The following post has been submitted by Kezia Cooke-Brown, in collaboration with Jodi Lee Fleming Photography.
This document has affectionately been saved as “She is - version 3” on my computer. A few weeks ago when I started crafting my story the page quickly filled with details of heartbreak. The black print told a haunting tale of a tall, dark haired man who captured my heart for most of my 20s. The day that I left poured out on to the page. It vividly described the scene as I loaded my car and pulled out of the driveway leaving the red brick home, with the single tree on the front lawn, in my rearview mirror.
Version 2 of my “She is” story emerged a week later. In an effort to tell the tale of my how my self-discovery journey began I found myself writing yet again of a man. The cursor on the screen moved quickly across the page as I told the story of the day the two of us sat across from each other in a small burrito shop. His broad shoulders filled a red athletic shirt and the air in the restaurant was heavy with the scent of spicy chicken and warm tortillas. Half-eaten rice bowls sat between us. “I think I love you, more than you love you.” He said quietly. My eyes lifted from the grey faux marble top tables when he spoke. “I know”, I said definitively.
Reading over both pages I found myself alarmingly aware of the fact these men, while important parts of the lessons I have learned and memories I cherish, were not my identity. They are not my story.
I am 30 years old. Up until 2 years ago there were very few things I knew to be true about myself. I could read back an impressive academic and athletic resume, pull you in with charming stories from my travels or enlighten you with anecdotes from my work as an elementary school teacher. My relationship with myself had about as much depth as a social media profile.
In the summer of 2016 I was brave enough to break my own heart. I left a man I loved and a home we had created because I knew our relationship would not provide the emotional security and fulfillment I needed. What ensued was painful and created a choking self-doubt inside of me. Having spent my formative years as one half of a couple, I felt unsure of who I was as an individual. When I found myself shortly after this face-to-face with a handsome and funny man who had an open heart, I was unable to be a vulnerable and authentic partner. I recognized then the work I needed to do for myself. The answer to who I was could not be found in a relationship with anyone else.
I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by women who were all along different parts of their own journeys with self-discovery and love. Each of them contributed in their own way to what became a yearlong commitment to discovering and loving myself. Like all good journeys, this one began with a journal. It quickly filled with letters to myself, lists of things that made me feel alive, goals I had and inspirational quotes. The most important pages were the ones that detailed the date of every Wednesday for the following 12 months. Each week I committed to a planned time for myself. These days included explorations of counseling, Reiki and yoga. I took myself on nature walks, read books and spent time writing. It wasn’t long before acts of self-care and a quest for personal development bled into every aspect of my life. Affirmations on post-it notes, podcasts on my drive, and walks outside during every lunch break at work. Each of these activities allowed me to explore myself and be an active participant in the way I felt and acted each day.
In acknowledging dark thoughts, old wounds or flaws, I felt compassion for myself...In cherishing my celebrations and setting goals, I felt empowered and grateful.
The more authentic my relationship with myself became, the more present I became in my relationships with others. I felt myself drawn to listening more intently and craved connecting with others on the highs and lows that life presents.
I am grateful to the man who did not give me everything in my 20s, because I realized it was only me who could fill my soul and inspire my true self. It has allowed me to cultivate a sense of self and build the routines and habits necessary to make a life long commitment to caring for myself and growing.
Six months after I left the broad shouldered man at the burrito shop heartbroken, we connected again. This time, I shared openly my journey and invited him to embrace my new routines and commitment. He began reading and journaling with me, sending me podcasts on self-discovery and leaving me affirmations on post-it notes. I am grateful to have found someone to walk along side me as I continue to develop my story, but I know that who I am and the relationship I have with myself stands independent from anyone. Having a wonderful partner is an edition to my story, not the ending.
My story would not have ever been about me if it were not for the wonderful women along the way who gave me emotional refuge and safety in their support. Their bravery in sharing their own stories with me gave me the strength to discover myself. I am forever grateful for the women who lent me books that moved them, shared their personal truths and listened to mine. For the pizzas you shared, movies you watched and silence you held next to me- thank you.