Naked and Unafraid

Lacey McLaughlin

Format: Personal Essay / Nonfiction

 

Content warning: body shaming

It was time to get naked and face the ugliest parts of myself.

The water roared and the trees glowed, taking on a life of their own in the Costa Rican jungle. Howler monkeys surrounded us high in the treetops and birds sang. Every sound, emotion, and thought were magnified from the mushrooms we had ingested. I threw off all my clothes and walked to the edge. I heard myself release a sharp howl while Tish kneeled to place her hands on my bare abdomen.

Waves of grief coursed through me. Like a heavy jacket, the weight of my body felt stifling. I had spent so many years hiding in plain sight, and it was time to come face to face with every moment of self-hatred I had held inside myself.

I had been at war with my body for as long as I could remember. As a child, my ballet teacher was quick to point out my protruding stomach, advising me to lay off the cookies in front of the entire class. My father criticized me for not being athletic enough and made me accompany him for punishing workouts. After I graduated college, he took me shopping for a work blazer, then refused to buy one when I didn’t fit into a smaller size.

I spent my 20s trying to hide my body from men, whether it was keeping the lights off or inventing excuses to avoid wearing a bathing suit. One boyfriend forced me to lie on his bed naked until I “liked the way I looked.” He may have been trying to help me, but I simply felt demoralized and exposed.

And now that I was naked and on mushrooms, I could feel the full weight these experiences and the impact my inner self-hatred had had on my daily life.

I had met Tish in Peru three years earlier, on the night before a five-day trek through the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu. A blonde pixie from South Africa, Tish exuded a mix of cool sophistication and bubbly warmth that I found captivating. She came to Peru for yoga instructor training but possessed a party-girl enthusiasm that persuaded me to kick back more than a few pisco sours.

When I met Tish, she told me about how she had traded a life working in corporate finance in South Africa to become a crew member on a sailboat and travel the world. This had led her to Aspen, Colorado, where she’d worked as an au pair for a wealthy family and embarked on her own spiritual quest.

I was dumbfounded by her ability to leap into the unknown and trust that things would work themselves out. I felt the need for control, to have certainty over every outcome in my life. At one point that evening, Tish looked at me with her intense gaze. “And just what do you want to do, love?”

I froze. What did I want to do? My future was blurry. Like one of those magic eye posters I would try so hard to focus on, my eyes could never make a cohesive image from all the abstract patterns.

“I’d like to get paid to travel and write, so I can work for myself,” I said, not fully believing if it was possible.

“So do it then,” Tish replied with couth coolness.

Three years later, I finally took the leap. But the anxiety and fear I managed to live with for most of my adult life was now exploding inside me. I was relieved to quit my job, but the unknown was terrifying. A megaphone of worst-case scenarios blared through my mind, keeping me awake at night and pumping cortisol through my adrenals. I thought about the ease with which Tish moved through life. I, on the other hand, was constantly fighting my way through a thick haze of doom.

Tish was now living in Costa Rica, working as a healer and producing retreats. She radiated wildness in all of her Facebook photos, like a jungle princess with a carefree bohemian style. She had transformed from a full-figured party girl to a taut and tan beach yogi. When she invited me to attend a private retreat with her in Costa Rica that fall, I immediately said yes.

Before the retreat, I decided to spend a few weeks nearby in a small beach town called Playa Bejuco. That’s where I met Sam, a sensitive Texan with wild hazel eyes and broad, muscular shoulders. After building a successful real estate business in Austin, Texas, and getting a divorce, Sam moved to Costa Rica to build an eco-retreat center with a business partner.

The first night we met, Sam and I sipped beers on top of the roof overlooking the sunset. Waves crashed nearby and toucans soared through the canopy of trees. Sam spoke slowly; he was thoughtful. I sensed he felt deeply, even if he didn’t always express it. Later that night, we joined my housemates to cook mahi-mahi. We stayed up late swapping travel stories and laughing. By the early hours of the morning, we were all happily drunk and the best of friends. When it came time to go to bed, Sam asked if he could stay over.

“You can have the couch or the bed – I’ll let you pick,” I said coyly.

Sam chose the bed, and in the dark, drunken, early hours of the morning, our bodies found each other.

The next morning, we nursed our hangovers with coffee and pinto de gallo before heading off to Dominical to meet Tish. I felt an intense connection to Sam. My attraction to him grew by the minute, and I yearned for another taste of him, like the night before. He was affectionate and kind, but it was too soon to tell if he felt the same way.

We kissed goodbye as I exited his mud-splattered Land Rover and made plans to visit his retreat center the following week. I couldn’t help but imagine us falling in love and running the retreat center together. Maybe this is how trusting the unknown works, I thought. It opens you up to something more wonderful than you could have ever imagined on your own.

Tish drove her four-wheel drive up steep dirt roads to reach the towering hillside in Uvita where we would be staying. Cows roamed in the front yard under dozens of lemon trees in full bloom.

