I’ve been hearing this phrase for about a decade: Damn, girl, you’re independent.

It started when I moved 8,000 miles from the small town in Maine where I’d grown up to Saipan — the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, in the western Pacific Ocean. I wanted a break from college and long New England winters, so when a resort offered to fly me out to help open their new waterpark, I rushed a passport and was on a plane 10 days later.

Back then, I didn’t think much of being told I was independent. I certainly didn’t take it as a compliment. I’d respond with something like: “Oh, I get it from my grandmother. She’s in her 80s, lives alone and has a full social calendar.”

But as the years passed and I continued to travel by myself, I started to revel in the fact that people praised my so-called bravery. In fact, I liked it almost to a fault. Eventually, being thought of as “independent” became a shield I hid behind. Rather than ask for help, I would try to address problems on my own, which meant I pretended they didn’t exist and let them build upon one another.

After getting divorced at age 28 and leaping into single parenthood with an infant, I didn’t want people to know how much I struggled. Beyond the sleepless nights, which every parent endures, very few knew how conflicted I was about being a single mom. I often asked myself: Should I have stayed with him so she could have two parents around? How could I afford to do this on my own? Do I move back in with my parents so I can be a stay-at-home mom? Do I work full time only to hand that paycheck over to a daycare? What will people think? Will my daughter feel loved enough? Will I ever be loved again?

Those close to me would say: “You’re strong,” or “I don’t know how you do it.” In hindsight, though, I wasn’t being strong. I was just isolating myself from everyone. I would post positive quotes all over social media while all I really felt was anxiety. I was hoping I could trick myself into believing what everyone else believed about me. I’d taken on this independent mindset so much that I didn’t know how to stop playing the role I’d been assigned.

For some reason, I thought I had to combat the stigma of being a single mother. (As if I didn’t have enough to do as a single mom!) I hated the the look of pity people gave me when they realized I was parenting solo. When I would say — “No, I’m not married anymore” or “No, he’s not around” — it was as though I had told them someone had died.

Slowly, internally, I became the one who was crumbling inside. The confident, adventurous girl I’d been — who loved meeting new people — vanished and I developed social anxiety that kept me at home way too much. Still, I did not share this fear with anyone. Instead, I made excuses. Excuses that I thought made me sound independent, fierce and dedicated to my craft. “Oh, I can’t go,” I’d say. “I have this piece I’m working on that I really need to finish.”

Last year, I stopped feeling like I needed to act independent all the time. For the first time in my life, I had a panic attack brought on by intense loneliness. One night, I was about to go to bed while my 6-year-old daughter was asleep in the next room. My limbs went numb and I felt tingling sensations throughout my body accompanied by extreme pressure in my chest. I’d close my eyes and try breathing through these new sensations, but couldn’t help but think: Am I having a heart attack?

I contemplated calling an ambulance, but I lived alone at the time. The thought of waking up my daughter and worrying her outweighed the fear I had about my own well-being. Instead, I called a friend who lives two time zones west and thankfully she answered. Just being able to talk to her about my struggles gave me relief. For once I admitted that yes, I’m strong and independent, but I still have moments when I’m haunted by worry — wondering if what I’m doing is enough.

Proving that I can do something all by myself is not what independence means to me anymore. I’m now finding freedom and happiness from expressing when I’m afraid. I started by writing poetry in the privacy of my own journal. Then I posted and recited these poems on Instagram for anyone to see and hear. That progressed to asking family members to babysit while I spent time with friends, new and old, allowing for adult interaction that I’d missed out on while hiding at home. It was empowering to look someone in the eye when they asked “How are you?” and not feel the need to respond with a robotic “Fine. And you?”

As great as it sounds to be called fearless, I only feel that way when I’m not sugarcoating anything in my life.

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