Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of eating disorders, self-harm, addiction, and suicidal thoughts
“My legs were shaking, my breath was heavy, and as tears streamed down my face, every decision up until this point came into question in my mind. What was I thinking? I wasn’t strong enough to do this? What if I couldn’t finish? Then everything I ever was made to believe about myself would be true! ‘Well, there’s no turning back now,’ I said. With every ounce of courage I could procure from deep within, I put one foot in front of the other and began walking.
One step down. 1,056,000 to go.
This was the mindset I was carrying the night before I started my solo 500-mile spiritual pilgrimage on the Camino De Santiago across Spain: worthless, scared, small, scarce, ugly, too big, not powerful, with no voice, with no purpose, alone, abandoned, not good enough, not valuable, broken, unloveable. I truly believed I was put on this planet as a mistake and everything about my BEING was wrong. But leaning into this fear, fully surrendering to the unknown, and taking that first step on my 500-mile journey back to God and to self changed all of that.
Before I get more into that, though, I want to give some background on my life — a narrative riddled with battle after battle, whose protagonist (me) is constantly fighting for her life. The story of a little girl fighting through her own demons, societies’ instilled expectations and ideals, and a lineage of generational trauma that was laced into her DNA.
I was born into a Sicilian-Irish family and grew up in an affluent town in the center of Connecticut, a town in which I always felt like I never fit in. While my fellow classmates lived in your cookie-cutter New England home, complete with the perfectly manicured lawn, the perfect white shutters, and a perfectly placed white picket fence around the perimeter, I was living on the second floor of an 8-bedroom retreat center, which was nestled on a sprawling 50 acres of Church Property farmland, complete with mountain views, deer, and various families of turkeys. Now, from the outside looking in this would be considered heaven, but for me, it felt like hell. My parents worked for the church as Christian Counselors and as a stipulation for them living in this house with their family rent-free, my parents had to run the retreats. Instead of having Saturday pancake breakfast with the family, I would be shut upstairs in our ‘apartment,’ whilst anywhere from 10 to 30 people would be downstairs on the weekends in our house, taking part in these transformational retreats my parents ran. Not only were my parents constantly working, but I was also alone most of the time. I was voiceless and invisible.
My bother and sister were much older than me and I wasn’t really allowed to have anyone over, due to the noise. Until I learned how to drive, I was forced to stay quietly upstairs, like a locked away princess in her captor’s tower. I had no control over my situation, and I felt unsafe as a result. Crying out for attention, wanted to be loved, dying to be seen. Why couldn’t my parents spend the time with me they spent with their clients? ‘There must be something wrong with me,’ I thought.
If that wasn’t bad enough, because of our living circumstances, our family was living under the guise of an expectation that the church silently placed upon us. My life was under a constant microscope, and I truly believed if I had strayed from this ‘perfect Christian narrative,’ I was a bad person, doomed to burn in the pits of hell. Even the idea of drinking or wanting to go to a party was considered evil. I mean, I learned about sex from picture books that were probably published in the 1970s. From a young age, shame was the name of the game for me. And from this lens, I learned in order to be accepted and loved, I had to be someone else. I decided to create a Rolodex of different masks that would be worn throughout my life to fit the situation I was in; masks that would help me fit in, masks that would get me noticed, masks that would find me temporary love, but in the end, would only provide a temporary fix for the inner turmoil, pain, brokenness and hate I felt within.
What was mask one you ask? Well, her name was anorexia. Body image was always something that was made very aware to me. I grew up in a family whose matriarch, my sweet grandmother, was constantly watching her weight and whose idea of a proper hello when you visited her was, ‘Oh WOW, you look great. Have you lost weight?’ Or ‘Oh wow, you’ve gained some weight, huh?’ This was a narrative that had been placed upon my mother from my grandmother, so I was very aware of my mother’s relationship with her body growing up. She was always dieting, always commenting on her body negatively, and always struggled with her relationship with food. But what really sewed together the final stitch in my mask number one was the moment when my grandmother looked me in the eye and said, ‘Well, Alyn, you know if you want to go to the gym, I will pay for it because I think you need it.’ I was 12 years old. It was at that moment I knew my body wasn’t mine, I needed to hate it and I would never be more than how my body looked.
I did everything in my power to look perfect. I lost 40 pounds in three months, stopped eating entirely, and began over-exercising and guess what happened. People started noticing me! I was getting boyfriends, I was popular, people were inviting me to parties, and I finally was accepted. All the while, I was dying on the inside. There was a void within me, and no amount of compliments and attention could seem to make it go away. Why couldn’t they love me for me? Why aren’t I good enough? I must have been a mistake. I remember weeping every morning and night because I just wanted to feel good inside and the more I starved, the worse I felt. I began to cut myself, passing out in class, and then I decided to take my own life. But at that fateful moment, something held me back.
Fast forward to high school and college, when mask number two started to come into play. Still in the cycle of restricting and binging and hating the woman that stared back at me in the mirror, I was diving deeper into the emptiness I felt inside. This time, I decided if I just became the rebel, I would be loved. ‘If they can’t love me for who I am, and if I am not good enough to be seen, then I will make them see an illusion of someone that will demand attention.’ I became the rule-breaker, the girl who wasn’t afraid of taking that drug or traveling to distant lands to reinvent herself. I was the girl who would drink 25 shots in a row and take her clothes off in a room full of people and have not a care in the world. I was the girl who would give her body away to anyone, so free, so wild, so unattached. But with every new hangover, with every new bed I woke up in, and with the everyday morning routine of asking myself, ‘So what happened last night,’ I still felt dead inside. No matter how drunk I got, how high I got, or how much I expected sex to make me feel good, I still cried every day, I still felt more alone than ever and I still believed I wasn’t meant for this world.
