At work the other day, a customer told me that she loved my freckles. She was a beautiful young woman who donned little makeup, revealing a strip of freckles across her nose and upper cheeks.
“I keep spending time in the sun, hoping for more freckles!” she said.
I laughed, wishing I could offer this moment to my 13 year-old self. “Thank you! I love them too! But it’s been a journey to get to this point,” I replied, smiling.
“No way! I have always wanted freckles.”
I laughed again, but this time taking in what a gift it is to be at the place I am now, finally confident, or at least comfortable, in my own skin. Literally. Five years ago (dang, was middle school really only five years ago? Please make it be farther away) I remember laying in bed one night, looking up on my iPod touch how to get rid of freckles. Turns out, there’s not a way other than caking makeup on your skin, and I hated makeup, so I defeatedly resolved that I was stuck with them. Slowly, I began to appreciate them, especially when my hormonal, middle-school self realized that freckles on my face help distract from breakouts.
Now I absolutely cherish my freckles. When my friend Emily did my prom makeup, I asked that she make it look natural enough so that you can still see my freckles. I love that my right shoulder has a huge colony of freckles, while my left looks like a fairy gently sprinkled it with freckle dust. I love that my knees don’t tan; they freckle. I love that each freckle tells a story of a time when I was in the sunshine, because sunshine fuels my soul.
But I’ve been mulling over that interaction for a few days now, because this year especially has been such a journey in living authentically as myself.
I have never felt a sense of belonging within a certain crowd –which is different than fitting into different crowds, because I’m really good at that. I can adapt to many different social groups and situations because I have enough beginner’s knowledge in a lot of areas that I can relate to a lot of different kinds of people. I can “chameleon” my way through a lot of life, which can end up feeling pretty lonely and confusing. Which of these versions of myself is actually me? Are any of them me? Who am I?
Fun questions for a high schooler to dwell on.
But my senior year of high school, I simply ran out of energy to continue shapeshifting. I had been well-acquainted with feeling burnt out at many different times in my life. I’m an achiever, and I want to do all the things and please all the people. Pro tip: you can’t do all the things, and you can’t please all the people. It is an exhausting lifestyle, and it is not fulfilling. You can try really hard, and you can get really close to succeeding; maybe you’ll even succeed for a little bit! But it’s never enough, and some of the times I have felt most empty are when I have had the most outward success and when I have received the most praise.
So this time, when my tank ran out of fuel to keep achieving, I entered into the burn-out. I journeyed into that dark space that had been so desperately trying to keep the flame alive and keep the shame and the fear hidden, and I sat there. But in order for me to get there, the flame couldn’t be lit. The brightness of the fire so masterfully hid the terrifying truth that a terrified little girl just wanted to be seen and known and loved.
Disclaimer: that journey didn’t happen overnight, and it’s still happening. When I first started this journey, I truly thought that who I would find below my many facades would be a broken and unsaveable disaster; that’s why I wore so many masks in the first place. But when I ran out of effort to keep up that exhausting show, I had no other choice than to present myself as exactly who I was, in all of my messy faults and failures (and soon, I would discover, in all of my beautiful gifts and quirks).
I felt like I made more mistakes this year than I’ve ever made. But I think that’s largely because I stopped trying to cover up my mistakes and shift the blame; I started owning up when I failed. I was absolutely shocked at how freeing it was to openly fail. And I grew! Guys, it turns out when you acknowledge your mistakes, you can learn from them and grow. Wild stuff.
And when I encountered the shame and fear that had been living below the surface, I named them for what they were, and I have discovered that they are not who I am at my core. At my core, I am a beloved and cherished daughter of a God who enters into my messiness and takes away its heavy burden. For what feels like the first time, I am meeting a Madison who has an overflowing source of joy and who faces the world with a child-like desire to discover new things.
Another important disclaimer: I didn’t embark on this journey alone. When I reached my burn-out, I entered into pretty low lows, so I sought out a professional counselor. She has been absolutely vital in helping me discover and reclaim who I truly am. Here is one of the most impactful words of wisdom she has shared with me: I am never alone if I am there for myself just as I am and know that Jesus sees me, loves me, and walks with me just as I am.
As many of you know, I have deferred attending school for a year and am instead taking a gap year. This was first suggested to me by a friend of mine who took a gap year herself and who saw how exhausted I was after having spent all of high school achieving and achieving and achieving.
“I think you need a break from running on the treadmill. The treadmill is always available to step back on, but you have such a unique opportunity to pause, even for just a moment,” she explained to me as we sat staring at the ocean.
So much uncertainty lies ahead; it’s a level of uncertainty that Madison from a year ago would have politely declined. But Madison from today is… well, it’s too late to back out now. She’s terrified. But amidst all of the change and uncertainty, there are some essential truths that she is certain of:
She is never alone.
She is loved just as she is.
She is enough.