I’m not exactly sure how it all started.
I do remember the day we went for a run. It was a humid morning, and he left his bike tied to my front porch. As our feet carried us around the lake, I told him about my eating disorder. He asked me why—why I’d chosen that form of self-harm, why it had been a necessity to me.
I told him I couldn’t remember.
A few months later, floating in the bay on paddleboards, he told me he wanted to date.
I’m not exactly sure how it all started, but in that moment I felt the belt tighten around my heart, squeezing the organ as though determined to end the pulsing. And forget about the butterflies average people feel—there were full-grown birds in my stomach, thrashing against skin walls.
He asked me why I was scared. I told him I couldn’t remember.
I’m not exactly sure how it all started, but that was the day I decided to get out of that relationship. By no fault of his own, I couldn’t stop shaking every time he called. I couldn’t bring myself to invite him to visit my new school in Michigan. I couldn’t tell him what was happening in my life—let alone in my mind.
I’m not exactly sure how it all started, but I watched myself pull the plug on the first relationship I’d ever had with a man who respected me, self-destruction a more comfortable action than facing the things that had planted such intense fear in me in the first place.
That following December, I sat in the backseat of a friend’s car, watching the snow-capped fields of Iowa zip by; a silver sheet pulled to the horizon, kissing the pale blue sky.
I reached for the handle. Visions of myself, spread eagle on the side of Highway 20, finally free of my anxiety and loose from the tightness in my chest, filled my mind.
All I knew was I needed to get out. Not out of the car, but my own head.
But I didn’t jump out of the car that day.
Instead of jumping out, instead of making plans for later, I made a different decision. A decision to go to counseling.
Counseling is a difficult decision without the added detail that: I’m not exactly sure how it all started.
That’s the funny thing about PTSD. I had no recollection of almost ten years of trauma. I never knew my desire to shrink myself into a shadow was inspired by years of pain, hidden in the folds of my brain, close enough to be triggered, yet too far to be accessed in fullness.
See, I’m still not entirely sure how it all started, but I know PTSD was stealing my life, forcing me to hide from relationships and treat all strangers like bullets to dodge, making me late for class because I couldn’t get out of bed, sacrificing my friendships because I wasn’t able to leave my room.
But though I’m not sure how it all started, while I may not remember details, there is one thing I am sure of: I do know how my healing started.
It started by realizing what I might have lost had I pulled the handle on that moving vehicle.
It started by looking at the glinting red lights in the distance, which blinked in time from their windmill perches, reminding me of the size of the world.
It started by remembering the things I had already fought for—the self-inflicted scars that had already healed, the food I no longer feared, the people I had grown to love.
It started by hugging a friend in the stairwell of my college, too afraid to articulate what was happening in my mind.
It started by letting that friend guide me to the counseling office.
It started by lying to my counselor, telling her I was sad from the transition to college, from the breakup.
It start by speaking about the pain I had forgotten along the way.
It started by relearning those memories. It started by taking the few I remembered and reframing the way I understood them.
It started by shifting the shame I thought I deserved to carry.
It started by writing letters to the people who broke me, and deciding I mattered enough to face any scary thing that might follow.
It started by choosing to believe, defiantly, against all odds, that I still believed hope was real, and staying would be worth it.
Because, I was made for solo mid-winter drives to frozen Lake Michigan, screaming Touché Amoré lyrics into the chilling air, letting my voice echo across the icy surface. I was made for attending $5 basement shows alone, surrounded by strangers who felt like friends. I was made for church communities and DIY communities and finding home in the overlap in between. I was made for 24-hour diner milkshakes and midnight films. I was made for petting every dog on the street and stealing mints from strangers’ wedding receptions. I was made for new friendships and rejuvenating old ones. I was made for music and photography, for documentaries. I was made for protest tattoos, declaring permanent truths across my body in case I forgot again.
I was made for speaking my mind.
I was made for taking chances.
I was made for internships in new cities, for new beginnings.
I was made for choosing hope, through three years (and counting) of counseling.
But first, it started with my decision to stay in the car.
By remaining seated, I decided my life was worth holding onto. I was choosing to believe I mattered enough to do the work that had to follow, even if those upcoming years looked daunting, even if the waves around me were more terrifying than ever before—those scary things meant I had hope. Hope that the waves wouldn’t look daunting forever, hope that my swimming skills were just good enough I might not drown.
Those scary things meant movement. I was taking healing into my own hands because I deserved it.
It’s OK that I can’t remember, it’s OK that I’m unsure of how it all started.
Because I do know how my healing started. It began with a decision to stay.
A decision to believe, against the odds, that hope was real, and maybe the mere existence of hope is defiant.
I made the decision to stay in the car.