I remember that time I volunteered like it was my job. This is not an exaggeration. I was the first person to arrive and the last person to leave. I created plans, strategies, and processes to get the work done and inspire the young people I worked with. I wrote poems, plays and monologues. I organized rehearsals with detailed agendas and galvanized volunteers to support the teens. I flew all around the country speaking on behalf of youth in foster care. I lead workshops. I did poetry in front of thousands. I stood up for the voiceless. But me, I always stood behind the curtain of “good deeds”. I never allowed myself to step up, center stage and let the spotlight illuminate all of my glorious honesty. Instead, I avoided the opportunity to pull back the curtain and see a 6-year-old me balled up in the corner. I was waiting on someone else to just call off the whole show because there was a bigger issue that needed to be addressed here. But no one could address it for me.
Do you remember the scene in the Wiz when Toto pulled back the curtain to see Richard Pryor pulling the strings and pretending to be this big scary Wizard? Yeah… It was something like that with me. I could put on a really great show but when it came to standing on my own and really embracing the fullness of my gifts and my failures, I always shrunk back .
However, in these roles as a volunteer and an advocate I stretched beyond what I thought I was capable of. I had leaders who pushed me and challenged me to go further and dream bigger. And I was loyal, VERY loyal to the mission. I turned down other opportunities so that I could be fully present and available for the work that needed to be done. At that moment in my life, my service was necessary and it fed me more than physical food. There was no paycheck attached to my work but my heart was sewn in tight, stitched closely within the fabric of obligation and necessity. I believed this was a calling, THIS was the necessary thing.
For close to two years, I lived like this. After being laid off from my regular 9 to 5 job, I served in ministry and I did contract work to meagerly support myself after the unemployment benefits ran out. I went all in but, let me be clear, I was changed. I was better. I did things that I didn’t know that I was able to do. I inspired hundreds and dare I say thousands of teenagers through theater and the creative arts. I spoke on stages and attended conferences with the heavy hitters of child welfare. I got so much fulfillment out of working for a cause and giving all and seeing lives changed. It was a positive addiction. And all of the affirmation and encouragement from people was comfortable and I came to trust the pat on the back from others more than I trusted my own voice and intuition. So when I decided to step away from this and do something from me, very few people were left to stroke my ego and tell me that I’m great. And I thought I needed that affirmation from other people because I knew that when it stopped, I would have no other choice than to go behind the curtain and have a conversation with my insecurities and that was the scariest thing of all.
There is something called “compassion fatigue” which is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper. I am not sure this is what I experienced. For me, it was a hatred of being alone with my own thoughts and my own voice. I stifled my own voice, I second guessed myself, beat myself up so much that I didn’t even know what I sounded like. So when this badgered and blocked version of myself screamed out to me after suffocating for years under a blanket of “good deeds”, I was startled.
ME: This is not truth
I had burned myself out. I wasn’t tired of serving, I was tired of lying to myself and telling myself that there was some magical end to my service. Telling myself that I wasn’t good enough to stand alone, that I had nothing to offer. And nobody did this to me and most people around me didn’t know about this invisible war I waged against myself as I tried to come to terms with the fact that at some point, I would have to face ME. It was just so much easier to drown out my own disappointments and pain by focusing on healing someone else’s. I had such low self esteem for not having a place of my own to live and not having a job and it was time that I actually faced this truth. And no amount of serving or good deeds would magically give me what I could only give myself.
So I decided to just ask my self;
ME: Crystal, what do YOU want.
It’s so crazy how this conversation went down. It’s almost like I had to pry myself away from the religious jargon. I would respond,
ALSO ME: I just want the will of God for my life…
ALSO ME: I just want to do what I am called to do…
ALSO ME: I just want to do what I am passionate about…
ME: (Side eye stare…)
My conversation was plagued with these types of mindless phrases that allowed me to exit stage left when I knew my fears were center stage.
I had this back and forth conversation with myself for months. Encouraging myself like;
ME: “Crystal, it’s ok to want something for you”
ALSO ME: But I want to give back, I want to do something noble and good.
ME: (rolls eyes) But how can you do that when you have nothing….
ALSO ME: (Silent flinches…)
ME: “Crystal, its time for you to be selfish. Focus on you.”
And finally after pinning myself against a wall and forcing an answer, I realized that I wanted to go back to school.
ME: Ok great! That’s a start. What do you want to study?
ALSO ME: Something broad and useful… how about business!
ME: Ok, cool! Whatever you want, I trust you.
And before I knew it, I had passed the GRE to attend Georgia State University to get a M.B.A. with a focus in organization management. Then I was like;
ALSO ME: Hey, I think I want to live on my own. I want to make money! I want to get a new car. I want to work out more!
For the first time in my adult life, I was letting my personal desires drive my actions. I moved out of my sisters house and for the first time, I had my own apartment on a totally different side of town far from just about everyone. One of my contract gigs offered me a full time position which I took. And I just let my self live on my own terms. During this time, I stopped volunteering altogether. I had exchanged taking trips across the country to taking trips to the grocery story, speaking on stages in front of thousands to speaking to coworkers over the edge of cubicles, leading youth in rehearsals to leading conversations with myself about what I wanted. These conversations were not always productive, mind you, sometimes it was just processing through the previous night’s season finale of Scandal but at least I was getting used to giving myself time to hear and know myself. I spent a lot of time alone. And I needed that. I deserved that.
As I started to near the end of my M.B.A., i thought about what I wanted next. By this time, that little voice had gotten a little aggressive with being selfish since I spent so much time attending to myself and less time attending to others. She screamed at me a litany of things she wanted.
ALSO ME: I want to do something different when I finish M.B.A. I may want to switch career fields so maybe something that will give me a little breather. I really like traveling, building relationships, youth, and creative stuff. I want to step out of my current box. I want to stretch myself a little. I want to shake things up.
ME: Daaaaang girl! You want a lot! Let’s do it! I trust you!
After that, I checked to see if I sensed any hesitation in my spirit and I had peace so I was like, why not? I kinda just put all of these ingredients into a pot and started stirring. I did not hear a “Noah build a boat”-sized proclamation from God. I just let myself listen to me and I figured, if God lives in me and then better start listening from within me! And I had to be OK with the fact that sometimes, I get it wrong and its pretty darn embarrassing. But that doesn’t negate the fact that I believe God provided all the right urges and spices and conversations and sauces that, when mixed together, give me a better direction on what was next. And I did just that.
Now, a year later, I am in India doing something I love. I am growing and learning every day and I continue to give space to that voice that eggs me on from time to time saying,
ME: “You got this girl, look at you! YOU ARE REALLY HERE! You are the bomb! I trust you…”
And on and on. Sometimes I pause and check behind the curtain and that 6-year-old me is trying to curl up in a ball again. But instead of just going on with the show, I stop. I sit with her. I ask her questions. And I make space for growth, I make space for me, I make space for just being.