Sometimes life just feels relentless. It feels like an endless sea of suffering, and you fight and fight the current to no avail. Maybe you finally learn to relax and surrender to the flow. Maybe you break the surface. Maybe you think the worst is over, just for a clean-up set to wash through and knock you flat again.
You feel like the lessons have been learned, like you’ve squeezed the lemons and made the lemonade. You don’t understand. Why now? Why more?
First – whether you believe there is a why or not, you don’t need to figure it all out now. You may look back and realize how you’ve grown or how it served you, or the knowing may never reveal itself. Right now, it is okay if it just sucks. Let yourself acknowledge that it is hard. Don’t diminish it or make excuses for yourself.
Then – think of the ocean. We describe ourselves as feeling like we’re drowning for a reason. Metaphors run deep with the ocean because we are so connected to it as humans. Many parallels can be drawn between our existence and the sea.
Waves are formed from wind in far off places. The energy of that wind builds into swell as it crosses whole oceans, the memory of a breeze crashing on our shores. Waves come in sets. Sometimes there is a lull between sets. Sometimes the period is long and we have ample time to catch our breath between waves. Sometimes there is chop and we can’t catch a break. Sometimes we know what weather system brings the biggest waves, and sometimes the cause and direction remain a mystery. We’re all just trying to keep our heads above water.
We all have different breaking points. We have different beaches and sandbars and reefs and rocks that change how waves affect each one of us. Our different circumstances determine how hollow the waves are that hit us, how dangerous they are, and how much havoc they can wreak.
Luckily, no matter how waves hit us, there are things we can all do.
We can learn how to surf. It takes time, and blood, and sweat, and tears, but we can learn how to ride the waves of our minds. We will fall and there will still be times when we feel like we are drowning. But we can lessen the impact of waves with healthy coping strategies, therapy, meditation and more.
When a big set washes through and we get pushed under the surface, we can remember to stay calm. When a surfer gets held under, staying calm and relaxed is the most important thing they can do. In a literal sense, it conserves oxygen, and allows your buoyancy to bring you back up to the surface. It works similarly in the metaphorical. Stay calm, breathe deeply, and the wave will pass. Trust that you will be okay. Trust that you will survive it.
Never give up and never lose hope. No matter how long you’ve been battling storms, you never know what is on the horizon. The ocean is ever-changing. Dozens of conditions are always in flux. And all it takes is a tiny shift of the wind, a few degrees, thousands of miles away, to change everything. A new ripple, compounded energy traveling across the expanse, gaining momentum to create new swell headed elsewhere, bringing you crystal clear waters and a lull to float on your back, sun on your face, smile, and take a deep, ease-full breath.
2022 has been a wild year for me. I’ve been at my most sick and had some of my physically lowest moments. But I’ve also had moments of the most true, profound joy I have ever experienced, made all the sweeter by the bitter times. This year was the year I got my Lyme/Bartonella diagnoses, found doctors I trusted, started treatment, and did a deep dive into healing. It has been a year of solitude and self-reflection. And I am so proud to say that I truly believe I have grown more this year than in any year before. (Read more about my health journey here.)
So here are 22 of the most important lessons I learned this year. I could not have learned these all on my own, so thank you to everyone who implicitly and explicitly guided me through this brutal, beautiful year.
1. Your path is your own. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s to be right.
Going to a New England Prep school, everyone’s path was set up very similarly. But when we hop on this traditional escalator, we often don’t take into consideration what we really want. I’m 20 years old, on my second gap year, and expect college to take me five or more years. And that is okay. Taking time off is okay. Reassessing your priorities is okay. Your healing is also your own and can look completely different from anyone else’s. Whatever your path looks like, it is valid.
2. Feelings are not facts.
When we experience an intense negative emotion, it can feel like the world is crashing down. Feelings can be so powerful. But our thoughts and feelings are not hard facts. Just because we feel like the pain will never end or like we are not worth the effort, that does not mean it’s true. Our feelings are valid, but what they hold isn’t always. When you recognize this, it takes some of the power away from the feeling. Learning to become consciously aware of our feelings and think greater than we feel allows us to rise above our emotions.
3. Now is not always.
Just like how feelings are not facts, how you feel now and where you’re at now is not where you will always be. Just because it’s been a bad day, or month, or year, does not mean that every following day, or month, or year will be the same. Things change. Healing is possible. Internalize that.
4. We must learn to love the parts of ourselves that we do not like.
Let’s face it — we will not always love everything about ourselves. But we must learn to embrace the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, whether we are actively trying to change them or not. I love how deeply I feel. I love how easily I trust. I love how empathetic I am. I love that I am a recovering people pleaser. I love that I am so hard on myself. When we meet the parts of ourselves we don’t like with grace and love, we can soften the judgement we self-inflict and deal with these difficult parts of ourselves much easier.
