One year ago I packed my bags and left. I met two friends by the library and we began our drive to the North Carolina LGBTQI Leadership Retreat. We listened to the Pitch Perfect soundtrack as we drove in to Efland. I don’t remember what we spoke about, but I know I didn’t mention anything that had happened the last week.
I wanted to enjoy this weekend. For one moment I wanted to set aside all the anger and fear and self-loathing and just have a good time. On Monday the healthy relationships group would begin. Maybe a week or two later I’d have my first individual session. I’d already deleted my apps. I wanted to take a break from it all. To just forget for a moment.
But who was I kidding? That wasn’t going to happen.
That first day surprised me. I smiled a lot. I laughed a lot. And the day ended without shedding a single tear. It was the first day all week I didn’t spend hours sobbing. It felt like an improvement. Maybe I was finally going to be okay.
That night we had a bonfire. We sat huddled close together in a circle, sharing things like our favorite sex positions or our safety words–you know, the kinds of things that help college kids open up. But it was all in good fun. We laughed almost continually as we moved around the circle. I couldn’t remember when I had last laughed like this.
It snowed. We went for hayrides. We had workshops and discussion groups inside.
One of these had a list of questions that we passed around, each of us taking the time to answer them before we moved on to the next. I don’t remember what the question was, but to answer it I shared what I had done. But instead of the judgment I expected, I was met by open ears and understanding answers. I was asked about PEPs, so I explained the doctor said I wasn’t high-risk enough to be considered for them. But that’s the only response I remember. In talking about it, part of me grew numb again. The rest is a blur.
That night we had a group exercise to map our well-being. The idea was to isolate our negative traits and embrace the positive elements we possess to foster personal caretaking and growth. So they spread out construction paper and colored markers and we all sat down, some of us at the same table but most of us–even then–sitting by ourselves. We just needed the markers to be in reach.
It came too easily. The darkness inside the closet melding into the darkness of this depression, broken only by a single ray of light that in the half-width of a page captured all my years at Guilford Tech before it spluttered and I ruined it with such a choice as this.
They opened the floor for sharing. I hesitated. Then decided against it.
But it didn’t matter. By then my tearless streak was already broken.
Hadn’t even made it two whole days.
I went back to homework. Back to class. Back to crying on benches in the middle of the day. The worst part was realizing it wasn’t just my relationship that had put me in such a dark place: I lost my community, my family, my friends when I moved to campus–so I held tighter to my boyfriend, the one thing I had left. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I wasn’t as mindful as I am now. As the world changed, I clung to whatever was left to get through it.
But even that realization made me hurt more.
So perhaps the worst part was really figuring out what was wrong with me. My counselor said it perfectly. He could read me in a glance and make sense of all the things I was saying, even when I couldn’t. Especially when I couldn’t. “You can’t define yourself by this one decision. You’re so much more than that.” He reminded me of all the things I had done–the service projects, the leadership roles, the classes I was taking.
“It reminds me of something Chris Rock said,” he told me. “He was talking about parents who brag about taking care of their kids, but you’re supposed to take care of your kids.”
I saw all these things I was doing as things I was supposed to do, so even though others might celebrate them as accomplishments, to me they’re just part of the bare minimum.
Good things don’t always balance out the bad, he said, but I was doing so much good to only focus on the bad. I had to forgive myself. He challenged me to forgive myself.
But forgiveness isn’t easy. I even wrote it in a post called “Midnight Music Affairs.”
So months passed.
I began to realize the things I had learned from my broken relationships and how I could move forward toward something healthy, something to celebrate. I began repeating to myself platitudes of forgiveness that repetition brought me to believe.
And then I started to smile. To genuinely smile. And I started to feel alive again. Genuinely alive. Every cell in my body, every fragment of my soul–I was alive again. Whole again.
But that seems too easy to say. And none of this was ever easy.