Letting myself out of the small box I’d been cramming myself into for so long feels more painful than I expected.
It’s like thawing after frostbite. At some point, you know the numbness isn’t working for you, in fact, it’s hurting you. And as you begin to thaw, as blood begins to rush back into your wrists and hands, your arms tingle. It feels exciting, even hopeful. But by the time the blood reaches your fingers, the tingling turns to stabbing pain. It makes you wonder if choosing to feel again was the right decision. The pain feels like it’s never going to go away. But it does, eventually, and you can turn your efforts from enduring the transition to rebuilding dexterity and finding new ways to use your fully innervated self.
I think I’m right at that point where the stabbing pain is still happening sometimes, but most of the time I can imagine what it would be like to regain full embodiment again and I can see that these feelings won’t last forever. I need to believe that, because the feelings of loneliness and isolation can be crushing.
Choosing to feel means accepting that the way people see me and relate to me is going to change. Some will stick around, others will leave. And I don’t fault them. I want the freedom to go where one feels they can be their best selves for everyone, even if that means temporary misunderstanding or separation. And in the meantime, I find things here and there that lift me up and remind me to stay hopeful. In books, videos, and songs, the hope we all long for is expressed all around us, through all of our beautiful, simultaneously broken and whole, humanity.
Like this song from the musical Dear Evan Hansen:
Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
Like you could fall, and no one would hear?
Well, let that lonely feeling wash away
Maybe there’s a reason to believe you’ll be okay
‘Cause when you don’t feel strong enough to stand
You can reach, reach out your hand
And oh, someone will coming running
And I know, they’ll take you home…
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you’re broken on the ground
You will be found
So let the sun come streaming in
‘Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
Lift your head and look around
You will be found
I put myself in a neat and tidy box because I was tired of feeling like I was so different from everyone around me. And somewhere along the line the Universe whispered to me through experience after experience that being something other than who God created me to be wasn’t necessary. I felt acceptance and belonging on a level I’d never felt before. I felt called to something else, something that fit me better. Truth that set me free.
As I transition into this new way of being, I’m tossed around a bit between seeing what lies ahead for me and being sad to let go of where I’ve been. I often would rather reshape my old boxes than accept that I’m being called to leave them behind, especially when it feels like I’m walking alone.
Glennon Doyle, in her book Untamed, told a story that hit me hard:
Two summers ago, my wife and I took our daughters to the zoo. As we walked the grounds, we saw a sign advertising the park’s big event: the Cheetah Run. We headed toward the families scouting out their viewing spots and found an empty stretch along the route. Our youngest, Amma, hopped up on my wife’s shoulders for a better view.
A peppy blond zookeeper in a khaki vest appeared. She held a megaphone and the leash of a yellow Labrador retriever. I was confused. I don’t know much about animals, but if she tried to convince my kids that this dog was a cheetah, I was getting a Cheetah Run refund.
She began, “Welcome, everybody! You are about to meet our resident cheetah, Tabitha. Do you think this is Tabitha?”
“Nooooo!” the kids yelled.
“This sweet Labrador is Minnie, Tabitha’s best friend. We introduced them when Tabitha was a baby cheetah, and we raised Minnie alongside Tabitha to help tame her. Whatever Minnie does, Tabitha wants to do.”
The zookeeper motioned toward a parked jeep behind her. A pink stuffed bunny was tied to the tailgate with a fraying rope.
She asked, “Who has a Labrador at home?”
Little hands shot into the air.
“Whose Lab loves to play chase?”
“Mine!” the kids shouted.
“Well, Minnie loves to chase this bunny! So first, Minnie will do the Cheetah Run while Tabitha watches to remember how it’s done. Then we’ll count down, I’ll open Tabitha’s cage, and she’ll take off. At the end of the route, just a hundred meters that way, there will be a delicious steak waiting for Tabitha.”
