Once upon a time, she gave in. Then she gave in again.

She compromised. She cowered. She retreated.

She prostrated herself before the world.

Once upon a time, she let them win.

She ducked her head and hid her face.

She let them have the spotlight

while she huddled in the darkness with the dust

and cheered them on.

Once upon a time, she accepted it.

She absorbed the poisonous words

and the brutal let-downs,

taking them into herself.

She said it was okay. She said she understood.

Once upon a time, she believed them.

The criticisms that came from people she loved or respected.

She felt fat. And lazy. And stupid. And mean.

She felt disrespectful and ungrateful and ultimately worthless.

Once upon a time, her thoughts echoed theirs.

She’d fall asleep to the sounds of rampage in her head.

Because, she reasoned, why else would they treat her as such

when she was offering up her everything?

So she tried harder.

Once upon a time, she was naive.

She thought her success lay in the precarious act

of making others happy.

With gifts and gestures and kind words,

she made humankind her business.

And she considered herself a failure.

Once upon a time, it didn’t occur to her that she was wrong.

That she had it all upside down.

That the shadows that crawled through her

were not her own.

Once upon a time, she hadn’t yet dared to imagine

that the best thing she could do for the world

was to get up and shine as brightly as ever she could.

She couldn’t yet see that putting herself first

was not selfish, but necessary.

For how many more people could she encourage

if she were to grab that spotlight for herself?

If she shook the dust from her hair and stepped onto that stage

like it was her own front porch?

How many lives could she change

if she acknowledged her own truth?

The answer: only one for certain.

One life. Hers.

Once upon a time, she was only a step away from realizing this.

Once upon a time, she was poised on the threshold.

Once upon a time, she decided that once upon a time was over.

And thrumming through her veins,

quivering in every cell,

glittering behind her eyes

and aching bitter-sweetly in every part of her soul,

she finally knew:

it was time for Happily Ever After.

Justin Haley Phillips

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