I was driving around all over the freeways of San Diego county, chain smoking in a car whose brakes were screaming every time I pulled over to the side of the road, sobbing into my cell phone to one of the few sets of ears I wholly trusted.
“I don’t want to live anymore.”
She was crying.
“I know it’s been hard. I’ve watched you struggle, and I’ve never been more proud of your honesty, even though it breaks my heart.”
She was one of my best friends: one of my oldest friends. We watched each other get married, get divorced, trek the world with broken hearts in search of our new path. I love her sons like my own, always thinking of the example I am setting for them. I wanted so badly to hold them in this moment, to protect them from the world’s pain: the gravity of which I had never before felt so deeply. I wanted to hold them, but I also knew they could never see me like this.
“You have to get help, Pam. You’re so so strong, but some things no one is strong enough to face alone.”
I knew that she was right. I knew that no one takes a day off to sob and smoke cigarettes. That’s not a thing healthy people do.
Why am I smoking cigarettes? My mother’s voice echoed from deep within. “You’re better than this. You’re more than this, dear. This isn’t the life I ever wanted for you.”
How badly I wanted to run to her. How badly I wanted to cry until the well of tears had run dry, enveloped in the love of the one human in my life who always met me with grace. She always set me back on the right path. She always reminded me of exactly who I was.
But she was gone. Had I ever really accepted that? When that phone call blared across my world that winter evening two years ago, I fell to an ocean floor of anguish, enveloped in deep waves of agony and sorrow, seemingly washed away from the shores of life and all of its beauty. How would I swim back to the sunshine? Sure, the months to come were a challenging surf between cyclical waves of ferocious suffering and a deceptive numbness that made me think the pain had subsided.
I was so tired of swimming. My body had taken the exhaustive burden of this shipwreck to a point I had no clue how I would ever return: cigarettes for dinner because food seemed too much. Sleepless, tearful nights asking God if I was worthy of love. I wasn’t eating and I wasn’t sleeping. I had lost 30 pounds.
“Giiiiiirl. What are you doing? You look amazing!” People thought my stress was a result of the gym. They thought I was just exercising my curves away. I let them think that. I couldn’t tell them that my mother’s suicide had finally taken a toll. I couldn’t tell them that a lifetime of heartbreak had finally started to wash away my spirit: years of brightly painted deception of a happy heart had all but deteriorated under a relentless hurricane of emotion. I was stronger than this pain; that was the expectation I had created. I am strong. I can swim through the worst of life’s storms and come out with rock-hard thighs and a backstroke the likes of an Olympic swimmer.
Except my spirit was breaking. My body was breaking. I was a soaken mess, and I felt as though I had nowhere to turn.
Checking myself into a mental hospital was no easy task. As I waited in a psychiatric emergency room for days as I waited for a bed in a mental health program to be made available, I was surrounded by many swimming against currents I realized I was thankful to have never fought: drug addiction, lithium withdrawals, schizophrenia like my mother’s, and other ailments of the mind I had never felt crashing against me treaded along the halls of this ward as I achingly reflected how I had gotten here.
I taught myself to swim. They were hard lessons: bobbing and weaving in the swimming pool of life, eventually graduating to lakes, rivers, and tremendous oceans of challenges and triumphs. Self-taught education is certainly the most impressionable, but maybe not the most comprehensive.
What had I missed? My mother loved me with a depth of a thousand oceans, but she wasn’t always around, drowning in her own storms of life. My father, a hollowed out pirate ship, had long since abandoned his post at sea. So maybe some swim lessons had been missed, hazy in importance as I always sought to sail near to shore. I didn’t have a map to find my way.
Maybe I needed a lifeboat.
So I did it. Maaaaaan, admitting that I was lost at the helm of my own ship was the most necessary humiliation of my life. Admitting to strangers that all I could do was strap on my life vest and pray for rescue was my last ditch effort to find my way back to the land of the living.
They asked the hard questions. The “why?” questions. The “how does this make you feel?” questions. The “when was the last time you were happy?”
Had I really ever been? Or have I just sought the highs in life after reaching so many lows? Had I ever found a contented peace?
My thoughts began to stabilize as I began to study myself. I am loved. I am talented. I can find things to love about myself. It’s not about what other people are saying. It’s not about what people aren’t saying. It’s about finding moments in our days worth embracing and reflecting on the ones that challenge us. Why are they challenging us? What can we learn? What can we discard?
I was learning. I’m still learning. It’s been 8 months and I’m not afraid to admit that I can’t do it alone. But as the waves of life pitch and careen around me, I ask myself: does this bring me peace? Good. It may stay. Does this bring me chaos? Why? Is this a chaos I can remedy? No? Buh-bye: that may be cast back into the sea, far away from my carefully crafted, brand new beachside foundation.
I’ve smoked my last cigarette, but I haven’t cried my last tears. Tears will come. Pain: it comes. But so does love. So do the people who embrace us. So does the peaceful serenity of God casting his blanket over us, so long as we take it. We love to say that God will heal us, and sure, that is true. But we have to do the work. We have to say the things that terrify us. We have to do the things that are hard. He only promises that His love will hold our hand along the way. It starts with being kind to ourselves: not trashing our bodies, not trashing our lives, not trashing the honor of those who love us along the way.
We have to ask ourselves if we’re bringing the peace. And that, my friends, is how we swim to shore. Sometimes we need a lifeboat because we’re tired of swimming, and that’s okay too. Storms may threaten our houses, rocking our foundations, but we can always rebuild.
We can never ignore the destruction.
Today as I sit on the beach with the seemingly all encompassing California sun shining down on me, I reflect on this year and the moments that have defined this journey. It certainly isn’t over. I’ll never tread in the shallow end, resigned to complacency again: an undertow can take me far, far away if I’m not careful. But I’ve learned to forgive my mistakes. I’ve learned to forgive those who didn’t do better by me. We’re all just humans trying to hold our heads above water, and sometimes that water is choppy and our movements are ugly. Even the most skillful swimmers encounter rough waters.
We can’t control when the storm hits. We can’t control whether we’re strong enough to swim through it. We can only control how we react to those two truths. So will we find the eye of the storm, where tranquil waters lie? The enduring question will always be, “Will I let this storm take me, becoming a part of its destruction, or will I find my peaceful post?”
I’ve set my sails on peace.
Pamela Heal is a writer, veteran, and hairstylist based out of San Diego, California. Her life’s purpose is devoted to beautifying not just the hair on people’s heads, but the hearts of each of us who find ourselves on a paths of brokenness. You can read more of Pamela’s writing at Letters from ‘Lita and follow her on Instagram @lettersfromlitablog.