About a year ago my therapist, an addictions specialist, told me about a retreat for adult children of alcoholics. Knowing that I grew up in a home with a mother battling addiction and mental illness, my therapist believed the retreat would serve me through my personal journey of healing. In addition, she knew the retreat would teach me many tools that would inevitably help in my career as a Health Educator as I aim to offer hope to teens with addicted parents. Fast forward eleven months and three days, and there I was driving away from my home in Baltimore to a beautiful retreat house located in a place commonly referred to as Magic Mountain (a major selling point for a person infatuated with finding and traveling to magical places around the globe).
Packing for this trip was far simpler than packing for other trips I’ve taken. I decided that since this experience was about vulnerability and intimate connection with others, I needed to retreat not only from my day-to-day life, but also from the many masks I wear as a woman in this world. Therefore, I left behind my makeup bag and hair straightener; my favorite Free People dress and Coco Chanel Mademoiselle perfume; my tweezers and my all natural beach wave spray. I left behind the items in my life that, somewhere along the line, I had started viewing as daily essentials. If I was going to show up as my raw, apologetically messy human self, then I needed to work from the outside in.
When I arrived at the retreat house, I was greeted by eight fellow retreat members – nervously making small talk with one another while filling out forms – and two friendly therapists. I quickly realized that I was the youngest of the group by about ten years. I smiled as I exchanged names with everyone and quietly chose a chair to sit in. While I flipped through a packet of papers, one of the therapists took out a marker and wrote on a large poster board the word intimacy followed by the description, the willingness to be seen by another human.
I can honestly say that up until that moment of my life, I had viewed intimacy as some form of physical expression of love in the arms of a significant other. It hadn’t occurred to me that intimacy could be an authentic connection shared between two people choosing to show up as themselves in front of one another. It wasn’t merely about intertwining two bodies under safe and cozy sheets; it was also about being present to another person’s story and demonstrating that you as a fellow human of this world can connect with someone’s feelings even though you’ve lived a completely different narrative.
In my service-learning classes in college we called it ministry of presence. It’s the concept that helping one another doesn’t always come in the forms of building houses for those experiencing homelessness or feeding the hungry. Sometimes, the bravest and most intimate thing we can do is to witness each other’s lives without judgement. That’s exactly what we did at Magic Mountain. We came together and opened up about personal struggles we had endured. We held each other’s hands and hearts as we wiped away tears of sadness and laughter. We celebrated each other’s resilience and vulnerability. And within 6 days, these strangers became my family. For the first time in my 27 years of life, I could look into someone’s eyes and pour my soul out to them without feeling the need to turn away; I allowed myself to be seen in all my pain and fears and self-judgement. And I did it all as myself – untamed mane and open heart.
There is so much beauty and grace and humility in showing up as ourselves in this world with people we trust. In my experience thus far, it is in these moments when we feel truly and utterly accepted – like we are a part of something greater than ourselves. I have come to believe that these experiences create space for community and self-love to flourish.
In the words of Thomas Merton: “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. Imagine that?