Dear Self

I keep struggling to relate the strange epiphany I had recently. 

As with most epiphanies, it hit me like a ton of bricks and then seemed glaringly obvious.

After my divorce, I decided I was never going to let a romantic partner treat me like a convenience again. There is an argument to made for how selfish my love for him was, but at least I know it was real love. The knowledge that it was never truly reciprocated was devastating, but ultimately survivable. So I dusted off my hands and adopted a meme for a mantra: “I’m not tearing down my walls for anybody. You want in, fucking climb.”

I added the profanity to make it more authentic to me. 🙂

Once I made that leap of logic – that real love was possible and I wouldn’t settle for less than an equal share – I was suddenly extrapolating that to all my relationships with varying degrees of ruthlessness. The outer-circle ties – some friends but even some family –  that had always been so taxing I gently disengaged from.

I applied it to closer relationships, too, and that is a work in progress. As I’ve mentioned here before, love is a verb, and it turns out that most of my family is appalling bad at applying that concept. Realizing that I’ve spent the last 40 years returning and returning to a dry well for life-sustaining nourishment is… well, it’s why I’m back in therapy to be honest.

The epiphany came when I started to understand that expecting my relationships to nurture me meant my relationship with myself, too.

It’s so obvious, right? 

In a culture absolutely obsessed with rugged individualism and “self care”, you’d think that would be the first lesson I’d learn. 

But hold up – psychology has shown us time and again that how we feel about ourselves is directly related to how others feel about us. We’re social creatures and if our social environment is made up of messages of unworthiness, well… 

This is not a new idea. It’s not even particularly revelatory. 

But the first time I treated myself with care and attention and didn’t hear my inner voice desperately trying to justify it in order to keep the messages of unworthiness at bay – that was a revelation. It didn’t come from telling myself to love myself first, or that I deserved anything. It came from doing the hard work of organizing my life to my own benefit. When I say hard work, I mean it all – asking for help, going back to school, getting into therapy, moving, tackling a career instead of a job, and culling toxic relationships from my life. I did all that first, and the feelings of worthiness followed. 

Are following. It’s an ongoing process. 

I wish I’d had access to these lessons 20 years ago. I wish I’d seen self esteem, compassion and equal relationships modeled for me before I turned 40. I wish. 

Time doesn’t move like that for humans, though. All I can do is go forward. And hope I’m showing those things to someone else, starting now. 

Help is a Four Letter Word

It was almost a year ago that I shared a funny story with my therapist. I was trying to illustrate the inherent stubbornness of my nature. (Some would say willful obstinance and that’s certainly their prerogative. Ahem.) It’s a story from my childhood that I’ve shared and laughed at for over 30 years.

When I was eight, we moved neighborhoods but not school districts and it was the day for me to walk home by myself for the first time. Unfortunately for me, it was also “clean out your desk” day and back then they gave you a cheap garbage bag and a thumbs up while you stuffed 40 years worth of paper worksheets into 3 cents worth of perforated plastic bag. I set off confidently enough, but got turned around fairly quickly until I was well and truly lost. I wandered for a long time. Crying, trailing snot and a torn bag behind me, strewing old papers in a pathetic wake along suburban residential streets, I wandered in what was most likely circles, and given the length of my legs at that age not even big ones. It felt like hours and hours to my little girl mind, though in reality it probably wasn’t more than one hour, at most. But I was scared and worried and I kept on walking.

That’s the salient point in the story, as I’ve always told it. I kept walking. I didn’t knock on any doors to ask for help. I definitely didn’t sit down and wait for someone to find me. Oh no – I stubbornly snorted back my snot and kept going! Because even at eight years old I was an obstinate, willful thing! Ha ha, isn’t that funny?!

My therapist chuckled a little with me, but asked, all guileless and with genuine curiosity, “What would have happened if you had just sat down?”

