The Perils of Being a Girl
What I Learned and How I Learned It
My story is about healing. My journey has brought me to where I am now. As I try to make sense of it all, I’ve looked at experiences that were significant in forming my opinions and feelings. I wanted to learn how I feel, and more importantly, why I feel it. Armed with this knowledge I am able to change the patterns and ideas that kept me from being me. I can live as myself for the first time. I can feel confidence and pride. I can allow myself to feel beautiful and wonderful.
My only friend and companion growing up is my big brother. Mom is gone a lot, so it is just the two of us most of the time. I follow him around everywhere he goes, I try to be like him. He is mostly annoyed by be. Sometimes he likes me, sometimes he doesn’t. When he doesn’t it gets bad. He calls me names and tells me I’m stupid and ugly and weak. He reminds me that he’ll always be older and bigger and stronger. He hits me and chases me and locks me out of the house. He laughs at me when I cry and hits me again. He’s still my only friend even when he hates me. Even though I don’t feel safe and there’s no one to protect me from him.
Elementary school is when I start noticing differences between boys and girls. The girls don’t like me. They call me names and make fun of the way I look. I’m embarrassed so I wear baggy hand-me-downs and a bra two sizes too small. It’s obvious I’m the outsider. The boys don’t care about any of that. They are nicer to me and only care if I can dig worms and arm wrestle. I’m not nearly as uncomfortable around the boys. But I’m still a girl, and it’s obvious I’m the outsider.
I learned the best way to get through the day was to stay quiet and go along. Things were much easier if I did what other people wanted and didn’t make a fuss. I could become the person I needed to be to survive. I could become the good little sister, I could become the tomboy.
Suddenly, the way I look effects people a lot differently than before. The girls still don’t like me. They still make fun of me and call me names. They are even meaner to me now. I’m still the outsider. But the boys…I am very popular with the boys. They don’t care about worms or arm wrestling anymore. They seem to care about me, they want to be my friend. I’ve never had so much attention! I’m not so afraid and alone anymore. I’m grateful so I wear tight clothes that show off my girl parts. They like when I’m girly. I’m the girly outsider, but still much less uncomfortable around the boys.
The best way to survive now is to become the fun friend. The friend that laughs and compliments and defers to the boys. The friend that’s always up for a party, and taking dares and tempting fate. An upgraded version of who I had become before. Whatever it takes to have friends, to be liked, to not be alone. As long as I’m not alone, maybe I matter, maybe someone will even love me.
I am 13 when I meet my first love. His name is Mike and he’s 17. I know he likes me because he wants to touch me and kiss me. I feel special for the first time. He’s all I think about. I live for the next time he’ll call, the next time I see him. When he smiles at me and holds my hand, I hope he loves me. To make sure he does, I keep adjusting who I am, who I become. If I pretend I’m good enough and pretty enough he could love me.
I’m so happy now because we’re together again. We’re riding around with friends in someone’s van, smoking and drinking because we can. We end up in the back, fooling around under a blanket. Suddenly I realize what he’s doing…! I’m in shock and I’m in pain. I guess I’m losing my virginity? I can’t do anything except pretend I’m okay. I’m afraid Mike won’t like me anymore if I react, I’m afraid our friends will see what’s happening if I react. I stay quiet and go along, as I’ve always done. I do what other people want and don’t make a fuss. I feel betrayed and embarrassed and hurt, but maybe it means he loves me. Maybe I just need to get with the program if I want to be loved. I will put that night out of my mind and never speak of it. That’s how I know how to survive. If I pretend it didn’t happen I’ll be okay…right?
I learned how much boys like girls, and I had a vague idea why. If I wanted to be loved, I needed to get better at becoming the girl that boys would love. I knew it mostly had to do with sex. I would do whatever I could to not be afraid and alone. If I was loved, I would be special, I would matter.
I’m 14 and I know how to get attention from boys now. I finally have friends. I almost never have to be alone. The boys talk to me and smile at me and invite me to parties. They give me drugs and alcohol, hoping I will let them touch me and kiss me. Mostly I do let them, it makes me feel special for a little while. I need to feel loved and this is the only way I know how. If I please them they will like me. Maybe someone will even love me.