5. It is okay to outgrow people you still care about.
I believe that people come in and out of our lives to teach us things we need to understand. We all grow at different times and in different ways, and those times and ways don’t always align. It can be so hard and so painful to let go of people you love, but if they are no longer in your best interest, it is okay to take a step back. It is okay to still love them after. And it is okay to mourn their loss while still knowing in your heart it was the right decision.
6. Hope and realism are not mutually exclusive.
I am a realist. And as a realist, I’ve sometimes had a hard time being hopeful. But the two can be felt simultaneously. I can be realistic about where I am at in my health journey and the areas I am limited in right now, and still be hopeful that the little progress I’ve seen will blossom into more. I can be realistic about the state of climate and how much damage we are doing to our planet, and still be hopeful that we can turn things around. Hope is a feeling that you can attach to anything. You can look at things through a realistic lens, in which it may be unlikely that change will occur immediately, and still have hope that something will change. As long as you are not tied to the outcome of your hope, it is a powerful feeling to practice.
7. There is more to who you are than the things that you like.
Yes, the things we like are a big part of who we are. But they are not all that we are. This year I lost the ability to do a lot of the things that I like. And learning who I was when all of the superficial things were stripped away was hard. I felt lost for a while. And then I began to realize that there is so much more to me. I am sensitive and loving and silly, and no illness can take that away from me. In my lowest moments I didn’t have the energy to have much of a personality, but I was still determined and strong and resilient. All of these things are who I am in my truest sense. Everything else will come and go, but when you hold tight to who you really are at heart, you will always be able to find yourself again.
8. Progress is not linear.
There will be ups and there will be downs. That is just the way it is. The more you focus on the little wins, even as things may appear to worsen, the more you begin to see how much progress you’ve truly made. I may be in a very similar physical position to where I was this time last year. But I’m making this list, and I’m so incredibly proud of myself for growing so much in such a short time.
9. You can be going through hell and still have truly happy moments.
When we are suffering, it can be hard to allow ourselves moments of joy. As someone with an invisible illness, I often feel a pressure to not appear happy to those who already don’t see how hard things are for me. But when I have those moments — when I’m having a good day and dive in the ocean, or laugh with my family, or see a whale spout — I allow myself that contentment and happiness. I can also be happy for no reason at all. Having a moment of pure bliss does not discount all of the suffering you experience. It does not mean that things are not hard. It means that you are a fighter that recognizes the blessings in your life. It’s my story, and I’m not going to let anyone else make me feel bad for enjoying the beauty of life.
10. Music can be incredibly healing.
I was never much of a music listener, but this year that changed. I started listening to playlists and finding songs that spoke to me, creating my own playlists to boost my mood. Listening to uplifting music — whatever genre it is that brightens your spirit — is a very powerful thing. There are also certain frequencies of music proven to be calming and physically healing. You can look up healing hertz music or search for songs with 174 hz frequencies.
11. Self-care is a non-negotiable.
I used to always put others before myself. I had so much on my plate that I often forgot to take care of my own wellbeing. But we are not an afterthought. Our bodies are not afterthoughts. Our health is everything, and when we neglect ourselves physically and emotionally, we compromise our health, whether we recognize it or not.
12. You must nourish yourself first in order to give.
Connected to the last point about self-care, we must fill our own wells in order to give water to others. Picture that we each have a bucket. When we give, we give from our buckets. If our buckets are empty, we are giving more than we have. We are giving from ourselves. When life depletes our buckets, we can fill them ourselves through acts of self-care. We can’t give what we don’t have. So we must ensure that we nourish ourselves so that we may give instead of giving first so others will nourish us after.
13. Rest is productive.
REST. IS. PRODUCTIVE. Say it again. This is one of the hardest lessons I learned this year. For so many of us, myself previously included, our worth is tied to our productivity. Well, no more. Even when my body screamed for rest, I used to push through. A lot of kids learn this as athletes and never shake it. But our bodies need rest. Rest is when we replenish. Rest is when learning sinks in. Rest is when we heal. Allow yourself rest without guilt. You deserve it. Your body deserves it.
14. Putting in the work to better yourself always pays off, no matter how hard it is.
Bettering ourselves is not comfortable. But few things worthwhile are always comfortable. Going back into your past to heal, confronting hard truths about yourself, beginning to exercise — whatever avenue of self-improvement you go down, it won’t be easy. But trust that it will be so incredibly worth it. Remember that it is perfectly okay to ask for help. And be proud of yourself for taking the leap.
