When I moved to Canada in January 2003, I came with only one suitcase. I left almost all my worldly possessions back in Germany to start over in a new country with a new man. It was the classic fresh start, one I had been dreaming about for years. The previous 18 months had been the worst ones of my life, and I couldn’t wait to start life over. New place, new life, right?
Not quite. A few unwelcome passengers had hitched a ride in my one suitcase, so stealthily that I didn’t notice them for a while. I was high on new love, new people, and new beginnings, and I thought that I had left my past and my problems behind me. I was 23 and didn’t know any better—I thought a change of scenery was all you needed for a new and improved life.
Fast-forward to a random day at school in 2008 when I had to invent a reason for bursting into tears because I was crying without knowing why.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2012 when my husband took me to our doctor because my mood swings and depression had gotten so bad that it was threatening our relationship.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2019, when I was sitting in another doctor’s office, tears silently dripping down my chin, beseeching the young resident to help me. The antidepressants I had been taking for 7 years seemed to have stopped working.
Fast-forward to last year, when I was so scared some days that I was irrationally afraid of picking up the phone, opening the door, or seeing anybody. That fear, combined with the worry that I would have to add anxiety to my already full plate of depression and PMDD, were what finally made me seek therapy.
It was in therapy where I found out about the sneaky passengers that had travelled with me from Germany. I had thought that I had left them behind me long ago—but of course, I hadn’t. I had never confronted them.
They were the reason for my fears, my worries, my need to please and my craving for outside approval. I had carried them faithfully with me throughout all my growth and triumphs, the victories and successes, right into the beautiful life I had created with my love.
They had become heavy. So heavy that they impacted my daily life. I wanted to let go of that burden, and there was only one way to do it: I had to face my demons.
Together with my therapist, we unpacked one demon after another that had been hiding in the darkness and safety of my mind for all these years. I was scared—I had never properly faced them, but stuffed them deep into the darkest corners of my mind, hoping they would wither and die. Instead, they had been lying in wait, surfacing once every few months or years when I felt particularly vulnerable or emotional, feeding on my fears and my insecurities. Those times were so unpleasant that I never looked at them properly, too afraid of them. Instead I stuck my head in the sand like an ostrich in the futile hope that if I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me.
My refusal to drag my demons into the light and face them was what gave them the power they had. When my therapist figuratively took me by the hand and led me to them, gently but persistently, I saw them clearly for the first time since I was a child and young adult.
They were smaller than I remembered. Mostly things that happened to the child-me decades ago. By never releasing them, they had grown disproportionately in the murkiness of my subconscious. Incidents that had hurt me 30 years ago that I never dealt with were continuously superimposed onto other people. I gave these people power they didn’t have because I had never let go of the pain that had been inflicted on me a long time ago. Instead, I had let it grow and fester, projecting my past hurt onto new people and opening up old wounds again and again.
But it wasn’t too late. I could let go of stuff no matter how big it was or how long ago it had happened. I had been dragging my past around with me, but I could put it down right then and there.
Over several weeks we took one sneaky passenger after another out of the suitcase, examined them by the light of day, and then I put them down forever. No grudges, no regrets.
With every demon I put to rest, I felt lighter and more free. It’s a feeling that has only intensified over the past several months, because I l acquired a tool that has been hugely empowering: mindfulness.
I’ve heard of it before, of course. You can’t be a yogi and not have been told (with an enthusiasm bordering on ecstasy) how life-changing and amazing mindfulness is. But to me, it was in the same league as hemp products, veganism, and green smoothies—something hippie-dippie yogis were into, but not for me.
Well, joke’s on me. Here I am, about to tell you how life-changing and amazing mindfulness is. Maybe balancing my chakras is the next step? I’m not going to rule anything out anymore, so who knows.
What is mindfulness? I like simple explanations, and this one is what makes the most sense to me:
“Mindfulness is moment-by-moment awareness (and acceptance) of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment, without judgement.
Mindfulness focuses the mind on what is being sensed at each moment, instead of thinking of the past or of the future.
Here’s an example: a couple of weeks ago, I had an unpleasant encounter with someone. That person said a few things that were more baffling than upsetting, but within the context of our history my immediate reaction was to question myself and my value as a person. Did I do something wrong? Had I really been hurtful? Was I a selfish person? Should I apologize?
But then I went for a walk with Lily and I said aloud everything I was feeling (I find that saying stuff out loud or writing it down makes it clearer to me what’s going on in my head):
“I’m feeling confused and hurt. I’m questioning myself. Am I a bad person? I don’t want to be a bad person. Why am I giving this person so much power over me?”
I didn’t judge myself for these thoughts. I put them out there neutrally, and then I answered them one by one:
“It’s okay to feel confused and hurt. But I can let this feeling go.”
“It’s okay to question myself. But I acted true to myself and according to what felt right.”
“I am not a bad person.”
“It’s my choice how much power I give to other people. I can take it away right now.”
I do this all the time. Daily. I take notice of the thoughts or impulses that are disturbing me, and I stop and pause. I take them out of the shadows and shine a light on them, state what they are and how they make me feel. And when they don’t serve me, I let them go.
When people ask me to do something for them, I pause and think before I automatically say yes. If I need time, I literally say: “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”
My urge to please is rapidly being replaced by the desire to be and act true to myself. If it doesn’t feel right, I won’t do it just because you want me to.
My fear of upsetting people is being replaced by the knowledge that I have no control over other people’s reactions, thoughts, or acts. They are not my responsibility.
The only thing I can control are my own actions, thoughts, and acts, and I’m the only one responsible for them. I won’t give that power to anybody else ever again.
Being aware of my surroundings and bodily sensations is giving me newfound joy countless times every day. I love finding the beauty in a cloud formation, the coyote running over the field, our pigeons soaring above the ranch or the animals enjoying themselves in the snow. Feeling my muscles working when I’m walking briskly, my lungs filling with air and my cheeks reddening in the cold makes me feel so good and proud of my body. It’s healthy, helping me to experience the world around me and carrying me wherever I want to go.
Being mindful helps us be aware of what we’re sensing at any given moment. It’s opening up our closed-off mind to the world.
It’s like waking up after having been asleep for ages, plagued by occasional nightmares.
I’m wide awake now, and the view is beautiful.