Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Growing up, I developed a love of stories. To this day, even if it's a super cheesy Hallmark movie, I want to know how the story ends. As a child, I use to write short stories (about horses of course) and loved the classics like Black Beauty and The Black Stallion. I thought that someday, I would be grown up and free to run like the wind, just like the characters in these stories. I would chase the sunset with my arms open wide feeling confident and excited about what was in front of me without looking back.
Then real life happened.
It didn't happen all at once, of course. Life happened bit by bit, day by day. And slowly, I began to take on stories of others. My identity slowly became intertwined with theirs. The problems they struggled with became my struggles. Their fears slowly transformed into my own. I picked up a worry here and a burden there.
After years of collecting these stories, struggles and burdens, I felt stuck. It was hard to carry all of it. Somewhere I knew it wasn't mine to carry, but I hadn't quite figured out how to let it go, they'd been with me for so long. It was familiar, even if it was painful. Without noticing, they became a slow poison and not only was I the one suffering from it, I was the one willingly drinking it.
Something had to change. I tried to push it away, but it still was there in the back of my mind. No matter how hard I shoved, it would creep back in. It became more and more apparent that my will power to make it go away wasn't going to work. In fact, on some level, I think it may have made it worse.
Eventually, it lead to a panic attack. If you've never had one, I can only describe the one I experienced. It was like the pressure inside myself bubbled over and I began to cry hysterically. I've had my share of crying over the years, but this was something different. This was so far out of my control and I couldn't stop it. My mind was fully present, but my body would not listen. It was like it had suddenly become it's own master. I gasped for air and the sounds that left my throat were unrecognizable to me.
It was my wake up call that something had to change.
I believe that there are times when God lets us get to a place of desperation in order to bring about real change in our lives. For me, it was after two panic attacks when I heard a podcast on the very topic I was struggling so much with. She shared her personal story of her own struggle and how she processed a change in her mindset. So, deciding to make some changes in my own state of mind, I followed a few of her suggestions.
It was an autumn afternoon and I had the house to myself (which is rare for me!). It wasn't planned, but something in me said today the day to dig in and deal with this. I got a fire going in the backyard pit, grabbed a cozy blanket, paper and pen, and began to write.
I wrote letters to each person I was carrying something for. I told them that I had been hanging on to things that were not mine and I was now returning them. I returned everything that wasn't mine: shame, fear, choices, responsibilities, brokenness. Everything that I had carried that was never mine to carry. It wasn't my issue to figure out, it wasn't my responsibility to own, and it wasn't my shame to release. All these burdens belonged to others. I loved all these people very much, but I was not the one who owned these struggles, they were. I had my own share of struggles and burdens without adding theirs on top of it. I had my own life to live and embrace.
Letter by letter, I released and returned each one that I had picked up. In my letters, I explained that I loved and supported each of these people, I just wasn't going to own their issues, struggles and burdens any more for myself. They weren't mine.
I read each letter out loud. Addressed it to the person it belonged to, and then released it into the flames. One by one, I wrote a letter to each of them. One by one, the flames burned those letters and I felt myself become a bit lighter each time.
The issues, struggles, and burdens are still there, but they're not mine anymore. Without that weight, I've been able to move forward in my own life and focus on my own need for personal growth.
Maybe for you, there are things you need to return too. They say forgiveness isn't just about setting the other person free, it's about choosing freedom for yourself as well. It's about refusing to play the part of the debt collector for a bill that may never be paid: an apology you may never hear, recognition you may never receive, or love that should have been given to you. Forgiveness releases us from the waiting and the pain of that waiting. Forgiveness allows us to leave the phone chained to a desk with a list of what is owed carved into wood and walk away to live a life in freedom.
Riding off into the sunset didn't end up being how I pictured it. I've had to embrace pain and learn how to extend grace that has been given me. I've had to open my arms to life, knowing that it makes me vulnerable, but it also makes me free.