15. Follow your joy.
The things that bring you joy? Chase them. If something is no longer bringing you joy, whether it be a person, a place, or a job — maybe it is time to reassess. You don’t need anything superficial to be happy. But when you follow your heart, you put yourself in a position of contentment where joy flows more easily. Trust that feeling, and see what amazing things it leads you to.
16. Let yourself daydream.
Dreaming is so powerful on every level. Not only does positive visualization improve your mood, it also triggers neuronal pathways in the brain, helping the neurons fire together that would fire in the real life scenario as well. This can help with improvement in sports, presentations and more, as well as actually changing the neurochemistry of your brain for the better.
17. Setting yourself on fire to keep others warm is not noble.
When we put others before ourselves at our own expense, it is not honorable. Sure, maybe we’re honoring the needs of someone else, but we are certainly not honoring our own needs. This quote — “Stop setting yourself on fire to keep others warm,” hit me hard. I always thought that it was the right thing to do to keep other people warm no matter what. I didn’t even realize that I was on fire until the damage had been done. But while sacrificing yourself may be the noble thing to do in the movies, doing it again and again in real life is not the righteous thing to do. It is just hurting yourself.
18. Your body is so wise. Listen to it.
I don’t think I would be sick if I hadn’t ignored the signals of my body and pushed through for so many years. When we say yes to everything, pushing through our own boundaries and compromising ourselves, our body eventually says no for us. And some of us get very, very sick, myself included. I am learning how to listen to my body and how to trust her again. Our bodies look out for us. They tell us when it is too much, when we need to step back to protect ourselves, both physically and emotionally. Listen to your gut feeling. It will pay off.
19. Vulnerable is the strongest thing you can be.
In our society we are taught (especially men) that emotional vulnerability is weak. And sure, in survival of the fittest, the physically vulnerable animals are more at risk. But that’s not so relevant in our advanced, evolved state as humans. And yet we are taught this anyway, and people put up thick walls. In a world where few people are emotionally vulnerable, I truly believe it’s the strongest thing you can be. Sharing your hardships and innermost feelings is far from easy. Putting your heart out on the chopping block is scary. But it is worth it if you can help even just a few people survive their own struggles. When we are vulnerable, we show others that they are not alone in their silent battles. When we bring the dark into the light, it loses it’s power. And all who put themselves out there in this way should celebrate their strength.
20. All your emotions need to be felt.
Suppressing emotions is not healthy. Lashing out is also not healthy, nor fair to the people around you. But feeling your emotions and acting on them are two different things. When we suppress our emotions, we do not get rid of them. They find ways to resurface, either emotionally or physically, and they wreak havoc. When we feel our emotions, acknowledge them and sit with them, we can process them. Anger, resentment, guilt, pain, despair — these are all okay to feel. In fact, when they arise, you must feel them. Listen to them, sit with them and then find a way to irrigate them. Write, exercise, wiggle, sing, draw, color — let them leave your body.
21. Asking for help does not make you a burden.
The thing I am most proud of myself for so far in my life is admitting that I needed mental health help and finding a therapist. As humans, we can’t go it alone. We need community. We need each other. Asking for help is never something you should be ashamed of. Whether it’s help with mental health, or your homework, or any other number of things, the right people will not make you feel guilty for it. The people you love don’t want to see you struggle. Anyone who cares about you wants to see you succeed. You are not a burden for needing support. We all need help at some point.
22. It is okay to mourn the person you used to be, even as you’re proud of who you’ve become.
Over time, we grow and adapt and change. Our beliefs may change, our hobbies, the people we hold close. There is a lot of loss in growing up and moving on and healing. It is okay to feel that loss. It is not wrong for you to feel grief for your old self, even if you are glad you are no longer that person. I feel a lot of grief for the little girl who had no idea the roller coaster that life had in store for her. But I wouldn’t change the lessons I’ve learned and the person I’ve become through it for anything.
So thank you, 2022, for the tears cried, the laughs shared and the lessons learned. Here’s to a new year of more growth, more healing and more vibrancy. Happy New Year everyone! Wishing you all of the health and happiness.
Many people have a defining moment. Some have multiple. Whether for better or for worse, this moment separates who you were from who you are. In a single second, a fault line cracks, and a chasm appears. There is before, and there is after.
The birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, a proposal, an injury, a diagnosis – these are all defining moments. While they all come with an evolving persona, defining moments of dis-ease can be the most hard to rebound from. You are left bare and wide open, vulnerable and so very lost. For me, a concussion that never healed, a second head injury that compounded the problem, and a trip to the ER. Once the initial shock of such a moment has worn off, there is just you. But who are you anymore?
When your life changes, your identity changes. Some things are lost, some shifted, some paused, and some are gained. But who you are now doesn’t just appear. The things lost or paused leave gaping holes in your heart. You don’t feel like yourself. You don’t really know who “yourself” is. This isn’t me. I find myself saying this in the lowest moments. But this won’t be you forever. You will grow and become and keep adding to who you want to be until you have spun a web that will hold you safe inside.