The zookeeper uncovered Tabitha’s cage and walked Minnie, eager and panting, to the starting line. She signaled to the jeep, and it took off. She released Minnie’s leash, and we all watched a yellow Lab joyfully chase a dirty pink bunny. The kids applauded earnestly. The adults wiped sweat from their foreheads.
Finally it was time for Tabitha’s big moment. We counted down in unison: “Five, four, three, two, one . . .” The zookeeper slid open the cage door, and the bunny took off once again. Tabitha bolted out, laser focused on the bunny, a spotted blur. She crossed the finish line within seconds. The zookeeper whistled and threw her a steak. Tabitha pinned it to the ground with her oven-mitt paws, hunkered down in the dirt, and chewed while the crowd clapped.
I didn’t clap. I felt queasy. The taming of Tabitha felt . . . familiar.
I watched Tabitha gnawing that steak in the zoo dirt and thought: Day after day this wild animal chases dirty pink bunnies down the well-worn, narrow path they cleared for her. Never looking left or right. Never catching that damn bunny, settling instead for a store-bought steak and the distracted approval of sweaty strangers. Obeying the zookeeper’s every command, just like Minnie, the Lab she’s been trained to believe she is. Unaware that if she remembered her wildness— just for a moment—she could tear those zookeepers to shreds.
When Tabitha finished her steak, the zookeeper opened a gate that led to a small fenced field. Tabitha walked through and the gate closed behind her. The zookeeper picked up her megaphone again and asked for questions. A young girl, maybe nine years old, raised her hand and asked, “Isn’t Tabitha sad? Doesn’t she miss the wild?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” the zookeeper said. “Can you ask that again?”
The child’s mother said, louder, “She wants to know if Tabitha misses the wild.”
The zookeeper smiled and said, “No. Tabitha was born here. She doesn’t know any different. She’s never even seen the wild. This is a good life for Tabitha. She’s much safer here than she would be out in the wild.”
While the zookeeper began sharing facts about cheetahs born into captivity, my older daughter, Tish, nudged me and pointed to Tabitha. There, in that field, away from Minnie and the zookeepers, Tabitha’s posture had changed. Her head was high, and she was stalking the periphery, tracing the boundaries the fence created. Back and forth, back and forth, stopping only to stare somewhere beyond the fence. It was like she was remembering something. She looked regal. And a little scary.
Tish whispered to me, “Mommy. She turned wild again.”
I nodded at Tish and kept my eyes on Tabitha as she stalked. I wished I could ask her, “What’s happening inside you right now?”
I knew what she’d tell me. She’d say, “Something’s off about my life. I feel restless and frustrated. I have this hunch that everything was supposed to be more beautiful than this. I imagine fenceless, wide-open savannas. I want to run and hunt and kill. I want to sleep under an ink-black, silent sky filled with stars. It’s all so real I can taste it.”
Then she’d look back at the cage, the only home she’s ever known. She’d look at the smiling zookeepers, the bored spectators, and her panting, bouncing, begging best friend, the Lab.
She’d sigh and say, “I should be grateful. I have a good enough life here. It’s crazy to long for what doesn’t even exist.”
Tabitha. You are not crazy.
You are a goddamn cheetah.
So, new beliefs take shape. Beliefs that sustain me, give me hope, stretch me into something bigger, and make space for all of it. I’m not going to try to figure out the mystery, I’m just going to live in it, because I have this hunch that everything was supposed to be more beautiful than this, and it’s so real I can taste it.
I’m not crazy. What once was lost is found. No more seeking approval from strangers. No more fences. No more fear of being alone. I’ll trust the bigness and find belonging. New bottles for new wine.
There are just four beliefs that work for me right now…
The Universe is kind and on our side.
Humans are basically decent and drawn towards love.
Life is messy and absurd and beautiful.
Everything is going to be okay.
And that’s enough. It’s more than enough. It sustains hope, allows mystery, and feels comfortable to me. I’m beginning to feel myself again. And I hope I’ll remember to believe.