And my brain’s gears came to a screeching halt while I stared at her, dumbfounded. No one had ever asked me that in 30 years and it definitely wasn’t part of my story. This is supposed to be the part where we all laugh at what a perversely dogged child I was, so I just looked blank while my brain struggled to change direction. Then my emotions caught up before my head did and I was choking on a flood of tears while I struggled to get the words past my closed throat. “I’d still be sitting there.”

It ate up 15 minutes of my therapy hour before I could breathe again. Before I could face the fact that at eight years old, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one was coming to save me. I knew that if I wanted to get home, it was up to me.

As it happens, my stepfather was out looking for me, and we eventually ran into each other and he took me home in our family car. But while I was relieved to be going home, I was also nervous about getting in trouble for getting lost in the first place. Because that’s my family’s legacy – self-sufficiency to the point of an eight year old fearing punishment over getting lost.

This was a family who loved me. My parents (and extended to aunts, uncles and grandparents, such as they were) loved me and wanted me to be happy. They absolutely wanted my safety and happiness above all else. But the execution was poor. They were lacking in tools, they had wrong information, and to a certain extent were just too fucking selfish to do the job of making me feel secure and protected. I honestly felt, at eight years old, that was my job.

I’m still unpacking the pain that one not-so-innocent question revealed in me, not least because those same people are still failing me.

I kept on feeling that way – through adolescence, teenage years, and well into the time when another human’s safety and happiness depended on me, I felt that I could only count on myself and had only myself to blame when it all went to shit. No one was coming to save me. Ever. I inherited my family’s selfishness completely. My world was entirely my own, only my own actions mattered, and all the blame belonged to me.

That’s a difficult life to lead. It’s even harder when you add in a confused, lonely man who thought he wanted to “rescue” me but really just wanted me to apply my control-freak ways to his life, too. Still trying to portion out the blame appropriately for that one.

I lived my entire life not understanding that there is supposed to be a certain amount of help and support when you ask for it. Is it any wonder I chose someone so spectacularly bad at giving it when I finally let myself ask? I still struggle with the concept! For children, it’s supposed to be unconditional. I missed the children’s boat. I know adults who are still trying to catch it and it makes me sad and a little impatient for them. That’s their journey and I try to remember it’s not helpful for me to judge it.

But it turns out there’s a boat for adults. There’s a life raft when you need it, a cruise liner, sometimes a private yacht. There are people who know how to say the right thing at the right time, whether it’s encouragement or a reality check or nothing at all. Sadly, I didn’t marry any of them. But today, I asked for help and a lot of people jumped in to offer it. They can’t go back for the lost eight year old with the torn bag of school papers, but they are here for me now.

I don’t subscribe to the “everything happens for a reason” bullshit line of reasoning. But I do think that our minds are built to make order in chaos, and to jigsaw the randomness of life and the universe into some sort of cohesive meaning. So I don’t think that my husband needed to be a lying coward who would rather burn our lives to the ground than admit he made a mistake, but since he was, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn about what constitutes help, when I deserve it, and who to ask for it. And that’s not a bad lesson to take.

Arc de Virago

I think… sometime in the last few weeks I came to a realization that I’m only just now recognizing.

I’ve been brought as low as I’m willing to go.

I may be here for a while yet. I may even wallow in my worst moments.

But I won’t sink any lower.

Eleanor Roosevelt said that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. It’s tricky to know how or why or exactly when I gave my consent. But I know that I revoke it now.

I revoke my consent to let one man’s selfishness and fear make me feel small and distant. I revoke my consent to let one man’s inability to love me make me feel undeserving.
I revoke my consent to let one man’s cowardice define my life.

I will climb out of this hole. And then I will fill it with cement, set up a monument to myself and light a signal fire to invite the people who actually love to celebrate. Fuck unworthiness. Fuck despair.  Fuck him. I will not be owned by another person’s weaknesses.

But first, wine. And a book. Because building blocks and stairs are called for here. And time, I suspect. But I’m already building my monument in my head.

A While.

There’s nothing quite like that moment when your husband tells you he fell out of love with you “a while” ago.

