Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dangerous Beauty

How amazing it is to feel alive! And, yet, many of my breathing hours have been squandered trying to numb how intense and overwhelming that very aliveness can seem. I have definitely developed ways to shut down or distract myself from experiencing the fullness of living.

It wasn't always like that. 

I have a picture of my two-year old self running with reckless abandon across some grass, my pink dress with white ruffles bouncing like my dark brown wavy hair. I can hear the precious giggles escaping that little girl's mouth-wide-open. And all the other pictures of me as a child exude an ebullience that only absolute aliveness can yield. In all those pictures, there is a sense of total fearlessness and trust in life. Now this could just be my romanticizing of myself as a child. Despite what "they" say, hindsight is not always 20/20. But this is to the best of my recollection.

I distinctly remember an experience when I was eight years old that seemed to bring that innocent freedom of pure aliveness to all but a screeching halt for me. It is a moment in my human story where I can see an enormous shift in how I experienced the world around me. I promise that the following disturbing story has a progressive point in my sharing of it.

A little girl the same age as me had just moved into our neighborhood with her family. Shortly after arriving, another one of our neighbors offered to take her fishing with his boys. She never came back.

I recall the urgency of blades slicing through air as a helicopter hovered in a field near our house, the spotlight glancing off my bedroom window, the police knocking on our door, my dad joining a search party to look for her. Although the reality of details and the order in which they happened feel hazy, what is not hazy is knowing how aware I was at the time of the events that followed.

The little girl, eight years old like me, was discovered chained to the bottom of a creek, having been raped and brutally murdered. And I was fully aware of this despite no recollection of hearing my parents discuss it. The man who had taken her fishing, and would end up being convicted for her rape and murder, was actually on the search party until his testimony did not match up with that of his sons.

A few summers ago, during a rough time, memories and dreams of this time in my life came back with ferocity. It felt like reliving those months again. In my work to reconcile this blindsiding internal turbulence, I listened and prayed to see what this might be here to teach me. I also called my dad and asked him what it was like to be the father of 3 young girls in the midst of that whole situation. His response was that it seemed like an isolated case. The man had just been released from prison, was caught and returned to prison. But one of the things I'd had wrong was my age at the time. I remembered being five. Dad set me straight, "No, you were the same age as the little girl. I remember that clearly." (We would later move to East Bay San Francisco and be faced with a rash of kidnappings and murders of beautiful young girls, some that were our playmates and classmates doing things as "normal" as going to our local grocery store - which is when my parents limited our out-of-home time.)

It was in that moment that a new awareness struck me: If this had happened when I was 8, then it occurred in the simultaneity of another childhood memory that had long confounded me. This was the exact same age when I began hoarding, hiding and binging on sugar. Eight year old fingers sneakily snatching bits and pieces from the baking cupboard and tucking them away in my pink Care Bears backpack with Friendship Bear and Sunshine Bear smiling up at me from the flap.

With this connection drawn, a freeing, cleansing compassion washed over me. I had spent years believing that I was inherently flawed, broken, not spiritual enough, too lazy, chubby, lacking in self-control and a million other self-defeating notions that I had entertained over the 24 years since this "habit" had mysteriously taken root in my experience.

But this new information set me free. It freed me to hold in my mind's eye that terrified little eight-year old who had realized a few simple and aggressive human beliefs: children are vulnerable, there is much danger to fear, even adults who are fathers can't be trusted. That is a lot to take on as a kiddo.  But the most impacting belief I carried out of that moment was this: IT IS DANGEROUS TO BE BEAUTIFUL.

And yet, my bubbling, joyful, happy self was the one that everyone loved, including me. So I discovered and adopted a very simple, readily available coping mechanism - binging. When I would eat mass amounts of sugar, a sense of ease would come over me - numbing uncomfortable feelings and nagging fears while at the same time creating a lift in my mood that made me really fun to be around. Brilliant!

The challenge was that over time, I needed more and more for the numbing to take effect. And this required being mentally consumed, always aware of where the next "fix" might be, and assuring that I'd have access to food in order to be okay around others. Talk about distraction and feeling less-than-alive!

In addition, it meant being the "chubby girl" - always feeling unattractive, slow and athletically incompetent.
But some part of me knew that it was dangerous to be pretty, so the padding was protection. And no matter what I did to lose weight, nothing would send me into a tailspin quicker than someone complimenting me on how good I looked or how much weight I'd lost. Right back into the blinding binging and weight-gain - but I did not understand the "why" of this. It was just an undeniable behavior I could not think my way out of.

Living such a socially-driven life did not help. In my mind, it was absolutely essential that I was "up" when around others for fear that I was not otherwise worthy of their friendship or company, in and of myself. I was "always-happy-Heather."

Further on down the line, early in my adulthood, this addiction was no longer enough to keep me okay, and resulted in an excessive need for sexual attention, and some risky behaviors. Oddly enough, this did not surface until adulthood because I had a series of other experiences with boys who crossed boundaries violating my trust and upping my hypersensitivity that no man could be trusted. But when I turned eighteen, something switched inside of me that replaced that fear with an unhealthy drive for sexual validation. It seemed that I could not be okay without the help of things to numb the fear and depression that constantly threatened to consume me. And all this in the midst of being a very spiritually-minded young person; a paradox that took years for me to reconcile the feeling that I was a "fraud."
From this long and winding journey, the capacity I have developed more than any other is a deep sense of compassion for all people, that each of us is doing the best with what we have and what we currently understand. This is not to dismiss or condone any sort of oppressive or violent behavior, but more a call to how we need each other to grow and develop, to learn from and teach, and to hold us accountable when we lose our way and forget who we are.

It is not dangerous to be beautiful. And no amount of padding can truly hide my beauty, or that of anyone else. Nor can it protect me anymore than a thin body can. And it is not better to be numb than to feel the full breadth and intensity of what it is to be expressing Life.

This is the freedom I have been birthed into through the past 7 years of this journey that now finds me here, slowly releasing the 50 pounds of padding consciously amassed over the past nine months. Feeling the aliveness of the sublime sunshine kissing my cheeks as I play in this winter wonderland is something I never want to dim or dull. Or any other more mundane, or even uncomfortable experiences.

As part of this journey, as I return to a lighter body that finds greater ease in doing what it loves, I see how all of the seeming tragedy in my life has been for the learning. Despite that, somewhere deep inside me still cringes when someone tells me how beautiful they think I am, and it often feels threatening to my ego somehow. But I can see when this is operating and am able to tenderly love myself rather than reach for some external numbing agent.

I am still learning to trust in divine Love to be the Source of my absolute safety, Love that continually whispers in my heart that who I am most deeply cannot be touched or destroyed by any one else or their misguided actions. Ever. Period.

As the marbled blue-gray sky outside my window begins to dim, I am drawn away from this story and into the aliveness of icy air and movement of limb and heart. This untouchable beauty, ever safe and never merely "skin deep," is the outcome of our willingness to experience total aliveness - the courage to walk each step of our lives unfettered by numbness, choosing breath and presence, wide open and available to work through, grow through, play through, love through, be loved through and dance through whatever crosses our path.