a couple of days ago i found myself sitting on my bedroom floor, submerged in a pile of shirts, dresses, blazers and pants. every pattern, every fabric reminded me of who i was, where i was when i wore them. i was sorting through my work clothes. clothes i haven’t worn since i became seriously ill with depression and anxiety two and a half years ago.
nearly every day since early 2014 i have walked past them, hanging in my closet. i have watched them gather dust and i have wondered so many times if i would ever wear them again. only now did i feel ready to sort through them and let them go. to unpack my baggage. as soon as i took them off the hangers and opened up the storage boxes i realized why i couldn’t do it before. it was painful. it hit me in my gut. looking through them made me think about who i was just before my life fell apart.
i wore those clothes when i worked full-time. when my career was my top priority. when i pushed myself way too hard and presented a perfect image to my colleagues that glossed over my dark spots. the amy who wore those heels and suits never took a break and didn’t take anybody’s crap. she was no-nonsense, high achieving and always “on” for others. she dazzled her coworkers with her creativity and professionalism. and yet that same amy cried on the way home from work and in her car during her lunch break, terrified to tell anyone she worked with that she struggled with depression. she was frequently overwhelmed and paralyzed with anxiety but unable to communicate her fears to anyone else. her work clothes were part of the mask she wore – she felt that if she looked good on the outside it might make up for how sad and afraid she felt on the inside.
and then that amy got sick. so sick that she had to first take an extended leave of absence from her job as a communications director and eventually resign. that amy – who just six months before getting sick was the valedictorian of her leadership development class – now had to sign up for disability insurance. she felt lost at sea without a job, and looking at those work clothes hanging lifeless in the closet was a daily reminder of her failure and her shame. they seemed like a badge of honor that she no longer deserved to wear. sometimes she would stand in the closet, clutching the skirts and pressing her face into the jackets and cry, cry cry. it felt to that amy like she would never get to wear them again.
as the months passed that amy began to recover. ever so slowly she got stronger and regained a little bit of confidence, taking life one painful day at a time. she began to work again – part-time in a totally different environment. much more casual than the office where she wore the fancy suits and dresses. and much more encouraging of work-life balance. she still looked longingly at the work clothes and held onto them, season after season, wondering when she would be able to wear them again. but even as she was holding onto the mask amy was taking it off at the same time.
somewhere along the way something unexpected happened. that amy grew out of those clothes. not physically but mentally. she grew into this amy. who no longer wants to go backwards and fit into the old way of working. it’s not that she can’t – it’s that she doesn’t want to. i am making a choice. the tradeoff isn’t worth it – my health is more important. i am learning how to take care of myself and how to engage with work in a totally new way. i don’t need that image of perfection anymore – as scary as it is to try and let it go. all the blazers, dresses and high heels in the world can’t make me feel healthy or whole. only i can do that.
so i took all of the clothes, bagged them up and gave them away. i donated them to an organization called dress for success that helps women living in poverty prepare for job interviews. maybe my clothes will find new life, helping another woman as she, too, strives to get stronger. as i loaded the bags into my car and drove to deliver them i felt the deep pang of loss. letting go is painful – and scary. i know that it wasn’t about the clothes – it was about saying goodbye to my old way of working and living. a way that worked for me then but no longer works for me now.
when i got back from the delivery i looked at my closet. it was mostly empty and my voice echoed off the walls as i said out loud, “i’m proud of you, amy.” and i felt surrounded by the space that had opened up. the space for new possibilities that i can’t see right now.
sometimes recovery is about looking back and letting something go. and sometimes it is about looking ahead and making room for something that hasn’t come along yet.
making room for hope.