I came to xoJane to write about cooking, a habit I developed because taking care of other people and having purpose distract me from being self-absorbed. I’m good at it- all of it: the cooking, being purposeful and taking care of people, but even Google Calendar alerts or wrapping my house in sticky-note reminders wouldn’t make me better at taking care of myself.
I’m going to work on that this year.
I’m quickly approaching my 38th birthday in May, and upon cleaning out my wallet this week I stumbled on the document that saved my life -- a slip of paper I’ve moved from wallet to wallet since I created it 10 years ago.
At 27, I found myself directionless. I was hanging onto a boyfriend who might as well have been waving an actual white flag, my business partner had abandoned ship to go into another industry, I was trying to reconcile the relationships I had with my family, with my friends, with my place in the world. I lived in a town that had worn me out, I’d just moved into a dusty house I didn’t love and I was simply too scared and too tired to make any changes. Stasis felt like a scratchy blanket around me- itchy, but better than being cold.
I came to self sufficiency in a weird way -- because I generally assumed that no one cared otherwise. I was raised that way, I manifested that reality, and being self sufficient is altogether easier than codependency. By the time I was a teenager, I was so assured of the lack of general concern towards me that I became a master of deflection and focused outward on my friends.
It wasn’t that I lacked self confidence -- I ran for school office, I was omnipresent in a variety of groups, and I’d dare say most people in my class knew who I was. They knew who I was, they did not know HOW I was, and I’d set up a very specific directive to ensure that.
I didn’t offer information. Nada. Unless I was asked very specifically, very directly. I sat waiting, testing the people around me to ensure they were really my friends, not understanding my role in setting up the situation. My best friend asked me for a ride home one afternoon and I apologized, but I couldn’t. When she asked why, I said I didn’t have my car. When she asked why, I said because I’d had a car accident. When she asked when, I said, “A week ago.” She looked at me, bewildered. When she asked why I hadn’t told her, I said, “You didn’t ask.”
Part of attaining this level of stoicness is because you generally don’t believe people can handle the truth. If you tell them the truth: about the screaming, the hitting, the threats… that will mean change. That’s just the physical reality. If you tell them what it means to you, how you feel, it surrenders your power. You become a victim, again, of their pity.
Little bits slipped out here and there. Friends found it odd they were not allowed at my home or they’d show up to pick me up and I’d have to turn them away because I’d just been punished, or that I had an oddly early and strict curfew, or wasn't allowed a driver’s license.
Not a single friend of mine ever saw my bedroom. Ever. Just before the end of Junior year, my painting in a school show was a 10 foot tall purple and blue canvas with a poem that detailed how my brother was beating me. If I’d hung it today instead of 1997, I’d have been removed from the home.
A lot of things would be different if I’d grown up later.
My parents were upstanding people. Intelligent. Educated. Lawyered up. Able to talk their way out of things. And so I have followed the same logic: I am intelligent and educated. I understand my issues, there are no great secrets -- what is a therapist going to tell me that I don’t already know?
I know that in 38 years, I’ve never learned how to cry in front of other people. I would rather commit seppuku. To do so feels like breaking through a block of ice with your hand.
I deal with everything in my life with laughter. Hysterical laughter, because I find humor in all of it. I can see all of it, from my parents actions, my friends, my work, and my own actions through a crystal clear lens of ridiculousness.
When my mother tried to give me away at 16, I described the situation to one of my good friends through the kind of laughter that is so breathless you can’t make noise. The house with many cats and troubled girls. To this day, I just have to make the noise, a creaking attic hatch, imitating the space that would have been my room, cats scattering, and my friend and I are brought to gasping for air, laughing.
Someone who I trusted enough to tell that story to in my mid twenties looked at me and said, “How can you laugh about that?” and I smiled and said, “Because if you don’t laugh about it, what's left?”.
So I found myself at 27, moving from a quiet dissatisfaction and low level of ennui to full on I-can’t-imagine-what-I’m-doing-anymore depression. I was on my way to work one evening, on the phone with my grandmother, trying to use actual words to explain to her how I was feeling and she kept telling me that if I just lost weight, and wore my hair like a lady, and bought different clothes and shoes and makeup and stopped cursing and got a “real job” that I’d be fine, and something broke.
