Lion Heart

Painful experiences cut deep and they don’t heal themselves. Sometimes you have to initiate the healing process with the choice to forgive.

I often speak of wounds — painful experiences that leave deep, unseen emotional scars. Sometimes these wounds come in the form of abandonment, loss or hurt words, imprints that can last a lifetime. This is my account of rising from the ashes of pain by finding a way to forgive by offering compassion to the one who didn’t deserve it, but ultimately needed it.

Bones break… but they can grow back stronger.

The first time my heart broke, I was 4-years-old. My father left, and I never saw him again. This first, in a long line of many heartbreaks, was not lightning fast. Instead, it lingered, settling in my psyche, dictating my thoughts, beliefs, and behavior. In many ways, I grew up different, faster even. Having experienced early on the burden of divorce, I knew more and saw things I shouldn’t have, given my impressionable age.

I embraced our new family roles; at first, firmly staking claim as the problem child, while eventually moving on to caretaker, and then finally the lost one. Having been branded a wounded animal, I carried shame. I placated others. I embodied a ‘tough girl’ persona, often using the expression, “I don’t care” to brush my feelings aside. If anybody had taken the time to explore what was underneath my indifferent attitude, I would have gratefully given in, as my exterior was holding on by a string.

Always feeling like I was on the brink of falling apart, I was completely unprepared for the level of pain that exists after experiencing a significant loss. “That girl has no father,” they would whisper. One time, I remember a friend’s parents asking for our extra tickets to high school graduation because we were deemed ‘unworthy’ simply because there was no father-figure present. Like somehow that devalued our family unit. As a result of this stigma, I fought more internally, rallied emotionally, and carved out a nearly indestructible sense of resiliency reserved for the tribe of children across the world being raised by a single-parent.

But I didn’t grow up always feeling less than. In fact, what I perceived to be true of myself, the feelings of unworthiness, started out small, gradually increasing as the years went on. The real pain was imminent though, reserved for special moments — school functions, dance recitals, birthdays — all brutal reminders of what had been lost. My mama, a true warrior, did her best. Graciously overcompensating amid the obvious missing second half of a parental unit. It couldn’t have been easy, but she showed up. Without complaint.

My story is not unique; but it is mine. It has shaped who I am. Although I don’t recall every detail, some aspects of my childhood may be more anecdotal than anything else, yet the feelings are real. What remains clear as day are the experiences, the let downs, the loss, rejection and an unconscious knowing that I had been significantly hurt. And then, after what felt like a lifetime spent fighting, I surrendered.

My aha moment came in the form of my teacher, a former boyfriend. After breaking up and finding myself stuck in a rotating cycle of anger and sadness, unable to emotionally untether myself from this person, I sought help in the form of therapy. Always incredibly self-aware, I recognized that the intensity of these feelings was somehow related to that first big loss. No longer willing to sacrifice my personal well-being and happiness, I took suggestions, read every self-help book, and attended support groups in order to get to the crux of the issue.

What came to be was a miraculous understanding that:

1) I had identified as a victim for far too long; and 2) my sense of worth was intertwined with a man who didn’t know how to be a father.

At first, this information was empowering as it somehow released me from fault. But as I progressed down this road, I began to feel overwhelmed by it all. So I stopped therapy before I was ready. I was unprepared for what transpired: anger in its purest form.

I started projecting all that pent up hurt onto others (my mother took the brunt of it), judging and blaming and justifying my behavior. What I couldn’t articulate when I was younger came out in cruel, painful ways. I repeated dysfunctional relationship patterns, never taking responsibility for my behavior. I allowed people to mistreat me and I mistreated others. I lashed out. I withheld love. I engaged in self-harming behavior. I abused my body with drugs and alcohol. I tried controlling my feelings by first starving myself, then bingeing and purging. It was a vicious, yet necessary, experience because it brought me into recovery.

It wasn’t until I hit my emotional bottom that I finally recognized that it was up to me to find forgiveness and begin to heal. No longer able to cope, I knew I needed to commit all of myself if I was ever going to live a life of happiness. And that is what I did.

We are not born with a road map of how to handle life’s biggest challenges. This is something only learned through our experiences. Once I let go of my shame and embraced the feelings I was carrying, I was able to view my first heartbreak through a lens of empathy. Was what happened painful? Yes. Unfortunate? Very. However, I now know that my sense of worth is not reflective of someone else’s limitations and that my true power lies in acceptance.

I’ve seen what I am capable of when faced with adversity. I’ve also come to realize that I am enough, just as I am: a true lion heart.