One afternoon I’m waiting for a bus when a man walks up to me and offers me money to go to a motel with him. This time I don’t feel special at all. I’m afraid to say no, but I do it anyway. I feel embarrassed and vulnerable and worthless. I will put it out of my mind and never speak of it. If I pretend it didn’t happen I’ll be okay…right?
I learned boys were all pretty much the same. All I had to do to get attention was pretend to be what they wanted. I learned my willingness to have sex made me matter, made me worth something, made me special. If I felt alone and afraid, all I needed was to get high somehow. Did drinking make it all easier? Absolutely. Did I use a lot of drugs for a lot of years? Definitely. Did I have sex with a lot of boys? Probably don’t remember half of them.
Now that I’m 15, I’ve finally earned a real boyfriend. I don’t love him but that doesn’t matter. What matters is he loves me. Ernie is 21 and can take care of me and protect me. I feel safe with him. I feel like I’m important to him, I’m valuable. For the first time I feel like I belong, like I have
a place in the world. It’s working! I’ve finally become the girl that’s loved and wanted. All my years of pretending are paying off.
One morning after a night of partying, we get into an argument. I’m not sure what we’re arguing about, I just want it to stop so he’ll keep loving me. As I start to walk away, I hear a loud noise in my head and feel pain in the side of my face…he hit me! I am in shock. I try to remember what I’ve done wrong, it must have been big. Those feelings of love and security I’d had only moments ago are gone in an instant. Something strange and new is taking their place. I am angry, that’s what this is. I won’t pretend my way out of it this time, I have to get away. I walk for miles, furious and confused, I feel so betrayed and worthless. He’s following me in his car telling me he’s sorry and he loves me. He just hit me and he thinks I’ll come back. Why does he think this can be okay again? I realize again that I have no real value. I’m stupid to believe I mattered.
There is a ray of sunshine at the end of this long walk of horror and shame. As I walk and cry and hate myself and the world, I notice Peter standing in his front yard watching me. We know each other from school, but we’re not friends. He’s asking me if I’m okay, I manage to say no. He asks me what I need, what can he do to help me? Without a thought, I step into his arms for a hug that feels like it will save my life. He holds me for a long time. I can speak now and I tell him some of what happened. I must still be in shock because I never share my feelings with anyone. His truly random act of love for another human being touches my soul. He takes me inside, he says his mother will know how to help me. After we all talk, Peter asks her if I can stay with them for a few days. I need time to figure things out. She agrees. I am in shock all over again. These kind and generous strangers are showing me love and protection, and they don’t want anything from me. Maybe I will survive after all. Maybe I still have a chance.
I make arrangements with my own mother to move back home and try to put myself back together. Peter and I keep seeing each other. He treats me with a tenderness I’ve never felt, he treats me with respect. He loves me and shares himself with me. I have a faint sense that I might be okay. I love him and want so much to please him, to repay him for saving me and loving me and making me feel like a person. But I don’t know how to accept real love, I don’t know how to receive kindness. Me neediness and pain and insecurity are killing his spirit. Because of me the most beautiful soul I’ve ever known is crying in agony…begging me to let him go.
I learned that people who love me can and will hurt me. People who hurt me expect me to love them anyway. I’ve also learned I can’t be loved by a truly kind and generous heart. I don’t deserve it, I’m too damaged.
I’m used to physical pain. I’m used to loneliness and self-hatred and fear. But now I’m feeling emotional pain like I’ve never felt before. I’m still only 15 but I feel old and tired and drained, I can’t function. I’m hopeless now, no longer able to pretend, no longer able to become the girl that doesn’t feel, the girl I need to be to survive. I’m overwhelmed and alone and certain what I feel inside will never go away.
My decision to end my life feels like the logical next step, like tying up one last insignificant detail. I am so relieved! I make one phone call after swallowing the pills. Ron is my closest friend and he deserves to know it’s not his fault. I don’t remember the call, just his description of it afterward.
