What is your story of strength?
My story of strength started with the radical changes I experienced after moving away from home at 18. I grew up in a very religious household in a pretty homogeneous, conservative environment in Texas. I had a great childhood, I have a wonderful family, and I’m so lucky to have been so loved by them my whole life. But during college, for the first time, I started experiencing a slow and pretty painful realization that I don’t actually identify with or believe a lot of the things I grew up believing so strongly. It started with subtle questions that would arise in my mind, but over time it just became this unavoidable feeling that something was really, really wrong in the way I was operating. I had accepted the familiar for so long and once I began to allow myself to leave those confines, it began to feel like the rug was pulled out from under me. My entire foundation was completely shaken and at that point I really had no idea who I was.
One morning right after I had graduated from college, I woke up and I booked a flight to Thailand. Completely randomly. I decided in that moment that I wanted to go teach English. Well, on some level I wanted to teach English, and on some level I just wanted to run. So I did. Since then I’ve continued to move around a lot and it’s been a continual process of learning that you can leave but you really can only run for so long. It’s SO difficult and scary to interrogate all the things you’ve believed your entire life, but that moment I left for Thailand was, in a way, the moment I stopped running from who I really am. Over the past decade or so, I’ve continued to discover and pursue what I truly believe and don’t believe, what’s really at my core. That decision to leave was the best decision of my life, and was a catalyst for the most difficult but also the most important evolution I’ve ever experienced.
Fast forward to now — I am so different from who I was a decade ago, and I feel really disconnected from my roots in a lot of ways. I live on the other side of the country and my life just doesn’t look how I thought it would, or how my family thought it would, I think. Being the only person in my family to be different is pretty isolating at times. Of course every member of a family is “different” but I’m so clearly a departure from the norm. And feeling like I can’t identify with the way I was raised is pretty tough. Especially when I try to reconcile that with how much I love my family and my friends. Like most people, there’s some degree of attempting to hold on to my roots while also trying to be true to myself and letting go of the things that truly aren’t mine. Over the course of my adult life, that’s where my strength has come from and is something I continue to grapple with.
Can you tell me about a time you failed or disappointed yourself?
I’ll talk about the one that’s most recent, and probably the most difficult to talk about. I think it’s important to share those things. I guess during that “awaking” I was in the midst of during college, I started experiencing a sudden and totally life-altering depression and anxiety that I had never experienced or even known existed. It was out of the blue. I had never struggled with anything like that in my life and it hit me like a train. It was the deepest darkness I’ve ever experienced.
After about a year I began to start accepting it, dealing with it, and recovering. Since then, I hadn’t struggled with it at all until around eight months ago, when seemingly out of nowhere I began experiencing anxiety and having completely random panic attacks. I don’t mean anxiety like stress or worry, I mean that kind of anxiety that only people who have had a panic attack out of the blue at a grocery store on a Saturday afternoon can really understand. I kind of shut down once that started happening. I didn’t shut down from my job or my social life, but I completely shut down from myself. I was terrible to myself. I was confused as to how I could have “let this happen” again, as if I owed it to myself to be perfect or invincible. I started questioning my value and my worth.
I’ve focused so much on my personal and professional growth and I’ve really prioritized my career over the past several years, and in that process I’ve sort of created this story in my mind that says in order to be a strong and happy woman you have to be all of these things. You have to be smart, you have to be sturdy, you have to be unshakable, but you also have to be likable and fun, and you certainly can’t be dealing with mental or emotional issues. And you have to be happy. All of these things, all the time. And in this unhealthy sense of perfectionism I think I got lost a little bit. I’ve just been so unbelievably hard on myself. It sounds trite but I’m really disappointed that I could judge myself so harshly especially when preaching to other people that it’s so important to not do that. I’m really working on that. And it’s hard, but it’s so important to acknowledge when you’re going through something difficult. Hi everyone, I have anxiety. I go to therapy. We should all start talking about that, and maybe it wouldn’t be something that causes us so much shame. I am radically imperfect and that’s okay. Being honest about that and having realistic expectations of myself has freed me in a way that I never could have anticipated. It was a rough several months, but now I’m that much more ready to handle the next challenge. I’ve come out on the other side a more whole person, a more honest and genuine person, and that makes me really, really proud.
Being strong doesn’t mean you never struggle. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Which should be so obvious, but I guess it wasn’t obvious for me. I’m learning that true strength comes not just in admitting that you’re struggling, but in not judging yourself for it. In saying you know what, this doesn’t make me less than, it makes me more than. It makes me stronger than, and it doesn’t make me less worthy or less whole that I’m having a hard time. It makes me worth so much more because I’m learning how to cope with things in my own life. That’s something I’m still working on, but something I think is really, really important.
Can you tell me about a woman in your life who embodies strength?
My Grandma Boots. She was married to my grandfather for almost 60 years when he passed away of cancer. She has devoted her entire life to her family — to her husband and her kids and all of us once we were born. After he passed away I really started to see what strength looks like because her life had centered around him – around that love – and in an instant that was gone. She had already been losing her memory before he died, but after, her dementia began to ramp up exponentially. She’s held onto certain memories, but now she’s starting to forget who people are and who she is in a lot of ways. The worst part is that she is entirely conscious of what’s going on in her mind, with the dementia. She is 100 percent lucid. I can’t imagine a struggle more difficult than watching your life as an observer and not being able to interact with the people around you. Or you know you’re supposed to behave in certain ways, but you can’t really remember how. She has shown immense strength and has continued to wake up and show up to life every single day despite how confusing that is – I just can’t imagine being stronger than that.
My whole life she has said, “you don’t have a good day, you make a good day.” She’s always been so cheerful and determined. And while she’s lost a lot of her spirit, understandably as she’s experiencing this, she shows up every day for the people she loves. And she tries her best. It’s so painful to watch her struggle through that, but I have so much admiration for her.
How can women better support each other?
I love this question because it reminds me of my favorite quote, ‘her success is not your failure.’ That quote rings so true to me. How beautiful is that? How beautiful is it that women can build each other up and be a light in each other’s life without shining any less ourselves? Because we have these ridiculous standards of beauty and this idea that women have to prioritize being a mother or a wife or having a career or whatever, there’s this sense of competitiveness between us that is so damaging. In reality, we’re all trying our best here.
No matter where you come from, it’s really demanding to be a woman. In my life, it’s come to a peak since I’ve been living and working in Washington, DC. There are so many expectations and it can be exhausting. Understanding our unity around that and all the pressures we face as women is so important. We’ve also got to work on being more honest with each other about our own vulnerabilities. It’s so powerful when we as women can truly share the best and worst parts of ourselves with each other – our struggles, our fears. If we could all be the most honest versions of ourselves we’d all be so much healthier and happier because of it. It’s amazing when women support other women from a genuine place of love and understanding, without judgment. I think that is so beautiful.