Last week I celebrated my 25th birthday. I had a lovely day with a few of my favorite people, but, despite my best efforts to cling to those good feelings, I fell into a bit of an emotional slump the rest of the week. Since becoming disabled milestones like graduations and big birthdays have usually come with anxiety, disappointment, and frustration that life doesn’t look the way I imagined or hoped it would. I am forced to face my grief about things beyond my control and my strong desire to buy into an illusion of control by reflecting on all of the things I could have done differently that might have led to a different outcome. I think many people, disabled or not, struggle with feeling this way as they age. However, I’m learning to practice celebrating myself more freely, so instead of discussing the pain and uncertainty of the present and future, I want to share a bit about that celebrative journey.
In the past few months I’ve found myself back on my own team in a big way after a few years of not being very kind to myself. I am not quite sure when or how the big shift happened, but I know I’ve been doing a few little things over the past couple of years to try to practice self-acceptance even when I haven’t been feeling a lot of love or compassion for myself. One of these little, unglamorous, routine practices has been talking to myself the way I would talk to Little Hailey. When I am not doing well emotionally, it’s often been tempting to be very harsh with myself and find ways to blame myself for my pain as a way of pretending I am in control. But while that often felt right to my guilt-prone personality (enneagram 1, anyone?) it never actually helps the situation or helps me move towards emotional wholeness. As I began to be able to internalize this truth I tried to practice talking to myself the way I would talk to Little Hailey. I never really went through a phase of feeling embarrassed by my child-self. I’ve always thought that despite her imperfections Little Hailey was awesome. In my late teens I felt like I had lost all of that awesome, but what I have learned is that Little Hailey is still right here and one of the biggest things holding her back has been me telling her she’s not good enough. Like most positive growth it’s taken me a long time to internalize this and allow it to change how I relate to myself. Slowly, but surely, practicing loving Little Hailey has begun to translate not only into loving grown-up Hailey, but into celebrating the ways in which all of Little Hailey’s wonderful quirks, values, and qualities have grown with me and continue to shape who I am. Reconnecting with the younger version of myself that I love so easily has helped me realize that who I am now isn’t hard to love the way I believed she was for so long.
As part of celebrating 25 years with myself, here are some short little anecdotes and stories about little Hailey that have carried over into who I am today and that represent the best and truest version of myself!
- I’ve always sought out ways to make things more fun or interesting. As a kid I was particularly good at this because my imagination was wildly vivid. Chores and cleaning, in particular, brought out my creativity. I would often dress up in old dresses and aprons and pretend to be Cinderella when asked to do my chores. I would make a big show of singing myself and sighing forlornly as I worked. Not because I actually thought it was cruel of my parents to ask me to do chores, but because it was so much more exciting to pretend that it was cruel.
Similarly, on a couple of occasions when I was probably around 7 or 8, I’d find myself unable to fall asleep at night (a lifelong trend) and so I’d get up and clean my room by lamplight, which for some reason made me feel very sneaky and mischievous. When I was finished I would sprinkle glitter confetti on my desk, and, in the morning, I’d tell my mom that the “room cleaning fairy came last night.” Despite never believing in the tooth fairy or Santa, I was very convinced of my own ability to create a kind of magic.
- As a kid I was constantly consuming, creating, and telling stories. Once, when I was ten or eleven, I spent an hour explaining in great detail the entire plot of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” to my (very forbearing) dad on a walk around the hill by our house because I was so blown away by the story and needed to tell someone all about it. I am sure I did this many, many times to different friends and family members about different books (sorry everyone, and thank you for letting me be such a nerd).
I made up my own stories all of the time too, and told them to anyone who would listen (literally). When my family would travel for my dad’s work, we’d stay in hotels, camp cabins, church housing or people’s homes and often my brothers and I would be sent to bed while the grown-ups continued to socialize. At home all three of us usually fell asleep listening to audio books or music, so when we were on the road I would be the audio book and tell them stories or sing until they fell asleep. My brother Noah recently told me that he still remembers thinking that my rendition of “Jack and the Beanstalk” was brilliant. In all honesty, I think most of my interpretation of “Jack and the Beanstalk” comprised of in-depth descriptions of Jack encountering giant-sized food? I remember spending minutes at a time just describing Jack swimming through a giant bowl of Jell-O. But apparently this was enough to warrant repeat requests for the story. I remembering loving it when my brothers had fallen asleep because I felt like I had fulfilled my duty as a big sister and taken good care of them.