He knows something is very wrong, so he and Jeff rush to my house to find me on the bedroom floor. They wake me up and drag me to the bathroom and make me throw up, over and over and over again until there’s nothing left. I’m crying and angry and feel worse than before. They stay with me and talk to me and reassure me the best they can. I’m horrified that they’re seeing inside my worthless damaged reality. I make them swear an oath of silence. If I pretend it didn’t happen I’ll be okay…right?
I learned the easy way out was not in the cards for me. Since when was anything easy? I learned maybe my friends Ron and Jeff actually cared about me as a person. Maybe I could create a better stronger version of who I needed to be to survive.
I’m still lost and searching for a way to keep going. Searching for a way to feel okay. I need to get control over my life in some way, any way. One of the things I’m trying to pretend isn’t happening is my family. One day I watch Mom go into my brother’s room to talk to him…she’s carrying a baseball bat. Recently I have mostly avoided all contact with my brother. He might share a beer with me, but more likely he will hurt me…badly. I’m afraid of him. It seems Mom is too. Pretty soon my brother isn’t there anymore. Mom tells me he lives in a “facility” now. He’s sick and needs help. He’s sick because there is something wrong with his brain. He’s sick because our Dad was sick and it’s hereditary.
At first I’m just happy he’s gone. Next I feel hurt and sad because I need help too, but I’m still on my own. Finally I realize “hereditary” hangs over me, suffocates me. I’m frantic with fear. Fear that I will fall prey to some unknown, unseen hell inside my mind.
Hanging out with my friends, getting high whenever possible, this is how I’m coping now. One afternoon after school, me and Billy and Jeff go to Jeff’s house. His parents aren’t home and they have beer. I’m 16 now, and I’ve achieved a kind of numb existence. It’s better than feeling, so I’m okay with it. It’s a nice day and I feel good standing outside in the sun. Then the guys come up to me and put their hands on me. I’m confused, is it a game? I’m pushed to the ground by one while the other fumbles with my pants. It’s like it’s happening in slow motion. Suddenly I know what’s about to happen! I react, I lash out with a fury I didn’t know I had. I see blood and I know it’s theirs not mine. They back away from me, injured and surprised. Now I see they must have actually talked about this, planned this. And now they’re surprised it didn’t work? If they ever touch me again I’m going to the police, I make this clear to them. Later, after the adrenaline wears off, I can’t stop shaking. I feel so alone and afraid again. Somehow I have to put this out of my mind and never speak of it. I still see Billy and Jeff regularly since we’re part of the same circle of friends. If I pretend it didn’t happen I’ll be okay…right?
I learned that my brother, who terrorized me my whole life, got special care and special treatment but I did not. I learned again that people I thought cared about me could and would hurt me. Everything I’d already learned about my value and worth was reinforced. I learned I could never feel love again, I would feel the gnawing fear and loneliness forever.
I am determined to do it right this time. I swallow a lot more pills than the first time and wash them down with a bottle of champagne. I can’t wait for it to over. Except now I’m in a bright, cold, noisy room and there are strange faces peering down at mine. Someone is telling me to drink the awful black tar she’s pouring in my mouth. I’m struggling and spitting and can’t get away, someone is holding me down. I wake up again in another bright cold room. There are still strange faces all around me. This time I realize what’s happening. I’m in a hospital, I’m still alive, I’m still here in this hell. I failed again. I’m so disappointed, but I don’t have time to consider this. Mom says they’re all worried about me and I have to talk to a doctor before they’ll let me leave. I understand what I have to do. If I don’t convince them I’m sorry for what I did they will take me to a “facility”. I can’t let that happen, I’m not crazy, I’m not like my brother. I tell them exactly what they want to hear. I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again…this is who I have to be now to survive.
I learned I was stuck here in this life, there was no way out. I learned to recreate myself into the girl who was tougher and stronger and more capable of pretending than ever before. I couldn’t allow my thoughts and feelings to be discovered or I would be locked up somewhere.
Now that I’m 17 and moving out on my own, I finally feel I have some control over my own life. I can fake it in the real world just fine. Maybe there’s still hope it might get better. I promise myself I will play my new role perfectly. I will be smart and successful and carefree. I won’t feel anything real. I won’t think about my desperation and fear and loneliness. Surely this version of me will be lovable.
