I spent about three weeks in a residential treatment facility when I was 22 years old. In many ways it was one of the worst things I ever experienced, but in much more important ways it was the best.
The first week there was pure agony. I was so miserable, so disoriented, so desperate to leave that I hardly interacted with anyone or anything around me. I cried all day, and when I didn’t cry I slept. My heart raced and my hands shook every second of every day. I had curled up inside my shell like an injured turtle, and I had no desire to return to the world until I was on the outside of those walls.
I can’t recall the exact point when my attitude changed- it started out very subtle and gradual, but within a few days I had done a complete 180. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my isolation, I had made the choice to pursue something better. My life as it was was clearly not satisfactory, or I would have never been admitted in the first place. If I wanted to achieve something more than the broken husk of an existence that I had been occupying up until that moment, I would need to put on my big girl pants and truly confront the problem for the first time in my life.
I began participating in groups. I socialized with other patients more, and even formed a few tentative friendships. I threw myself into the heady business of trying to understand my own head. Packets on emotional regulation, mindfulness, and distress tolerance accumulated in my binder. I filled out worksheets, asked questions, and began journaling in my spare time.
I learned a lot about myself and how I could better cope with my illness during those few weeks- too much to list right here and now. But being in that facility was a turning point for me. When I got out I left a toxic relationship, quit my stressful job, and started about reinventing myself.
There are three words, however, that in that place became stamped onto my psyche, inextricable from the rejuvenating sense of hope and strength that they flooded me with the first time I read them.
I was in the day room, working in a little journal that my boyfriend at the time had bought me to fill out in my downtime. It was full of prompts such as “What really motivates you?” and “If you could change one thing about your present day, what what would it be?”. It also had many lovely illustrations and inspirational quotes. It was at the bottom of one of the pages of that journal that I first spied the quote from C.S. Lewis.
Courage, dear heart.
I stared. What a sweet, simple sentiment. What an oddly stirring, empowering, yet gentle, encouragement.
Have courage, it said. Nothing more. No cheesy analogies or cute rhyming sayings. It whispered kindly to me, it did not try to impose. Courage, it said. Times are scary, life can be hard, but have courage. That is all you can do, and it is enough.
My dear heart, it spoke to. And how dear to me my heart is, filling me with life and love and all the things that make me human. Dear heart, it spoke lovingly, addressing my emotional being with the tenderness, forgiveness, and care that it has always needed yet rarely received. How warm it made me feel to speak to my heart and tell it that it was dear.
Courage, dear heart.
I swallowed up those words and internalized them, made them a part of my morning when I looked in the mirror, part of my bedtime routine as I calmed my mind in preparation for sleep. I painted those words on a small canvas during art therapy, and I hung it up next to the bed in the room I shared with three other women. When I saw it I would take a deep breath, steady myself, whisper the words under my breath and feel them embrace me and fortify my will. Those words carried me through the rest of my stay and onward, filling me up with their soft, simple message of endurance and compassion.
Now, as I type this story in the little office I carved out for myself, in the home I share with my husband, I can glance up at the cork board in front of me and see that quote pinned there, front and center. Those three words take me gently by the shoulder, embrace me, and send me off to face the perils of life with a kiss and a reassuring note pinned to my lapel. I journey on, now safely clad in a suit of armor that is both as light as a feather and as hard as diamond- and in my dear heart, there is courage.