This Girl Is On Fire

By Anna Gragert

Art by Miranda Feneberger

Art by Miranda Feneberger

There’s a certain kind of exhaustion that comes along with feeling like you’re never good enough. It’s a form of tiredness that worms its way into your bones, seeping into your marrow, weaving itself within the strands of your DNA. No matter how much you sleep, it won’t let go and flow down the drain of your dreams. Even when you close your eyes and drift away, you can’t escape.

For me, this feeling came with time. I wasn’t born within a web of other people’s approval, nor am I sure how I got there. But along the way, thread by thread, spiders of self-doubt built their home with me at the heart. It progressed slowly enough that I didn’t notice what was happening — just small changes over formative years. And by the time I realized, it wasn’t too late, but I was lost.

When you first learn something about yourself, it can either feel like a whirlpool or a tsunami. If you are empowered by what you learn, it feels as though the foundation of your being has been rocked, causing a giant wave of understanding to wash over you. If you are dealt the same card I was, and you fear what you discover, you are instead drained of all you thought you knew. You become a shell of a person.

And if you require the praise of others, you wait around for someone to fill that shell with something as meaningless as wood scraps, something that can go up in flames.

Before I realized that I did not love myself, I had to become empty, because suddenly the permission of others was not enough. What others had given me was flammable and I stood by, motionless, as the conflagration arose within me. There were no more tears to put out the blaze. I was an adjective beyond tired. I no longer wanted to be the perfect daughter. I was done proving that I could be the perfect girlfriend, the perfect student, the perfect friend, wonder woman. Perfect had broken me, and I didn’t know where to go from there.

Art by Miranda Feneberger

Art by Miranda Feneberger

I’d like to say that I took a walk in the woods, or hiked the Rocky Mountains, and that is where I found myself. I’m sorry that my story won’t give you wanderlust or involve deep nature metaphors. Rather, my recovery from self-hatred was a domino effect set off by my learning to ask for help, over and over again. I had to break my cardinal rule, open myself up, and show my weakness to those I’d fooled into thinking I was immortal. I’ll never forget the first time I had to tell someone I was falling, and that I had been the one to push myself off the edge — though I had to explain it several times after that.

“I am not okay,” I yelled at my mother, from my place underneath the dashboard of her car. She had just picked me up from school and I didn’t want anyone to see that I was bursting apart. So I curled up on the floor mat and tried to cry. Nothing came out except for those four words, which petrified me. Isn’t it strange how we can scare ourselves with our own words?

Knowing that I hadn’t been okay for a long time, my mom agreed that I needed someone to talk to. Together, we found my first therapist, and my second, and my third. These three women opened me up at my scars, shook out my contents, and then left it up to me to put everything back together again. This was over the course of three years, during which I tried and failed, and tried again, to make myself whole. It wasn’t until I disappointed everyone that I would find myself.

The flames of my tendency to lean toward perfection had always been fanned by things that could be erased, shredded, burnt, and blown into the wind. Approval wasn’t something I could hold onto, physically or metaphorically. So with nothing else to lose, I did what I wanted to do, what others told me I shouldn’t do. I broke the rules, unchained myself, and went after something I could barely see in the distance. No one believed in me, leaving me to learn to believe in myself. When no one else is in your corner, you have to get a mirror and take a good look into it.

Saying that I did what I wanted to do is like a tree with many branches, in that it involved several subplots. I cut my hair. I stopped shaving. I no longer worried about dating. I went after the career I wanted, one that might not make me money. I stayed up late. Stopped being nice to people who weren’t nice to me. I yelled and screamed and cursed a lot. I was terrified.

For the first time in my life, I had been the one to burn everything down. Which means that, for the first time, I was the only one who knew how to rebuild. If I didn’t do it, then no one else would. That was the last time it hurt to ask for help, to show that I was real and raw, because I was the only one left to ask.