THE OLD WAY
I wrote here about having stories that I tell myself over and over again. Stories that float in my brain like a fog that blinds me to everything else. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to write these stories down, reasoning that if I commit them to paper and send them off into the ether, they will go. They will go with love and understanding and gratitude, and then I will move forward with just a little less static in my brain. And while I think the logic there is all right, when I go to write these stories down, somehow it’s all wrong. After weeks of writing, I have pages and pages of Event 1 and Event 2 and Event 3, but I still can’t answer the simple question: So what?
But I think I’ve finally figured out the problem. The truth is that every single one of these stories is the same. The facts are different, the people are different, but the ending–my final interpretation–never changes because it’s always shoved through the same filter. No matter what the actual events are, I always end up with the same story of shame, unworthiness, and isolation. It is a story that was told to me over and over and over again, and it was told to me so often and with such intensity that, at some point, I decided that I had to make it my own and do everything in my power to prove it right. But I’m tired of this story. It makes me feel like shit, and it’s time for me to let it go.
So here’s a start. It’s not THE start, but it’s the start I’m choosing. When I was 16 years old, I was driving my friend home from school and I hit an 84-year old pedestrian with my car. She was jaywalking across six lanes of busy traffic. She couldn’t see me because the sun was in her eyes. She actually couldn’t see the car right next to me either and only managed to dodge it at the last second…by jumping right in front of mine. I didn’t kill this woman, but I did break just about every bone in her body. She had a million dollars worth of surgeries to put all kinds of steel where her bones should have been. Her son was a pastor at a church, and, months later, he told me that he asked his congregation to pray that she would die, because she was in so much pain. But she didn’t die and I feel indebted to her for that, since I’m certain I would have lost my shit even more than I did.
The accident didn’t do me any favors, but, truthfully, I had been having problems for years by that point already–even since I was a little kid. I grew up in a family that never felt like my own. My mom married my stepdad when I was two, and I was the only child who wasn’t his. My family is super religious–in an extremely outspoken, aggressive, self-contradictory, and often cruel way. It’s all about the blessed love of Jesus…until we start talking about anyone who is different or disagrees with the “Family Values.”
To say I didn’t fit in this family is an understatement. As a kid, I was criticized constantly for being too quiet, too shy, too sensitive. My stepdad told me often that I had a bad personality and that I was hard to love. He was my only father figure–my real dad left before I was born–so I soaked up his criticisms like a sponge. I told myself I just needed to be better. If I could figure out how to fix myself, I would finally be deserving of his love.
And in the meantime, I kept my head down and my mouth shut just to avoid being seen. I began to learn how to blend in and even disappear. If I looked a certain way and didn’t talk much, I could fool everyone into thinking I was conservative and religious, not worth noticing, not worth arguing with. I tried to be as quiet as I could be, and it worked. I became the non-threatening girl who was there but not really there. There was less criticism, but it was also very lonely.
After the car accident, my need to self-isolate intensified dramatically. I wanted to–had to–disappear. I started feeling massive amounts of anxiety at even the slightest bit of attention. I had always been shy, but now I could barely tolerate being in proximity to other people. If a teacher called on me in class, I would freeze up. Or start sweating. Or shake. Or blush. Sometimes even all of that at once. And the more often it happened, the worse I felt about myself, the more I hated who I was. I ditched school a lot. (And can you even believe that I got away with it many, many times? Because I was so sweet and quiet and unassuming, no one even thought to check my dismissal slip. I used the same one for months at a time.) I did what I had to to cope, and I faded away into a haze of self-criticism, sadness, and social anxiety. I stopped leaving the house. I stopped talking. I stopped eating. I stopped functioning.
This went on for years.
Finally, when I was 19, I began feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally strong enough to push myself back into the land of the living. I went to junior college for two years, then college. During my last semester at school, I met the first person in my life who made me feel at ease. So I married him. We moved away. Our marriage struggled at first. It wasn’t until I limited contact with my family, finally even cutting them out completely, that our relationship–and my life–started to feel better.
THE NEW WAY
So here I am. On the one hand, I can tell you with complete honesty that I am proud of how far I’ve come. I don’t know if other people could have done more with it, if other people could have been stronger. But, in my mind, I had to overcome a lot. And I did overcome. Sometimes, when I’m feeling incompetent and unaccomplished, I say to myself, “But you aren’t there anymore, girl. You aren’t there.” That will always count for something.
And yet. I still carry around with me the weight of my “badness”; a feeling of shame because I’m not more outgoing, light, easy, uncomplicated; a sense of failure because even the people who were supposed to love me couldn’t, and somehow that must be my fault. It’s depressing, honestly. And exhausting. I’m tired of hating myself for who I naturally am. I’m tired of feeling like I have to trick people into thinking I’m someone else or they won’t like me. Most of all, I’m tired of being so mercilessly critical of myself.
I just finished this book called No Mud, No Lotus, about “transforming suffering.” In it, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, says the first step to decreasing your suffering is acknowledging and embracing it. Embrace it the way a mother embraces a crying child, he says, without suppressing, judging, or ignoring any negative feelings. Say hello to your suffering: “Good morning, my pain, my sorrow, my fear. I see you. I am here. Don’t worry.”
And so this is what I’m going to do. When I feel like I have fallen short, I will choose not to criticize. When I begin to define myself with the same old story, I will stop and show myself a little grace instead. After all these years, this is me: quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, intense. Sometimes awkward and anxious, too. People make me nervous, so I blush and sweat and occasionally say weird things. But these qualities have been with me for decades now. And instead of fighting them, I’m going to embrace them like the old friends they are. I’m ready to say “out” with the judgments forced on me by Assholes of the Past, and “in” with unconditional self-acceptance and self-love. I am who I am. I care and I’m trying and I’m not at all what some people want, but I am me. And for once in my life I will let that be enough.
So this is me sending an old and tired and worn story of suffering into the ether. I’m sending it with love. I’m sending it with gratitude. And even if it comes back to me every so often, as I suspect it might, I will welcome it with open arms, I will hold it and rock it like a baby. I will say hello and I am here and you are not alone, and then I will gently send it back out, in hopes that we both get a little stronger, a little healthier, and a little more whole.