I felt out of my element. I barely had a yoga practice and dismissed anything mystical as being out of touch with reality. Tish had fully jumped on board the woo train since we last met. She had stopped drinking alcohol, only ate organic food, and spent her free time meditating, practicing yoga, and puking in buckets at ayahuasca ceremonies. I grew increasingly concerned that I’d be forced to participate in some new-age hippy shit.

The home was an old shipping container with a sprawling deck overlooking a mesmerizing view of the jungle. Birds soared above the green horizon of trees. Before directing me to my casita below in the jungle, Tish stripped off her clothes, revealing a full frontal of her perfect cinnamon skin and sculpted curves.

I quickly shifted my gaze, trying to avert my eyes. Tish giggled.

“You are free to take off your clothes at any time and relax,” she said.

“I’m good, thanks,” I replied. The thought of getting naked sent an electric shock of anxiety through my nervous system.

The next morning at breakfast, Tish went over our schedule for the retreat before asking me if I was familiar with plant medicine.

“I invite you to experience the wisdom of plants during a ceremony on your last day. There’s ayahuasca, DMT, mushrooms, and kambo if you want to go deeper.”

I was terrified of ayahuasca and had never heard of DMT or kambo. “I guess it would be interesting to try mushrooms,” I said. My only experience had been watching my roommates in college turn into giddy children on a trip.

After breakfast, as we walked down to a creek at the base of the jungle, Tish casually asked, “How do you feel in your body?”

I instantly felt a wave of shame; this was a question I wanted to avoid. My whole life had felt like chasing one achievement after another in hopes that I could divert attention away from the bulges of fat that were evidence of the junk food I routinely binged.

My weight had been an issue growing up, and my father had constantly criticized me for the extra pounds I carried. Despite all of my diets and half marathons, however, I could never manage to lose more than five pounds. I impulsively piled food on my plate and never felt completely full. I fought the urge to eat during most of my waking hours and hated myself anytime I became lost in an entire warm, doughy pizza or a carton of ice cream.

When we got to the creek, Tish led me through a meditation before revealing a pipe packed with rapè, a dried and powdered tobacco snuff from the Amazon twenty times more powerful than regular tobacco and administered with a pipe through the nostrils. “This will help you with clarity,” she said, before instructing me to breathe in while she blew the snuff into my nose.

I felt as if I’d been hit in the head by a sharp object as the burning sensation filled my nose and lungs. After I braced myself for Tish to blow into my left nostril, I nearly doubled over from the pain. I held my head in my hands, tears streaming down my cheeks.

Time seemed to stop. Everything around me moved slowly. I could barely hear any noises around me. How do you feel in your body? Tish’s question played again in my mind, but this time I saw how everything in my life was connected to shame. Every thought, decision, and action was operating from a place of deep shame and sadness. The constant gnawing of never feeling full enough made food both my enemy and best friend.

“I think I need to work on body shame this week,” I said out loud, quickly wiping tears from my eyes and trying to push the emotion away.

Over the next three days, Tish guided me through a morning yoga practice. She used sound bowls that made gong-like sounds to attune my nervous system. We cooked organic meals and made smoothies using fresh vegetables and fruit we picked from the trees. I took slow walks around the jungle and sat on the porch writing in my journal.

On the second night, Tish prepared a yoni steam, a Gwyneth Paltrow-approved modality that involved sitting over a steamy pot of herbs as they seeped into my vagina. The idea was to heal my womb and connect to my feminine wisdom. I wrote it off as ridiculous but as the warmth of steam reached inward, I could feel myself softening. I felt myself expanding as I gazed up at the dark sky with its luminous portholes. I began to weep. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been this gentle with myself.

The morning of our mushroom ceremony, I woke up to a text from Sam: He enjoyed our time together but didn’t think it was a good idea for me to come up to the retreat center after all. He was busy getting ready to open for high season, which was just a few weeks away. He hoped I would understand.

Even though I barely knew him, he had appeared as a life raft in the midst of my own personal storm. I nearly doubled over from the rejection. It had felt like the beginning of something promising. But to him it was just a fling, I didn’t mean anything, I told myself.

I was embarrassed for getting my hopes up. A cascade of self-defeating thoughts circulated on an endless loop. If I had been thinner, I was certain this wouldn’t have happened. The pain I had felt that past year when my ex, Bob, ended things rose to the surface. Suddenly, it wasn’t just Sam, but the weight of every man who had rejected me. My unworthiness bore down on me with intense force. I could barely breathe. A morose darkness pulsated through my body. Everything was wrong. The cumulative weight of all my failures was an undertow pulling me down, suffocating me.

At breakfast, I concealed my spiral with a steel-like strength. “How are you feeling this morning?” Tish asked as she locked her eyes on mine, sensing there was something I wasn’t telling her.

“I feel great! Ready for this ceremony!” I said, with forced enthusiasm. I feared that if I allowed the tidal wave of grief I was holding inside myself to spill out, I would drown. How could I even explain this? I was a mess because a guy I’d probably never see again had canceled our plans. I was too embarrassed to tell her the truth.

