My friend Erika and I sat around a wooden table in the farmhouse we had rented for the weekend. We’d been talking about our lives and the many transitions happening for us in motherhood, partnership, and work. She was separated from her husband. I was struggling with being home every single day during the pandemic. Over dinner and a glass of wine, we talked about it all: the good, the bad, the changes, and the struggles. I remember thinking there was something healing about the nonjudgmental safety net of sisterhood. It felt so nice to have uninterrupted girl time.

As the conversation progressed from our current lives to our childhoods, it felt right to start baking the peach cobbler I’d been making for a month straight. I had been raving to Erika about this dessert all day—both of us were excited to dig in.

I hadn’t always been interested in cooking. As a kid, the kitchen wasn’t a fun place for me. Messes weren’t encouraged at my home, and I was more in the way than anything else. From afar I would watch my mom bake and cook. For many years, cooking felt more like a forbidden activity than a chance to be creative and even free. Later, when I was in my early twenties, a close friend taught me how to stop overthinking it and instead taste and feel my way around the kitchen. Looking back, that was one of my first adult lessons on self-trust: to not know what I was doing and try anyway.

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Now, as an adult who loves to bake, especially alongside my children, I’ve found a lot of healing and plain old fun in making messes, flour dusting my clothes, sugar sweetening the countertops. When the timer went off for the cobbler, Erika and I rushed to the oven. The cobbler was the perfect hue of golden brown, and the sugar had caramelized beautifully. We both could see the butter bubbling like mini eruptions under the crust.

I was so excited about how good it looked, I took a photo and sent an enthusiastic text to my mom and grandmother to display my homemade creation.

In response, my mom wrote back, “Your cooking is improving… ”

“My cooking is improving?” I replied. “I’ve been cooking and baking for years. I have a whole family to cook for—this isn’t a new thing.”

The conversation went silent after that.

I was so frustrated with myself for sending them that message. At that moment, I thought, Of course my mom can never just say, “Alex, that’s nice!” or “Great job! How did it taste?” Even a simple “Yum!” would suffice. Everything she says always has to be something that would leave me questioning myself.

I looked up from my phone with tears in my eyes, feeling both hurt and foolish for being hurt. How could the text exchange warrant such a big and emotional response? But it was huge for me. Erika asked me what was wrong, and I started sobbing.

She wrapped me in a hug. “It’s okay, babe,” she said in her warm, loving voice.

When I got myself together, we talked about it. I tried to explain how discredited I felt every time I did something, big or small. And even though I’d done so much work on my relationship, especially the relationship with my mother, certain interactions—even a short text message—still sent me spiraling backward.

More than anything, I was frustrated with myself that I hadn’t yet gotten to a point of accepting that certain things will always be what they are. Starting from scratch time and time again, just like the baking I love to do, was frustrating rather than rewarding.

Worse, I knew what I had to do I could either make peace with the reality of my circumstances or continue putting myself in situations where I expect different results, yet know that I won’t get them. This doesn’t make me or my mother good or bad; it just means that certain things may not change—and that we are different. I was the one with the issue. My mother wasn’t suffering like I was. She had no clue that that exchange hurt me and ruined my night.

As Ericka dug into our warm dessert, topped with ice cream, and ate it all in one sitting, I realized that so many tender bits of our lives may surface at any given moment, and that backtracking is a part of healing sometimes. There is nothing wrong with having to start from scratch, time and time again. Yes, that can sound exhausting. And a little corny. But I wasn’t alone. I had a friend. I had time. And I had cobbler.

Excerpted from How We Heal, by Alex Elle, © 2022. Published by Chronicle Books.

Author’s Note

My reflection: I wrote How We Heal to remind people that healing is possible, even on our darkest days. It doesn’t look pretty, it’s not always easy, and it can leave us feeling flustered. My hope is that readers own their truth and learn what healing looks like for them and their journeys. Each of us is on a different path—grief and healing come in waves. They are not one size fits all. I also think it’s important for folks to celebrate the micro-moments of joy that emerge when they’re in the thick of their tenderness. How We Heal is an invitation to uncover our truth, set ourselves free, and be a vessel for community care.

how we heal by alex elle
Author photo: Erika Layne

How We Heal: Uncover Your Power and Set Yourself Free

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Credit: Author photo: Erika Layne

Alex Elle is an author, certified breath work coach, and restorative-writing teacher. Writing came into her life by way of therapy and the exploration of healing through journaling and mindfulness. The intention behind Elle’s work is to build community and self-care practices through literature and language.