I was in the parking garage of an upscale shopping mall where I worked part time while I was trying to get my freelance business going, and I sat on a cell phone screaming at a 70 year old woman. I can still picture the exact parking spot, and I was suddenly crystal clear: ”Choose right now. Either accept me for who I am or we cannot be in communication.”
We haven’t spoken in 11 years. The last thing she ever said to me was “You embarrass me.”
Between the car and the store, a mere hundred yards, I decided: even if it is the most painful thing I ever do, even it means complete, total surrender of pride and power, I will go to therapy. It is a process, and I will just commit to it, even if it means sitting in an office crying in front of someone for weeks on end.
And that’s exactly what I did. After dicking around with therapy for years, where I’d sit in an office and as soon as they’d ask, “And why are we here today?” I’d bolt (not specific enough! Fail!) and never come back, I realized the therapist themselves were not the issue, it was me.
I found a program out of a local college where psychology students needed short term patients and for 8 weeks I went and cried. I talked through all of it. And for 8 weeks, for the first time in my entire life, someone was, for an hour a week, focused solely on me. And even though she was barely old enough to rent a car, and clearly inexperienced, it was affordable- and I just accepted these conditions and set to work because the work to be done was solely mine.
After my very first visit, I sat down at my desk and wrote myself a love letter. A declaration of my worth. Then I got on my computer, and bought a font I’d been lusting for that I hadn’t found any project good enough for and decorated it with hearts and printed out two of them. I taped one to my wall and one was folded into my wallet.
But I was still embarrassed -- it was taped under a shelf, behind a monitor. When someone grabbed it off my wall and published it online to make fun of it, I was shamed, instead of defending it and myself. Over time, I’ve learned from that mistake, and have shared it with friends when they’re going through a hard time, recommending they write one themselves.
The past 10 years of my life since I chose happiness have been mind altering. Sometimes I consider if I had taken a different turn all those years ago, settled for something different, where my choose-your-own adventure life would have led me. I could be an unhappy housewife in Tucson, for Gds sake.
Instead, I’ve traveled the world, lived in strange and new places, learned to drive on the wrong side of the road, learned to be comfortable sharing my passions, learned to speak up, speak out, to be proud of me. To grab opportunity. To recognize patterns of self hate, to develop healthy friendships and push out those that lack authenticity.
I am not the most open person. In fact, I’m fairly private. I don’t speak much about my family, I absolutely never, ever talk about my love life, and I am the queen of VagueBooking. I am controlling and I manage situations to keep from trusting people in anything big or small. I never surrender control. But I open myself up here and there. I’m not waiting to be asked anymore. I’m challenging people to love me less, and I’m settling less.
Ten years ago I jumpstarted my life again by deciding that I would learn how to choose happiness every single day. I sprinted towards joy instead of shackling myself with guilt.
But lifelong happiness is a marathon, not a sprint, and lately I’ve been slowing down. I’ve found myself searching for the happiness high again.
I thought this year I’d come to a completely sane realization that I should avoid romantic relationships -- that my ability to trust was just too broken and that as much as I enjoyed the giddiness of flirtation, it was always coupled with crippling anxiety about when that attraction would end. I’m just not built for it. So I go through long periods where I’m happy, just being me, by myself.
Over the summer, many of my single friends paired off. I found myself curious if I was missing things, wondering if I was just avoiding putting myself out there. So I accepted the last few dates, tried again and circled back through the insanity loop, ending up at the same place: alone, but even more tarnished.
I’ve worked through hard things, just like everyone else. There’s nothing special about my shit -- people have worse, they have better, they’re all just circumstances we live through, that we have to process. You don’t qualify or quantify suckitude, and a very wise surrogate mom repeatedly tells me, “Suffering is not comparable.” I've processed sexual molestation, childhood illness, and an unhealthy home life. but it's no more significant than anyone else's life.
So that’s it. This year I’m going to try to learn to trust. I believe its a skill you can learn and publishing this is my first step, because it means trusting those who read it. Even after all I’ve written here, I believed xoJane was still a private corner of the world my friends didn’t see. But I’m starting to let them in, posting about my stories. I have started using pictures of myself in my pieces here and other places online, revealing bits of my life.
Most people learn trust as a child from the people raising them, but I learned to go on roller coasters on my own. I learned to watch scary movies on my own. I learned how to open a bank account and balance a checkbook and drive and pay taxes and get a job all on my own. Its taken me a very long time to identify the lack of trust, and now I’m ready to work on it and I’m going to try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to get there.
Just not on my own.