
“But you’re pretty.” She told me. “Look at your beautiful blue eyes.”
These blue eyes were red and tear soaked. “You look great in your gym clothes, and you’re not even wearing make up!”
“Habibti, I am sure that people look to you when you walk down the street. And people will approach you because they like you, not because they think you’re ugly. You should feel proud to take pictures of yourself on trips. Mashallah!”
I left, feeling only marginally better, and desperate to get home, but in my rush, I bumped into a friend, who looked concerned when she saw me.
“No Pamela. You need something more substantial than compliments. You need to speak to someone who can give you practical tools and advice. I think you should speak to a doctor.”
As her words sunk in, I had to agree. I’d had this very same thought this to myself a few times, but each time my emotions and thoughts would settle down again and I’d quickly forget about the hurricane in my head that had just ensued and how crap it had made me feel.
I resolved that things had to change and for good this time. I was losing people I loved and pushing friends away because of something only I could fix. I couldn’t stand these tornadoes of worry in my thoughts anymore and the trail of destruction they left in their wake. I booked an appointment for the next morning. As I sat in another office, this time a doctor opposite me, I told her with more confidence than I’d shown in months, “I think I need some help.” “I think so too,” she said, “and we are going to get it for you.”
As we talked over some options available to me, I started to feel a little bit better already. It felt like a cross between the end of a marathon; with the finish line in sight, and the first step into a new race, promising me a future full of sprints and jogs (with a few hurdles in the way of course).
I won’t lie to you, and say that this is an easy subject to open up about. Despite the constant campaigns to stop stigma surrounding these issues, I myself feel a bit like a failure, and despite my incessant chatter, I skirt around the serious issues downplaying it. Why do these seemingly non-issues seem so big to me, when there are very real problems in the world, and what plagues me even more than this, is why can my rational self not fix it alone? Why do I think the way I do? There are people dying and living shoeless and without food and sanitation for God’s sake. I have it all. But since opening up about the subject to a few of my friends, I am amazed how supportive people are, especially when they in turn confide in me their own stories of insecurities, vulnerabilities and quiet moments that they are not proud of.
It’s been over a week now, since I began an Instagram time out, and with it’s departure, I’ve suddenly regained free time where it had felt so tight before. I’m mainly using my new found extra minutes to listen to Ted Talks podcasts, read books and to not giving a shit about posting pictures of ‘today’s outfit’ (filtering photos is very time consuming FYI). I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter if 1600 people see what I am wearing, or not. What matters to me most, is the opinions of the select few people I revere highly, and it’s to myself and these people that I owe the best version of me to. These people don’t need impressing by means of social media posts or superficial fronts, since they already know what my authentic self wears day in day out. They’re the ones who know what I look like when I wake up in the morning, and the ones how I look when I am exhausted or fresh out of the gym.
In-between the wait to see the doctors I’ve been referred to, I am trying to treat myself the way I would, someone I love, starting with taking some time out to myself. (to all the friends who I’ve not replied to, or haven’t socialised with of late, I’m not ignoring you, I swear). I wrote some affirmations on little squares of paper, and stuck them on my wall beside my mirror, reading them to myself every day, hoping that if I say them enough, I’ll truly believe it and adopt the words as a new mindset. I even took a picture of them, so I can read them when I’m away with work. I’ve banned any tragically slow songs from being played on my Spotify. I’ve also been my local supermarkets best customer – making up for lost time. In the past few months, I’d kind of gave up on cooking, believing that anything I’d make would be inedible by anyone other than me. What an idiot, forgetting that feeding yourself nutritious food is a step of love and self care. I also dug out some books that I’d intended to read but somehow hadn’t found the time to, and so, at bed time, I’m reading instead of scrolling. The first book I chose to free from the dust pile, was The Alchemist by Paul Coelho, and if you haven’t read it, then I suggest you do, (right after you read Dolly Alderton’s ‘Everything I Know About Love‘), especially if you relate to anything I’ve just written.
If you read my blog before, you’ll have seen my post on the dubious subject of fate, where I questioned out loud wether everything really does happen for a reason. But this recent combination of coincidences and their order of events, surely cannot be anything other than fate? From my friend whom I just happened to run into after my counselling appointment, (I swear she turns up to my every crisis unannounced and always unknowing, with her halo of blonde hair gleaming like the guardian angel that she truly is) to the boyfriend who’s given me tough love and a harsh wake up call like no-one had before, to the book gifted to me, that lay unopened on my side table for eighteen months, (about the lost shepherd, who’s impeccable timing found me when I felt most lost) and to the kind doctor who assured me that, everything is fixable, and it’s all going to be okay, I’ve finally started to believe that maybe everything does happen for a reason. I’m taking a leaf from lyrical genius, Frank Ocean, who says “We met for a reason, either you’re a blessing or a lesson.” and I’m thanking myself for the blessings that are watering my soul during these growing pains, the same way the rain helps the flowers to bloom into something much more beautiful than they (and I) were in the winter.
“…when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist