The secret that saved my life.
I have a confession to make.
I was 15 or 16 years old.
Like many teenagers, I had a lot of…opinions on things. Mine included a lot about food. I was very rigid around food and substances: what I would or wouldn’t put in my body.
As I’ve said before, I was a soapbox vegan. Loud, and proud, but mostly loud.
So it might surprise you that for two weeks out of the year I would abandon my post. Secretly – oh so secretly – I would quietly step off of my soapbox and consume chocolate bars and ice cream.
Oh, shock and horror! I know, you’re thinking ‘so what?’.
But that young teenager was so tightly controlled, so rigid within herself, her expectations of herself and others so impossibly high, that this temporary dietary freedom was a big deal.
Amazingly, I didn’t feel bad about it one bit.
Because this wasn’t a guilty binge in the middle of the night. It wasn’t a total abandonment of my values and principles.
It was sanctuary.
I gave myself permission to press pause on my veganism. On the person I was trying to be.
These two weeks were a temporary – and restful -- step away from the controls and demands and expectations of my life.
It took place, as we Canadians say, “at the cottage.”
Every summer for two weeks our family rented a little cottage in a sleepy beach town by Lake Huron. It became an annual escape for us, synonymous with moving slower, breathing deeper, with feeling more at peace.
For those two weeks I was allowed to do things that weren’t allowed at home. To sleep in. To do nothing. To be alone, to wander off, to daydream. The tight controls and rigid expectations of home eased back a little.
It felt like no one was watching. It felt like I was safe to let my guard down. And so, I did.
For those two weeks I got to be a kid, no matter my age: I ate ice cream cones and read Archie comics on the beach. Angry vegan was on vacation.
By keeping that secret space for myself I was allowed a reprieve. It was probably one of the sanest things I did all year.
The experience of sanctuary became Pavlovian: I’d smell the air as we drove into town and instantly my shoulders would drop a little.
It felt like coming home.
Eventually – probably by the time I was a late teenager – we stopped going to the cottage as a family.
For years there was something missing inside me.
It wasn’t the town I was missing. It wasn’t the family vacations.
It was the sanctuary.
As a got older I started to pay the price for this lack of inner peace. I rarely felt comfortable in my own skin. I struggled with anxiety and depression. By my late twenties and early thirties I was into the territory of burnouts and breakdowns.
I was trying to escape myself when really what I needed was an inner sanctuary.
I needed something to come home to. My sanctuary needed to be me.
It took time to build – but I built it, I built that place inside. How I did that, well, that’s a story for another day. But creativity was a big part of it. It’s one of the reasons I write: it creates an inner space to just be.
Today I feel much more at home within myself. I’m not searching for the sanctuary: but that doesn’t mean I get to stop working on it.
Like a cottage, it requires maintenance. Leave it for too long and I have to go back in and dust and vacuum and clean out the cobwebs.
So I must give myself permission to return regularly to this sanctuary. To tidy it up and make it welcoming. To take my time there.
Otherwise, I return to my instinctual place: my expectations of myself and others get too high. I want to control too much. I place unnecessary burdens on myself. I want to do more, and more, faster and faster, and before I know it, I’m teetering on a burnout of my own making.
So I go back. To my inner place where the breath slows, and the shoulders relax, and the expectations soften, maybe even fall away.
A place where I can relax into myself. And maybe even eat an ice cream cone.