“You can be shattered and you can put yourself back together piece by piece until one day you wake up… And no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot fit into your old life anymore. You are like a snake trying to fit into old, dead skin, or a butterfly trying to crawl back into the cocoon.” ~ Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior
Glennon Doyle’s words hit me with a wave of recognition. In “Love Warrior”, Doyle recounts her transformational journey of healing the mind, body, and spirit, as she reflects back on her history of bulimia, addiction, and familial strife. Though the final chapter ends on a hopeful note of healing, Doyle ultimately comes to this conclusion: Sometimes in the process of healing, the transformation is so monumental that you can no longer fit into your old life anymore. Sometimes the final step of growth is kicking off your old shoes, and finding the courage to start anew. While the specifics of Doyle’s journey were different than mine — Trade childhood body dysmorphia for childhood abuse, the bulimia for self-harm, the hard drugs for alcohol— The overarching themes in our lives were remarkably similar.
Two and half years ago, after the demise of my last semi-long term romantic partnership — a rushed marriage that ended as quickly as it had begun — I found myself at the doorway of my own cocoon. The day my marriage ended, I had found myself at a crossroads I never expected. I knew I couldn’t go back to the way things used to be — I couldn’t go back to the comforting illusions of childhood hopes and Disney fairytales, that mythical dreamland where promises are never broken and lies, never spoken. In “Love Warrior”, Doyle refers to the life-changing event that lead to her transformation as “The News.” I had begun to think of my life-changing event as The Night. I couldn’t go back to the feeling of safety I had in my partner’s embrace before The Night: the night when it all fell apart.
If shedding one’s fairytale illusions about the world is the cornerstone to building strength and resiliency, being stripped of their protective powers is the slap in the face that wakes you up to the depth your own vulnerability and weakness. The Night my body was assaulted, and the ensuing months, is the singularly most painful moment in my marriage that I can recount. It wasn’t my partner who assaulted me. The man who assaulted me is someone I’ll never have to see again, if I take care to avoid all the public places he might show up. The assault was a moment of terror I hope never to relive again; what I didn’t know at the time was that it was just the beginning of a long journey of healing.
The assault was the first trauma; the secondary wound, the invalidation and rejection that is so often received by trauma survivors, was the thing that disintegrated what was left of my sense of safety. I had already known there was cruelty in the world. I knew it from The Dark Ages: the years of childhood trauma I had experienced at the hands of someone whose own darkness slipped into a depth so low that it led them to hurt me in a way that no child should ever experience. What I didn’t know is that the people I had entrusted myself to, who had promised to stand by me for life, could disappear when I most desperately needed support. Maybe my partner was too caught up in his own battles to be there for someone else. Maybe The Night and its post-traumatic after effects on me were a little too much for him to bear. Whatever the reason, eventually, we realized no matter how hard we tried we were no longer fitting in one another’s lives, no longer able to bridge the growing distance between us. So we did the most loving thing we could think of to do: we let go.
We all have traumas to speak of, we all have a healing journey ahead of us. Perhaps we are all ultimately alone in that journey, in the sense that nobody can walk it for us. But though we might be the hero of our own stories, even the strongest hero needs a support system, team players — a partner, friend, a mentor — someone to lean on for the days when the nightmares are a little too vivid, and the spirit is a little too worn. After The Night, I realized just how alone I was at that moment in my life. And I realized it couldn’t stay that way forever.
In the months following the assault and the demise of my brief marriage, I knew there was no way to get back to my old life; nevertheless, I didn’t feel prepared for whatever journey was waiting for me up ahead. I spent a good year feeling lost. I drank until I couldn’t remember the pain that had lead me to drink in the first place. I looked for love and connection in all the wrong places, exchanging my once health-conscious lifestyle for the late-night dive bar scene, trading in my body as currency for the hope that somebody would love all my broken pieces back together. This phase of my life wasn’t the cocoon though; this was me balking at stepping into the cocoon before the inevitable transformation.
““I do not intend to stay here forever,” read my journal entry, circa mid-2016. “Forever being a fantasy, and here always fleeting. Here is just a pitstop to ruffle my feathers and grow a bit, so that I’m ready and best prepared to go forth and conquer whatever dreams come my way.The truth is, I didn’t expect to be here. Neither does the caterpillar expect to stay so long in his cocoon, but while he is there he accepts its embrace wholeheartedly.”
The cocoon is the place where you sew yourself back together before you step out into a new life; but how do we prepare ourselves for a future that holds the unexpected? For months, I found myself paralyzed by this not-knowingness; I had given myself an impossible task, trying to chisel myself into the expectations of the world around me while I was walking blind.
