In college, I was addicted to water. I know—sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I wasn’t conscious of this until my best friend mentioned it while we were studying abroad in Italy. “It’s like you’re trying to purify yourself or something,” she said, casually, on a train departing from Merano. The statement stuck, however, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized how astute her comment had been. Of all the toxicity present in our lives, none is more harmful or debilitating than shame, for it robs us of our very light—our ability to shine.

During my collegiate stretch of water guzzling, I suffered from a sort of unconscious self-loathing. I denied myself, to varying degrees: food, affection, play and love. It’s as if I were punishing myself for some wrongdoing. My diet was clean. I drank very little if at all. I was celibate. By all these measures, I was “pure,” yet inside I suffered immeasurably, while friends partied, embracing their youth through experimentation. There was nothing I could point to in order to substantiate my self-flagellation (other than a possible past life experience). Yet, it was pervasive. In retrospect, I now understand that I was crippled with shame. And ironically, that shame led to behavior that only furthered my internal experience. It’s as if I needed to prove to the world and to myself, just how unlovable I was.

I reflected on this further, meditating on this lifelong pattern of self-denial. All the attempts at detoxification, both physical and emotional, were simply a mask for a much deeper issue: my lack of self-acceptance. Of course, I had chosen men who were unavailable, and I had been coming to grips with that, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that the same behavior, inversed, extended to my friendships as well.

Recently, I discovered that an old friend of mine got married and is now expecting her first child. I had pulled away from this friendship as I was entering a rabbit hole of self-discovery and healing and although I had attempted to make amends once I emerged two years later, the friendship remained distant. As I began to integrate, I became acutely more aware of this loss. Even more painful was that I had been responsible. I had been the one to end it.

The announcement of her wedding and pregnancy affected me far more than I would have anticipated. As I recalled our friendship, I realized something both profound and disturbing: I hadn’t allowed myself to receive the friendship, to internalize the bond. Truth be told, I had often been ungrateful. I had thought myself a burden, a dead weight and so I left.

No matter what our life experience, no matter our choices and their consequences, there is always room for redemption, for hope, for light. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t need to labor over our wrongdoings, or self-flagellate. We only have to let the light in. After all, aren’t we all aching to be accepted, flaws and all? Aren’t we ultimately all in the same boat?

Over these past years of self-healing, I have been flooded with love and light. I’m still learning to receive this level of grace and, maybe more importantly, to embrace it. I had been conditioned to struggle. Love, simply for being here, for being born, seemed foreign. Something meant only for infants and pets.

I don’t think I’m alone. We live in a culture bombarding us with ways to better ourselves, to detox, to improve. It seems that we’re told we’re never quite enough. But what if that’s not the answer? What if, instead, the solution is starting simple, so simple it’s almost beyond comprehension? What if we only need to forgive ourselves? Who would we be then?

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