My historic railroad home sat nestled between a nearly-abandoned lot of waist-high weeds, storage crates and an automotive shop. The porch sat almost below the crumbling viaduct, connecting downtown to the west side of town. When the bridge came down, it took only a few short days. One morning I walked below it, past the broken Budweisers, toward my office and the next I found myself standing wide-eyed against the chain-link, staring blankly at the piles of rebar towering above me like curled ribbons.
Somewhere in the stacks of concrete was a tagged traffic sign I’d established an intimate routine with. Its words had greeted me with a comfortable cynicism each day since I hauled my belongings into my new, post-divorce nest; wiping clear my story of what once was in pursuit of everything new. I’d nod as I shuffled my feet home from days of too much work, too little food, just enough vodka to dull the pain. Do Not Enter Love, the sign read. It’s dangerous there, babe, it reminded me.
The town celebrated the shiny, new bridge–four sturdy lanes of traffic winding through newly landscaped terrain, rich with opportunity for development. Walkers and cyclists buzzed back and forth under the lights, gawking at the new perspective of the distant mountains. I sat on my porch, struck by the clear view of what was once obstructed, clutching my heart for that sign.
Love and I had a complex history. I’d always known it was there, bubbling below my chest, rich with gifts left ungiven, but I also knew how dark and cruel and ugly it could be as it threw me against the drywall, declaring my worth between my legs, manipulating, mistreating, and calling me by name as it stabbed me in the belly. For a lifetime, my performance in love for others was clumsy; in love from others; cataclysmic; in love for myself, laughable.
I’d lived as a self-proclaimed whipping post–born undeserving of grace, ease, or abundance. I was thrashed by the blows of others, but above all, a victim of my own hand. Love, inward and outward, was a ploy for power, best dimmed and withheld.
My career was my security–the only place that felt safe. I’d failed as a wife, but I could soar as a professional. I attached every ounce of my worth to my job roles and strategically built the identity I believed was the antidote to my broken heart. Each time the magnet of my nametag snapped onto my jacket, the curtains were drawn. I smiled and laughed, stroking the egos of my peers. I prepared for meetings with purpose and precision–in my mind and in my skirt length. I sat across tables from the troops of middle-aged men–arrogant in their starched slacks–and I performed. They were impressed by my mind, but that’s not why they kept my seat at the table. I sat at the table anyway.
The train whooshed below us and I sought comfort between his arms. Between them I felt safe– blocked from the sting of reality. I felt a heart pulse against mine and let it beat for the part of me that lost its own rhythm. At the time I thought this was the solution. He gave me the warmth I didn’t have. He held me up so the world couldn’t see my struggle to stand. But I was a temporary fix for his own broken heart–a vodka-soaked bandage to take the edge off the dark, winter months. His feelings for me were as real as mine for him, but I knew I wasn’t enough to extinguish the inevitable ahead. I clung to him anyway.
I chased beautiful things with desperation in my eyes. Our love language was material, and each curated corner of my world was a little girl’s plea to gather love. These flowers on my desk have always meant work is great. These matching curtains have always meant I’m doing fine on my own. These leather boots have always meant I’m happy now, mom. She was as broken as I was and knew it wouldn’t ever be different. I cried for her love anyway.
Whole chapters of my life were manufactured in the shadows of self-loathing. For 28 years I’d tapped my hand on my cheek, provoking the world to swing at me the way I deserved. And then, as if the clock struck twelve, the sparkly, smiley, and small existence I’d pretended to carry to keep my keepers happy, shattered. For the first time, in the heaps of my own catastrophe, exhausted from the care-taking and the pretending, a tiny voice in me whispered, How can I love myself now? My body, exhausted from holding it all inside, collapsed into the pain and the release. I stood stripped of everything I’d built around myself–naked, afraid, and ready.
