When you reflect on your youth, can you recall private moments where you were lost in a reverie, a game of make-believe, or tinkering with a toy? Did you daydream and pick blackberries? Ever explore the pages of a book, eagerly anticipate the next Harry Potter release, or ask curious questions about grasshoppers and stars? Did you feel intimate with a small, manageable world?
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage. -Anaïs Nin
Many of us, it seems, can conjure up similar positive images. But we have other memories, too. We may have some difficult and sometimes disillusioning moments in our young lives. Yet we usually figure out how to manage those too.
We had places to store our problems.
They were kept in cupboards with other dark, shadowy, scary things we couldn’t make sense of. We learned how to soothe our confusion with distraction. The small, manageable world was a workable world, even with its primary pains.
My question is this: When did the world get too big?
When I entered puberty, I faced a number of transitions. My family moved to another town. I said goodbye to my childhood friend. My brother, who had been a personal hero, abruptly sank into a subterranean world of drugs and booze.
I started junior high school as a ratty, disheveled tomboy, relatively unsocialized. My brother began high school and started using and selling harder drugs. The family fractured.
Who am I?
What crystallized from this time – as is normal in adolescence – was a confused identity. Most teenagers struggle with aligning their emotional interiors with external expectations. We look around us and don’t seem to fit.
Our emotions are out-sized and we don’t know what to do with them. When I looked in the mirror and then out at the world, I didn’t make sense. But I didn’t know how to be at home in my environment. My feelings were running roughshod all over the place.
As the situation devolved at home, apart from a casual social circle in high school, I started keeping more to myself. With earnings from a summer job, I bought a car from my brother who’d recently been arrested for driving under the influence.
I also started hiking alone in the woods. Nearly every day after class, I would hike, exploring the wilderness. I danced on peaks and hollered-out from granite slabs.
My time spent in the mountains of northern New England as a teenager was revelatory. I thought I’d achieved a kind of Nirvana. My head cleared, I felt ecstatic. I started reading esoteric, spiritual books.
But in my inexperience and emotional immaturity, I was arrogant and isolated. Bypassing self-reflection, I looked down on others. I quickly wrote people off as “bourgeoisie” and “superficial.” I dreamed of running away to British Columbia and working in the woods as a forest ranger.
An expanding world
At 17, I attended a summer advanced studies program at a private school. There, living in a girl’s dormitory, I was exposed to cultural norms regarding body image and weight. Shortly after, following a romantic rejection and more emotional confusion, I developed an eating disorder.
Furtively, I read women’s magazines and picked up harmful habits. My time in the mountains ended as my head spun with health-isms and diet rules. I didn’t want to confront my emotional drama. I wanted to be impenetrable, steely. Unaffected.
In college, the world expanded further. I lost more illusions, and my symptoms escalated. I’d been thinking obsessively about diet and exercise for a year.
Now I had bulimia and diagnosed with major depression. All my dreams seemed so far away. After transferring to another school, I told a therapist “I just want to be who I was.”
I couldn’t figure it out. How did I get here? And who was that person I was once was? I needed to grow up and stop blaming others for my suffering.
Shifting & stretching
A decade later, I’ve shifted and stretched and tried to navigate an unthinkably large life and world. For years, I fought against my resistance, stubbornness, and terror.
I realized that I had to assume leadership of my life and treat myself with respect. The reality and responsibility of adulthood tests my ability to respond healthily to a world that defies control.
When we were children, we acted on the world around us with tiny manipulations. We found out how to get what we wanted. Or we resigned ourselves to not allowing ourselves to want anything from anyone. We were master escape-artists, running away from our emotions.
To our credit, I don’t know of anyone my age who was taught an emotional vocabulary in elementary school, or who understood, communicated, and honored their feelings as a youth.
Enjoying the big world
Now, the world is big and still difficult to understand. But the richness of dropping into our emotions lends it more color, wonder, and rapture than we enjoyed when the world was personal, small, and manageable.
Nirvana, as it turns out, has nothing to do with rejecting difficult emotions. Recovery and acceptance ask for effort.
Every day, we move through a raw and real and imperfect world that provokes our emotions. And if we are bold, if we accept responsibility as accountable adults, we learn to move with grace.
We stop shutting out the world or controlling the chaos outside us to calm our interiors. Instead, walk on, invigorated by the journey.
Attuned to our hearts, we are emotionally safe. Enriched by recovery, we drop into our big lives.