By Rachel Dowda
I don't have a Sam's club card, and sometimes, if I want to go, I'll show up to the warehouse, find a family and squeeze myself in by walking closely and confidently behind them, pretending to be a part. It always works and I end up inside, wandering around aisles of twenty-four packs of toilet paper and free samples. I feel like I do this a lot in my life, except I'm not pretending to be a part of families, but actually welcomed into their lives of eating and loving and laughing.
Three summers ago, after dinner with my tribe, my friend Trent encouraged all of us to jump into the lake. It was pitch black and freezing and the waves towered over our heads like black ghosts whipping back and forth. I struggled staying above the water at times. My bones were in shock over the temperature and my friend Meredith was making me laugh, and in the midst of panic and sputtering I became overwhelmed at where I was. Just a few years before, I was content with hiding in my room, which was lovingly nicknamed "the cave", contrasting drastically with my current condition: freezing, out of breath, and feeling fully loved in the midst of an ice cold lake, under thousands of stars, treading water alongside people who loved me and genuinely wanted to know me. I never want to tread water alone again.
I think about the magic in letting myself be loved by others, and that love shoots life through all of my tree limbs, like instant photosynthesis; receiving divine light, roots planted deep, not just a lone tree but a forest; a tribe of trees rooted and gazing upward. I grew up in the suburbs, alone in a crowded concrete maze of houses, but now I am part of a forest, surrounded by trees that are cheering for me, willing my limbs to grow longer, healing me by placing their palms on my bark, and causing my tree rings to multiply.
If I could pick the biggest change I've experienced in my life-journey towards wholeness, it would be that I've fallen in love with people. Me falling in love with people feels just as miraculous as being able to wake up and breathe every day. I used to believe there was power in independence; that I was strong and spiritual when I isolated myself, but it was just an act to hide hurt, to hide the fact that I failed at making and keeping relationships, that I was afraid of being known.
In 2013 I moved to Alabama and lived with twenty other people on a beautiful vineyard, while attending a spiritual school there. Slowly throughout that season, I fell in love with people. I didn't have a drastic awakening, but simply observed some of the most loving people in action, and as they moved and breathed out love, the attraction for that kind of lifestyle became overwhelming. I became jealous of their ability to pursue and know people despite behaviors I found inexcusable and irritating. I slowly opened myself up. I was taught how to live in community.
Two years later I found myself living on a beautiful lake, working at the ministry that opened me up and taught me to love people. However, while working there, I became silent again. I stopped letting people in, even though I knew they could heal me. I went back to keeping things inside, because vulnerability puts you at risk for hurt, even though I knew that opening my mouth would begin the process of healing, to be wrapped in safe arms.
I don't really know what was going on inside of me, except problems from the previous fall had followed me to Alabama, like unwanted visitors. I kept stuffing anxiety, my ocd, and an eating disorder deep into my pockets, but they kept falling out one by one until I couldn’t stop tripping over them. Rocks were piled up on my heart and my tree limbs had curled inward, keeping relationships to formalities. I would long to have someone sit and listen to me, to share my burden, but instead I would punish myself by keeping my mouth shut.
Eventually I heard someone share something that hit me in the belly, changing everything in that moment. My friend John asked a group of us if we had ever seen the meat head guys that could lift and throw cars and trains. He said that vulnerability is the switch to that kind of power; that vulnerability gives you superhuman strength. I wanted to throw cars and move mountains.
I left my friends that night knowing that I would have to find courage to somehow spill what was going on. It took a few more months, but I did. I told people that were my new next door neighbors but, for some reason, felt extremely safe, like a magnet was drawing me to them. And that cool spring night I was met with unbelievable understanding, empathy, and love. My friends looked at me and said, “Rach, We didn’t think it was possible to love and respect you more than we already do, but hearing your heart and secrets are causing us to love you even more deeply”. They asked me what I needed in the moment, and followed through. Vulnerability gave me the gift of depth in relationships; it gave both parties the ability to love and be loved unconditionally. Those early moments of vulnerability gave way to the most beautiful, trusting relationships, where I felt fully known and safe.
In late summer I had those same friends pull me aside, sit me in view of the sunset and lake and a fan blowing our hair, and told me the truth that I needed to hear. Truth that said while I was honest and powerful, I was also broken and may be reaching a point where I needed professional help. Vulnerability is healing but sometimes you need special people walking you through the dark caves and forests of your mind, the bramble bushes that make up a confusing array of emotions and the roller coaster that happened to be mine. Over the course of the summer my anxiety and destructive coping mechanisms had been increasing at a pretty steady rate.
I felt like a little girl who is overtired but won’t admit it, and instead tantrums and cries and refuses to sleep. Then her family picks her up and firmly gives her what she needs: to go to bed. That night, through love I was held strong and given the strength to say, "yes, I need help". Because I wasn't created to have such extreme mood swings. Because I can be brave and powerful and admit that I might have some problems; because it’s not normal to want to die all the time.
Truth spoken in love is powerful.This was the first of many times I had beautiful people reveal the truth to me. To have someone sympathize with you and try to understand is a treasure. To be welcomed into homes is healing, but sometimes not enough. It took months to finally make some progress, and even in the progress there were still weeks of backwards steps. But any progress is good and throughout that beautiful autumn, my Alabama family loved me thoroughly, enough to propel me forward, enough to receive the help I needed.
If I held a magnifying glass against my skin, I would see thousands of fingerprints of people who touched my life, people who, with gentle hands, lifted me up to my feet, spoon fed me food that nourished and healed, and whispered words that championed me. Raised by mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters; many colors, sizes, and ages, leaving their thumbprints on my skin and words that built a home. Raised by the world into something other worldly. Led by forests and tribes, light and textures, shades and hues, tastes and smells.
So, collectively, my tribe carries me around in her mouth, like a mother cat carries around her kittens. So often I struggle and then someone picks me up in his or her mouth and carries me (sometimes drags me) along. I'll take it; movement is movement. Mother cat nourishes me and loves me and moves me and sometimes all I can do is just receive. I'm okay with that. Warmth, food, peace, love, movement; what else do we need? All I can do is receive this cat-love and be vulnerable with people who are willing sit next to me on my roller coaster.
Being terribly close is hard but it sucks out all infections and replaces them with the potpourri of being fully loved and known. So that winter I went and ate dark chocolate and drank egg nog and had shared secrets with all of my mother cats and I could smell the potpourri smells stronger than ever.