- I loved performing as a kid in a really intense, but also informal way. Throughout my childhood and into my teen years I would choreograph dance numbers to my favorite songs, alone or with friends, and then perform them for anyone I who would watch. I’d make-up sketches or retellings of fairy tales, and direct my brothers and friends in them and then perform for babysitters, parents, or in front of groups at camp/house church/homeschool events. I was enrolled in drama classes from a young age, but it was never enough. I acutely remember performing a solo dance routine I choreographed to U2’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own” for my Girl Scout troop in someone’s living room when I was eleven with a level of confidence I only wish I could have bottled and saved forever.
- In a similar vein, as a child I was quite free from self consciousness about my quirks or any pressure to fit into a certain mold. I loved mud, getting dirty, climbing trees and dinosaurs, and I loved pretty dresses, pink, Barbies, and feeling like a princess. To me these things were never opposed and I loved that freedom to be all of myself. I had so many interests that were a bit uncommon, but I never worried that my peers might think they were weird. In middle school I loved Shakespeare and asked if I could read my favorite plays for school. Around the same time my music obsessions were Enya and a Celtic band called Solas. I once brought my Enya CD to a friend’s birthday sleepover when I was 13 and put it on with no shame, excited to share my music. And it worked out! My friends said it sounded like fairy music and we twirled around the room to it! That freedom to be myself without comparison or worry that I wouldn’t fit in was like a superpower.
- I always valued inclusion with a fiery passion. My mom had to put limits on how many people I could invite to my birthday parties because I never wanted to leave anyone out. At age six, when everyone in my homeschool group was forming clubs for fun, I tried to start a “Jesus club” that everyone could be a part of (obviously this didn’t work out great in my secular San Francisco homeschool group, but my heart was in the right place). From a young age I’d go out of my way to include people who were sitting on the sidelines. I didn’t always do this perfectly, sometimes I just wanted to have fun with my friends without going out of my way to include others, but as a general rule I felt a strong sense of duty to make sure people felt like they belonged. I also demanded certain kinds of inclusion for myself. Starting in 3rd grade or so I started asking my mom for more books about girls, especially in our history curriculum. I couldn’t believe the myth that women had just been sitting at home for most of history because I knew I wouldn’t have been happy doing that. I read every age-appropriate book I could get my hands on about women in history who didn’t behave the way society wanted them to, and aggressively sought out fiction in which girls got to have adventures and be heroes. I was determined to find proof that my desires to be brave and strong and do the right thing were part of a history that had room for me.
- I can’t remember a time before I felt a strong sense of duty to make the world a better place. As a kid, I literally believed I could solve the world’s biggest problems if only I focused and worked hard enough. When I was seven or eight, I realized that solving all of the world’s problems might be a bit much, so I thought maybe I should pick one and focus on it until it was done. But picking one was too hard, even with my incredibly simplistic understanding of suffering and what caused it. I would weigh the options, solve hunger and starvation world-wide, or save the environment? Reallocate resources so that no one ever had to be homeless, or find the solution to war? The conviction that I could make a real, important difference was perhaps a bit heavy for a kid at times, but I my belief in my ability to effect positive change was also deeply empowering and led me to think carefully about my impact on the world and the people in it.
In some way or another all of these things have stayed with me, and I am so grateful for the way Little Hailey chose to be in the world. I have so much still to re-learn from her confidence, conviction, empathy, joy, and passion, but find comfort in knowing that it’s all still part of me. I felt a little self-indulgent deciding to write this. Worried that it might be interpreted as self-absorbed rambling. However, I think that it’s important for everyone, especially those of us with harsh inner-critics, to learn to embrace and celebrate the truest and deepest parts of ourselves. Our culture’s emphasis on self-improvement without non-production oriented self-celebration can starve us of self-love and validation if left unchecked. We are encouraged to celebrate material and monetary successes and to derive validation from these things, and while we should feel free to celebrate our accomplishments, I also find it incredibly powerful to make space to celebrate innate parts of myself that aren’t necessarily linked to societal definitions of success. I am learning to love myself for who I am instead of what I can produce or achieve, and this journey is allowing me to feel freer and more at home with myself the longer I am on it.