Last night I was in a place darker than any place I’ve ever had the displeasure of visiting. To say the fog was thick would be the understatement of a lifetime. Months of tension, weeks of fear, days of anger led up to a 12 hour obsessive Internet checking, reading, responding and defending marathon. I’d heard things would get ugly and they did. What was once a fun, for the first time felt like a job. And a bad one at that.
But I’m a strong woman, right? I can handle it. I’ll sleep when I’m dead. And then it happened. Not a physical death. No flowers, procession of loved ones, or long speeches about a life well lived. Just an all-encompassing mental retreat. I felt a walking crime scene. A zombie. Despite the outpouring of support, I found myself facing my own personal night.
I tortured myself, playing the day’s events in my mind over and over. Rather than focus on the positive comments, I put the words “she lied” “she stole” “she mislead” on repeat. I imagined someone standing on a raised platform shouting the accusations to a listening crowd of thousands. “SHE LIED” “SHE STOLE” “SHE MISLEAD” over and over. I could feel the burn of being raked over coals.
Pretty soon the chants changed to “SHE’S BAD SHE’S BAD SHE’S BAD” and before I knew what was happening I was shouting along with the crowd. “SHE’S BAD SHE’S BAD SHE’S BAD!” I wasn’t saying the words out loud but letting them find rest inside of me felt like the same thing.
Maybe sticks and stones would have been better. At least I’d have physical evidence, real scars to match what was growing behind my eyes.
If you’ve seen The Perfect Storm you’re probably haunted, as I am, by once of the final scenes. Mark Wahlberg’s character is left alone, without a ship, without a crew, floating on massive dark waves. They waves are viciously unapologetic and majestic, in the way mother nature so often is. In those final moments what was the doomed fisherman thinking? Even though death was a certainty, he still had a choice: sink or swim. In that moment, he could still decide. Alone and face to face with his end, he was not completely without options.
After the children had gone to sleep, I went opened my front door and went outside. The thick humidity of day had broken into a tremendous downpour of rain. The weather conditions had left the streets devoid of man and only the occasional car passed by. I took a seat on the stoop. My body was soaked in a matter of minutes plastering my dress to me like shrink wrap. Sink or swim. I couldn’t decide. With every wave that tossed me up and then down again, it was getting harder and harder to catch my breath. Not because there was no air, it was all around me, the fear just gobbled it up before I had a chance to partake. What would they say about me next? When will they say it? Who will hear it? Who will believe them? When? Who? What? When? Where? What? Who? When? What if? Why? My arms grew limp and the water rose to cover my mouth and nose. In one single action I slipped below the surface and eyes closed. Silence. The terror of losing myself to the nothingness was immediately calmed by the relief of no longer having to fight against the current.
I didn’t dare open my eyes for fear of what I might see. I could hear deep echos in the distance, not the beautiful sort made my whales, but a deep familiar groan. No longer in charge of my movements, I traveled to wherever the undertow dictated. We made the memory rounds visiting every ghost I thought I’d packed away. For a moment I entertained the idea of making a grab at the surface, using all of my strength to push myself upward but as quickly as the thought came, it was rebutted. Surely it’s better to get used to my new home rather than risking experiencing the descent again. Because isn’t the fall the worst part? We’re scared of the plane crash but utterly terrified of the moments preceding it.
Morning came and and I was still frozen. I was given an ultimatum: either get help or I’d be driven to a hospital. Three hours later I was sitting across from a professional. I felt comfortable in her medium-sized office and tried my hardest to look normal. I spoke. Explained everything.
“They said…” “I felt…” “Why…”
She listened. As the words left my mouth, some of the sting did, too. I continued.
“I just can’t take the idea of people thinking these things about me. I feel like my name is ruined. I don’t know why this is happening.”
She paused and looked at me intently.
“It’s happening so that you can find out who you are.”
“When you know who you are, anyone can say anything to you without you internalizing it.”
“But they’re saying I’m__________.”
“Then who are you.”
I almost said, “Who do you want me to be” but decided to take a moment to think.
“Are you a good person?”
“Then why does it matter what they said.”
“Because people might believe them.”
“But what do you believe.”
And suddenly, the realization that what I believe about myself is more important than what anyone else does fell on top of me like a cloak. It was slightly ill-fitting and felt rather uncomfortable to be honest, but it was mine.
The “SHE’S BAD SHE’S BAD SHE’S BADs” grew quieter. I felt a small glow begin to emerge in my center and it frightened me. No gifts, please. I’ve gotten used to this drowning thing.
“It’s time for you to stop listening to the negativity and find your own voice. Who are you?”
“I know who I am,” I said tentatively like a child taking their first wobbly steps, “I’m kind. Stubborn. Smart.”
I started feeling self-conscious and couldn’t contain a shy smile.
After I’d finished, she went on, “One day you’re going to thank this company.”
I laughed loudly but it only took three or four seconds to realize she was on to something.
Up until that moment in her office I’d always acted based on who I am but had also used other people’s trash to piece together my self-image. Compliments were deflected or held in my hands awkwardly the way an amateur chef would handle truffles. But criticisms: whether constructive or shot to kill, those would be picked apart like a chicken dinner and consumed down to the cartilage.
On the drive home I sat in the passenger’s seat and watched the rain make hieroglyphics on the windshield. “Sink or swim,” I was asked again. Swim. Most definitely, swim.