I took this photo using a self-timer, my camera propped on the rooftop of the car. I had taken the car for a little sightseeing, headed east into the mountains and desert outside of San Diego, in October 2007. I was intoxicated with life, at the end of an almost year long journey into rediscovering myself. And by that what I really mean is, I’d finally shed nearly 50kgs of extra weight I’d been slowly accumulating. And now, when I look at that photograph, I feel like a failure.
It was more than weight-loss. I had this deep sense of anticipation that had chased me down all year. I had lived this incredibly strict lifestyle of no alcohol, nearly no processed foods, no cheats, no treats. Black coffee was my indulgence. I had anxiously reported weight-loss results each week to my best mate and mother, slowly throwing out clothes that grew too big, but all the while I was journaling almost every day. The longer I took this physical, outward journey, the deeper inward I went also. Desires, hopes, dreams and possibility began to hang in every word. There was a sense for me that this wasn’t the end goal, this was just a means to an end, because something bigger, something wonderful was waiting at the end. I was waiting for my unveiling – an Esther moment; when what others saw and what I saw of myself, matched the woman inside me, aching to be seen.
Warning: this is deeply personal. Lesson the First: Being more beautiful doesn’t make you better at life. You might think you know that, but somewhere I’d found a belief that being more beautiful was the first step on a more fulfilling life. But as I stood on that road gazing into the future with hope and expectation – all that was waiting at the end was disappointment, a sense of failure and lower self-esteem than I had ever imagined.
Just three weeks after returning home from this trip, I entered into the darkest chapter of my life so far. It would result in leaving my dream job and 10 years of investment behind under a cloud of accusation from people who months before had been amongst my closest friends and colleagues. The short version: I lost my sense of self-esteem, purpose and value, especially to my community, my church and the Christian world. I had fought a big battle and come out the loser, and although internally my head was held high, externally I faced the eyes of judgement around every corner. I had no recourse of defense to my honour or character. I felt like a loser. And losers are failures. Being more beautiful was of no help to me at all, it was only inner fortitude and wisdom that could sustain me and I had little to rely on, with my reserves so low.
I’m about to mark the 5th anniversary of that Easter, and I’ve journeyed through the dark passages of Shadowlands several times since then. I’ve been waiting, for the new chapter, for the quiet assent of my heart and spirit to say, “Yes, we’re strong enough now – begin again.” Now, my old dreams and my new dreams are jostling for attention in my secret places. Everyone’s been waiting in fact, and I almost feel some people have given up on seeing me emerge again.
Lesson the Second: Everything is connected, even the disconnected. One of the reasons I feel like such a failure when I see that photo, is because after 8 months of maintaining that weight-loss, I started to put it back on. No matter how much exercise I was doing, or repeated attempts to maintain a strict food regime, steadily it crept on. I comforted myself through dark days with bottles of wine and scotch I’d long since had to put aside. I gathered friends around me by endlessly catering indulgent dinners. I barely slept; driven by an inconsolable insomnia and thrived on adrenaline and cortisol flooding my body. Whatever it took to get through the days. Slowly I crept out of it, only sliding back in momentarily as I faced other challenges. And whilst I’ve maintained (within 3-5kgs) the same weight for over 2 years, I haven’t been able to do more than that. My disconnected heart and spirit haven’t been brave enough to face the fear of failure again, in any capacity, and everything is connected. My chaotic exterior life only mirrors the internal chaos, without some internal peace at last – nothing physical can transpire.
Lesson the Third: The first minute you raise your hopeful eyes, your Dragons will stir to stare you down. I tend to stretch out my hands too easily, my palms full of treasure too ripe for the taking. I’m constantly hoping to find people who will share my regard for it. But because from time to time, I’ve let my pearls and rubies fall into unworthy hands, or they’ve been snatched away – as soon as I stretch out my hands, I stand poised for recall; full of expectation that I’ll left empty-handed again. So I dance between uncertainty, cynicism and disappointment. As soon as I begin to think hopefully about the future, I’m hit with a wave of cynicism. The Enemy shoots me down with firebombs of failure, heaping burning coals on my existing shame. And don’t get me wrong, when I say the Enemy – I mean, myself. I am the antagonist and protagonist of this story, the paradox of my very own Catch-22. By the time I gather my courage to step out again, I’ve already constructed the arguments against myself.
Whilst I’m talking about these things in terms of weight-loss and the pursuit of beauty (let’s not fool ourselves, I AM healthy, this is my vanity calling…), it transpires across all things. Every facet of my life falls prey to the same cat & mouse game, where Failure is the cat and I’m the mouse.
The Revelation: I was at training (I train 4 times a week) the other day and had a massively emotional response when my trainer asked me about my weight/size goals, considering a revised training schedule and nearly no travel coming up to disrupt my routines. I was flooded with a sense of futility, disappointment and hopelessness. In the middle of sweating my way through an intense session, I felt like a failure even talking about the possibility of losing weight again.
Here are all the ways (ok, most) I feel like a failure:
- I lost my sense of purpose and my dream job. I feel like everyone thinks it was my fault, and I feel like a failure at creativity & events.
- Being skinnier didn’t help me find love, I’m still singularly single at 33. I feel like a failure at intimate relationships.
- My cynicism about a number of things is at an all time high. My sense of hopelessness makes me feel like a failure at Hope, a defining characteristic of the spiritual path I’ve chosen.
- So, I feel like a failure at faith.
- I feel like I’ve failed my parents by not being all that they might have hoped for me.
- I feel like I’ve failed God, who maybe did (see how I’ve lost my sense of hope?) have really big plans for me in 2008 but somehow I messed it up?
- If this is it, the summation of what my life will be – I feel disappointed and unsatisfied. So I also feel like I’m a failure at being content.
- Also, truth be told – I feel like a failure at blogging, because most of the time I’m too afraid to be super-honest in this platform.
Where to from here?I don’t have a single solitary idea. But I do have a few things I know that might help me on the way.
- This weightloss/body image/sense of self has become a bit of a Dragon, that needs to be slayed.
- In fact, there are a few Dragons that need to be slayed, but this is the first one – the fear of failure.
- Once upon a time, I believed that something in me was worthy of being revealed to the rest of the world and I thought that being more acceptable in the world’s eyes was just the gateway to being seen for who I was. I want to get back there again.
- There are treasures deep within and I don’t want to be afraid of reaching out towards people with my hands full anymore.
I think the best is yet to be. The last 5 years have taught me more in the shadow side of the mountain than I could have believed possible. I’ve learned new ways of wisdom on top of new ways of wisdom I was carrying before. I’ve been storing up treasures this whole time. It’s time for new hopes, new dreams and old dreams to finally see the light of day again, and for me to be brave enough to own them.