I’m 19 now, and someone loves me! Ed is good to me and wants to marry me. I say yes without giving it another thought. I am loved and safe, this nice and decent man wants me for his own. I finally have a place I belong, what more could I ask for?
But there’s a problem…my own feelings are betraying me. I don’t want to pretend to love him, I don’t want to play the part of his wife. I am so frustrated, I might be missing my only chance to feel loved and safe. I tell Ed how I feel. He is patient and understanding, he wants me to be happy. He agrees to stay in another bedroom until we can figure things out.
One evening I knock on his door to say hello and talk. I know he’s in there even though I get no response, so I open the door. The room is dark except for a bit of light coming in through the window. I see Ed’s silhouette sitting on the couch. The next thing I see is the unmistakable gleam of blued steel in his hand. My instincts have me on the floor making strange animal sounds as I back out of the room in a panic. I leave as quickly and quietly as I can. I’m still not sure if he was pointing the gun at me, all I know is I am not safe and I can’t go home again.
I learned never to trust. Not myself and not other people. Never trust feeling safe. I learned there was no happily ever after. The stakes were higher than ever. I already knew if I was discovered for who I really was, I would end up in the loony-bin. Now I knew if I slipped up and revealed myself I could die.
Tim is the real thing. He is smart and sweet and gentle. He treats me like a person, an important person, a lovable person. He is in love with me, and despite my best efforts, I am in love with him. He tells me he wants to marry me. For a while I let myself feel good, I let myself feel love, I let myself hope for the future.
It doesn’t take long for my old friends Fear and Mistrust and Self-hate to bring me back to my senses. I am an imposter in Tim’s life, pretending to be the person he loves. Who am I kidding? I can’t possibly get away with this charade. I don’t have a right to this man, I don’t have a right to this happiness. He can’t really love me, for his sake I have to make him see that. It’s time to go back to being tough and unfeeling. I am 21 years old and I still haven’t earned a place to belong.
I cheat on Tim to prove to him and myself that I’m not worthy, I’m not lovable. It’s a fast and easy solution…except for the part where I hate myself more than ever. I have destroyed another kind and loving heart. Doesn’t matter, just one more thing to shove into the dark hole in my soul. If I pretend it didn’t happen I’ll be okay…right?
I learned again that I don’t deserve to be loved by a truly good man. I had to strengthen my will so I didn’t fall in love again. I learned to stop wanting more.
I’m 23 now and somehow I’ve survived this long. I still need to find a way to exist without feeling sad and alone and afraid every minute of every day. I meet a man who is sad and alone just like me. In a weird way I’m comforted by knowing Dan may be just as damaged as I am. Maybe he is like me, maybe he will understand me. Maybe he will accept the me I swore never to share. This pesky hope again…I will do whatever it takes to have a chance. I’m confused by my never-ending hope, but I think it must be a sign of good things to come.
He starts slow with belittling and insulting me. It’s not long before he is dealing out a kind of emotional abuse even I had not imagined. He needs me to know he’s better and stronger and more important than me. He isolates me from my friends, he rages with jealousy if I go to the store alone. I am hurt and humiliated and depressed, but it is what I deserve. If I stay quiet and don’t make a fuss, it’s not so bad. I stay and endure. If I try harder, if I’m more supportive, maybe he’ll show me love. I do everything I can think of to please him, hating myself more and more every day.
I’m barely functioning. I feel like I’m dying a slow painful death. When he asks me to marry him I think maybe I’m not hopeless, maybe I’m not a lost cause. We’re both miserable, but he loves me and at least I’m not alone. I know I need help if I’m to salvage this relationship, if I’m to keep living. I talk to my doctors about how I can be better, how I can be okay again. I am told I need to take medication, there is something “wrong” with me, I’m broken and need to be “fixed”. So here it is…finally! My worst fears are coming true. I’m sick just like my brother. I can’t pretend anymore, I’m too tired. I can’t fight anymore, I don’t know what there is to fight for. My hopes and dreams are now to simply exist without so much pain and fear, to not be alone in the world. I take the medication even though it terrifies me. Maybe it’s only temporary, maybe I’ll be okay again.
