So there's this game. I know it all too well, and you're likely to have played it a few times too. It's called I'm Good Thanks.
How it works is - someone poses the question, "How are you?" or... "How have you been?" or... "You sure you're okay?" And you reply - "I'm good thanks." The trick is - you need to answer without flinching. Without any detectable signs of discomfort. Even throw a smile in there, just to solidify your position as the person who charges into daily routines with brimming confidence, ready to take on whatever the universe deems necessary to throw at them. (I once thought these people were annoying. Now I realise they're mostly extinct).
Anyway, I'm Good Thanks isn't all that fun. Particularly when the game is over.
I've played it, hundreds of times. Practice, practice, practice. I reached expert level.
Firstly, I'd like to clarify that I am a genuinely happy person. I love my family, my friends, my boyfriend, my creative outlets. They contribute to an existence I wouldn't trade for anything.
But we can't always predict what will impact us, or at what time certain events will rear their ugly heads and leave us weak.
Here's a story about my first love - not to get all soppy and weird, only to ground my further reflections.
I met a boy during high school. For the sake of confidentiality, we'll call him Harry.
Harry was a sweetheart. He pursued me with a keenness I had never known, left roses in my locker, slid notes into my books, spent lunch with me every day of the week for months on end, and executed every romantic gesture possible when you're fifteen without a car or money.
He left me giddy. Smiling. Constantly smiling. I'd 'liked' boys before, boys who had even on occasion, bestowed upon me the all-elusive yet considerably desirable, "I like you too"- but this was different. This was a boy who had decided, entirely on his own, that time spent with me was better than time spent with anyone else.
It was a new feeling. It was young love. But love, just the same.
Six months in, Harry did a bad thing. And by bad, I mean catastrophically bad, like, earth-shattering, heart-crumpling, knee-wobbling bad.
As we sat side by side outside school, I recall his mouth turning downward, the way it did when he was upset. Then the teary, bloodshot eyes. I recall jumping to the conclusion, as though I had somehow predicted it, like I knew something that became too good too soon must precede an injection of harsh reality.
"I lost something," he said, right before clever, fatalistic me, chimed in with, "Your virginity?" Which was met with sad, defeated eyes, rather than the teasing laughter I'd anticipated.
It's funny, looking back. I hadn't even known of Harry's existence till a year before. I'd lived fourteen years of my life without him, and they were happy, and perfect, and packed full of exciting travels and oodles of belly laughter.
Yet suddenly, in this narrow sliver of time, sitting on rough concrete with crossed legs, staring into the eyes of a boy who decided I wasn't enough - something happened. A tweak. A crack. An abrupt detour. It was as though I had been skipping along a clean pathway only to be flung sideways into an overgrown maze of trees and thickets and total confusion.
What happened next was a steady cycle of - a decision to forgive, broken trust, a decision to forgive, broken trust ... and on, and on, it went.
I lost a few things in the shrubbery, whilst trying to pave my new path. My worth, my value, my confidence, my ability to trust. I spent the following seven years searching for these things, finding them and then losing them in the same breath.
I've often wondered why it affected me this way. The rage - over how one boy could possibly wield the power to damage my future despite his lack of presence in it. The heartache - enduring the manipulation of wholehearted forgiveness and love, and then expecting the manipulation forevermore, warranted or not.
I treated each new relationship as an opportunity to redeem my distorted perceptions of romance, all the while expelling my rage and hurt at people who didn't deserve it. I made wrong decisions. I disappointed. I searched and searched for an inner peace that seemed impossible to attain.
There is no perfect relationship, but the stings were always more painful for me. I overreacted to actions I perceived as let-downs, that were in reality, fairly normal cogs in a working relationship. And then any real let down wasn't just upsetting, it was excruciating.
What I needed to address was an internal chip in my being. A mark made by careless hands, at a time when love was a notion I was only beginning to comprehend.
This year brought on change for me. I decided I'd had enough with not feeling enough.
After a series of in-depth discussions with a beautiful, select few, I began to learn that my torment - the torment so often made light of with dismissive labels like 'clingy' or 'jealous' - actually stemmed from a deep-rooted anxiety. For seven years I'd been fiddling with gaping wounds and doing my best to manage mild panic attacks (which were sometimes not so mild).
Change needed to be a conscious decision. With the suggestions of a close family friend/mentor figure (who is also a psychologist specialising in child trauma), I began by bringing awareness to my thought patterns. I identified the routes that caused me most damage, those which trapped me, and those which had me spiralling into an all too familiar darkness.
I was told to hit the pause button. To see that it's my anxiety driving the car, and take control of the wheel myself.
I was told that anxiety responses are instinctual, that panic is triggered along the neural pathways that are most often travelled. Thanks to Harry, these pathways were squeaky clean, wide and direct. Cheers, mate.
It was now up to me to slash through a rational, calm and overgrown path void of insecurity and hurt. I was told that it would, over time, get easier for my thoughts to move in this direction.
I was told that when I feel the familiar tug of negativity, I should focus my attention on something positive. A small act even, that brings me even the slightest joy. A favourite song, a cup of tea, a chat with a friend.
And finally, I was told to see my value. To understand that what I bring to the table is going to be different to the person sitting beside me, but to know that that's okay. I am still so much, as I am.
I have been actively believing all this, putting it into action. And these ideas, these thought patterns, they still require concerted effort. The occasional opportunity arises to test my newfound emotional awareness, and I sift the situation through a different process now, rather than my previous mode of despair and panic. I affirm myself, I step back, I consider what is warranted and what is not, and then I come to a resolution. It's not always easy, but my mentor was right, it gets easier.
A few seconds ago, while I was writing, my friend sent me a quote from a book she's reading. Freakily fateful timing. It goes:
"Not everyone has to be the Chosen One. Not everyone has to be the guy [or girl] who saves the world. Most people just have to live their lives the best they can, doing things that are great for them, having great friends, trying to make their lives better, loving people properly. All the while knowing that the world makes no sense but trying to find a way to be happy anyway."
- Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here
I was looking for a spectacular transformation. A man to sweep me away and never let me down. A future void of disappointment and hurt. I was after a utopia that just doesn't exist.
What does exist, in a very real sense, is me; growing each day, freeing myself from isolating tendencies and suffocating voices.
For me, the definition of love was a mess right from the beginning. But now, I have a beautiful man, committed to intertwining my happiness with his for a lasting future. That's real, too. And, as that beautiful quote goes, I choose to be committed to 'loving him properly'.
Little by little, I stitch my wounds by my own hand. They reopen, all the bloody time, but I persist. And now they stay closed for longer.
The point is, my first love wasn't Harry. And it wasn't even the boy after Harry. Or the boy after that. It was me.
I once considered the phrase 'loving yourself' to be lame and pretentious, but now I get it. It's an essential mantra for lasting happiness.
When we treat ourselves with the love, respect, forgiveness and kindness we deserve, we mould a new internal shield, a resilience to inevitable disappointment and meaningless comparison. We become fearless and bold. We walk with pride and don't give anyone the power to diminish it.