Later that morning, we went to the beach to set our intentions for the mushrooms. We sprawled on a blanket under palm trees as the waves crashed to shore. “My intention is to connect with my inner wisdom and open myself up to whatever I am here to learn,” I said. Tish said a prayer before we unwrapped our pieces of mushroom-laced chocolate and swallowed them. Then she laid on the beach topless while I walked into the ocean, feeling the power of the waves and anticipating the effects.

When we arrived back at the house, alarm bells sounded in my nervous system. My body was warning that a train was hurling toward me but there was nothing I could do to stop it. My brain and body began separating from each other, becoming their own entities.

I felt an overwhelming need to be alone. “I’m going to shower and change real quick,” I told Tish, trying my best to appear normal.

When I returned to my casita, I crawled into the bed and could no longer contain the tidal wave of grief I was suppressing. It was a force more powerful than anything I had ever felt before. It was pointless to try and fight against it, so I gave in. The sharp, jagged pieces of my brokenness pierced and ached.

I cried in ragged sobs. Sam had rejected me because I rejected myself. I wasn’t allowing anyone to see me. I was hiding from the darkest parts of myself.

Tish appeared at the door, concealing her concern that I might be headed on a bad trip.

“I’m really sad, but I think I’ve figured it all out,” I managed to choke out between sobs. “It’s okay because I’m just doing my best.”

This was a voice of self-compassion I rarely allowed to surface. The relief broke me apart again. I was not used to being this open with myself. In jagged sobs I told Tish about Sam’s rejection that morning. It felt freeing to finally say it out loud.

Tish convinced me to head back up to the yoga deck to drink some water and do a shamanic meditation. It was there she stripped off her clothes and laid out in the sun. “Babe, you have to take off your clothes and see what it feels like to let the sun kiss your nipples,” she said. “It’s simply divine!”

To whatever was opening up in me, I felt it quickly close up at the suggestion. “I’m not ready,” I said.

I sat on the edge of the deck, dangling my feet and in awe of the vast canopy of wildness below. Something had created all this and I, too, was part of it.

I followed Tish down to the creek, walking slowly to take in the magic that surrounded us. I wanted to roll in the dirt and play. I felt giddy, like a child.

I sat on a rock beside the creek for a long time, watching as Tish used a sugar scrub to caress her naked body in the water. She was so free in her own skin.

I recounted out loud every moment I felt hurt or rejected and blamed myself for it. They came rolling out of me one by one. There were so many things I didn’t even know I was holding on to: a date who canceled last minute because he couldn’t tell “if I was fat or not” from my profile photos, the grueling half marathon training that I used to punish myself, a workout instructor who once thought my rounded stomach was a result of pregnancy.

In that moment, I realized that getting naked and facing the darkest parts of myself was the bravest thing I could do. I could sit on the sidelines of my own healing or I could face it head on. I hadn’t come all this way to stay the same.

“Happy now?” I asked Tish as I threw off my clothes to join her in the creek.

If I thought that decades of pain inside me had already broken open, it was nothing compared to this new portal I had entered in my own body. Earthquakes of grief rippled through me. I began coughing profusely, to the point I started dry heaving. 

“You’ve stored all this grief in your lungs,” Tish said as she rubbed my back while I bent over. “This is good. You’re releasing it.”

I took a deep breath and placed my hands over my abdomen, the part of myself I hated the most. “Fuck, why is this so hard?” I said out loud. The weight of my self-hatred engulfed me.

I grieved for the abuse I had inflicted on myself. The years of beating myself up for not being good enough. I grieved for all the things my unworthiness had cost me. I felt the pain of how much I was holding back, of the love I was depriving myself of. I vowed to start giving myself the love I so desperately craved. The love I deserved.

Tish joined me, placing her hands on my abdomen.

“This is a place for love and creation. This is not a place for pain and fear,” she said, as she performed a womb healing.

That night, while drinking tea on the yoga deck and watching the sun go down, Tish wrapped her arms around me, and we sat in a silent embrace until the moon appeared. I returned to my casita, allowing every sound in the jungle to soothe me.

At that moment, I had no idea that saying yes to myself and coming to Costa Rica would have unearthed the foundation beneath my feet. That taking the first step toward my own healing would have completely unraveled my life as I knew it. Two years later, I would return to that same jungle, homeless and broken. But I would also return 40 pounds lighter and free from the weight of lies that had kept me hiding in plain sight.

LACEY MCLAUGHLIN

Lacey Mclaughlin is an awarding-winning journalist and copywriter based in Mexico who writes about underdogs, fringe dwellers, and everyday heroes. Her work in journalism has examined Southern politics, civil rights, and public health. You can find Lacey’s most recent stories and podcast at laceyelizabeth.com. She is currently writing a non-fiction book about the intersection of new-age spirituality and science.