We are a sum of everything that is meaningful to us. When we are forced to let go of some of those things, even temporarily, it can be crushing. Under most circumstances, you can’t just immediately be okay with the losses and no longer claim them as a part of you. Grieving the loss is part of healing.
No, a new identity doesn’t just appear. It must be crafted. You must place yourself in the fire, feel all of your feelings, and forge new pieces of yourself. You must drive the hammer and fight through the messy parts until you are ready to quench the blade and reveal a masterpiece.
A defining moment is an opportunity. An opportunity to dive into yourself and decide what parts of your identity serve you and what do not. It is an opportunity to choose who you want to be.
Carve away the parts of yourself that do not elevate you. I am working to chisel down the perfectionism, the codependency, the overachieving in my life. Like a sculptor to clay, let it fall away. Center yourself like a potter on a wheel. And fill your heart with new things.
If I could offer one piece of advice, it would be this. Learn a new skill. Always watched from the sidelines but wanted to try? Go for it! That old hobby that you never had time for until now? Start it up again! As long as you are not putting your health in jeopardy and it is within your power, the sky’s the limit. Any time someone learns a new skill that they are passionate about, they add to their identity. So when you feel lost and don’t know who you are anymore, learning something new can be incredibly grounding.
Since getting sick, I started drawing more. I’ve always loved drawing, but didn’t do it very often. I’ve started writing more too, hence this blog. I’m learning how to surf. It drains my body, but it feeds my soul.
When I feel the most lost and my heart aches for that which is out of my reach right now, any one of these things is a powerful outlet for me. I finally have the time to learn what I really want in life. It is hard and it is painful, but it is worth it.
It is healthy to grieve the loss of your old self. The losses you grieve the most – they will always be a part of you. Just because a soccer player retires, that doesn’t mean they are no longer a soccer player. Just because a hiker moves to the flatlands, that doesn’t mean they are no longer a hiker. What matters is what you hold in your heart. You are the blacksmith of your own life. Let the process happen. Honor your feelings. Know that while you can’t go back to who you were in the “before,” who you are now is incredible and worthy and beautifully whole.
Every single day, millions of incredible things happen. Whether or not they happen to you, the world is filled with little miracles and beautiful moments that occur each second.
However, we often find ourselves so wrapped up in our lives and our worries that we neglect to see these things. It takes an awareness of the surrounding world to tune outside yourself and really see all that there is.
While at first it may be difficult, with time this practice will flow more and more easily. But even when we do notice these moments for a smile, it can be hard to remember them. The more we practice, the easier it comes. Writing down what we see not only tracks our progress, but helps us remember little beautiful memories over the days and years.
Inspired in part by the movie “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” I decided to track all of the tiny perfect things each day that I bear witness to. Each moment I see that brings me or someone else even the smallest spark of joy, I document it. Every pure, honest, beautiful, true moment that I witness, I flag it in my memory, and write it down before bed.
What began with a single journal, a fresh page, and three perfect things has become so much more. Slowly, I noticed that my little notebook page seemed to grow smaller and smaller as my list grew longer and longer. Not only was it becoming easier to recall perfect things throughout my day, but I was able to recall them so much more descriptively.
I try to recall not only the moment in its visual depiction, but also the feelings it evoked or the way it touched me. When I read what I wrote, I want it to make me feel the same way it did in the moment it occurred.
It is incredible the power that this exercise has had on my life. Even on the worst of days, I can often find at least three beautiful moments, even if none of them happened to me. It is the most reflective and invaluable way to end my night and completely change my perspective on a seemingly awful day.
It is no exaggeration to say that this practice has changed my outlook on life. When you begin to notice these beautiful moments, it seems as if they are drawn to you. I believe that they were always there, but merely veiled to most who do not pay attention.
Now that these instances are unveiled to me, I am able to draw on little moments of joy throughout my day. When I feel my worst, I can find moments of happiness wherever I look. I am able to live more in the present and notice my surrounding. I actively search out the beauty in life. I see beauty in others hearts and in nature and in the mundane tasks of day-to-day life. It is far easier said than done, but each day I grow better.
If I could offer one piece of advice, it would be this: just begin. We are all guilty of wanting things for ourselves but never committing, telling ourselves that we will just begin tomorrow. The only reason I am able to see all of the beauty in life is because, one day, I decided to change. I chose to begin. I resolved to open up a new journal to a new page and put pen to paper. And I do not regret it.
If you are unhappy with your life, it is within your power to change it. Your mindset it everything. And while it takes time and discipline to change your mind, it can be a relatively simple process. All you have to do is begin.