Note: this was prompted by something a friend sent me where I was encouraged to complete the sentence “The last time I felt free was…”.
The last time I felt free was only a few days ago. I lay sprawled on the thick, cozy grass of an Airbnb, the cool summer air brushing against my skin in only the slightest of breezes. The sky had just begun to lighten with the onset of dawn, one single eager American Robin calling its welcome to the burgeoning morning. Beside me, my three friend’s voices were quiet but punctuated by alcohol and weariness fueled laughter.
I lay at the center of them, my hair spread out beneath me, my arms stretched above my head, glorying in this moment for which I had so few words. Out of nowhere, in the midst of my serene reflection, a clump of grass landed on my face, dirt scattering across my cheeks and into my eyes.
I sat up with a half-shriek and retaliated, tearing the delicate stalks up and tossing them in the general direction of my attacker. The bird song was drowned by our laughter as we progressed the game I had unwittingly started hours before. I was careful to maintain some moticom of distance between us, forgoing my childlike urge to tackle them to the ground as I would have done my own siblings. I am yet uncertain what it is to have friends such as these, and I don’t quite know what is or isn’t acceptable in these moments.
It’s such a common experience to linger into the small hours with close friends, chatting and laughing and telling stories to one another. And yet it is something of which I have deprived myself, intentionally or otherwise, for such a long time. I don’t understand why I’d done so, the curiosity flitting through my mind as I attempted in vain to braid one friends hair, my fingers clumsy and trembling at my proximity to another person. I feel intoxicated not just because of the alcohol but also because of my closeness to people for whom I care so deeply.
Freedom to me is the weight lifted off of my chest and shoulders. Freedom to me is the ability to breathe without the ever-present steel band wrapped around my lungs. Freedom to me is unburdened laughter, the lack of any kind of self-consciousness, and the feeling of gentle security brought on by trusted loved ones.
This is what I felt as I lay in that grass, goosebumps prickling my skin and the quiet of the neighborhood enveloping me. Before that night, I can’t quite name the last time I felt freedom. Maybe it was years and years prior, when a friend grabbed my hand to run with me through the cascading rain, our laughter twining itself among the rolls of thunder. Maybe it was when I sat on another friend’s couch, all of his friends surrounding me as they joked and teased one another, including me as though I’d been apart of the group for years. Maybe it was when my two best friends and I chased each other down the empty school hallways, tripping over one another and ourselves until we were collapsed in a heap of uncontrollable giggles.
Regardless, it’s been a while. It’s been a while since my chest could rise and fall with ease, released from the anxiety which has woven itself into my bones and promised me that I will never be without it. It’s been a while since I allowed myself to laugh freely, unconcerned about how loud or annoying I was. It’s been a while since I permitted myself to feel unrelentingly happy, uncaring of the possibility of getting hurt.
I typically wrap myself in a cloak of invulnerability. I lace threads of confidence through my fingers, pretending that they are apart of me and hoping that I can believe it. My shoulders are swathed in a facsimile of nonchalance, though few people know that it is really formed entirely of my fear of abandonment and embarrassment. I crush my anxiety down into myself, not realizing that by doing so, I am only creating a powder that is left free to coarse through my unsuspecting veins. I bury it beneath false security and ease, desperate to allow the world to only see the best parts of me. As if those worst parts don’t exist. As if I can really hide them from those who love me the most.
Freedom is emptying myself of all false pretenses. It is surrendering to my most authentic self and allowing it to take hold, consequences be damned. It is telling the world, my fears, my history, and my demons that I deserve to be happy. I deserve to feel these positive things. I deserve to laugh loudly, to fall silent when I need to, to reach out to those around me without fear. Freedom is the grass between my fingers and the slowly rising sun. It is the shared laughter of those beside me, the hugs both proffered and accepted. It is the feel of fingers in my own, holding on when I need them the most. It is the heavy but oh so comforting weight of belonging that swamps me.
I fear happiness. I feel like a small child being offered a candy, both elated to have the sweet taste on my tongue but terrified that it is going to be snatched away from me at any moment. My joy has for so long been laced with anxiety and the knowledge that it would not last. I shy away from moments of contentment, afraid to accept them as truth. If I allow myself to be happy, I am allowing myself to later be hurt by, what seems to me, the inevitable termination of that happiness.
It used to infuriate me to watch people refuse to be happy because they were scared of getting hurt. My naivete lent me the ability to not understand how they could possibly forgo the opportunity to feel something good. I get it now, but I am still furious with myself. Happiness is there. It is all around me, contained within so many gestures both small and large, and I am deliberately hurting myself by looking the other way and refusing to accept it.
So maybe, in reality, freedom to me is nothing more than being willing and open to accepting happiness when it comes into my reach. And that is what I did, that night and so many others that week. I extended my hands, letting the peace and contentment alight upon my palms, allowing myself to pull them close to me and breathe them in. I am safe. I am happy. I am loved. I am present. I think the words over and over, yearning so deeply to engrave them into the walls of my memory where so many more negative thoughts have been immortalized.
I fight myself for the chance to hold onto this. I have to remember it. I have to. I will not forget it. I will not let myself forget it. Freedom was not just in my reach but rather within my entire body, and I will not stop trying to claw my way out of the canyons which I’ve built to hide myself from it.