I found the courage to step into the cocoon of my new life one unexpected week in the summer of 2017, at a songwriting retreat nestled away on the outskirts of Chicago, skirting the shore of Lake Michigan. It was a program that I’d gone into with the same preconceptions I had for my life: I assumed that they were going to show me the rules of songwriting, and it would be my job as a student to fit myself into the mold. Quite on the contrary, and to my bewilderment, the strongest piece of advice I walked away with was this: Write honestly. Write what you know. Write what you don’t want to know about yourself. Write what you’re scared to know about yourself. The key to great art is this: Be you. The unabashed, unadulterated you. The job of a great artist is this: Peel off the mask, and offer what’s left as a gift to the world. The lesson that I came away with was this: The greatest gift we can offer to the world is the gift of our unique self, and the only real responsibility we have to ourselves and others is to build love and connection through living the truth.
“What dreams are mine, you ask?” I had written in my journal. “I don’t know yet. My only dream is to love everything that crosses my path. Who and what they are remain to be seen. All I know is I must go where I am needed, or I will go where I need to become what I need to be for the needy, wherever and whenever that is and however humble or great.”
After Chicago, I stopped trying to put myself into molds. When the idea of truth become something to honor rather than something to run from, the allure of alcohol began to lose its hold. When the idea the self became something beautiful rather than something shameful, a wave of relief washed over me and I bid a hearty good riddance to the self-degrading policy of using my body as currency in exchange for false love. I didn’t know where the road would lead, because there was no preconceived fate laid out before me; there never had been. My new journey had nothing to do with following a predetermined roadmap: Instead, I was laying the stepping stones of my own path by following my own values, by tuning into and honoring my own heart. My goal was no longer to please those around me, to receive the illusion of love by painting on a mask of the pretty, obedient girl. My goal was to learn real love, in its purest form, honoring myself as I was, and doing the the same for everyone I met.
“One day you wake up and realize that you have put yourself back together completely differently. That you are whole, finally, and strong — but you are now a different shape, a different size.” ~ Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior
I see Doyle’s image of the cocoon as a metaphor for the transformation that helps us to grow out of our naive illusions about the world and learn to embrace our and honor truth with courage and grace. Looking back, I realize now why I had been so afraid to step into the cocoon: It felt like I was giving up my on dreams, that everything beautiful in my life had been a lie, and that I had no choice but surrender to my powerlessness in a cruel, lonely world. But in hindsight, the transformation looks more like this: I was finally stepping out of the prison of illusion and expectation, trading it in for the much more magnificent freedom of authenticity. The cocoon wasn’t the end of everything beautiful at all — how could anything that was an illusion compare the beauty of finding the courage to embrace what is true? I believe now that its only in a space of truth and authentic freedom that the process of realizing a dream can ever begin.
When I first started grown-up dreaming, it took some getting used to. It’s a little bit different than dreaming the fairytales of childhood illusion. Still, I’ve always been a strong believer that if you show up everyday, work hard, and stay true to your commitment, you can achieve almost anything you set your mind to; short of sprouting your own pair of eagle wings, flying off into space without a rocket or a space suit, and living forever young in the alter-universe of Neverland. The key to grown-up dreaming is learning to recognize the difference between what is and isn’t in your control, and adjust accordingly. I’m in my control. Nothing else is. If you’ve got those foundations down, you’re ready to go about the business of grown-up dreaming. So what’s the catch? I’ve come to realize that almost none of my dreams will manifest the way I expect them to.
When I first started laying out the stepping stones of my new life, I couldn’t help but imagine where my future might lead. I know the road ahead isn’t set in stone, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder. And when I dream, lately, it usually looks like this: I envision myself traveling the world, walking hand in hand with truth and sharing my story with kindred souls in need of recognition. I picture myself bridging the gap between lonely souls through my art, writing, and day to day connections. I see myself putting my college degree to use at some point, exploring a career of service as a counselor at a local community program. I see myself continuing on my healing voyage from The Night and The Dark Ages, and settling down with a partner who can walk that life-long journey of recovery with me. But I also know this might not be the way my future plays out at all.
Whatever the road has in store for me, it feels liberating to say this: I’m grateful just to have found the cocoon, to have put my shattered pieces back together within it, to have emerged a stronger, more resilient, more authentic version of myself — no longer fitting my square self into the round holes of expectation, but rather offering up the unique gift of my own genuine life.