Slowly I start seeing myself again. I start to want more for myself. The part of my soul that has survived picks itself up out of the muck. Somehow I find the strength to send Dan away and out of my life. I don’t want to be treated like a thing. I want to live. I’m still so afraid and uncertain and vulnerable. I still need to find a safe place where I belong.
I learned that I’m broken, the doctors said so. I can’t trust me own judgment. I had nothing to offer another person. I learned if I don’t want anything, I won’t be disappointed or betrayed. Again, I learned the consequences of being me, of sharing myself with someone. I would be alone with my demons forever.
I’m existing in a state of shock. I am shocked I’ve survived this long, shocked at the treatment I had allowed and endured, shocked that I take a pill every day so I can function, shocked that despite all this, a new day still comes around every 24 hours. I’m 25 years old and I feel like I’m still 15, still afraid and alone.
Time to resurrect the girl that can have friends and have fun. Time to dust myself off and get back to the business of living. Time to put Dan out of my mind and never speak of it. If I pretend it didn’t happen I’ll be okay…right?
Now a most unexpected thing is happening. I am falling in love. Who knew it was possible? Andy is good and kind and gentle, he is talented and courageous. He is all the things I’ve never been but wished I was. And I think he likes me. He spends time with me, he shows interest in who I am. He treats me like I’m a person. He makes me feel good about myself. It’s weird…nice, but weird. It’s confusing to learn he loves me too. He’s teaching me so many things. He’s showing me how to face fear, he’s showing me how to love selflessly, how to strive to live a life full of heart. I am in awe of him. I look up to him, I admire him and trust him and respect him. He has a light inside him that is so beautiful to me. Andy is comforting and supportive of my struggles. He is helping me regain my sense of self. He offers me unconditional love. For a little while I am…dare I say…happy! I love and I am loved, I am giddy with possibilities, I’m not lonely or afraid.
Too good to be true? What am I thinking? Haven’t I learned my lesson? I am nowhere near good enough for him. Twenty-five years of self-doubt come rushing in, 25 years of experience tells me this cannot be. Haven’t I damaged and destroyed kind and beautiful hearts? I become more and more fearful, all these wonderful happy feelings can’t be real. The sun inside Andy is shining into all my dark ugly places. I’m panicking now. All I can think of is how to get him out of this unscarred. I know I will hurt him if I don’t get away from him. I can’t bear the thought of being without him, but I can’t bear the thought of what will happen if I stay. So I push him away. I do what I can to show him he should not care about me. I am heart-broken. I’m sure I’ve just said goodbye to the best thing that will ever happen for me. I have just said goodbye to hope and love and happiness.
I learned that I will never learn. I keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I have to let go of hope so I can survive. I can’t fall in love. I must simplify my wants and needs. I must not expect more than I deserve.
My simplified expectations seem to be working. If I only spend time with men I know I won’t love, all I have to do is give them sex and I don’t feel alone. Occasionally they show me love in return. It’s easier and less painful, it’s not so bad. It’s gotten me to age 27.
When Bernie proposes to me, I say yes. He’s funny and capable and attentive. We get along well and have fun together. He loves me, and I don’t mind having sex with him. I feel it’s a good time to settle in and stop searching for things I’ll never find. I’m relieved that I’m not alone, I’m cared for and protected.
After we’re married, he slowly starts to control me. Again I become isolated from friends, I become more and more dependent on him. He needs me to love him so I tell him I do. His abuse is so subtle I don’t see it happening, or maybe I just don’t want to see. I’m fairly content so I stay quiet and don’t make a fuss.
One day I learn that he and his ex-wife were never divorced. What?! I am shocked out of my numb ignorance. I am hurt and humiliated and so angry. I confront him and vent and rage and make it clear we are done. This is beyond what even I will tolerate. I should have known, I should have seen, I feel embarrassed and stupid. Somehow it’s my own fault I’m in this situation.