On the one hand, it’s a punch in the gut, but on the other, it’s kind of a relief. It’s a relief to know that you weren’t imagining it. That it wasn’t your fault. That the dead weight you’ve been suffocating under IS actually that elephant in the room. Only it’s dead now. Like your marriage.

Of course on the other hand, you now have a two tons of rotting pachyderm to dig yourself out from under, so that doesn’t sound like fun. And honestly, I can’t think about that right now. It’s too much. My brain literally won’t even go there. It’s like, “Oh no, this is fine. It’s warm and heavy like a comforter. Just leave it. I like the smell of dead elephant. Really.”

So I’m just going to dwell in the relief for a bit. I’m going to languish in the absolute euphoria that comes from knowing this was not my fault. I’ve been rowing a boat for two people, expending all that energy, and I just looked behind me and it turns out there’s no one there. I can rest. I can stop fighting, and oh god does that sound so, so sweet.

At some point I’m going to realize that the tears streaming down my face mean something. Eventually, I’m going to want to tear things apart with my bare hands – I can feel it there, in the back of my mind, waiting for when it feels right. But not right now. Right now, I’m going to cradle that sad, frustrated, confused little heart of mine and whisper: It’s not you. It was never you. You are worthy. You are loved. I’ve got you and it’s going to be okay.

I don’t know what okay looks like, but I know it’s out there somewhere… waiting for me.

On Worth

What am I worth?

I’m asking this question again as I look for more work to supplement our dwindling finances.

It’s a place of immense privilege to even ask the question, I know this. I have to carefully consider my audience when I talk about how I turned down a minimum wage job offer because the commute and hours were heinous enough to nullify the $125 a week in take-home pay. Not to mention the work promised to be mind-numbingly boring. Those jobs are a good fit for someone, but I don’t think they are good for me.

I took a job last year based on the attitude that any work was worthy and that I shouldn’t value myself beyond my ability to just get a job. The job, when there was work, was stultifying and when there wasn’t (i.e., no customers) I had to pretend I was busy. It was monotonous and tedious and I hated every second I was there. Then I would come home and hate myself some more for not having a better job. Then I would retroactively hate myself for not going to college. Then I would proactively hate future-me for taking another minimum wage and/or stagnate job because I can’t escape the guilt of not being grateful. Because ultimately, my worth seems to be defined by how deeply I can ingratiate myself to anyone willing to hire me.

I’m stuck in a constant argument loop with myself: I don’t deserve interesting or intelligent job opportunities because I didn’t go to college (never mind the fact that many of my college-educated peers are just as under-employed as I am). This sparsely populated, rural area is an employment desert – no one can be expected to create opportunities in a place where most of the population lives below the poverty line. (Economics at its finest – no one can buy your product if they have no money to spend.) If I was smarter/more educated/worked harder I could create opportunities no matter where I was. Well, here I am, at the culmination of my life choices and I can just lie in this bed that I made until my flesh fuses to the sheets.

Every time I email a polished and professional resume to a local listing it is accompanied by a fear and shame so acute as to be nearly debilitating, and is utterly unique to employment searches. I don’t deserve this, no one will notice me, I am a pitiful contestant in this modern game where I don’t know the rules.

Worthless.

It’s not just being frustrated by the lack of choices. It is being certain of rejection. It’s having other people define my worth – not just in an hourly wage but in the kind of tasks they want from me. It is knowing, deep down, that they’re right.

The worst part is having to explain myself to well-meaning onlookers in my life. Explaining to people who are so far removed from privilege that they can’t understand why I’m so “picky”, or those that are so immersed in privilege that they can’t understand why I just don’t start my own business doing something at which I’m embarrassingly incompetent. I’ve been on the receiving end of platitudes, sympathy, even (strangely) political anger and all have been equally unhelpful or even hurtful. They don’t address the core issue – What am I worth?

I just don’t know. And the guilt of not knowing, the shame of suspecting it isn’t much, the defiance of anyone who would try to define it for me is eating me alive. Trying to monetize all of that seems like a horribly vulgar way to determine my worth. And yet, it’s the only way that matters.