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Pre-pandemic me was fake-smiling her way through life.

Controlled by fear of the heavy truths that resided deep within me, I resorted to stuffing my emotions neatly away. My idea was to live a ‘halfway life,’ one where I refused to dig more than halfway into anything I thought or felt. 

This strategy worked for a very long time. I hopped from distraction to distraction, lost in a constant blur of plans. In high school, I took nine classes while my friends took five or six. I’d run around school, lost in my busy life, focused on fitting in as many commitments as possible. If a friend drama or intense emotion arose, it was easy to dismiss on my way to 10 club meetings and nine classes and three sports practices in one day. On the weekends, I’d commit to four plans in one hour, leaving enough time to make an entrance but not allowing myself to be fully present anywhere. A packed schedule took the place of genuine connections.

Although unaware at the time, I was simply going through the motions of life. This tactic of busying myself had an ulterior motive, which was to stuff down my emotions. Granted, I was proud of my accomplishments and genuinely enjoyed all the activities that filled my busy agenda, but something was missing. My life had a lingering hollow feeling. 

The idea of dealing with my emotions was too much; I worried they would suffocate me. My feelings were tucked so far down I almost forgot they existed. A year ago, I wouldn’t have admitted I was living one big lie.

In hindsight, it’s clear now I found comfort in being overbooked to the verge of a constant breakdown. It ensured less time to feel. I figured I could carry on being busy until I was old, then maybe I’d try to start processing my feelings — sometime way in the future, years and years away. For now, all I knew how to do was keep busy. I was terrified of what might come up if I took a second to slow down.

Cue: COVID-19. 

Lockdown offered space for my thoughts to seep out; my greatest fear was being realized. Suddenly, there were no distractions to hide behind. I longed for the blur of busyness my old lifestyle had once provided. I missed the ease of faking my way through life and carefully dodging anything that brought up feelings. I craved crowds of people and plans and parties — everything that used to help me block out my deep truths. I floundered, crushed under the weight of thoughts and emotions which I’d so dutifully ignored for years. They rushed out at an alarming pace. I felt hopeless and utterly lost. I was drowning.

There were days when I barely left my bed. Along with the whole world, I shut down.

Thankfully, my family noticed and encouraged me to seek help. I went to therapy and began unpacking the dizzying rush of thoughts. I found the courage to finally combat my inner feelings. There was no option other than facing my long-suppressed truths. For the first time in my life, I saw my happiness for what it was: a lie.

It was suffocating and overwhelming. Also, it was liberating. After many, many therapy sessions and some of the most difficult months of my life, I was at last processing my feelings. I had a professional helping me sort through my heavy pile of emotions. We got to work, peeling back each level of my unhappiness, leaving my heart wide open and exposed. It scared me more than anything, releasing my feelings out in the world and painstakingly sifting through them, one at a time. 

To my surprise, I found that not only could I handle dropping my facade of fake happiness, I actually felt a sense of freedom in doing so.

I spent more time alone with my thoughts over the past year than I had in my entire life. Before, I’d bounce around endless plans, blaming my natural social personality. I’d end the day in bed, feeling dull and depleted from pretending all day. I wouldn’t feel this for too long, though, because I’d wake up and go right back at it. On to the next busy day. No time to stop and think.

I’d never given myself a chance to reflect before; overlapping plans always took the place of soul-searching. Now, in lockdown, I had endless amounts of time to evaluate every aspect of my life. I spent hours walking around my neighborhood, thinking hard about the patterns in my life and what they revealed about me. I took up journaling, giving my thoughts a home. It was new for me to sit with nothing but my thoughts for hours.

The quiet dragged on at first, giving too much time for my thoughts to attack. After some time, I began to find comfort in the stillness and calm from these long moments of silence. It turned out my inner voice had a lot to say once I became patient and attentive enough to listen. I was listening to myself, learning my truths. I approached my life as a puzzle — committed to finding the pieces that made me feel myself.

With space and time to reflect, everything became so obvious. I saw the parts of my life that truly brought me joy and those that needed improvement. I let go of a lot of relationships and thoughts that I hadn’t realized were weighing me down. It was incredibly hard but also blissfully rewarding. I was actively rewiring my brain, untraining and ridding it of old habits. I went to bed emotionally drained each night. Feeling my emotions fully was exhausting.

After hourly overthinking, daily journaling, weekly therapy sessions and months of growth, I was becoming a new person — a more present person, someone who’s really in touch with life. I was an expert at identifying and processing my feelings. The instinctual voice that insistently told me to shove my emotions down was still present, but it wasn’t screaming anymore.

I made a promise to myself: no more half-living. 

Flash forward to this March, almost a year since my first therapy session. I shared some of my self-growth journey with my Wolverine Support Network (WSN) group this semester. I told them how I was able to seriously evaluate everything in my life to see if it was serving me. I shared my story, ending with I’ve never felt more myself. I breathed out. Sharing these truths out loud was a big deal for me. I felt absolutely terrified, refreshed and excited.

There was a pause. My group leader spoke next. He said I’d reminded him of the re-emergence of dolphins in Italy during quarantine, where dolphins suddenly appeared to roam in waters that had long been polluted by humans.

The parallels between myself and the dolphins resonated with me. In both instances, a fake reality had existed so long over a forgotten, thriving wonder. It took an abrupt stop in the normal way of life for those buried wonders to come out of hiding. The world saw an unexpected miracle — a silver lining. In my mind, a similar healing process had occurred. A truer version of life came bursting out.

In that WSN meeting, even over Zoom, I felt truly connected to my group members. Living with a full heart, all-in, has allowed me to connect with others more deeply than I ever had in my half-in mentality. Someone thought my story resembled a beautiful miracle in nature — the most sincere and touching compliment I’ve ever received. It was the sweetest relief to be validated and appreciated for the real person I’ve become. I’m living truthfully as myself, which means I can be seen for the real me, not the one hiding behind an emotionless wall. I believe it’s the piece of life I was missing for so long.

In coming into my feelings and real self, I’ve found a higher quality of life in every way. My new way of living — with a full, open heart — has also brought me people in my life who feel more like me. Something phenomenal happens when you grow into your real, authentic self — you attract others who amplify this authenticity, who continue to bring out your truest self. I’ve surrounded myself with people who bring out this new me, those who resonate with my true self. I am the most authentically me I’ve ever been.

I’m grateful for the time COVID-19 gave me to process and grow, to reflect and heal. Not everybody had the opportunity to confront their darkest thoughts during the pandemic — there were other frightening realities to deal with. I recognize the coronavirus’s reign didn’t bring anything but pain for so many people. This year brought some of the lowest lows. We grieved. We lost loved ones. We panicked. We cursed the coronavirus for ripping us away from the things we love.

At the same time, we adapted. We made new traditions. We found hobbies. We re-evaluated what truly matters. We gave nature a chance to heal. We gave ourselves a chance to heal. 

Amongst so much loss, we saw opportunities for new things to blossom. As life begins to return to normal, I vow to hold onto the lessons that the past year has taught me. Under layers of lies and pretend happiness, I discovered a truer version of myself — one who refuses to fake a smile.

It’s been wonderful getting to know her.

Statement Columnist Natalie Bricker can be reached at natbrick@umich.edu