On November 9, 2017, I woke up on the couch of a friend's apartment in Brooklyn. Later that morning, I took the A train to Chelsea and walked to a studio where I had a one-off job as a stylist assistant. I remember the sky was true blue and cloudless.
The job was for a wedding lifestyle shoot. On the set that day, I worked hard doing all the usual things that an assistant does: ironing, and steaming, and adjusting hemlines; handing pins to the stylist on set whenever she needed them. I helped to dress and take care of the model, giving her water, and making sure she took breaks and had snacks, and even slipped all the shoes on and off her feet. And while I was busy doing that, I remained quiet, and invisible, as a good assistant does.
But when I was alone, among all the dresses made of tulle and satin and silk, I touched them gingerly, dreaming. I couldn’t help myself. Though I don’t believe in marriage, I do believe in love. To me, these dresses represent big, wild, let’s be stupid with sentiment kind of love.
In 2010, I moved overseas for the first time. My formula for success was exact: I would study, meet someone and fall in love. It was all I wanted.
I spent five and a half years in Europe, and I studied; in fact, I earned a master’s degree and even spent four years in a doctoral program. Also, I met a lot of people and thought I was in love many times, but I wasn’t.
Instead, I watched friends all around me meet people and fall in love and make commitments, and babies. They were also buying houses and moving forward in their careers, doing the things that adult people do, living out the unspoken promise made to us children. The one that says when you grow up, these specific things will happen to you. There wasn’t a language for the people whose lives went another way. That would be one I had to learn on my own.
But before I was able to get there, I felt left out. Like something was wrong with me. And whenever a new person would come into my life, my enthusiasm would be all-encompassing, and when it wouldn’t work out, so would my despair.
In 2015, following the death of my father, I quit my Ph.D., and left Amsterdam, where I was living at the time. My life didn't look how I wanted it to, but I couldn't see that it was my responsibility to change it.
What I also didn't see was that my life was okay. In fact, my life was better than okay, it was filled with adventures that were precisely mine. But instead, I did what I usually did when I hurt or felt confused. I ran.
I was living with a lot of pain back then. In my body, there were unresolved conflicts of childhood trauma, as well as the loss of my mother ten years prior. I lacked the emotional intelligence to understand myself, and my feelings and I'd gotten so reckless with my emotions, that without even realizing it, I was hurting others by letting my hurt leak out. I just kept thinking, if I could get my life in order, so it looks like the lives of everyone else, then I'll be great.
When I repatriated, there was but one question that continued to surface: Do I matter? Though, I never dared to ask to whom. Suppose life offers us the same lessons over and over in a continuous process of unfolding. Suppose it’s what do when met with the challenge that makes us.
In total, I would go on to spend three years purging my pain with the question, Do I matter? In mind. It took me three years to see that that was the very question I needed to ask and answer for myself.
The answer may surprise you.
After a lot of introspection, my answer was no, no I don't. But how could I? I didn't know who I was. I wasn't even giving myself a chance to find out.
This insight came to me after exploring layers and layers of stories I told myself over time. At the core of it, I uncovered a nothingness that encompasses everything at once. The same everything that fills you.
For a long time, I struggled with the same common fear that many people do — the one that tells us we aren't good enough. And like many of us, this one small untruth threaded itself throughout my entire life.
In my story, I grew to be an expert self-saboteur and used all my failure to confirm my already tenuous self-worth. I tried to make myself into versions of a person I thought other people would want. Nothing hurts more than pretending.
In my great search for love, when people would say, You have to love yourself first before you could love another, I'd usually roll my eyes. What did THEY know?
It turns out, a lot.
But it isn’t so much that once self-love unfolds, you get your happy ending. Instead, you learn to nurture yourself and be your friend without looking for that one thing or person to complete you. Because you finally wake up and see that were whole all along.
Learning to love oneself includes learning how to love better. To love better involves learning how to welcome love into your heart. Learning to bend and flow, you start to see that every interaction is a conversation, a dance between partners, the great waltz of life.
So how does one get around to loving themselves?
Well, for me, it started with a break-up — I broke up with my old self. And then we started from scratch and learned how to be friends. I used writing as a medium to walk around my past and explore its edges. I used solitude to explore my feelings and boundaries, and learn about my values. I leaned on friends when I felt sadness or anger, and my friends leaned back to let me know I wasn't alone. We practice giving and receiving love together. And none of this could have worked without permitting myself to be honest, and vulnerable, forgiving, and compassionate, scared, and wild through it all.
When I let go of ideas of who I had to be, a child-like wonder returned. And there it was — the purest form of love. I was in my body wholly, intentionally, and found a way to move through the world deliberately, and on purpose.
On the set that day, I also brought two bags. Later that night, I was flying back to Amsterdam, where I am writing from now.
Another year has passed; another year filled with many highs, and lows, a lot of travel, and reflection, and confronting yet impressive growth.
It almost seems too fitting to be here now, looking back to my early wishes — to study, to meet someone, and fall in love.
Because I did meet someone along the way, and I made a great friend — myself. And there is love all around me; there is love all around me.
To this day, whenever I pass a shop window filled with wedding dresses, I stop for a moment and smile. I think about the love between two people, the love that they want to share and celebrate in front of all the people they also love, the people that grew them into who they are.
I no longer get sad or jealous that I haven't found a person to do life with. I've made peace with the fact that I haven't become a mother. And if I'm honest with myself, I know that I could have had these things if I was ready and open. But I wasn't. And also, it wasn't what I really wanted.
Coming to that space of honesty brought me back into a healthy relationship with myself. And anyway, if can you look at the world as a loving place, knowing you are a part of the wonder and magic, how could you ever feel alone?
Jocelyn M. Ulevicus is a writer, educator, and seeker of truth and beauty. Her work aims to assign a meaningful, accessible, and loving language to themes of loss, trauma, and heartache. You can follow her on Instagram or contact her via her website.
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