Staying down to heal:
I have always been “strong”—refusing to be labeled, to be a victim of dogma, to being told what I can and can’t do.
Everything about me was strong, right down to my career. As a fitness professional, everything was about strength and power. I found myself in the gym. It was the only place I ever felt like I belonged. Having suffered from eating disorders, low confidence, and esteem all of my life, the gym saved my life.
After I became a trainer and a coach, though, something shifted.
I went from doing it for me to doing it to maintain an image. And before I knew it, I was back into body image issues, disordered eating, over exercising and living in fear that if I gained any weight my business would be over.
I became a workaholic, losing myself completely. I spent most of my time living in frustration. I couldn’t understand why everything was always going wrong. I was a good person. I was doing great work. I was helping people. But it seemed as though I was always being dropped on my face, no matter how hard I worked, and I couldn’t get my footing.
I never stayed down. I didn’t know how. Sometimes, though, I’d wish I could be a quitter.
Every bit of motivation I listened to told me to get up, move forward, keep going, push through it and that’s what I was doing constantly—until I couldn’t anymore.
Over the course of a year, my mounting problems and debt became overwhelming. I was running on three hours of sleep a night, and living on caffeine and pre-workouts just to get through my day. I was falling asleep driving. My frustration and anger were constantly bubbling over. I was a mess.
Each time something major would happen, I’d brush myself off, get up, and move forward. But it was getting harder to keep going. I was exhausted. There was one final blow that I couldn’t seem to recover from, and by then, my old coping skills no longer worked. By coping skills I mean, flipping out, then quickly moving forward and pretending everything was fine. I kept trying to move forward but I kept getting pulled down.
Stubbornness and my refusal to quit are both my best and worst features. They’re great because they’ll ensure I find a way, but bad because I’ll find a way even on the wrong path. But this time, I couldn’t find a way at all. And I was forced to ask why.
When we ask different questions, we get different answers. The universe had been laying some serious smack downs and I wasn’t listening. Now it was time, this was the awakening.
I stopped trying to get up.
As hard as it was, I sold off 80 percent of my business for a fraction of the debt I owed. I had no idea how I was going to pay it off, but I knew I needed out. I needed time, space, and peace.
I wasn’t authentic and I had no business teaching people how to be healthy when I was a train wreck waiting to happen. I had to figure out what was going on with me. How had things gone so horribly wrong? I never saw my husband. The man I once passionately loved was now a stranger. I had no friends left. I was awkward, at best, even around my family.
While I was so focused on the perfect body and the perfect business, I had neglected everything else in my life that was important to me, all the things I said I worked for.
So I walked away. And I focused on healing my broken, damaged body and more importantly, my broken mind and spirit. I thought I had gone mad and I suppose I had for a time.
I spent a lot of time in meditation, healing retreats, reading, writing, connecting with myself, understanding human behavior and especially my own behavior, the subconscious mind and why I did the things I did.
Staying down was the best gift I’ve ever given myself.
For the first time in my life, I wasn’t strong or worried about how my life looked. I didn’t jump up, ignore everything and move forward. I asked new questions: Who am I? What do I want? Why am I the way I am? Why do all of these things keep happening?
I realized I was living numbly. I wasn’t alive. I was going through the motions, trying to be enough. I thought, if I were enough then I would be loved. If I was successful enough; if I made enough money; if I helped enough people—I was doing all of it so I could go back to all those people who I loved and say, “Look, I did this, can you love me now?” But what I failed to see was they loved me anyway. They didn’t love my success, or my business or my body…they loved me.
I had to do a lot of self-reflection to rid myself of the belief that I am not lovable unless _______. And it wasn’t easy going through 35 years worth of emotions, to look at all of the things that I had stuffed under the rug—all of the trauma, the hurt, the let downs, my failures (real and perceived), all the ways I perceived others had wronged me.
It wasn’t easy living in my darkness, looking at how I had isolated myself, how my attempt to not feel hurt, lonely and unloved took away all of the good feelings too. Staying down allowed me to see that we can’t turn off some emotions, like hurt, sadness, and fear, without also turning off happiness, joy, and excitement. I had spent my life trying not to feel because feeling was weak. And I had decided a long time ago I would never be weak again.
When we don’t allow ourselves to experience our emotions, they get blocked within us. We have to feel them, process them, learn the lessons and move on. When we don’t feel it, we can’t heal it.
I was justifiably jaded. I had a long list of life experiences to prove that people were untrustworthy. And I withdrew from life, pretending to not need anyone, not realizing we all have an inherent need for love and connection. I said and acted like I didn’t, but I was subconsciously searching for it.
I couldn’t have learned this if I had gotten up too quickly.
When we stay down, we find the lessons our falls are there to teach us. And when we find the courage to reach out a hand—terrified of being vulnerable, yet knowing we need to—we find our tribe, the ones who are truly there for us, just as we are, not as we think they want us to be.
Our society glorifies going it alone.
Being down taught me we’re not supposed to do it alone. I had spent my life doing it alone, proving I didn’t need anyone. We need connection, understanding, and meaning in our lives. That’s how we’ll heal the world: together.
It wasn’t in the light that I found myself, but in the darkness.
It’s not easy to be ourselves in this world. We hide behind walls and masks. We live our lives by society’s standards—not feeling or expressing those feelings, and when we do, we’re criticized and condemned and we step back a little more every time until we’ve retreated so far we don’t know who we are anymore.
Something beautiful happened when my knees hit the ground and I didn’t get up right away. I realized that all of the motivational advice I’d been listening to wasn’t talking about getting up immediately, it was talking about getting up after the lessons had been learned, after I had been broken down.
Because the lesson about why I fell is the most important one.
The lessons learned—finding myself and rebuilding from here—help me rise like the phoenix from the ashes, stronger and more powerful than ever. No masks, no walls, just me: open and worthy, simply because I exist, not because of what I can do.
Author: Tonya Whittle
Image: Lucy Maude Ellis/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman