A shitty essay about shit
About 3 weeks ago, I was sitting in my therapist’s office talking about my dad (cliche, cliche, cliche) when I blurted out, “He was a bad man.”
I sat on those words for a few moments, and then I said it again: “He was a bad man.”
I repeated it out loud a few times, until I could physically feel my body accepting the reality that my father was actually, literally abusive. I wasn’t confused about it anymore, but fully aware of the fact that his rearing of me was certifiably fucked up.
I was aware that I had grown up an innocent, sensitive child doing my best to keep my small head above water, all by myself, while he manipulated and controlled and psychologically abused us, and while my mother was too caught up navigating his abuse of her to be able to teach me much about what I can expect from the world — a world that is mostly good, and not mostly bad like I’d come to expect.
Making matters worse (worse than being raised in the home of a pathological, abusive narcissist): there were zero other adults in my life for me to seek refuge in. I had uncles and aunts in New England, in Texas, in Florida. I had cousins in California and Central America. My mom’s mom, the grandma who took a big part in raising me, was far away and slipping with age. I was the youngest member of the family on both sides by at least 11 years, with no brothers, no sisters, no cousins my age. I looked up to and leaned on my teachers and school counselors more than most children, but they were gone by the end of the school year so I knew better than to let myself get too close.
(See this research on childhood resilience to learn more about why this matters so much: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/resilience/)
While I was bullied and ignored at home, I was bullied just as much at school. I repressed a lot of those memories, which is why only a few of them stand out to me anymore. One classmate stole my science folder, wrote something obscene on it, and returned it to me. Kids would threaten to “jump me” but not follow through with it. I was made fun of for a lot of things I couldn’t help, like wearing a dental appliance or being a little bit chubby. Even worse, I was often made fun of for being too nice, or for trying to protect someone. I was made fun of for “not being able to take a joke” or not being able to “get over” things.
I had no idea how, or who, to be — protective? Kind? Mean? Controlling? What version of me would people accept? What version of me would anyone be willing to pay attention to? To love? To keep?
I want to stop here and add something—
Even as I write this and consider sharing it, I’m looking back over the things I’ve just written (things I’ve told people before, some of them over and over again) and I’m already imagining and anticipating others’ thoughts or reactions to it:
“Okay, Melissa, we get it. Shit sucked for you. Get over it.”
“You’re only talking about this because you want attention.”
“You keep telling that story again and again. I understand it was hard for you, but you need to let it go, already.”
“I love you, I think you’re great, but this is getting old.”
“Everyone has a rough childhood.”
“You’re not special.”
“You just want people to feel bad for you.”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
The worst part is that it’s not strangers and acquaintances who I imagine responding this way: it’s the people closest to me, who I trust and rely on the most. It’s the effect of traumatic narcissism, emotional abuse, and bullying in action. Especially in childhood and adolescence (but this seems to be true in life, in general) we’re hurt the worst by the people we want, need, admire, and love the most.
That voice in my head, though—and possibly, maybe in yours, too—isn’t anyone’s fault. The people around you put the good voices and thoughts in your head just as much as they put the mean voices and thoughts in your head. Just, for some of us, we got more mean voices with very few people around to counterbalance them, or teach us how to validate ourselves and create our own positive inner voice.
To that end, I say—if you’re thinking any of those things about me and about this shitty essay, maybe you’re right. But I only care as much as I hesitated to post this. In the end, while I may have written and shared this to help myself (one person) re-establish some perspective, my hope is that it also helps you (many people) make sense of something, or organize your head, or feel less alone, or whatever you might need right now.
As an older child and as a teenager, the friends I did make, I obsessed over. Generally, we had fun the way kids have fun, being goofy, listening to music, playing games, sharing secrets.
But for me, the idea that anyone would want to be my friend — to love me, to want to be around me, to enjoy me for who I am, without me trying to be an unnatural version of myself — that idea was groundbreaking for me. It was new for me.
So, take a kid who has literally never experienced warmth, kindness, attention, desire, patience, and mutual enjoyment on a consistent basis — not on “good days,” when her parents weren’t fighting, or high, or passed out on the couch, or tucked away in their office or bedroom — and give them that consistent warmth and attention.
It will change their world. You have just given them something new, beautiful, life-altering…you’ve given that kid the equivalent of emotional heroin.
Now deviate, even slightly, from that attention.
If one of my friends started hanging out with a new friend, or didn’t invite me to the movies one day, or teased me a little bit, I would lose my shit. Then, I realized that actively, outright losing my shit made people uncomfortable and pushed them away, so I found ways to manipulate people into keeping me. Sometimes I’d try to make them feel guilty. Sometimes I would completely change who I was, even lie about the things I was interested in, to get them to want me and keep me and not slip away. Charm them.
Kind of like a narcissist does. A baby narcissist, anyway.
To be fair, I wasn’t a total skeeze. Mostly, I was a pretty loyal, kind, sometimes funny friend. I just became a raging asshole when I thought someone was abandoning or rejecting me.
All was doing was responding and reacting how I’d been taught to respond and react. Any softness that was left, I got from my mom. It was better than nothing, and I’m still grateful for that.
In general, though, while I was being raised by an abusive trash bag of a father, I was also being raised by a mother who was basically the maimed and beaten version of an otherwise tender, soft, pleasant, funny, smart person. She had entered into adulthood after a lifetime as the baby girl of the family, spoiled and catered to. She didn’t know how to do much for herself, and then she spent 30 years married to a man who, when she expressed a desire to get a master’s degree, told her she “didn’t need that.” A man who lied to her and cheated on her; who left her alone at events without telling her he was leaving; who never apologized to her for anything, and who routinely found ways to psychologically punish her. If you felt trapped in that life, like there was no way out, you’d probably find ways to self-medicate, too.
Then throw a child into that — the one human being in the world who is “supposed” to love you, because they came out of you, and because of that magical, mother-child bond that should make all things close and warm and happy and okay.
But that person is a child, and naturally egotistic. In the same way I regularly manipulated my friends in an effort to protect and hold on to my one consistent source of attention and affection, my mother regularly did that to me. I was all she had to love her, so when I couldn’t love her correctly, I was punished.
And when I failed to be a star kid, a little genius worth showing off to colleagues, friends, and family, my father punished me.
Not to throw my mom under the bus. Her behavior makes sense to me now, even though I still feel it necessary to keep a protective distance from her lest I get tangled back up in a co-dependent web.
To be fair, though, my father’s behavior also makes sense to me, and yet I would throw him under 8, possibly 9 double-decker busses.
Throughout my life, there have been many times where I, unable to trust any identities I might assign to myself, have readily accepted the identities and labels assigned to me by others. I had next to no grasp on who I was — I was committed to a few things I liked. I had always been a writer, since I was a child, and I had always been into the arts, be it music or acting or crafting of some kind. I liked the “smart” label I’d been given. I liked how people responded to me when I talked about the books I liked or showed them a song I’d written.
In general, however, I needed other people to tell me who I was on a daily basis. I needed them to show me. If I had their love and attention, then I was good. If I stayed quiet — if I didn’t open my mouth, didn’t speak up, didn’t introduce myself, didn’t contribute much — then no one could assign a bad label to me, and I could stay good.
That was my life for a long time:
Be who you need to be to stay safe. Stay safe by securing people’s positive attention. Secure that positive attention by being who they need you to be, or by being no one at all. If you start to lose that attention, make them feel bad for it so they’ll give it back.
Find love and attention. Keep love and attention. At all costs. Nothing else matters.
At some point in my late-20s, I eventually ended up in a psych ward with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. But this isn’t about borderline personality disorder, which I don’t know that I technically even really had, and I definitely don’t exhibit symptoms of anymore. Shortly after the diagnosis, my therapist encouraged me to disregard it because it was just another label someone had put on me, which I would either choose to cling to and evolve from, or ditch and craft my own label, and my own identity.
This is about the fact that, everything I’ve been through up until today has been worth it, because I’ve put a lot of fucking work into making it all worth it, and because of people in my life who have consistently loved me, not deviating, not changing, not disappearing, not wavering.
(Not that by “put a lot of fucking work into it” I don’t just mean going to therapy. I mean just living. Waking up when it hurts, going to bed when it hurts, and living week to week, staying here, participating anyway, having faith that eventually it will be better, if only for a little while. If all you’re doing right now is getting up and being alive, you’re putting in a lot of fucking work, too.)
I am this person, right now, because of, and in spite of my family and the bullies and the mistakes I’ve made that I didn’t realize were mistakes.
What’s missing from this shitty essay are the instances of abuse—like the one, solitary time my father hit me, and then bragged about it until I was an adult (“I only ever spanked you ONCE, but you really learned your lesson! Ha-ha-ha! This girl never back-talked me again, ha-ha-ha!”) or the reason why I don’t talk to him anymore (“You’re a sorry excuse for a mother. You should give E up for adoption to your cousin. Her and her husband drive very nice cars.”)
What’s missing from this shitty essay are the reasons why I keep my mother at arms length in spite of how much it breaks my heart to see her upset or in need.
What’s missing from this shitty essay are the years between about 2002 and 2014 where I was shoved into the raging waters of adulthood, so I held my breath underwater until I blacked out and woke up disillusioned. And also, to a body count.
I haven’t written about what 3 years and $15,000 of therapy can do for a person.
Mostly because my journey upwards and over is only mine, and you’re going to have to forge yours.
Also, “the journey upwards and over” is total bullshit, because there is no up and over. There’s no “winning.” There’s just knowing yourself. And knowing yourself is a gift that’s never really done being given.
I will say that almost every dream I’ve dreamed — dreams of having a healthy family dynamic, being in a relationship with someone I was deeply in love with, raising a strong, brave, kind and independent child, education and career-related dreams — I have those things. Right now, I have them.
I’m also carrying an insane amount of financial debt, which I find ironic because the #1 life lesson my father repeatedly tried to leave me with was that nothing in life is free, and a debtor is the actual, literal worst thing you can be. Not an abusive trash bag, no. Just a debtor.
But I’d double my debt again for the life I have now.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s not the end. It’s not like I just reached this zenith where I’m in love and I have a good family and an amazing daughter and I get to work remotely as a freelance writer making a decent living. Because that’s not true.
Things are good now. Right now. But they’re going to be hard again later, though. Maybe harder. Who knows. And I honestly don’t know how well-equipped I am to handle anymore hard stuff. I also won’t know for sure until the hard stuff happens. All I know is that it’ll happen eventually, and I’ll get to handle it as the person I am now.
Actually, here’s a more or less comprehensive list of all the things that could turn up shitty for me in the next 5 years:
- Someone I love dies
- I lose a ton of income (which, whatever, I’d survive that)
- My boyfriend gets eaten by a shark (literally the only valid excuse I’d give him for leaving/not marrying me)
- My daughter grows up to marry Shia Labeouf
- I get too hungry and hurt my best friend’s feelings and she can’t forgive me this time
In all seriousness, though, people change, and make mistakes, and change their minds about things, and get distracted, and move on, and do things that humans do, and sometimes it can hurt and often it is unexpected and there’s just 100% not a damn thing anyone can do about it.
This shitty essay is for everyone enduring anything today.
You don’t get good things in life because you “got lucky.” (I often say I’m lucky, because I feel like I won the lottery.)
You get good things because you deserve good things, because you’re a person, and you’re loveable.
You can be the biggest dork in the world and be loveable.
You can be the grouchiest grouch in the world and be loveable.
You can be angry and be loveable.
You can be introverted and clumsy and passionate and sad and insanely happy and make mistakes and hurt people on accident and give too much and be too nice and be assertive and you’re still loveable.
You can be unloved, and be loveable.