There is a kind of pain that can squeeze the soul right out of your heart.
Edit: If you let it.
Inspirational speaker, designer, and stylist Ruthie Lindsey spent the majority of her twenties confined to her bed. There was an accident her senior year of high school. There was her recovery. Then, years later, came an insane pain that “shot up her head.” Multiple doctors had no answers. Scans were read wrong for years. Until finally, one figured out that one of the wires from a spinal cord surgery had pierced into her brain stem. Shocked that she wasn’t paralyzed, they operated and removed the piece. A new pain ensued. Nothing helped. And the pain medication dependance dominoed.
But all dominoes can be reset. Picked up. And Ruthie realized she didn't want to live confined to pain; sunlight would be the best antidote. Her life started to change.
But as direct messages rolled in from strangers on social media, those who wrote her that her life looked perfect through the lens of Instagram, she felt a conviction to give people the full context. That story can be found in the below video where Ruthie says of the pain, “I would pinch myself to draw blood because I thought I was living in a nightmare.”
These days you could throw Ruthie to the wolves and she’d return leading the pack. When we speak, she is in Telluride, Colorado, having travelled there for Mountainfilm, a documentary-based festival held every year since 1979. The theme for 2017 is “The New Normal.” Spoiler: there is no normal and Ruthie would be the first to agree.
“It’s very intentional,” she says of the festival, though this also serves as doublespeak for how she lives her life. “And full of people who want to do good in the world— incredible humans are coming together here to try and make the world better.”
After traveling to Telluride in the fall for a job Ruthie made a pact with herself that “no matter what,” she would be back in May. She’s made it. This is her first year in attendance. “I’m jumping in at the end,” she says, noting friends like BFF and writer Jedidiah “Jed” Jenkins, who has been coming for about eight years. Those friends, including Jed, are currently on a hike, and while she admits she’d like to be with them, she’s also happily in awe at the sight right outside the window. “The view I’m looking at right now is so beautiful. I’m sitting on this couch, looking at glory and it is majestic.”
She’s been traveling for about a month, having arrived in the tiny mountain town from Paris the week prior, and she’ll touch back down to her home base of Nashville once the festival ends. Of the schedule she admits, “It’s not sustainable and after this I’ll take a break. Rest. Get back to routine and that’s my life.” But for now, she’s excited about the festival and "the one little strip in the main area [of town] where everyone knows each other.”
“I got my booklet today,” she says of the programming, mentioning the film Charged: The Eduardo Garcia Story. “The documentary is about how he found joy,” she says. “He woke up so grateful to be alive.” After happening upon a dead bear, Garcia poked the animal with his knife, only to find that the bear was concealing a live wire. Garcia was hit with 2,400 volts of electricity, which altered the course of his life forever. There are obvious similarities between them. “You don’t just have to survive,” says Ruthie. “You can thrive after trauma.”
photo credit: Chris Ozer
Thrive is a word that surrounds her like a halo. But for many millennial women wondering how to escape the feeling of hopelessness, whether because of a job or otherwise, there has to be a starting point; feeling stuck is a universal emotion. For Ruthie it started with action. "What I’ve realized,” she says, “is that the emotion doesn’t have to precede the action." She talks about the concept of, “Once I feel better I will… pursue this new job, then I’ll be happy, adventure more, or whatever it is— it’s not true. The action always has to come first, but it’s a choice and a decision. Take the action and trust that emotion will come.”
Ruthie explains that when she the made conscious decision to change her life she first made a list of all the things she loved to do before she had pain. “Each day I made myself do one of those things,” she explains. “At the time, I didn’t care about flowers or doing things for someone else. I felt black and numb and dead inside. Truly. But I made myself get up.”
In that transition period she gave herself one more task as well: “Look for beauty and speak it out loud.” She admits this all initially felt like, “a chore and a job — I hated it.” But there was something deeper at work. “I knew I had to do it,” she says. “There was something in my psyche forcing me.” A few weeks in she started to feel the things she was saying. “I had this image of myself in second grade getting glasses for the first time, and that’s how I felt. I was in awe after two months.” She was simultaneously weaning herself off of the pain medication she had been on for years. It took four months and her marriage didn't survive the detox.
Today, her life looks the opposite from the one she thought she wanted (as well as her life from bed) but therein lies the beauty: a sidesplitting pain can became a sidesplitting giggle. “People confuse happiness with joy,” she says. “Joy comes out of such a deeper well than happiness. Joy comes from digging into those really painful, hard, deep parts.” And Ruthie believes you can manifest the life you want. “I thought I would be married and have babies of every color from every nation and that is not my reality, and very likely might not ever be. But what I do have is so cool, so rich, nothing like I envisioned, but it’s better than what I ever hoped for and so much more beautiful.” At the same time she says, “It’s harder and more painful than I ever dreamed.”
Setting boundaries has been a big part of her story as well— understanding her limitations in a way that many young female millennials are grappling to understand. Millennial burnout is real. Young women feel like they’re replaceable. Ruthie says finding those boundaries has come with “a steep learning curve.” It wasn’t her natural state to say no or draw lines in the sand, but laughs, “My shitty body is the best thing that could have ever happened to me because it won’t let me do things. Everything I do comes at a physical cost. When I was stretching myself too thin, taking on a ton of little jobs, it came at a cost. I wasn’t able to be my best self.” Now she’d rather take a financial hit, instead of a physical or emotional one. “I also know I have the luxury of not supporting a family. It’s just me. I’ve done things for way less money that are life-giving and so much more important than any paycheck.” For anyone who might consider this "high-maintenance," Ruthie maintains it’s not so. “My time is valuable and so is every other human’s time. I’ve learned to take fewer jobs that sit better with me and pay better.” Sit better means that she won’t speak about something that she wouldn’t do, say, wear, or eat. “I just won't." She's firm on this.
Drawing those lines meant making a plan to only meet with three people per week that wanted something from her. “I was so exhausted and giving out so much. I didn’t have time for my people— or my own time. My body gave me the middle finger and said you can’t do this anymore.”
Now when home, she adheres to a morning routine and finds salve in the presence of friends. “Nothing can interfere with it,” she says. However does admit, “Routine is not my personality type. Not knowing excited me.” But she sticks to it. Before 9am Ruthie can knock out writing, reading (“my prize for writing”), using the app Headspace, and doing a 20-minute Pilates video. “That time is sacred. I schedule time with my friends and that is sacred as well. That is life-giving beneficial time."
It's not all flowers and awe all the time. She wouldn't wish this train ride on anyone else and says that learning self-care is a constant battle. "I don't always live in that place, but that’s what I want to step into the world with. That’s when I am my best self.” It is a means to life dividends. “You can’t love other people if you don’t love yourself well,” she says. “When you learn to live out of that space, everything else is better— you work better, you’re a better employee, a better friend, a better sister.”
Adding, “You get to live your best life when you put out your best life. We think we need to only take care of ourselves. But you don’t need to hoard every beautiful thing that comes your way. If you give freely with your words, time, and knowledge, it comes back so much greater. Nothing was ever really mine in the first place, so if it leaves…it was only passing through. It was a gift. Maybe someone else needs that right now. It’s freeing living out of that place. It’s freedom. It feels like freedom."