When we are in the pit of despair, we're fully aware that we want, and need, to make big changes to the way we live, but the degree to which those changes will ultimately impact upon us long term usually remains a blank canvas until much further down the line. Only then, with reflection, can we see just how far we have come. In the midst of our deep pain, it's so hard to truly appreciate the degree to which we might turn ourselves and our life around.
When I reflect on the years between my teens and mid-thirties, I barely recognise that person as me.
I see myself at the age of 15 falling into the grip of an intensely powerful eating disorder that was to last seven years, weighing myself hundreds of times a week, making myself sick, taking amphetamines in order to stave off hunger and keep moving on zero food intake. I see myself waking up on the floor of my college classroom surrounded by my classmates after I'd fainted and slid off my chair mid-lesson because I hadn't eaten for days.
I see myself in a violent relationship at the age of 20, being bullied and beaten up, mentally manipulated and physically attacked.
I see myself spending entire days in the pub with people whose common feature was addiction to substances of one type or another; the sort of people who have no compassion, and no sense of right or wrong.
I see myself waking up in hospital after drinking myself into oblivion and being taken there in an ambulance.
And while living in the grimmest of these memories, I know for a fact that I never, ever would have been able to visualise myself today, living as I do. It's not the way I look, or anything external to me that I could not have imagined, but rather the way in which I perceive myself and the world around me. The younger me had no grasp whatsoever of being able to live with self-compassion, self-respect, motivation and aspiration, goals and values, pushing myself to be better every day, dealing constructively with hurdles, overcoming my biggest battles and feeling proud of myself.
So, how does human transformation happen? How can we move from one extreme to another? How do we truly change from the inside out?
Here are the lessons that I have learnt along the way:
Choose one majorly problematic behaviour and deal only with that to begin with. Don't overwhelm yourself with efforts to sort out your diet, get fit, learn to live more mindfully, embrace self-compassion, and stop drinking, all at the same time. Just pick the biggest problematic behaviour, the one that impacts the most on your whole existence, and work solely on that. Throw everything at that one thing. For me, this was being alcohol-free.
Engage in radical self-belief; absolutely refuse to buy into the negative crap that your mind will insist on telling you. Whenever you hear the words "I can't do this", "I'll never change", "Everything is too difficult" or whichever variation of these words with which your mind torments you, shut it down. Just don't listen. I like to close my eyes, breathe and visualise myself moving forwards into a sunshine-filled place, transcending above all the bad stuff.
Understand that connection and the support of others is important, but ultimately you have to dig deep and do this using your own emotional resilience. In your darkest hour, nobody is going to be there, pushing you on and making you do the work, challenging you to be different. There's only you that can do this, and recognising this fact leads to a deep sense of humility, self-reliance and, eventually, recovery from your demons. Don't be scared by this need for personal responsibility - embrace it. Trust that you are ALWAYS stronger than you think you are.
Be open to ideas, teachings and philosophies that are new to you. Being stuck in the same mindset (the one that keeps you locked in negative cycles) is something that won't change if you simply keep reinforcing the same beliefs and concepts you have routinely bought into for your whole life. There will always be something you can learn and grow from - you just need to open your eyes and heart to seeing it.
Know that change is gradual. It's like a deeply frozen lake melting gradually over weeks, or a tree growing hundreds of feet high from just a tiny seed. You can't see the change happen day to day, but at some point you'll stand back and think, wow, when did all this happen? Everything looks so different now. Everything has changed. Slow and steady wins the race, so don't allow impatience to disrupt your efforts. You'll get there, but it's not going to happen in a week.
Appreciate and get on board with the concept of lifelong growing and development. You are not going to quit drinking/conquer your eating disorder/escape a destructive relationship and then that's it, you're suddenly there - you've arrived. It isn't like that. The more you change, the more about yourself that you will want to uncover; the more you'll want to get to know, or challenge, or understand. It never stops, but that's wonderful. It's an amazing thing to grow continually like the oak tree from the acorn; to unearth new perspectives and feelings, to always be on a road of discovery.
Life is a twisty, turning path and it will never be easy to imagine and believe in an unknown version of you. But if you can, put your faith in the idea that within you there are many, many hidden depths. And like a row of dominoes falling into one another, as soon as you begin to tackle your biggest demons, they will fall and knock into the next. One by one, this process will sweep away all of your internal struggles.
Eventually, you will notice that big changes have taken place and you feel very different. You feel new. And you can say, hand on heart, that you really like who you've become.