I stumbled into a sort of time machine today.
I went to the voice notes in my phone for the first time in forever, planning to record a snippet of a song that’s been scratching its way out, and I noticed that there was a stray voice note from March of 2015. Most of my old recordings have been cleaned out by now, but that one managed to stick.
It was twelve minutes long, and I was immediately intrigued. During that season, I occasionally made voice notes on my commute to Dallas for work. It was my own kind of free therapy, a means of processing my life in a safe space. That month was when Josh’s mental health really bottomed out, so morbid curiosity made me hit play.
But I wasn’t talking about Josh. I was talking about me. About my tendency to prioritize the expectations, thoughts, and opinions of others far over my own; often to the degree that I became unintentionally but deeply dishonest. Never because I want to be a liar; always because I want to be loved. For much of my life, approval felt like a necessary prerequisite to love; my first step to getting love has always been to seek approval, truth be damned.
Y’all, if that isn’t the exact same story I’m living right now.
Someone once told me that humans easily fall into the trap of believing our growth happens in a linear way when the truth is, growth is more like a spiral staircase. It often looks like coming back around to the same shit, over and over, from a slightly higher vantage point each time. With more perspective on the thing and a bigger toolbox for working through it.
I remember who I was and what I was wrestling with at the time of that recording. I recall the precise depths to which I was in hiding. I am wide-eyed at how far I’ve come in releasing the idea that the most important thing I can do with my life is make everyone comfortable, convince them I am good. I think about some of the truths I’ve told in the years since then; I know that 2015 Audra wouldn’t have even been able to acknowledge many of those truths in the silent safety of her own mind, let alone say them out loud.
Yet, I haven’t arrived anywhere. I am forever climbing the staircase of self-acceptance, coming around again and again to new variations on the same old stories. I still have the tendency to filter every single choice I make through the lens of how it will look on the outside, what people will think. I don’t need anyone to shame me anymore, for anything—I’m exceptionally good at doing it on my own. I’m much quicker to catch myself in the act, quicker to grace than ever. But I still spend an unfortunate amount of time in the downward spiral of optics management.
Actual honesty is a practice and a lifelong one. I talked with a dear friend a few days ago about a radically, brutally truthful conversation Josh and I have been having lately, and she mistook me for being better at this stuff than I actually am. You’re so good at dealing with hard truths and risky choices. I laughed out loud when she said it. I’m good at dealing with hard truths and risky choices in the same way a toddler is great at finger-painting. I’m not “good at it “ in a way that means the process or even the outcome is reliably pretty, I’m good at it in a way that means I keep doing it, despite the mess it sometimes makes. I told her that and she asked me, “Where did you even start, in terms of getting that honest with each other?”
I started with telling the truth about my life to own damn self. Sometimes I think my actual life began the day I decided to be radically honest with the woman in the mirror. To stop hiding from me. This seems to be an option most women don’t know they have. Hell, most people in general. But I think it’s really the only way up the spiral staircase.
Growth is more or less impossible until the exact second you decide to look yourself in the eyes. It’s more or less impossible until you decide to prioritize personal integrity over external reputation. I say that as someone who spent most of her life disintegrated; fractioned off into pieces and parts, each designed for a specific audience and to elicit a certain response.
More than anything else, I want to be a person of integrity. It took me thirty years to realize that integrity isn’t about being externally right, it’s about being internally whole. And it starts, almost invariably, with telling yourself the truth.