When I was a child I always had a bunch of stuffed animals on my bed, but I only felt an intimate emotional connection with one or two of them.
Every night at bedtime, I would hug my favorite stuffed animal or whisper “I love you,” and then be struck by extraordinary heartbreak and guilt, imagining that the other stuffed animals on my bed might have noticed or hear me, and that they would know they weren’t as loved.
So I put on a show.
At 5 years old, I remember telling each stuffed animal that I loved them, keeping my voice even and hugging them identically, right down the line. I was careful to show love even to the ones I didn’t like– and the fact that I refused to get rid of those in the first place tells you a lot about how responsible I felt to them. After I had put on a show of loving everyone equally, I would silently squeeze my favorite animal and send it telepathic messages that I loved it best.
I’ve always been highly sensitive this way.
It’s more than just being sensitive though, actually. There’s something else there, that something I’ve historically struggled to put words to.
It’s like the lines between fantasy and reality have always been very blurry for me. I’ve always felt extraordinary pain about concepts that never even seemed to cross other people’s minds. The best way I can put it is that I was born with a room in my mind, where massive amounts of empathy and imagination collide.
This room has sometimes given me access to the greatest bliss and euphoria of my life. It’s the birthplace of my creativity, my humanity, and my spirituality, my most important ideas are usually born here.
This room is cool and dry and dim, like a wine cellar. It’s set apart from the rest of my mind– not totally isolated and separate, just down a quiet hallway. I sometimes wonder if we all have this hallways in our minds, but other people don’t notice. All I know is that I went exploring when I was very young, and I found it.
It’s hard to explain exactly what happens here in this room, but the way I interacted with my stuffed animals is part of it.
When my parents tucked me in at night, they would pull the blankets up and tuck my feet in and pat down the blankets around me, before rubbing my back until I was very sleepy. Then, when they left the room, I would wait as long as I could bear it before moving.
I fought to kick the blanket off my feet until they were sweating, and I didn’t roll or twist until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I hated ruining the perfect tuck-in job they had done; my heart broke every time I moved. I remember hoping desperately that they didn’t find out and feel bad.
This same part of my mind is responsible for making me aware of every alternative life choice I could have made, every child I could have had, every partner I could have stayed with, and every adventure I could have taken. Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming.
I used to be both smug and paralyzed by the number of options I felt I had in life– I can be anything I want! I was constantly trying on futures in my mind, to see how they fit. A famous actress? A courtesan? A lawyer? A hippie living in a nudist commune?
They all fit.
5 years ago when I made the decision to build a fitness website and commit myself to that path, I couldn’t figure out why I was soooo upset. I loved what I was doing, and I had the chance to make a positive impact in the world! So why couldn’t I stop crying??
Then one night a dam of unbearable grief burst forth.
“I’m never going to be a sheep farmer in New Zealand!” I wept to my boyfriend at the time.
He listened, utterly baffled, before gently asking if I had ever planned on being a sheep farmer in New Zealand. I hadn’t, of course. But I had often consoled myself with the option, whenever life in NYC got too stressful or hard, and it was the death of that fantasy I was mourning.
By choosing the reality of being a “fitness person” I was choosing not to pursue one of the other hundreds of “pet futures” I had been nurturing for over two decades. One by one I was murdering them, and I didn’t know if I could survive it. Each future self knew she wasn’t chosen, and she knew that I had betrayed her; that it had been my knife in her back.
Goodbye, famous actress who inspires millions with her breathtaking performances.
Goodbye, courtesan in a bygone era who uses her sexual power to fight the system from inside.
Goodbye lawyer. Goodbye doctor. Goodbye sheep farmer.
For what it’s worth, the symbolic mass murder of these potential future selves turned out to be one of the most painful– and most significant– losses of my life.
This loss was about me choosing reality over fantasy. This loss enabled me to move forward into the person I needed to become.
Not everyone has thoughts like this, I know.
I once asked my mom, as an adult, if she ever thought about the children she didn’t have. In twenty years of marriage to my dad, she only had three children. I can imagine what another one would have looked like– what unique combination of our hair, our features, our personalities another one would have had. I can imagine what my sister would have been like, if I’d had one.
“It’s trippy,” I said, “but I can imagine them all. They’re real to me, and sometimes it completely breaks my heart that I’ll never get to actually meet them. Does it break yours?”
No, she responded. She had never thought about it before, and she told me that being inside my head sounded exhausting.
As you can imagine, I’ve had similar thoughts regarding my own potential children– the ones that could have existed but didn’t, and the ones that will exist but don’t yet. This is one of the most painful parts of my recent breakup, actually. I had been meeting our future children for over a year and a half. I knew them, I loved them deeply, and now they are gone forever. Their loss has been nothing short of crippling.
And again, not everyone has thoughts like this.
I used to think this part of my brain was a problem, and I diagnosed myself with all manner of things: depression, anxiety, paranoia, narcissism, schizophrenia, magical superpowers. When I was 10 years old, I told my best friend I either had OCD or I was a witch, because I trace things to calm down, and it genuinely made me feel like I was re-organizing the universe.
The most important self-acceptance and self-love I’ve ever done wasn’t about my body– it was about this part of my mind.
I wish I had been able to read this essay when I was child. I wish I had known it was ok to be this imaginative and sensitive, to hold as much pain as I hold inside me, to think about what I think about, and to feel as much as I feel.
That’s why, despite this topic feeling significantly more personal and intimate than writing about body or sex stuff, I’m sharing it with you– because self-acceptance has to include our minds.
Yours in empathy and magic,
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