Painting with Gold
2018 felt like the culmination of many years, maybe many lifetimes. 2018 was the year that I finally found the gold paint to seal the pieces together with pride and joy—and peace.
A few years ago, I found myself at the doctor’s office with searing stomach pain. It was my 25th birthday. Leading up to that point, I could hardly eat more than a bowl of miso soup or sleep through the night without clutching my gut in the fetal position. I wanted to be a food writer and learn to cook—but I couldn’t even eat. And when I did, it would come up. Thankfully, my new physician specialized in East-West medicine, a marriage of healing practices from the Eastern and Western worlds. It was much more than the transactional treatment that I was used to growing up in the States, which was simply a cycle of prescriptions and surgery, but never treating the root cause of dis-ease. This doctor was compassionate and offered me a liberating truth: go to therapy or a gastroenterologist, but please know that the gastroenterologist will just treat you with antidepressants. Aside from some mylanta and magnesium, her primary prescription was this: “Give yourself permission to rest, you cannot pour from an empty glass. Be ok with saying, ‘No.’” I put this written prescription on my desk as a daily reminder.
But therapy? Antidepressants? Personally, these were not in my family’s vocabulary. Neither was accepting pain. I was raised to pull myself up by the bootstraps and shut up. No pain, no gain. And don’t complain. In retrospect, I do not fault this inherited modus operandi of separating from my body and the pain it communicates. It served my ancestors, both indigenous and immigrant, to survive the Wild West where violence and survival was part of daily life. It even served me for most of my life. I don’t fault myself or my mother or her mother or my grandfather for being born automatically into fight or flight mode. But I would soon learn that this mode and trauma is shared in a family and community. It is compounded over generations. My gut was a cry for help.
Have you ever heard the saying, “let go or be dragged?” At the beginning of 2018, I was feeling inspired and productive, albeit worn out and underpaid, again. I had been going to therapy regularly for more than a year. I set lofty goals of producing my own film series and lined up my to-do list and budget. Since I was a little girl, I’ve been an achiever. The honors student and champion athlete. I get organized and work relentlessly hard. But something wasn’t right this time around. What had served me for 27 years now felt counterproductive. And for the past few years, I had encountered so many people who were extremely exploitative (side note, one is in jail, two got fired after I confronted them, and the other stole something very valuable from me). I was at a loss of what to do. I had to let go and…do nothing? Just exist for a minute?
I spent the majority of 2018 taking care of my body and taking a break, except for a few sprints of forced productivity, sparked by panic or guilt. I messed up a few times by taking on more than I could spiritually handle at the time. I felt like a bad friend and terrible person, but in reality I should have spoken up about where I was at. Lesson learned. <3
The greatest thing I did in 2018 was productive in an entirely new way: I gave myself permission to rest for an indefinite amount of time. By stepping off the treadmill of life, i.e. job and social pressures, and in spite of fear, I was able to set those healthy boundaries I had been prescribed a few years ago. I was able to detach my worth and identity from what I do, and re-root it in who I am. I was able to heal and strengthen my body. I was able to refill my glass. The greatest gift I finally gave myself was time and compassion. I do not think, in 27 years, I really knew what those felt like, physically or emotionally. I didn’t know how to receive them.
For me, 2018 was the year of Kintsukuroi*, which is the Japanese art of preparing broken pottery with gold lacquer. Translated to “golden repair,’ it is the philosophy that breakage and repair is part of the history of an object. It is beautiful and not to be disguised. This philosophy is closely related to wabi-sabi, which is a world view of honoring imperfection and impermanence. For me, I found all the shattered pieces of my identity and pieced them together in a way that felt like home. Home for the first time. It was bumpy and really painful sometimes. It is a work in progress. But it is beautiful. AND IT FEELS SO GOOD!!
There is no perfect equation for healing. Just a lot of different elements (a practice of love, forgiveness, community, being in nature) and a lot of time. As much as I love the growing awareness and conversation around mental illness, I cringe a bit when some people talk about it. I think we are so quick to diagnose it this way or that. We give it a label and treat it like a brain disease, rather than respect the nuance of its darkness, which is something much more spiritual, emotional, environmental, and historically shared. We somehow make it a very individual struggle and personal burden, even in this expanding conversation. How quickly we forget: we are all connected and things are not black and white.
So anyway, if you’re out there reading this, I hope that you find something of yourself in my story. Maybe something new. Most of all, that you’re not alone. Shit happens and it is not always your fault. How we respond to the breakage in ourselves and others says more about you. I think our greatest responsibility is to show up with compassion for ourselves and others. Let’s give each other permission to step away from the competition and the noise and to rest when we need to. Rest is just as important as work. There’s a season for everything. It’s been a very hard year, especially here in Southern California. My wish is that you are supported to find the time and space to mix some gold paint to piece yourself together as you need and refill your cup. May yours overflow. With champagne bubbles.