I finally listened to the voice inside me. The one that has always known the best way: rarely easy, but right.

Last year, during this season of setting goals, I heard this voice. As people resolved to save more money and watch less TV, I felt the annual pressure to at least consider New Year’s resolutions, despite finding the tradition arbitrary. But every time I thought about setting a target for myself for the year ahead — maybe for writing, or possibly running — this voice shushed me.

It’s okay. Not now. Just rest.

I listened, beginning 2023 by staying still. I didn’t look ahead, my eyes bright with what I might accomplish during the new year. I didn’t look anywhere but my immediate surroundings. This voice had been right; the amount of self-care I required — reeling in the shock of my brother’s death while trudging through an unsustainable career — just to exist in the day-to-day, left me with no energy to spare.

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For months, my well-being had been precarious, a tree branch on the brink of snapping. Life had added burden after burden for me to hold: some heavy, but temporary. Others, a permanent load. Eventually, I couldn’t carry anything else without causing irreparable damage. Because I didn’t know which added weight would cause the branch to break, I remained vigilant against as many as I could.

Aware of the hazards of isolation, I monitored how long, and how often, I was alone, asking to spend time with loved ones as soon as I recognized the first signs of my own descent. But these plans, always, had to be the kind I could cancel. If I couldn’t get out of bed. If I couldn’t imagine smiling among strangers. If I couldn’t stand to witness how easily other people seemed to exist in, and even enjoy, these mundane moments.

Whether by myself or with others, I constantly assessed my needs, sensitive to how erratically they fluctuated now. Where would I feel the safest? What would be most soothing to me? Who did I trust to care for me in this current, specific state?

Skeptical that I would remain in recovery from my disordered eating, I made excruciating analyses of my thoughts and behaviors, conducting searches for symptoms of my relapse almost frantically.

Each day, day by day, doing my damndest to maintain a precise, necessary balance between structure and space. I endured this way for weeks. Months. Without an end that I could count on.

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Last New Year’s, when the voice inside me cautioned against forcing myself forward, it was to protect me. This voice knew that I needed to recuperate in a way I never had before.

I thank God, frequently and fervently, for this voice. I thank myself for having the good sense to trust it — especially when I heard it at its clearest and most urgent at the start of my twelfth year teaching. I felt, for the first time in my life, that I might not survive what I was living through. Terrified by this unfamiliar reality, the only way I stumbled through was by following the guidance of this voice. Like someone trained to remain calm during a crisis, this voice gave me clear instructions on how to stay safe during this emergency.

I know you’re scared. Just listen to me; I’m going to tell you what to do. It’s going to be okay.

I try not to think about what might have happened if I hadn’t listened, focusing instead on all that has happened because I did. The many mornings I not only woke up without an alarm, but stayed in bed with a book. The afternoons I spent in the sunshine. Even the nights of insomnia, made much more manageable because I knew I was free of any obligations the next day. The ways I painstakingly clawed myself back to a place where I felt, more and more often, okay again.

Now, at the start of another year, I had hoped to be ready to look ahead; I’ve spent so much time and effort mending the places where life bent, and in fact broke, pieces of me. I want to re-become the ambitious woman I used to be, re-creating a life of achievement and, ideally, accolades.

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But this voice tells me that it’s still not time. Before I launch myself into what’s next, I need to look back.

You’ve been through so much. Take the time to learn from it. You deserve that.

So, despite my impatience, I’m listening. Instead of planning, I’m appraising, again and more thoroughly, what I’ve endured these last few years. How those major life changes — almost all of them out of my control, things that happened to me for which I couldn’t prepare, only do my best in the aftermath —changed not just my reality, but my priorities. My needs and my capacity.

In this dawn of 2024, I’m proud of my hard choices and how I’ve stood by, and up for, myself. I’m grateful to again see the future as a place of possibility, rather than peril. I’m eager to see my own empowerment in action — and I trust that this voice inside will tell me when it’s time.

Kerry Graham is part of The Baltimore Banner's Creatives in Residence program, which amplifies the work of artists and writers from the Baltimore region.

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