My friend’s yellow sweatshirt read: Surviving, not thriving.
I laughed when I saw it. A sign of the times, of educators like me who are burnt out at a marathon of a semester with impossible asks and limited rewards. We can’t believe I made it to the end of this fall semester, we joke. Somehow, we survived, we marvel.
I’ve been thinking about survival a lot lately. Maybe its the existential threat of a pandemic, the way our lives have been upended in big and small ways, or the processing of my trauma after all these years. I’m overwhelmed and exhausted, navigating a divorce and major life changes. I wonder how long and how much I can survive in the coming months.
When I feel weary, I return to the words of the strongest and most prolific survivors of our time: Chanel Miller.
If her name doesn’t ring a bell for you, this name might: Brock Turner.
Brock Turner is infamous for his attack on an unconscious woman at a fraternity party. Turner, a former student at Stanford University, was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated/unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person. He faced up to 14 years in prison but was sentenced to only six months and served just three months for “good behavior.”
The unconscious woman, then called Emily Doe for anonymity in trial, was Chanel Miller. Four years after we met her as the anonymous survivor who’s victim impact statement shook the world, she shared her name in her memoir, Know My Name. Her book quickly became a New York Times Bestseller and one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read.
Wisdom to Get You Through The Hardest Days
Whatever you’re surviving: job loss, sexual violence, divorce, a lonely holiday season, or the collective trauma of our current moment, this wisdom may give you comfort and perspective for your journey. While I can’t relate to the highly public trauma that Chanel experienced, her words have spoken to me on deep level when I’ve needed them most. I hope they’ll do the same for you.
“Yet all along there had been eyes watching me, rooting for me, from their own bedrooms, cars, stairwells, and apartments, all of us shielded inside our pain, our fear, our anonymity. I was surrounded by survivors, I was part of a we.”
While it may feel that way, we are rarely alone. People who understand or relate to what you’re facing are out there.
For me, I was devastated when I learned that my dog had get one of her legs amputated as a result of an aggressive cancer. Not knowing anything about how animals respond to losing a leg, I was scared and anxious about what this would mean for her. And yet, a quick Google search brought me to the Tripawds community, an online forum and foundation providing support and education for over 1500 humans whose pets just happen to have three legs, many of them surviving the same cancer as my dog.
Being a part of this community didn’t fix the cancer or the tough journey to rehabilitate my dog, but I did feel less alone in those challenges and that gave me strength. Surrounded by other tripawd parents even virtually, I became a part of a we.
“Nobody says, ‘Adopt the Pomeranian.’ I had planned to surround myself with higher gates and sharper teeth, but maybe that was not what I needed. Maybe it was possible to build that security within myself.”
Especially when we’ve been harmed by someone else, it is understandable to want to build tougher, higher walls. To wear an armor of self-defense classes and hyper-vigilance so fierce that you may never be hurt in the same way again. After surviving sexual violence, this armor was one of the ways that I coped. In the short term, it worked. I felt safe at home again. I kept everyone at arm’s length and I was always ready for the proverbial attacker to jump out of the bushes. In the long term, I realized that I also needed softness, to feel safe in my body again, to allow the tenderness of my nature to show up in life again. I responded by becoming kinder, not harsher. This stood in contrast to conventional wisdom on what it means to take your power back.
In Know My Name, Chanel describes this through her experience fostering and then adopting her dog. She fostered a series of sweet senior Pomeranians and then adopted one, which stood in contrast to what conventional wisdom said she should do which was to adopt a big dog with sharper teeth. For her, taking her power back meant building a life that had peace, softness, and a cute Pomeranian named Mogu (or “mushroom” in Chinese).
Sometimes healing also requires softness, not allowing yourself to be hardened by the hatred or violence you’ve experienced. Her story about adopting the Pomeranian speaks to the need for softness in healing but also for the uniqueness of everyone’s healing journey. Your healing is yours alone and the choices you make may not make sense to others but are still totally valid.
“You have to hold out to see how your life unfolds, because it is likely beyond what you can imagine. It is not a question of if you will survive this, but what beautiful things await you when you do.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking about a period of my life where I did not think I could hold on any longer. It was a dark time that seemed to have no end in sight, with new surprises and suffering around every corner. At the time, I had a therapist who led me through creating a vision board. I scoffed at the idea. What on earth do I have to look forward to? I asked her. (This reaction is wild because a healthy version of me *loves* a vision board, Pinterest, and any crafty way to map out my goals and dreams. But that also speaks to depth of my depression at the time.)
Despite my reservations, I reluctantly clipped images from magazines. An outdoor magazine really caught my eye, specifically images of water. Before I consciously realized what I was doing, I was making myself a map into healing. I glued and taped all the images together. Taking a step back to observe the final collage, I saw it. The faintest hint of a beautiful something, something worth exploring.
“You may not know what there is to look forward to, specifically,” my therapist said, “But if you survive, you can explore these places. Why don’t you try being on the water?” I tried stand up paddleboarding shortly afterward and it brought me to beautiful places and people. Spoiler alert: both were definitely more than worth surviving for.
Maybe your suffering won’t magically disappear, maybe it lives in your bones a little bit, forever. I’m with you. But if you hold on, there are beautiful things that await you when you keep surviving.
For me, I made it through the darkest period of my life and found a new purpose empowering women in so many areas of personal and professional life. There were beautiful things, more time on the water, ways to serve and help and make the world the tiniest bit better, just on the other side of my survival. I am so grateful I didn’t miss it all.
For me, Chanel Miller’s book was part memoir, part survival guide. From these quotes, I hope you’ll remember these important take-aways.
You’re not alone.
As Glennon Doyle says, “Being human is not hard because you’re doing it wrong it’s hard because you’re doing it right.” You’re not a failure if the world is unbearably hard at times. You’re human. And there are people out there, virtually or in person, that likely relate to what you’re facing. Seek them out.
There are many ways to survive. Find what works for you and embrace it.
I can’t speak to your “Pomeranian.” Showing up with more kindness and rekindling my sense of hope in the world was instrumental in my healing journey. Don’t ignore the soft parts of healing. There is strength in softness, too.
Hold on for the beautiful things that await you.
I know this is a hard time for many. But please hold on for your something beautiful. It could be a new friend you have yet to meet, a place you’ll visit one day, or your future children. There is darkness and there is pain. But hand in hand, there is also joy and love and beauty. Hold on for your beautiful thing. You’ll be glad that you did.