‘There I Am’: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing With a Message of Optimism

Ruthie Lindsey’s book There I Am, now available in paperback, chronicles her journey with chronic pain following a car accident when she was in her teens, as well as her relationship with a body that she sometimes viewed as flawed, but now sees as whole and sacred.

Lindsey is a Nashville-based speaker, cohost of the Unspoken podcast, and prominent social-media figure whose work has been featured in Darling MagazineThe Great DiscontentBetter Homes & Gardens, and many others.

In the interview below, she discusses the book she envisioned initially versus the one she wrote, the ways trauma shapes all of us, and the “beautiful” life she lives now.

Why do you think “a story about healing” is important now?

I didn’t start out feeling that way at all, which is really interesting, because I don’t think I believed that I could heal. But the book took me on such a journey. It broke me down. In the midst of it, by doing all this work that I did, because I was so not well, it brought me back to this really beautiful place. We [Ruthie and her ex-husband, Jack] came here, and all of these really hard, traumatic, painful things happened to us. But I was taught growing up that I was broken, and that something was inherently wrong with me, and I’m a depraved wretch. Through this work, I unlearned that story. I am so whole, and so good, and so worthy, and all these hard, traumatic things happened to me, but I’m not broken.

I am created for healing. Our brains can heal; our cells can regenerate. I might have some form of physical pain for the rest of my life, but I can heal emotionally, I can heal spiritually. I think we were created for it. Learning about the mind-body connection and how you can take care of your little-girl self and take her out of traumatic experiences, I started studying so much about healing, which was, ultimately, unlearning a lot of limiting beliefs. I didn’t believe that healing was for me. I believed it was for others. It was a very limiting story that I get to release. The book I sold to Simon and Schuster was called Salvaged: Building a Beautiful Life With Broken Parts. I called myself ‘trash’ and ‘broken.’ Then I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, sweet girl, you are not broken.’ It was a really painful and amazing and expansive excavation. Writing is so hard and so powerful. I wrote this book for me to heal. I didn’t know that going in, but once it’s in the world, that’s God’s, and yours, and it doesn’t have anything to do with me anymore. How people receive it and experience it is none of my business. I did my work, and now, it’s not mine anymore, which feels really freeing to my sweet little ego.

Did you anticipate the relevance of your story as you were writing?

I did in the sense that everyone knows pain, and everyone knows loss, and everyone knows trauma. But of course, I couldn’t have known that it would come out three weeks into a global pandemic. And here’s a book talking about isolation, trauma, death, loss, pain. For my human-ness, it was very disappointing at first. We had this big tour planned, and writing is not my jam. I want to talk all day. So, I’d done this for three years, and I’m like, ‘Now I finally get to go be with people and share this with the world,’ and then everything shut down, which was very, very disappointing. But we shifted, and perspective is a beautiful thing. I got to remind myself, ‘Wow, what an honor to have this come out in the world at this time.’ It’s exactly the way it was meant to be.

One of my mantras is, ‘This is happening for me and not to me,’ so it was exactly what it was supposed to be, and it was perfect. I really feel grateful for that in a lot of ways. And to be really honest, we’re always on the journey. I turned the book in in the fall of 2019, and I feel like a different person now. So much has shifted. Things that I didn’t know when the book came out, I know now. Things are constantly evolving, constantly changing. There are things about the story that don’t fit me anymore. Like now, when I speak, I say, ‘I’ll give you the pain story in ten minutes, and the rest, let’s talk about what pain invited us into.’ Let’s talk about what it’s gifted me, the invitation of that pain, whereas before, probably 80 percent of it would have been my pain story, because it was so much of my identity. So that’s been a beautiful thing. I didn’t have to go on tour and just talk about my pain story for 90 minutes.

Talk about the meaning of place in your story. Why was grounding your reader in place in Louisiana important?

Well, it’s my roots. It’s so interesting, because it’s easy for me to forget that that’s my roots, and so that was really intentional, because I haven’t lived at home since I was 17 years old, but those foundational years really give you the lens to see the rest of your life. The things that happen to you, the way you are raised, the things that you were taught. And so, it was super important for that to be the foundation, because it’s really informed who I am today. My home, my family, my school, my church — all those things informed 41-year-old Ruthie. It’s my foundation, and it is for all of us. It’s easy to try to deny it, avoid it. I did, for a good, long time, and it catches up, and it’s all at the perfect time, but that was a very intentional journey I wanted to bring people on.

You write, “We don’t get to choose the things that haunt us, the memories that linger, the uninvited feelings that follow us around… Eventually, they make us look.” What is your advice in dealing with those memories?