As the details of breaking up and packing and moving are worked out, I’m still living in his house while he stays with a friend. I come home from work to find Bernie sitting on the front porch. He wants to talk, so we go inside. He’s begging and pleading for me to stay with him. He’s sorry and he’ll make it up to me somehow. I say absolutely not, I want there to be no question. He isn’t leaving so I will. I don’t make it to the door. He blocks my path, then he chases me when I try to get away. I’m becoming very afraid, then terrified! I get to the phone for an instant, but he tears it from the wall before I finish dialing 9–1–1. I’m running and screaming for help, maybe a neighbor will hear me. He’s laughing at me, telling me he’ll never let me leave. He finally catches me in the living room. His strength and speed surprise me. He’s hitting me again and again. I fight back, but I’m shaking and crying and I feel so weak. Nothing I do stops him. He knocks me to the floor and he’s kicking me so hard I wonder what’s breaking. Now he’s kicking me in the head, I think he’s going to kill me.
I start screaming all over again, but by now I know no one is coming to help me. He’s on top of me, ripping at my clothes. I hear him say he’s going to fuck me the way I had fucked him. I’m still fighting and it’s still not stopping him. The only weapon I have left is my mind. I say the one thing I hope will make him stop. I ask him what he will tell his 7-year-old daughter when she asks why Daddy’s in jail. This makes him pause for a moment…long enough for me to get away and out of the house. I’m in my car going to the police, he’s following me until he realizes where I’m headed.
I walk into the police station in a daze. The woman at the desk asks me if I need medical attention, I say I don’t think so. She smiles at me and hands me a few safety pins and shows me where to sit and wait. I look down at myself and see what she sees. Dress torn open, no shoes, no panties, every finger nail broken and bleeding, clumps of my own hair sticking to me here and there. This nightmare is still far from over…
Hadn’t I already learned I couldn’t trust my own judgement? Hadn’t I already learned that they will hurt me if they can? I learned to always look over my shoulder, always be ready for danger. I learned the police could not protect me. I learned again that I would never learn.
My friend Matt is supportive and caring after my ordeal. I’ve shared much of the story with him, I need the comfort and companionship he gives me. Soon he asks me out on a date. We seem to be a good match, he has his own painful and confusing stories. We understand each other. I allow myself to fall into this new relationship, I have an all-consuming need to be okay again. I need reassurance and kindness and he gives me these things.
Before long I learn he is cheating on me with his ex-wife, he tells me each time. I no longer have the capacity to do anything but stay quiet and don’t make a fuss. I forgive him, I stay with him. I am a shell of a person, but at least I’m not alone. This is when I gain weight, lots and lots of weight. I don’t care about myself at all anymore. For the next couple of years I exist simply as Matt’s girlfriend. I have no identity of my own.
I’m 30 years old and I’m slowly killing myself. I’m unhealthy and miserable but I don’t care about these things. I am vaguely aware that Matt has proposed marriage and I have agreed. I will bind myself to a man who knows my demons, who knows what I’ve gone through and still betrays and humiliates me. Let me see if I understand…He knows I was broken and destroyed and he chose me anyway. He hurts me in a way I can’t defend myself from, and thinks it’s okay to ask me to stay with him forever? What’s wrong here? Somehow I have the self-awareness to finally reject him. I say NO!
I am helpless and alone and afraid. I’m able to reclaim my mask of invincibility in small ways, so I can pretend I’m still alive. I enter into a string of short-term relationships. Relationships I know will not last with men I know I will not love. It’s easier to please them and receive their gratitude than to feel anything real. A decent man who will not abuse me is all I hope for now. I go on like this for many more years, pretending to have something to offer, pretending I care. Pretending to be alive.
Eventually I come back to myself, start to want something more again. I am taking better care of myself and learning to live life again. Progress is slow but sure. I still want to love and be loved. I still want a place to belong. My spirit is still fighting to survive. It is several more long years of rebuilding myself to arrive where I am now.
At age 45 I have learned I have to share my stories, I have to allow myself to be. I’m learning to trust myself and love myself. I will not hide anymore. I need to stay open to hope and creativity and love. I will not fall victim to all my old fears and demons. For the very first time I am learning that love and pain are not one and the same. For the very first time I am claiming my sexuality as my own. I am learning I deserve every hope and dream I can imagine, and that I can achieve them.
I am changing my story. I am choosing what I want for myself. I am staying open despite the old fears. I am receiving love and kindness. I am finding my voice and using it. I am feeding my soul.