You know when you have that pivotal moment in your life? You know, the look-in-the-mirror, existential crisis moment where you stare yourself down in the mirror, asking the mystical man in the sky what is this all about? Why am I here? Who am I? Well, that moment came for me, and it was a swift kick in the ass. My moment looked like me locking myself in the supply closet at the restaurant I was the general manager at with a margarita in one hand and a handful of tears in the other. I realized I didn’t even recognize the woman sitting on the floor. I was 27, I had developed a full-blown coke addiction, I was blacking out from drinking almost every night, I was still in the constant cycle of hating my body and starving myself on the daily. I was constantly giving myself away to men who treated me poorly, who used me and only wanted me for my body, and I was just exhausted. Something had to change.
I did what any 20-something who was on the precipice of a major life change and in the midst of a quarter-life crisis would do. I sold everything I owned, left the love of my life, and moved to a 32-square-foot island in the middle of The Caribbean to ‘start over.’ Although this new place was yet another playground for me to play alongside my inner demons, this was also the place where my healing began. It was on this island where I was led to my place of spiritual awakening, but it was also the place where for the first time, I realized I was so much stronger than all those things I was using to FEEL good enough. In this place, I became aware I was deserving of feeling good enough, but I still didn’t know how. Well, it was Divine timing that saved my life. My roommate handed me a book that changed my life, ‘The Pilgrimage,’ by Paulo Coehlo. It is in this book where the author shares his transformational journey on the Camino De Santiago, and while I was reading this, I felt that inner nudge again from within. A small voice coming from the depths of my heart and soul simply said, ‘Go.’ I knew then and there, I had to go. God was giving me a second chance, and I had to take it.
I packed a 15-pound backpack with three pairs of pants, my camera, a bible, my journal, a sweatshirt, a rain jacket, three pairs of wool socks, and three pairs of underwear (the majority of which I either forgot or lost along the way) and headed over the pond, to Spain, and out on my quest.
Now we are back at the beginning of my story. This was the pinnacle moment in my life where I knew there was no looking back. It was either this trek or my life and for the first time in my life, I truly chose my life. I decided it was time to stop surviving my life and time to start LIVING. For 5 weeks and 500 miles, I pushed myself, I cried, I felt like giving up, I questioned everything I had ever done, I felt alone and I felt weak, but I also felt joy, felt alive, felt strength like I have never experienced.
Most importantly, for the first time in my life, I felt love. It was a beautiful morning. The landscape was as crisp and clear as ever. The sun shone through a cloudless sky and the reflection of the morning dew in the radiating sunlight made you feel as if the world was created just for you. It was this morning where God truly showed up in my life and not just the God the church had preached to me about my whole life, but God, the Father. It was in this morning where I came back to life. As I was walking alongside this beautiful hillside inhaling the majestic beauty of the world around me, I remember my entire body went weak, the world around me all became pure light, and as tears began to stream down my face, I dropped to my knees as if someone had pulled me down, and I wept. I wept for all the times I never loved myself, I wept for the pain that had instilled on myself, I wept for the brokenness I had lived a lifetime of feeling, but then something magical happened.
I was filled with an inner peace I had never felt before. It was if someone was kneeling behind me and wrapping my poor, curled up body in a blanket of warmth. I felt that inner nudge again and heard, ‘Alyn, I love you. I love you. Come back. Come home.’ I was filled with the knowledge that no matter what I had done, no matter what was done to me, and no matter what people said about me, I was perfect. I WAS love and I had always been God’s Beloved. I was the direct embodiment of God’s love and it was my BIRTHRIGHT, as a divine miracle to live from this lens every day. From this exact point on, everything changed for me.
Instead of living a life full of sadness, full of pain, and one where I was constantly searching for external validation and love in the form of drugs, sex, alcohol and of starving myself so I could fit into societies’ ideals of worthiness, I began to live a life where I honored myself through the gift of divine, radical, self-love. I honored myself by nurturing my sacred temple, my body, through nourishment, and through movement. I honored my mind for the first time in my life allowing myself to really cultivate presence and awareness around all the inner wounds that needed to be revealed in order to heal.
For the first time, I felt safe enough to get to the root of those limiting beliefs behind my self worth by creating a relationship with my inner child and becoming a safe place for her to heal. I honored my emotions by strengthening my confidence muscle through activating my voice in the form of boundaries, expressing my needs to all those in my life, and cutting out all of the people, places, and things that didn’t align with those needs. I let my guard down and let others love me the way I knew I deserved to be loved. I stepped out from fear and enrolled in school again, I quit my soul-sucking corporate job, I started the business of my dreams in which I could share my own journey of healing in order to empower women to do the same, and I met the man who would transform the way I had viewed love.
That’s my story. It’s one of the Phoenix, I always say. Healing isn’t linear, my loves. We all have dark days and nights, but like the Phoenix, we must continuously fall to heal. In this space of healing, there is a beautiful light that brings us back to life, to go out, to shine, to feel, to heal, to love, to be grateful, to have fun, to be expressed, to become with ease and flow, and to truly Rebirth To Rise.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Alyn McDermott from Massachusetts. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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