“In-Confidence” Anonymous Series Roundup: “Starting Over”

“Starting Over.

There have so many times I have started over in my life. Jobs. Relationships. Communities.

But the hardest starting over is the kind I do every morning.

I am not one of those people who is naturally happy, positive, and sees the good in things. Maybe it’s biological, maybe it’s just my personality, but from the time I can remember I’ve looked at life with a list of complaints. The things not going my way. The people letting me down. The hurts from the past. All the big and small ways life isn’t fair.

To outsiders, I don’t seem this way. I’m outgoing and personable, and have even been told by others that I give off a healthy energy. But internally, I fight hard. I struggle. I wrestle hard with a dark side that just never sees enough—in myself, in others, and in life.

It took a lot of honest reflection, therapy, and openness to feedback from others for me to realize how much my dissatisfaction in life wasn’t about the picture in front of me but about the type of glasses I wear. That if I wanted to become a happier person, I needed an attitude adjustment and change in perspective. That my key to better living really was an ‘inside job’.

The hard part was learning over the years that no one-time experience would be enough to shift the way I relate to life. That starting over is less of a ‘transformation’ for me and more of a regular habit.

Every morning when I wake up, I open my eyes and I turn to the window near my bed and look at where the sun is. Sometimes it has beautiful colors and I feel soothed by orange and yellow hues starting to peek from the horizon. Other times I can’t see the sun at all, as it’s totally obscured by the clouds.

I get up, and before I even go to the bathroom, I sit down on the floor. I get totally quiet. I can already hear my mind starting to race about things I need to take care of for the day, but in that moment I don’t need to be doing anything. I just need to be.

I close my eyes and begin my quest to connect to something much more powerful than me. I imagine myself plugging into it like an outlet in the wall, my supply of necessary charge or else I can’t function properly. I ask God to give me the strength to be the best version of myself. That I bring love and kindness to the world, see the beauty in life, and that whatever comes my way that day, I feel held and supported. That I treat others with gentleness and speak to myself with compassion.

When I first started this daily practice, it felt very forced. Awkward. Like I was trying to be someone I wasn’t. But after years of doing this, I believe that this has enabled me to work towards being a different kind of person. Less negative. Less judgmental. Less jealous. That’s not to say I don’t feel those feelings—after all, I’m human—but when those feelings prop up, I am able to recognize them and then decide if I want to continue down that rabbit hole or do I want start over with a different view of the situation.

There are days where I forget to have my morning meditation, and by midday, I can feel it. You know how when you hear a song on the radio in the morning it has a way of being stuck in your head the rest of the day? I’m like that with my emotional soundtrack for the day. I believe my default soundtrack is an unhappy one, but I do have the capacity to change that soundtrack each morning to something more loving and vibrant. And when I do that, the whole day flows so much better; it doesn’t mean things go my way, but that I can feel alive and grateful no matter what’s happening.

Living life means learning to start over, in both major and minor ways. For me, choosing a new set of glasses each morning means that I’m more than just starting over, I’m starting new. And when I do that, there are new possibilities in who I can become, how I can live, and how I can feel when I rest my head at night.”

“There was a point in my life when I could not leave the house.

I was afraid that if I left, something horrible would happen to me. That I would have a heart attack on the street. That I would have a stroke when I was driving my kids to school. That I would crumple on the floor of an aisle in my local supermarket out of panic, and God knows what would happen next.

Every time I would leave the house, my heart would pound out of my chest, sweat breaking out all over my body, panic rising till it was caught in my throat and I couldn’t breathe. I remember I was in therapy at the time, attempting to treat my rising anxiety. I had stopped going to my sessions in person, and begged my therapist to do them on the phone. I told her that I wasn’t feeling well, and truly I wasn’t. I was sick all the time, had no energy, and leaving the house seemed like a Herculean feat that was so draining, I didn’t think I could do it anymore.

One day we were about to start a session, when my therapist abruptly dumped me. After four years, seemingly out of the blue, she had decided that she couldn’t treat me anymore. I asked her why, and she spat out at me, “Because I believe you clearly are agoraphobic.”

“Agoraphobic? Me?” Someone who is phobic of leaving the house? Afraid to be in public? As we hung up, I felt more desperate than ever. She was right. I had intense social phobia; I was terrified to talk to other people even though I had always been gregarious and outgoing. Now, when someone walked up to me, or called me on the phone, my heart began to pound, and I felt adrenaline pumping through my bloodstream. For a simple, “Hi, how are ya?” I was only working from home, and I had come up with every excuse under the sun to avoid work events where I needed to attend. I had stopped going to family events because being away from home felt unsafe.

I was cocooned in my home, day in and day out, cursing my fear, and watching my life shrivel up and disappear.

One day, I was supposed to go to my son’s school for an event. I had promised him I would go. Because I had also developed a phobia of driving, I had arranged for a friend to pick me up. She did not know that I didn’t drive myself, and I just casually mentioned since we were both going she should give me a ride.

