Written by Erica de Belen
Art by Annie Spratt
CW: Mention of drowning
Ever since I could write, I have always been drawn to documenting this truth. The simple, terrifying, wonderful fact that I am alive. A pile of half-scribbled-in notebooks sits on my bedroom floor. Every version of me so far has been laid down in each of the pages. Immortalized. Unmoving. It is simultaneously beautiful, and the most disquieting act of creation. There are moments where I look back at my old journal entries with a feeling of unfamiliarity. There are other times where I can’t help but mourn.
I have always known that I am harsh towards myself. I am old enough now to realize that this is a mindset I have clothed myself in—maybe a product of the circumstances then—but I feel as if I am not old enough to know how to shed off the extra weight. Some days, I feel like I may stay this way forever; that it is easier to point out everything wrong with myself than to extend grace and kindness.
In the quietness of my room, I am swimming with the girl from my past, with each and every one of her dancing shadows. They prove to me that I have existed in many ways. But I cannot always say that she was truly alive. I realize that it is something different altogether.
Here is a short journal entry I wrote five years ago: I am afraid of living.
Around the same year I wrote that entry, I witnessed my dad save a drowning woman. Merciless waves pushed her into a 20-foot-deep lagoon. Her head was barely above the water. Against the sound of the rumbling waves, I could hear bubbles of laughter coming out of the mouths of her friends. Yes, I remember—they were laughing as she was being violently sloshed around in the deep chasm. My dad, however, locked eyes on the danger in front of him—and leapt into the water. Dad told me he did not have time to think of a plan. The water was strong down there, was all he had said. And yet, he had fearlessly jumped right into the raging waters.
After that incident, I heard a saying that goes, “Never turn your back on the ocean.” A phrase that was born out of the existence of sneaker waves: powerful forces of nature that could grab you by the heels, and drag you towards the heart of the sea. I heard of a report from a small town in Iceland; five tourists were swept away by these leviathan waves. The tourists probably stopped trying to fight against it sometime along the way.
Maybe I was born a small town child: ruddy-cheeked, wide-eyed. Always afraid to touch the water that had taken men.
Here’s something that I don’t readily admit to others: I envy my friends who have embarrassing stories to tell. My friends tell me, however, that I am lucky. I don’t have a lot of embarrassing phases or stories to share from when I was younger.
The truth is, as a child, I never gave myself room to feel or do what I truly wanted. My vision would always be set to a different point in time. I would always imagine myself older, looking back at this version of me in disapproval. I have always believed that sooner or later, I would find myself embarrassing—that even if I liked the person who I am now, I would one day be disappointed. This genuine fear of mine, birthed a silent promise to myself. A promise to never indulge too much. To always proceed in caution. To always fight against the current. Maybe this is why the phrase—“mature for your age,” had always come up in my childhood. But what did that cost? If I had been kind enough to allow myself to feel and experience, what would I have gained?
A few days before my own birthday, a friend asked me, How does it feel? To be getting older? As an answer to my friend’s question, I simply said that I didn’t know. But I did. At that time I just did not know how to say:
Sometimes I get sad when I think about her—the girl I have deprived of a childhood. I am still trying to hold on to her. But each day it feels as if I am losing her through the cracks of my fingers, and every time this body of mine has circled around the sun again, it feels unbearable.
I was ashamed. How could you be almost seventeen, and say you have never loved yourself? For the first time, I felt the impossibility of it all—how could I possibly learn tenderness, after years of being my biggest suppressor?
As another year passes, I feel this more deeply. These days, I find myself thinking about how I was too afraid of everything.
How I avoided experiences to protect myself from any unwanted emotion— Fright. Embarrassment. Shame.
How I lost sight of her face in exchange for a false sense of safety.
How I never gave her enough room to breathe.
How I never locked my eyes away from the shoreline.
This year, I hope to leave time behind. I have gotten older. The world won’t slow down for me — but these days, I am learning that healing has never been time-bound. It is not too late to bring it under the light; to take the first step. It is not too late to learn grace. And if I could speak to her now, I would say:
You are a small town child with tidepools for eyes. When you discover the ocean for the first time, know that it is okay to wade a little. It is okay to allow the water to touch you. Feel the rhythm of the waves against your knees. Rest in this. There is beauty in allowance; in closing your eyes and allowing the current to bring you along gently. If the water knocks you down, you can always get back up.
And for the record—
I do not hate you. I want to make room in this home for you. I will learn to be kind. I will learn to love you for who you are now.
One day, I could finally say that I am alive. I will know that I exist, and that I live. I live. I live. I live.