A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to write something on letting go. ‘Sure thing,’ I said without hesitation. After all, letting go sounds like an easy enough topic, right? I mean, I know all about letting go. All I have to do is throw a few funny stories, an analogy or two, and some good old cynicism together, and off we go!
Sadly it wasn’t that simple. Try as I might, I couldn’t help but feel that anything funny or flippant would be a bit of a cop-out here.
See, for me, an article about letting go is an intensely personal article. It’s not about dating, or fashion, or popular culture. Comical tales of office indiscretions or celebrity scandals won’t cut it. Letting go does not even inspire a witty diatribe on the state of humanity. No. Letting go calls for something else. Something real. An honest, unaffected account of what those two simple words mean to me.
Of course, when I realised all this, my first reaction was to call my friend and say, ‘No way. Honesty’s not what I signed up for.’ But after procrastinating for a few weeks, and missing a deadline or two, I decided to bite the bullet and write the damn thing. So here goes. My letting go story is the story of a fight with addiction that started at school.
Like a lot of fairly privileged, private-school girls, I entered young adulthood with an eating disorder and some very weird ideas about reality. A typical over-achiever, I threw myself wholeheartedly into academics, sport and every extracurricular activity my schedule would allow. This did two things. First, it led to a flirtation with diet pills to keep up the frantic pace at which I was living my life. And second, it allowed me to avoid dealing with pesky things like feelings and growing up.
I don’t know why I battle so much with emotions. I have no idea if I just never learnt how to deal with them, or if something happened that gave me a block when it came to emotional stuff. Emotions are uncontrollable, and that freaks me out. I don’t know how to handle them. So I bring them into the physical where they become more manageable.
I can’t remember exactly when I started trying to control things. To avoid anything emotional, anything to do with the inside. I was very skinny growing up, and then I hit puberty and got boobs and hips overnight. That didn’t work well with the sporty tomboy thing I had going on, so I put myself on a diet, which quickly turned into an obsession with managing everything I ate and how I looked on the outside. Soon it wasn’t about weight. It was about control. Something to distract myself with. Even if my whole world fell apart around me, at least I knew what I’d eaten that day – down to the last kilojoule. The compulsive focus on the exterior – on how I looked and what I physically put into my body – started a vicious cycle where the more I focused on the outside, the less there was on the inside, and the more I was forced to focus on the outside. By 16, I felt completely hollow. I remember feeling like I was born without a soul – that I was just this body floating around with no substance.
Although I initially took diet pills to suppress my appetite, I loved the energy they gave me, and immediately started taking them every day. I relied on the pep, and they gave me the motivation to get through the day. I was still desperately trying to keep up my straight A’s, my sports, and my social life. Things were starting to get out of control, and the more unmanageable my life felt, the more obsessively and compulsively I tried to control the one or two little pieces of my universe that I felt were solely mine.
By the time I left high school, I couldn’t interact socially without being completely off my head, and I got through every day by using chemicals to manipulate my moods to match the tasks at hand. Uppers for studying, downers for sleeping, alcohol for recreation.
This was how I managed my life, and I didn’t know any other way. The only thing that mattered was how I was feeling at that exact moment; how I wanted to feel in the next five minutes; and what chemical I would take to accomplish that. The inside had ceased to exist. Drugs took me down very quickly. I began a seriously unhealthy relationship with my drug dealer and together, we just got sicker and sicker. We lived in our own little world, and fed off each other’s insecurities and messed up ideas about life. And since I’d stopped interacting with anyone else, I couldn’t see how insane we were becoming. I resented the power he had over me, but I was terrified of losing him and losing my supply of drugs because I didn’t know anything else.
Each day brought about its own massive drama. It was desperate and chaotic and unbearable, and it just didn’t stop. By the time I went into rehab, I think I was just so exhausted that taking a break from it all seemed like the only option I had.
I never intended to give up drugs completely. I thought I’d just take a break. Regain control. Then start again. It never occurred to me that life clean would be enjoyable, or even possible. I hadn’t experienced it for such a long time, and the thought of it terrified me. I believed that I was just one of those people who needed drugs to survive. I’m not sure when and why the penny dropped, but after about a month in treatment, I started to come round to the idea if a clean and sober life.
Drugs essentially dull your perspective, and when you stop taking them, the world becomes that much more vivid, exciting and inviting. The more I started opening myself up to things around me and getting out of my own head, the less empty and different I felt. And funnily enough, as soon as I let go of the need to control everything, I felt more in control.
It’s been six years since I first started to understand what letting go means, and it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The eating issues started coming back. Compulsive shopping. Over-exercising. I went on an insanely obsessive self-improvement thing and, for six months, started waking up at 3 am to write pages and pages of touchy-feely drivel. I still crave distraction. Stress. Angst. I always have to have a new project on the go or something to look forward to or get worked up about. Anything to avoid just being. I have good days and bad days – and bad months, for that matter. I mean, I love my life. Since I cleaned up, everything has just fallen into place so perfectly. But I do miss the chaos of addiction. I miss having one thing to focus on – the getting and using and finding ways and means to get more. It’s crazy: when you’re there, it’s desperate and intolerable and all you want is a break from the insanity, but when the compulsion to use drugs is gone, you yearn for the madness of it all.
When I was using, that was the only thing that mattered because that was the only thing I had. Now I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of having. My life is better than I could ever have imagined. I have a good job. I have a great relationship with my family. I have lovely friends who care a lot about me. And I feel the urge to fuck it all up at least once a day. Yes. For me, letting go isn’t something you do once, or even once a day. It’s a constant acknowledgment that I can’t control everything around me. I can’t control other people. I can’t even control myself all the time.