By: Susan Pannier-Cass
On a particularly cold and snowy day, while organizing my office a few weeks back,
I uncovered my old journals stored in a faded turquoise trunk. Rarely do I revisit the yellowing pages of my past, but this time a soft voice inside invited me to do just that. Reading an old journal can be a humbling experience. In my case, it was endless complaints and laments, page after page, ad nauseam. I’ve wanted to say to my younger self, when I’ve reread them in the past, “Well, do something about it!” or “Find the courage and make a change!” This time however, I read with softer eyes and a deep compassion for this young woman trying so hard to figure out her life.
Opening the pages, I traveled back in time to 1984 when I was a 19 year old sophomore at Loyola University studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work. Ronald Reagan was president, Madonna’s Like a Virgin was the top song, Best Picture that year was
Terms of Endearment, and people everywhere were asking “Where’s the Beef?”
I was a busy and driven young woman working two jobs while going to school full time and dating, for a few years at that point, my boyfriend Craig. Although I was laboring toward achieving my goals, I was not finding much fulfillment in day to day life. Many journal entries spoke of my boredom and an ever present itch, a restlessness, for more. I felt somehow inauthentic. I was busy, but was I doing enough of what gave me a sense of being alive? Whose life was I living?
My relationship with Craig was unhealthy. What started off as good times and parties, became something very different over time as I came to know him to have a problem with alcohol. Since my parents rarely even drank, I had no experience with alcoholism and what it looked like.
These many years later, I have the language and understanding of what I was living through at the time. I was a classic codependent who put another’s feelings, wants and desires above my own. I thought of myself as an independent woman. How did I come to fall into this sticky emotional trap of isolation and all-consuming interest in the mood and life of another? Codependency is a learned behavior. Where had I learned this? Perhaps it was partly from the 1950’s model of my parents’ marriage, but also from my innate desire to be of help to someone in pain. It took me some time to see that his suffering was pulling me under water as well.
Craig’s father was an alcoholic. His mom had divorced him when her children were quite young. She knew what my life would look like if I were to marry her son. Gratefully, from a place of complete unselfishness, she opened my eyes by inviting me to an Al-Anon meeting. We ended up going to weekly meetings together for several months. While listening to others relate ongoing struggles with spouses who were alcoholics, I quickly realized that this is not the life I wanted for myself. Finally, in my senior year, I ended our relationship for good.
Our relationship brought me a great deal of pain that took some time to sort through. Many times, I felt lost in an emotional fog. Since I did not have a defined sense of self, the influence of others was particularly powerful. I unconsciously allowed myself to be defined by this dance of reaction to outside circumstances, rather than paying attention to my inner knowing and trusting that voice inside me that is generated from a place of stillness. Contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation, or talking to an objective, wise soul would have been very helpful. Those resources weren’t available to me then. Instead I relied on daily journaling and sharing with certain friends – at times. I am struck by how serious and determined I was at nineteen. In some ways it feels like I was older then than I am now, and I’m growing younger and lighter in spirit as the years pass.
I vividly recall the spring morning after our break-up. Walking down the street, I felt an incredible sense of levity, like I dropped a 100lb. weight from my shoulders that I hadn’t realized I’d been carrying. Also memorable was a sense of joy and freedom that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. That morning, I promised myself I would learn why I made the choices I had, and take as much time I needed to get to understand myself better. Soon after, I stopped dating entirely for a year, took a five month solo backpacking trip through Europe, emptying my savings account, and vowed never to make the same relationship mistakes again – and didn’t.
Today, if I could sit down with my 19 year old self, I’d tell her to notice how much time she is spending focusing on another person’s life and feelings rather than her own. Some people are more prone to lose themselves in another instead of taking the time to pay attention to their own emotional life and needs. I’d also suggest she find ways to quiet her mind – find a good yoga and meditation teacher. I’d teach her it’s key to pay attention and listen to what her body is saying to her. Often our minds can be tricky, talking us in and out of things, but our bodies do not lie and should be trusted. I’d invite her to take time to listen to and trust that small voice inside that encourages growth, and find someone who is a good listener, who can be objective, and share what’s really going on. Consider counseling or spiritual direction in addition to looking from support in friends and family. Sometimes people in our lives have a hard time clearing their own thoughts and agenda to be good listeners. I’d help her realize that her needs are as important as anyone else’s, and acknowledge her own personal boundaries. I’d remind her not to work so hard that life becomes dry, hard and lifeless, and to pay attention to what brings joy and do more of it each day instead of postponing it for some future time.
After note: Four years later, in 1988, I met my husband, Stuart. We have three children, and have been sharing the adventure of being married for over 26 years. In 2001, I became a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and have been practicing daily since.
Susan is a Spiritual Director on staff at the Claret Center.