As we pulled out of the apartment complex my vision swam and I couldn’t breathe. Though completely illogical, all I wanted to do was to pull open the locked door and roll out of the car army style, and run home. I mumbled to her that I had forgotten something at home, and since we had only driven a block, she had no problem turning around and letting me run back inside.

I bolted out of the car under the pretense of rushing, and clamored to get back into my house. I leaned against the door and knew that I was in the middle of a massive panic attack. I couldn’t go to this event. There was no way. It was too much.

But I had promised my son. He was waiting for me. And as much as I was scared for my safety out in the world, he deserved a mother who would be there for him when she said she would.

I texted my friend who was waiting outside, that I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and because I didn’t want to make her late, I would drive myself. She left.

I took the keys off the key hook, and held them to my chest as I took deep breaths, to steady myself and let the panic decrease. When I felt ready, I left my home once again. I got in my car, and for the first time in months, I turned the key in the ignition. As the car hummed to life, I told myself that if I wasn’t OK in the car with someone else, perhaps I would be OK driving myself, because then at least I had control. If I panicked, I could pull over and breathe. But if I panicked with someone else, there would be so much shame attached to that moment, that it would feel impossible to recover from.

I pulled out of my spot and got on the road. I felt the anxiety and excitement mounting with every traffic light. I was doing it! I was out of the house and in control. I was on my own. I was independent.

I pulled into the school lot with tears in my eyes. I saw that it was possible to start over and rebuild my life. That I wouldn’t be stuck in my home for the rest of my life.

I had taken a step towards reclaiming my life from fear. I would take many such steps in the months and years that followed, each step bigger than the next.

That day, I was free.

No matter how far deep we’ve gone, there can always be a way to pull ourselves out of the darkness toward the light. Every moment can birth a new way to view oneself. Every second, is a fresh opportunity for courage and a new beginning.”

“I have moved many times in my life. When I was a kid, my parents pitched it to us like it was an adventure. An opportunity for a better life. Moving on up. We were in it together and none of us minded change. It wasn’t a big threatening issue that loomed over our lives. The more times we moved, the more we got used to the change.

The older I got, the more difficult it became for me. Not because I wasn’t up to the challenge of starting over. But because the environments I was entering were less open to someone new. As a pre-teen, pretty often you need to stick with the program. Everyone came from the same type of homes, had the same accents, did the same activities for fun. They wore the same shirts on Mondays, the same shoes on Shabbos. Deviation was not treated lightly. The girls were merciless. If you didn’t get with the program, you were on the outside. You were subjected to the bullying that comes along with threatened pre-teen queen bees and their posse.

But it wasn’t the first time that it happened to me. In other places that I had lived, I had also been teased about my hair and my clothes. The funny accent that I had. My lack of knowledge about what was cool in the new school I attended. So what would any kid do? As an 11 year-old I begged my mom to take me to shop at the right store, get my haircut in the fashionable way. I even started to use their slang and manner of speech.

But by the time I was 13 and I did it all over again, it was no longer a productive coping mechanism. It became uncomfortable, like putting on someone else’s shoes. I had done it so many times, due to so many moves, I had lost an essential piece of me. I could no longer remember what my accent used to be, or what I thought was cool, or what I wanted to wear. I was too busy trying to fit in, be cool, or at least not get mercilessly teased.

So by the time I was 14, and I needed to start over in high school, I was angry. I had every right to be angry, feeling like I had been pushed, pulled, and bullied into being someone I didn’t like. A sycophant. A follower. Ashamed of the best of me that wasn’t deemed “cool enough.” I was lost.

I embraced that feeling. I let it fuel my anger and resentment. I used it as an excuse to make bad decisions. While rebelling against being like everyone else, being a teenager is the pinnacle moment of herd mentality. I wrestled against it while very obviously still being a part of it. But I found it difficult see clearly without the cloud of other people’s opinions, vices, and goals. By the time I graduated, the sky was already clearing. I made space for feeling lost, but I knew which direction I was heading.

It took many years of inventing and reinventing myself to rediscover the true essence of myself. I found that when I change environments, it can be an opportunity for freedom. Another chance to start over. To let go of pain. To free myself from bad habits, thoughts, or suffocating beliefs. A new place no longer means that I lose whatever I was. Now it means, the freedom from the constraints of stagnation. I view it as an opportunity for a fresh start.

Today I received a call from the guidance counselor at my daughter’s new school. She is 13, and we’ve just moved to a new town. I was told that my daughter is having a hard time fitting in. That maybe if she made more of an effort to be like everyone else, she would have an easier time blending in with the rest. If she changed her personality to be more like the rest of her classmates, she would find friends and feel happier.

When she gets home from school today, I’m going to do my best to reassure my daughter that she doesn’t need to change her personality to suit her environment. That I’m here to help her in her journey of self-discovery. Being open to change but still keeping the parts of herself that are essentially her. Having strong enough confidence and self-love, to be open to exploration and experimentation, while simultaneously cherishing her favorite parts of her identity.

I hope to transmit that hope that comes with a new environment. And the joy that can come from change. In life, we are always evolving. Isn’t that the point?”

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Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.

She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.

She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.

Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.

Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.