I’d spent a year with my reflection methodically picking at the blemishes in my life until they grew into craters, void of anything familiar, exposing the real and the raw beneath the tight mask I’d so proudly worn for decades. My world, once comfortable, safe, stable, wasn’t enough anymore. My marriage, mortgage, and security were collateral damage. I let the houseplants die and the neighbors talk as I ripped apart my desirable existence with a teary-eyed grin. Then the work began.
I dreamed of the beautiful, adventurous, and meaningful. I wanted love that made my breath steady, experience that made my heart zing, work that changed the world–a world that felt safe, by my terms. I wanted to feel empowered.
I looked to society’s curation of the empowered female. Instagram tells us we are bold, in our words, in our style. Celebrities tell us we speak up, confidently, unapologetic. We speak our truth, declare our worth, support our sisters, take up space. We gather for conferences, luncheons, and summits. We eagerly read and write with fervor. We wear our stories on our chest and preach the sermon of strength. We rush city halls, demand equality, place our perpetrators in the cuffs they deserve. We love ourselves with an unshakeable love–steadfast and strong.
The empowered woman is confident.
The empowered woman is able.
The empowered woman stands at the top of the mountain, arms open to the sky, grateful for the life she’s built herself–wind in her hair, smile on her face.
I built my new life piece by piece, grasping tightly to the image of the woman I could be. Letting go of expectations allowed me to create a simple sanctuary in my oddball, downtown rental. My belongings became tools for functioning, not symbols of my happiness. I lost myself in racks of vintage, filling my closet with pieces from decades past, imaging the story of the woman before me–a process I’d adored since childhood but abandoned years ago. I ate my meals in bars and cafes, laughing loudly when I wanted, somberly ruminating when I needed. My scarlet letter marked me a failed housewife and I pinned it to my secondhand sweater without shame.
I said yes to everything. Last-minute road trips, middle-of-the-day hikes, Christmas in the desert, drinks with friends, conversations with strangers. I spoke the truth without hesitation. When I felt love, I spoke it. When I felt pain, I spoke it. When I felt anger, I spoke it.
Women told me they thought I was strong. You’re so brave, they’d say with stars in their eyes, as if I was the image of their modern-day heroine. I questioned if this is what brave feels like. I don’t feel brave, I’d tell them, but maybe I am.
I parroted society’s plan for the daring, born-again woman with precision, but my smile was weak, and my heart was hollow. I’d cracked the door open to a new world, and it wasn’t until things fell even further into the unexpected that I flung it off the hinges.
I bobbed through the San Juan Islands listening to the raindrops bounce off my hood. The locals stayed inside the ferry, hands wrapped around their coffee, while I stared a thousand-mile stare. The wind and rain whipped my hair across my face and gave me permission to be broken. I didn’t have to pretend to be okay here.
The opportunity arose for me to submerge myself in a treatment program–a soul-filling sanctuary of love and beauty and peace. I ate three meals a day for the first time in years. My pants squeezed into my waist and I didn’t care. My smile stretched further across my cheeks each day as the weight on my shoulders crumbled down my back, freeing me from the chains I’d cast around myself. I painted rainbows on my toenails and walked barefoot in the grass.
Here, on a funny little farm, miles away from my reality, I crossed swords with myself. I combed through the unwritten rules I’d lived by, called my inner-critics by name and redefined what it meant to be me.
I screamed to my abusers, You broke me.
I cried to my deserters, You betrayed me.
I raged to the Universe, You destroyed me.
Pushing my hand into my chest, rooting my toes into the ground, I loved myself with the love I deserved but never felt. I held my hand as I forgave myself for being cruel and forgave the world for making me that way. My sobs washed away my armor, my cynicism swept away in the wind. It was different now.
I returned to my real world, confident in my worth and eager for change, but my newfound empowerment felt lonely. It didn’t look like before. It didn’t look like the others. My eyes were open wide to every facet, and it seemed as if everything was on the line to be tossed upside-down. My grief grew, shadowing my hot, summer days, and I felt a steady pressure of rage pulse behind my eyes. I’d plunged into the muck of my own healing, yet my world looked vastly different from society’s image of the healed.
