*Content advisory: Please be aware that this post will discuss material of a highly sensitive nature including suicide and violence.*
It wasn’t until I was 57, at a weekend retreat, that I learned to value myself. I learned that I could choose myself first. And so I did.
As women, we’ve been told for centuries that we are the weaker sex, we are not in charge, we are less than… so self-worth, for many women, is NOT the first thing we claim.
At the retreat, a former journalist had asked the question that broke the dam:
“Was there ever a moment when you just wanted to pack it in?”
And, for the first time, I told my story to a room of incredibly supportive women, who were adamant that I needed to share it with more people.
The journey to claiming my self-worth
I floundered in so many areas of life after losing a dear friend to suicide at 16.
No amount of drugs or alcohol, not even my parents whisking me away home to Scotland, roused me out of the stupor of grief and pain. I could not accept the loss nor could I stop myself from constantly going over her death in my mind. It would be nearly 40 years before I understood its impact, before I understood how very lucky I was to have had Andrea as my friend.
Then, when I became disfigured and disabled at 20 years of age, my self-worth plummeted making it difficult to move forward – both literally and figuratively.
A crippling lack of self-esteem led to feeling unworthy of anything good. Instead of confidence and self-worth, I armed myself with a defensive astringent attitude that I used as a shield.
That shield grew into a solid wall of defensiveness...built to shield me from pain and suffering, in truth it became a barrier between me and the world.
Each brick in that shield, that wall of hurt, cemented my thoughts of unworthiness, yet even at my lowest points, I wouldn't, couldn't pack it in.
The unacknowledged gift I had inadvertently been given at 16 surged to the forefront at each precipice. I did not think my career, or any career was in the realm of possibility. Simply surviving became my only goal.
And yet there was a small, deeply buried yet consistent inner strength that would surge to the forefront. This is what got me through. Each time I would choose to start anew, the glimmer of hope fanned itself into a flame.
By age 27, I joined a cosmetics company and became a manager very quickly. But after my accident, I lost sight of myself. I could not reconcile with the person I had become. I made the choice to undergo a huge life-changing surgery. I believed it was the answer to all my prayers. I thought this would magically give me self-worth and confidence.
We’ll never know what really happened in that first surgery. Nor the second. I was brought back to the operating table in the third round, where extreme, unusual measures were taken. I was left with a feeding tube for more than a year, and to this day, have difficulty swallowing due to scar tissue and damage from having my esophagus diverted out of my neck for almost seven months.
This second round of chronic illness –after I chose to have experimental surgery– emphasized my shortcomings, highlighted my imperfections, and left me deep behind defensive walls that seemed impenetrable. Yet, thankfully there was still that seed of something that refused to let me give up.
I would reinvent myself a number of times and then get stopped in my tracks by yet another hospital stay, another reparative surgery. From interior decorating to children’s wear to English theater and events in between, I gave each my full attention. Until I could not.
Dismantling the wall of hurt
The last straw came in 1997, via the road rage man incident. In a parking lot with my two kids and little granddaughter, we were chased down by an angry inebriated man who tried to hit us. I put myself in his path and he backed up with me on the hood of his car. I suffered mainly soft tissue injuries to my already damaged legs.
Even as I struggled to help the paramedics put me on a stretcher, self-conscious and ashamed, always hyper-aware of my flaws, my head was focused on one question. Was this all there was? Life can’t be all tragedy and pain. Surely, there was more meaning to life. And then the huge glaring truth echoed over and over in my head: “The common denominator is YOU”.
It was my ‘Aha’, ‘lightbulb’ moment.
Acknowledging myself as the common denominator opened my mind to the bigger picture, the universe, and the opportunities around me to captain this ship – my life, my being.
From the early days of hospital stays in the seventies, I was a voracious reader. I love to learn and that is what allowed for so many reiterations and reinventions. Computers became a lifeline in the eighties and their use only soared from the time of the dial-up modem. The internet gave me access to a wealth of knowledge, in a multitude of disciplines and made it possible for me to monetize the skills I gained.
It took so many years, actual decades, of trying and failing. And yet from the determination to keep going, even through the doubt, and core lack of self-esteem, the seed of worth took root in this scarred and abused body and mind and today I can finally claim my worth in my own eyes.
At 66 years of age, I am a speaker, a podcast host, and a digital integration specialist. I’m Bionic, eternally curious, filled with a gratitude attitude, and a complete understanding of the best/worst gift I received at 16 years old.
When my friend Andrea took her own life, I got to experience the grief and pain of her loss as one of those left behind. That loss and understanding of the ramifications, kept me living. So many close calls, so many almost exits. Her death forced me to choose my family and friends over ending my pain.
Mine is a cautionary tale. I offer it to you with love and hope. Take the lesson and live the positive upbeat ending. It’s never too late to go after your dreams, restart, and if need be, restart again. And always, start with choosing YOU. Love you first. Celebrate your wins! And your losses – these are the lessons that allow us to improve.
You are worthy. You deserve to live fully. And you get to choose.
Who do you choose to be right now?