“OK, so you’re in your first healthy relationship and it’s totally freaking you out.
I see you over there squirming in the sidelines, attempting to hide in the dark shadows of your past. You’re hiding because you’re embarrassed. You don’t want to be seen like this. Are you blushing? You’re totally blushing. It’s OK. I’ve been down this road before, and I promise you’re going to be just FINE.
Your entire life up until this point had been defined by toxic, dramatic, unhealthy relationships with screwed up, unequal dynamics. They’d been built on codependency and re-enactment of childhood trauma, and now you’re trying to fill the void with someone who will FINALLY prove your parents wrong (or yourself wrong? It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes, isn’t it?).
Like any major life adjustment, this relationship is going to be a little uncomfortable for awhile. But feeling uncomfortable just means you’re growing. It’s like the growing pains you feel when you’re 12 and your limbs are expanding faster than your tiny body can bear to handle.
Lean into it; don’t fight it. No one ever dies from feeling a little uncomfortable (though I know it feels like it sometimes).
The bruise-like circles normally resting beneath your eyes, the ones derived from endless nights of crying and not sleeping and writhing around your twin bed stressed out, are gone. Like magic, BAM — your under eyes look human.
You’re smiling, but it’s not the forced-through-gritted-teeth smile you’re used to seeing stare back at you in that dirty little mirror (it’s time to Windex that mirror, girl). It’s an authentic smile. Even if your lips aren’t curved into a traditional smile, you look happy because your skin is radiant and your eyeballs are white and you just look fresh, babe. Like you’ve been doing a lot of yoga or getting facials or chemical peels or maybe even doing a juice cleanse.
But really, you haven’t been doing any of that shit. You’re just in love.
It’s not a soul-destroying, all-consuming, toxic-love-affair this time. This time, it’s healthy and balanced and built on the foundation of respect. It’s super weird, I know. As I said, I’ve been through this before.
In my early 20s, my entire identity was wrapped around being sad. Or a mess. Or anxious. Or lost. And I don’t know how it happened. And I don’t know when it happened. But it happened: I grew out of it. I mourned the death of my mental instability and crossed over to the other side. And I like it over here.
I think it all started to change for me after a really dark breakup. I have this vivid memory of drunkenly fighting on the street with my girlfriend at the time. Our drunken mouths both spewed out horrible things we didn’t even mean. I think she accused me of being a pill-popping drug addict (I was hopped up on antidepressants, but I wasn’t taking hard drugs at all), and I think I accused her of being a liar with a drinking problem.
It was ugly. I remember waking up the next morning with a head so sore it hurt to blink, and something just sort of snapped inside of me. You’re done, Zara, I thought to myself. And I had said those same words to myself a gazillion times before, but this time felt different.
And I did it. Yeah, I slipped up a few times in the process, but for the most part I cut out my habit of blackout drinking, gradually lowered my dose of prescription medication until I finally realized I didn’t need it anymore and put a halt to the toxic relationships.
As I began to get into healthier relationships with healthier people, there was a long period of time where kindness felt weird and foreign to me.
Like if she, for example, supported my career instead of mocked it, I became so squeamishly uncomfortable I wanted to peel out of my skin and run for the hills, skinless. Or if she trusted me rather than doubted every move I made, I didn’t think she gave a shit. Or if I felt safe in her presence rather than anxious, I was weirded out and doubted if my feelings were real.
Because, see, the only feelings I was used to having were negative ones. I didn’t even know what positive ones were, so when I felt them, I wasn’t sure if they were real or made up in my head. It just felt easier to run away.
But for some reason bigger than me, I stuck with the uncomfortable feelings. I think I knew deep down inside that if I wanted a shot at a real life, I was going to have to battle through a period of unsettling emotions.
It’s sort of like going to the gym. When you first start to get in shape, it’s brutal. You’re sore all the time and feel like shit, but if you keep going, eventually it feels really good to work out. You start to look forward to it and can’t imagine your life without it.
There is an identity crisis you feel when you start to become stable, and find yourself in a relationship that isn’t going to destroy you. If you’ve been playing on team dysfunction for your whole life, who even are you when you decide to retire your number? What’s beneath this facade of brokenness that’s defined your existence for so long?
Well, the real you. That’s what’s underneath it all. That’s the beauty of getting healthy and finally being in a healthy relationship. When you break free from your patterns, you’re not shackled anymore. You’re free to find out who you really are without all that other shit. Without the eating disorder, the diagnosis, the addiction, the toxic relationship — all the shit you thought was you, but maybe really wasn’t you at all — you can find out who you were before whatever happened to you that got you into this spiral.
Just stick with it. It’s going to be hard, but you have to crawl through the mud to get the other side. And I promise you: It’s so much fucking better over here.”