I roamed through crowded streets and sat in buzzing bars, on the surface the same being I was before. Below it, I was unfamiliar–my emotional scaffolding, strengthened but diverging.
Strangers grabbed my shoulders, winking as they slid into the stool beside me, stopping me as I worked, pushing their bodies into mine.
I didn’t feel ugly or dumb or small anymore. My confidence brought me peace in my physicality– something I’d never felt before–and that same confidence invited my harassment. Accepting myself lifted a weight off my chest that allowed me to hold my head proud and my gaze steady. I was finally released from my own biting provocations and immediately whiplashed into the faces of tormenting strangers. Confidence was a gift I’d given myself that, unbeknown to me, came with a dark side.
I sat across the familiar conference tables and thought about the suits in front of me and their six- figure salaries. They swapped golf stories and puffed their chests like brutish creatures behind the zoo glass. I’d avoided the simple math to discern my hourly rate, because I knew what it’d show me. Between stories they scribbled notes as I spoke. In ninety minutes I volunteered my ideas to cushion their status–their benefits, their legacy–and I ninety minutes I didn’t make enough to cover the lukewarm coffee that sat between us. My value was at the top of my mind now, and my awareness magnified the facts I’d shrugged off before.
My world and the people in it stung my skin. Like a new baby, I was tender to it all. I’d ripped the layers off one-by-one, tossing the hardened protection I’d built aside and exposing my everything to the elements. The hurt I felt from my relationships, my failures, my decades of suppressed desires for something different was amplified–no longer deflected by my masks or met with a welcoming embrace by my self-imposed identity as the Universe’s sacrificial lamb. I had clarity now, and it was clear that it was time for change.
Gone were the days of indulging the narrative that I am un-loveable, undeserving, unfit for the big, bold, and beautiful. I knew I deserved different now, and it was me who had to roll up my sleeves. I trudged below society’s portrait of empowerment–the peaceful woman on her mountain. She smiled for the scenery around her and I set mine on fire.
My eyes were open to my worthiness and I felt the discomfort of the blows I’d once welcomed with open arms. The actions I previously coveted now brought me to my knees. I found myself trapped in the canyon between the past-life I’d built to beat me and the new-life I’d found the courage to rebuild. I’d blown the cover off of culture’s image of the strong and I knew with unwavering certainty that the empowered woman does not actually stand blissfully with the sun on her chest.
I was the empowered woman now, and the pain was consuming.
The world roared clearly to me now.
Empowerment is not peace.
Empowerment is not joy.
Empowerment is not victorious arms thrust toward the sky, marking the end of the climb.
Empowerment is, in the face of your wrenching grief, feeling your heart thrash below your skin, purposefully shattering your world into a million tiny pieces so you can learn how to put it back together again. It is ignoring the magnetic pull to abandon yourself in your greatest time of need and sitting quietly with your pain. It is turning your face toward the heat and pushing through the flames, giving yourself permission to feel it all
The empowered woman goes to war with her world every day.
The empowered woman is scarred.
The empowered woman is tired.
The empowered woman does not pose proudly, pleased on the peaks above us.
The empowered woman walks through a valley–winding and unpredictable. Through the sun and the shadows, she keeps moving through her grief, away from the familiar and toward what she deserves. Her eyes look ahead–not behind, not around. Her mind is afraid, her body is steady, her hand is on her heart. The empowered woman sits with herself, loving fiercely through it all.
The empowered woman lets love in. The empowered woman lets love out.
The jackhammers buzzed through my bones as I walked past the bridge’s rubble on my way back home. Do Not Enter Love, my sign cried quietly from a distance, crumpled and discarded in a bed of now-obsolete trash. It’s dangerous there, babe.
The sun, once blocked by thick barriers of concrete, beat on my shoulders as I shuffled past. I walked toward an entirely new reality–eyes open, soul unbarred. I felt tired and lonely and afraid, but I smiled, hand on my heart, and I entered anyway.