I’ve done a lot of healing work, and I will continue to until I’m back in the in-between. I do constant work, because we all have loss, and we all have trauma. I do a tea ceremony every morning as a part of my meditation, and I’ll sit and have tea with little girl Ruthie. I’ll ask her what she needs, and I’ll ask her what feels good to her, and I’ll take care of her. It’s all work of remembering what’s so right with us, not what’s wrong with us. We are conditioned to believe that something is so inherently wrong. We get on this loop, and we’re so mean to ourselves, and we have these voices in our heads that are our parents’ voices, or the church’s voices, or the patriarchy’s voices, telling us, ‘This is broken. You need to fix this. This is wrong. You’re bad.’ We’re just beating ourselves up all day, every day, and we don’t even know it. The church says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ but we’re hating ourselves. Of course, we can’t go out and love what He loves. If you actually listen to the voice in your head, so much of it is what’s wrong with us. I walk around my home and think, ‘Look what’s so right here.’ Because it would be so easy to think about all the things that I want and need and what’s not right here. Or, looking at my bank account and saying, ‘I got to just pay my light bill that keeps the light on so that I can have meals with my friends.’ Instead of just saying, ‘Ugh, that money just came out of my account.’ I do it with my body, because I was so focused on my pain and what was wrong with my body. That practice — we’re all so deserving of it.

After your accident, you begin to question your faith and approach spirituality in different ways. You walk the line between questioning God and not doing so. How is that outlook relevant to the accident’s aftermath?

That’s also many years out and with perspective. You can’t skip the journey. You have to almost hate something to be strong enough to leave it. For a very long time, I had a lot of middle fingers to the church and to that journey. I felt very victimized by it, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. And that belongs. I love that version of me, because she helped get me here. But that comes with time. If I had written this book eight years ago, it would have been a very different book. If I write a book ten years from now, I’ll probably think, ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s so cute. She thought she knew things.’ I hope that I’m a 90-year-old woman with long, white, Emmylou Harris hair, walking around with a notebook, in awe. I have a lot of grace for that girl. I don’t regret the church I was a part of. I’m so thankful for the people who loved me and helped me get to who I am today. And I love who I am today. I wanted to be honest and have as much love and grace as possible. I wanted to be a nondualistic thinker. They had so much to teach me, and I’m so grateful and it doesn’t fit for me anymore.

You write that after the accident, “the power of community will shape, astound, and sustain me.” How is that true at different parts of the story, in different ways?

It’s been true for me my whole life. When I’m in my trauma, and I isolate, that’s such a huge part of the pain journey. You feel so isolated in your trauma. I was so blessed to have people who still pursued me, and still chose me and loved me. My best friends, they never gave up on me. They would come and lie in that bed with me and mirror truth to me, and bring me meals, and love me when I had nothing to give. And the beauty of that is that I get to do that for people too. That’s the give and take. That’s the kind of community I grew up in, and they taught me so much of what that looks like. I give them so much credit for what I create today, because I have the most incredible humans in my life. We show up for each other. It’s a true privilege.

What is the answer for you to your question, “How much of who we are is sopped up from the people who made us, and how much of our identity [do we] get to construct on our own?”

It’s both. It’s informed who we are, and we don’t have to stay there. But a lot of people might, and that’s okay. That’s their journey, right? I was taught many things that don’t fit for me anymore, and so I get to unlearn those and remember my divinity because I exist. I am still my parents’ child. I am still the girl who grew up in south Louisiana in a segregated town. I am still the girl who was taught really messed up things by the church and by the patriarchy, and yet, I don’t believe those things anymore. I get to remember something different. We all have free will, and we all get to do work to heal, but there are people who don’t have access. They don’t know that it’s possible. They get really stuck in their trauma. I am very privileged. I get to go to counseling. I get to do this work, and go to retreats, and do things that help me remember that I don’t have to stay stuck in these stories.

As you heal and begin public speaking, you write that you notice that “pain is at the center of every conversation.” For you, where is the line between that fact being a healthy way to cope, versus a harmful one?

For people who are very defined by their pain, I don’t judge that, because that’s where they are, and that’s okay. But for me now, it’s interesting, because honestly, it doesn’t come up much with most people in my life anymore. It’s not like I have to consciously choose, because it’s not who I am. But this is not a dismissal of what is. All those things happened, and I still have pain. It’s not like I’m not acknowledging and not talking about it. I do practices and acupuncture and go to healers, and I do things for my body that are really loving for her. It doesn’t encompass who I am. The balance of remembering, ‘This is not who I am; this is just a piece of me.’ I am not this trauma. Trauma happened to me. I am a soul that lives forever. So often, we become so defined by our trauma that we think those are the things that we are. Those are just my doing parts. That’s not my being. My being is eternal. It’s already perfected and whole and worthy and good. Trying to remember to come from that place is really hard. I hope to be a mirror of that for people. That empowers and emboldens me. I interact with people really differently when I interact from that place.

There I Am encourages readers to interact with one another from worthy and good places, from the power of Ruthie’s personal story to her message for her entire audience.

NONFICTION
There I Am
By Ruthie Lindsey
Gallery Books
Published April 21, 2020
Paperback April 20, 2021